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June 20, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (41-31) at Cubs (45-28), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: John Danks (80 2/3 IP, 3.01 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 61 K) vs. Ted Lilly (85, 5.08, 1.33, 83)
Pythagorean Record: White Sox, 44-28 (356 RS, 274 RA); Cubs, 46-27 (396 RS, 295 RA)
Hit List Rankings: White Sox, #3; Cubs, #2
Prospectus: The Southsiders have already thrown down the gauntlet, courtesy of pugnacious White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who had this to say about the difference between the rooting loyalties for the two Windy City teams: "You might as well build a border, a Great Wall of China on Madison, because we are so different. We might as well be in two different cities. The unfortunate thing for me when I look at a lot of this is it's a shame that a certain segment of Chicago refused to enjoy a baseball championship being brought to their city [in 2005]. The only thing I can say is, happy anniversary." Although it is the 100th anniversary since the last year the Cubs won a World Series, they've cruised into June with the best record in baseball, the first time they have been in such a position since that 1908 season. Williams hardly needed to provide a spark in order to ignite passions--both teams are in first place, the first time that has been the case since their cross-city battle started counting in 1998. The series stands 29-28, advantage Cubs, so the Sox will have a chance to draw even by taking two of three in Wrigley, or pull ahead with a sweep.

Perhaps Williams is bitter because Chicago's loyalties have been so clearly manifested in the attendance totals of the two teams. The front-running Cubs are drawing 40,345 fans per game to the Friendly Confines this season, while the White Sox, who have the largest cushion of any of the six first-place teams in the majors (4.5 games), are averaging only 27,492 fans per game at U.S. Cellular Field (down from last year's average of 33,141), perhaps a product of their disappointing 72-90 record in 2007. The average figure for the Cubs is the highest in franchise history. Back in 1908, when the Cubs won their last title, the team played at the West Side Grounds, and averaged just 8,422 fans per game--which nevertheless ranked second among the eight teams of the National League.

Matchup: Cardinals (42-32) at Red Sox (46-29), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kyle Lohse (88 1/3 IP, 3.87 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Tim Wakefield (88, 4.50, 1.30, 59)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 39-35 (338 RS, 319 RA); Boston, 44-31 (383 RS, 313 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #10; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Cardinals visit Fenway Park tonight for the first time since Games One and Two of the 2004 World Series, both of which St. Louis lost en route to getting swept in Boston's 86-year drought-ending victory. With Albert Pujols on the disabled list and Yadier Molina day-to-day after suffering a concussion in a home-plate collision last Sunday, it could be that the lone Cardinal who saw action in the '04 Series to play this weekend will be Jason Isringhausen, who was activated from the DL last weekend and has tossed 3 1/3 scoreless frames since returning. Besides that trio, the only St. Louis players who were on the major league club during the 2004 season and are still with the team are Randy Flores and Rick Ankiel--who was at that point a pitcher. In contrast, the Red Sox have the old stalwarts remaining from the group that beat the Cardinals--Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz (currently on the DL), Mike Timlin, and Wakefield. (Kevin Youkilis was a rookie in 2004, but did not appear in the World Series.) The Red Sox knuckleballer started Game One of the 2004 series, and did not pitch well--giving up five runs in 3 2/3 innings--but was bailed out by Boston's 13-hit barrage in an 11-9 win that turned out to be the best game of the lopsided series.

This series matches up the two most patient teams in the majors, as St. Louis is out front with 298 walks, and Boston ranks first in the American League with 283. The Cardinals' pitching staff has also allowed the second fewest walks in the NL (225), so it will be interesting to see if it can hold down the Greek God of Walks and his cohorts. Youkilis, however, is not even in the top five on the Red Sox in free passes this year--he has 26, while the team leader, J.D. Drew, has drawn 38, and ranks second in the American League with a .432 OBP. Drew will be playing against the team that drafted him with the fifth overall pick in 1998, and for which he played the first six seasons of his career before being traded to the Braves. Drew has struggled against the Cardinals since leaving St. Louis, with just eight hits and a 555 OPS in 60 plate appearances against them, but he is in the midst of perhaps the most unconscious stretch of his career: since the start of June, he is batting .441/.547/1.085 with nine homers in 75 plate appearances.

Matchup: Angels (43-30) at Phillies (42-32), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (95 1/3 IP, 3.49 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 82 K) vs. Adam Eaton (80 2/3, 4.57, 1.39, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 37-36 (308 RS, 306 RA); Philadelphia, 46-28 (393 RS, 303 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #12; Philadelphia, #5
Prospectus: The Angels make their first-ever trip to Philadelphia tonight, as first place in the AL West meets first place in the NL East. Los Angeles is one of only five teams to have a winning record on the road, with a baseball-best 21-12 mark. This series should provide for an excellent battle of the bullpens, for the Phillies' relief corps ranks first in the majors in both WXRL, seven wins better than replacement level, and ARP, over 47 runs saved above average, while the Angels are fourth overall in WXRL (5.79). The teams' respective closers have been probably the two best in baseball: Brad Lidge is first in WXRL, at 3.59, while Rodriguez is third, at 3.00. Part of the reason that each team's pen has been so sharp is that the starters of both have been churning out innings: the Phillies have pitched fewer relief innings than any other National League squad (215, or 2.9 per game), while the Angels' starters have thrown the second-most innings of any team in baseball, over 6 1/3 per game, fewer than only the White Sox staff. A strong Angels bullpen has been a reliable part of the club since the start of the Mike Scioscia era, but Philadelphia has not had the same success--last year, the team's pen was below average by ARP (-1.18) and had a WXRL for the season less than three-tenths of a win higher than the team has amassed through the first 74 games of 2008.

