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Baker's Dozen: The week in preview

7/18/2003

With an abbreviated schedule this week, this will be a
shorter version of Baker's Dozen:

The Best Matchup of the Week
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Seattle at Kansas City: (109-76 combined).

Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star makes an
excellent point about this series and the two that
follow for the Royals (against Oakland and Minnesota).
If they prove they can hang, they will send a message
to the two teams behind them that it's time to get out
of buyer's mode so as to start looking toward next
year. If Chicago and Minnesota can't makeup ground in
the coming week, they might change policy and
essentially give the Royals the keys to the kingdom.
If that does happen, it will be a shame for the Twins
that they unloaded Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart.
In fact, it's a shame either way.

Given his current pace, Ichiro Suzuki will finish 2003
with approximately 239 hits. This will give him a
three-year, career total of 689, easily the best start
to a career ever. In fact, it would make for the
fifth-best three-season hit total ever:

719: George Sisler, 1920-22
703: Rogers Hornsby, 1920-22
693: Bill Terry, 1929-31
692: Bill Terry, 1930-32
689: Ichiro Suzuki, 2001-03 (projected)

Watching him put the first pitch from Jason Schmidt into play in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night got me
to thinking: what is the upper limit of how many hits
a player could have in a season? If everything went
right, how far could a determined, talented hitter who
is not especially keen on drawing walks take the edge
of the hit-gathering envelope? Is Sisler's 83-year old
record of 257 in a season looking a little soft right
now? What are the upper limits of how many hits a
player could have in a season? Now that Barry Bonds has hit 73 home runs and Mark McGwire 70 in recent
times, let's examine what it would take to crack upper
limits of previous hit totaling accomplishment.

My belief is that as long as Ichiro is healthy and
sticks around these United States to play his baseball
for the next few years, Sisler's record is soft. In
2001, Ichiro became the first player since 1930 to
crack the all-time top 10 in hits in a season. If he
can get 105 hits the rest of the way this year, he'll
crack it again. That means he'll have to chase Sisler
next year, which is fine. The key is maximizing his
opportunities. To do so, Ichiro – or any player --
would have to:

Bat lead off. (Done.)

Play every game -- preferably every inning of every
game. (Ichiro missed five games in each of his first
two years and is on pace to miss three this year.)

Eschew the walk. However, that doesn't mean swing at
anything. Selectivity will work as long as it done
with a mind toward getting a good pitch to hit rather
than as a means to working out a free pass. A walk is
not as good as a hit for purposes of this proposal!
(Ichiro will take a walk more frequently now than he
did two years ago but he is no Rickey Henderson. He lost 27 precious plate appearances to intentional
walks last year.)

Avoid getting hit by pitches, sacrificing or lifting
lazy flies to the outfield with a runner on third and
less than two out. At bats are not to be wasted for
the deliberate and suicidal advancement of others. No
slapping slow grounders to the second baseman to move
a runner on second over to third. (There are no
outrageous plate appearance losses in this regard to
this point in his career.)

Play for a team that scores more than its share of
runs. (Check -- in spite of their home park.)

Play for a team that gets itself into a good number of
extra inning games. (This is probably contradictory to
the previous requirement.)

Play for a team that must play a one-game tie-breaker
at the end of the year. It helped Wills in 1962 as his
Dodgers played three extra games.

If Ichiro can do all of these things in one of the
coming years, it would not be unreasonable for him to
get about 765 plate appearances. To this point, he
gets official at bats in 91.8 percent of his plate
appearances which would make for about 700 official at
bats. To get 258 hits, he would have to hit around
.370. That does not strike me as too outlandish a need
given that his career average at the moment is .340.
Ichiro is the best-positioned modern ballplayer to
have a shot at this record since Wade Boggs in his
prime and Boggs never really had a chance because of
his wonderful ability at drawing walks.

The Biggest Mismatchup of the Week
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N.Y. Mets at Atlanta (Braves lead by 21 games).

This series represents the best first-place team in
baseball against the best last-place team. Can the
Mets hold on to that title or will the Texas Rangers
pass them as the Mets focus on youth for the remainder
of the season? It is a very hard thing to admit that
wins and losses matter less than the future, but that
is the unnatural step that teams who commit to a youth
movement have to take. The Rangers are themselves
embarking on just such a plan which means both teams
are doing a 180 from their recent direction.

