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June 5, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

Arizona Diamondbacks @ Atlanta Braves, 6/4/2006

by Derek Jacques

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Welcome again to Game of the Week. In this installment, we're catching up with the NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks finishing off a four-game set against the third-place Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. The Braves are staring at the broom in this matchup, having dropped a pitcher's duel on Thursday--with Horacio Ramirez facing Juan Cruz--and losing both ends of a day-night doubleheader on Saturday after Friday night's game was rained out.

A week ago, this matchup looked much more even. The Braves were 27-23, three and a half games behind the Mets. They come into Sunday's matchup a .500 team. The Braves have been a top offensive team so far this season, scoring 296 runs, good for second in the league, despite a lackluster .262 team EqA--seventh in the NL. So far, the Braves have outperformed their expected offensive performance--that is, what you'd expect they'd score based on the hits, walks, etc. that they have collected--by 20 runs, the most of any team in baseball.

The Diamondbacks are a very similar offensive club, in some ways. They've scored one run less than the Braves, overall, and they also have a lower-than-expected EqA (.260) along with a big positive differential between their expected and actual runs scored (15 runs). By and large, the fact that these teams are overperforming their expected offense doesn't "mean" anything, other than perhaps that they've been a bit lucky.

Where the two clubs differ is on defense. The Snakes have allowed the third-fewest runs in the league, while the Braves have allowed the third-most runs. In the absence of former Brave (and current Oriole) pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Atlanta is having trouble assembling a decent bullpen out of other team's discards and spare parts, and some of Mazzone's reclamation projects--such as today's starter, Jorge Sosa--seem to have regressed. Meanwhile, the D'backs have improved their fielding with the addition of Orlando Hudson--they have the most double plays turned (70) in the senior circuit.

Let's take a look at the starting lineups:

Diamondbacks                        Braves
                     EqA   VORP                          EqA    VORP

Jeff DaVanon, CF     .273   5.6     Marcus Giles, 2B     .250    3.4
Damion Easley, SS    .295   8.4     Edgar Renteria, SS   .292   18.5
Chad Tracy, 3B       .278  12.4     Wilson Betemit, 3B   .288    7.6
Luis Gonzalez, LF    .276   7.9     Andruw Jones, CF     .294   20.7
Tony Clark, 1B       .228  -2.7     Adam LaRoche, 1B     .273    6.1
Shawn Green, RF      .283  11.0     Jeff Francoeur, RF   .226   -9.1
Johnny Estrada, C    .253   7.1     Ryan Langerhans, LF  .251   -0.8
Orlando Hudson, 2B   .232  -0.4     Todd Pratt, C        .226   -1.8
Miguel Batista, P   -.068  -1.2     Jorge Sosa, P        .258    2.7

Starting Pitchers    RA+   SNLVAR   SO/9   VORP  BABIP
Jorge Sosa           0.76    0.0    5.33   -2.0  .290
Miguel Batista       0.95    0.8    5.72    6.3  .348
Jorge Sosa is an extreme flyball pitcher, with a pronounced platoon split, or as we put it in Baseball Prospectus 2005, he's "the windshield against righties and the bug against lefties." That has more or less held up this season, as lefties hit .329/.409/.524 against him, essentially meaning that lefties as a group turn into David Wright. Last year, Sosa managed an amazing 13-3 record with a 2.55 ERA--despite a peripheral ERA (or PERA) of 4.68. This year, the worm has turned, and Sosa had a 1-6 record coming into Sunday's game, even though he was coming off of three straight quality starts.

The Diamondbacks acknowledge Sosa's platoon split in their starting lineup, resting team VORP leader Eric Byrnes and starting first baseman Conor Jackson--two righthanded batters--in favor of switch-hitters Jeff DaVanon and Tony Clark. The only righthanded bats in the lineup are starting pitcher Miguel Batista and utility infielder Damion Easley, playing shortstop. Easley's the hot hand, coming off a three-homer game in the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader.

Is Easley notable in the world of scrub home run performances? As Rany Jazayerli mentioned on our internal email list, Easley's career .409 slugging percentage towers over the .321 career mark posted by Freddie Patek, who blasted three homers in a 1980 game against the Red Sox. Jay Jaffe then recalled that, before leaving the States to terrorize the Japanese League, Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes (.349 career SLG) blasted three shots on opening day, 1994. To go one better, Keith Woolner noted that since 1960, Darnell Coles had the lowest slugging percentage of anyone to have two three-homer games, at .380.

