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June 28, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Chicago Cubs @ Chicago White Sox, 6/26/05

by Jonah Keri

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When the Cubs made it official and announced Mark Prior would make his return from the DL Sunday and pitch for the first time in a month, I immediately thought this could be the Game of the Year of Games of the Week. Sure, the first GotW of the season featured a walk-off home run--on Opening Day--no less. But that game featured more than its share of sloppy play, took about three and a half hours to complete, and didn't quite crackle with the type of playoff-game excitement I'd been hoping to find throughout the season's first three months.

Sunday's game was different. Even right off the DL Prior is a constant threat to completely dominate a game. His opponent, Jon Garland, entered Sunday's game tied with Dontrelle Willis for the best record in baseball at 12-2. You can attribute some of Garland's win barrage to luck, no question--his .253 BABIP, for one, is well below league average, and when more balls in play start to fall in for hits, that'll hurt him. His strikeout rate of less than one every other inning also portends regression, as virtually no pitchers sustain success over the long haul at that level. Still, there's a lot to be said for terrific control, which is just what Garland has shown this year. At just over a walk and a half a game, Garland's been among the stingiest in baseball with the free pass. Even with a good but not great HR rate (11 in 108 IP), that's enough to achieve success. Broadcaster turned World Series-winning manager turned broadcaster Bob Brenly notes that "Garland has been the best pitcher in baseball up to this point," a point contradicted by several Baseball Prospectus metrics--Roy Halladay and a good dozen others can make a better claim. But Garland's still ranked a respectable 15th in the majors in Expected Wins according to BP's brand spankin' new Sortable Stats, 8th if you count only pitchers with 15 starts or fewer.

Throw in a North Side-South Side Chicago rivalry that's heated up thanks to the great play of the Sox and you had all the makings of a great game.


Cubs
CF Corey Patterson .245 AVG
SS Neifi Perez .279
1B Derrek Lee .391
RF Jeromy Burnitz .279
3B Aramis Ramirez .307
2B Todd Walker .300
DH Michael Barrett .276
LF Todd Hollandsworth .257
C Henry Blanco .156

As John Erhardt notes in his New York Sun article today, Derrek Lee could be leading all three Triple Crown categories, were it not for the atrocious OBPs of Corey Patterson (.281) and Neifi Perez (.307). Todd Walker suggested to Dusty Baker that he be elevated to the leadoff spot, where the Cubs could leverage his superior on-base skills (.361 OBP); Baker told Walker he preferred to leave him in the sixth slot to provide lineup protection for Aramis Ramirez. Of course--why give your best hitters the most at-bats? That would be lunacy.

Garland starts the game by mixing pitches to Patterson. Though Brenly, play-by-play man Len Kasper and guest commentator Ryne Sandberg note Garland's two best pitches are his sinker and slider, he's mixing in plenty of four-seam fastballs and change-ups early on. He starts Patterson with two four-seamers, then gets him on a change at the outside edge. Perez then rolls over on a sinker for out number two. Lee then crushes another four-seamer, the ball looking like a homer right off the bat. But a gust of wind brings it back into the park, left fielder Scott Podsednik scooting from the wall back out to the front of the warning track to make the catch.


White Sox
LF Scott Podsednik .295 AVG
2B Willie Harris .234
DH Frank Thomas .275
1B Paul Konerko .254
CF Aaron Rowand .280
RF Jermaine Dye .268
C A.J. Pierzynski .257
3B Joe Crede .242
SS Pablo Ozuna .292

It's a significantly better lineup with Juan Uribe and the underrated Tadahito Iguchi in it, sure--assuming Uribe bounces back to something approaching 2004 form (.284/.327/.506) rather than '05 (.242/.283/.372). Still, nothing jumps out at you about this lineup, other than the Sox fielding a bunch of decent players who usually won't hurt you. Paul Konerko leads Sox regulars with a solid if unspectacular .295 EqA (Frank Thomas has put up a gaudy .350 figure, but in just 51 plate appearances, as he returns from injury). Add an OBP vacuum at the bottom of the order in Pierzynski, Crede and Uribe and the Sox could struggle to score in the second half.

