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August 3, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

Cincinnati Reds @ Milwaukee Brewers, July 30, 2006

by Derek Jacques

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Welcome back to Prospectus Game of the Week. After lazing our way through the month of July, we're back to catch two of the teams who made big splashes in the July trade market, the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers. We're catching the game on Time Warner Cable's MLB Extra Innings, MLB.tv having proven a bit too unreliable for our purposes.

The Reds, who lead the wild card race and are within scratching distance of the Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central, started off the major trading by dealing their starting shortstop (Felipe Lopez) and their starting rightfielder (Austin Kearns) to the Washington Nationals for a gift basket of middle relievers--Gary Majewski, Bill Bray, and Darryl Thompson--along with infielders Royce Clayton and Brendan Harris. The big trade was an acknowledgment of the weakness of the Reds bullpen--even now, with their new, improved bullpen, the Reds are still tenth in the league in WXRL, and fifteenth in Adjusted Runs Prevented--and a decision to emphasize defense. Still, that doesn't change the fact that the Reds surrendered two youngish full-time position players, one of whom was an All-Star last year, for three no-name relievers and a couple of role players.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee's in a crowded field, as at game time, nine teams were within six and a half games of Cincinnati for the Wild Card. The Brewers sit six games back, along with the Astros, Dodgers, and Marlins. Milwaukee's big move this week was dealing their slugging left fielder, Carlos Lee, to the Texas Rangers for a package including outfielder Kevin Mench, erstwhile closer Francisco Cordero, faded outfield prospect Laynce Nix, and a minor leaguer. Beyond the big trade, the Brew Crew have spent the week acquiring spare parts to help cover the injuries in their infield--starters Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and Corey Koskie are all on the DL, and Hardy's out for the season. So the Brewers have picked up Tony Graffanino and David Bell to spackle over the holes in their lineup.

The question is, to what purpose are they spackling? At game time, the Brewers' chance of making the playoffs stood at about 3%, per our Playoff Odds Report; going back a week, to when the acquisitions began, it stood around 5%. Nonetheless, the Brewers are picking up veterans, including most of the players acquired for Lee.

While the Brewers wonder if they're contenders or not, let's see some lineups:

Reds                         Brewers
                      VORP                        VORP
Ryan Freel, RF        24.7   Brady Clark, CF       7.9
Adam Dunn, LF         33.3   Tony Graffanino, 2B   2.7
Ken Griffey, CF        7.8   Prince Fielder, 1B   20.4
Rich Aurilia, 3B      12.4   Kevin Mench, LF       7.7
Scott Hatteberg, 1B   25.8   Geoff Jenkins, RF     0.3
Brandon Phillips, 2B  17.2   David Bell, 3B        2.8
Juan Castro, SS       -6.0   Bill Hall, SS        27.8
Jason LaRue, C        -3.0   Mike Rivera, C        1.9
Aaron Harang, P        1.1   Ben Sheets, P        -0.5

Starting Pitchers
                       IP     SO/9    RA+  VORP
Aaron Harang          143.3   8.48   1.22  33.0
Ben Sheets             27.3  10.87   0.94   2.6
On the numbers, this pitching matchup looks like a complete mismatch, but that's forgetting that Ben Sheets has been injured most of this season. Sheets has only one start since returning from the disabled list, a very solid game, albeit against the Pittsburgh Pirates. So the Brewers' ace will try to build on that performance.

He'll be helped by the fact that the bottom third of the Reds' lineup falls off a cliff, performance-wise. Most of Juan Castro's negative VORP came during his time with the Twins; he has actually hit decently in his time with the Reds (.311/.311/.511), but thankfully that hasn't convinced Jerry Narron to give him more playing time. A few good weeks shouldn't make anyone forget that Castro's never posted an EqA over .240 in any season where he had more than 4 at bats. Last year, Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin produced 43.5 VORP, combined, as a catching platoon. This year, their combined production is -8.2 VORP, a five-game offensive swing. While Dave Ross (18.6 VORP) has come on to pick up some of that slack, LaRue and Valentin are still taking up space on the roster, and LaRue's in the eighth spot of the order, batting after Juan Castro. That says it all.

As for the Brewers, it's a strange lineup that features its most productive member in the seventh lineup slot. Seeing that Bill Hall has 24 homers for the year is enough to induce a double-take, but seeing that he's batting behind both Bell and Geoff Jenkins in the lineup…that's simply confusing. Jenkins's performance this season has been almost precisely replacement level for a rightfielder (0.3 VORP). Over the last three seasons, the closest that any regular (defined as 500 PA) has come to the replacement level is Justin Morneau's 0.2 VORP last season. No other player during that span was less than half a run from a "perfect" 0.0. Jenkins is on a track--both in terms of playing time and performance--to come extremely close to that standard.

And on that uplifting note, let's get to the game. Ben Sheets deals and Ryan Freel is swinging on the first pitch of the afternoon, which reaches warning track before Jenkins corrals it for the first out of the game. Sheets starts off Adam Dunn with a sharp breaking ball which Dunn takes on the inside corner for a strike. A fastball follows, same location, Dunn takes strike two. Sheets goes back, same location with a changeup, which Dunn swings through for the strikeout. Sheets runs the count to 1-2 on Ken Griffey Jr., before Junior pops out to left field. Three up, three down.

