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June 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (23-42) at Blue Jays (34-33), 12:37 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (88 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 74 K) vs. Shaun Marcum (85 2/3, 2.73, 0.97, 71)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 26-39 (257 RS, 322 RA); Toronto, 37-30 (276 RS, 250 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #29; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: Marcum has broken through this year to lead all American League starters with 2.8 SNLVAR. The right-hander has churned out 10 quality starts in 13 tries, yet has won just five times--two fewer than expected--thanks to the Jays having scored a paltry 4.2 runs per game in his starts. Marcum's statistics reveal an odd dichotomy: he has given up nine home runs, or a little more than one per nine innings, but just 50 other hits. That has led to a BABIP of .215, which is the second-lowest amongst all qualified pitchers next to Gavin Floyd, and Marcum also ranks second in the majors amongst qualifiers in batting average against (.188) and H/9 IP (6.2), behind Edinson Volquez in both categories. Marcum is the frontman of a rotation that has been the second best in the major leagues in SNLVAR, at 9.88, just a hair behind Cleveland's total of 9.97. The Blue Jays have also gotten more innings from their starters than any other team, 432.

The dominance displayed by Toronto's starting pitchers this season makes the rumor that the team was after Seattle's Erik Bedard a curious one. What the Blue Jays really need is a bat or two for their lineup, because while it has displayed admirable patience, ranking first in the AL with 255 walks, it's delivering very little power, 12th with a .377 slugging percentage. The Blue Jays have also been badly hurt by their propensity to ground into double plays, which they have already done 77 times this season, tops in the majors. Alex Rios is probably the fastest player on the team--he leads Toronto with 15 steals and is tied for the lead with a pair of triples--yet he has grounded into 11 double plays, after he hit into just nine last year in 161 games and 10 the year before in 128. That puts him second in the AL, behind only Vladimir Guerrero, who has hit into 12. Rios and the Jays are currently on pace to hit into 186 double plays this season, which would break the major league record of 174 set by the 1990 Red Sox. Toronto could well increase its total today, for ground-ball maestro Felix Hernandez has induced 13 double plays in his 13 starts this year, the sixth-highest total in the majors.

Matchup: Rays (38-27) at Angels (40-26), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (45 IP, 1.60 RA, 0.91 WHIP, 44 K) vs. John Lackey (37, 1.95, 0.95, 25)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 35-30 (297 RS, 271 RA); Los Angeles, 34-32 (280 RS, 275 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #6; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: The best pitching matchup of the week takes place in today's Angel Stadium matinee, as two of the AL's top pitchers face each other for the first time. Lackey has fired off quality starts in all five of his appearances since coming off the DL May 14, while Kazmir has put up six in a row, including six scoreless frames in a win over the Halos on May 10 to start the streak. Neither pitcher has allowed more than a hit per inning in any of those 11 starts. Lackey will be facing Tampa Bay for the 11th time; in his first 10 starts he went 8-1 with a 2.60 RA and 1.03 WHIP against the then-Devil Rays.

Both of these teams have won more games than their raw runs scored/allowed totals indicate they should have, although only one can be considered to have been lucky. The Angels' 280 runs scored are four more than their AEqR total of 276, and their 275 runs allowed are 11 fewer than their AEqRA total of 286, which leaves them with a third-order record of 32-34. That eight-game gap between actual and expected record is by far the largest in the majors; St. Louis is second at +4.7. The Angels have been the beneficiary of a very easy schedule: the team they have played most often so far has been the last-place Mariners, with nine games, and they have also racked up 11 games against the underbelly of the AL Central--Detroit and Kansas City--while playing the Red Sox and Yankees just three times total thus far. As mentioned on Monday, Los Angeles has also been fortunate in the timeliness of its relief pitching, as the bullpen's WXRL (AL-leading 5.8) does not match up with the Angels' relievers raw performances (21st in the majors with 5.7 ARP). Tampa Bay, meanwhile, plays in the toughest division and consequently has had one of the toughest schedules so far, with a combined 26 games against the Red Sox, Yankees, and White Sox. The Rays, in fact, have played a grand total of five games against teams currently below .500, seven percent of their games, compared with 30 for the Angels, 45 percent.

Matchup: Phillies (39-27) at Marlins (35-29), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (91 IP, 3.56 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 73 K) vs. Andrew Miller (63 2/3, 6.22, 1.71, 53) Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 40-26 (348 RS, 273 RA); Florida, 32-32 (318 RS, 320 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #4; Florida, #14
Prospectus: The two best home run-hitting teams in the majors play the second of their three-game set in Miami tonight. Last night, Florida jumped on Brett Myers early with two homers in the first by Hanley Ramirez and Jorge Cantu, and added a third from Mike Jacobs in the fifth, giving the team 98 homers through its first 64 games. Philadelphia got two home runs of its own by Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell, and now has 95 through 66 games. No other squad in the NL has more than 75 homers (Cincinnati), while the home run leader in the American League, Chicago, trails the Phillies by 11. The Marlins are currently running at a 248-homer pace, which would put them one behind the NL record achieved by the 2000 Astros.

