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May 20, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (22-19) at Braves (22-21), 1:05 and 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Maine (50 2/3 IP, 3.00 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Tom Glavine (34 2/3, 4.67, 1.53, 18) in game one; Claudio Vargas (6 1/3, 3 H, 2 R, 6/4 K/BB) vs. Jorge Campillo (21 1/3, 2.95, 0.98, 17) in game two
Pythagorean Record: New York, 22-19 (204 RS, 184 RA); Atlanta, 26-17 (205 RS, 163 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #11; Atlanta, #4
Prospectus: The Mets and Braves play a day/night doubleheader in Atlanta, with Glavine facing the Mets, the team for which he pitched the last five seasons, for the first time since September 28, 2002. Glavine is extremely familiar with Luis Castillo and Moises Alou, who are in the top 10 of all active players in total plate appearances against the Braves' lefty, but because of his tenure with the Mets Glavine has yet to face New York's two franchise cornerstones, David Wright and Jose Reyes, and has pitched to Carlos Beltran just twice. All three of Wright, Reyes, and Beltran have been better against left-handed pitching throughout their careers, and Wright substantially so, with a career OPS of 1000 versus lefties and 894 versus righties. This year, Wright's split has been magnified--he's batting .465/.549/.814 in 51 plate appearances against left-handers, and only .216/.333/.431 in 138 versus righties. Beltran has also struggled this season to hit righties, with a .227/.333/.391 line in 129 PA, while crushing southpaws with .324/.468/.568 batting in 47 PA.

The Braves' offense this season has relied upon the fantastic duo of Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Batting .410, Jones is chasing one of the game's most storied marks, but McCann is seeking records of his own. For one, McCann has already played in 41 of the Braves first 43 games, 40 of them at catcher, which puts him on pace for 150 games behind the dish, something that's been done just 27 times in history, the last time by Brad Ausmus in 2000. Even more impressive, McCann leads the major leagues with 17 doubles. Between their speed afoot and the more frequent days off that catching almost always involves, catchers are rarely among the league leaders in doubles, and no catcher has ever led even his own league in doubles. McCann is still a long shot to finish the year in the overall lead due to the time off he will need throughout the summer, but he has a shot at setting the all-time single-season record for doubles by a catcher, which is currently held by Ivan Rodriguez, who hit 47 in 1996.

Matchup: Orioles (23-20) at Yankees (20-24), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daniel Cabrera (60 1/3 IP, 3.58 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 37 K) vs. Mike Mussina (49 2/3, 4.17, 1.17, 24) Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 21-22 (179 RS, 184 RA); New York, 20-24 (179 RS, 197 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #18; San Diego, #30
Prospectus: Mussina faces the team he came up with and pitched the first 10 years of his career for, against whom he is 10-6 with a 4.65 RA in 23 starts since migrating to the Yankees. In tonight's game, however, the eyes will be on third base, as Alex Rodriguez returns to the lineup after missing the past 17 games. With Jorge Posada out as well, the Yankees scored just 3.5 runs with a 700 OPS in that stretch, as compared with 4.4 and 747 in the 27 games to start the season. Third base was a major reason for that drop-off, as A-Rod's absence proved catastrophic for the offense; his replacements hit just .200/.250/.283 with four runs and three RBI in 64 PA, and the player who collected the only three extra-base hits at third in Rodriguez's stead, Wilson Betemit, re-injured himself three games after returning from the DL. Rodriguez has more career plate appearances versus Cabrera than any current Orioles pitcher (35), and has hit .345/.400/.621 off of him, with a pair of homers. The 2007 MVP might be surprised by the pitcher he sees on the mound tonight: two of Cabrera's five career zero-walk starts have come in his last five outings, and over his past three starts he has passed just three, the fewest total of any three-start stretch in his career.

The Orioles have maintained their league-leading defensive efficiency so far, converting 72.9 percent of balls in play into outs, which has allowed them to stay above .500 despite the fact that they "can't hit their way out of a paper bag." Baltimore has one of the finest defensive traditions of any team, due to the outstanding O's squads of the 1960s and early '70s. The 1968 team converted 75.3 percent of balls in play into outs, ranking second best in the past 50 years, and the 1969 team was third at 75.2 percent. The 1972 Orioles rank sixth on the list, and the 1961 squad 14th. Common to all of those teams was third baseman Brooks Robinson, who played his entire 23-year career with the Orioles and ranks among the greatest defensive players ever. Melvin Mora, the currently longest-tenured Oriole, has been doing his best Robinson impression this season, as he leads AL third basemen in Range Factor.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (28-16) at Marlins (24-19), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Micah Owings (49 2/3 IP, 3.99 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Mark Hendrickson (53, 4.75, 1.38, 24)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 27-17 (238 RS, 182 RA); Florida, 22-21 (213 RS, 206 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #2; Florida, #9
Prospectus: First place in the NL West travels to take on first place in the NL East for the start of a three-game series in Miami. So far, fans in south Florida haven't taken much notice of their first-place squad, as the Marlins again rank last in the majors with an average attendance of 14,844, which is down even from last season. Taking the mound for Florida is the journeyman left-hander Hendrickson, who will be attempting to tame a Diamondbacks lineup that leads the majors in slugging percentage against lefties (.472).

