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May 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Diamondbacks (22-12) at Cubs (19-15), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (43 1/3 IP, 3.74 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Ted Lilly (37 2/3 IP, 5.97 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 29 K)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 22-13 (201 RS, 148 RA); Chicago, 21-13 (195 RS, 151 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The Cubs limp home after going 2-4 on their road trip and falling two behind St. Louis in the NL Central. They return to meet Arizona for the first time since the 2007 NLDS, when the D'backs swept Chicago out of the first round. Lilly started Game Two in that series at Chase Field, and was hit hard--the lasting image from the series is Lilly taking his glove off and slamming it onto the field immediately after surrendering a second-inning three-run homer to Chris B. Young, something that manager Lou Piniella said he had never seen before. Piniella didn't have a good series, either, as he was widely criticized for taking ace Carlos Zambrano out of Game One after six innings, one run allowed, and just 85 pitches; in the seventh, reliever Carlos Marmol gave up two runs, including a leadoff homer to Mark Reynolds, to provide the margin of victory. Marmol has had no such outings this season, ranking second in the majors in both WXRL and ARP, and first amongst relievers with 28 strikeouts. He has been one of few Cubs relievers to perform well, however, as Chicago is last in the NL in team WXRL. The pitcher perhaps struggling the most has been closer Kerry Wood, who has pitched poorly (blowing three saves) in the team's highest-leverage situations. The bullpen's bad showing helps explain why Chicago has underperformed its Pythagorean record despite ranking second in the NL in runs and fourth in SNLVAR.

The Cubs defense has also been excellent overall, ranking third in the majors in efficiency, although center field has not been a strong point. Reed Johnson entered the season with just 64 career games in center, and has a range factor per nine innings there of 1.88 this year, far below the major league average (2.71) and that of Felix Pie (2.61), his co-habitant at the position. Pie has an excellent defensive reputation, and ranked fourth among center fielders last season in Total Defense. Pie's glove is good enough for the Cubs to bear with his slow start at the plate in a full-time role--Johnson is hitting poorly too, after all--and Pie should certainly be playing in games started by Lilly, the one fly-ball pitcher currently in the Cubs rotation.

Matchup: Braves (18-15) at Pirates (15-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tom Glavine (22 IP, 4.90 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 11 K) vs. Ian Snell (40 2/3 IP, 5.31 RA, 1.65 WHIP, 25 K)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 21-12 (169 RS, 124 RA); Pittsburgh, 15-19 (171 RS, 192 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #8; Pittsburgh, #29
Prospectus: The Braves finally notched their first one-run victory yesterday afternoon after nine losses, a 5-4 decision over San Diego in their 33rd game. Manny Acosta got the final out in the top of the ninth inning, then received the victory when the Braves pushed across a run in the bottom of the frame. Acosta has been fortunate recently--on Wednesday, he recorded his third save by getting just two outs in a 5-2 game. Or did he? Both the ESPN.com and Yahoo! Sports box scores from the game credit Acosta with a save, as does the AP game story. But neither the CBS Sportsline nor MLB.com box scores do, which is the correct ruling--in order to earn a save in a three-run game one must either pitch a full inning or enter with the tying run at least on deck. Neither condition was satisfied when Acosta came on with one down and none on. The confusion over Wednesday's ending stems from Bobby Cox's unusual bullpen usage lately--with Rafael Soriano still experiencing elbow soreness and Peter Moylan out for the year, Cox has gone to a committee approach in the ninth, playing lefty-righty matchups and utilizing a quick hook to preserve leads.

The Braves won Thursday despite a 1-for-5 game from the majors' leading hitter, Chipper Jones, who saw his batting average fall from .429 to .421. Jones's torrid start has led to the highest average through 140 plate appearances since 2000, when the legendary Chris Stynes was hitting .472. Stynes hit .267 the rest of the way to finish with a .334 average, illustrating how difficult it is to even approach the .400 mark over a full season, and how fluky batting average can be over a short period of time. Besides Stynes, the other players since 1960 who were hitting at least .421 after 140 PA are a bit more famous: Paul O'Neill (.460 in 1994), Rod Carew (.443 in 1983), Barry Bonds (.432 in 1993), Rico Carty (.429 in 1970), and Larry Walker (.421 in 1997). The highest season-ending average for any of those campaigns was .366, achieved by both Carty and Walker. In all, there have been 24 starts of .400 or better through 140 PA since 1960, a list that doesn't include the two closest approaches to a .400 average in a full season, Tony Gwynn's 1994 (.394) or George Brett's 1980 (.390).

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Blue Jays (17-19) at Indians (16-18), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (31 IP, 3.32 RA, 0.98 WHIP, 38 K) vs. C.C. Sabathia (38 1/3 IP, 7.51 RA, 1.77 WHIP, 37 K)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 19-17 (144 RS, 132 RA); Cleveland, 18-16 (143 RS, 137 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #17; Cleveland, #15
Prospectus: The Blue Jays have won seven of their past 11 games, a record which is due almost entirely to Toronto's pitching staff. Over the last 12 games, that staff has given up more than three runs just twice, and has a 2.20 RA and 0.85 WHIP in 110 1/3 innings, with an 93/25 K/BB ratio. Toronto's starters have delivered Quality Starts in 11 of those 12 games, the lone exception being A.J. Burnett's six-inning, five-run outing three games ago. On the season, the Blue Jays rotation leads the American League with a 5.0 SNLVAR, and they lead the major leagues in innings pitched by starters with 235 1/3.

