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June 7, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Royals (24-37) at Yankees (30-31), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (74 1/3 IP, 4.72 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 45 K) vs. Andy Pettitte (72 2/3, 4.71, 1.43, 52)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 24-37 (220 RS, 282 RA); New York, 29-32 (273 RS, 283 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #27; New York, #15
Prospectus: Pettitte is the only left-handed pitcher currently on the Yankees' roster, as the Bombers are not employing any southpaws in the bullpen. The one lefty New York tried in the pen this season, Billy Traber, gave up four runs in eight innings before being sent down. New York right now is the only team in baseball that does not have at least one left-hander amongst its relievers, which has led to speculation that Brian Cashman is asking after the Rockies' Brian Fuentes and the Pirates' Damaso Marte. Is not having a lefty reliever a severe handicap? In the abstract, the answer is no. The example used most often of an almost entirely right-handed bullpen that dominated is that of the mid-aughts Angels. In 2003, for example, Anaheim got just eight percent of its bullpen innings from southpaws, 42 1/3 of 503 1/3, and posted the fourth-highest ARP of the last 50 years. And the Yankees do have one of the greatest lefty killers of all time at the back of their bullpen: because of his cutter, Mariano Rivera has performed better against southpaws over his career (520 opponent OPS) than against right-handers (601), prompting switch-hitters to sometimes bat right-handed against him. Thirty-one-year-old rookie Dan Giese pitched very well against left-handers in the minors; this season at Triple-A Scranton he held them to a .149 average (compared with .249 for righties) with a 28/6 K/BB ratio, and last year with Triple-A Fresno lefties hit .224 off him with a 26/3 K/BB ratio. In addition, Edwar Ramirez's nasty change-up helps him shut down lefties--he has posted a 56/14 K/BB against them in his minor league career with New York from 2006 to '08, without allowing an average against higher than .170. On the season, New York's staff has held lefties to a 729 OPS, versus the major league average of 750, while letting righties put up a 740 mark.

As was pointed out by Royals' beat writer Joe Posnanski recently, and remarked upon by BP's Rany Jazayerli, Bannister has pitched much better during the day this season than at night. In fact, he is now 5-1 in six day starts this year with a 2.16 ERA, as compared to 0-5 in six night starts with a 7.71 ERA. His opponent OPS during the day is 505 in 159 plate appearances, and at night is 883 in 153.

Matchup: Orioles (30-30) at Blue Jays (32-31), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Guthrie (83 IP, 4.01 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 53 K) vs. A.J. Burnett (77, 4.68, 1.40, 73) Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 28-32 (252 RS, 268 RA); Toronto, 35-28 (261 RS, 233 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #21; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: The Orioles beat Toronto 6-5 last night in the opener of a three-game set to pull even at .500, continuing the AL East's pummeling of itself this season. As expected, the East has been baseball's toughest division: the five teams are separated by 6.5 games, the smallest margin in baseball, and have gone 95-72 against teams outside their division, a .569 winning percentage. In contrast, the AL Central has gone 78-99 in non-fraternal battles, and the AL West 81-80. The AL East has been the best division in baseball against external rivals, just a fraction better than the NL Central (108-83, .565).

