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June 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Tigers (33-38) at Giants (31-41), 12:45 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Armando Galarraga (65 1/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Barry Zito (72, 6.75, 1.86, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 35-36 (339 RS, 346 RA); San Francisco, 31-41 (290 RS, 333 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #21; San Francisco, #23
Prospectus: With an infield single in the top of the sixth inning last night, Tigers shortstop Edgar Renteria picked up the 2,000th hit of his major league career, putting him 18th in hits among active players. Renteria is having a down season this year, but as this report points out, the 32-year-old has a real shot at collecting 3,000 hits. If Renteria continues at his current pace and collects 91 more hits this season, he would need to average 152 over the next six seasons to reach 3,000. That seems to be a goal well within his reach, but Renteria's poor play this season might be the beginning of a steep decline phase, rather than a bump in the road: PECOTA predicted the shortstop's drop-off this season, assigned him a collapse rate of 50 percent, a breakout rate of just two percent, and a weighted mean line of .279/.344/.394. The forecasting system also predicts that things will get worse going forward, with Renteria's MLVr falling down to -.041 next year and -.069 by 2011. PECOTA sees Renteria as gradually losing playing time, with 2012 his final major league season, which would leave him at least two campaigns short of the 3,000 mark.

If Renteria manages to beat those odds and get to 3,000, he would likely become the fourth shortstop to do so--Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount are the only two that have reached the milestone, while Derek Jeter (2,427 hits) is a near-lock to get there barring injury or early retirement. Renteria might even be the fifth: his counterpart in this series, Omar Vizquel, is currently the active leader in hits among shortstops, with 2,616. At 41 years old, however, PECOTA sees Vizquel falling short of the mark. Renteria reached the majors at the age of 21 and played full-time right away, collecting 133 hits in his rookie campaign, and he has had at least 128 hits in every season since then. Renteria has never had a 200-hit season, however. Just five of the 27 players with 3,000 hits reached that figure without notching 200 hits in a year at least once: Carl Yastrzemski, Cap Anson, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, and Rickey Henderson.

Matchup: Blue Jays (35-37) at Brewers (37-33), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shaun Marcum (92 2/3 IP, 2.62 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 80 K) vs. Ben Sheets (89 1/3, 2.82, 1.08, 72)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 37-35 (286 RS, 274 RA); Milwaukee, 34-36 (315 RS, 321 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #10; Milwaukee, #14
Prospectus: Ryan Braun hit two home runs in last night's 7-0 series-opening victory for Milwaukee, a game in which the Brewers scored all of their runs on five homers. Braun is now up to 20 long balls on the year in 69 games, after hitting 34 last year in 113. If Braun continues at his current pace, he will hit 46 this season, which would give him 80 for his first two years. That total would be the greatest that any player in major league history has ever accumulated in his first two seasons. Here are the current leaders for homers hit in a player's first two big league campaigns:


Hitter          HR   Years
Joe DiMaggio    75   1936-37
Ralph Kiner     74   1946-47
Eddie Mathews   72   1952-53
Albert Pujols   71   2001-02
Frank Robinson  67   1956-57
Mark Teixeira   64   2003-04
Dan Uggla       58   2006-07
Jimmie Hall     58   1963-64

Braun started the season off slowly, but since May 11 has 15 home runs and is slugging .721. Braun now sports a .615 slugging percentage for his career, which if maintained throughout the rest of the season would be the third highest mark for a player after the first two years of his career (minimum 750 plate appearances), behind DiMaggio and Phillies star Chuck Klein, who put up a .634 figure from 1928-29. Notable names right below Braun include Ted Williams, Johnny Mize, and Albert Pujols.

Both of Braun's homers yesterday came against right-handers, and now for the season Braun has hit 17 of his 20 off of righties. That's noteworthy, because last year Braun showed himself to be a lefty-masher of the highest order--he put up a .450/.516/.964 line against them with 15 homers in 128 PA--but struggled at times against righties (.282/.319/.526). That led PECOTA to forecast for Braun this season a batting average 24 points higher, on-base percentage 36 points higher, and slugging percentage 60 points higher against southpaws than against righties, one of the more extreme splits it doled out. So far, however, Braun has turned around his profile from last season, putting up a 942 OPS against righties in 229 PA, and 797 against lefties in 72.

Matchup: Royals (29-42) at Cardinals (42-30), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (84 2/3 IP, 5.10 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 50 K) vs. Braden Looper (83, 4.77, 1.40, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 29-42 (275 RS, 332 RA); St. Louis, 38-34 (335 RS, 312 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #28; St. Louis, #7
Prospectus: With a 2-1 win last night, the Royals improved to 19-24 against the Cardinals since the two teams began playing the Battle of Missouri in 1998. In the series' second game tonight, Braden Looper makes his first start since throwing the best game of his career, a three-hit complete-game shutout of the Reds in Cincinnati. The shutout was Looper's first career complete game (having converted to rotation work only just last year), and he needed just 98 pitches to complete it.

