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June 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Diamondbacks (40-38) at Red Sox (48-32), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (76 IP, 6.04 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 71 K) vs. Tim Wakefield (95, 4.55, 1.32, 63)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 40-38 (356 RS, 345 RA); Boston, 46-34 (401 RS, 336 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #9; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The second oldest pitcher in the major leagues goes up against the second oldest starter in the American League, but it would be difficult to find a contrast in arsenals any more stark than the difference between Wakefield's knuckleball and Johnson's fastball/slider combo. Wakefield's knuckler floats up to the plate in the 60s, while Johnson's fastball--arguably the best left-handed heater ever when it was getting clocked near triple digits--still reaches above 90 mph. The Big Unit has a 16-7 career record against Boston, but his RA against the Red Sox (4.86) is higher than it is against any other team besides Tampa Bay (6.72). The Red Sox this season have the highest team OPS against lefties in the majors, at 833, although they were largely held in check for seven innings yesterday by Johnson's fellow southpaw starter, Doug Davis. Johnson has had particular trouble with Manny Ramirez throughout his career; of the 49 active players with at least 30 plate appearances lifetime against the Big Unit, Ramirez has the second best OPS, with a line of .262/.367/.690 and five homers in 49 PA.

While Wakefield has not displayed the dominance of Johnson throughout his career, his knuckleball has at times proved unhittable for long stretches. One of those periods came right around this point in the season 13 years ago, in Wakefield's first campaign with the Red Sox. Beginning on June 29, 1995, Wakefield won 10 consecutive starts, a span of 78 2/3 innings in which he allowed just 15 runs. The 28-year-old finished that season with a 3.50 RA and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting. While Wakefield has had just one season since then where he was as good (2002, when he posted a 3.14 RA in 15 starts and 30 relief appearances), he has been the very model of the solid innings eater for the balance of his career, with a park-adjusted ERA at or above league average in every season since 2001. Wakefield has already started more games for the Red Sox than every pitcher other than Roger Clemens, and if he puts in one more season he should get the 31 he need to move to the top of that category.

Matchup: Yankees (41-36) at Pirates (37-40), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joba Chamberlain (42 IP, 2.79 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Zach Duke (31 2/3, 4.30, 1.48, 36)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 40-37 (356 RS, 344 RA); Pittsburgh, 35-42 (382 RS, 419 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Pittsburgh, #27
Prospectus: Bill Mazeroski threw out the ceremonial first pitch last night in the first meeting between the Pirates and Yankees in Pittsburgh since the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, the game ended by his game-winning homer off of Ralph Terry. That shot gave the Pirates one of the most improbable championships in baseball history--Pittsburgh was outscored by the Yankees by more than 2-1, 55 runs to 27. Before last night, the Yankees had journeyed to every other National League city besides Pittsburgh in the interleague play era, and the presence of the Bronx Bombers along with the celebration of 1960 brought out 38,867 fans out to PNC Park, the largest Pittsburgh crowd this season and the third largest since the park opened in 2001.

Mazeroski was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2001, which some have argued against given Maz's career batting line, which is an unsightly .260/.299/.367. Besides the fact that he played mostly in a depressed offensive era, however, Mazeroski was probably the best defensive second baseman of all time--he totalled 204 FRAA for his 17-year career, the most in history for a keystoner, putting him essentially 20 wins above the average second baseman with the glove. Today's Pirates would do well to emulate Mazeroski, for they have the lowest defensive efficiency in the National League, converting 68.3 percent of batted balls into outs, and have committed the second most errors in the NL (56). Ironically, Clay Davenport's system rates the current Pirates second baseman, Freddy Sanchez, as one of the worst in baseball defensively. Sanchez is at nine runs below average by FRAA this season, after posting a season last year in which he was a remarkable 18 runs below in 146 games. Sanchez also rated quite poorly last season by SFR, as his -11 was the 10th worst infield performance of 2007 overall in the majors, and third worst amongst second baseman, behind Dan Uggla and Rickie Weeks.

Matchup: Reds (35-43) at Blue Jays (37-41), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Aaron Harang (106 IP, 4.58 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Roy Halladay (114 2/3, 3.37, 1.04, 93)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 33-45 (332 RS, 388 RA); Toronto, 42-36 (322 RS, 300 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #25; Toronto, #11
Prospectus: Toronto took out nearly half a season of offensive frustration on Bronson Arroyo last night, pounding the right-hander for 10 runs on 11 hits, three of them homers, in just over an inning's worth of work. That performance was startling considering that the Blue Jays entered the game ranked second to last in the AL in runs and slugging percentage. The Jays hung perhaps the worst line for a starting pitcher in modern history on Arroyo: before last night, going back to the first year of game log data (1957), no starter had ever thrown an inning or less while allowing 12 hits and walks. Just three other times since '57 had a pitcher given up 10 hits or more while working an inning or less, two of which came with a member of the Rangers pitching against the Angels: Chan Ho Park in 2005, and Rick Helling in 1994. Phil Niekro of the Braves gave up 11 hits to the Cubs in a start where he lasted just an inning-plus during the 1980 season, making him the only pitcher before Arroyo to allow 11 hits in a stint that brief.

