BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Oakland A’s (4th) @ Boston Red Sox (3rd)

This series is important on many levels, but not all of them are readily apparent, therefore undercutting the inherent drama. That’s the problem with the wild card–much of its impact is hard to discern. This could be a battle between two teams gunning for the same playoff spot. As of the moment, though, it’s a fight between two teams going after their respective division titles. Tests demonstrate that starving lab wolverines fight harder when they’re going after the same piece of beaver meat.

While some define “most valuable player” as that player whom–if you had to part out their organs–would bring the most cash, I do not. I’m more of a “best season” guy since I have always found the “most valuable” nomenclature to be too ambiguous. Or is it? Isn’t “most valuable” best described as the player who does the most to help his team? Is it written somewhere that that team has to be in contention or make the postseason? Don’t crappy teams deserve to get value from their players, too?

That said, Alex Rodriguez has easily had the best season in the American League this year. David Ortiz and Travis Hafner have hit nearly as well and Miguel Tejada and Derek Jeter have played nearly as well but, in terms of overall contribution, Rodriguez has been the best.

The argument for the candidacy of Ortiz is that he is so damnably clutch. A couple of things about that: while it is obviously better to come through in key situations than it is to not, coming through at all hours of the night helps win ballgames, too (which isn’t to say Ortiz hasn’t). Helping out in the field is a big plus, too. I wouldn’t say a designated hitter should never be the MVP, I’m just saying he’s got to lap the field to make up for his lack of defensive contributions. Ortiz hasn’t done that in 2005. If he could even make the claim that he’s hit better than Rodriguez, I’d be a lot more open to his candidacy, but that is not the case. (Rodriguez has a .344 history-adjusted EqA to Ortiz’s .334.)

Webster’s defines clutch as a small woman’s purse. Here are Ortiz’s numbers in some of the more dire small sample sizes, compared to those of Rodriguez:

Bases loaded:
Papi: .400/.333/.867
ARod: .385/.556/.692

From the seventh inning on:
Papi: .292/.393/.658
ARod: .296/.401/.508

Scoring position, 2 out:
Papi: .370/.500/.741
ARod: .278/.422/.472

Close and late:
Papi: .329/.429/.786
ARod: .313/.439/.567

As is often the case with very good hitters, there isn’t really a bad number among any of the 24 listed above, although some of them are better than others. I do think the voters are going to give Ortiz the nod this year, though, although I can imagine that there are still some who are predisposed not to like DHs on general principles.

On the matter of hitting with the bases loaded, the Red Sox have certainly created a ton of pads-frogged situations this year. They have sent 217 men to the plate with the bases loaded–17 more than the next team, the Phillies. They haven’t been the most efficient team in those situations; that honor probably belongs to Seattle (albeit in only 120 plate appearances) but they have been the most prolific, plating 196 runs from these situations. The Mariners are the only team to have more runs scored with the bases loaded than they have plate appearances (129 to 120). The Red Sox have the next-best ratio: 196 to 217.

The White Sox have had just 82 plate appearances with the sacks SRO, the lowest total in the majors. The Pirates have had more opportunities but have been the least proficient team, scoring just 20.5 percent (major-league average is 25.1 percent). It must be remembered that American League teams have a distinct advantage here in that oftentimes, eighth-place hitters are walked to load the bases ahead of pitchers. With that in mind, the least-proficient American League team with the bases loaded are the Red Sox’ opponent this weekend: Oakland. The team slugging average with the squares pegged is .361, third-worst in baseball behind Pittsburgh and Arizona. While this fits the profile of a team that doesn’t drive the ball under any circumstances, these are fairly small sample sizes–just 147 total plate appearances in Oakland’s case.

As would stand to reason, the Red Sox lead baseball with 18 bases-loaded sacrifice flies. I’ve never been a big fan of not charging an at-bat for a sac fly, but there is something especially lenient about not doing so when the bases are loaded. When it’s just a runner on third, it’s kind of like picking up a one-pin spare in bowling. When it’s done with the bases loaded, though, leaving two other runners out there, I just don’t see why the batter should get a freebie out of it.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Kansas City Royals (30th) @ Cleveland Indians (2nd)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2004 populations of these two cities are not so greatly different. Within city boundaries, they’re within about three percent of having the same number of residents, with Kansas City on the short end by a little over 14,000. Expanding the count to the surrounding area, the Bureau reports Cleveland’s population as approximately 2.1 million and Kansas City’s as about 1.8 million.

Yes, yes–enough with the civics lesson, perfesser–what’s the point? The point is, while the Royals may be able to make excuses about their plight in comparison to places like New York and Boston, the thriving enterprise in Cleveland is a serious stick in the spokes of any argument they might make that a small-market team is completely helpless. Put the right ownership in place in Kansas City and good things will happen. If the current mindset stays in place, then what you are seeing this year will be, now and forever, the way it is.

Jim: The Royals hit two triples in one inning on Wednesday night.
Rob Neyer: Did they score?

Those two triples, which came in the sixth inning and helped set the stage for their dramatic comeback win over the White Sox, illustrate a dichotomy in how not to and how to run the bases:

The first was hit by Angel Berroa. It was a long fly to the most-leftest corner of the outfield. Scott Podsednik didn’t get back quite far enough and it went over his head, hit the wall, and started rolling toward center field. He ran it down and chucked it toward the infield. Berroa was pulling up at third and would have settled for a triple, but the throw got away and he scooted home. The problem is, he didn’t mash the pedal until he was past first base and saw the ball was down. Had he hauled buckets out of the box, he would have circled the bases with ease even without the benefit of the bad throw.

The next one came three batters later and was stroked by the youngster, Andres Blanco. On this one, he smacked the ball between Jermaine Dye in right and Aaron Rowand in center. The difference here is that he was thinking triple from the moment he left the box. He angled his approach to first with that very thought in mind and never let up.

One could argue that Blanco had the play in front of him while Berroa didn’t, but that’s missing the point. One player made the most of his opportunity and the other didn’t. Fortune smiled on the miscreant one, as it sometimes does, but it won’t always be thus. Luck is more often the residue of maximum effort. Is Berroa saving his strength for something? Maybe he’s pacing himself, what with the Indians being the opponents this weekend and all.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Los Angeles Dodgers (24th) @ San Francisco Giants (25th)

The tagline for this one is: “The Battle to Maintain the False Hope of Catching the Padres.”

The National League West should provide us with the most entertainment in the coming winter. With a division so ripe for the taking, one would assume that all five teams will be doing everything in their power to fill the very obvious vacuum that exists here. There are two ways to approach a depressed division: go all out to win it or assume that it won’t take much effort and half-ass it on the cheap. It will be interesting to see which teams take which approach.

MATCHUP WITH MOST CACHET (while not the best matchup, one wherein opponents both still have something on the line): Philadelphia (11th) @ Florida (15th)

The disappearance of Mike Lowell has been pretty taxing for the Marlins. Had he been able to register the Value Over Replacement he brought to the team in 2003 and 2004, the Wild Card race would probably be over by now. A drop from the low 50s down to just below zero is costing Florida dearly. Throw in the drop-off by Juan Pierre (from 44.6 last year to 13.0 this year) and they should be calculating magic numbers in Miami rather than comparing the strength of their remaining schedule with those of the Phillies, Astros and Nats.

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