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June 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Marlins (36-30) at Rays (38-28), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ryan Tucker (70 IP, 1.41 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 62 K, Double-A) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (79 1/3, 5.45, 1.41, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 33-33 (324 RS, 325 RA); Tampa Bay, 36-30 (299 RS, 275 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #14; Tampa Bay, #6
Prospectus: This series has traditionally held little meaning beyond territorial bragging rights; last year both teams were in fourth place in their respective divisions when they first met, and the year before that they were both in last. From 1998 to 2007, the Devil Rays entered the series as a last-place club in seven of 10 seasons. This year, however, each team begins the series with a winning record for the first time; both are in second place in their respective divisions. Florida has won 34 of the 55 games played so far against the Devil Rays since they came into existence in 1998, but this year the Marlins are facing a new team, in both name and quality.

Florida and Tampa Bay are linked by their low cost of assembly. The Marlins had the smallest Opening Day payroll in baseball, at $21.8 million, less than half that of the next lowest team, the Rays ($43.7 million). One can measure how efficiently each team has spent its money by calculating marginal dollars per win (MP/MW), the method developed by the late Doug Pappas. In Pappas' words:

A good way to judge the efficiency of a team's front office is to compare the amount it spends on players to the number of wins it registers beyond that which could be attained by fielding a replacement-level club on which everyone earned the major league minimum salary.

To compute this, I've assumed that a replacement-level club would play .300 ball, which translates to 48.6 wins in a 162-game season. A club's "marginal wins" thus equals ((winning percentage -.300) x 162). For marginal payroll, the baseline assumes a 25-man active roster and three-man DL with everyone earning the major league minimum.

In 2008, the league minimum is $390,000, so 28 slots for a team earning rock bottom comes out to $10.92 million, or almost exactly half what the Marlins are paying. The Fish are playing at a .545 clip, which over the course of a full season computes to 39.8 marginal wins. Therefore, if Florida maintains its current winning percentage, it will pay just over $274,600 for each marginal win--an extremely low figure. For the Rays, that mark is $734,800. (Compare that to the Yankees, who are on track to spend nearly $6 million per marginal win.) The system is not perfect, in that any team earning near the minimum will come up with a very low marginal win cost, even if it is only a handful of games above replacement level, and also because all wins aren't created equal, because those bringing a team closer to the playoffs are more valuable. As a quick sketch of how well teams are spending, however, MP/MW is an effective tool, and any total under $1 million paid by a winning team is especially impressive.

Matchup: Red Sox (42-27) at Reds (32-36), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Justin Masterson (24 1/3 IP, 2.59 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Aaron Harang (94, 4.60, 1.33, 82)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 40-29 (355 RS, 294 RA); Cincinnati, 31-37 (307 RS, 336 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Cincinnati, #19
Prospectus: Boston will play its first game at the Great American Ballpark tonight, and its first game in Cincinnati since the 1975 World Series, when the Big Red Machine downed the Red Sox in seven. Neither team enters the series at full strength, as the premier lefty slugger on both the Red Sox and the Reds has been limited by injury: David Ortiz is on the DL, while Adam Dunn is playing through "general soreness" (which Will Carroll states is actually shoulder swelling similar to tendonitis or bursitis). Dunn has seen his batting average fall from .261 on May 29 down to .229, and over the past 10 games has just three hits in 32 at-bats. Cincinnati can't afford to do without the production of its main power bat, but the Red Sox have been able to get by without Ortiz thanks to a timely J.D. Drew hot streak. From June 1, the first day Ortiz was out of the lineup, Boston's right fielder has 18 hits in 36 at-bats, including six home runs, and has posted a scorching 1798 OPS in 48 PA, bringing his EqA to a team-leading .325. This is the player that the Red Sox brass surely envisioned when it signed him to a five-year, $70 million deal before last season.

Drew and the rest of Boston's bats have produced an 872 OPS and 5.9 R/G since the start of June, making tonight's assignment even more difficult for a struggling Harang. While it could be coincidence, it's hard not to assign some of the blame for Harang's recent poor pitching to his relief outing against the Padres on May 25. With that game heading into the 13th inning and all seven Reds relievers already spent, manager Dusty Baker turned to his ace, who had started and thrown 103 pitches three days earlier. Harang was brilliant, striking out nine in four shutout innings before departing in favor of fellow starter Edinson Volquez, who gave up the winning home run to Adrian Gonzalez in his second inning of relief work. Harang threw 63 pitches in the outing, and then came back on three days' rest to gave up six runs on 10 hits in four innings. He followed that up with a shaky quality start (nine hits and three runs in six), then was rocked again for 11 hits and eight runs in 5 1/3 his last time out.

Matchup: Rangers (34-34) at Mets (31-34), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Feldman (56 1/3 IP, 4.95 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Oliver Perez (65 1/3, 6.06, 1.59, 55) Pythagorean Record: Texas, 33-35 (383 RS, 396 RA); New York, 32-33 (304 RS, 305 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #17; New York, #12
Prospectus: Texas plays its first-ever game at Shea Stadium tonight in the 45th and final season for the stadium. The Rangers have been locked in a struggle with the .500 mark for the past several weeks, as since May 21 they have been no worse than two below and no better than one above at any point. Texas has been unable to get over the fence largely because of its bullpen, which blew another game yesterday afternoon, and which has now cost the team 32.1 runs compared to the average relief corps by ARP. If the Rangers' relievers keep up their grisly work, they will finish with an ARP of -76.5, which would be the fourth worst in the past 50 years, behind the 2003 Royals (-77.4), 1990 Braves (-78.4), and last year's Devil Rays (-95.4). The inefficiency of Texas' starters (last in the majors with 1.1 SNLVAR) has had a negative trickle-down effect on the bullpen: Rangers relievers have thrown 241 innings, the most in the majors, putting a maximum amount of stress upon a shaky unit. In 2007 the Texas pen was arguably the team's strength, with 65.9 ARP, third most in baseball, and 12.3 WXRL, fourth most in the American League. Joaquin Benoit was last year's leader in relief innings (82) and WXRL (3.5), but has lost his command of the strike zone in 2008, with nearly as many walks (23) as strikeouts (27); he is now last on the Rangers in WXRL.

