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May 19, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cubs (27-17) at Astros (25-20), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (50 2/3 IP, 5.33 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 50 K) vs. Brian Moehler (17 2/3, 4.58, 1.59, 10)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 28-16 (255 RS, 184 RA); Houston, 24-21 (223 RS, 209 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Houston, #12
Prospectus: After a brutal 10-day, 10-game road trip, the Astros return to Minute Maid Park to begin a seven-game stand, starting with three against the team with the second best record in the majors. Houston's strong play in the season's first quarter has been a largely unexpected development, and the team's fortunes look even better when you consider that they have played fewer home games (17) than any team in the National League, and more road games (28) than any team in the majors. The Cubs, conversely, have feasted on a schedule that featured a majority of dates at Wrigley in the early going, and Chicago has played the fewest road games of any team in the majors, with 17. (One other team has also played 17--Arizona, which perhaps not coincidentally is the only team ahead of Chicago in the overall standings.)

Houston had a strong home field advantage last season, winning 11 more games at Minute Maid Park than on the road, the sixth largest differential in the majors. Since Enron Field opened in 2000, the Astros' have played .563 ball in their new venue (an average of 46-35) and .474 ball on the road (an average of 38-43), while the major league average home winning percentage from 2000-07 was .540 (or 44-37). So far this year the Astros are off to a good start at home, winning 11 of 17 games. Minute Maid Park has a great number of irregularities, including Tal's Hill topped by the flagpole in center field, and it would be an interesting area of further study to determine whether such "quirky" parks offer a greater home field advantage than more simply designed ones do, due to the familiarity gap between home and road fielders. The Astros have also done a good job lately of tailoring their offensive roster to their park, which favors right-handed hitters more than any other stadium besides Florida's; Houston has stocked up on righty hitters through free agency (Carlos Lee and Mark Loretta), trade (Miguel Tejada and Ty Wigginton), and minor league development (Hunter Pence and J.R. Towles).

Matchup: Royals (21-22) at Red Sox (27-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (29 2/3 IP, 3.94 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 24 K) vs. Jon Lester (57, 4.26, 1.47, 33)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 19-24 (165 RS, 185 RA); Boston, 26-20 (239 RS, 209 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #22; Boston, #3
Prospectus: With this past weekend's sweep of the Brewers, the Red Sox moved up to 17-5 at home, their best record at Fenway through the first 22 games since 1998. The Royals are making their only trip to this lion's den tonight for a four-game set in a series that features the team that has scored the fewest runs in the American League versus the team that has scored the most. Kansas City has still yet to crack double digits in any game this season, although the Royals did score nine runs for the fourth time in yesterday's win over Florida. The team's offensive woes can't be blamed on veteran second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who with two hits Sunday now leads the American League with a .331 batting average. Right behind Grudzielanek in AL batting is Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis at .329, who is also first in the AL with a .605 slugging percentage, and the only member of the junior circuit with an OPS north of 1000. Entering the season, Youkilis's career minor league slugging percentage was .442 and major league slugging percentage .434, and his current MLVr of .407, second in the AL, is well above his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection of .277.

Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was caught stealing on a Brewers' pitchout to end the fourth inning yesterday, the first time he has been caught in the majors in his two-year career. Ellsbury stole 25 in a row before Sunday, putting him two shy of the record for consecutive successful steals to start a career, held by Tim Raines. Boston has typically been a slow, patient, slugging team that has eschewed the stolen base, but it currently ranks third in the AL with 37 steals. The last time the Red Sox finished that high was 1973, thanks to the franchise-record 54 steals of left fielder Tommy Harper. Since then, Boston has finished last or second-to-last in the AL in steals in 20 of 35 seasons, including every year from 1981-1992, as well as 2005 and '06, before Ellsbury and Julio Lugo showed up. With 16 steals already, Ellsbury is on pace to nab 62, which would break the Red Sox record set by Harper in '73. Ellsbury, Lugo, and Coco Crisp will have to be wary, however, when Royals' backup catcher Miguel Olivo is behind the plate. Olivo has caught four out of the five would-be thieves this season, and for his career has gunned down 110 of 309, a healthy 36 percent. Regular KC catcher John Buck is at 29 percent, and just 12 percent this year (two of 17), while Boston captain Jason Varitek has a career average of 26 percent.

Matchup: Cardinals (26-20) at Padres (16-29), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (55 IP, 3.60 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Wilfredo Ledezma (24, 3.37, 1.50, 20) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 24-22 (209 RS, 197 RA); San Diego, 16-29 (150 RS, 211 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #7; San Diego, #30
Prospectus: The outlook couldn't get much more bleak for the Padres, owners of the worst record in the major leagues. For the second straight game on Sunday, San Diego blew a late lead to lose to the worst team in the AL--after seeing a 2-1 advantage disappear in the seventh on Saturday, the Padres carried a 2-1 lead into the eighth yesterday, but the bullpen again gave it up, this time allowing Jose Lopez to knock a two-run double. If things weren't quite bad enough, the team got the news yesterday that 2007 NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy will miss his start today due to elbow soreness, which he claims has been plaguing him on every pitch of his last three or four starts. Peavy will undergo an MRI today, and will be replaced on the mound by Ledezma, who came over from the Braves at the trading deadline last year in a deal for Royce Ring.