The Orioles have been able to hang around .500 far longer than expected thanks to their adherence to legendary manager Earl Weaver's old maxim: defense, pitching, and the three-run homer. Well, perhaps not the three-run homer specifically--the O's have just five of those, due to the fact that they rank 12th in the AL in OBP--but Baltimore has surprisingly shown a great deal of sock this season, ranking fourth in the AL with 65 homers after finishing 11th each of the past two seasons. On the pitching front, the bullpen has been particularly strong, ranking seventh in the majors in ARP, and the real surprise has been the arms that are contributing. A glance at the AL leaders in ARP reveals James Johnson at the top, and Matt Albers third behind his teammate and Rivera. Johnson was a minor league starting pitcher in the Orioles chain from 2001-07, and not an especially promising one at that, putting up ERA's north of 4.00 and WHIP's north of 1.40 in both 2006 and '07. He had never made more than three relief appearances in a season prior to this year, but the decision by Baltimore to put him in the major league bullpen has led to a 1.35 RA in 33 1/3 innings. Johnson has yet to allow a homer, but his BABIP is also an unsustainable .208 and his K/BB an underwhelming 18/14. Albers has also limited the home run ball, with one allowed in 41 2/3 inning, but like Johnson his 23/16 K/BB ratio does not portend continued dominance. The Blue Jays have gotten good work from their bullpen as well--that is up until recently, for the Jays' pen has blown leads in three of the past five games, including twice by closer B.J. Ryan in the eighth, and yesterday in the eighth by former closer Armando Benitez, who botched a save chance against his original team.

Matchup: Cubs (39-23) at Dodgers (29-32), 12:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (86 IP, 2.62 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Derek Lowe (77 2/3, 4.87, 1.33, 52)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 40-22 (346 RS, 253 RA); Los Angeles, 32-29 (265 RS, 254 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: In a matchup between famous former Yankee skippers, Lou Piniella has helped guide his Cubs to the best record in baseball, improving his all-time win-loss record in 21 seasons to 1,643 and 1,520, a .520 winning percentage. Torre, three years Piniella's senior, owns a 2,096-1,802 lifetime ledger, good for a .538 winning percentage. In terms of head-to-head battles, with last night's win Torre has gone 87-75 against Piniella: 14-14 with the Cardinals against Piniella's Reds from 1990-92; with the Yankees, 35-37 against Piniella's Mariners from 1996-2002 and 37-20 against Piniella's Devil Rays from 2003-05; and now 1-4 with the Dodgers against Piniella's Cubs. In the playoffs, Piniella's Mariners met Torre's Yankees twice, with New York taking down Seattle in both the 2000 and 2001 ALCS.

Last night, Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda evened the series for LA against his countryman Kosuke Fukudome's Cubs by throwing a complete-game shutout (and holding Fukudome hitless), his first in the major leagues. That complete game was the first by a Dodgers pitcher since Jeff Weaver threw one against the Rockies on September 12 of 2005, thus ending a drought that lasted 403 games. From the time of Weaver's shutout up until last night's game, every other team in the majors had at least one pitcher throw a complete-game shutout, and there were 124 individual complete-game shutouts total. The Indians led the way with 13--including four from C.C. Sabathia--while two teams had just one such performance: the Nationals, who got an unlikely gem from Pedro Astacio on August 15, 2006, and the Yankees, whose lone shutout came from Chien-Ming Wang against Tampa Bay on July 28 of '06. It's not surprising to see the Yankees with such a low number because of Torre's tendency to change pitchers, which he did 488 times in 2006 and 522 times last season. The Dodgers were tied with Pittsburgh for the fourth lowest total of starting pitcher innings in the majors heading into last night. Kuroda, however, mowed down the majors' best offense with ease, needing 112 pitches to finish off Chicago while allowing just four hits--all singles--walking none, and striking out 11 in perhaps the most impressive pitching performance of the season.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (33-28) at Pirates (29-32), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (76 2/3 IP, 3.76 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Tom Gorzelanny (52 1/3, 4.93, 1.40, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 34-27 (295 RS, 256 RA); Pittsburgh, 28-33 (295 RS, 321 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #8; Pittsburgh, #23
Prospectus: Gorzelanny is another one of the young pitchers that Tom Verducci tabbed in his preseason Year-After Effect article, due to Gorzelanny's increase from 161 2/3 innings in 2006 to 201 2/3 innings in 2007. Gorzelanny fell apart in September last year, yet the club left him out there to throw 118 and 117 pitches in two of his last five starts, and for the season his average Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) per start was the 11th highest in baseball. In discussing the Pirates' release of Matt Morris two months ago, Christina Kahrl wrote, "Discarding Morris is a sort of psychological stomp on the memory of the Littlefield years, with the hope that one of the other horrific legacies--overworking Tom Gorzelanny down the stretch--doesn't have any long-term consquences." It doesn't appear that the new Pirates brass is going to get that lucky. Two days after Christina's piece, Will Carroll wrote the following about Gorzelanny in Under the Knife: "The Pirates pushed him hard--really hard--in hopes of getting him to the [15-win] milestone, and he's still paying for it. Watching his mechanics and body unwind is like one of those slow-motion car crashes; you can see everything happening and people trying to help, but things are just too far gone to stop. A good, long rest would be the smart play..." Since Gorzelanny missed a start in early May, things have not gotten any better for him, with 21 runs and seven homers allowed in 25 innings, an 11/13 K/BB, and a 1020 opponent OPS, and you have to figure that if Pittsburgh had any depth in its rotation it might consider shutting him down for a rest, as Carroll recommended, even if there is nothing structurally wrong with his arm.

