May 21, 2008
Wednesday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Royals (21-24) at Red Sox (29-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
With the best OPS and most runs scored in the American League, and a starting rotation that features the last two pitchers in the majors to throw no-hitters, Boston doesn't seem to have much reason to worry. The team's bullpen, however, has been a problem. Making his first appearance since last Wednesday after experiencing soreness in his wrist, Hideki Okajima loaded the bases in the eighth last night on a hit and two walks before being pulled for Jonathan Papelbon, who cleaned up and closed out a 2-1 victory. Okajima has given up two runs this season in 20 innings, but his performance has not been as timely as it was last season, as Okajima's Fair RA of 3.87 is much higher than his 0.90 RA; Fair RA factors in what he's done with inherited baserunners, and how many he's bequeathed to subsequent relievers. Okajima has entered games this season with a total of 14 runners on base this season, and 11 have scored, while last year he stranded 24 of 28. That's 5.3 more inherited runners scored than average, the second worst mark in the majors. The other season-opening option to set up Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, allowed an inherited runner to score last night to move into last place in the category. Okajima told the Boston Globe that he feels "uncomfortable" with runners on behind him, and was philosophical in explaining his success last year: "Good things are not going to stay the same forever." Neither are bad things, of course, and provided he's healthy, Okajima's extreme split with runners on vs. with none on should soon stabilize, allowing him to begin stranding runners again. The Red Sox, though, do have an issue with their bullpen, which overall has been just around replacement level, fourth from the bottom in the majors with a 0.48 WXRL, and eight runs worse than average by ARP, better than only the execrable firemen in Texas.
Matchup: Brewers (21-24) at Pirates (21-24), 7:05 p.m. ET
The Pirates have had their issues with righties as well, with a NL-low .310 OBP against them. That's not the only bad news in Steel City: the Pirates finished last in the majors in defensive efficiency in 2006, third from the bottom last year, and so far this season are second to last, with a conversion rate of 68.3 percent. This series features two of the four worst defensive teams in the NL from last year, and neither team has gotten much better, although Milwaukee has improved its percentage from 68.4 to 69.6 percent. Third base has remained a problem for the Brewers, and it's beginning to look as if Milwaukee's hot corner is generating some sort of negative energy--a year after Ryan Braun put up the worst season by a third baseman in the last 50 years (-28.4 SFR), Bill Hall is currently tied for the major league lead in errors at the position with nine, last in fielding percentage, and in the bottom four in Range Factor.
Matchup: Mariners (18-28) at Tigers (18-27), 7:05 p.m. ET
The Tigers' .500 third-order record is based in part upon the team's strong offensive components (third in the AL in OBP, third in slugging), even if that has not translated into as many runs as expected so far. Detroit has faced a tough schedule, as demonstrated by the 1.2 differential between second-order and third-order wins (a quick measure of schedule strength), tied for the largest differential in the AL. The Tigers bats have also been inconsistent. Last night's blowout win marked the sixth time this season Detroit has exploded for double digits in runs, second in the AL behind only Texas. The Tigers have scored 75 runs in those six games, 37 percent of their total. Detroit has also been shut out seven times already, most in the AL, after being blanked just three times in 2007. As their run totals even out, Detroit should begin to rise to its true level of play, and get back into the playoff hunt in the AL Central.
Matchup: Diamondbacks (28-17) at Marlins (25-19), 7:10 p.m. ET
Webb won't have an easy go of it against the Marlins, who lead the National League in OPS versus right-handers (817) and who have hit 11 more homers off righties (56) than any other major league team. The former Cy Young winner has a 5.05 ERA in 35 2/3 career innings versus Florida, his highest against any team he's faced more than once. Overall, Florida is tied with Philadelphia for the major league lead with 64 long balls, despite the fact that Dolphins Stadium plays as one of the toughest parks to both score and go deep in. So far this season, Florida's home venue has a home run factor of 0.775, the 26th lowest in the majors, and it has been below average for homers in sixth of the past seven years.
Correction: Webb is actually gunning to be the second pitcher since 1956 to win his first ten starts of the season. The first was Andy Hawkins of San Diego, who was victorious in his initial 10 starts of the 1985 season. That year Hawkins went just 8-8 the rest of the way. Webb should nevertheless be in very good shape to top 18 wins, his career high, which he set last season. The overall record for consecutive wins since 1956 at any point in a season (or across seasons) is 12, set by Johan Santana in 2004, Brad Radke in 1997, Pat Dobson in 1971, and Bob Gibson in 1968. Since he won his final two starts last year, Webb can also tie that mark tonight.
Matchup: Texas (22-25) at Minnesota (23-22), 7:10 p.m. ET
Minnesota has gotten by on the mound this year by not handing out free passes, because while the Twins rank 11th in the AL in hits allowed and 10th in strikeouts, they have walked fewer than any other major league team (118). This has been the M.O. for the Twins since the beginning of the 1990s--last year Minnesota allowed the second fewest walks in the AL, which broke a string of three straight seasons in which the team walked fewer than any other AL squad. In fact, since 1996, Minnesota has finished no worse than third from the top of the AL in terms of fewest walks allowed, and has been either the first, second, or third best AL squad at limiting walks every season but one since 1990. Minnesota's organizational philosophy clearly is to acquire and/or develop pitchers who throw a ton of strikes--pitchers like Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, and Johan Santana. That trio has since departed, but the tradition remains alive thanks to young pitchers like Blackburn, who has walked just 10 so far this year, 1.6 BB/9, second on the team to Livan Hernandez (1.5) and ninth in the AL. Blackburn, a fly-ball pitcher, has also given up just a pair of homers. He has been by far the most effective Minnesota starter in that category, as the Twins overall are last in the AL in homers allowed.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.