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May 28, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (28-23) at Indians (24-28), 12:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Gavin Floyd (58 1/3 IP, 3.39 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Jake Westbrook (29 2/3, 3.03, 1.11, 16)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 29-22 (229 RS, 195 RA); Cleveland, 28-24 (213 RS, 196 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #5; Cleveland, #17
Prospectus: Westbrook comes off the DL after being sidelined since April 19 with a strained ribcage muscle. The veteran right-hander was drinking from the same Kool-Aid as Cliff Lee at the start of the season (albeit a watered-down version), as he tossed four consecutive quality starts before getting hurt, so his return should help make up for the team's loss of Fausto Carmona, who will be out for most of the next month after straining a hip muscle. Cleveland still leads the league in starting pitcher performance by a healthy margin, with a collective team SNLVAR of 9.5 (Oakland is second at 7.4). The Indians' starters are no longer on pace for a historically-great performance, but if they keep pitching at their current rate, they will finish with an SNLVAR of 29.6. That would be the fifth highest in the American League in the past 50 years, behind the rotations of the 1961 Orioles, the 1964 and '63 White Sox, and the 1980 A's.

Opposing Westbrook is Floyd, who already has two near no-hitters this season. Floyd is a fly-ball pitcher, with a G/F ratio this season of 0.88, and therefore stands in contrast to Westbrook, a premier sinkerballer who has a career G/F of 2.66. What's curious about Floyd's success in preventing hits this season is that Chicago's outfield defense has been suspect; Floyd has a .176 BABIP, the lowest amongst all ERA qualifiers, despite the fact that the White Sox have gotten a collective Range Factor that is below average from all three outfield positions. Especially inexplicable is the defensive play of reserve center fielder Brian Anderson thus far: known as a fantastic glove man, who rated as 16 runs above average in 134 games at the position in 2006 by FRAA, Anderson this season has made just 22 putouts in 140 innings in center. That gives him a range factor of 1.41, which ranks dead last amongst all players who have amassed at least 50 innings in center this season. That abnormally low figure could be a fluke caused by a lack of balls hit in his direction while in the game, as Anderson's Zone Rating is .880, which is at least respectable.

Matchup: Rangers (27-27) at Rays (31-21), 12:40 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kason Gabbard (37 1/3 IP, 4.34 RA, 1.71 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Matt Garza (44 1/3, 4.26, 1.47, 19)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 26-28 (286 RS, 298 RA); Tampa Bay, 29-23 (243 RS, 216 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #16; Tampa Bay, #7
Prospectus: After a long, tough journey spanning nine years, the top overall pick by in the 1999 amateur draft finally arrived in Tampa Bay on Monday night, playing in front of the Tropicana Field fans for the first time. Of course, Hamilton made his return as a member of the Texas Rangers, and not the hometown Rays, but the fans at the Trop gave him a standing ovation anyway when he first dug into the batter's box. Hamilton went 0-4 in the opener, but he put on a spectacular show last night, giving Rays fans a tantalizing taste of what might have been. Hamilton unloaded for a first-inning RBI double and an eighth-inning grand slam, and has now driven in 58 runs, 12 more than that of the next closest batter, Lance Berkman. His fast start is reminiscent of the hot beginning of another Rangers slugging outfielder, Juan Gonzalez, who hit the 58 RBI mark in his 46th game back in 1998 (Hamilton has played 53 games). Juan Gone had 101 RBI in 87 games by the All-Star break that season, but drove in "just" 56 runs in 67 second-half games, that despite the fact that his batting average rose from .293 to .353 and his slugging from .590 to .686. Gonzalez's counter-intuitive split captures what the RBI is all about, in that you need opportunities. Hamilton has gotten quite a few, as he has batted with 168 runners on base, tied for the fifth highest total in baseball, but he's also performed like almost no one has in history. Hamilton's OBI% is up to 26.8, which would be the second highest mark in the past 50 years amongst batting title qualifiers.

Even with last night's loss, the Rays are in first place in the East with the AL's best record, and are tied for the best mark in the majors with the Cubs. The Rangers are exceeding expectations as well, albeit to a much more modest extent, as they have maintained a .500 record despite the worst pitching staff in the AL. Texas was also buried by this point last season, with a 19-35 record and the same 13.5-game deficit in the AL West that the Rays sported in the AL East at that juncture.

Matchup: Pittsburgh (24-27) at Cincinnati (24-28), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tom Gorzelanny (45 2/3 IP, 6.31 RA, 1.80 WHIP, 26 K) vs. Bronson Arroyo (58 2/3, 6.60, 1.65, 55)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 23-28 (250 RS, 280 RA); Cincinnati, 23-29 (234 RS, 261 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #25; Cincinnati, #23
Prospectus: Last night's game at the Great American Ballpark was memorable because the Reds' 9-6 win over Pittsburgh featured the debut of Jay Bruce, the Baseball Prospectus 2008 No. 1 prospect. Bruce started in center field and had a spectacular first game at the plate, going 3-for-3 with two walks, two runs, and two RBI. Bruce became just the fourth batter since 1956 to reach base safely in all five of his plate appearances in his major league debut. The others were Kazuo Matsui with the Mets in 2004, Ted Cox with the Red Sox in 1977, and John Paciorek with the Colt .45's in 1963. Reds fans, of course, are hoping that Bruce's prodigious potential produces a career far better than those three players are having or have had. (Amazingly, Paciorek played in only that one game before back injuries conspired to keep him from returning to the majors, so he finished his career a perfect 3-for-3.) Bruce stole a base after walking in the first inning as well, becoming the first hitter since '56 to get on five times and swipe a bag in his debut. Fellow lefty slugger Adam Dunn also had a big game, hitting his 14th homer of the season to surpass Ted Kluszewski as Cincinnati's all-time leader in home runs by a left-handed hitter.

