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May 14, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (23-17) at Indians (20-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (61 1/3 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 25 K) vs. C.C. Sabathia (45 1/3, 6.55, 1.68, 46)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 24-16 (187 RS, 149 RA); Cleveland, 23-16 (168 RS, 141 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #4; Cleveland, #17
Prospectus: Athletics DH Jack Cust began the 2008 season wearing the Golden Sombrero after a four-strikeout game against the Red Sox in Japan on March 25. Nine games later, he had just three hits in 30 at-bats, with a single homer and a 503 OPS. Add in the fact that Cust was one of the players named in last December's Mitchell Report, and the question of whether or not he was a one-year wonder came to the fore. Cust struck out in 32.3 percent of his plate appearances last year, the highest rate in the major leagues, and led the majors with a .437 batting average on contact (BABIP + home runs), which is among the top 20 marks since 1960. Those numbers ticketed Cust's batting average for a drop into a territory that would make offensive production very difficult. Cust has always been a boom-or-bust hitter, and there was suspicion that the boom times might be coming to a close, which was reinforced by his slow start.

Cust's bats weren't registering correctly on the Mohs scale at the beginning of the season, as he claimed that the ones he used at the start of April were too soft. Since that 3-for-30 beginning and an upgrade in lumber, Cust has put up a .315/.495/.493 line in 99 PA, contributing a 26/24 K/BB ratio and three home runs. Cust has cut his strikeout rate down to 26.5 percent of his PA, and not only that, but he's tied for the lead in the American League in EqA, along with Milton Bradley, at .333. (As a further example of the power drought in the AL this season, there are currently eight players in the NL with higher Equivalent Averages than .333.) Cust's ranking deserves a bit of explanation--after all, his overall line is impressive, but there are 38 players in the AL slugging better than his .417. Remember, OBP is life, and with regards to EqA, walks are life. The formula, which you can read about here, weights walks and HBP at 1.5 times rather than 1. Cust leads the AL with 32 walks and a .434 OBP.

Matchup: Braves (19-19) at Phillies (22-18), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tom Glavine (29 IP, 4.34 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 14 K) vs. Brett Myers (49, 5.69, 1.47, 42) Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 23-15 (185 RS, 143 RA); Philadelphia, 21-19 (190 RS, 179 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #3; Philadelphia, #13
Prospectus: Glavine is looking for his first win in his seventh start, the longest winless stretch to open a season during the aging left-hander's entire career, and just another reflection that it's been a tough year for him; Glavine also recently made his first-ever trip to the DL. He'll be trying to prevent a losing streak, as the Braves dropped the series opener at Citizens Bank Park last night when the Phillies beat them 5-4, dropping Atlanta to 1-11 in one-run games.

In that contest, Atlanta got a run in the ninth off of Phillies' closer Brad Lidge, the first earned run scored against the relief ace this season. Lidge shut it down after that for his 10th save; he has yet to blow a save opportunity, after blowing 14 of 65 the last two years in Houston, and he leads the majors in WXRL. Philadelphia's bullpen is second overall in WXRL, behind only Florida's, and first in ARP with 22.8. Last year, the Phillies had a below-average bullpen, which ranked 24th in the majors with a -1.2 ARP. Besides having Lidge locking down the end of games, the Phillies have gotten excellent results from J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin, and Rudy Seanez, who all have a RA marks below 3.00, although their K/BB ratios--a combined 34/32 for the trio--suggest that tough times are ahead. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Philadelphia bullpen, however, is its stability. The Phillies started the year with a seven-man relief corps, and have stuck with that same group all season. The team has also had the same five starters pitch each game, meaning that Philadelphia has not used a single pitcher besides the dozen that began the year on its roster. The Phillies are the only team in the majors to use only five starting pitchers and seven relievers total this season; last year, 13 different pitchers started a game for Philadelphia, and 18 were used in relief.

Matchup: Yankees (19-20) at Rays (22-16), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Mussina (43 1/3 IP, 4.57 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 20 K) vs. James Shields (51 2/3, 4.35, 1.14, 39)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 22-17 (192 RS, 169 RA); Tampa Bay, 14-25 (136 RS, 184 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #15; Tampa Bay, #12
Prospectus: Mussina has been pretty effective for a 39-year-old this season, especially considering that his stuff is dramatically diminished, even from last year. The aging right-hander has averaged 85 mph on his fastball, which is down two ticks from last year's average, and Mussina's secondary offerings are slower as well. Nevertheless, Mussina is putting together a much better campaign than his disastrous 2007 season. He has succeeded to this point largely by shutting down left-handed batters, who are hitting only .215/.257/.215 off of him in 70 plate appearances, as compared with .320/.352/.563 from the righties in 109 PA. As you can see from that, left-handed batters have yet to collect an extra-base hit against Mussina. That's shocking, but while his seasonal split has never been this extreme, the fact is that Mussina has always been a better pitcher against left-handers than righties. On his career, righties have hit .265/.301/.430 off of him in 6,885 PA, while lefties have chipped away at him by hitting .243/.292/.368 in 7,068 PA. (A graphical representation of how unusual that is can be found here, in the form of Mussina's PECOTA-projected platoon split for 2008).

But why is it that righties can hit Mussina better? Joe Sheehan and Kevin Goldstein have suggested that, from a scouting perspective, the reverse split is probably the product of two things: first, that Mussina throws nearly straight over the top, making it much easier for right-handers to pick up the ball against him than against a pitcher who comes with a more sidearm tilt, and second, that his pitches (and especially his famous knuckle-curve) have great vertical break but very little horizontal motion away from right-handers, which also helps eliminate the normal disadvantage righties face against their own kind.

