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June 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (37-26) at Tigers (26-37), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jose Contreras (81 2/3 IP, 2.87 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 50 K) vs. Nate Robertson (71 2/3, 6.03, 1.54, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 39-24 (305 RS, 235 RA); Detroit, 29-34 (293 RS, 320 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Detroit, #24
Prospectus: After losing the final three matches of a four-game series in Tampa Bay (inspiring another Ozzie meltdown), Chicago has returned home to win seven in a row, sweeping the Royals and the Twins to extend its lead in the AL Central to 6.5 games. The White Sox averaged 8.7 runs scored per game during the streak. Perhaps the best news is that Nick Swisher put together several huge games in a row for the first time this season, with a two-homer performance yesterday and seven hits in his last 10 at-bats. Swisher is finally beginning to show the power that made him a sleeper candidate for a 40-homer campaign before the start of the season. Second baseman Alexei Ramirez has also continued to rake since replacing Juan Uribe at the keystone. From the point that he entered the starting lineup on May 16, Ramirez has hit .365/.396/.565, and the White Sox have scored 5.2 runs/game with an 825 OPS, as opposed to 3.7 with a 695 in the 21 previous games. The Sox have become a legitimate contender for the division title, and now have the best shot of any team in baseball at making the playoffs, 89 percent.

A huge part of Chicago's success this season has been the pitching of Contreras, who entered last night's game ranked second in the AL in SNLVAR following a stretch of six straight quality starts. Contreras has been nearly three times as valuable this year in 12 starts than he was last year in 30, per SNLVAR. Contreras is succeeding by generating far more groundballs than he ever has before--his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio is a robust 2.44, which is just about double his career average entering 2008 of 1.23. Contreras's newfound ground-ball acumen is reflected in his homer rate: he has given up 0.3 HR/9 compared to his career average of 1.1 entering 2008. A glance at the pitch data offers an explanation for the Cuban's renaissance--he is throwing far fewer fastballs, bringing the heat about 50 percent of the time compared with 56 percent last year and 62 the year before, and is substituting in more sliders, a pitch that he is throwing nearly twice as often this year than in 2006. Contreras has also bumped up his use of the splitter. It appears that increased reliance on breaking stuff has contributed to more ground-balls and a career year.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (34-30) at Mets (30-32), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Micah Owings (82 2/3 IP, 4.68 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 49 K) vs. John Maine (70 2/3, 3.95, 1.34, 50)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 36-28 (306 RS, 270 RA); New York, 31-31 (290 RS, 288 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #8; New York, #12
Prospectus: After winning seven of nine games to climb back above .500 and remove manager Willie Randolph from the hot seat, the Mets were swept in four straight by San Diego to close their western road trip and fall back below the break-even point. New York now returns to Shea for a six-game home stand sitting in fourth place in the division with a 16 percent shot at the playoffs (although that number improves to 26 percent in the PECOTA-adjusted report). The Mets, however, can remember back to 1999 for inspiration, when a team with similarly high expectations got off to a similarly rough start. A second straight loss to the Yankees in the Bronx on June 5 was the team's eighth in a row, dropping New York to 27-28 and six games behind Atlanta. After that game, general manager Steve Phillips shook things up by firing pitching coach Bob Apodaca, hitting coach Tom Robson, and bullpen coach Randy Niemann. Skipper Bobby Valentine then announced, "In the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager," and went on to say that "something like 40 and 15 would be good." Remarkably, the Mets went out and accomplished just that, beating the Yankees the next night 7-2 to end their skid and start a torrid run of 40 wins in their next 55 games, which moved them to 1.5 games ahead in the division. New York eventually finished 6.5 behind the 103-win Braves, but it did win the Wild Card and advance to the NLCS, where the Mets lost to Atlanta. It is unclear, of course, whether the firings of June 5 had any part in the Mets going on their run, or whether Valentine's comments inspired the team to play better, but the lesson for this year's team is that, well, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over.

That 1999 season also produced one of the classic Shea Stadium moments, which came at the expense of Arizona in the NLDS. In Game Four, with the Mets leading two games to one and the score tied at three in the bottom of the 10th, backup catcher Todd Pratt sent a 1-0 Matt Mantei pitch over the center-field wall for a walk-off, series-ending home run. Shea has seen three walk-off homers in the playoffs--the others being Benny Agbayani's shot to end Game Three of the 2000 NLDS vs. San Francisco, and Lenny Dykstra's two-run homer to win Game Three of the 1986 NLCS vs. Houston--more than every park other than Fenway or Yankee Stadium. Ed. note: there was also Robin Ventura's famous grand-slam single that won Game Five of the '99 NLCS.

Matchup: Cardinals (38-27) at Reds (31-34), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mitchell Boggs (71 1/3 IP, 3.79 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 44 K--AAA) vs. Homer Bailey (69 1/3, 4.28, 1.40, 55)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 35-30 (303 RS, 274 RA); Cincinnati, 31-34 (299 RS, 317 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #9; Cincinnati, #19
Prospectus: Boggs will make his first major league start tonight, as he steps into a Cardinals rotation that has suddenly been beset by injury issues, with ace Adam Wainwright joining Joel Piniero on the DL today and Todd Wellemeyer sidelined due to arm fatigue. The 170th overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Georgia, Boggs has advanced methodically through the Cardinals system, moving up one level each season. Boggs hit Triple-A this year, and put up a WHIP below 1.41 for the first time through his 12 starts for Memphis. PECOTA does not like the youngster's long-term chances to succeed, however, as it handed over the rather dire prediction that Boggs will be out of baseball by the time his age-29 season rolls around in 2013.