One of the reasons for San Diego's struggles is that it has played nine fewer home games than road games. The Padres now return home after a nine-game trip for a 10-game homestand that will even that up. Will playing at Petco really be that much of a help for the ailing Padres, however? San Diego has won more games at home since the Park opened in 2004--the team has a 178-146 record at home compared with 168-157 on the road--but that advantage does not tell the park's full story. From 2004-07, the Padres have scored exactly the same number of runs at home as they have allowed--1,275--meaning their Pythagorean expected record is 162-162 at home, or 16 wins worse than it actually has been over the four seasons. [Ed. note: This analysis fails to take into account the fact that the home team does not bat in the bottom of the ninth when ahead, leading to fewer offensive innings at home than its opponents.] Compare that with the team's road runs scored (1,649) and runs allowed (1,501) over the same period, which should have yielded about 176 wins and 149 losses, or eight more victories than the team actually accumulated on the road. The extreme run-suppressing environment of Petco--which so far this season has been more powerful than ever, as the park has its lowest runs factor ever, 0.692--has not provided an advantage to the Padres thus far in terms of run differential, although that San Diego has outstripped its expected record by such a large amount suggests that the park's home field advantage has materialized for the Padres in close games.

Matchup: Rays (25-19) at Athletics (24-21), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: James Shields (59 IP, 4.12 RA, 1.14 WHIP, 45 K) vs. Joe Blanton (68 1/3, 4.08, 1.35, 29)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 25-19 (201 RS, 176 RA); Oakland, 26-19 (198 RS, 167 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: The best matchup of the week's first bunch of series per the Hit List rankings features the A's and Rays, teams that finished 17th and 27th, respectively, in the 2007 season-ending Hit List. It also features the teams that have the top two minor league systems in baseball, according to Kevin Goldstein's preseason rankings. Tampa Bay's position in the top spot is expected, given their accumulation of talent over the course of years in which the franchise has picked at the very top of the draft, but Oakland jumped 21 spots in the organizational rankings in one season thanks to the massive and shockingly swift returns on Billy Beane's rebuilding effort. Not surprisingly, young players have fueled each of these teams' early-season success--the Rays are the youngest collection of batters in the American League, with an average weighted age of 27.1 years (Oakland is tied for third at 28.1), while the A's have the youngest bunch of pitchers in the circuit, who are collectively the same age as Tampa Bay's batters (the Rays' pitchers are the third-youngest, at 28 years). Those young Oakland pitchers have to this point been outstanding, with a 3.71 RA, the second best in baseball behind Cleveland. That RA over the course of a full season would be the lowest for Oakland since 1990--the lowest mark that the team has put up in its recent run of success under Beane is 3.97, in 2003. Entering this season, there had only been eight AL pitching staffs to put up an RA under 4.00 since the start of 1993, the lowest of which was the 3.87 of Seattle in 2001. This year so far, four AL clubs are under 4.00--Oakland, Cleveland (3.57), Toronto (3.89), and Chicago (3.93). Blanton has been a key part of that run prevention thus far, as he ranks third in the major leagues in innings.

Matchup: Reds (21-23) at Dodgers (22-21), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Bronson Arroyo (47 1/3 IP, 6.85 RA, 1.63 WHIP, 43 K) vs. Brad Penny (53, 5.26, 1.49, 28)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 20-24 (196 RS, 216 RA); Los Angeles, 22-21 (210 RS, 195 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #19; Los Angeles, #8
Prospectus: Adam Dunn homered in yesterday's 6-4 win over Cleveland, the fourth straight game in which he's gone deep. Dunn now has 10 long balls on the year, putting him on pace to hit just shy of 40 homers. The big lefty slugger has launched exactly 40 in each of the past three seasons, and he had 46 homers the year before that, making him only the 13th player in history to hit at least 40 in four straight seasons. If Dunn manages to reach that plateau again this season for the fifth consecutive year, he would join a group that currently contains a total of seven players. Here's the full list:


Hitter        Seasons   Period
Babe Ruth        7      1926-32
Sammy Sosa       6      1998-03
Alex Rodriguez   6      1998-03
Ken Griffey Jr.  5      1996-00
Barry Bonds      5      2000-04
Duke Snider      5      1953-57
Ralph Kiner      5      1947-51
Adam Dunn        4      2004-07
Albert Pujols    4      2003-06
Jim Thome        4      2001-04
Mark McGwire     4      1996-99
Harmon Killebrew 4      1961-64
Ernie Banks      4      1957-60

Dunn has the ninth most homers in history from the ages of 21 (at which age Dunn was a rookie) to 27 (how old he was last year)--the players who hit more during that period are Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx, Pujols, Eddie Matthews, Griffey, Juan Gonzalez, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Aaron. Despite that, Dunn is most definitely an underappreciated slugger, because his batting average (.247 career, and .221 this season) often looks ugly, even though his career OBP entering this season (.381) compared favorably with the career OBP of the other contemporary players on the above list through their age-27 campaigns (Rodriguez was at .382, Griffey at .381 as well, Bonds at .380, and Sosa all the way down at .310, with Thome and Pujols in the .400s). Dunn started the year hitting fifth in the Reds lineup, but was moved to the sixth spot after some early struggles, and then all the way down to the seven hole for sixth straight games, from May 12-17. Not only that, but Dunn was actually called upon by manager Dusty Baker to sacrifice in the ninth inning of Saturday's game, with the Reds down 2-1 and runners on first and second with none out. Dunn bunted foul before Baker took the sign off, after which Dunn hit a three-run blast to win the game. That was the second time that Baker has taken off a ninth-inning sacrifice this year and had the player consequently hit a game-winning homer, after Edwin Encarnacion turned the trick with a three-run homer of his own in the season's second game.

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

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