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May 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Royals (21-24) at Red Sox (29-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brett Tomko (50 2/3 IP, 3.00 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Bartolo Colon (34 2/3, 4.67, 1.53, 18)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 21-24 (166 RS, 194 RA); Boston, 28-20 (248 RS, 210 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #22; Boston, #3
Prospectus: Colon will make his first appearance for the Red Sox tonight, after he allowed a run on six hits with an 11/1 K/BB ratio over three rehab starts for Triple-A Pawtucket. Things haven't gone well for the right-hander since his Cy Young award in 2005--after throwing the third most innings in the major leagues from 2001-05--an average of 225 2/3 IP per year--Colon broke down in the past two years, combining for 155 2/3 innings with an RA of 6.53.

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
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (52 2/3 IP, 3.42 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 43 K) vs. Ian Snell (51 2/3, 5.23, 1.68, 32) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 20-25 (200 RS, 223 RA); Pittsburgh, 21-24 (221 RS, 242 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #23; Pittsburgh, #24
Prospectus: The Brewers snapped a nine-game road losing streak with last night's 7-2 win over Pittsburgh to move out of the NL Central basement, which is hardly the position Milwaukee was expected to be in at the start of the season. With Yovani Gallardo down for the year, the Brewers need Sheets, their ace, to stay healthy and turn in a big season to help get them back into the division race. Since beginning the season with three straight quality starts, Sheets has turned in only one in his last five. The last time out, Sheets threw six shutout innings before giving up three home runs and six runs in the seventh to the Dodgers, which according to the pitcher was "probably my worst inning ever, personally"--indeed, Sheets had never before given up as many as six runs or three homers in a single frame. Snell has yet to get off the ground this year, with only one quality start in his last five outings, but he has won all four of his career starts against Milwaukee over the past two seasons, and has a 3.72 RA and 27/7 K/UBB ratio against the Brewers in 29 innings. Milwaukee has again been much less effective against righties than lefties this season, with a 702 OPS versus right-handers as compared to 778 off southpaws.

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
Probable Starters: Jarrod Washburn (45 1/3 IP, 5.47 RA, 1.53 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Kenny Rogers (53 2/3, 3.52, 1.19, 28)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 20-26 (190 RS, 219 RA); Detroit, 19-26 (204 RS, 240 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #27; Detroit, #25
Prospectus: Both of these teams expected to be fighting for a division title this season, so their current positions as the league's worst is disappointing, but there's still time to turn things around. That's more true for the Tigers than it is for the Mariners, however--Seattle is only a half-game worse than Detroit, but rates less than a two percent chance at making the playoffs, as compared with 12 percent for the Tigers. That differential is due to the respective third-order winning percentages of the two teams: while Detroit is only -1 in Pythagorean accounting, it has the largest differential between actual wins and those based upon AeQR and AeQRA totals, while Seattle has essentially earned its dismal record, with the largest gap between adjusted equivalent runs scored/runs allowed (50) of any major league team.

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
Probable Starters: Brandon Webb (63 1/3 IP, 2.98 RA, 1.00 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Ricky Nolasco (41 2/3, 5.40, 1.46, 25)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 28-17 (240 RS, 185 RA); Florida, 23-21 (216 RS, 208 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #2; Florida, #9
Prospectus: Webb is looking to become the ninth pitcher since 1956 to win his first ten starts of the season. With his defeat of Colorado last Thursday, Webb became the first pitcher since Josh Beckett last year to notch a victory in his first nine outings, and the first National Leaguer since Livan Hernandez in '97. The overall record since 1956 is held by Dave McNally, who won his first 15 for the AL-champion Orioles in 1969. Roger Clemens nearly tied that streak in 1986, winning 14 straight starts, and also reeled off 11 straight to begin '97. (Clemens holds the all-time record for consecutive games won since '56, with 20 in a row between June '98 and June 99, and ran off five streaks of at least 11 consecutive wins in his career.) Ron Guidry had a streak of 13 wins to begin 1978, and Andy Hawkins one of 11 in 1985, while Roger Moret (1973), Juan Marichal (1966), and Brooks Lawrence (1956) all had 10. The highest win total at the end of the season for any of those seven pitchers was 25, achieved by Marichal and Guidry. No one has won that many games since 1990 (Bob Welch, with 27), but if Webb keeps getting the run support he has thus far--6.6 runs per game--then he could certainly get into the mid-20s.

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
Probable Starters: Sidney Ponson (30 2/3 IP, 5.87 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 14 K) vs. Nick Blackburn (57 1/3, 3.92, 1.36, 30)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 21-26 (236 RS, 262 RA); Minnesota, 23-23 (201 RS, 201 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #21; Minnesota, #20
Prospectus: Ponson has already given up eight unearned runs in his five starts, the highest total in the majors despite the fact that he has pitched just 30 2/3 innings. He also ranks second in the majors in Flake rating, behind Sabathia, as he's delivered two gems (15 innings with 2 runs allowed combined) and three starts of five runs or more. He will be facing a Twins lineup that has battered Texas for 18 runs in the first two games. Notably, Delmon Young has been showing signs of life; although still yet to homer on the year, Young has tripled in three straight games to remove himself from the bottom of the list in Isolated Power.

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.

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