The way Prior starts the game, even the '27 Yankees wouldn't have a shot. Throwing mostly fastballs, Prior induces a lineout to left for Scott Podsednik, a weak groundout to first by Willie Harris--making it 0 extra-base hits in 65 at-bats this season for Harris--and a groudout to short by Thomas. Early on, Prior throwing with his usual low-to-mid-90s velocity, hitting the corners and showing near-perfect mechanics every time. This game could very well be over in two hours.

Garland's intelligence as a pitcher starts to show through in the second. Knowing Jeromy Burnitz swings from his heels every time, Garland sets him up with two fastballs to get to 0-2, then throws a sinking change-up, eliciting a huge whiff from the Cubs' cleanup hitter. Garland then works backwards to Ramirez, starting him with off-speed stuff, then throwing a high-80s fastball right by him for a second straight K. Garland tops at 92 and more often hits 89-90 with his fastball. But when he's mixing pitches the way he is on this day, he's going to make some hitters look awful. A quick flyout by Walker sends the Sox up in the bottom of the 2nd, still no score.

Prior starts the 2nd with a rare mistake, grooving a fastball to Konerko, the Sox hitter most likely to take advantage. The wind appears for the second straight time, stopping what looked like at least a double and knocking it down into Burnitz's glove in right. Aaron Rowand, who's also on the Juan Uribe career path (out-of-nowhere 905 OPS last year, 734 in '05), goes deeper into the count than his Sox mates, to 2-2. That only makes Prior mad--a fastball explodes past Rowand for strike three. Prior looks like he's in mid-season form, not just back from a one-month injury layoff. Jermaine Dye pops out to end the 2nd.

Top of the 3rd: Michael Barrett flies out to right as Garland breaks his bat on a fastball, a testament to his newfound ability to work the inside of the plate with success. An outside-edge change induces a weak groundout to the mound by Todd Hollandsworth; Henry Blanco then pops out. We learn that the Cubs went into Mark Prior's May 27 injury game ranked 13th in runs scored--they're now 6th, with Lee and company holding the fort while Prior, Kerry Wood and the rest of the pitching staff worked through injuries and turnover. All well and good, but they'll need a base runner at some point in this game, let alone a run, to keep it going.

The Sox finally get their first base runner in the bottom of the 3rd, as Pablo Ozuna lines a clean single to left with two outs. Prior wheels to throw to first on a pickoff try, but gets his spike caught in the dirt. Home plate umpire Angel Hernandez calls a balk. Replays show Prior clearly stepped off the rubber before throwing over. Brenly, who's impressing in his return to the booth, calls Hernandez out with some pointed, and well-placed criticism. "It was awkward, but there nothing there that would justify a balk call. I'm telling you, the umpires don't even know what a balk is. If it looks funny, they call a balk. That was a bad call by Angel Hernandez." So no Christmas Card exchange between the Brenlys and Hernandezes this year? Podsednik ends the threat by tapping out to second.

The Cubs get their first runner in the top of the 4th on an infield hit by Perez--it almost figures that Ozuna and Perez, not Lee, Konerko or any of the teams' other big hitters would break the schneid on each side in a game like this. But with one out, Garland throws a mean sinker to Lee, leading to an easy 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. This game has taken about 38 seconds through the first three-and-a-half frames.

Notes interlude:

  • Given their merely decent lineup, it's clear the Sox are built on pitching. The worst of the top five Sox starters sports a SNVAR of 0.7. The bullpen has also done some heavy lifting, getting dominant performances from previously forgettable veterans like Dustin Hermanson and Cliff Politte.

    Still, chinks are slowly starting to appear in the armor, even as the Sox maintain the biggest cushion of any division leader in baseball. After a hot start, Jose Contreras' ERA has shot up a full run in his last three outings. Orlando Hernandez was starting to unravel before hitting the DL. Brandon McCarthy is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, but rookie starters are always a dicey bet. Mark Buehrle's a legit ace and Freddy Garcia looks like he'll be the above-average inning horse people expect. But between Garland's low strikeout rate, the shaky credentials of the bottom of the rotation, and Hermanson and Politte unlikely to keep pitching like Wetteland-Rivera circa 1996, the Sox look like a .500 team for the second half. With 50 wins already banked, though, .500 ball would net a 94-win season, still a strong bet for a playoff berth.

