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June 3, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (35-22) at Red Sox (35-25), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (52 1/3 IP, 3.96 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Justin Masterson (12 1/3, 1.46, 0.97, 9)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 32-25 (257 RS, 228 RA); Boston, 34-26 (302 RS, 261 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; Boston, #2
Prospectus: With the best record in the AL, the Rays will try to add to their lead in the East against the defending world champions. The Rays and Red Sox have each swept three-game series from each other at home this season; Boston's victories over Tampa Bay in early May started the team's current 10-game Fenway winning streak, and the Sox are now 21-5 overall in their venerable ballpark, the best home record in the majors. The Rays fantastic start is tempered somewhat by the fact that they have played the most home games in the majors (34, tied with the Cubs and Cardinals) and the fewest road games (23, tied with the Cubs). Tonight marks the start of a nine-game road trip for the Rays, who are 11-12 away from Tropicana Field this year.

With Daisuke Matsuzaka on the DL, the 23-year-old rookie Masterson will take the ball for the Red Sox to make his third career major league start. Masterson pitched very well in spot duty in his first two, but after both of those outings he was sent back down because of Boston's crowded rotation. Masterson has yet to give up a home run this year in 56 2/3 combined innings, as he possesses some of the best ground-ball stuff seen in the professional ranks--Kevin Goldstein called his sinker "arguably the best in all of the minor leagues." In his two starts for the Red Sox thus far, Masterson has generated 19 groundballs, including two double plays, against seven fly outs. Boston infielders will have to be on top of things, because the Rays have more speed than any other team in the league. They are also a tough team to double up, having grounded into only 40 double plays so far, just three more than has the team with the fewest in the AL (Baltimore).

Matchup: Blue Jays (31-28) at Yankees (28-29), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (89 IP, 3.13 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 71 K) vs. Joba Chamberlain (23 2/3, 2.28, 1.14, 30)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 33-26 (238 RS, 210 RA); New York, 28-29 (255 RS, 263 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #10; New York, #16
Prospectus: The Bronx will be buzzing tonight when Chamberlain makes the first start of his major league career after 39 relief appearances. The Yankees were expected to stretch Chamberlain out through progressively longer relief outings over a month or so before he made his first start, but extenuating circumstances pushed up the timetable--namely, the deterioration of the Yankees' starting staff, with Ian Kennedy joining fellow prospect Philip Hughes on the DL. Chamberlain is expected to make just 65-70 pitches tonight, and given his struggles with efficiency this season, that could mean he won't be allowed to go the requisite five innings to qualify for a win should he have the lead. (Chamberlain has averaged 17.1 pitches per inning, up from 14.3 last year, and 4.21 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.76, an issue that he is aware of.) Of course, a Yankees lead is a tenuous proposition with Halladay on the mound; Doc has continued to mow hitters down, averaging 13.6 P/IP and 3.5 P/PA. Halladay did lose at the Stadium to Chien-Ming Wang on Opening Day, but he has a career record of 5-4 in the Bronx with a 3.68 RA and 75/24 K/UBB over 93 innings.

The excitement surrounding tonight's game is well justified. Chamberlain was run through PECOTA as a starter before the season, and the system projected him for 8.8 K/9, higher than any other starter in professional baseball. His Stuff score of 36 is also the highest of the 1,025 pitchers evaluated, starter or reliever. It's therefore not hard to see why fans and owner alike have clamored for the 22-year-old right-hander to join the rotation. Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi did well to limit Chamberlain's innings in the first two months, however, considering that beginning the year in the rotation would have more easily brought him to the danger zone that Tom Verducci has identified as existing for young pitchers whose innings totals increase by 30 from year to year (Chamberlain threw 116 frames in 2007). Chamberlain's move into the rotation could also have a beneficial effect on the bullpen, assuming Girardi will begin utilizing Edwar Ramirez in a more high-leverage role. Ramirez's PECOTA-projected EqK9 of 10.3 is higher than every pitcher in baseball besides Francisco Rodriguez.

Matchup: Orioles (27-29) at Twins (30-27), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Radhames Liz (60 IP, 5.10 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 58 K in Triple-A) vs. Kevin Slowey (34 2/3, 3.38, 1.04, 24) Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 26-30 (233 RS, 251 RA); Minnesota, 28-29 (267 RS, 274 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #19; Minnesota, #20
Prospectus: Liz gets the call from Triple-A Norfolk to make his first start of the season tonight for the Orioles, taking the rotation spot of Steve Trachsel. The 25-year-old rookie right-hander wasn't pitching that well down on the farm, but the major positive from his performance so far is that he has cut his walk rate for the second straight season, down to 3.6 UBB/9 IP, after it fell from 5.1 in 2006 to 4.6 last year. It remains to be seen whether he can throw enough strikes to survive in the AL East, as in 2007 Liz walked 23 in 24 2/3 innings during his initial major league action. Liz got a late start in pro ball, debuting with a dominant showing in the low minors in 2005 at the age of 22, so he might well have a greater amount of potential growth than most his age. Consequently, Liz is still very much a statistical enigma, as his PECOTA Beta figure is an extremely high 1.62, making his 2008 forecast more volatile than that of any other pitcher with major league experience. Even if Liz isn't able to harness his control and develop his secondary pitches enough to stick as a starter, he should have a big league career as a reliever, for according to Kevin Goldstein his fastball is the best in Baltimore's farm system. Liz has a similar outlook to that of Daniel Cabrera at this stage in his development, as the two share an explosive fastball and an inability to determine where the ball is headed much of the time.

