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June 4, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (28-31) at Phillies (35-25), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edinson Volquez (68 IP, 1.99 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 83 K) vs. Brett Myers (73 1/3, 6.01, 1.58, 63)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 28-31 (268 RS, 288 RA); Philadelphia, 36-24 (323 RS,258 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #21; Philadelphia, #7
Prospectus: It's difficult to overstate just how well Volquez has pitched thus far. He has yet to allow more than two runs or pitch less than five innings in a start, closing in on the modern record for such a streak of 14 straight, held by Mike Scott and Greg Maddux. He also has a remarkable 1.46 ERA, especially impressive given the bandbox the Reds call home; Volquez's park-adjusted ERA+ is 305, meaning his ERA has been 205 percent better than league average. That is the best mark in history for all starting pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings in a season. Of starters who qualified for the ERA title, the highest ERA+ was posted by Pedro Martinez (191 percent better than league average), whose 1.74 ERA was produced at the height of the "steroids era" offensive explosion, in the DH league, and in a premier hitter's ballpark. Like Martinez, Volquez is a relatively slight Dominican right-hander, measuring 6'1" and 190 pounds, compared with 5'11" and 170 for Martinez.

Volquez beat Myers and the Phillies in his first start of the season. Perhaps what was most notable about that game was that he handled Chase Utley reasonably well, limiting him to 1-for-3 with a single and a pair of fly outs. The rematch will be worth watching, as Utley is working on his second unconscious tear of the season, having homered in seven of his last nine games, included a stretch of five straight games through Monday. That was the second time this season that Utley homered in five consecutive, making him the 10th player since 1956 to have two or more such streaks in his career. Utley also became the fourth player to have two five-game homer streaks in the same season, along with Barry Bonds in 2001, Frank Thomas in '94, and Harmon Killebrew in '70. The other potential homer storyline to watch is of course Ken Griffey Jr.'s potential 600th. Griffey has five hits in 12 career at-bats against Myers, including a home run that he hit against the right-hander in that April 6 start won by Volquez.

Matchup: Cardinals (35-25) at Nationals (24-35), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (74 IP, 3.41 RA, 1.14 WHIP, 57 K) vs. John Lannan (64, 3.66, 1.39, 43)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 33-27 (276 RS, 249 RA); Washington, 23-36 (218 RS, 279 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #9; Washington, #29
Prospectus: There have now been 29 games at the new Nationals Park, a little more than a third of their home schedule, and while that's not much of a sample size, let's give a quick check to see how the park has played thus far. There have been 8.8 runs scored per game on the banks of the Anacostia, as compared with 8.1 in the 30 road games the Nationals have played, leading to a park factor for Nats Park of 1.090, the ninth highest in the majors. Here are the component lines:

Nationals Batters, home: .230/.303/.342, 17 homers, 3.6 R/G
Nationals Batters, road: .231/.310/.354, 23 homers, 3.8 R/G

Nationals Pitchers, home: .271/.343/.437, 35 homers, 5.2 R/G
Nationals Pitchers, road: .266/.344/.429, 33 homers, 4.3 R/G

The Nationals have hit a little worse and had their pitchers perform a little worse at home, leading to the conclusion that Nationals Park is essentially neutral. That makes sense--the park has about average dimensions, with a bit more distance down the left and right field lines and a bit less to center and right center, a decent amount of foul territory, and no blatant extra-base hit-inducing quirks in the outfield.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina provided the critical blow in last night's 6-1 series-opening win, a three-run first-inning shot. Molina is now hitting .295/.362/.386 through 196 plate appearances, on pace to set career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG. Known as the game's premier defensive catcher, Molina has made tremendous strides at the plate, building upon last year's improvements, when his OBP bumped up from .274 in '06 to .340. Molina entered 2008 with 96 walks against 134 strikeouts, but he has walked twice as many times as he's struck out this year (18 to nine). If Molina can retain the offensive gains he has made this season and become an average performer, he will be arguably the most valuable Cardinals position player not named Albert Pujols, for his defense is that good (62 FRAA so far for his career). Molina's defensive numbers are down some this year, but he has caught 100 out of 202 potential base stealers in his five big league seasons, a better career rate than Ivan Rodriguez.

