May 31, 2008
Saturday's Games to Watch
Today's Full Slate of
Matchup: Rockies (20-35) at Cubs (34-21), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glendon Rusch (19 2/3 IP, 6.86 RA, 1.68 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (70 1/3, 3.45, 1.10, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 21-34 (233 RS, 304 RA); Chicago, 36-19 (314 RS, 225 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #27; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: Rockies fans are likely still feeling the effects of yesterday's defeat, in which an 8-0 lead was blown away by a 15 mph wind in a classic Wrigley day-game slugfest. Colorado wasted a memorable performance from Jeff Baker, who set a team record with four doubles and became just the fourth player since 1956 to hit four doubles in four total at-bats. In the process, the Rockies dropped their fifth straight game, and tied for the worst record in the major leagues. Taking the ball to try to staunch the bleeding will be Rusch, called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs to make his first appearance for Colorado and first start since July 9 of 2006, when he pitched for the team he'll be facing today. Given how Rusch performed out of the San Diego bullpen earlier this season before being let go, Rockies fans probably aren't looking forward to the occasion, even though Rusch allowed only a run in his two starts for the Sky Sox. This afternoon's outing for the left-hander could be rough, not only due to the day-time winds at the friendly confines, but also because the Cubs, the majors' No. 1 offense, have done substantial damage to southpaws. With right-handed sluggers up and down the lineup, Chicago is hitting .295/.381/.463 against left-handers, a better OPS versus port-siders than any other team.
Yesterday's onslaught by Chicago moved their runs-per-game average up to 5.7, which puts them on pace for 925 over a full 162-game season. That would be the most runs the Cubs have scored since 1930, when they put up an astounding total of 998 in the 156-game slate, or 6.4 per. That 1930 team featured the major league-record 191 RBI season of Hall of Famer Hack Wilson, and also had Hall of Famers Gabby Hartnett behind the plate, Kiki Cuyler in the outfield, and Rogers Hornsby serving as player-manager. Of course, the Cubs failed to even win the pennant, finishing two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who that year were one of the seven teams in major league history to score 1000 runs in a season.
Matchup: Tigers (23-31) at Mariners (20-35), 12:55 p.m. PT, FOX
Probable Starters: Justin Verlander (68 IP, 5.82 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 43 K) vs. Felix Hernandez (75, 3.96, 1.47, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 26-28 (261 RS, 274 RA); Seattle, 21-34 (221 RS, 283 RA)
Rankings: Detroit, #22; Seattle, #30
Prospectus: These two young aces have squared off once before, in 2006, a game in which Verlander beat Hernandez. King Felix suffered a blown quality start in his last outing (when a fourth run crosses the plate in the seventh or later), which was his third so far this season. As you might expect from that figure, Hernandez has seen his numbers steadily worsen as games have progressed: opponents have a 640 OPS in their initial plate appearance against him, a 734 in their second, and an 847 in their third and up. That's in contrast to his first three years in the league: last year those numbers were 746, 796, and 712, respectively; in 2006, opponents actually hit worse both the second and third times through; in 2005, they had the same OPS the first and second trips and a lower one in the third. Hernandez is also averaging 3.7 UBB/9, well up from the 2.5/9 he carried into this season in 465 career innings. He leads the majors in Category III starts with seven, so it may be that manager John McLaren has stuck with Hernandez a bit too long. It's hard to blame McLaren, however, given that Seattle's bullpen has been below replacement level this season, worse than only Cleveland's by WXRL.
Ichiro Suzuki stole his 24th base of the season last night in Seattle's 7-4 loss to Detroit, which tied him for the major league lead with Houston's Michael Bourn. Ichiro has been caught just twice, further proof of his remarkable base-stealing ability. Ichiro stole 190 bases out of 246 attempts in his first five seasons, a very strong 77.2 percent, but from 2005 to the present he has taken it up a notch, nabbing 106 of 118, 89.8 percent. Ichiro set the AL record for consecutive stolen bases without being caught from late 2006 to early 2007 (45), and his 2006 season of 45 steals against two caught stealing is one of the more remarkable baserunning feats in modern baseball history.
Matchup: White Sox (30-24) at Rays (33-22), 6:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (71 2/3 IP, 3.64 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (30, 1.80, 0.97, 32)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 31-23 (241 RS, 203 RA); Tampa Bay, 30-25 (251 RS, 225 RA)
Rankings: Chicago, #8; Tampa Bay, #5
Prospectus: In this matchup between unlikely division leaders, the teams split the first two games, and both were pitching and defense-oriented battles. Tonight's game features two of the game's premier strikeout artists: since the start of last season, Vazquez has fanned 280, fourth most in the majors and most of any current AL pitcher, while Kazmir has set down 271, third on the AL list behind Vazquez and C.C. Sabathia. Vazquez has already beaten the Rays once at the Tropicana Dome this season, back on April 18. Kazmir, meanwhile, has been dealing since come off of the DL, and at 24 years old looks ready to contend for his first Cy Young award.