The lesson? Don't underestimate Damion Easley, I guess.

Batista also has a huge platoon split this season. Lefties hit .368/.457/.547 against him--somewhere between Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera--compared to .261/.296/.373 for righties. Unlike Sosa's split, Batista's could be a sample size illusion, given that Batista doesn't have a history of being that useless against lefthanded batters. According to Retrosheet, through last year lefty batters had an OPS of .765 against Batista, contrasted with .722 against righties. Batista's had two straight quality starts, including a complete game win against the Mets his last time out, but was tagged for five runs the last time he faced the Braves, in Arizona.

Bobby Cox seems to be in the camp of those who don't believe Batista's platoon split is for real. He's got six righthanded batters in the lineup, including regulars Marcus Giles, Edgar Renteria, and Andruw Jones, overmatched regular Jeff Francoeur, and backup catcher Todd Pratt. It's mildly surprising, given the prospect of a sweep at home, that Cox is giving Chipper Jones the day off in favor of Wilson Betemit, and that Brayan Pena's sitting in favor of Pratt.

Getting to the action, Sosa's first pitch of the game is a ball to DaVanon. Two pitches later, there are words between DaVanon and home plate ump Doug Eddings. As the announcers remind us, there's some history of bad blood between Eddings and D'backs catcher Johnny Estrada, going back to Estrada's time as a Brave. We later learn that ruckus was because DaVanon wanted to go back to the on-deck circle for some rosin between pitches, and Eddings wouldn't let him go. We're all in favor of speeding up the game by keeping guys in the batter's box as much as possible, but you have to wonder if Eddings is always such a stickler.

Nothing comes of the Rosin Affair at this time. Two pitches later, Sosa feeds DaVanon a belt-high fastball, straight down broadway, which the reserve outfielder parks well past the wall in right-center. True to his tendencies, Sosa goes on to retire the side on a groundout to Betemit and two fly balls to Francoeur.

After the Braves strand a runner in the bottom of the first, Sosa's on the mound again, facing Tony Clark. Clark has some history against Sosa--he's 4-4 with a walk in his career against him, including three homers in his last three at bats (as an FYI, those at bats came in this game against the Braves, last season, and this 2004 game, when Clark was with the Yankees and Sosa was with Tampa Bay).

Now, matchup data like this is pretty controversial. On the one hand, four at bats is a ridiculously small sample, and it's seldom that a batter and pitcher will face each other frequently enough over the course of a season--or even a few seasons--that you could draw any serious conclusions from the results of their confrontations. Too often, one good encounter can lead a manager to the fallacious conclusion that such-and-such player "owns" a pitcher.

On the other hand, when anyone has homers in three consecutive at bats against a pitcher, it seems prudent to give them a shot at keeping the streak alive. Facing Sosa in the second inning, Clark crushes a 3-2 pitch to deep right center field. Clark's slugging percentage against Sosa is now 3.400. That's pretty good.

After Sosa strikes out Shawn Green, Estrada and Hudson stroke back-to-back singles, bringing up the pitcher's spot. Batista fails to get a bunt down, which would usually lead to an extensive lecture on the lost art of the sacrifice--if Sosa didn't simply advance the runners to second and third on a wild pitch. Sosa strikes out Batista, only to bring up DaVanon, who singles in Estrada and Hudson. Arizona leads, 4-0.

From the bottom of the second to the bottom of the fifth, the pitchers kept control of the game. Batista's stuff looks thoroughly unimpressive--for the most part, he depends on a low 90s fastball, which he moves around the upper end of the strike zone. Batista puts men on in every inning except the fourth, when he benefits from a nice catch by DaVanon in center.

Meanwhile Sosa--whose windup and delivery resemble Tom Gordon's--has settled down and harnessed his 95 MPH fastball and hard-breaking slider. Clark comes up again in the third inning, and blisters the first pitch directly at Marcus Giles. The ball is hit so hard it bounces off of Giles, who keeps the ball in front of him, and is able to throw Clark out. Just like that, Clark's slugging percentage against Sosa is down to 2.833, and the OPS is down to 3.710. Clark's bullet comes in the middle of a streak of nine straight retired by Sosa, which ends in the fifth inning with a double by Easley. Easley is stranded when Chad Tracy fouls out to Ryan Langerhans in left.