Toronto's outburst prevented Reds slugger Adam Dunn from getting back at J.P. Ricciardi on the field, after the Blue Jays general manager questioned Dunn's passion for the game in a radio call-in show. Dunn angrily responded to those comments, calling Ricciardi "some clown sitting in the front office pushing paper," and saying that if he didn't love the game he would not play 160 games a year (he played 160 in three straight seasons from 2004 to 2006). To his credit, Ricciardi publicly apologized for his comments, but the story took a bizarre turn yesterday when Dunn denied that he had spoken with the Blue Jays' GM after Ricciardi told the media that the two had talked. Reds' team doctor Tim Kremchek also weighed in on the affair, addressing how the 6'6" right fielder played through a broken hand in 2005, as he said that "there is no player in this game that I've ever treated who had the things that he had and continued to play." It appears that Dunn might again be playing through injury this season, with "general soreness" perhaps the reason behind his recent slump at the plate. Dusty Baker hit Dunn second for the first time since April of 2007 yesterday, which seems to be a wise move in the effort to get the slugger going.

Matchup: Giants (33-44) at Indians (35-42), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Barry Zito (74 IP, 7.18 RA, 1.93 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Jeremy Sowers (24 2/3, 6.93, 1.74, 12) Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 34-43 (317 RS, 362 RA); Cleveland, 40-37 (345 RS, 331 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #22; Cleveland, #20
Prospectus: San Francisco took the first game of this series, which was also the first game for the Giants in Cleveland since Game Four of the 1954 World Series. The Indians had set the American League record for victories that season, with 111, but they were swept away in four straight by the 97-win Giants, who completely shut down the Tribe attack (which produced a .190 batting average in the four games) to win their fifth and final championship. That series, of course, featured "The Catch" in Game One, Willie Mays' sublime over-the-shoulder running grab of Vic Wertz's drive deep to the cavernous center field at the Polo Grounds, which kept a pair of Indians runners from scoring with the score tied at two in the eighth inning. Four seasons later, the Giants moved to the West Coast along with the Dodgers, where they have gone without a world title. In fact, besides the Cubs, these two teams are the longest-suffering in terms of title droughts, with the Giants in their 54th season since that '54 crown and the Indians in their 60th since their glorious 1948 championship campaign.

That 1954 series was notable also because it matched up two teams who were wiling and aggressive in pursuing top black talent. According to this source, 10 of 16 teams had all-white rosters at the end of 1953, but the Indians and Giants were on the other end of the spectrum. Cleveland became the first AL team to employ a black player when it signed Larry Doby in 1947, and by 1954 had added Al Smith to its outfield. Doby led the AL in homers and RBI in '54, while Smith put up a .398 OBP and scored 101 runs out of the leadoff spot. The Giants had Mays in center, as well as former Newark Eagles star Monte Irvin playing left. Having brought up Mays and Doby, the 2008 edition of the Indians have their own tremendous African-American center fielder, Grady Sizemore. Nate Silver recently remarked that the downwards trend in offense from center field might have something to do with the decreasing numbers of black players in the majors, but it might be interesting to note that this year 15 of the 30 teams have employed a black player as their primary center fielder, although the overall participation level for African-Americans is down to 8.2 percent.

Matchup: Phillies (42-36) at Athletics (42-34), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kyle Kendrick (78 1/3 IP, 5.97 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Greg Smith (97, 3.83, 1.26, 64)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 46-32 (400 RS, 324 RA); Oakland, 45-31 (347 RS, 281 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #5; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: It's a battle of former crosstown rivals, as the Athletics began their existence in Philadelphia, where they played from 1901 until 1954, sharing the town with the Phillies. After the old Baker Bowl was vacated during the 1938 season, the two teams also shared Shibe Park until the A's moved to Kansas City. The A's represented the American League nine times in the World Series while playing in Philadelphia, but never met the Phillies in the Fall Classic, despite the National League containing only half as many teams during that time period than it does today. The Phillies were the perennial doormats of the NL, finishing last or second to last in 27 of the 54 years that both teams played in the city of brotherly love. The two seasons that the Phillies managed to win the NL pennant were 1915 and 1950, both years in which the A's finished last in the AL. In 1915, A's manager Connie Mack had sold off all of his good players after six straight seasons with 90 wins or more, and won just 43 games, and in 1950--still being led by Mack--they dropped from 81 wins the year before to 52. Both teams are up at the same time this season, however, with the Phillies in first place in the NL East and Oakland three games out in the AL Wild Card hunt.

This series is also a homecoming for shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who grew up in the East Bay, and even owns a record label called "Bay Sluggas Inc." Rollins will be playing his second major league series at the Coliseum, after he won his high school baseball championship there as a senior back in 1996. Rollins' power has returned to its career level after peaking in last year's MVP campaign, but he has improved his plate discipline (20/19 K/BB ratio), is playing excellent defense (delivering a career-high range factor at shortstop), and has stolen 17 bases without being caught, 31 in a row dating back to last season, which is the longest active streak in the majors.

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

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