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May 24, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (18-31) at Yankees (23-25), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Carlos Silva (62 1/3 IP, 4.91 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 24 K) vs. Mike Mussina (50 1/3, 5.36, 1.29, 25)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 19-30 (169 RS, 200 RA); New York, 23-25 (204 RS, 212 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #28; New York, #19
Prospectus: The Mariners badly need Silva to serve as the rotation's stopper today--a role Erik Bedard could not fill last night--as Seattle has given up at least nine runs in its last four games, all losses, and has been outscored 43-16 during that stretch. The team's pitching bears a large measure of blame, but so does its defense, for the Mariners are currently last in the AL in defensive efficiency. Seattle's current rate of converting 67.8 percent of batted balls into outs would tie for the worst mark in the franchise's 32-year history, besides last season, when it also had a 67.8 percentage. With a career K/9 rate of just 3.7, Silva in particular relies upon strong work in the field behind him, but against New York, he has given up 29 runs in five starts, with nearly twice as many hits allowed (45) than innings pitched (24 1/3). That includes a disastrous start earlier this season at Yankee Stadium, when he allowed 11 hits and eight runs in three innings on May 4.

The news that Joba Chamberlain will make the transition to the starting rotation means trouble for Seattle, for Chamberlain will throw 45 pitches in an extended outing today, after throwing 35 in a two-inning stint against Baltimore on Wednesday, as he continues to stretch out his arm. Chamberlain's eventual departure from the eighth inning creates a void in the set-up role, and it will be interesting to see whether manager Joe Girardi increases his confidence in Edwar Ramirez. The rookie with the devastating changeup has pitched just 11 innings since being recalled from Triple-A Scranton on April 29, and ranks last on the Yankees in the leverage of those innings, despite his astounding statistics: no runs allowed in 20 combined innings, with 26 strikeouts against seven walks and just seven hits. Ramirez isn't the only Yankees reliever in the midst of a phenomenal year--Mariano Rivera has made the three-year, $45 million deal the Yankees gave the 38-year-old before this season look brilliant so far, as he has allowed one run, no walks, 10 hits, and just one extra-base hit (a double) in 19 innings.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (29-19) at Braves (26-22), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (38 2/3 IP, 5.59 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 37 K) vs. Jorge Campillo (27 1/3, 2.30, 0.88, 24) Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 30-18 (252 RS, 193 RA); Atlanta, 29-19 (233 RS, 183 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #4; Atlanta, #3
Prospectus: After dominating out of the bullpen through the first month and a half, the Braves moved Campillo into the rotation last Tuesday, and he threw six shutout innings against the Mets in his second career major league start. Mariners fans must be shaking their heads over the 2008 success of Campillo, a former Mexican League pitcher who came to the states in 2005 at the age of 26. He gave up 16 runs in 17 2/3 innings in three brief stints with Seattle from 2005-07, lost time to Tommy John surgery, and was let go by the organization over the winter, only to be dug up by the Braves. Campillo potentially represents another classic Atlanta retreading, grabbing a pitcher cast off by another organization and turning him into something useful. Campillo's season so far is beginning to resemble that of Jorge Sosa in 2002--Sosa carried a 5.53 RA in over 300 innings with Tampa Bay when the Braves brought him in, but pitching both out of the bullpen and the rotation went 13-3 with a 2.82 RA in 134 innings for Atlanta. It's been his only season where he was above-average, let alone one of the league's most successful pitchers. Sosa even shows up on Campillo's list of PECOTA comparables.

Johnson is currently tied for 25th all-time in wins with Tommy John, after he pitched his best game of the season in shutting down Detroit for seven innings last time out. He will have a tough time doing the same against Atlanta, mainly because of the white-hot Chipper Jones: with a .400/.455/1.033 line in 33 plate appearances, Atlanta's slugging third baseman has a higher lifetime OPS against the Big Unit than any other player who's ever faced him (minimum 20 PA), as well as more home runs (six). Atlanta also has four other players who have taken Johnson deep--Mark Teixeira, Omar Infante, Greg Norton, and Mark Kotsay.

Matchup: Orioles (24-23) at Rays (28-20), 6:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Steve Trachsel (32 IP, 7.31 RA, 1.81 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Edwin Jackson (54 2/3, 3.29, 1.35, 41)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 23-24 (192 RS, 198 RA); Tampa Bay, 26-22 (214 RS, 193 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #18; Tampa Bay, #7
Prospectus: This series is a surprising battle of defenses in the AL East--the O's lead the majors in efficiency rating (DER) after finishing 18th last season, and the Rays are third this year after an historically bad 2007 season. (Incidentally, the AL East has become the home of the game's best defense, with the best three teams in the majors this season in DER and four of the first seven.) Baltimore's standing at the top of the league in defense might even stay the team's potentially imminent collapse, as DER is generally an excellent indicator of team success. Last season, for instance, the top five teams and eight of the top 10 in DER all had winning records. No team that finished in the top two has had a below-.500 mark since the 2000 Padres, and the last year a team was first in efficiency despite a losing record was 1995. That squad was the Orioles, who nevertheless put up a respectable 71-73 mark.