Pittsburgh welcomed a player into its lineup yesterday too, getting Jack Wilson back at shortstop for the first time since April 3, when he injured his left calf. It seems a bit odd to call Wilson a savior, but he quietly posted a fine offensive season last year, hitting .296/.350/.440, while playing an outstanding shortstop (tied for second at the position with a 4.96 Range Factor, and fifth with a .983 Fielding Percentage). In Wilson's absence, Pirates shortstops hit .240/.288/.296 in 194 PA. Pittsburgh still managed to put up a decent offensive showing despite that drag, so Wilson's return should provide some help. It's doubtful that Wilson will be able to provide an upgrade defensively, though, even despite his excellent glove, as his main replacement Brian Bixler had the highest Range Factor at short (5.49) of anyone with at least 100 innings there this season.

Matchup: Astros (30-23) at Cardinals (30-23), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Wandy Rodriguez (23 1/3 IP, 2.70 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 24 K) vs. Adam Wainwright (70 2/3, 3.44, 1.12, 46) Pythagorean Record: Houston, 27-26 (261 RS, 251 RA); St. Louis, 29-24 (241 RS, 218 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #15; St. Louis, #8
Prospectus: Rodriguez comes off the DL tonight to make his first start in over a month, having strained his groin on the same day that Westbrook was injured, April 19. Also like Westbrook, Rodriguez was throwing very well at the time that he went down. His return will allow the Astros to bump Chris Sampson to the bullpen, a significant bit of addition by subtraction considering that Sampson had a 6.39 RA in 10 starts. Tonight's outing will be a key test for Rodriguez, not only because it is his first one back from injury, but also because it is on the road: in three starts at home this season he has allowed three runs in 18 1/3 innings, but he gave up four runs in five innings in his one start away from Minute Maid. Those early returns are a continuation of Rodriguez's remarkable home/road split from last year, when he had a 2.94 RA in 95 innings in Houston and a 7.29 in 87 2/3 IP on the road. Rodriguez displayed no such disparity through his first two seasons in the big leagues, so it will be interesting to see whether this season proves last year's split to be a fluke or a curious trend.

Albert Pujols went 4-for-4 last night, raising his average to .360 and his on-base percentage to .483. Pujols' greatness at the plate is unquestioned, but what some may not realize is that he is also arguably the best defensive first baseman in the game as well. Since Pujols became a full-time first baseman in 2004, he has ranked first at the position in Simple Fielding Runs (SFR) in three out of four seasons. He has also been outstanding as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) and Range Factor (RF):


Year  SFR  Rank    RF   Rank  FRAA
2007  10.9   1    9.84    4    10
2006   7.5   1   10.55    2     9
2005   2.7  12   11.22    1     2
2004   9.5   1   10.57    1     6

This year, Pujols has been as good as ever, with a Range Factor that ranks second in the majors at first base behind Todd Helton, a Zone Rating that ranks second behind Daric Barton, and +3 FRAA, bolstering his claim to the title of the most complete slugger in baseball.

Matchup: Red Sox (32-23) at Mariners (19-34), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Tim Wakefield (59 IP, 5.64 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Erik Bedard (46, 5.48, 1.30, 40)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 31-24 (279 RS, 245 RA); Seattle, 21-32 (216 RS, 276 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Seattle, #28
Prospectus: Manny Ramirez launched the 499th home run of his career last night, a three-run shot to right against Miguel Batista in the sixth. That blast brought him within one of becoming the 24th player to join the 500 Home Run Club, and also moved him into 25th on the all-time RBI list, passing Ernie Banks. With another homer and 17 more doubles, Ramirez will also become the ninth player in history with 500 homers and 500 doubles, joining Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Frank Robinson, Rafael Palmeiro, Ted Williams, and Eddie Murray. Ramirez is one of 21 players in history with a career batting average of at least .300, OBP of at least .400, and slugging of at least .500 (minimum 3000 plate appearances), and the sixth active player with such lofty averages, along with Pujols, Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, Frank Thomas, and Chipper Jones.

Ramirez has greatly enjoyed hitting at Safeco Field--he now owns a .313/.400/.667 line there in 180 plate appearances, with 14 home runs--but he has fared poorly against Bedard in his career, with no home runs and just four hits in 20 at-bats. Bedard has been uncharacteristically prone to the long ball this year, however--he has surrendered eight home runs, more than 1.5 per nine, which is the highest rate of his career. He entered 2008 with a lifetime HR/9 of 0.8 in over 650 innings. Bedard also began last season slowly, as he had a 6.09 RA and gave up six homers over 34 innings in his first six starts, but then posted a 2.61 RA and 0.99 WHIP in 148 innings the rest of the way. He had a similar rough start in 2006, as well, with a 6.39 RA in his first 12 starts and a 3.18 the rest of the way. While the hip problem that sidelined him earlier this season could still be bothering Bedard, it also could be that he simply takes a while to get going. Even if Bedard does crank it up soon, it may well be too late to matter for the Mariners' chances. The team is off to its worst start through 53 games since 1981, and its playoff odds have shrunk to worse than 1-in-700.

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

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