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June 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Royals (24-39) at Yankees (32-31), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (52 2/3 IP, 5.81 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Mike Mussina (67 1/3, 5.21, 1.28, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 24-39 (234 RS, 300 RA); New York, 31-32 (291 RS, 297 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #27; New York, #15
Prospectus: After back-to-back come-from-behind victories, the Yankees will be looking to take three out of four from the Royals this afternoon in the Bronx. Both Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon played key offensive roles in those victories, but the Yankees offense has been carried the past two months by that pair, who have both bounced back from down seasons to post excellent offensive numbers in 2008. Damon leads the vaunted Yankees attack in VORP, with 25.1. Last year the 33-year-old outfielder fought through the most injury-plagued season of his career, dealing with calf, hamstring, back, and abdominal issues, which were not quite enough to send him to the DL for the first time, but which did force him to miss 21 games, and also contributed to his worst batting average (.270) and slugging percentage (.396) since 2001. This year, however, Damon is fully healthy and posting career highs in AVG, OBP, and SLG. Damon had a huge day in Saturday's win over Kansas City, tying the American League record for hits in a nine-inning game and becoming just the second Yankee since 1956 to get six hits in a game, and the first to go a perfect 6-for-6.

Coming off a 2007 season in which he was limited to 83 games and a .282 EqA by a foot injury, Giambi got off to a slow start at the plate this year, prompting speculation that the 37-year-old slugger was finished. But May offered up a healthy dose of vindication for aging formerly-elite DHs, and since the sixth of that month Giambi has put up a 1210 OPS and hit nine home runs in 103 PA. That performance has bumped Giambi's EqA all the way up to .316 for the season, the best mark on the team. Giambi has even been playing decent defense at first base, remarkably: at 10.01, his Range Factor is above the league average of 9.51, his .995 fielding percentage is right at the league average, and his FRAA Rate is also at 100, exactly average.

Matchup: Indians (28-35) at Tigers (26-36), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (77 IP, 2.69 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Dontrelle Willis (10, 4 H, 5 R, 3/16 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 32-31 (275 RS, 270 RA); Detroit, 29-33 (291 RS, 312 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #18; Detroit, #24
Prospectus: It seems that Willis this season is suffering through the same sort of lost campaign that Lee experienced last year, when the Cleveland lefty never could get untracked after an injury, and finished with a 6.75 RA. Lee had a historically great run through his first seven outings, turning in quality starts in all seven with five runs allowed in 53 2/3 innings, but he has fallen back from that truly elite level lately. Lee has only one quality start in his last four outings, a stretch in which he has allowed 18 runs in 23 1/3 innings, but has still picked up wins in his last three thanks to an average of 5.1 runs of support in his starts.

While Cleveland has backed up the fine efforts of Lee on the mound, the Indians rank last in the American League with a .241 team batting average. However, their on-base percentage is nearly a full 80 points higher, at .320, because Cleveland's hitters have walked 214 times, and they have also been hit by 40 pitches, the highest total in the majors. That puts the Indians on pace to finish with 103 hit batsmen for the full season, which would set a new AL record, and the modern major league record. The AL mark is currently held by the 1996 Blue Jays, with 92, while Craig Biggio and the 1997 Astros had the highest total in the last 50 years, with 100. Grady Sizemore has done nearly everything for the Indians this year, including taking a few for the team, as he has been hit five times. David Dellucci has also been nailed with five pitches, while Ryan Garko leads the club with six. Since the start of last season, his first full year in the majors, Garko has been plunked 26 times, more than anyone else in the AL, while Sizemore is fourth in the circuit. The Indians would surely appreciate a few more hits coming from Garko's bat, however, as the first baseman's slugging percentage has fallen nearly 100 points from last year, and he has just 14 extra-base hits after totaling 51 in 2007.

Matchup: Giants (28-35) at Nationals (25-39), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Cain (79 IP, 4.78 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Tyler Clippard (60 2/3, 4.15, 1.20, 59, in Triple-A) Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 28-35 (259 RS, 288 RA); Washington, 23-41 (233 RS, 314 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #25; Washington, #30
Prospectus: The Nationals are calling up Clippard today from Triple-A Columbus to make his first start with Washington, one game after Garrett Mock came up to make his debut. Clippard will be filling in for Odalis Perez, who left his last start early due to tendonitis. The 22-year-old right-hander was acquired by Washington last December from the Yankees for reliever Jonathan Albaladejo following a season in which his prospect status took a signficant hit: Clippard was ranked as the Yankees' seventh-best prospect entering the 2007 season and just missed the cut for the Baseball Prospectus Top 100, but his walk and homer rates both took a major hike upon his first full-time taste of Triple-A last year. Christina Kahrl liked the deal at the time for Washington despite those struggles, writing that it was "a nice low-stakes pickup for the Nats that involves adding a command/control right-hander who might be able to stick as the fourth or fifth starter." Six months later, the deal still looks decent enough, as Clippard has found the success in Columbus this season with his new team that he could not manage last year in Scranton.

