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May 16, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (20-19) at Yankees (20-22), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (52 1/3 IP, 3.27 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 52 K) vs. Darrell Rasner (12, 4 R, 9 H, 5/1 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Mets, 20-19 (186 RS, 178 RA); Yankees, 20-22 (173 RS, 179 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Mets, #8; Yankees, #15
Prospectus: The 12th season of interleague play begins tonight in the Bronx, as the Mets hop on the 6 train to play their final regular-season series at Yankee Stadium. Since the two teams first played in 1997, the Yankees have gone 35-25 against the Mets, and 19-10 at home, not including the Bombers' five-game victory in the 2000 Subway Series. Despite their struggles versus the Yankees, the Amazin's have had some memorable moments throughout the rivalry. In the first-ever game between the two teams, on June 16, 1997 at Yankee Stadium, Dave Mlicki pitched a complete game shutout for a 6-0 Mets victory. In 1999, the Mets beat Roger Clemens twice, with Mike Piazza homering off of him both times, and also got a two-out, two-strike, two-run ninth-inning single by pinch-hitter Matt Franco against Mariano Rivera to come back for a 9-8 win at Shea (the Mets beat Rivera in 2001 and 2006, as well). There has also been ugliness between the two teams: the subway doubleheader of June 8, 2000--due to a rainout the teams played a day game at Yankee Stadium (a 4-2 Yankees win) and a night game at Shea (also won by the Bombers 4-2)--was marred when Clemens, after having lost again to the Mets in the first series, beaned Piazza in the head with a first-inning fastball, forcing Piazza to exit. That incident spilled over into the World Series, when Clemens threw the barrel of Piazza's broken bat at the Mets catcher in the first inning of Game Two.

But that's history, and the Mets hope that their newly-imported ace, a well-known Yankees killer, can help lead them to just their second seasonal series win over their AL rivals. Santana is 3-0 lifetime against the Yankees in eight games (five starts), with a 2.66 RA in 40 2/3 innings. He will be opposed by Rasner, who has turned in two straight six-inning, two-run outings since filling in for the injured Philip Hughes. Those are the first Quality Starts that Rasner has thrown since September of 2006--he did not go more than 5 2/3 in his first four starts last year while again filling in for an injured Hughes, although he was pitching relatively well leading up to a May 19 start at Shea Stadium. In that game, Rasner gave up a leadoff single to Jose Reyes before two-hole hitter Endy Chavez ripped a ball off Rasner's hand. The hit broke Rasner's finger, forcing him to undergo surgery and miss the remainder of the season.

Matchup: Brewers (20-21) at Red Sox (24-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeff Suppan (46 2/3 IP, 5.21 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (47 2/3, 2.45, 1.22, 40) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 18-23 (177 RS, 198 RA); Boston, 24-19 (216 RS, 193 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #24; Boston, #2
Prospectus: The Brewers make their first trip to Fenway Park tonight since September 7, 1997, when Milwaukee was a member of the American League Central. Upon moving to the senior circuit in '98, the Brewers have played one interleague series with Boston, losing two of three at Miller Park in 2003. That's not to say that this year's edition of the Brewers is entirely unfamiliar with Beantown, for several of Milwaukee's veterans have played for the Red Sox. Reserve outfielder Gabe Kapler was a fan favorite at Fenway when he played in Boston from 2003-06 before retiring to coach in the minors last year, and it's likely that the Nation will give him a warm welcome, for those memories as well as the great story Kapler has forged with his comeback.

Far less likely to receive adulation are the other two former Red Sox on Milwaukee's roster, one of whom is tonight's starting pitcher. Boston dealt Mike Gonzalez and Freddy Sanchez to the Pirates at the 2003 trading deadline for Suppan, who was originally drafted by the Red Sox and pitched the first three seasons of his career in Boston. Suppan was roughed up in that original go-round, and he was even more horrible in his second stint after being acquired for the stretch drive--a 5.86 RA in 63 innings led to his being left off Boston's post-season roster. Meanwhile, Gonzalez became one of the best lefty relievers in baseball from 2004 to '07, and Sanchez won the 2006 batting title. Then there's Eric Gagne, whose story is strikingly similar to Suppan's: the Red Sox parted with another duo of productive players (Kason Gabbard and David Murphy) to add him at last year's deadline, and Gagne then suffered through a similar implosion (14 runs in 18 2/3 innings) before leaving via free agency. Gagne has been just as shaky with the Brewers as he was with Boston, and even was temporarily removed from the closer's role last weekend, adding drama and ammunition for the hecklers to any potential save situation. In addition to that duo, old-time Boston fans might even boo current Brewers manager and former player Ned Yost, who, as was mentioned on yesterday's Milwaukee TV broadcast, knocked a pinch-hit, two-out, three-run homer to break open a 3-3 game in the ninth at Fenway on September 29 of 1982, a win that helped Milwaukee take the AL East by one game over Baltimore.

Matchup: Nationals (18-24) at Orioles (21-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Shawn Hill (30 1/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Garrett Olson (18 1/3, 2.95, 1.26, 15)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 17-25 (167 RS, 206 RA); Baltimore, 19-21 (167 RS, 174 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #15; Baltimore, #12
Prospectus: Separated by 30 miles on I-95, the Birds and Nats renew a rivalry that started out off the field before it had a chance to be settled between the lines: Orioles owner Peter Angelos was outspoken in his opposition of the proposed move of the Expos to Washington, arguing that D.C. was part of the Orioles' territorial market and that a team there would eat into his fanbase and revenue stream. Major League Baseball placated Angelos by giving him television and radio broadcasting rights to the Nationals, making Washington the only franchise that does not own its own broadcast rights. Tonight's game opens the third year of the series between the Nationals and Orioles, with Washington holding a 7-5 edge since relocating (Montreal was 9-6 versus the Orioles in interleague play). Last year, the Nationals swept three games from the Birds in Baltimore.

