BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Oakland A’s (2nd) @ Los Angeles Angels (8th)

It is time to begin looking at the A’s 2005 comeback in historical terms. How rare is it for a team to fall a significant number of games under .500 only to come back and finish at least that many games over .500? Pretty darn rare. Of all the teams who have ever gotten at least 15 games under .500, only this group has managed to get it completely turned around so that they were at least 15 games to the good:

Year Team    over .500    Deficit   Turnaround
1914 Braves    35             -16           51
1965 Pirates   18             -15           33
2005 A's       19             -15           34

Picture, if you will, the 2003 Detroit Tigers getting off the mat after the start they had and roaring back to win the pennant and then sweep the World Series. That is, in essence, was what the 1914 Boston Braves did, give or take a few wins. The “Miracle Braves” aren’t as famous as they once were, which is a shame because they really came from a place that very few teams are bad enough to visit in the first place (a 3-16 start) and they and they alone managed to overcome said start. By the time they got to 16 games under, they were, technically, already rebounding in that they were no longer playing .158 baseball.

On June 5, they lost to the Reds and fell to 12-28. They began a slow, steady climb back to .500, although it was interrupted by a five-game losing streak in early July that included two doubleheader sweeps. (The Braves played 26 twin-bills that year.) They got to .500 on August 1 and never looked back. They went to 16 games over in the first game of a doubleheader on September 7 and made it stick a couple of days later when they started a 20-2 run. They brushed aside the World Champion Philadelphia A’s, holding them to six runs in four games.

The ’65 Pirates got off to a decent start, going 5-2 in the opening week-plus of the season. They went on a tear that would make the ’05 Royals proud: a 4-22 collapse including a 2-10 record in one-run games (they were 26-17 during the rest of the season in those circumstances). Their recovery was much swifter than that of Boston. They immediately won 12 in a row, bringing them to within spitting distance of .500. After a couple of losses, they had another winning streak and reached .500 soon enough. This was not a team of destiny, though. They spent three weeks in July and August battling to stay over .500. They won 11 of their final 13 games. It was too late to catch the Dodgers or Giants, but it did help them completely reverse their earlier 15-game deficit.

So, until this year’s A’s came along, that was it. Provided they don’t stumble in the final month, they will wind up with the second-greatest turnaround ever, as defined by these terms.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Colorado Rockies (29th) @ San Francisco Giants (25th)

Which teams have the best one-two offensive punch in baseball? Hint: it’s neither of these two (more on them in a moment). With each player contributing a VORP of at least 50.0 or more, it is these:

134.6: New York Yankees (Alex Rodriguez, 77.3, and Derek Jeter, 57.3)
121.3: Baltimore Orioles: (Miguel Tejada, 63.9, and Brian Roberts, 57.4)
112.5: Cincinnati Reds: (Ken Griffey Jr., 60.9, and Adam Dunn, 51.6)
110.1: Boston Red Sox: (David Ortiz 59.7, and Manny Ramirez, 50.4)

The Marlins are close enough to make the list in a few days if Carlos Delgado keeps on keepin’ on (teamed with Miguel Cabrera). Should Aramis Ramirez be able to return and put up a few more notches, he and Derrek Lee of the Cubs could qualify as the best.

Both of the teams in this week’s Worst Matchup are, not surprisingly, in the bottom seven.

54.8: Toronto
58.0: Detroit
59.2: Colorado
59.4: Chicago White Sox
59.8: Minnesota
60.4: Oakland
60.4: San Francisco

Todd Helton is leading the team with Matt Holliday and the mostly-disabled Clint Barmes next. Had Barmes not been injured, it’s a good bet that the Rockies wouldn’t be on this list. The Giants two top men are Moises Alou and Ray Durham.

With the absence of Barry Bonds, the Giants two-three punch has become their one-two punch and it’s not working out. As has been widely reported since the departure of Jeff Kent after 2002, the Giants have not really had a second strong presence in the lineup, although J.T. Snow‘s decent showing (45.1) last year certainly helped. Durham was over 40 in ’04 as well which means that, even without Bonds, the ’04 Giants had something that 11 other teams didn’t have: two players with VORPs over 40.0. 2003 was worse, when Marquis Grissom clocked in at 35.2 and Rich Aurilia posted a 30.0 to complement the Bonds attack.

There are a couple of successful teams on the list above, so it possible the Giants can compete when Bonds returns next year even if they don’t add a second player of note. What they can’t continue doing at the same time, though, is giving up an earned run every two innings while operating in a pitcher-friendly place of business.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Tampa Bay Devil Rays (26th) @ Boston Red Sox (4th)

Who has the best outfield in baseball this year? When pondering these sorts of things, it is important to establish minimums for all participants, so that a trio that includes two superstars and a fellow operating just above replacement level cannot trump a team where all three are doing their fair share. If we set the minimum participation level at a VORP of 20, we narrow the field very fast. In fact, only three teams currently qualify:

114.7: Boston (Manny Ramirez, 50.4; Johnny Damon, 43.6 and Trot Nixon, 20.7)
102.3: Milwaukee (Geoff Jenkins, 37.4; Carlos Lee, 33.5 and Brady Clark, 31.4)
81.8: New York Mets (Cliff Floyd, 40.1; Mike Cameron, 21.7 and Carlos Beltran, 20.0)

There are three teams that are very close and that are likely to nose their way onto this list before it is all over with: the Phillies, Cardinals and Reds. Philadelphia has Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell leading the way with Jason Michaels and Kenny Lofton in the high teens. The Cards have Jim Edmonds and the injured Reggie Sanders well over 20 with Larry Walker close enough to make it and So Taguchi in the neighborhood.

The team that is likely to end up usurping Boston’s lead is Cincinnati, where they are a good week from Wily Mo Pena away from posting an outfield total of over 130–when combining his efforts with that of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Dunn. Milwaukee is the only team with three outfielders over 30, which should qualify them for some sort of acknowledgment. One could make the argument that it can’t count as the best outfield if one of the players wasn’t there for a significant part of the season–as has been the case with both Nixon in Boston and Pena in Cincinnati.

Which outfield has been the least productive? Obviously, it’s been the Cubs. If you combine the VORP of every single Cubs outfielder this year, the total (17.9) is higher than that of only two leaders on any of the other teams: Baltimore (Luis Matos, 14.2) and Oakland (Mark Kotsay, 15.4).

The Devil Rays could well break the franchise record for most runs scored in a season. They set it in their second year when they plated 772 men. This year, they’re scoring at a clip that will put them just past that, but, in context, they’re dong much better in that 1999 was the Year of the Happy Bat.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Philadelphia Phillies (12th) @ New York Mets (9th)

If you’re looking for an edge the Phillies might have over the other Wild Card contenders, they are leading the National League in team walks with just over 500. The next-closest WC contenders are the Marlins and Mets and they are around 100 passes off the pace. The Phillies have drawn the most intentional walks in baseball with 60. (Funny how the fiery essays about banning the intentional walk have disappeared from our nation’s baseball commentary. I wonder why that is?)

Things were pretty electric at Shea Stadium last night. The players were certainly pumped. I think we often underestimate how much some of these guys really love the game they play for a living. I bring this up because I think a lot of people missed the point of the recent unpleasantness with former NFL player, Lawrence Phillips.

A lot of people complain that professional athletes don’t care enough about the sports they play, yet here is a man who is wanted by the police and still managed to get himself into a pickup football game! Not only that, he is so passionate about his sport that he drove onto the field to run down his opponents. I am not condoning his behavior, merely pointing it out as a counter to the argument that pro athletes are only in it for the money.

James Click contributed research to this column

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