Best Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): New York Mets @ San Diego Padres

With American League teams crawling all over the top of the Hit List, it’s not often that we get to feature a National League showdown as Best Matchup, so this is pretty exciting. OK, maybe it’s not so much exciting as it is novel.

The Pads have held opponents to one or zero runs 15 times this year at home and have won all of those contests–which you probably should have assumed, at least in the case of the shutouts. Why the fairly unspectacular 26-20 home record, then? They are 5-12 when giving up five or more runs. Seven or more runs allowed in Petco is a death sentence, and the Padres have only done that twice, losing both times, 7-1 to Baltimore on June 20, and 7-4 to the Braves on July 6. They’re 3-6 in games where they’ve given up six runs, which is really not that bad. They’re 2-4 in the five-run allowances. What really hurts their home record is the 6-8 showing in the games in which they surrender two to four runs.

They’re 4-3 when giving up two runs, 2-3 when it’s three, and 0-2 when it’s four. (The Dodgers are 11-4 in their two-to-four-run allowances at home.) Naturally, the games in this range are usually close, and a swing in two of them would have San Diego in first right now instead of the Dodgers. Indeed, their record in one-run games at home is 9-12. (The Dodgers are 10-4, but have a comparable overall home record, since they are 3-10 when surrendering six or more runs). Since there are so many low-scoring games at Petco, that’s going to be one of their keys to success the rest of the way: getting more of the tight ones to go their way at home. One would think this would not be a problem area for a team with relievers ranked sixth, seventh, and eighth in WXRL (Heath Bell, Scott Linebrink, and Trevor Hoffman), but we have to remember that the tolerance level at Petco is set very low.

Worst Matchup (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Houston Astros @ Washington Nationals

The Dell Diamond is a couple of back roads away from where I live, and seeing as I’m squarely within the Astros’ sphere of influence, I have come to respect them as an organization over the last few years. No, their farm system hasn’t exactly been pumping out the prospects, but they’ve stayed competitive and made a number of decent decisions. After all, six playoff appearances in 10 years is way above the norm. That’s why the Craig Biggio campaign is especially disappointing. If a less-successful franchise had put one of their players’ stats ahead of the team’s fortunes, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. I had thought the Astros were above this sort of thing.

Rethinking it, though, I’m not so sure this is really all that surprising. Remember when you were a kid and you loved the players on your favorite team unconditionally? Even though your team might not have been very good, you didn’t want them to go out and get better players; what you wanted was for your beloved players who were already there to get better. You were shocked and appalled when the team would coldly cut flesh and blood human beings from the roster for no other reason than that they weren’t very good. As you got older, you began to realize why this had to be so: winning baseball teams are not built on sentiment.

Then there are the Astros. I believe the Astros let sentiment dictate their actions as much or more than any other team. This is, after all, a club that has held onto Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett long past when sanity would have dictated otherwise. The decision not to pay Jeff Bagwell for the last year on his contract doesn’t fit into this construct, and they were pilloried for it in some quarters. Rick Sutcliffe was especially hard on the organization for not wanting to give a man $17 million for doing nothing. Here’s what I wonder: do Astros fans even mind? If we polled them, would they think the Biggio 3,000-hit campaign was a good thing?

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings): Kansas City Royals @ Boston Red Sox

How much of your monthly mortgage payment should you be betting against the lesser team of the Biggest Mismatchup? In the last Mismatchup, the Yankees took three of four from the Devil Rays. The last time the Red Sox were the better half, sweeping the Rays. The last time the Royals were in it, though, it was they who did the sweeping, taking three games from the Angels in late June. Therein lies the rub–because this is baseball, even the most extreme matchups don’t come with a guarantee.

You’d like to think that the better team in the Biggest Mismatchup is going to take two games of a three-game series. Given the line that a bookmaker is going to have on such disparate clubs, though, your margin of error isn’t all that great. There have been 15 Mismatchups this season, and the better team going in has won just nine of those series, there have only been three sweeps by the better team, and the better team has gone 28-19 in these games. A winning percentage of .596 (97 wins) will usually win a team its division, but that’s not extraordinarily better than what the favorites do against the rest of their opponents.

A 60 percent chance of winning (and this is a small sample size) is going to get eaten alive by the bookmaker’s line, so to answer the initial question, if you bet anything at all, bet only a tiny, tiny percentage of your mortgage payment. Can money be made betting the lesser team? In Kansas City’s case, it certainly could have been.

Prior to last night, when cast in the lesser role of Mismatchups this year, the Royals had gone 8-4. They’ve beaten the Angels five of six times, and took two of three from the Twins in April. The Royals have only lost one series when cast as the bottom end of the Mismatchup, that being two of three to Cleveland in early June. In fact, if you take the Royals out of the Mismatchup equation, the underdogs fall to 11-24, a record more in line with our expectations of what should happen when one of baseball’s best collides with one of its worst.

After being shut out last night, the Royals have fallen to 8-5 in these games, and the best they can hope for is to take two-of-three. The Red Sox, meanwhile, improved to 6-1 playing the bully in the Biggest Mismatchup.

Closest Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): St. Louis Cardinals @ Florida Marlins

I was looking at my Matchups template from a year ago and found that the Marlins are exactly where they are today–.465 on the Hit List–as they were last year at this time. There’s something to be said about not budging an inch in a year’s time. Whether that something is negative or positive depends on your frame of mind, I suppose. As Jay Jaffe pointed out in last week’s Hit List, all offensive improvements have been offset by a starting staff that is decidedly below league average. There are many ways to arrive at .465, and the Marlins have found two of them in mid-July of the past two seasons.

As for other clubs and how they stack up from this time last year, here they are, chucked into little pigeonholes based on their ascension, decline, or failure to do either according to the difference between the team’s current Hit List Factor, and their HLF at this time last season:

The Big Jumpers
Cubs      123
Brewers    98
Royals     57
Orioles    52

The Nice Improvers
Padres     46
A's        43
Mariners   37
Red Sox    36 
Indians    36
Phillies   35
Dodgers    32
Angels     29
Braves     28

The Line Holders
Pirates   21
Rockies    6
Marlins    0

The Modest Droppers
Giants     -12
D'Backs    -12
Twins      -14
Mets       -21

The Backsliders
Astros     -28
Devil Rays -31
Nationals  -45

The Downward Spiralers
Tigers     -45
Yankees    -49
Reds       -51
Blue Jays  -54

The Collapsers
Cardinals   -80
Rangers     -91
White Sox  -161

Of course, not all Downward Spiralers or Nice Improvers are created equally. The Tigers are certainly not spiraling downwards–they could end up back in the World Series at the rate they’re going, and they’re just not playing as well as they were a year ago. There’s a big difference between dropping from .636 to .591 as the Tigers have done, and falling from .504 to .453 the way the Reds have. One puts you in a tighter pennant race, and the other destroys all hope. Even with their drop, the Tigers are still one of the best teams in baseball.

The Cardinals have taken the biggest hit in the league, basically reversing position with the Cubs, something which no doubt thrills the fans in Wrigleyville. The Cubs were at .408 last time this year, and the Cards are at .449, putting them on opposite ends of the improvement spectrum.

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