Speaking of Gotham, I rented "Gangs of New York" the
other night and two things came to mind. The first was
that I blew it by not seeing it on the big screen.
Watching it on my aging television in Compresso
Fuzz-E-Vision (patent pending) just didn't cut it. The
second was how hard it is to reconcile the opening
rumble scene which takes place in February of 1846
with what took place just a few months later across
the river in Hoboken. By that I mean, when a baseball
fan sees the year "1846" come up on the screen, the
one thing that should come to mind is the first
recorded base ball game played under so-called
"organized" rules between the New York Nine and the
Hoboken Knickerbockers on June 19 of that year. The
movie's incredibly violent battle between the
immigrant Dead Rabbits gang and the xenophobic Native
Americans is in direct contrast to our collective view
of 19th Century base ball as pastoral wood cut
engraving.

What if the Dead Rabbits and the Native Americans had
settled their differences with a baseball game? They
could have marked off a field in the middle of the
Five Points and had at it. True, the scene would not
have had the impact of the gang clash. Also, what
would the motivation for revenge have been for
Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Amsterdam? To come back
some day and bean Bill the Butcher with a high hard
one? And what kind of ballplayer would Bill (played by
Daniel Day-Lewis) have been? A proto-Cobb (or,
perhaps, Cap Anson?), of course, "plugging" one and
all with extreme prejudice -- that is, hitting them
with a thrown ball to get them out which was legal in
some of base ball's earliest versions.

The Closest Matchup of the Week
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St. Louis at Los Angeles: (Dodgers up by ½ game).

Rickey Henderson will be batting leadoff tonight for
the Dodgers. (I am anxiously anticipating a
Henderson-Jesse Orosco showdown when the Dodgers play
the Padres in September. By then they will be a
combined 91 years and 2 months.)

If the Cards-Dodgers matchup proves one thing, it is
that there are many paths to the same destination.
These teams arrived at the break with but a half-game
separating them but managed to do that in very
different fashions.

While we're getting metaphorical:

"Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no
lean."

Is this a description of the chubby chaser's dream
marriage? No, it's nursery rhyme metaphor for the
differences in these two teams. The Dodgers are Jack
Spratt, lean and without power. They cannot score or
be scored upon while the Cardinals lead the league in
scoring but allow their opponents a good deal of fat.
Continuing the rhyme:

"Together they licked the platter clean."

What if you could "lick the platter clean" by
combining the Dodgers pitching and the Cardinals
hitting? You would have a team that would be 71-23
right now. (Conversely, a Cardinals pitching/Dodgers
hitting club would be 31-63.) Since this doesn't take
into account home parks, let's combine the two
elements using only their road runs for and against:

L.A. Pitching/St.L. Hitting: 70-24
L.A. Hitting/St.L Pitching: 29-65

That projects to 121 wins which would just about be
the best record ever save for the 1906 Cubs.

The Worst Matchup of the Week
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Detroit at Chi. White Sox: (70-116 combined).

Paul Konerko's drop-off is the most inexplicable for
an American League first baseman since Lou Gehrig in
1939. He has ceased to function against right-handed
pitchers. His OPS against lefties is a familiar .895
but he is at .405 against the other side. From 2000 to
2002, his was actually better against right-handers
with an .867 OPS as opposed to an .807 against
lefties. To me this says the problem is fixable. He's
only 27 and I am predicting a much, much happier
discovery and resolution of what is troubling him than
what was eventually discovered about Gehrig.

The Best Pitching Matchup of the Week
Mark Prior vs. Dontrelle Willis, Saturday.

This isn't just hype. They are the only opposing
starters this weekend who have a combined ERA under
3.00.

When is a half not a half?

When it is something more like 60 percent.

Because the All-Star break came about two weeks after
most teams reached the halfway point in the schedule,
teams have actually played much more than 50 percent
of their schedules. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are on
the low end with 91 games played while Colorado is on
the other extreme with 97. It is important to note
this because there is a perception that the second
"half" of the season is about to begin and this can be
dangerously misleading.

Why? Because the pennant races are a lot closer to
being over than we are all assuming. Our minds are in
halftime mode when, in reality, there is much less
recovery time available to struggling teams than the
designation "half" would imply. So, to paraphrase the
old song, it is very much later than you think and
these two teams as well as the others who believe they
harbor a chance had better get on the stick.

Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jimbakerespn@yahoo.com.