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May 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Nationals (16-23) at Mets (19-17), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Lannan (39 2/3 IP, 3.63 RA, 1.46 WHIP, 27 K) vs. John Maine (42, 3.00, 1.36, 33 K) Pythagorean Record: Washington, 16-23 (158 RS, 197 RA); New York, 19-17 (177 RS, 169 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #28; New York, #8
Prospectus: Lannan is making his second start at Shea Stadium this season, and would likely be thrilled to duplicate the results from his first outing. On April 17, the Long Island native threw six innings of three-hit, one-run ball against New York, walking none and striking out 11. That performance seems like an aberration, for Lannan has fanned just 15 in his 33 2/3 other innings, and in six starts with the Nationals last season never struck out more than three. In fact, Lannan's 11 strikeouts were a single-game high as a pro at any level, trumping his previous best of seven, which he pulled off in five different starts for Low-A Savannah of the South Atlantic League in 2006. Lannan does not throw hard and relies on breaking stuff to survive--he has thrown his 87 mph fastball just 54 percent of the time this season, rounding out his repertoire with a slider, curveball, and changeup. Lannan is not that soft a soft-tosser, though: he is best known for breaking the hand of Chase Utley with a pitch in his major league debut, and then following that up by hitting Ryan Howard and getting ejected.

This series also pits Nats manager Manny Acta against Mets skipper Willie Randolph, under whom Acta served as a coach on the 2005 and 2006 Mets before landing his job in Washington. The youngest manager in the majors at 39, Acta is generally regarded as one of the brightest, as he subscribes to sabermetric principles such as an understanding that "bunting is pretty outdated." According to the managerial statistics in Baseball Prospectus 2008, Acta led the major leagues in relievers used last season, as well as defensive substitutions, with 102 to Randolph's 36. Acta also pinch-hit 27 more times than Randolph did, while ordering fewer sacrifice bunts and hit-and-run plays.

Matchup: Mariners (15-25) at Rangers (19-21), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (55 1/3 IP, 3.74 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Kason Gabbard (24 1/3, 1.85, 1.48, 9)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 18-22 (165 RS, 189 RA); Texas, 17-23 (192 RS, 223 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #27; Texas, #23
Prospectus: Gabbard has not allowed a run in either of his last two starts, but that's largely because he has been forced to leave both early, the first after two innings due to a back injury, and the next in the fourth after being bruised by Richie Sexson's charge. Gabbard will attempt to hang around a little longer tonight and avoid being attacked when he once more faces the Mariners. This time Gabbard won't have to face Sexson, who was suspended for five games. While it certainly hurt Gabbard at the time, Sexson's outburst will end up helping the left-hander today, who doesn't have to deal with the big lefty-mashing slugger in the lineup. Instead, he will likely be going up against either Miguel Cairo or Jose Vidro, who have been playing first base in Sexson's absence. Assuming that either Cairo or Vidro starts and Jeff Clement is the DH tonight, Gabbard will be facing a lineup that includes five players with an on-base percentage below .300 (the others would be Kenji Johjima, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Wladimir Balentien).

Hernandez takes the ball for Seattle to face the Rangers for the third time this season. He allowed only an unearned run versus Texas in the second game of the year, then last time out lost to the Rangers by giving up four in five innings. Both of those games were at home, and he now will have to face Texas in Arlington, where the Rangers have scored almost a full run more per game so far (5.33 to 4.36). The Texas offense has been formidable, ranking second in the AL in runs, hits, walks, homers, and OPS. Milton Bradley has largely been able to stay in the lineup and ranks second in the AL in EqA, while Josh Hamilton continues to knock home everybody in sight on the basepaths. Hamilton drove in four more runs in last night's 13-12 10-inning victory, extending his major league-leading total to 43 and AL-leading OBI% mark to 26.7 (Conor Jackson leads the majors at 27.5). There has been one player with a higher percentage over a full season in the past 50 years: George Brett in 1980, who won the MVP award with a .390 average and 118 RBI.

Matchup: Padres (14-25) at Cubs (23-15), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Estes (123 2/3 IP, 5.09 RA, 1.6 SNLVAR in 2005--ARI) vs. Jason Marquis (33 2/3, 5.35, 1.72 WHIP, 21 K)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 14-25 (131 RS, 185 RA); Chicago, 25-13 (223 RS, 161 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #30; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: San Diego is proving to be the popular destination for career rehabilitation this season. Last night, Jody Gerut homered in the fifth inning of San Diego's series opening 12-3 loss to Chicago, his first bomb since May 24 of 2005; he missed all of the past two seasons with knee problems. Gerut took the place of Jim Edmonds in center. Tonight, Shawn Estes will make his first start in over two years, after he underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-summer of 2006 following a single April appearance. If Estes struggles early, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Glendon Rusch come on to relieve him. Rusch also missed all of last season due to a frightening injury--blood clots in his lungs--after he put up a 7.46 ERA in 66 1/3 innings with Chicago in 2006.