In the bottom of the frame, Tracy finds himself charging a dribbler toward third base off the bat of Todd Pratt. Tracy decides to barehand the ball, which skitters under his fingers and past him, allowing Pratt to reach. Some hometown scoring ruins my scorecard, as the official scorer deems Tracy's error an infield single.

What follows is a bit of old school station-to-station baseball. Pratt advances to second on Sosa's sacrifice bunt, and moves to third on a single by Giles. The whole thing almost comes to naught when Renteria delivers a tailor-made double play grounder to Hudson, but Giles saves the day with a picture-perfect takeout slide, which disrupts Easley's relay throw to first. Pratt scores, small-ball style.

In the next inning, the Snakes come right back against Sosa, with a trio of one-out singles by Clark (SLG down to 2.250), Shawn Green, and Johnny Estrada, who records his 34th RBI at the end of the sequence. Coming into the game, Estrada was the third-best batter in the majors at delivering on his RBI opportunities--just shy of 23% of the time--behind Lance Berkman and Albert Pujols. Arizona leads 5-1.

After Batista pitches around an Adam Laroche single in the sixth, Atlanta goes to the bullpen in the top of the seventh. The bullpen's a serious weakness for the Braves this year, as the team is just 15th in the NL in WXRL. WXRL measures the performance of each reliever by looking at the base/out situation, inning and score each time a reliever comes into the game and comparing the amount by which the pitcher improved or decreased the chances of winning against the performance of replacement-level reliever. It makes a further adjustment to control for the quality of the batters faced. The Braves' team -0.148 WXRL means that the Braves' relievers have, as a unit, done a slightly worse job than freely-available replacement relievers.

Atlanta's first reliever, lefty Macay McBride, pitches an uneventful seventh inning. In the bottom of the frame, with two outs, Giles and Renteria chase Batista from the game with a double and a two-run homer, respectively. Arizona goes to the bullpen, but in this case the relief unit's an asset--the Diamondbacks have the sixth-best pen in the NL, by WXRL. In the top of the eighth, grizzled vet Mike Remlinger pitches an empty frame for the Braves, retiring the side after a leadoff single by Clark. In the bottom of the inning, the Snakes send Luis Vizcaino to the mound. Vizcaino's mix of pitches--a low-80's slider he throws for strikes, and a 94 MPH fastball which he can't put in the strike zone--don't look too impressive. But aside from an opposite-field double by Francoeur, the Braves don't touch him.

In the top of the ninth, Arizona leads by two runs. The Braves have to keep the game close, so they call on their "closer," the much-maligned Chris Reitsma. Reitsma was anointed the Braves closer coming into the season, despite never being a dominant pitcher in any of his previous seasons. This year, Reitsma sports a 6.00 ERA, and is one of the very worst relievers in the NL.

True to form, pinch-hitter Andy Green leads off with a single against Reitsma. Jeff DaVanon follows with his third hit of the game, a double to left, which brings up Easley. Easley--who might never want to leave Turner Field after this series--blasts a 1-0 pitch for his fourth home run in two days. Arizona now leads by five. Reitsma is pelted with boos by the Braves fans, and sarcastic applause when he finally manages to record an out, striking out Tracy. With two outs, Tony Clark blasts his second homer of the game, an opposite field shot to left.

Now that the score is 9-3, it's all over. The only surprise the bottom of the ninth brings us is confirmation that Kevin Jarvis is still drawing a major-league paycheck. Jarvis has pitched fewer than 19 innings in the Show over the last two years, but he still gets a PECOTA card and an entry in this year's annual (albeit one that begins with the words "It might seem like a cruel joke to give him a full-length comment…"). A couple of nifty plays by Luis Gonzalez and Damion Easley later, the brooms are out. From here, the Diamondbacks go back to Phoenix to host the Phillies, and the Braves stay in Atlanta to face off against the Nationals.

Next week's Game of the Week will be from the Boston/Texas series. Watch the newsletter for an annoucement of the specific matchup.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

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

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