The Mets are also dealing with serious bullpen issues: closer Billy Wagner has allowed two runs and blown a save in each of his last three outings. Wagner blew five consecutive save opportunities with the Astros back in 2000, but had never before blown one in three straight outings, or given up at least two runs in three straight outings, either. It's shocking to see Wagner struggle so given his outstanding start to the season, as well as his historical dominance. Amongst pitchers having thrown at least 750 innings, Wagner ranks second all-time in ERA+, behind only Mariano Rivera. In addition, Wagner has been the anchor for the fourth and fifth best bullpens of the last 50 years by WXRL: the 2006 Mets, whose pen was 17.8 wins above replacement level, and the 2003 Astros, 17.7.

Matchup: Braves (32-35) at Angels (41-26), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jo-Jo Reyes (45 IP, 5.20 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Jon Garland (83 2/3, 4.20, 1.40, 30)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 37-30 (307 RS, 274 RA); Los Angeles, 34-33 (284 RS, 277 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #5; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: This interleague battle pits the unluckiest team in the majors against the luckiest. The Braves gave away a ninth inning lead in Chicago yesterday, and went on to lose 3-2 in 11, the team's sixth straight loss on the road. Atlanta fell to a major league-worst 7-24 away from home, and lost its 21st consecutive one-run game on the road dating back to last season, which ties Atlanta with the 2000-01 Kansas City Royals for the worst such streak in major league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. With Thursday's defeat the Braves moved past the 1985-86 Pirates, who dropped 20 straight on the road, for the longest stretch in NL history. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is 13-8 in one-run games, as compared with Atlanta's 3-17 mark, and in the Pythagorean department the Angels are a whopping plus seven, compared to the Braves being five down. After blowing the chance yesterday, Atlanta's bullpen has converted on 10 of 18 save opportunities, or 56 percent, while Los Angeles has made good upon 28 of 32, a major league-leading 88 percent. With Manny Acosta having fallen apart after a solid first two months (allowing 13 runs and four homers in his last 5 1/3 innings), closer Rafael Soriano unavailable for the past six games due to continued elbow soreness, and John Smoltz out for the year, the Braves need the cavalry to arrive.

The Baseball Prospectus 2008 chapter on the Braves discusses how the team's dynasty has petered out of late due to Atlanta's failing to develop a new crop of starting pitchers to carry the team forward. Since Kevin Millwood was traded after the 2002 season, the Braves' best home-grown starters have been left-handers Horacio Ramirez and Chuck James, neither of whom is currently in Atlanta's rotation. The Braves, meanwhile, had one get away in Adam Wainwright, who was dealt to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew in December of 2003. With Tom Glavine on the DL, Reyes is the only current Atlanta starter who was developed by the club (although that will change when Atlanta calls up Charlie Morton to start this weekend). Reyes represents the next hope for a farm-raised Atlanta starter, although it seems his ceiling is more as a solid mid-rotation pitcher--a slight improvement on the Ramirez/James prototype--than an arm Atlanta can build around.

Matchup: Athletics (35-31) at Giants (30-37), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (74 2/3 IP, 4.10 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 56 K) vs. Barry Zito (66 1/3, 6.78, 1.87, 35)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 38-28 (293 RS, 248 RA); San Francisco, 30-37 (277 RS, 308 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #3; San Francisco, #25
Prospectus: For the first time since the 1989 Fall Classic, the Northern California rivalry will be without Barry Bonds. Oakland has a slight edge against San Francisco in the rivalry's overall accounting, having gone 32-26 versus the Giants since 1998, and of course having swept them in the earthquake-interrupted '89 World Series. Zito is looking for his first win of the year at AT&T Park--he is 0-5 with an 8.01 RA and 12/21 K/BB ratio in six home starts. Last year, Zito started two games against his old team in the Bay Series, and took the loss in both, giving up 11 runs on 15 hits in eight combined innings, with a 4/8 K/BB ratio. This year, however, Oakland has struggled badly against southpaws--the A's were shut down by Andy Pettitte last night, and now have a .242/.319/.326 collective line against left-handers in 765 plate appearances, the lowest OPS against them of any team. The Giants, conversely, hold a 798 OPS against lefties this season, tied for the sixth best team mark.

Zito might be wishing he had stayed in Oakland, not only because the A's are in a much better position to contend than the Giants are, but because he surely wouldn't be giving up 11.4 H/9 if he was pitching in front of the best defense in the majors. San Francisco ranks 23rd in defensive efficiency, and that's with the strong play of Aaron Rowand, who leads all National League center fielders with a 3.02 Range Factor and who has been four runs above average defensively by FRAA. The Giants' signing of Rowand last offseason has so far turned out much better than their acquisition of Zito the previous year, as Rowand has carried the team both defensively and offensively, having bettered his OPS from 889 last year to 892 this season in a substantially tougher hitting environment. That performance together with his good work in the outfield gives him a WARP of 3.4, which puts Rowand on pace to top last year's career-high mark of 7.5.

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

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