The Phillies and Angels have also both been outstanding at maximizing their run-scoring opportunities this season. Scioscia's squad is batting .280 with runners on base and .275 with men in scoring position versus .241 with none on, and the team's collective OPS with runners on (761) and in scoring position (753) is nearly 100 points better than with none on (662). Philly's split, meanwhile, has been even more dramatic: the team's OPS with men on is 871 and with runners in scoring position 863, compared to 732 with the bags empty. Philadelphia's big three--Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Pat Burrell--have been a menace with RISP, as each sports a slugging percentage above .600 in those situations.

Matchup: Mariners (25-47) at Braves (36-38), 7:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Erik Bedard (67 1/3 IP, 4.81 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Jorge Campillo (54, 2.83, 1.00, 45) Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 28-44 (278 RS, 359 RA); Atlanta, 42-32 (342 RS, 297 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #29; Atlanta, #8
Prospectus: A reborn Campillo squares off against the team that released him last offseason in Seattle's first game following yesterday's firing of manager John McLaren, who was let go three days after the team cut ties with general manager Bill Bavasi. Interim skipper Jim Riggleman will attempt to guide the floundering Mariners' vessel, and has the benefit of eight years as a manager in the National League, beginning at the end of the 1992 season with San Diego, then moving to the Cubs from 1995-1999. Riggleman's teams cracked the .500 mark twice--the Cubs in 1995 and 1998--and he holds a 486-598 overall record, good for a .448 winning percentage.

Riggleman already has an intriguing decision awaiting him tonight--whether or not he will reverse one of McLaren's last moves before he was fired, which was to shift Ichiro Suzuki from center field back to his original spot in right. Following the demotion of right fielder Wladimir Balentien to Triple-A, McLaren decided to reshuffle his outfield. It may have been that Willie Bloomquist's outsized sense of his own importance was taken to heart by McLaren, for the lame-duck skipper started Bloomquist in center field in the first two games in which Suzuki played right--a seemingly inexplicable move that perhaps served as the final nail in McLaren's coffin. The move of Ichiro back to right is all the more curious since he has proven to be an outstanding defender in his 266 career games in center. Ichiro's career Range Factor in center field is 2.95 (the major league average is 2.69), he has made just three errors in center, and he gunned down 13 runners. His career FRAA Rate is 109 in center, higher than the 106 he has put up in 901 career games playing right. While it's true that Jeremy Reed is a natural center fielder and is hitting well enough to represent the best option for the team's third outfield spot, Reed is not the defender that Ichiro is.

Matchup: Marlins (39-33) at Athletics (39-33), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Mark Hendrickson (80 IP, 6.41 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Rich Harden (53 1/3, 2.53, 1.18, 67)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 37-35 (355 RS, 348 RA); Oakland, 42-30 (324 RS, 266 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #15; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: One of the best strikeout pitchers in the majors goes up against the team that has struck out more than any other this year. Amongst all pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in 2008, Harden rates first with a K/9 of 11.31. The Marlins, meanwhile, struck out 37 times in their three-game series in Seattle, and have now accumulated 613 strikeouts on the season, or 8.5 per game. That's the second highest rate of the past 50 years, ahead of last year's Florida squad--which ranks third on the current list, at 8.2--and behind only the 2001 Brewers, who fanned 8.6 times per contest. Harden has thrown six straight quality starts, has allowed more hits than innings pitched in just one of his nine starts, and has struck out more batters than innings pitched in eight of nine. Hendrickson, meanwhile, has allowed more runs (33) than he has innings pitched (32) in his last seven starts, a span in which opponents are slugging .563 and getting on base at a .423 clip against him. The Athletics however are tied for the worst team OPS against left-handers this season (646), and have a lower slugging percentage against southpaws than any other squad does (.327). Florida on the other hand leads the National League with a 799 OPS against righties, and leads the majors with 81 homers off of them.

The Marlins still lead the majors overall with 106 homers, but the Athletics have allowed just 47 long balls this season, by far the fewest--the next closest team to them is the White Sox, with 54 allowed, and the Dodgers' staff is the only other one that has allowed less than 60. Oakland's staff mark of 0.65 HR/9 would be the lowest since 1993 if maintained over the full season; that was the first year of the expansion era which contributed to the explosive offensive levels of the '90s, and it was a season in which the Braves and Dodgers allowed just 101 and 103 homers, respectively. Led by Harden and Justin Duchscherer, the Athletics' pitching staff is also giving up the fewest hits per nine innings (7.9) since the 2003 Dodgers allowed just 7.7. Prior to that, you have to go back to the '80s to find another team that gave up fewer than 7.9 H/9.

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

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