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May 17, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (25-17) at Cardinals (24-20), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (32 2/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 14 K) vs. Adam Wainwright (58, 3.41, 1.02, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 24-18 (189 RS, 162 RA); St. Louis, 23-21 (195 RS, 185 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; St. Louis, #7
Prospectus: Every time the Rays climb a game further above .500, they plow into uncharted territory--the latest first for Tampa Bay, after yesterday's 3-1 victory over St. Louis, is eight games above the break-even point. By holding the Cardinals to one run, the Rays also set a franchise record by allowing two runs or less in five consecutive games, topping the previous best of four in a row the team set in September of 2000--this after the Rays threw back-to-back shutouts last week for just the fourth time in team history. Tampa Bay has now given up a total of fifteen runs in its past nine games, winning eight of those to open up a 1.5 game lead in the AL East over Boston. Everything is clicking for the team, as fifth starter Andy Sonnanstine even managed to break Albert Pujols' consecutive times-on-base streak, which had reached 42 games to begin the year, by handing him an 0-for-4 collar last night. St. Louis lost its fifth in the past six to fall three behind the Cubs in the NL Central.

Tampa Bay is now fourth in the major leagues with a team RA mark of 3.86, despite ranking just 22nd overall in strikeouts and 15th in K/BB ratio. That strongly suggests defense being the critical component, and indeed, Tampa Bay has the second best defensive efficiency in the majors behind Baltimore, which has helped Rays pitching allow the fewest hits in the American League. Last season Tampa Bay had the worst defensive efficiency in recorded history and the most hits allowed in the majors. Fueling that change is excellent outfield defense, as well as the shift at shortstop--in 2007, the collective team Range Factor at the position was 4.00, while this year Jason Bartlett's play has led to a 4.68 figure, well above the 4.55 league average. Today's beneficiary of that improved glovework will be Garza, who after getting touched for 11 runs in 13 innings through his first three outings has fired three straight quality starts, the latest seven innings of shutout ball against the Yankees on Monday.

Matchup: Indians (22-20) at Reds (19-23), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Fausto Carmona (48 2/3 IP, 2.77 RA, 1.64 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Aaron Harang (62 1/3, 3.61, 1.12, 51) Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 25-17 (177 RS, 147 RA); Cincinnati, 19-23 (186 RS, 210 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #10; Cincinnati, #19
Prospectus: Despite last night's 4-3 loss in the opener of the battle for Ohio, the Indians hold a 29-23 edge in this intrastate rivalry since the two began play in 1997. Carmona is coming off of his best start of the season, a complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays. He still walked four, however, and has now passed almost twice as many as he has struck out (35/18) on the season, a complete reversal of his first two seasons in the majors. Carmona has survived by stranding runners on base all season thanks to his superb sinker, which despite being difficult to throw for strikes has been nearly impossible for batters to lift off the ground. Carmona has induced 15 double-play groundouts this season, four more than the next pitcher on the list, Mark Buehrle, has had turned behind him. If Carmona makes 32 starts, as he did last year, his current pace would lead to 60 double-play grounders. That would break the all-time record of 47, also set by an Indians pitcher, Gaylord Perry, in 1973. Perry tied a career high with 41 starts that season and threw a career-high 344 innings while ranking eighth in the majors with a ground-ball percentage of 61; this season, Carmona leads the majors with a ground-ball percentage of 69.

With a first-inning Brandon Phillips homer, Cincinnati broke the streak of 50 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run that Cleveland's starters carried into last night's game; the Reds have also now won four straight. Cincinnati's offense has started to roll, as Adam Dunn has four homers in his past nine games. Ken Griffey Jr. has also begun hitting better, and although the power still isn't there, he has gotten on base at a .472 clip in his last eight games. Griffey still stands three homers short of becoming the sixth player to reach 600, and while he isn't likely to climb closer today--Carmona has allowed just 17 homers in 263 2/3 innings over the past two seasons, or 0.6 HR/9--Griffey has feasted during interleague play over the course of his career. Griffey's slugging percentage in 644 plate appearances during interleague play is .587, and he has hit 49 homers in 151 games, the second most ever in interleague play, behind Jim Thome's 53.

Matchup: Athletics (23-20) at Braves (21-20), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (14 2/3 IP, 3.68 RA, 1.77 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Tim Hudson (56 2/3, 2.86, 0.99, 35)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 25-18 (191 RS, 158 RA); Atlanta, 25-16 (196 RS, 156 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #6; Atlanta, #4
Prospectus: Hudson faces his old team tonight for the first time. The A's traded him to the Braves in December of 2004 for Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz, and Charles Thomas, a deal that has been one of the rare few not to work out for GM Billy Beane. Thomas got just 46 at-bats with Oakland, Meyer has struggled to stay healthy and get over the hump at Triple-A Sacramento (where he's still pitching), and Cruz gave up more than a run per inning in his one season with the A's before being traded again. Hudson, meanwhile, has had two outstanding years out of his three with the Braves, including a superb 2007 season, in which he finished second in the majors in SNLVAR to Jake Peavy. This year Hudson has been arguably even better than ever, as his current 2.86 RA and 0.99 WHIP both would be career lows if maintained throughout the season. Hudson was rumored to have lost his devastating splitter due to elbow issues upon being traded to the Braves, but the right-hander has long since killed off such talk. With the impending move of John Smoltz back to the bullpen, Hudson is now Atlanta's clear ace. That his splitter and sinker are working better than ever is evidenced by his home run rate--just one allowed so far, for an NL-best 0.16 HR/9 IP. That's not likely to increase tonight, for the A's rank second-to-last in the AL with 22 home runs.

