May 22, 2008
Thursday's Games to Watch
Today's Full Slate of Games
Matchup: Royals (21-25) at Red Sox (30-19), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (50 2/3 IP, 4.45 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (54 1/3, 2.48, 1.23, 46)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 19-27 (169 RS, 200 RA); Boston, 28-21 (254 RS, 213 RA)
Rankings: Kansas City, #22; Boston, #3
Prospectus: In a fine study of contrasts, Bannister relies on excellent control and pitches to contact, while Matsuzaka is a strikeout pitcher who has walked over twice as many batters as Bannister has. Both have been hard to hit, though--Matsuzaka's BABIP is .217, while Bannister's is at .258. It's plausible to expect that Bannister can live in that .260 range all season, because he's a fly-ball pitcher, which makes it more likely that contact will find leather, and because his career BABIP in nearly 1100 opponent plate appearances is .245. Matsuzaka had a .301 BABIP last season, which is exactly league-average. But he is even more of a fly-ball pitcher than Bannister, and so far this year his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio has fallen from 0.92 to 0.67, so it wouldn't be surprising if his BABIP ended up a good deal lower than last season's mark.
In his last start, Matsuzaka gave up two runs, which were both unearned after an error by third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Those paired occurrences were extremely rare--Matsuzaka had gone the first 252 1/3 innings of his major league career without allowing an unearned run, and Youkilis made just three errors all of last season. All three, however, came in the 13 games he played at third base. Youkilis has made seven errors in 43 games at third from 2006-08, but just five in 298 games at first in that period. He set the all-time record for consecutive errorless games by a first baseman (and by any infielder at a single position) in early April with 194, breaking the mark established by Padres first baseman Steve Garvey from June 1983 to June 1985. Youkilis has still yet to make an error at first, extending his record streak to 227 games.
Matchup: Angels (28-20) at Blue Jays (23-25), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (60 2/3 IP, 3.12 RA, 1.01 WHIP, 50 K) vs. A.J. Burnett (57 1/3, 5.02, 1.48, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 25-23 (218 RS, 209 RA); Toronto, 23-25 (181 RS, 188 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; Toronto, #15
Prospectus: Long on power and patience and short on contact-hitting ability, catcher Mike Napoli is miscast on the Angels. Los Angeles of Anaheim has typically been stocked with fast, high-average players who "manufacture" runs by stringing together hits, but Napoli is the opposite of that. As highlighted by Nate Silver in this week's Sports Illustrated, Napoli has nearly as many home runs (10) as singles (12). Napoli's season thus far calls to mind the 2005 campaign of Frank Thomas, when the gimpy Big Hurt swung exclusively for the fences, hitting 12 homers, three doubles, and eight singles in 124 plate appearances, or Mark McGwire's 2001 season, in which Big Mac hit 29 homers and 23 singles in 364 PA. For his career, Napoli has nearly as many extra-base hits (62) as singles (76). He currently has the fewest hits of any player in major league history with at least 30 career home runs (138), beating out the other notable Three True Outcome basher in the AL West, Jack Cust, who entered yesterday's games with the same number of career homers (36) but 26 more total hits. Along with the three homers from backup Jeff Mathis, the Angels' catching tandem is within one bomb of matching the 14 that Anaheim backstops hit all of last season.
Francisco Rodriguez shut down the Blue Jays in the ninth last night to earn his major league-leading 19th save, having blown only one chance. Bobby Thigpen did not pick up his 19th save until June 9 in 1990, when he set the single-season record with 57 saves; Rodriguez is also ahead of the 55-save pace of Eric Gagne's 2003 and John Smoltz's 2002. Rodriguez arrived in the majors at age 20 in the Angels' championship season, and has managed to stay healthy despite some of the most violent mechanics in the game; consequently the 26-year-old has more career saves than any other player at that age. Gregg Olson, second on that list, traced a similar path to Rodriguez through age 26, hitting the majors at 21 and dominating out of the bullpen for five years. The big right-hander then got hurt, however, and from his age-27 season until retirement at the age of 34 in 2001 saved just 57 more games.
Matchup: Mets (22-22) at Braves (25-21), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (60 IP, 3.45 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Tim Hudson (61 2/3, 3.36, 1.07, 38)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 22-22 (211 RS, 207 RA); Atlanta, 29-17 (228 RS, 170 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #11; Atlanta, #4
Prospectus: Santana makes his second start against the Braves as a member of the Mets tonight, looking to salvage the finale of the four-game set and put embattled manager Willie Randolph on firmer ground. The ace lefty faced the Braves in Atlanta in his second start of the season, losing to John Smoltz despite a fine seven inning, one run effort. Santana will have to deal with the majors' leading hitter, Chipper Jones, who has gone 3-for-7 with a pair of walks in his career against Santana. At .410, Jones has the second highest average this late into the season in the last 25 years. He also homered last night, the 398th of his career; he's third on the all-time list for switch hitters, behind Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504). With a .309 lifetime average, he also ranks second all-time in batting by switch hitters.
