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May 12, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Braves (18-17) at Pirates (17-19), 12:35 ET, 4:05 ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (44 1/3 IP, 2.84 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Zach Duke (43, 5.02, 1.61, 13) in Game 1; Tim Hudson (49 2/3 IP, 3.08 RA, 1.05 WHIP, 30 K) vs. John Van Benschoten (3 2/3, 2 R, 4 H, 4/4 K/BB) in Game 2
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 22-13 (173 RS, 132 RA); Pittsburgh, 17-19 (179 RS, 196 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #3; Pittsburgh, #25
Prospectus: The Bucs host the Braves in a rare day/afternoon doubleheader at PNC Park today. Pittsburgh will be looking for the four-game sweep of Atlanta, and to keep its five-game winning streak rolling, after the Pirates held the Braves to two runs in each of the first two games of the series. The Pirates have now won four of five games from the Braves this season, three of which came by a single run. After picking up its first one-run win of the year on Thursday against San Diego, the Braves were back to their usual ways in Friday night's 3-2 defeat. Atlanta's differential of 3.8 between actual and Pythagorean record is far-and-away the largest in the majors--the Indians are second at -2.5--but Atlanta has not been quite as unfortunate in terms of AEqR and AEqRA, as the Blue Jays, Rockies, Reds, and Tigers can all claim to have gotten a rawer deal than Atlanta after full adjustment.

Atlanta has allowed fewer runs than any other team, and a lot of credit for that belongs to Jurrjens, who has very quickly become the Braves' No. 2 starter behind Hudson with John Smoltz on the shelf (and looking like he'll pitch out of the bullpen when he returns). Jurrjens has been extremely hard to hit thus far and even harder to take out of the yard, with just one homer allowed. Jurrjens' HR/9 IP of 0.20 ranks fourth in the majors amongst ERA qualifiers, behind Chien-Ming Wang (0.17), who pitches today, Game 2 starter Hudson (0.18), and Cliff Lee (0.20), who also pitches today. In fact, Monday is a veritable festival of power-suppression in Pittsburgh and around the majors: Jurrjens' opponent in Game 1, Duke, has also given up only a single homer to rank sixth on the list, and one of Cleveland's starters today, Fausto Carmona, ranks eighth (0.23). Jurrjens allowed 0.41 HR/9 IP in 503 1/3 minor league innings, so his ability to keep the ball in play appears to be legitimate. Duke's HR/9 rate moved above 1.0 in his rough 2007 campaign, but his first two years in the majors (a combined 0.6 HR/9 in 300 innings) and minor league track record (an absurd 0.15 in 474 innings) suggest that his 2008 bounceback is for real.

Matchup: Blue Jays (17-21) at Indians (18-18), 4:05 ET, 7:35 ET
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (43 1/3 IP, 5.61 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Fausto Carmona (39 2/3, 3.40, 1.79, 15) in Game 1; Shaun Marcum (48 2/3 IP, 2.77 RA, 0.90 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Cliff Lee (44 2/3, 1.01, 0.60, 39) in Game 2
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 18-20 (145 RS, 150 RA); Cleveland, 21-15 (161 RS, 138 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #9; Cleveland, #17
Prospectus: After yesterday's rainout, the Jays and Tribe will play a doubleheader on the shores of Lake Erie, the second of today's two twin bills. The Indians will be looking for the four-game sweep after ripping Toronto's rotation on Friday and Saturday, which ended the Blue Jays' run of Quality Starts in 11 of 12 games. Both games today feature intriguing duels on the mound--the opener between two elite starters searching for their dominant form from last season, and the nightcap between a pair of pitchers who have both risen above mediocrity to put up fantastic results in 2008. Marcum ranks seventh in the AL in support-neutral value added, and has been the best starter in a Toronto rotation that has been the circuit's third best overall. Lee's league-leading SNLVAR has more than covered for the struggles of Carmona and C.C. Sabathia, and made the Indians' rotation the best in the AL. Lee is of course pacing the majors in RA, and has also walked just two so far, a pace that would lead to nine walks over 188 innings. Such a potential performance, while highly improbable, is a near statistical dead wringer for Carlos Silva's superb display of control in 2005, when he walked nine in 188 1/3 for the Twins. Silva is the only starting pitcher since 1959 to walk less than half a batter per nine innings--he was at 0.43 BB/9--while Dennis Eckersley is the only reliever to do so while throwing over 40 innings per season, with a walk rate of 0.47/9 in 57 2/3 innings in 1989 and 0.49/9 in 73 1/3 in 1990. Cliff Lee's 0.40 BB/9, therefore, currently ranks first amongst all seasons of at least 40 innings since '59. There have in fact been just seven pitchers in that timespan who qualified for the ERA title while walking less than a batter an inning:

YEAR    PITCHER          IP      BB/9    BB
2005    Carlos Silva     188.3   0.43    9
1994    Bret Saberhagen  177.3   0.66    13
1992    Bob Tewksbury    233     0.77    20
1997    Greg Maddux      232.7   0.77    20
1993    Bob Tewksbury    213.7   0.84    20
2003    David Wells      213     0.85    20
1985    La Marr Hoyt     210.3   0.86    20
2004    Jon Lieber       176.7   0.92    18
2004    David Wells      195.7   0.92    20
1995    Greg Maddux      209.7   0.99    23