Leading off for the Brewers, Brady Clark takes Aaron Harang's first offering into the right-center gap, good for a double. Harang quickly gets ahead of Graffanino 0-2, on high fastballs, before following with a slider in the dirt, and Graffanino goes fishing for the strikeout. Prince Fielder, a big guy wearing an even bigger uniform, needs to learn that a baggy uni is not necessarily slimming. Then again, so long as he continues to lead all rookies in homers, he can probably wear whatever he wants. Harang walks him on five pitches, bringing up the new left fielder, Kevin Mench.

Mench tears into Harang's first offering, a groundball single through the left side. Clark heads home, racing against the throw from Dunn, who fielded the ball in mid-left field. Clark barely beats LaRue's tag to score the game's first run.

Just when it looks like things are about to get out of hand, Harang retires Jenkins on a fly to center, and Bell on a weak grounder to short.

Leading off the second inning, Rich Aurilia grounds one hard past Bell at third for a single. Doesn't it always happen that the guy that ends the inning with a weak grounder starts the next inning by failing to make a play in his area?

Don't answer that.

Scott Hatteberg gets a shift, with Bell playing shallow and toward shortstop, and Bill Hall playing behind the second base bag. Sheets gets ahead 0-2 then turns on the gas with a few high fastballs. Hatteberg battles a bit before swinging over a change down Broadway, strike three. Brandon Phillips is first-pitch swinging on a curve that stayed up, which he grounds over the thirdbase bag for a double, men on second and third for the anemic bottom third of the order. Castro, who wrecked the Twins offense earlier this year, is up. Sheets overmatches the gloveman so badly that he actually loses his bat as he strikes out.

Jason LaRue then gets the intentional pass so that Sheets can pitch to Harang. This must be what they mean by the much-ballyhooed "strategy" of the non-DH league. Walking the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher is an automatic decision--where's the strategy in that? Harang strikes out on a pitch in the dirt. With the bases loaded, catcher Mike Rivera tags the plate for the force to end the inning.

In the bottom of the frame, Harang starts by getting a high strike from home plate ump Paul Emmel, and then follows with a vicious slider for called strike two against Bill Hall. On 1-2 Hall lines the ball to the opposite field for a single, which makes you wonder what would have happened if he'd only come to bat during the Brewers' rally in the first. The next batter, Rivera, takes a gigantic cut on the first pitch and misses. Harang keeps working him down, to see when he will stop flailing. A low-and-away slider sends Rivera to the bench, bringing up Sheets.

Think we'll see a bunt? Oh, the strategy!

Alas, we'll only see a bunt if Sheets can get one down, and right now he's not even coming close. Three foul bunts later, the pitcher is a strikeout victim, and Hall remains at first.

With Clark up, Castro reminds us why folks are so often willing to overlook his ugly batting performances. Clark chops one over the mound, which Castro charges, bare-hands, and guns to first to get the speedy leadoff man. On to the third we go.

For the next three innings, Sheets cruises, retiring the Reds in order. The righthander has an easy delivery, with a long, looping arm motion that generates good velocity for his four-seam fastball, and high rotation for his breaking ball, which is the 12-6 type curve that old-timers would call a "drop." Sheets is the rare pitcher who combines power with control, maintaining a four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio for his career.

In the top of the sixth, Adam Dunn, who'd struck out twice on six total pitches, breaks up Sheets' dominance with a single to right. Unfortunately for the Reds, he is immediately erased by a double play grounder from Griffey.

Things go less smoothly for Harang. In the third inning, he gets men on first and second with two outs before being bailed out by a nice off-balance defensive play by Castro. In the fifth, Harang again has men on first and second, this time with none out. Again, he gets out of the jam, making Fielder flinch on a 1-2 curve for a strikeout, freezing Mench with a knee-high fastball, for a second strikeout, and getting Jenkins to foul out to end the threat. In the sixth, Harang once again gets runners on first and second this time with one out. After Sheets finally manages to lay down a bunt (strategy!) Harang again freezes a batter with the knee-high fastball, a backward K on the scorecard.

Harang's pitching with men in scoring position has been a revelation. The burly righthander has succeeded by changing the batter's eye level with his fastballs above the letters and at the knees, combined with a sharp breaking pitch which he keeps down. One wonders if Harang's reliance on the high fastball is one of the reasons that he's been so much more effective on the road (2.16 ERA) than at home (5.20). That's a pretty big spread, even for a player who calls the Great American Bandbox his home.

Now, since we're in Milwaukee, and it's the top of the seventh, sausages are racing. It looks like Hot Dog and Bratwurst in the lead, absolutely dusting the Polish and Italian Sausages. We're looking for the spicy new pan-Latino sausage, Chorizo, who's either a huge slowpoke, or not even in tonight's race, fired before his second day on the job. Maybe they found too much testosterone in Chorizo's urine sample after he raced Saturday night. This would be a dark day in the history of sausage racing, indeed, if we're all waiting for the results of El Picante's B sample before he can race again.

