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June 23, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Diamondbacks (39-37) at Red Sox (47-31), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (96 2/3 IP, 3.54 RA, 1.00 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Josh Beckett (86, 3.98, 1.23, 89)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 39-37 (350 RS, 339 RA); Boston, 45-35 (395 RS, 330 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #9; Boston, #1
Prospectus: Two first-place clubs meet at Fenway Park in a series that pits brother against brother. Last year, J.D. Drew homered twice and drove in seven runs in Boston's series win against Arizona, while Stephen added a long ball of his own. Both brothers are playing significantly better this year than last, with each having bumped his slugging by over 100 points. After getting swept over the weekend in Minnesota, however, Stephen's Diamondbacks now stand just two games above .500, the worst record of the six first-place teams. Arizona has gone 20-30 in the 50 games since it got off to the best start of any team in baseball at 19-7. Both the offense (3.97 R/G) and the pitching (4.97 RA) have been to blame during Arizona's stretch of .400 baseball. Ace Brandon Webb has hit a particularly rough patch of late, leaving Haren as the Diamondbacks starter with the best numbers. Haren has also been the most consistent, with the lowest Flake rate of any Snakes starter, and has pitched very well lately with four consecutive quality starts.

Haren's outstanding control has driven his success this season. A master of precise location, this year Haren has been more in command than ever, with an unintentional walk rate of 1.4 per nine. That's down from 2.2 last year, and better even than his previous best of 1.6 set in 2006. Haren's ability to locate will be tested tonight by a Boston team which leads the American League in walks. The Sox will counter with their ace, Beckett, who has nearly matched Haren's command this season. Last year's AL Cy Young runner-up has maintained his 2007 breakthrough in control so far in 2008: Beckett's 1.78 UBB/9 is virtually identical to his 2007 average of 1.79. His previous best figure was a full walk per nine higher--the 2.8 UBB/9 he put up in 2005. Beckett allowed 11 home runs in his first 10 starts this season, and it appeared that his bugaboo from 2006--when he surrendered a career-high 36 homers in his first season with Boston--had returned, but he has not given up a homer in his last three starts and appears to be settling into mid-season form.

Matchup: Brewers (41-34) at Braves (38-39), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (95 1/3 IP, 2.83 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 77 K) vs. Jo-Jo Reyes (60, 4.50, 1.33, 50)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 37-38 (343 RS, 345 RA); Atlanta, 45-34 (357 RS, 314 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #14; Atlanta, #8
Prospectus: Milwaukee manager Ned Yost faces Atlanta's Bobby Cox, whom he spent 12 seasons coaching under in the Braves organization, in the first of three games at Turner Field. Yost's club has played very well lately, and with six wins in its past seven games is now just one game behind St. Louis in the loss column in the wild-card race. The Brewers bats have come alive lately, and the team is sporting a collective OPS above 900 with more than 5.5 runs per game during its past seven. Particularly hot is Prince Fielder, with five homers in the past six games to push his slugging percentage above .500 for the first time since the start of April. Corey Hart has also found his power stroke as the year has progressed: after hitting a single long ball through his first 41 games, Hart now has 11 in his past 33.

The Brewers' bullpen has been something of a disaster all season, but the ninth inning for Milwaukee has been stabilized recently by Salomon Torres, who was promoted into the closer's role after the failures of Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota. From May 24, Torres has thrown 14 2/3 innings and allowed a single earned run, converting 11 straight save chances. Torres has now thrown 43 2/3 innings out of the pen, the fifth most amongst National League relievers, and ranks as the fourth best fireman in the circuit by WXRL. After taking a breather last year, it appears that Torres has returned to his rubber-armed ways as a valuable all-purpose pitcher out of the pen: Torres is on pace to throw 92 innings, which would mark the fourth time that he has tossed 90 or more relief frames in a season. Torres did so in three consecutive years from 2004-07, becoming only the second pitcher with such a streak in the past 10 years, along with Scott Sullivan (who remarkably had four straight seasons of 100+ relief innings from 1998-01). With his late-career relief renaissance--Torres returned to the major leagues with Pittsburgh at age 30 in 2002 after a four-year absence--the right-hander has overwritten his former legacy, which was to be known as the promising Giants rookie who was roughed up on the final day of the 1993 season, losing the game that kept 103-win San Francisco from tying Atlanta for the NL West title.

Matchup: Mariners (26-49) at Mets (37-37), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (103 1/3 IP, 3.31 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Johan Santana (100 2/3, 3.40, 1.21, 91)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 29-46 (295 RS, 374 RA); New York, 38-36 (348 RS, 342 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #29; New York, #13
Prospectus: Both teams are now being led by managers who began the season as bench coaches, with Jerry Manuel and Jim Riggleman each taking over last week after the firing of Willie Randolph and John McLaren, respectively. Manuel has seen his squad win three of five since he assumed control to once more reach the .500 mark. Riggleman's charges, meanwhile, dropped two of three in Atlanta since he grabbed the helm, but what's particularly troubling is that the new skipper has continued McLaren's decision to give Willie Bloomquist more playing time, as Bloomquist has started two of the three games under Riggleman's watch and five of the past seven games overall. Bloomquist is a below-average defender in center field and at second base, and also has yet to collect an extra-base hit in his 76 plate appearances this season. That puts him already more than half way to the record for that punchless feat in a single season since 1947, which was set at 144 plate appearances by Dwain Anderson in 1973.