Gorzelanny hasn't gotten any favors from his defense, which ranks worst in the major leagues with an efficiency of 67.8 percent. Since the start of the 2006 season, the Pirates have been playing some of their worst defense in franchise history; Pittsburgh's 2006 and '07 seasons are tied for the worst of the 30 Pirates teams since 1959 by efficiency, and this year's squad is right behind them in third place. While the Bucs defense has unquestionably been bad, it has had a great deal of pressure exerted on it by a staff that has struck out just 345 batters so far, the fewest in the NL.

Matchup: Cardinals (36-27) at Astros (32-30), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Adam Wainwright (86 2/3 IP, 3.43 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 58 K) vs. Shawn Chacon (69 1/3, 3.33, 1.14, 51)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 34-29 (290 RS, 266 RA); Houston, 30-32 (280 RS, 289 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #9; Houston, #20
Prospectus: Given how little the Astros have gotten out of their catching spot this season, one can perhaps understand why Houston reached to select Stanford backstop Jason Castro with the 10th pick in Thursday's amateur draft. J.R. Towles and Brad Ausmus have combined to hit .175/.252/.290 so far, a lower OPS than any other team has gotten from behind the plate besides San Diego. The rookie Towles was expected to be the team's starter after he had an excellent 61 games for Double-A Corpus Christi last season and a highly-impressive 40 at-bat demitasse in the majors, but following a decent start--.222/.391/.583 with four homers in his first 14 games--he put up ugly totals of .111/.209/.148 in his last 28 games, earning a demotion to the minor leagues yesterday. It's possible that part of Towles' struggles at the plate can be explained by injury, as he was hit in the hand by a pitch on April 13, causing him to miss three straight games. Humberto Quintero was called up to take the place of Towles. Quintero was hitting just .237/.274/.364 at Triple-A Round Rock, but he had thrown out 11 of 26 baserunners, a healthy 42 percent.

On at least that level, Quintero's been an asset. Astros opponents have attempted just 25 steals this season, by far the fewest in the majors--the Royals are second with 35 tries against them, while the major league average is 52. That Houston's three backstops have caught just six of the 25, or 24 percent, might be evidence that it is Houston's pitchers who have been able to hold runners on extremely well, rather than the catchers' throwing prowess that has dissuaded opposing basestealers. The Astros had 112 steal attempts made against them last season, compared to the average of 130. The leader in that category in '07 was St. Louis, with just 92 opponent attempts, not surprising considering that Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina caught 27 of 50 runners. This year Molina has leveled off somewhat, with 11 of 30 caught stealing, and St. Louis has had 39 steal attempts made against it--but none last night, when the Astros, the National League leaders in both stolen bases and attempts, beat St. Louis 6-1.

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

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Premium Article Can Of Corn: Disappoin... (06/07)
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Premium Article Prospectus Preview: Fr... (06/06)
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