Matchup: Indians (26-32) at Rangers (30-30), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (72 IP, 2.13 RA, 0.96 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Sidney Ponson (51 2/3, 5.23, 1.47, 24)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 30-28 (246 RS, 237 RA); Texas, 29-31 (329 RS, 341 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #17; Texas, #18
Prospectus: Lee will be faced with cooling down the Rangers' scorching bats: Texas has plated 37 runs in the past four games, and ranks first in the AL in runs, hits, doubles, homers, average, and slugging percentage. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a big game in last night's 12-7 win, going 3-for-3 with a homer, a walk, and two runs scored. Saltalamacchia was rated as the top under-25 talent in the Rangers system by Kevin Goldstein this offseason, and he is delivering with a .279/.417/.471 line in 84 plate appearances. PECOTA is bullish about the 23-year-old switch-hitter's future, projecting a .276 EqA this season, .280 next year, and .290+ from 2011-2014. Saltalamacchia is not a good defensive catcher, having thrown out just 10 of 60 potential base stealers thus far in the majors, and has shown no ability to hit left-handers, with a 615 OPS off southpaws in 147 plate appearances compared with 814 in 261 against righties. The first problem is a concern, although how large is debatable given Saltalamacchia's offensive ability, but the second issue shouldn't be too worrisome--PECOTA forecasted Saltalamacchia to be just a hair worse from the right side of the plate (770 OPS) than the left (791), and he actually had a higher OPS versus southpaws than righties in his 2005 and '06 minor league campaigns.

Matchup: Royals (23-35) at White Sox (31-26), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (47 IP, 5.74 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 33 K) vs. John Danks (63, 2.86, 1.21, 50)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 23-35 (212 RS, 269 RA); Chicago, 33-24 (253 RS, 214 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; Chicago, #8
Prospectus: The Sox beat the Royals 9-5 last night, and their nine-hole hitter had much to do with the win, as second baseman Alexei Ramirez went 3-for-4 with a homer, double, two runs, and two batted in. The rookie from Cuba had a rough first month and a half stateside, which was marred by visa issues (he could not travel with the team into Canada to play Toronto) and a 6-for-42 start at the plate. However, Ramirez was forced into a starting role at second base when Juan Uribe got hurt in mid-May, and his bat has perked in coincidence with that promotion. Since entering the lineup on May 16, Ramirez has hit .367/.381/.600 in 63 PA, and consequently has started 16 of the team's past 17 games, keeping Uribe off the field in each of the three games since he returned from the DL Saturday. Uribe might be facing a Wally Pipp situation, for Ramirez is a far better offensive player: the 26-year-old's Cuban translations resulted in a PECOTA-projected .280 EqA to Uribe's .251. Ramirez is a significantly lesser defender than Uribe, but manager Ozzie Guillen is right to substitute defense for offense at the keystone, for Chicago ranks second in the American League in run prevention (3.7 allowed per game) and eighth in the majors in defensive efficiency, but just ninth in the junior circuit in runs scored.

This series pits the team with the fewest homers in the majors against the team with the second most in the AL. The Sox have more than doubled up the Royals with the long ball, having hit 68 homers to the Royals' 30. The respective staffs are mirror images when it comes to home runs, as well, for Kansas City's pitchers have surrendered 60 bombs, while Chicago's have given up 35, the fewest in the majors, despite pitching in a park that has ranked in the top four in home run factor in each of the past five seasons. The White Sox are on pace to give up 98 homers this season, which would be a dramatic drop from the 174 allowed by South Side pitchers last year.

Matchup: Cubs (38-21) at Padres (23-37), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (65 IP, 5.95 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 61 K) vs. Greg Maddux (70 2/3, 4.46, 1.26, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 38-21 (340 RS, 244 RA); San Diego, 23-37 (222 RS, 287 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; San Diego, #28
Prospectus: The 42-year-old right-hander goes up against his original team in looking to get over the 350-win hump, where he has been stuck the past four starts, and move closer to Roger Clemens on the all-time wins list. Maddux has taken to beating the Cubs soundly ever since they let him walk in free agency after the 1991 season, as he has a lower RA (2.88 in 162 2/3 innings) and higher winning percentage (12-4) versus Chicago than he does versus any of the 15 teams he has thrown 100 or more innings against. In another case of former teammates facing their old team, Maddux's presence on the mound should mean that the lefty-swinging Jim Edmonds will get the start in center. Edmonds did nothing to disavow the notion that he was finished in his first eight games with the Cubs, but he has found his stroke lately, putting together three consecutive games with two extra-base hits. After collecting three extra-base hits in his first 128 PA, Edmonds now has six in his last 12, raising his EqA with the Cubs to .278.

Last night, Chicago stole stole six bases while getting caught once against Padres catcher Michael Barrett, highlighting what has been a problem for San Diego all season. Before he went onto the disabled list, starting catcher Josh Bard threw out just six of the 47 runners attempting to steal on him, which was actually an improvement upon last year's 10-for-131 effort. Since Barrett has entered the lineup, basestealers have been running frequently and with impunity, successfully swiping 17 of 19 attempts in 10 games. Add in the fact that Padres catchers have combined to hit .186/.267/.244, the lowest OPS of any team's catchers in the game, and it's apparent that San Diego's backstops have been highly culpable in the squad's fall into the bottom of the division.

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

Related Content:  Hit List,  Prospectus

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