If Beane could have looked ahead to see the next four years after the 2004 season, he probably would have traded Harden at the same time he dealt Hudson and Mark Mulder, as the right-hander has thrown a combined 215 innings in the three-plus seasons since then. Harden's latest first start back from the DL was ugly but, if Harden is able to scrape the rust off, this game has the potential to provide the best pitcher's duel of the evening, in addition to being the highest-rated matchup by Hit List rankings. Oakland badly needs a win, as the Athletics have lost six of seven to fall a game and a half behind the Angels in the AL West, with their offense having put up a 628 OPS and less than three runs a game during the current swoon.

Matchup: Tigers (16-26) at Diamondbacks (27-15), 5:10 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Armando Galarraga (29 1/3 IP, 4.30 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Max Scherzer (14 1/3, 3.77, 1.12, 18)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 18-24 (189 RS, 226 RA); Arizona, 26-16 (232 RS, 179 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #25; Arizona, #2
Prospectus: This could be the last start for the rookie Scherzer in some time, as Doug Davis is scheduled to return to the rotation next week upon the completion of his second rehab start following surgery for cancer. Scherzer will try to make it a memorable one while facing another, less-heralded rookie in Galarraga, who has shockingly been the only Tigers starter above replacement level through his first five turns, although he did deliver his first poor start of the year his last time out, in Boston. Detroit ranks last in the majors with a -0.39 SNLVAR, meaning that a quintet of Triple-A journeyman--in essence, a set of pitchers similar to Galarraga--would have helped Detroit to more wins than Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, and Nate Robertson have. The lowest RA from a Tigers starter besides Galarraga is Bonderman's 5.65, and with the way the rotation has performed thus far one has to begin thinking about drawing comparisons to the worst starting staffs in baseball history. In the last 50 years, the lowest team SNLVAR was recorded by the 1964 Kansas City Athletics, whose rotation had a 5.66 RA and was just 2.6 wins better than replacement level. There have been just 11 teams in the past 50 years to put forth a rotation that was less than five wins better than a replacement level bunch (this year's Tigers are listed at the end for the sake of comparison):


Year Team SNLVAR    RA  LG_RA  IP/GS
1964  KCA   2.6    5.66  4.06   5.3
1978  SEA   2.7    5.65  4.20   5.5
1964  BOS   3.8    5.32  4.06   5.9
1984  SFN   3.9    5.39  4.06   5.5
1993  COL   4.1    6.08  4.49   5.4
1981  BOS   4.2    4.73  4.07   6.0
2005  KCA   4.3    6.32  4.76   5.3
1995  MIN   4.5    6.69  5.06   5.6
2007  FLO   4.5    6.30  4.71   5.3
1976  MIN   4.7    4.92  4.01   6.1
2003  TEX   4.9    6.60  4.86   5.1

2008  DET  -0.4    6.20  4.34   5.6

The Tigers' poor showing is particularly embarrassing considering how down offense is across the American League, with the circuit scoring fewer runs per game so far than it has in any season since 1992, when the league RA was 4.32.

Matchup: White Sox (21-20) at Giants (17-26), 6:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (48 IP, 6.75 RA, 1.54 WHIP, 33 K) vs. Barry Zito (39 2/3, 7.94, 1.79, 18)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 23-18 (187 RS, 164 RA); San Francisco, 16-27 (150 RS, 202 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #13; San Francisco, #28
Prospectus: Two struggling veteran left-handers take the mound in San Francisco for an odd interleague pairing. The White Sox had never visited San Francisco before picking up a 2-0 victory in the series opener last night, with the lone series between the two prior to this year coming in 2003, when the Giants took two of three in Chicago. Both of tonight's starters are soft-tossers--Buehrle's fastball averages 86 mph, according to the data from Baseball Info Solutions, while Zito's has dropped all the way down to 84, when it was at 87 just three seasons ago. Buehrle has been the one member of the White Sox rotation not carrying his share of the load, as he has been below replacement level while the team's other four starters all rank in the top 40 in the AL in SNLVAR. It's hard to believe that Buehrle is just 29 years old, but he arrived in the big leagues at 21 and has thrown at least 201 innings for the past seven seasons, so he has quite a bit more mileage than the average hurler his age. Buehrle has in fact thrown more innings since the start of 2001 than any pitcher except for Livan Hernandez. Teammate Javier Vazquez ranks fourth on that list, and Zito is fifth.

Zito pitched better in his last start after spending over a week in the bullpen, turning in his first outing of six innings or more and three runs or less, but despite leaving with the game tied, the Giants went on to lose 7-3. With that team defeat, Zito became the sixth Opening Day starter since 1956 to have his team lose the first eight games that he started in a season. Luis Tiant with the 1969 Indians, Robin Roberts with the 1961 Phillies, and Sterling Hitchcock with the 2000 Padres all started on Opening Day and saw their team lose that game as well as each of their next seven trips to the mound. If the Giants lose tonight, Zito will tie Mike Boddicker of the 1988 Orioles at nine straight team losses in games started by the No. 1. The record is held by Todd Ritchie, who got the nod on Opening Day in 2001 for the Pirates, who lost the first 12 games that their nominal ace took the hill.

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

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: 10 Unde... (05/17)
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