The Jays' offense ranks ninth in the league with 144 runs, and has not been supporting the team's strong efforts on the mound, as evidenced last night when Toronto failed to convert a leadoff triple from Alex Rios in the bottom of the 10th inning of a 3-3 game, which they would go on to lose 8-3 in 13. No one knows about the team's lack of run support better than Halladay. The Jays' gunslinger pitched 7 1/3 innings his last time out to get the win, which broke a streak of four consecutive complete games, the final three of which were all losses. The last time a pitcher completed four straight games was when Halladay himself did so in his Cy Young campaign of 2003, in a September stretch when he threw two shutouts and allowed just a single earned run in 37 innings. He will be matching up against Sabathia tonight in a battle of Cy Young winners, and of pitchers who have led the AL in innings during three of the past six seasons. Halladay is on his way to making that four in seven--if he makes 33 starts at his current per-start innings average, he would break his previous career high of 266 innings set in his award-winning 2003. Halladay is currently on pace to throw 18 complete games, which would be the highest total in the majors since Roger Clemens threw 18 for the Red Sox in 1987.

Matchup: Cardinals (22-14) at Brewers (16-18), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (42 IP, 4.07 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Manny Parra (27 2/3 IP, 6.18 RA, 1.99 WHIP, 22 K)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 21-15 (166 RS, 142 RA); Milwaukee, 15-19 (146 RS, 168 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #3; Milwaukee, #14
Prospectus: The first-place Cardinals begin a four-game weekend series at Miller Park tonight. St. Louis will be facing a left-handed starter for the fourth straight game, which means a fourth straight chance to start for righty-hitting corner outfielder Ryan Ludwick. In the past three games, Ludwick is 8-for-12 with two doubles, three homers, and a walk. On the season, Ludwick is hitting .282/.383/.718 against left-handers--but he's at .423/.464/.788 against righties, and for his career actually has a higher OBP (.355 to .300) and SLG (.503 to .458) in 475 plate appearances against righties than he does in his 332 versus southpaws. Ludwick did not start in any of the team's four previous games against right-handed starters before this recent stretch, but the fact that he's on a hotter tear than any hitter in the majors might persuade Tony La Russa to start playing him regularly in left field over Chris Duncan, who does not have an extra-base hit in his last 51 plate appearances, and who is slugging .364 on the season. Thanks to Ludwick and Albert Pujols, the Cardinals have an OPS of 802 versus left-handers this year, sixth best in the majors, and up from last year's mark of 751.

The Brewers return home after being swept by the Astros and Marlins in back-to-back road series. Milwaukee needs Parra to hold down a rotation spot now that Yovani Gallardo is out for the season with a torn ACL, but entering this game Parra has allowed nearly two baserunners per inning, the second highest WHIP amongst all major league pitchers with at least 25 IP, behind another young lefty, Florida's Andrew Miller. If Parra continues to pitch poorly, the Brewers might call up Jeff Weaver, who in his two starts for Triple-A Nashville has allowed five runs over 12 innings. Ned Yost has quite a bit more to worry about than the predicament of Milwaukee's fifth starter, however--namely, the collective slump his team's bats have been in since the start of the season. Six of eight offensive starters are performing below their 40th percentile PECOTA projection, with three--Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Bill Hall--all below their 10th percentile.

Matchup: Red Sox (23-14) at Twins (17-16), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (43 2/3 IP, 4.33 RA, 1.53 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Boof Bonser (24 2/3 IP, 3.28 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 20 K)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 14-20 (156 RS, 195 RA); Minnesota, 16-18 (141 RS, 154 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #10; Minnesota, #24
Prospectus: Before the first of four games between the Twins and Red Sox at the Metrodome, while the players from both teams are mingling around the batting cage, Minnesota right fielder Delmon Young might want to seek out Boston DH David Ortiz to hear Ortiz's story of how he became the AL's elite slugger. Ortiz would possibly tell Young about how he didn't experience his breakthrough until leaving Minnesota, because the Twins wanted him "to hit like a little bitch," as he has previously described the shackles that were placed on his offensive power while playing in the twin cities (quoted in Mind Game, the Baseball Prospectus book on the rise of the Red Sox). Such a quote might strike a chord with Young, because the 22-year-old, ranked as the Baseball Prospectus 2006 #1 prospect and the Baseball Prospectus 2007 #3, currently is last in the major leagues in isolated power (ISO) amongst players with at least 125 plate appearances. Young has yet to hit his first home run of the season, and has just four extra-base hits--three doubles and a triple--in his 133 plate appearances, leading to an ISO of .040 (.304 SLG - .264 AVG). One would not be surprised to see a Twins batter at the bottom of the ISO list, for Minnesota sports a paltry .373 team slugging percentage, but Young's career minor league slugging is .518 and ISO .200 in 1540 plate appearances, and he had a .126 ISO in 812 PA with Tampa Bay before being traded. Although Young's start is a cause for some concern, a 133 PA sample shouldn't be made too much of, especially for such a young player who is projected by scouts and stats alike as a future stud. Young's PECOTA projection pegged him for an ISO of .164, with .099 as a low (10th percentile projection), so you should still expect more extra-base hits to start coming soon, although how his power plays out over the course of the season bears close watching.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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