Two lefties will attempt to stem that tide of shots into the bleachers tonight. Hamels is coming off of a complete-game shutout of the Reds at home last Thursday; he entered the season without a shutout in 51 career starts, but he now has two of the six shutouts thrown by NL starters this season. The outing before last, however, Hamels was pounded by these same Marlins in Philadelphia, giving up seven runs in 5 2/3 innings--including homers to Cantu, Luis Gonzalez, and Cody Ross--in his worst outing of the season. Despite that game, the Marlins rank just 14th in the NL with a 709 OPS against left-handers, as opposed to their 807 OPS against righties, which ranks second. Philadelphia, meanwhile, ranks second in the NL with an 834 OPS against lefties, and has hit 40 home runs against them, 15 more than the total of the next team. You can bet that Jayson Werth will be in the lineup to get his first look at Miller tonight, for Werth has mashed lefties (893 OPS against them in 391 career PA), and this year, six of Werth's nine homers have come against southpaws.

Matchup: Braves (32-33) at Cubs (41-24), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (76 1/3 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (80 2/3, 3.68, 1.13, 64)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 37-28 (303 RS, 264 RA); Chicago, 41-24 (362 RS, 266 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #5; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: With John Smoltz out for the year and Tom Glavine set to go back on the DL for the second time this season (and the second time in his career) with an elbow strain, the Braves can ill afford a slump from their stellar rookie starter. It is becoming apparent, however, that the National League is catching up to Jurrjens, as the right-hander has given up 14 runs on 28 hits in his last three starts, a span of 15 innings, following a stretch where he allowed no more than three earned runs in eight consecutive outings. Meanwhile, Atlanta is still trying to solve its continued issues with winning on the road; last night's 10-5 loss at Wrigley left the team 7-22 away from Turner Field this year, the worst road record in the majors. The Cubs are not the team against which Atlanta can expect to fix those problems, as Chicago has feasted at the Friendly Confines, with a 27-8 home record.

The Cubs have gone 10-8 in one-run games, a far cry from Atlanta's horrific 3-17 mark, and perhaps the chief reason for that success has been Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol. In last week's Baseball Prospectus chat with WGN broadcaster Len Kasper, a reader dubbed Marmol "The Wolf," after the Pulp Fiction character, due to Marmol's ability to clean up messes. That nickname is apt, for Marmol has allowed just two of 16 inherited runners to score this season, or 4.2 fewer than average, the highest positive differential in the NL. Marmol has tossed 40 1/3 innings out of the bullpen, second only to Franquelis Osoria's 44 1/3 in the NL, and has allowed just 32 walks + hits and 10 runs. He ranks second in the majors in WXRL to Brad Lidge, and is well out in front with 16.9 ARP. That puts Marmol on pace to prevent 42.1 more runs than the average reliever this season, which would be the ninth best season in the BP database (since 1959). All eight pitchers ahead of him threw at least 123 2/3 innings, while Marmol is on track for 100. The 25-year-old Dominican right-hander has also struck out 60 so far, which projected over a full season would lead to 150 strikeouts, a plateau that just five relievers in history have reached.

Matchup: Yankees (33-32) at Athletics (34-30), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Darrell Rasner (38 1/3 IP, 2.58 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 23 K) vs. Justin Duchscherer (54 1/3, 3.15, 1.03, 38)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 32-33 (296 RS, 301 RA); Oakland, 37-27 (284 RS, 240 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #15; Oakland, #3
Prospectus: Two of the more surprising starters in the junior circuit take the hill tonight in Oakland. Rasner has turned in quality starts in five of six outings, while Duchscherer has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his nine. Neither pitcher cracks 90 mph on the radar gun, but both get by on outstanding control. Duchscherer has also allowed only a pair of homers, and Oakland's staff as a group has given up a total of 42 homers, the lowest total in the majors. Some of that is due to the A's playing 10 fewer games on the road so far than at home in McAfee Coliseum, one of the toughest parks in which to homer. Oakland gave up the fewest homers in the AL last season, as well, and has remained strong in this category despite essentially turning over 4/5 of its starting rotation.

Oakland's staff has also allowed the fewest hits in the American League this season, partially due to the team's defense, which is tied for first in the majors with an efficiency of 71.6 percent, and which has allowed an AL-low 18 runners to reach on an error. One might think any team committed to Jack Cust as a regular outfielder had punted on defense, but that has not been the case, thanks to such players as Mark Ellis, arguably the best keystone defender in the majors. Ellis leads all qualified second baseman in Zone Rating (.883), and right behind him is a somewhat surprising name--Robinson Cano, at .860. Cano's defense was questioned upon his arrival in the majors, but he has since improved his glove work considerably. After playing indifferent defense in his rookie season--he was average by FRAA, and 6.3 runs below by SFR--Cano's FRAA jumped up to 16 and his SFR to 8.2 in 2006, and last year he had 23 FRAA and 9.2 SFR, the 14th highest total in the majors. Since 2003, meanwhile, Ellis has racked up 47 FRAA in five seasons at second base, nearly a win above average per year. He also rates extremely well in Dan Fox's system, with 67.8 SFR in that period. Ellis's 23.4 SFR last year was the second highest total in baseball, behind Omar Vizquel, his 15.7 in 2005 was the sixth highest, and his 18.4 in '03 ranked second only to Marcus Giles.

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

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