Ben Sheets enters the seventh with only 68 pitches thrown. He starts off Aurilia with a slider low and out of the zone. After getting ahead 2-0, Aurilia shoots a laser to third base, where Bell bobbles it, and throws high to first. Fielder stretches to gather in the throw in good time.

Hatteberg grounds one to center, and the Brewers' shift bites them in the petard, since Hall is playing out of position, and is unable to get back to make a backhand play. Infield single. On a 2-2 count, the Reds hit-and-run with Brandon Phillips, which makes for an exciting play when Phillips bounces one toward the bag at second base. Graffanino has a bit of trouble with his footwork, tagging the bag just ahead of Hatteberg's arrival, but manages to get off a good throw from his knees to first. Side retired.

During the seventh inning stretch, an Internet search reveals that Chorizo, despite making his major league debut on Saturday night, is ineligible for any further sausage races this season, not because of performance enhancers, but because of the "major league rules regarding the introduction of mascots." Because of MLB's stringent vetting process for all new mascots, Saturday's Hispanic Appreciation Night performance was a one-shot deal for Chorizo, at least for this season.

I'm sure that the rules are only meant to encourage competitive balance, and keep the Yankees from dominating the mascot market. Still, how can it take until next season to get a new sausage approved? I sense a cause coming on: Joe Sheehan had Free Erubiel Durazo, Aaron Gleeman had Free Johan Santana, and now we here at Game of the Week have Free El Picante, the Racing Chorizo. Feel free to email the Brewers, the Commissioner of Baseball, or your local congressman, for that matter, with that subject line.

Harang has thrown 100 pitches coming into the seventh. Leading off, Graffanino finally gets a hold of one of Harang's high fastballs--this one wasn't quite high or hard enough--and singled to left-center. Another fastball, at the letters and over the middle of the plate, is deposited by Fielder to right field. Men on first and second, no outs for Mench. Mench gets a fastball under the hands and over the plate, which he smacks out of the park to right-center. I guess there's only so long a pitcher can walk the tightrope before falling off. Brewers now lead 4-0, and Harang's day is done.

The new pitcher is a lefty, Brian Shackleford. He comes in to face Jenkins, who bats .123/.250/.185 against lefties. Jenkins battles a bit, before grounding out to second. Jenkins disposed of, righthander Todd Coffey comes on to end the inning.

In the eighth, Sheets pitches to Castro, who turns on a 2-2 hanging breaking ball for a leadoff ground-rule double. Now it's Sheets's turn to battle back, and he strikes out Jason LaRue, looking at the curve. Javier Valentin pinch-hits for Coffey, and pops the second pitch to Hall at the edge of the infield cutout. On a 1-2 count, Freel goes too far offering at a breaking ball out of the zone, and becomes Sheets's tenth strikeout victim.

In the bottom of the frame Dave Weathers takes over for Coffey, to face Rivera, the pitcher's spot, and Brady Clark. Rivera pops out foul to third, and Sheets gets a big ovation as he comes to the plate. He's thrown 96 pitches in the game, and with a shutout in the works, he's going to pitch the ninth, regardless of his recent injury history. A few years ago, this would have been a source of a little more hand-wringing, but the fact is that Sheets didn't look tired in the top of the inning, and he still had good location and velocity on his pitches.

Weathers disposes of Sheets in four pitches, the batter likely thinking much more about the shutout he's pitching than the at bat he was giving away. The inning ends when Clark hits the first pitch he sees on the screws, but right at Dunn in left.

In the ninth, Dunn hits a flare to center on a 2-1 count, good for a leadoff single. Sheets goes to the high heat again against Ken Griffey Jr…and Junior deposits it into the right field seats, his 21st home run cutting Milwaukee's lead in half.

Ned Yost comes out to get Sheets, after what must've been the world's quickest warm-up by Derrick Turnbow. Turnbow's the Brewers' closer, on the strength of a magical 2005 season. This year, he's got a 5.88 ERA, which is pretty darn awful, an object lesson in how relievers are volatile investments. Turnbow's walking nearly six men per nine innings in 2006, despite a good strikeout rate. His home run rate is also up from last year…

The thought is still in the air as Aurilia launches a high fly ball to left field, going and gone. The Brewers' lead is down to one. Turnbow manages to retire Hatteberg, but Yost has Francisco Cordero warming up in the Brewers' pen, anyway. Then come a pair of epic, eight-pitch battles with disparate results--Brandon Phillips walks, Juan Castro whiffs--and with Phillips stealing second and third base, Turnbow goes on to issue a six-pitch walk to pinch-hitter Edwin Encarnacion.

So out goes the closer, and in comes Cordero. Cordero doesn't look dominant by any stretch, but at the end of a six-pitch minidrama, Dave Ross grounds out, and ends the game.

That's all we have for this edition. Making up for lost time, we're watching tonight's matchup between the Mets and the Marlins-Pedro Martinez pitching for the runaway NL East leaders, the D-Train running for the Fish. Feel free to e-mail us with any thoughts on the game, or on matchups you'd like to see in future editions of Game of the Week.

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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