We’re going to start the 2006 Prospectus Matchups by using the final Prospectus Hit List rankings from 2005. We’ll keep this going until it either becomes untenable or the first 2006 Hit List makes its appearance, courtesy of Jay Jaffe.

Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings):
Cleveland Indians @ the World Champion Chicago White Sox

Can the season hinge on Game #1 of the 2,430 about to be contested?

It was last year. On Sunday, April 3, 2005, the Red Sox–also defending champions–visited the Yankees on the Sunday night curtain raiser and got spanked 9-2. Had they won that game they would have taken the division instead of finishing in a position wherein a tiebreaker was necessary to find a champion. They would have then drawn the Angels in the first round instead of the rampaging White Sox and…perhaps been swept by them as well.

OK, so, I can’t make the case that the Red Sox would have repeated as World Champions had they won the division instead of the wildcard, but the case can be made the very first game of the season mattered as much as the last and that’s the point of all this: in a sticky division like the American League East every year or the American League Central of 2006, they’re all going to count, including the very first game of the year tomorrow.

In fact, there have been a few occasions in major league history where both teams in a very close one-two finish could point to their first game and say, “this was our Waterloo” with one team meaning it in the French ass-kicked sense of the phrase and the other in the Anglo-Allied-got-rid-of-Napolean sense. Including last season’s American League East battle, there have been four occasions wherein two teams came within a game of one another and didn’t have matters settled until the last day of the season met on Opening Day and the team that finished first was victorious. (There have been a number of other occasions where the team that finished second won on Opening Day, but that’s quite beside the point for our purposes here.) There have been two others that are borderline cases. First, the other three definite cases:

April 18, 1944: St. Louis Browns @ Detroit Tigers, Browns win 2-1
The Brownies hit the ground chugging in their sole pennant-winning season, brushing aside the Tigers in the first three games and then winning six more before getting their first loss. The Tigers eventually roared back (yes, I really did write that) and caught the Browns. They were tied for the lead heading into the last day of the season when St. Louis beat New York and Detroit lost to Washington.

April 12, 1967: Chicago White Sox @ Boston Red Sox, Red Sox win 5-4
As exciting as the last week of the four-team race in the American League was in 1967 (and if you believe what I wrote in my last column,
we’re about to see its like again), the Red Sox earned their eventual one-game margin on Opening Day. Triple Crown winner and MVP in the offing Carl Yastrzemski took an 0-for-4 collar that day, a far cry from his amazing output in the stretch. Rico Petrocelli was the big hero that day with a home run off of Chicago starter John Buzhardt.

White Sox manager Eddie Stanky had a curious rotation to open the season. It almost looks like he went backwards:

Game 1: John Buzhardt
Game 2: Bruce Howard
Game 3: Tommy John
Game 4: Joe Horlen
Game 5: Gary Peters

In terms of eventual usage, that is exactly the case. Their innings pitched for ’67 goes in reverse order: starter number five through number one.

April 10, 1980: Los Angeles Dodgers @ Houston Astros, Astros win 3-2
J.R. Richard struck out 13 Dodgers in a contest that, as it turned out, was vital to the Astros’ interests. Heading into the final weekend of the season, Houston had a three-game lead over Los Angeles, against whom they were set to play. Three losses later and a rare tie-breaker was in order. The Astros made the Dodger comeback rather anti-climatic when they jumped on Dave Goltz and Rick Sutcliffe, building a 7-0 lead through the top of the third the day after the regular season ended, cruising on to a 7-1 victory.

In the following two series, it could be argued that the final gap of one game or less does not quite qualify for inclusion here in that the winner clinched prior to the last day of the season. These are pretty close calls, though:

April 15, 1972: Boston Red Sox @ Detroit Tigers, Tigers win 3-2
Speaking of Carl Yastrzemski, he opposed the strike that delayed the opening of the 1972 season, favoring instead a one-day boycott. Ironically, the decision to not reschedule any of the 86 games lost to the strike would cost his team a shot at the American League East title. Boston was originally supposed to host the Tigers to open the year on April 6. Instead, that series, a subsequent visit by the Indians and the first game of the reciprocal visit to Detroit were wiped off the books. When Opening Day finally took place, the Tigers rode a two-run homer by Eddie Brinkman and a solid outing by Mickey Lolich to the victory. It would prove crucial as Boston came into the last series of the season with a half-game lead on Detroit, with whom they were bookending the season. The Tigers won the first two games of the series to clinch.