The two new skippers will each get to send out their best to the mound tonight. Hernandez and Santana have faced off once before, last August 13, when both pitched well but neither earned a decision in a 4-3 Mariners win. Hernandez has never faced the Mets before, and just two of New York's players--Luis Castillo and Trot Nixon--have stood in against him in their careers. Hernandez has been rolling lately, with wins in each of his last four outings, all of them quality starts, but New York should provide a challenge for the young right-hander because of its extreme left-handedness. Opponents have exhibited a sizeable split between what they hit from the left side and the right against King Felix, both this year (566 OPS in 187 PA for righties, 772 in 244 for lefties) and for his career (617 and 781, respectively). The Mets are the most left-handed team in baseball, with 61 percent of their plate appearances coming from the port side, and tonight could very likely trot out a lineup with eight lefty hitters, the lone exception being stalwart David Wright.

Matchup: Angels (46-30) at Nationals (30-47), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Lackey (52 IP, 1.90 RA, 0.92 WHIP, 39 K) vs. Jason Bergmann (53 2/3, 6.20, 1.42, 46) Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 39-37 (324 RS, 311 RA); Washington, 28-49 (282 RS, 386 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #12; Washington, #30
Prospectus: The Nationals have had a horrendous offensive season to this point, but one pleasant surprise--just about the only one besides the play of Jesus Flores--is the hitting of shortstop Cristian Guzman. Long a Baseball Prospectus whipping boy for his replacement-level stylings while chewing up regular playing time, Guzman posted a deadly .219/.260/.314 line in 2005, his first season with the Nationals after signing as a free agent. Guzman missed all of 2007 with a shoulder injury, and was hitting very well last season (.328/.380/.466 in 192 plate appearances) when he tore a thumb ligament and missed the rest of the year. Guzman has been able to carry over some of 2007's offense, for he is batting .310 and leads the major leagues in hits, with 102. Guzman rarely walks--just 11 so far in 343 PA--so even with his impressive hit total has still been around league average offensively, with a .263 EqA. Still, that represents a substantial improvement for the 30-year-old Dominican, and is good production for a shortstop--Guzman rates fourth amongst major league shortstops in VORP. As revealed on yesterday's Nationals TV broadcast, Guzman is headed towards a franchise record in hits as well, on pace for 215. Just four players in the history of the Expos/Nationals have collected 200 or more hits in a season: Vladimir Guerrero (206 in 2002 and 202 in '98), Al Oliver (204 in 1982), Mark Grudzielanek (201 in 1996), and Jose Vidro (200 in 2000).

One thing that stands out in reviewing the VORP shortstop list is how poorly American Leaguers are faring. Not until the 11th spot does the first member of the junior circuit, Michael Young, show up. Back when the Trinity was in action, shortstop in the AL was a strong offensive position--in 2000 the AL OPS at the position was 768 (compared to 705 in the NL), and it was in the 730-740 range through 2006. Last year it fell to 710, and this year so far has tumbled to 667, the lowest figure since 1992. The four teams that have really dragged the position's offense down this year are the Royals, Orioles, Rays, and Twins, while the Angels rank fifth from the bottom at 670. With a combination of Erick Aybar (.284 OBP) and Maicer Izturis (.345 slugging), the Halos have struggled to replicate even the modest production that Orlando Cabrera gave them the last two years.

Matchup: Rockies (32-44) at Royals (33-43), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jeff Francis (89 2/3 IP, 5.32 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Brian Bannister (91 2/3, 4.91, 1.30, 51)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 32-44 (322 RS, 380 RA); Kansas City, 32-44 (302 RS, 357 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #24; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: The Royals are coming off their second best comeback in franchise history, an 11-10 victory over the Giants yesterday in which they were down 10-3 heading to the bottom of the fifth inning with San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum on the mound. Kansas City knocked Lincecum out of the game with a pair of runs in the fifth--handing the righty his worst outing of the year--and then torched Keiichi Yabu and Jack Taschner for five in the sixth to tie it, adding the winning tally against Alex Hinshaw in the seventh. The only larger deficit that the Royals have ever erased in their history was nine runs, in a game against Milwaukee on June 15, 1979. Kansas City will have to hope that the goodwill from yesterday's performance will bring the fans out to Kauffman Stadium tonight for an otherwise desultory interleague pairing. There is little to connect the Royals and Rockies besides 600 miles of I-70 and the Ryan Shealy trade from two seasons ago, which has produced little value for either team. Kansas City and Colorado made another trade in late March this year, which sent Ramon Ramirez to the Royals for a player to be named later (who ended up being Jorge de la Rosa). Ramirez gave up 16 runs in 17 1/3 innings out of the Colorado pen last season, but this year has been a revelation for the Royals, with a 38/14 K/BB and 3.43 RA in 35 innings. Ramirez is one of the four fantastic KC relievers, along with otherworldly closer Joakim Soria (who converted his 20th save in 21 chances yesterday), lefty Ron Mahay, and righty Leo Nunez, all of whom rank amongst the American League leaders in ARP.

The Rockies' offense is getting healthy, as Matt Holliday was activated on June 10, Troy Tulowitzki on Friday, and Clint Barmes on Sunday. That's great news for Colorado, because the team is by no means out of the NL West race thanks to the struggles of Arizona and Los Angeles. The Rockies are seven games out, the same number they were behind last September 10 before closing the gap in a hurry. Getting Jeff Francis back to 2007 form would provide a big step towards replicating that feat, and it looks as if Francis is slowly coming around, with three quality starts in his past four tries.

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

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