Matchup: Marlins (23-14) at Reds (15-23), 7:10 ET
Probable Starters: Burke Badenhop (25 2/3 IP, 6.31 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Aaron Harang (55 1/3, 3.42, 1.10, 47 K)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 19-18 (173 RS, 168 RA); Cincinnati, 19-16 (161 RS, 150 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #14; Cincinnati, #22
Prospectus: Don't look now, but after seven straight wins, the Marlins currently have the best record in baseball, and have widened their lead to three games over the Mets and Phillies in the NL East. Marlins fans are a jubilant lot right now, for not only are the Fish in first, but the team has reached a "tentative agreement" to give its franchise player Hanley Ramirez the richest contract in club history, a six-year, $70 million deal that would buy out all his arbitration seasons as well as several free agent campaigns. With the way Ramirez's double-play partner Dan Uggla is hitting, the team might want to make its second baseman a generous offer not soon afterwards, for the 28-year-old former Rule 5 pick looks like he'll have some spectacular--and historically unique--numbers to bolster his case for big money once he hits arbitration for the first time this offseason. Uggla homered twice yesterday to lead Florida to a comeback win over Washington, and now has 11 on the season, two behind fellow keystoner Chase Utley. As detailed by Rany Jazayerli in this Doctoring the Numbers column from January, Uggla and Ramirez had the most extra-base hits of any second base/shortstop combination in history last season, with each tallying 83, a total that just nine other middle infielders in history have ever reached. The pair had quite a battle with Philadelphia's stellar combo of NL MVP Jimmy Rollins and Utley, who finished three behind, and surely would have overtaken the Marlins duo if not for Utley's broken hand. Philadelphia's tandem has been slowed again by injury in 2008--this time to Rollins--and the Uggla/Ramirez power duo is currently on track to finish just ahead of it with right around the same number of extra base hits as last year (169), thanks mostly to Uggla, who already has 11 doubles and a triple to go with his homers.

Matchup: Nationals (15-23) at Mets (19-16), 7:10 ET
Probable Starters: Odalis Perez (44 2/3 IP, 3.63 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Nelson Figueroa (33 2/3, 4.81, 1.57 WHIP, 25 K) Pythagorean Record: Washington, 14-24 (148 RS, 193 RA); New York, 19-16 (173 RS, 159 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #28; New York, #8
Prospectus: The Nationals return to New York for the second time this season, allowing Lastings Milledge to once again patrol the Shea outfield, as he did for the Mets the past two years. Milledge might also get the chance to face Billy Wagner again, as he did once in the Mets' mid-April sweep of the Nationals at Shea, and once in New York's 7-2 win in D.C. later in the month. Washington's young center fielder went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, failing to capitalize on his first chance to get a hit against the pitcher who, at the end of the 2006 season, put a sign saying "know your place, rook" over Milledge's locker. The dissatisfaction of Wagner and other Mets players with Milledge's attitude likely led in part to the offseason trade that shipped the talented outfielder to Washington.

That trade was widely panned at the time, but its early returns have been outstanding for the Mets. Ryan Church, who had difficulty staying on the field while with Montreal/Washington, has been healthy and the team's best hitter thus far, as he leads New York with seven homers, a .321 batting average, a 144 OPS+, and a 12.7 VORP. Church has also made some fantastic plays in right field, and boasts a range factor (2.53) that is well above the league average (1.95). Catcher Brian Schneider has performed far better than could have been expected at the plate with his new team, all while providing solid defense. Milledge, meanwhile, has hit just .252/.322/.341, and has also been shaky in the field, although manager Manny Acta, to his credit, has stated that he will not move his youngster off the position. The Nationals outfield was expected to be a team strength entering the season, but so far it has been anything but: Washington has gotten a sub-700 OPS from all three positions, and its outfielders have combined to hit .222/.310/.308 with just six homers, which is the worst OPS of any outfield in the majors and fewer homers than all but Minnesota's outfield. More to blame than even Milledge have been the two corners: left fielder Wily Mo Pena, rushed back from an oblique muscle strain, has just two extra base hits (both doubles) in 81 plate appearances, and Austin Kearns is last on the squad with a VORP of -5.3.

Matchup: Astros (21-17) at Giants (16-22), 7:15 PT
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (49 IP, 5.69 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Barry Zito (33 2/3, 8.55, 1.87 WHIP, 16 K)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 21-17 (185 RS, 166 RA); San Francisco, 14-24 (133 RS, 177 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #16; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: It's been a great year so far for elite National League switch hitters--Chipper Jones is batting .400, and Lance Berkman has been even better, leading baseball with a 1.235 OPS and 35.1 VORP. After suffering through his worst season in 2007 since his rookie year, Berkman currently is first with a .772 slugging percentage. No player in history besides Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds has ever slugged so high in a season--Lou Gehrig ranks seventh on the all-time single-season list with a .765 mark in 1927. Berkman also ranks second in the majors with a .463 OBP, and his park adjusted OPS+, a stat tracked by Baseball Reference, is 220 (100 being average). The best OPS+ any currently active player has ever had in a season is 211, by Frank Thomas in strike-shortened 1994; Berkman's current figure would be the highest by a player other than Barry Bonds since Ted Williams (233) in 1957. Berkman has an MLVr of 0.812 so far, which means he's contributed more than eight-tenths of a run per game above an average offensive performer. The two highest non-Bonds seasons by MLVr, tracked since 1959, also came in '94, when Jeff Bagwell had a 0.763 and Thomas a 0.729. Of course, the odds that Berkman keeps up his current pace are incredibly long, but as long as we're having fun, let's throw a couple more staggering figures out there: with 15 doubles, a triple, and 12 homers through 37 games, the slugger is on track for 121 extra-base hits, a total no player has ever compiled in a season (Babe Ruth holds the record with 119 in 1921's 154-game season), and Berkman is also on pace for the highest single-season VORP since 1959 (152.7), with a VORP rate (0.920) that would rank fourth in the BP database behind Bonds' seasons in 2002, 2001, and 2004. Everything has gone right so far for Berkman, who even has six stolen bases in seven tries, making him a virtual lock to best his career high of nine steals set in 2004.

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

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