Luckily for Liz, the Twins are not a very patient team, ranking 12th in the AL with 168 walks. They also aren't a very powerful team, ranking second-to-last in homers and eighth in slugging percentage, although those marks received a boost last night when Joe Mauer hit his first home run of the season, and first in 218 plate appearances. Delmon Young did not follow suit with his first--he has now gone 260 PA without a homer--but he did double three times. After he had four extra-base hits in his first 162 PA, Young now has 10 in his last 72, and is slugging .500 since May 16.

Matchup: Tigers (24-33) at Athletics (31-27), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dontrelle Willis (205 1/3 IP, 5.74 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 146 K in 2007) vs. Dana Eveland (66 1/3, 3.80, 1.28, 47)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 27-30 (270 RS, 287 RA); Oakland, 33-25 (257 RS, 220 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #22; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: The Tigers will go with an unconventional strategy tonight, starting off with Dontrelle Willis for the first four or five innings, and then closing out the game with Armando Galarraga, whose turn it is in the rotation. In explaining the move to the Detroit Free Press, Leyland sounded very much like a desperate, frustrated manager: "I've got to try to get Dontrelle going. We have three years invested in this guy. This guy has credibility as a major league pitcher." Willis will be making his first start since April 11, when he failed to retire a batter before leaving due to injury. Willis was forced into the bullpen upon his return from the DL in late May due to the emergence of Galarraga, who has been the team's best starter by SNLVAR. The two-time All-Star made just one appearance out of the pen, however, in which he was again wild. It is also disconcerting that Willis has yet to strike out a batter, even if that's in limited work. Leyland's decision to go with a two-starter alignment tonight probably has a good deal to do with his bullpen, as well, which has been the third worst in baseball by WXRL (above Seattle and Cleveland) and the second worst in baseball by ARP (above only Texas), at eight runs below average.

Oakland beat the Tigers 3-2 in last night's series opener on a base hit into the gap by Bobby Crosby that scored Kurt Suzuki. If it hadn't been a walk-off, Crosby's knock would have gone for at least two bases, which would have been his third double of the game. The shortstop hasn't had anything go right since his injury troubles began in 2005, the season after his Rookie of the Year campaign, but he now leads the AL with 19 two-baggers. Crosby hasn't done much else at the plate, but after seasons in which he posted OPS marks of 640 and 619, that doubles power leads to hope that not all his potential was sapped by injuries.

Matchup: Mets (28-28) at Giants (25-33), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Pedro Martinez (28 IP, 3.54 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 32 K in 2007) vs. Barry Zito (57, 6.47, 1.77, 32)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 28-28 (267 RS, 265 RA); San Francisco, 25-33 (228 RS, 270 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #12; San Francisco, #24
Prospectus: Two former Cy Young winners square off tonight at AT&T Park, as Martinez comes off the DL to make his first start since the second game of the season. Martinez made just five starts last season, and 23 the year before that, meaning that the Mets have thus far gotten 60 starts from the future Hall of Famer since signing him to a four-year, $53 million deal before the 2005 season. Martinez is arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history--his career adjusted OPS+ is far and away the best ever--and he has still been highly effective in his time with the Mets despite the injuries, having posted a 3.69 RA, 1.04 WHIP, and 378/94 K/BB in 381 innings.

Martinez has however not been able to maintain his lofty winning percentage since coming to New York, partly due to a lack of run support and partly due to some diminishing of his prodigious powers: consequently, Martinez has gone "just" 27-17 with the Mets, an excellent winning percentage of 61.4 percent, but a good bit short of the 70.5 mark that he carried with him to Flushing (182-76). Martinez still ranks first in overall winning percentage (69.2) amongst the 526 pitchers since 1876 who have amassed at least 200 decisions, just a few ticks ahead of Whitey Ford, who sits at 69.0 percent with a 236-106 career record. Martinez is third on the all-time list amongst pitchers with a minimum of 100 decisions, behind Al Spalding (an unbreakable .796), who won an amazing 252 games in a span of six seasons between 1871 and 1876 for the Boston Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings, and Spud Chandler, a Yankees late-bloomer who was a war-time MVP with a 20-4 record in 1943. Martinez's teammate Johan Santana ranks eighth on that list, as the third lefty behind Ford and former Reds ace Don Gullett. The Mets, then, have the winningest two pitchers of the last 30 years now in their rotation. Martinez and Santana also rank No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, in career K/9, and No. 3 and No. 6 in career K/BB, minimum 1000 IP.

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

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