Even the league's best defense hasn't been able to save Trachsel from getting hit hard all season. As revealed in the discussion of Mike Mussina's odd platoon split several weeks ago, Trachsel has the largest reverse differential between OPS allowed to righty and lefty batters of the 94 right-handed pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 innings to batters on both sides of the plate. For his career, righties have hit .285/.345/.483 against the slow-working veteran, and lefties .248/.321/.394. That disparity has been more pronounced than ever this year, as Trachsel has managed to hold left-handed batting to a .200/.325/.385 performance in 77 plate appearances, while righties have tattooed him for .391/.466/.688 in 74. The Rays are a heavily left-handed team, having gotten 58 percent of their plate appearances from the port side, more than any other AL team besides the Yankees. It will therefore be interesting to see if manager Joe Maddon bypasses the normal platoon arrangement to play righty Jonny Gomes instead of lefty Eric Hinske at DH.

Matchup: Brewers (22-26) at Nationals (21-28), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (45 1/3 IP, 6.15 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 20 K) vs. John Lannan (63, 5.71, 1.43, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 21-27 (209 RS, 237 RA); Washington, 20-29 (188 RS, 232 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #22; Washington, #29
Prospectus: McClung moves from the bullpen to the rotation, taking the place of Carlos Villanueva to make his first start since June of 2006, when he was with Tampa Bay. McClung made 37 starts for the Devil Rays from 2003-06, in which he threw 195 1/3 innings with a 6.59 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 34 homers allowed, and a 131/106 K/BB. McClung's lack of control was his critical shortcoming as a starter--to quote from Baseball Prospectus 2005, "McClung is so good at walking people that the pedestrian warning signs at Tampa Bay intersections now say 'Stop' and 'McClung.'" He hasn't fixed that issue in the Milwaukee pen, with 18 walks in 32 1/3 innings the past two seasons. McClung's a bad bet for success given his history and the degradation of peripherals that typically accompany a move from relief work to starting, although with the two most patient Nationals both hurt (Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson) he might be OK tonight.

Wily Mo Pena sent a pitch from Jeff Suppan into the left field stands at Nationals Park in the second inning, ending his stretch of homerless plate appearances dating back to last September at 158. Another big hit in Washington's 5-1 win was provided in the seventh by catcher Jesus Flores, who doubled home two runs. Flores is now batting .356/.453/.600 in 53 plate appearances, 41 of those having come since both of Washington's regular catchers, Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada, went down in early May. Flores recently got a vote of confidence from general manager Jim Bowden, who told the Washington Post that "it's going to be extremely hard to take [Flores] out of the lineup if he plays like this." That virtually assured that one half of the prediction from Baseball Prospectus 2008 has come true: "It's within his power to push the veteran to the bench before the end of the season and get named to an All-Star team within the next four." Flores was a Rule 5 pick by the Nationals from the Mets last season after he hit .266/.335/.487 as a 21-year-old at High-A in 2006, with a league-leading 21 homers. PECOTA is extraordinarily bullish on the young backstop, handing out a .259/.321/.450 weighted mean projection.

Matchup: Rangers (25-25) at Indians (22-26), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Scott Feldman (54 IP, 4.83 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 56 K) vs. Cliff Lee (33 2/3, 4.01, 1.19, 26)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 24-26 (267 RS, 279 RA); Cleveland, 25-23 (196 RS, 184 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #2; Cleveland, #6
Prospectus: The Rangers offense continued to punish pitchers last night, knocking out Fausto Carmona in a 13-9 win over the Indians, their third straight victory. Texas has scored 31 runs in those three games, and now leads the American League in runs per game, at 5.3. The Rangers hit a team-record nine doubles last night, including one that cleared the loaded bases in the first inning from outfielder David Murphy. That two-bagger was Murphy's major league-leading 19th of the season. Murphy hit just 20 doubles last season in 451 plate appearances with Triple-A Pawtucket, and owns a career line of .273/.343/.407 in 2119 minor league PA. Murphy's surname certainly fit in better in Boston, but he appears to be much more comfortable in Texas--since packing his bags for the Lone Star State, he has hit .308/.354/.514 in 320 PA with the Rangers. Murphy's career performance history gives no indication that he can continue at this level of play, but after several disappointing seasons it looks like he is beginning to cash in on the potential that led the Red Sox to make him the 17th overall pick in 2003, a spot at which they nearly took Cal first baseman Conor Jackson.

The Indians have no such success stories on offense this season, ranking 11th in the AL in runs scored. Particularly brutal has been the team's infield, and especially the keystone, where Asdrubal Cabrera and Jamey Carroll have combined to hit .174/.280/.210, which is almost the worst OPS produced by any position of any team in the AL, beating out only the Royals shortstops and the pitchers who have had to hit in interleague play. The Indians also have no help available--Josh Barfield has just a 687 OPS this season at Triple-A Buffalo. Barfield has flashed a bit of power, with 18 extra-base hits as compared with just eight from the Cabrera/Carroll combo, so perhaps the Indians will consider bringing him up anyway just to shake up the offense, and attempt to revive a player who rapped 48 extra-base hits into the canyons of Petco Park in 2006.

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

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