The winning run last night was provided in the top of the eighth inning by a home run from Royals rookie Mike Aviles, who was called up from Triple-A Omaha on May 29 and has since taken over the starting shortstop job from Tony Pena Jr., Alberto Callaspo, and Esteban German. Aviles has now started the last 11 games at shortstop for the Royals, and with his third home run is now up to .333/.362/.689 in 47 plate appearances. Aviles began the 2008 season as a 27-year-old veteran of five minor league campaigns slated to spend his third straight year in Omaha. He carried with him a line of .293/.334/.448 in 2,369 career plate appearances into this season, underwhelming enough for him to not receive a PECOTA projection. One of the major roadblocks between Aviles and the show before this year was his sub-standard defense, but the Royals have looked past that in order to inject some desperately-needed offense into a position that has produced a lower OPS (497) than any other non-pitcher position of any team in the majors. Aviles has indeed been quite poor in the field during his limited trial, with a 3.09 Range Factor, the lowest of any player with 25 or more innings played at the position this year, so he won't be able to stay at the position long-term. His bat, however, has proved a significant boon for the moribund KC attack, which has scored 4.6 runs per game with a 762 OPS since Aviles' arrival, as compared with 3.6 with a 673 beforehand.

Matchup: Athletics (39-31) at Diamondbacks (37-34), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (100 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 46 K) vs. Dan Haren (89 2/3, 3.71, 1.03, 76) Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 43-27 (322 RS, 253 RA); Arizona, 37-34 (331 RS, 319 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #6; Arizona, #8
Prospectus: The battle between the youngest group of hitters in the majors (Arizona) and the youngest group of pitchers (Oakland) went to the road team last night, as the Athletics smoked Arizona 15-1 in the series opener. Haren will look to even things up when he squares off against his former team for the first time since the Athletics traded him during the offseason for a package of minor league prospects. Blanton was rumored to be next to go after Haren and center fielder Nick Swisher were shipped out, but he is still around and eating up innings for the surprising AL West contenders, ranking second in the junior circuit to Roy Halladay in innings pitched. Blanton has not been as good as he was last year, for his K/BB ratio has fallen from 3.5/1 to less than two-to-one, and his home run rate has also increased. Since the start of 2007, however, Blanton has thrown the fifth most innings in baseball at essentially a league-average level--ERA+ of 102--meaning that he's still likely to fetch a nifty haul if GM Billy Beane does decide to move him this summer.

Oakland received two-fifths of its current starting rotation in exchange for Haren--Dana Eveland and Greg Smith--as well as outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who has started all 16 of Oakland's games in center field since getting called up. Gonzalez has hit eight doubles in 65 plate appearances, but has an overall line that serves as a reminder of his age (22) and rookie status. Joining Gonzalez in the outfield the past four games has been right fielder Ryan Sweeney, another rookie acquired in an off-season trade, and who has hit well thus far after disappointing the White Sox. The Diamondbacks have a very young center field/right field combination of their own in the 24-year-old Chris B. Young and 20-year-old Justin Upton, a pair whose struggles the past month have mirrored Arizona's fall from the top of the NL. Young has not experienced the breakout that seemed so surely in his future after he hit 32 homers in his first full season last year. He has been striking out at about the same rate he did last season, keeping his average low, and has also not been running like he did in 2007: just two steal attempts in his past 53 games and five on the season, after stealing 27 out of 33 in 148 games last year.

Matchup: Mets (34-36) at Angels (43-29), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (72 1/3 IP, 5.60 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 63 K) vs. Jon Garland (89 1/3, 4.43, 1.46, 34)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 35-35 (332 RS, 328 RA); Los Angeles, 36-36 (304 RS, 301 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #16; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: On what the team's radio broadcaster Howie Rose called "one of the strangest days in Mets history," Jerry Manuel made his debut as Mets skipper last night in New York's 6-1 loss, after general manager Omar Minaya fired manager Willie Randolph, pitching coach Rick Peterson, and first base coach Tom Nieto in the early morning hours following Monday night's series-opening win. Manuel has a very similar presence to that of Randolph, in that both men appear very stoic in the dugout. Manuel, however, hides a powderkeg under that serene exterior, for he was ejected 13 times from 2000-2003, more than any other American League manager, and more than every manager except the irascible Bobby Cox (29 ejections in that period). One of the chief criticisms of Randolph was that he was not fiery enough, and almost refused to get himself thrown out of a game. Those criticisms came to a head after the Mets' Sunday, May 18 game against the Yankees in the Bronx, when Carlos Delgado's home run was called foul, leading then-bench coach Manuel to get the heave-ho, rather than Randolph.

Somewhat lost in the shuffling of Mets coaches was the transfer of Sandy Alomar Sr. from third base to bench coach, to be replaced by Luis Aguayo, formerly the Mets' field coordinator. There is some evidence to support the assertion that bringing in a new man to direct runners home will benefit the Mets; Alomar has made several noticeable mistakes this season, chief amongst them sending catcher Brian Schneider to the plate on a medium-depth fly ball to right fielder Milton Bradley in the bottom of the eight inning in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader with the bases loaded, one out, and the Mets down 8-5. Bradley gunned down Schneider at the plate by a healthy margin, a play which ended the inning and increased Texas's win probability from 76 to 97 percent.

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

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