Fortunately for him, the Florida lineup is formidable as well, especially when slugging first baseman Mike Jacobs is penciled in. Jacobs has homered in two straight games, his first two back as a starter after being limited to pinch-hitting duties for nine days with a quad strain. Jacobs has produced a bizarre line of .271/.298/.644 in 124 PA this season, with 11 homers and a 27/5 K/BB ratio. Such a power tear is not unprecedented for Jacobs; in his rookie season of 2005, he came up with the Mets and launched 11 homers in 112 PA, good for a .710 slugging percentage. No one in the history of the game has ever slugged .600 or better over a full season with an OBP less than .300; the player that came the closest to hitting both those marks was Matt Williams, who had a .607 SLG and .319 OBP in 1994 for the Giants. That was the year that Williams hit 43 homers in 112 games, putting him on a pace to top Roger Maris' single-season home run record when the strike ended the campaign. Because of that low OBP, though, Williams wasn't even close to being the best player on his own team, as Barry Bonds hit 37 homers, walked 74 times, and had a 1073 OPS. There have been just two players in history to slug north of .500 over a full season with an OBP of .300 or less: Tony Armas, who ripped 43 homers for the 1984 Red Sox and slugged .531 with an OBP of exactly .300, and Dave Kingman of the 1976 Mets, who hit 37 bombs and slugged .506 with a .286 OBP.

Matchup: Indians (22-22) at White Sox (23-20), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: C.C. Sabathia (54 1/3 IP, 5.47 RA, 1.53 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Jose Contreras (53 2/3, 3.52, 1.19, 28)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 25-19 (183 RS, 157 RA); Chicago, 25-18 (203 RS, 173 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #10; Chicago, #13
Prospectus: Sabathia's season has provided another example of why one shouldn't panic about performance over a handful of starts, no matter how gruesome. Despite the standard warnings about small sample sizes, it really did seem like there might be something wrong with Sabathia, either physically or mechanically, after he gave up 27 runs in his first 18 innings. Since that point, however, he has fired quality starts in four of five outings, with a 1.49 RA and 1.02 WHIP in 36 1/3 innings, along with a 43/8 K/BB ratio, helping boost Cleveland into the major league lead in SNLVAR. Not surprisingly given his quick journey from the depths to the heights of dominance, Sabathia currently leads all starters with at least 20 IP in Flake, a statistic that measures the standard deviation of start-to-start performance by SNVA. Sabathia also led the majors in Flake-iness in 2006, despite a 3.88 RA--18 of his 28 starts were quality starts, but he also gave up double-digit hits four times, and seven or more runs four times.

Conspicuously absent from this year's Flake leaderboard is Contreras, who has actually been the most consistent Chicago starter in 2008. That is in direct contrast to his reputation. The Cuban import dazzled in his rookie season with the Yankees, striking out 72 in 71 innings with a 3.42 RA, but Contreras then went down in October flames, giving up 11 runs in 11 post-season innings, which earned him a pair of losses. That was essentially the end for Contreras in the Bronx, as next season he put up a 6.21 RA in 18 starts, alternating good outings (eight quality starts) with horrendous ones (four of seven or more runs) before being shipped to Chicago, where he continued to pitch poorly. Maddeningly for Yankees fans, Contreras then put things together to have an excellent season in 2005, and even won three games in the playoffs, turning into a playoff hero for the World Champion White Sox. The next two seasons, however, brought more of Contreras' trademark inconsistency, as he finished second in the AL to Sabathia on the Flake list in 2006, and fourth last season.

Matchup: Giants (17-29) at Rockies (18-27), 6:35 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Tim Lincecum (56 1/3 IP, 2.56 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 63 K) vs. Aaron Cook (60 2/3, 3.26, 1.27, 29)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 17-29 (162 RS, 222 RA); Colorado, 19-26 (191 RS, 229 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #28; Colorado, #26
Prospectus: The Rockies ride a modest three-game winning streak into tonight's game, while the Giants have lost six in a row to fall down to their Pythagorean record. These two pitchers have been the best on each team so far, as Lincecum and Cook rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in SNLVAR amongst NL starters. Cook has turned in quality starts in seven of nine turns, each of which was converted into a win by the Rockies. With a SNLVAR of 1.9, Cook is currently on pace to have the best season by a Colorado starting pitcher ever, eclipsing Jason Jennings' 5.7 SNLVAR campaign in 2006. Cook has pitched his entire career with Colorado, and owns a lifetime ERA of 4.34, which is the lowest of anyone to have thrown at least 500 innings for the club. Lincecum leads the majors in strikeouts, is third in ERA, and has turned in quality starts in eight of eight tries.

Both Lincecum and Cook have thrived despite pitching in front of bad defenses, as the Rockies rank 23th and the Giants 26th in the majors in efficiency, that after both finished in the top 12 last season. For the Giants, that poor play can be traced to the infield: at third base, where the Giants have a second baseman, Jose Castillo, playing out of position, at second base, where the young (Eugenio Velez and Emmanuel Burriss) have displayed even less range than the old (Ray Durham), and at first base, where the 36-year-old Rich Aurilia is last in the majors in Range Factor. The Rockies miss Troy Tulowitzki's glove at shortstop, but the main problem for them defensively has been the play of Garrett Atkins, who is second to last amongst NL third baseman in RF. Given that first baseman Todd Helton's contract is almost totally unmovable ($16.6 million per year through 2010, and then $19.1 in 2011), it might make sense, as Nate Silver outlined this offseason, for the team to deal Atkins for pitching, considering that Ian Stewart appears ready to take over the hot corner (.288/.381/.647 with 12 homers at Triple-A Colorado Springs).

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

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