Clippard will be attempting to help the Nationals avoid an embarrassing four-game sweep at home to the Giants, who have outscored Washington 22-4 in the first three, and who shut Washington out 6-0 on Saturday. The Nationals have now been blanked nine times this season, the highest total in the National League, and tied with Detroit for the most in the majors. Washington now also holds down the bottom spot in the majors in runs scored (3.6 per game), batting average (.232), and slugging percentage (.348), and ranks last in the NL with a .308 on-base percentage, putting the team on pace to have the worst offensive season by OPS since the 1992 Dodgers and Mets. In the absence of Ryan Zimmerman (currently on the DL), the team has called up 26-year-old Kory Casto from Triple-A Columbus to play third base. A third-round pick by the Expos in 2003, Casto had back-to-back 20-homer seasons in 2005 and '06, but slipped to 11 and a 718 OPS upon moving to Triple-A last year, and he was not one of the 14 notable Nats prospects listed by Kevin Goldstein this past offseason.

Matchup: Reds (30-34) at Marlins (34-28), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edinson Volquez (75 IP, 1.80 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Mark Hendrickson (72 2/3, 5.94, 1.51, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 30-34 (290 RS, 313 RA); Florida, 31-31 (309 RS, 307 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #19; Florida, #14
Prospectus: Volquez and Hendrickson get together for the second time this season tonight in Miami. The Reds right-hander beat Florida's veteran lefty 5-3 on May 13, part of a remarkable stretch of 12 consecutive starts of five or more innings and two or fewer runs that he carries into tonight, two short of the record for a run of that character.

Volquez did not give up an extra-base hit in that game, and held second baseman Dan Uggla in check, who went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts. Uggla has managed to hit just about everybody else in the National League, however. With a pair of doubles in yesterday's 9-2 win, Uggla now has 23 on the season, sharing the major league lead with Lance Berkman, to go along with 18 homers and one triple. Uggla and Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley have been staging a fantastic battle for the title of best second baseman in the major leagues all season, and Uggla currently has a slight edge on Utley in extra-base hits (42 to 41), OPS+ (173 to 169), and MLVr (.499 to .471). Both players are also on pace to set the record for extra-base hits by a middle infielder. Here are the top 10 middle infield seasons by extra-base hits:


Hitter             Year Pos  XBH
Rogers Hornsby     1922  2B  102
Rogers Hornsby     1929  2B   94
Alfonso Soriano    2002  2B   92
Alex Rodriguez     1996  SS   91
Rogers Hornsby     1925  2B   90
Jimmy Rollins      2007  SS   88
Alex Rodriguez     2001  SS   87
Robin Yount        1982  SS   87
Charlie Gehringer  1936  2B   87
Alex Rodriguez     2002  SS   86

The Reds have a remarkable second baseman of their own in Brandon Phillips, who is one year younger than Uggla, and who with 30 homers and 33 steals last season joined Alfonso Soriano as the only two players to post 30/30 seasons while playing at the keystone. Phillips is having a similarly strong offensive campaign this year, but what is holding him back from that next step to the superstar level that Uggla is now exploring is his inability to hit right-handers. Phillips crushes southpaws, and his 1069 OPS against them this season ranks sixth in the majors (minimum 75 PA), but he has just a 688 OPS against righties. Phillips had a similar split last season, though less dramatic, with a 737 mark against righties and 984 off lefties. For his career, Phillips is 7-for-14 with two home runs against the lefty Hendrickson.

Matchup: Rays (37-26) at Angels (39-25), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (70 2/3 IP, 3.95 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 51 K) vs. Joe Saunders (82, 2.96, 1.09, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 34-29 (283 RS, 261 RA); Los Angeles, 33-31 (270 RS, 261 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #6; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: Two of the three best teams in the American League, both of which have run well ahead of their Pythagorean records, meet tonight in Anaheim for the opener of a three-game set. In their first meeting of the season, the Rays swept the Angels in Tampa Bay, beating them twice by a score of 2-0--the only two times that Los Angeles has been blanked this season. Saunders was victimized by the second of those whitewashings, taking a hard-luck loss to Scott Kazmir, but that game was one of eight quality starts Saunders has made this season in 12 tries, and he ranks third in ERA amongst AL qualifiers. Saunders' outstanding season to date is difficult to explain, as his strikeout rate has fallen for the second straight season, down to 4.3 K/9 from 6.5 in 2006 and 5.8 last year. However, he has also dropped his walk rate for the second straight year, down to 2.3 BB/9 from 3.7 in '06 and 2.9 last year. Those paired trends indicate that Saunders has perhaps sacrificed some velocity or movement for greater control, but the data indicates Saunders' velocity is right where it has been the past two years. Saunders has been helped by 10 ground-ball double plays turned behind him already, the same total he induced in both 2006 and 2007, and his BABIP, a bloated .330 last season, has dropped down to .237, the fifth lowest figure in baseball.

This series features the two best bullpens in the AL by WXRL, as the Angels are tops with 5.8 wins above replacement and the Rays second at 5.5, a far cry from their -1.8 finish from last year. Tampa Bay is also sixth in the majors in ARP, at 26 runs above average, while the Angels' pen has pitched extremely well in high-leverage situations but not so well at other times, as their ARP of 8.6 ranks just 19th. That large gap between WXRL and ARP has been largely due to the performance of closer Francisco Rodriguez, who ranks first in the American League with 3.02 wins added and is lapping the field with 26 saves against only one blown chance. The Rays' bullpen ace has not been their closer, but has been instead their long man, lefty J.P. Howell. Pushed out of the crowded rotation picture prior to the year due to ineffectiveness, Howell has been outstanding in his new role, leading the AL in innings out of the pen (40) and the Rays in WXRL (1.85).

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

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