Friday's game will also bring the return for Washington of first baseman Dmitri Young from a wrist injury. "Meat Hook" will be able to step right back into the starting lineup, for Nick Johnson was placed on the DL yesterday with a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist, and is expected to be out four to six weeks. Johnson's absence will certainly hurt the Nationals, as he leads the team's regulars in MLVr, but first base is one of Washington's few positions of offensive strength. Besides Young, who PECOTA projects to continue his surprising comeback success from last year with a .292/.356/.467 line, Washington can also employ Aaron Boone, who has enjoyed a late-career resurgence as a part-time player, having hit .295/.387/.455 in 288 plate appearances since the start of 2007. Johnson was the Nationals' only regular who swings exclusively from the left, so with the switch-hitting Young back in the fold, the Nationals can now throw nine righty hitters at lefty Olson tonight.

Matchup: Astros (24-18) at Rangers (20-22), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Chacon (51 IP, 3.71 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Sidney Ponson (25 2/3, 4.56, 1.40, 12)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 23-19 (208 RS, 183 RA); Texas, 18-24 (200 RS, 229 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #16; Texas, #23
Prospectus: This battle for Texas has been played out with two series each year since 2001, with Houston having won 22 of the 42 games thus far. The pitching matchup in tonight's opener features two of the game's most recognizable journeyman--Houston is Chacon's fourth team of the past four years, and Texas is Ponson's sixth of the past six. Chacon's record this season has served as a reflection of his status as a league-average hurler for hire, as he will be looking for his first decision in his ninth start. There have been just eight pitchers other than Chacon with a no-decision streak as long as eight since 1956, and with another no-decision today Chacon could come within one of the record of 10, held by three different pitchers, and break the record to begin a season, which he currently shares with Dick Stigman of the 1965 Twins. Chacon's streak is the most inexplicable of the group because he has averaged more innings per start (over 6 1/3) than any of the rest who have gone this long. It's also inexplicable in that he has been the team's best starter, having fired six Quality Starts in eight tries, leading to an expected won-loss record of 3-2.

Despite Chacon's strong work on the mound so far, this series promises to be about offense. The Astros rank third in the NL with 208 runs, and since the start of May have hit .299/.369/.470 as a team, with an average of 5.9 runs a game. That performance is largely due to the exploits of Lance Berkman, who with a walk and a single in his first two plate appearances last night had reached base safely in 35 of 50 trips to the dish. Texas ranks second in the AL with 200 runs, although that position won't last if outfielder Milton Bradley, the league's EqA leader at .334, continues to sit out with a sore right shoulder.

Matchup: Dodgers (21-19) at Angels (24-19), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (47 2/3 IP, 4.34 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 26 K) vs. Joe Saunders (54 1/3, 2.48, 1.12, 24)
Pythagorean Record: Dodgers, 22-18 (200 RS, 178 RA); Angels, 21-22 (194 RS, 195 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Dodgers, #6; Angels, #10
Prospectus: The Dodgers won the first four games of the Freeway Series, sweeping the Angels in 1997, but since then the Orange County crew has gone 35-23 against the original LA squad. Last year Los Angeles of Anaheim won five of six, including all three games at Angels Stadium. Halos manager Mike Scioscia has seen every game against the Dodgers from the dugout since 2000, while the Dodgers have had four different managers in that span--Davey Johnson in 2000, Jim Tracy from 2001-05, Grady Little from 2006-07, and now Joe Torre. Scioscia and Torre are more than familiar with each other from the latter's long tenure in pinstripes, during which Scioscia's Angels knocked Torre's Yankees out of the division series in 2002 and '05. The major difference between the managerial style of Scioscia and Torre is in bullpen usage. Last year, Torre's Yankees led the AL with 522 pitching changes, per the manager statistics in Baseball Prospectus 2008, as compared with 396 for Scioscia, and from 2005-06 Torre made 905 versus Scioscia's 757. Torre has averaged 2.75 relievers per game this year, putting him on pace for 445, while Scioscia has averaged 2.4 per, on pace for one fewer than last year's total. The Angels have had better starting pitching than the Dodgers--13th in the majors in SNLVAR versus 22nd--but Torre has also displayed a quick hook, as Dodgers starters have averaged fewer innings per game (5.4) than any other NL team. Scioscia's ability to handle the bullpen might help explain why the Angels have finished a combined 12 games above their Pythagorean records the last four years; this year, they have a +3 differential and stand in first place in the AL West despite having been outscored.

The Angels and Dodgers are linked not only by their proximity, but by the fact that both franchises handed out large multi-year contracts to past-peak center fielders in each of the last two offseasons. The 2007 free agent frenzy brought extremely similar signings for the LA clubs--five years and $44 million to Juan Pierre, and five years and $50 million to Gary Matthews Jr. As if to acknowledge the respective mistakes each of those deals was, both franchises signed another center fielder to replace the previous one prior to this season, in Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter. The only one of those four players that has provided value on his contract thus far is Hunter, who leads the Angels in VORP.

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

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