April 18, 2008
Friday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Pirates (7-8) at Cubs (9-6), 1:20 p.m. CT
Snell also broke out last season, becoming the Pirates' best starting pitcher by leading the Pittsburgh staff with an SNLVAR of 5.3. He dropped his RA from 5.03 in 2006 to 4.07 in his age-25 season last year, and his home run rate declined from 1.40 per nine to 0.95. Snell's success was in large part attributable to his figuring out how to better handle lefties--while the OPS of right-handed batters against Snell fell 34 points from '06 to '07 (from 715 to 681), lefties were reduced 112 points, from a 912 OPS two seasons ago to 800 last year. That number needs to go down further for Snell to take another step forward, but his chances seem good considering that lefties have hit worse off of him in each of the three years since his 2004 debut. Snell already possesses an outstanding fastball and slider, and should be able to continue improving versus lefties with the development of his changeup.
Matchup: Mets (8-6) at Phillies (8-8), 7:05 p.m. ET
Santana missed facing the Phillies in that three-game set last week, so he will be pitching against Philadelphia for the first time since an interleague start in 2002. Santana led the AL in homers allowed last year with 33, and gave up thre homers in last week's start against the lefty-killing Brewers, his first appearance at Shea, for which he was booed by some in the stands. Like the Brewers, the Phillies are also adept at hitting left-handers, having ranked second in the NL with an 834 OPS against southpaws last season. Five Phillies in 2007 had an OPS over 900 off southpaws in at least 100 plate appearances--Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand (now with the Giants), and Jimmy Rollins. Santana will need to overcome that obstacle tonight to give his club innings, as the Mets bullpen had to pitch seven frames in yesterday's 14-inning, 3-2 home victory over the Nationals.
This game features two of the three best defenses in the majors so far by defensive efficiency, with the Mets ranking first, having converted 74.1 percent of balls in play into outs, and Philadelphia third, at 73.9 percent. That latter figure serves as a good illustration of the meaninglessness of both errors and unearned runs--Philadelphia ranks second in the NL with 16 errors, which have led to 13 unearned runs, tied for the most in the majors, despite the fact that the team has been so good at turning contact into outs. The Mets position at the top of the defensive efficiency rankings is not surprising, considering that they finished fourth in the majors last season, and brought in better defenders at catcher (Brian Schneider) and right field (Ryan Church). The Phillies ranked just 19th overall last year, although the team did bring in an excellent glove man at third base in Pedro Feliz. Eight of 12 Philadelphia pitchers have BABIPs under the league average of .300, with tonight's starter Hamels, who has given up just 11 hits in his first 21 innings, sporting a .164 mark. While that is obviously not close to sustainable, Hamels, like Santana, is a fly-ball pitcher who consequently has displayed the ability to suppress opponent hits on balls in play, with a .282 BABIP last season and .281 projected for this year.
Matchup: White Sox (9-6) at Rays (7-9), 7:10 p.m. ET
Vazquez, the veteran in his 11th season, will be facing the rookie Niemann, who makes his second career start for Tampa Bay tonight. One of the tallest pitchers in baseball at 6'9", Niemann won his debut outing against Baltimore on Sunday by throwing six innings of one-run baseball. Niemann is pitching for his rotation spot, as it looks like Matt Garza, currently on the DL with radial nerve irritation, could return next week after missing the minimum amount of time. It is expected that Niemann will be sent back down to Triple-A Durham upon Garza's activation, but if he follows up his first good outing with another strong one tonight, he would make it hard for the Rays to remove him from the rotation with Andy Sonnanstine currently pitching so poorly (an 8.80 RA and five homers allowed in 15 1/3 innings). The Rays will then have another decision to make about their rotation when ace Scott Kazmir comes back off the DL, which will likely be at the beginning of May.
Matchup: Indians (6-10) at Twins (7-9), 7:10 p.m. CT
Liriano is the rare specimen who combines extreme ground-ball inducing stuff with outstanding strikeout ability--in 2006, Liriano had a 57 ground-ball percentage (fifth in the AL of those throwing 100 innings or more), struck out 144 in 121 innings (10.7 K/9), and allowed just nine home runs (0.7 HR/9). Liriano's PECOTA-projected HR/9 IP rate for 2008, 0.6, is lower than that of every other starting pitcher in baseball. The lefty's profile is so unique that his similarity index is zero, along with Jonathan Broxton and Randy Johnson. Part of that has to do with Liriano's injury, because significant time missed affects PECOTA's ability to generate comparables, especially when it has so few major league innings to work with. But part of it is simply the fact that Liriano's strikeout/ground-ball stuff is virtually unprecedented amongst left-handers in the history of baseball. The list of left-handed pitchers since 1959 who have thrown at least 100 innings with at least 9.0 K/9 IP and a ground-ball percentage of at least 55 is four names long:
Name Year Team IP K/9 GB% Terry Forster 1972 CHA 100 9.4 67.3 Sam McDowell 1966 CLE 194.1 10.4 57.3 Sam McDowell 1965 CLE 273 10.7 61.4 Bob Veale 1965 PIT 266 9.4 56.1 Francisco Liriano 2006 MIN 121 10.7 57.1
Veale gave up an absurdly low total of five home runs in 1965, while McDowell allowed just 21 between 1965 and 1966, but keep in mind that the 1960s were the high-mound era where pitchers dominated the game. Terry Forster ranks ninth on Liriano's list of comparables for 2008, and he had the distinction of not allowing a single homer in his 100 innings out of the White Sox pen in 1972, while striking out 104.
Thanks to Jason Paré for the data research.
Matchup: Padres (8-8) at Diamondbacks (11-4), 6:40 p.m. MST
After all that, it's safe to say that San Diego might not quite be at its best tonight after traveling to play the division-leading Diamondbacks. The Padres also can't afford to have starter Greg Maddux exit early tonight, with the bullpen having thrown 14 innings (although the Padres did manage to avoid using reliever Cla Meredith). At this point in his career, Maddux is not very well suited to pick up the bullpen, as he's averaged less than six innxings per start in his 37 turns for San Diego between this year and last.
The Padres' offensive numbers from the epic game last night are particularly gruesome. They collected 11 hits, including only one for extra bases, a double by Paul McAnulty. Brian Giles went 1-for-9, Tadahito Iguchi 0-for-7, and Tony Clark 1-for-8. Even taking into account the significant run-depressing characteristics of Petco Park, the Padres have a bad offense this season. PECOTA projected 689 runs for 2008, which would rank second-to-last in the NL, ahead of San Francisco. So far, the Padres are well behind even that modest 4.3 R/G pace, and with 50 runs scored on the season, are ahead of only the Giants in both total and per-game production. San Diego also has the league's worst slugging percentage, at .329, with six home runs (tied with Oakland for the fewest) and a major-league-low 18 doubles. Not a single player currently has an OPS above 800, as 37-year-old Brian Giles leads the way with a line of .298/.354/.439.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.