It's not a surprise that San Diego has taken chances on all those players, because desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Padres currently own the worst record in baseball at 14-25. San Diego's pitching staff has been especially poor for a unit that throws half its games in Petco Park, ranking 12th in the league in runs allowed, but the real problem is an offense that is at the bottom of the majors in average, on-base percentage, and slugging. The last team to pull off that trifecta over a full season was the 1996 Cardinals, who still managed to score 3.9 runs per game, better than the 3.4 that this year's Pads are mustering, which over the course of a full season would be the lowest output since the 1978 Athletics (3.3 runs per game). The Cubs, on the other hand, are tied for the best record in baseball with the Marlins and Diamondbacks and lead the major leagues in runs with a 5.87 per-game average. A team has scored more per game than the Cubs have so far just 12 times in the past 50 years (all coming since 1994), the last being the 2007 Yankees, with 5.98.

Matchup: Rockies (15-23) at Diamondbacks (23-15), 6:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Jeff Francis (42 2/3 IP, 5.27 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 28 K) vs. Randy Johnson (26 2/3, 6.75, 1.43, 28)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 16-22 (164 RS, 198 RA); Arizona, 23-15 (208 RS, 164 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #21; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Last year's participants in the NLCS square off for the seventh time this season, with Arizona having achieved a bit of revenge thus far by taking five of the first six matches. The starting pitchers in the series opener tonight will be the two best lefties in the NL West. Francis faced the Diamondbacks in each of those first two series, and struggled badly against Arizona's heavily right-handed lineup, allowing a combined 12 runs on 17 hits, including six homers, in 11 1/3 innings. Johnson has had his own problems in the early going, with 11 walks and four homers allowed in his comeback from back surgery. His 1.4 HR/9 IP would be the highest mark of his career, and his 3.7 BB/9 his highest since 1994. Johnson faced the minimum and struck out nine of 18 batters over six innings in his one start against the Rockies last season, and he has dominated them over the course of his career, with a 3.02 RA, 0.91 WHIP, and 222/38 K/BB ratio in 178 2/3 career innings.

Two of the home runs the Diamondbacks hit this season against Francis have come off of the bat of 20-year-old Justin Upton. While he has been fantastic at the plate, the youngest player in the major leagues has shown his inexperience playing right field. Upton committed his fourth error on Saturday in his 37th game, after making five in 42 games in right last year; such a pace expanded to an 162-game season would yield 18 errors, which would tie for the third highest total ever achieved by a right fielder; Vladimir Guerrero has the modern record, with 19 in 1999. Upton also ranks last amongst the 24 qualified right fielders this season with a Zone Rating of .770 (the worst ZR at the position since 2001 was Jose Guillen's .794 last season). Like Guerrero, Upton has the ability to erase his youthful misreads in the field with a superb throwing arm, and Upton's supreme athleticism will likely translate into better defensive play as he continues to learn the outfield after transitioning from shortstop, where he played in high school.

Thanks to William Burke for database research

Matchup: Astros (22-17) at Giants (16-23), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Brandon Backe (44 1/3 IP, 2.84 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Matt Cain (43, 5.02, 1.61, 13)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 22-17 (192 RS, 169 RA); San Francisco, 14-25 (136 RS, 184 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #16; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: The remarkable exploits of Lance Berkman continued last night, as the slugger, who wasn't even sure he could play due to a groin pull, picked up a homer, double, and single in three at-bats. He now has 22 hits in his last 31 at-bats, a period of eight games in which his OPS is 2080. Berkman is fresh off a stretch ending on Saturday in which he had 19 hits in 25 at-bats, which according to SABR member Trent McCotter allowed him to join Albert Pujols as the only two players to go through such a hot streak at the plate in the past 50 years. (Pujols' 19-for-25 streak came in early June 2003.) Every swing of Berkman's bat is worth watching right now, in order to see one of the best hitters of this generation in the midst of one of the greatest tears in baseball history.

Beyond Berkman's spectacular show at the plate, another attraction in this game is the glove work of Giants shortstop Omar Vizquel, who returned from the DL on Saturday. Vizquel is no longer an asset at the plate, but the shortstop who has won more Gold Gloves (11) than any other besides Ozzie Smith is still a wonder in the field. Last year, at the age of 40, Vizquel had the finest fielding season of his career, as rated by Simple Fielding Runs (SFR). He compiled 28.8 SFR, the 17th highest total by an infielder since 1957 (excluding 1984-85 and 1999, for which the data is not available). Vizquel's 2007 season was also, not surprisingly, the best by SFR in which a player was 40 or older. He made the fewest errors of any shortstop who played at least two-thirds of his team's games at the position last season (nine), and his Zone Rating of .897 blew away the rest of the qualified shortstops, with Troy Tulowitzki finishing second at .866. Vizquel's return should therefore boost a Giants defense that currently ranks 21st in the major leagues at converting batted balls into outs, down from its 12th-place ranking of a year ago.

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

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