Just how rare is Mussina's dichotomy? There have been 94 right-handed pitchers in the last 50 years who have thrown at least 1000 innings to both right-handed and left-handed batters, and of those, 19 have a reverse split. The -72 difference between career OPS of righties and lefties versus Mussina is the second largest, behind only the -115 of Steve Trachsel. Here is the full list of 19:


Name            IPvRight  OPSvRight  IPvLeft  OPSvLeft  Diff
Steve Trachsel   1328.2     829      1164.2     714     -115
Mike Mussina     1678.0     731      1727.2     659      -72
Tim Wakefield    1356.1     768      1313.1     720      -47
Woody Williams   1166.0     771      1050.1     736      -35
Juan Marichal    1871.0     641      1636.0     610      -31
Bert Blyleven    2458.1     680      2511.2     656      -24
Kevin Tapani     1115.0     755      1150.0     740      -15
Jeff Suppan      1106.0     795      1012.0     781      -14
Mike Moore       1332.0     747      1499.2     733      -14
Dennis Martinez  1875.0     705      2124.2     691      -14
Don Sutton       2821.0     647      2461.1     633      -14
Ron Darling      1113.0     721      1247.1     708      -13
Tom Candiotti    1327.2     704      1397.1     693      -10
John Burkett     1270.0     745      1378.1     736       -9
Jim Palmer       2041.0     637      1907.0     630       -7
Bob Forsch       1515.0     702      1279.2     697       -5
Bret Saberhagen  1220.2     673      1342.0     669       -4
Andy Messersmith 1192.0     607      1038.1     605       -2
Dwight Gooden    1287.2     667      1513.0     666       -1

Thanks to William Burke for database research

Matchup: Rockies (15-24) at Diamondbacks (24-15), 6:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Jorge De La Rosa (9 2/3 IP, 11 R, 14 H, 9/4 K/BB) vs. Micah Owings (43 2/3, 4.53, 1.15, 37)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 16-23 (168 RS, 206 RA); Arizona, 24-15 (216 RS, 168 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #21; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Second-year third baseman Mark Reynolds drove in a run last night in the Diamondbacks' 8-4 win over the Rockies, Arizona's sixth victory in seven tries against the team it lost to in the NLCS last season. Reynolds also struck out, his 53rd K through 37 games, which puts him on pace for 227 over a full season. That would shatter the current record, Ryan Howard's 199 from last year. Reynolds hit five homers in the team's first eight games, but since that point has a batting line of .196/.281/.290, with 44 strikeouts in 121 plate appearances. All those strikeouts are preventing him from putting enough balls in play to maintain a decent enough average to be a productive hitter. Reynolds fanned 129 times in 414 PA last season, 31.2 percent of the time, and this year is at 53 in 156, or 34 percent.

That's remarkable and rare as well as not good. In the last 50 years, there has never been a player who qualified for the batting title while striking out so often. The top spot is occupied by Dave Nicholson in 1963, who whiffed 175 times in 520 PA, 33.7 percent, while the next two highest rates are occupied by the 1987 and '86 seasons of Rob Deer, the poster boy for Three True Outcomes slugging; Deer was well above average at the plate in both of those seasons, in which he combined for 61 homers and 158 walks. The 24-year-old Reynolds, however, has not yet developed the plate discipline of Deer, who walked in 12.7 percent of his career PA--Reynolds is at 9.4 in his two-year major league career, after putting up a 9.8 percentage in his four minor league seasons. If Reynolds continues to struggle with making contact, he could lose significant time to Chad Tracy when the latter returns from the DL later this month. While he doesn't have quite as much power as Reynolds has shown, he still has some, and Tracy has struck out less than half as often, with a 15.4 percent K rate in 2007 major league plate appearances.

Matchup: White Sox (18-20) at Angels (24-17), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jose Contreras (46 2/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 25 K) vs. John Lackey (224, 3.50, 6.9 SNLVAR--2007)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 16-22 (164 RS, 198 RA); Los Angeles, 23-15 (208 RS, 164 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #11; Los Angeles, #10
Prospectus: The Angels' ace takes the mound tonight for the first time this year, after starting 2008 on the shelf with a triceps injury. Lackey had his finest season in the majors last year, leading the junior circuit with a 6.9 SNLVAR and 3.01 ERA. The return of Lackey will substantially aid the Angels rotation, not only because he is the team's best pitcher, but because the pitchers that filled in for him--Dustin Moseley for five starts and Nick Adenhart for three--combined to allow 37 runs in 40 2/3 innings. Lackey will be facing the White Sox for the third time since the 2005 ALCS, when Chicago scored five runs in five innings off of Lackey to win the pivotal Game Three and then go on to take the series in five. Up to that point, Lackey had been a post-season hero, as he'd won Game Seven of the 2002 World Series against the Giants as a rookie.

Opposing Lackey in that 2005 Game Three and getting the win for Chicago was Jon Garland, while Orlando Cabrera was playing shortstop for the Angels; those two players were traded for each other this offseason. Cabrera has not taken a liking to the South Side, as he has produced only a .212 EqA and -3.6 VORP. While that trade has not paid off for the White Sox so far, the deal Kenny Williams made with Arizona for outfielder Carlos Quentin has netted Chicago its most productive hitter to date. Quentin ranks fourth in the AL in EqA, and second in slugging, with a league-leading nine home runs. He also tops the circuit in times getting hit by a pitch, with seven. This is not a random bit of luck, but a real skill of Quentin's--in his first two seasons with Arizona he was hit by 19 pitches in 454 plate appearances, and has now been plunked at a higher rate than any player with at least 600 PA since 2006, when he entered the league. In 2005, Quentin's last full year in the minors, he led the Pacific Coast League by getting hit with 29 pitches, one short of the overall minor league leader.

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

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