The White Sox and Rays offer up different blueprints for scoring runs. Despite its reputation as a smallball team, Chicago has little team speed: the White Sox rank second-to-last in the AL in both stolen bases (19) and steal attempts (29). Instead, they're a patient, base-to-base, power-hitting team, ranking first in the AL with 63 homers, whose plodding nature has led to 54 ground-ball double plays. The Rays have not hit their home run stride yet, ranking seventh in the junior circuit with 52, but they are a speedy group that leads the major leagues in stolen base attempts (83) and is tied for the lead with Houston in successes (61). Tampa Bay has also grounded into 14 fewer double plays than Chicago. Center fielder B.J. Upton has significantly upped his running game this season; after attempting 30 steals in 129 games last year, he has already tried 22 times in 53 games thus far, and has been successful on 17 occasions, 77 percent. The Rays stole four bases in Thursday night's opener and three more last night without being caught. It appears they are purposely picking on White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who has thrown out just six of 45 runners this year, a league-low 13 percent.
Matchup: Indians (25-29) at Royals (21-34), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: C.C. Sabathia (68 1/3 IP, 4.74 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 70 K) vs. Kyle Davies (136, 6.75, 1.65, 99--2007)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 29-25 (223 RS, 206 RA); Kansas City, 21-34 (197 RS, 257 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #17; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: The Royals lost again last night, this time in agonizing fashion, for their 12th straight defeat. They seemingly tied the game in the bottom of the sixth inning when Esteban German singled in Joey Gathright, but David DeJesus was thrown out on the bases before Gathright could cross the plate. Then, the final out of the game was recorded on a game-saving catch by Grady Sizemore, who crashed into the fence but held onto the ball. Sizemore has been doing everything for the Indians all season--he hit two home runs last night in addition to his defensive gem, and has been one of only two Indians this season to post an above-average OPS+. The one piece of good news for the Royals to come out of the loss was that Miguel Olivo walked to open the second inning, which broke a string of 38 consecutive innings in which no one on the team took a free pass. (The record for this inglorious category is held by the Tigers, who went 48 straight innings without drawing a walk in September of 2002.) As might be expected from a team that produces that sort of free-swinging stretch, the Royals are last in the majors in walks, with 142. Kansas City has not been a patient team for a long while, as the last time the Royals finished in the top half of the AL in walks was 1989, which was also the last time the team had a batter draw 100 walks in a season (Kevin Seitzer).
Tonight's game marks the return of Davies to the Royals rotation, after his recall from Triple-A Omaha. The Royals traded Octavio Dotel to the Braves for him at last year's deadline, and Davies subsequently put up an ominous 6.66 ERA in 11 starts. One of the baseball mantras that gets bandied about is that it's never wise to bet on a pitching prospect that Atlanta trades away, given the Braves' tremendous track record of identifying and developing outstanding arms. While ex-Braves pitching prospects as a group have in general done very little, as demonstrated in this 2004 study by Jay Jaffe--think Dan Meyer, Rob Bell, and Jose Capellan--there have been big exceptions, notably Jason Schmidt and Adam Wainwright. Davies has righted the ship somewhat in Triple-A this year, with a 3.49 RA in his 10 starts for Omaha in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but his 37/20 K/BB ratio suggests there's still quite a bit of work to be done before he can hope to add his name to that latter group.
Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.
Matchup: Nationals (24-32) at Diamondbacks (30-25), 5:10 MT
Probable Starters: Jason Bergmann (32 IP, 4.50 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Brandon Webb (74 2/3, 3.74, 1.10, 64)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 23-33 (217 RS, 264 RA); Arizona, 30-25 (278 RS, 234 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; Arizona, #4
Prospectus: General manager Jim Bowden has cobbled together another rotation this year, this time one that ranks 10th in the majors in SNLVAR, ahead of even Webb's Diamondbacks. Bergmann has come on of late to be a part of that surprising success, as he enters tonight's start having not allowed a run in his last three, a stretch of 19 2/3 frames. The 26-year-old right-hander out of Rutgers sports a 4.50 ERA, the highest of the team's current five starters, but he might have the best stuff of the bunch--he's the only Nats starter to record more than a K per inning so far. While Bergmann has been untouchable of late, Webb is coming off of his first real clunker of the 2008 season, allowing seven runs in 4 1/3 innings in Atlanta, which led to his second straight loss since opening the season with nine consecutive victories. The Diamondbacks need Webb to serve as stopper, having lost five in a row, including four straight at home to two of the NL's worst teams, the Giants and Nationals.
Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds remains on pace to surpass Ryan Howard's record-setting total of 199 strikeouts from last season, but Reynolds has also passed the torch to Justin Upton. Arizona's young right fielder has fanned 65 times, second in the NL behind Howard. Even if they cut down on their strikeouts a bit, Reynolds and Upton could challenge the mark for most combined whiffs by two teammates. The record is currently held by the 2001 Brewers pairing of shortstop Jose Hernandez (185) and first baseman Richie Sexson (178). Also from that team was Jeromy Burnitz, who struck out 150 times, and Geoff Jenkins, 120, and the Brewers set the record that year for most team strikeouts (1399). Arizona is in no danger of breaking that mark, but with center fielder Chris Young also coming up empty at a prodigious rate--on pace for 170 Ks--the D'backs could have a trio that betters the Hernandez/Sexson/Burnitz troika to become the most prolific whiffers in baseball history.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.