Bailey doesn't get a particularly strong endorsement, either, due to his serious troubles with throwing strikes. Those troubles surfaced in his first start of the season last week, when he walked four in 6 1/3 innings. It would be difficult for Bailey to perform much worse than what the Reds had gotten from their fifth starters prior to their top pitching prospects' recall, however, for Matt Belisle and Josh Fogg combined to allow 60 runs in 58 innings with a 1.76 WHIP. With Bailey in the rotation, the Reds have now promoted the four prospects who topped Kevin Goldstein's organizational preseason rankings, as No. 2 on the list joins the best prospect in baseball, Jay Bruce, along with Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto. One Reds rookie who did not make the top 11 was Paul Janish, a 25-year-old shortstop who was called up from Triple-A in the wake of Jeff Keppinger's mid-May knee injury. A strong defender who owns a career .265/.354/.386 minor league batting line, Janish will get a chance to play this week after Jerry Hairston Jr. went on the DL yesterday with a finger injury, although Keppinger should be back at short by the end of the week.

Matchup: Brewers (33-30) at Astros (32-32), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (36 IP, 4.25 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (82, 5.71, 1.46, 59)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 31-32 (278 RS, 282 RA); Houston, 31-33 (288 RS, 302 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #13; Houston, #20
Prospectus: The Brewers have exhibited plenty of pop this season, as they have 70 home runs, the fourth best total in the National League. However, the team has had a great deal of trouble getting runners on base to maximize that power. Milwaukee ranks 13th in the NL with a .323 on-base percentage, and consequently, just three of those 70 home runs have come with two men on base, and none of them have come with the bases juiced. That means that 4.3 percent of Milwaukee's home runs have plated three or more runs, the lowest percentage in the majors (the major league average this season is 12.9 percent). Brewers hitters have accumulated 285 plate appearances so far with two men on, and have posted a collective line of .232/.317/.312 in such situations, while with the bases loaded they have hit .208/.259/.292 in 59 PA. The major league average line with two men on this season is .264/.346/.400, and with the bags juiced is .269/.312/.414, so the Brewers have been far from clutch.

Oswalt has not given up any three-run homers or grand slams this year, but he has given up plenty of long balls--16 in all, which is tied for the most in the majors with Johnny Cueto and Paul Byrd. Oswalt has already allowed two more homers this season than last year in 130 fewer innings, and he is two away from tying his career high in long balls surrendered. After a stretch of six straight quality starts from April 16 to May 12 following his rough beginning, Oswalt has slipped again recently, allowing 18 runs in his last four outings. Houston still owes Oswalt $45 million from 2009-12, and he also has a full no-trade clause, so with that kind of commitment, the 'Stros definitely need their putative ace to pitch like one.

Matchup: Dodgers (30-33) at Padres (28-37), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Clayton Kershaw (14 2/3 IP, 4.91 RA, 1.64 WHIP, 14 K) vs. Greg Maddux (77 2/3, 4.17, 1.19, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 33-30 (273 RS, 260 RA); San Diego, 26-39 (238 RS, 297 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; San Diego, #26
Prospectus: The youngest player in baseball goes up against the sixth oldest tonight in San Diego. Kershaw was born on March 19, 1988. On that date, Maddux was getting ready to begin his third season in the big leagues, and had already picked up eight victories and pitched 186 2/3 innings in his first two. Maddux shut down the best offense in baseball his last time out, holding the Cubs to one run in seven innings, and now will look to do the same against another of his former teams. The four-time Cy Young award winner has been fantastic in the spacious confines of Petco Park this season, as he has a 2.97 RA and 19/3 K/UBB ratio at home this year, but he has garnered only one win in six starts in San Diego because he's received just 3.5 runs per game of support.

While Maddux will be facing Kershaw for the first time, he will also renew a long-time rivalry with the 20-year-old rookie's oldest teammate, second baseman Jeff Kent. Maddux has faced Kent 91 times, more than any other active player save for Luis Gonzalez. Kent, meanwhile, has faced Maddux more than he has any other pitcher, and that familiarity has made for success. Although Kent started his career 3-for-22 against Maddux, he gradually began to hit the righty hard, and has now collected 10 hits in his last 13 at-bats against Maddux; for his career, Kent is at .341/.374/.588 against him. Is this matchup a battle between two future Hall of Famers? Kent's case is an interesting one, and although he holds the all-time career home-run record for second basemen and has an MVP award, his enshrinement is not guaranteed. While he currently falls a bit short by Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric, in Joe Sheehan's book Kent should enter Cooperstown. Kent currently leads the club in homers for the third time in his four seasons in Los Angeles, with eight, but that says more about LA's lack of pop than it does Kent's play this year, as he is currently sporting a 715 OPS. Kent has picked it up a bit lately, but if he continues to struggle he might lose some playing time at second. Perhaps ominously for the 17-year veteran, the Dodgers plan to soon call up Andy LaRoche, who is hitting .277/.444/.420 at Triple-A, and who has shifted over from third base to second in June due to the emergence of rookie Blake DeWitt.

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

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