After the Tigers wrapped it up, the Red Sox won the final game to make it look a little more dramatic than it actually was, narrowing the final gap to a half-game. Had Boston won on Opening Day, the Tigers would have needed a sweep to cop the division in the final series.

April 11, 1980: Montreal Expos @ Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies win 6-3
As with Boston-Detroit eight years earlier, the Phillies clinched on the penultimate day of the season with the Expos winning the throwaway on the last day to put their final discrepancy at one game.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Arizona Diamondbacks @ Colorado Rockies

If it appears as though Arizona has passed the Rockies in the standings while standing still, it’s because they have been. Getting self-referential once again, what we have here are the two most extreme teams of the past decade in terms of season-to-season movement. On the one hand are the Rockies, the team that has experienced the least movement from year-to-year, up against the Diamondbacks, the team that has undergone the most.

Arizona’s great surge upwards last year was, in part, artifice in that their run differential was so greatly askance compared to their won-loss record. Normally, that would indicate a decline was in the offing. In this case, though, the Snakes may have done enough in the offseason to move from being a lucky 77-win team to an actual 70-something-win team. The Rockies had a better run differential last year, but have made no earth-shaking changes that might suggest they’ll do anything but continue their death and taxes routine in the “improve by four games/decline by four games” range.

A couple things about the Rockies in 2005 that defy our collective stereotype of the club:

  • Their pitchers surrendered only 175 home runs. This was the 11th-highest total in the league, something of an increase from the usual 14th- or 16th-place finishes. 175 is the second-lowest total since the team moved to Coors in a full season.
  • The team hit only 150 home runs, 10th-most in the league when they are usually in the top five. They’ve ranked lower in their past (12th in 2002 when they hit 152 and 13th in 2000) but have never hit this few.
  • They had a team Isolated Power of just .144. That’s the worst in the 13 years they’ve been around, although they did dip to .149 in 2002. While the Rockies have flirted with downturns like this before, the real telling stat from last year was the placement in doubles. Since the Coors move, no Rockies team has ever placed lower than eighth in two-baggers. Last year’s team finished 14th.

There was a time when it appeared as though the Rockies’ offense would always take care of itself–at least at home. When they can’t even count on that, what entertainment value are they providing their fans?

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim @ Seattle Mariners

The Opening Day starting assignment is not necessarily a very steady gig. Looking at the pitchers who opened for their teams just two years ago, only 12 of the 30 have gotten a similar assignment for themselves this year. Of those 12, three are now with different teams (Kenny Rogers, Kevin Millwood and Tim Hudson). This series features a rematch of the Opening Day starters from two years ago, Bartolo Colon and Jamie Moyer. The Angels won that one going away, 10-5.

Looking at the PECOTA projections for these two clubs, the Angels only have an edge at one position, right field. At every other position, the numbers favor Seattle, although Designated Hitter is pretty close between Carl Everett and Juan Rivera, provided Rivera does in fact end up spending a lot of time there. Of course, once we move past the positioners, things go decidedly in the Angels’ favor. The Mariners bench is vastly inferior and may be one of the worst in the game. The Angels have a nice rotation and, as per usual of late, a bullpen that is outstanding and, moreover, fun to watch.

A rough accounting gives the Angels a VORP of about 50 higher than Seattle, but that could even be a larger differential if Casey Kotchman is healthy and productive.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Yankees @ Oakland A’s

The A’s have been sucking wind against the Yankees the last couple of seasons, posting 2-7 records against them in both 2004 and 2005. These things have a way of changing fast, however, and there are probably not too many cases of one quality team owning another team of quality for any great length of time.

Hosting the Yankees on Opening Day is overkill. Getting the best draw in baseball for a game that is bound to have a big gate anyway is fairly redundant. It will help out on Game 2, though, when crowds traditionally thin in the lesser-attended parks like Oakland’s.

But it’s been a few years since the Yankees opened on the West Coast. Not counting their 2004 sojourn to Japan, the last time they found themselves on the Pacific Rim for Opening Day was 2000 when they invaded what was then called simply, “Anaheim.” That culminated a four-year run of West Coast openings:

1997: Seattle
1998: Anaheim
1999: Oakland
2000: Anaheim

Their only other opener so far from home was in 1983 when they visited the Kingdome. They once hosted the Angels for Opening Day but that was in 1968 when they were known even more simply as “California.” The Yankees have only opened two of the last 11 seasons at home: 2005 versus Boston and 2001 versus Kansas City. It does not appear to have affected them adversely.

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