  • Garland fun facts: Would have attended USC had he not signed with the Cubs, which would have made him Prior's teammate (Prior started at Vanderbilt, transferred to USC). The Cubs drafted Garland in the 1st round in 1997, then traded him for highly replaceable reliever Matt Karchner a year later at the deadline. One day Chris Kahrl will have to do a Top 10 most inexplicable trades of the TA era column. After several years of merely decent pitching by Garland made it look like the Cubs didn't mess this one up too badly, we're now back to Aaaaaargh! Level 5 in Wrigleyville.

  • The bottom of the 4th shows Prior at his best and also features the highlight of the game. Prior starts Harris with one of his patented sweeping fastballs that paints the inside corner for strike one. It's a pitch he'll throw a good dozen times during the game, and looks eerily Madduxian. With his same-every-time pitching motion and pinpoint control when he's on, Prior looks a young Maddux out there, with better velocity. If he stays healthy he'll win the Cy Young by 2007.

  • Prior doesn't look all that Cy-like starting off to Thomas, running the count to 3-0. Then the fireworks start. Prior darts a fastball in there for strike one. At 3-1 he throws the nastiest pitch of the game, one I'm still struggling to identify. Friend o' BP and erstwhile Chicagoan Keith Scherer says it's a slider or some kind of trick pitch. I thought it was a hard curve. Whatever it was, the 3-1 offering takes a big, bending arc, with plenty of speed behind it. Thomas sits frozen for strike two as Sandberg lets out an audible "whoa!" With Thomas now set up, Prior guns a fastball right down the Ryan Expressway for strike three. Wait, there's more. Prior falls behind 3-1 to Konerko. He then sweeps in another curve for strike two. Brenly: "3-1 breaking ball, Ryno?" Sandberg: "That takes all the fun out of it, right there." Prior throws a nasty splitter in the dirt for the whiff, then shows a rare glimmer of emotion, his expression changing from statue to stoic.

Other highlights:

  • With Barrett on first and one out in the top of the 5th, Hollandsworth hits a sharp grounder up the middle that looks like a sure hit. Ozuna ranges to his left, makes a diving play, then flips to Harris from the ground to get Barrett by an eyelash. This is the Sox backup middle infield. The sell-out crowd goes nuts--one of the great results of the Pale Hose Parade in the first half of the season has been a big response by Sox fans, who haven't a reason to pack the park in a while. Jammed with both Sox and Cubs fans, the crowd, as much as Prior and Garland, lent electricity to this game.

  • Not to be outdone, the Cubs defense provides ample support for Prior. Ramirez makes a great short-hop stab leading off the 6th against Crede, starting a 1-2-3 succession in Prior's last inning. Burnitz makes a running catch at the wall in the bottom of the 5th off Pierzynski, on what looked like a sure extra-base hit. Prior's line for the game: 71 pitches, 50 strikes, six innings, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 H (the Ozuna single).

  • Garland also puts up a strong line, just not strong enough. He starts Patterson with two strikes on the outer half of the plate. But on 0-2 Garland throws a slider that breaks down and in, right into Patterson's wheelhouse. Patterson jerks the pitch down the right-field line for a solo homer, providing all the offense the Cubs would need in a 2-0 win. Garland goes 7.1 innings, yielding just 5 H, 2 R (one earned), 1 BB while striking out five. Kasper and company noted early on that it was the kind of game that could get decided by one mistake. If not for the limp slider to Patterson, they may still be playing.

  • The Cubs allow just one hit for the game, getting key double plays in the 8th and 9th to preserve the lead, Jerome Williams (making a rare relief appearance while the Cubs sort through their rotation) and Ryan Dempster deftly wiggling out of jams.

  • Total time of play? Two hours, 14 minutes.

--

Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will mark GotW;s first trip to Safeco Field since its recent move to the new Seattle headquarters. The Mariners will host the slugging Texas Rangers, fresh off their eight-homer barrage against the Angels. That's Channel 746 on DirecTV, 7:05 p.m. start time. Chan Ho Park will battle Aaron Sele as both pitchers try to pretend it's 2001 again.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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