Jones's career year has even extended into the field. Long known as having a leaden glove at the hot corner, this year Jones actually leads all third basemen in Zone Rating, and despite an error last night has a Fielding Percentage of .956 (above the .950 league average) to go with a Range Factor that is exactly average (2.67). FRAA registers Jones doing strong work at third this year as well, rating him four runs above average, which would be the highest mark of his career. That stands in direct contrast to his early career at the hot corner, when he had a combined -7.5 Simple Fielding Runs from his rookie season in 1995 to 2001 (data for 1999 is not available). Since returning to third from left field, where he played in 2002 and '03, he has a combined +10.7 SFR in four seasons.
Matchup: Diamondbacks (28-18) at Marlins (26-19), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (57 1/3 IP, 3.61 RA, 0.98 WHIP, 45 K) vs. Andrew Miller (43 2/3, 6.80, 1.79, 35)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 28-18 (241 RS, 188 RA); Florida, 23-22 (219 RS, 209 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #2; Florida, #9
Prospectus: After Tuesday night's series-opening 3-2 win over the Diamondbacks, Marlins closer Kevin Gregg said, "We'll just keep plugging away. Everybody is looking at you like, 'These guys aren't any good,' but we're at the top of the division, where everybody wants to be." The Marlins kept plugging last night, handing Brandon Webb his first loss of the season and preventing the Diamondbacks' ace from tying the record since 1956 for consecutive wins to start a season (10) and consecutive wins overall (12). Gregg backed up his talk as well, getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the eighth inning on Tuesday with Florida up 3-2 by striking out consecutive batters, and earning another save last night by pitching a perfect ninth to finish a 3-1 win. Gregg hasn't been the only Florida reliever coming up with timely pitching, as the Marlins relief corps has combined for a WXRL of 4.76, tops in the majors.
The first-place Marlins will look to their prize young lefty to achieve the home sweep tonight. Miller was dreadful through his first six starts, allowing 27 runs in 25 2/3 innings with a 2.38 WHIP, but then settled down to throw two straight quality starts against the Padres and Nationals before failing to record a third in a row against the Royals last Friday. Miller deserved better against KC--chiefly from his manager, who ordered an intentional walk of shortstop Tony Pena to load the bases and get to the pitcher, which led to two runs on an error and a walk. (That was the second time Pena has been walked intentionally this year, and both times the move backfired). After facing teams ranked last, 26th, and second-to-last in offensive VORP, respectively, Miller will have a tougher task in facing the Snakes, whose righty-heavy lineup feasts on southpaws. One of those port-side punishers is Eric Byrnes, but after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts yesterday Byrnes is down to .213/.277/.361 on the season. Byrnes has been hampered by hamstring troubles, as evidenced by his current 15-steal pace, well off his average the last two seasons (38).
Matchup: Phillies (26-22) at Astros (27-21), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Kyle Kendrick (45 1/3 IP, 6.15 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (63, 5.71, 1.43, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 26-22 (232 RS, 208 RA); Houston, 25-23 (234 RS, 221 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #14; Houston, #12
Prospectus: Backup catcher Chris Coste picked up two hits last night in the Phillies' 12-2 romp over Washington, and is now batting .329/.400/.539 in 85 plate appearances. Coste's story is justly celebrated--after 11 years in the bushes he made his major league debut in 2006 at the age of 33, hitting extremely well (.328/.376/.505 in 213 PA), and he now has a career 844 OPS in 435 PA. With regular catcher Carlos Ruiz struggling to overcome a few ailments and get going offensively, Coste has made a bid for more playing time, having started five of the past eight games. Coste is not nearly the defender Ruiz is, but has managed to nab eight of 21 runners attempting to steal so far, 38 percent, which ranks fifth in the majors amongst catchers with at least 20 opportunities; in his first two seasons, Coste threw out just 12 of 52 thieves (23 percent).
If Coste plays again tonight, he'll likely have several more opportunities to prove whether his throwing has really improved, as Houston leads the league in stolen bases (54). In yesterday's 6-4 win over the Cubs to complete a series win, the Astros stole three bags, including Lance Berkman's career-high-tying ninth and Michael Bourn's NL-leading 20th. Bourn might have extra incentive to add to his total while facing the team that traded him away in the offseason, and he stole a base in each game of the teams' first series this year. That deal is looking favorable for the Phillies, as Brad Lidge continues to lead the NL in WXRL and has yet to blow a save, while Bourn's offensive performance has thus far justified Philadelphia's assessment of him as more of a fourth than a starting outfielder. Bourn's OBP is down to .272 this year from .348 a year ago with Philly, when he also stole 18 bases in 19 tries. That performance was a big part of the Phillies' team stolen base percentage of 87.9 last year, the best in major league history. The Phillies lead the NL in stolen base percentage this season as well, but without Bourn and with Jimmy Rollins having missed time, the squad hasn't been quite as good, achieving an 83 percent mark (30 of 36) so far.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.