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June 28, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cardinals (45-36) at Royals (37-43), 6:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Mitchell Boggs (16 2/3 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 4 K) vs. Kyle Davies (26, 3.12, 1.65, 13)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 43-38 (374 RS, 353 RA); Kansas City, 36-44 (328 RS, 368 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #9; Kansas City, #24
Prospectus: The Royals have now won six in a row-their longest streak since they opened the 2003 season with nine straight victories-and 11 of their past 12. All of those victories have come against National League opponents, and the Royals are now 13-3 and tied with the Twins for the best record in interleague play. Just three of the 14 AL clubs have losing records against the NL. Heading into the final two days of interleague play this season, the junior circuit as a whole has gone 135-88 against its senior brethren, which translates to a .605 winning percentage, or 98 wins over a full 162-game schedule. That's close to the dominance displayed by the junior circuit in 2006, when it went 154-98 against the NL (.611). Since the start of the 2005 season, the AL has beaten up on the AL to the tune of a .574 winning percentage. Dating back to the beginning of interleague play in '98, the advantage is not as palpable, with the AL having won 52.5 percent of interleague games.

Kansas City has slowly climbed back to respectability after its 12-game losing streak earlier in the season dropped it 13 games below .500, and is still alive in the race for the division crown, currently sporting the same record as Cleveland. Unfortunately, after this weekend the Royals will have to go back to playing their junior circuit foes, against whom they are just 24-40. Fueling the team's recent drive has been outfielder David DeJesus, who has hit in 12 straight games and is experiencing the breakout season many expected from him several years ago. He has put up a .317/.376/.480 line thus far, better even than his 90th-percentile PECOTA forecast of .302/.377/.452. With eight home runs through his first 66 games, DeJesus is just one away from his career-high total of nine, which he hit in 122 games during 2005.

Matchup: Orioles (40-38) at Nationals (32-49), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Garrett Olson (59 1/3 IP, 5.01 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 38 K) vs. John Lannan (89, 3.44, 1.29, 55)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 38-40 (353 RS, 363 RA); Washington, 29-52 (296 RS, 403 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #16; Washington, #30
Prospectus: The Nationals and Orioles have been engaged on the field and on the phone lines this weekend, as FOX Sport's Ken Rosenthal has reported that Baltimore is moving towards acquiring Washington's Felipe Lopez to play shortstop. Baltimore has gotten nothing offensively from their shortstops this season-just a single homer, and a .196 EqA-so Lopez, with his two homers and .233 EqA, would fit right in. Where he wouldn't match up as well is on defense, which should give the Orioles brass pause before making the deal. Lopez has played just two games at shortstop this season, but 591 over the course of his career, and he has been well below average at the position, by both Range Factor (4.18, compared to the average of 4.47), fielding percentage (.959 to .974), and FRAA (90 Rate, or -53 runs below average). He has also produced -22.9 SFR in his career at shortstop, with his only season in the black being 2003. To this point, Baltimore is first in the majors in defensive efficiency, and has managed to stay above .500 in part because of such outstanding defense. In that light, it would seem that adding such a poor glove at such an important defensive position might well upset that fragile harmony. Orioles shortstops have not been great defensively thus far, but they have put up an above-average Range Factor and have been a bit better than average by FRAA.

While shortstop has been a huge problem offensively for the Birds, the other side of the bag has not. Trade rumors involving second baseman Brian Roberts getting dealt to the Cubs were in the air earlier in the year, but the O's elected to hang onto their All-Star. That decision is looking good, for Roberts is in the midst of an outstanding season at the plate, and Baltimore can probably expect to get more in return if it does decide to shop him next month. Roberts currently leads the major leagues in doubles with 29, a total that puts him on track to challenge the all-time single-season record for a second baseman of 60, set by the Tigers' Charlie Gehringer in 1936. Just eight second basemen have recorded 50 or more doubles in a season, and Roberts is one of them, having knocked exactly 50 in 2004. He's well on his way to reaching that plateau again, which would make him the fourth second baseman with two such seasons to his credit, joining two Hall of Famers-Gehringer and Billy Herman-and a future Hall of Famer in Craig Biggio.

Matchup: Phillies (43-38) at Rangers (41-40), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (113 IP, 3.42 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 95 K) vs. Vicente Padilla (98 2/3, 4.56, 1.37, 68)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 48-33 (411 RS, 337 RA); Texas, 39-42 (445 RS, 458 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Texas, #27
Prospectus: The respective ace of each staff will go at it today, trying to fend off two of the majors' best offenses. The top-ranked Rangers became even more formidable in the past few days with the addition of first baseman Chris Davis, who had an outstanding beginning to his big league career. Davis singled as a pinch-hitter in his first at-bat after getting called up from Triple-A Oklahoma on Thursday, and in his first start yesterday smashed an opposite-field two-run home run off of Clay Condrey in the third inning to give Texas a 6-5 lead.

The Rangers have had trouble filling in the hole at first base since the dispatch of Mark Teixeira in a deadline deal last season. This year they had already started five players at the position heading into yesterday's game (Ben Broussard, Jason Botts, Chris Shelton, Frank Catalanotto, and Max Ramirez), who had combined for the fourth-worst line among first basemen in the majors at .225/.309/.339. It looks like the rookie can stop that number from getting any higher than six first basemen, however, because Davis appears to be the clear-cut heir to Teixeira. A lefty swinger, Davis hit at every level he visited in the minor leagues. After getting chosen in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, he put up a .534 slugging percentage in the Northwest League in his inaugural pro experience, then slugged .573 the next season in the California League, prompting a promotion to Double-A Frisco, where he had a .644 SLG the past two years. Another promotion to Oklahoma this season led to 10 homers in 111 at-bats and a .685 slugging percentage, which in turn led to his quick ascension to Arlington. Overall, Davis hit 74 homers in 275 minor league games and slugged .595 in 1045 at-bats. He clocked in at No. 6 on the list of the Rangers' Top 11 Prospects and No. 74 on the Top 100, with Kevin Goldstein calling him "one of the few prospects around with true 40-plus big league home run potential" and gifted with "mammoth, gargantuan power." His stock is way up at this point, and according to Goldstein he is "a future home run and RBI machine in the cleanup slot."

Matchup: Giants (34-46) at Athletics (44-35), 6:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Tim Lincecum (102 2/3 IP, 2.89 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 103 K) vs. Justin Duchscherer (77, 2.57, 0.97, 51)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 35-45 (323 RS, 371 RA); Oakland, 47-32 (356 RS, 286 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #23; Oakland, #5
Prospectus: Two of the best right-handed hurlers in baseball this year square off. Lincecum ranks third in the major leagues amongst qualifiers in ERA, while Duchscherer will qualify for the ERA crown after tonight's outing (unless he throws less than three innings), and if he maintains his 1.99 ERA he would rank first. That's shocking when you consider that before this season Duchscherer had just five major league starts under his belt, the last of which came in 2003, and that he missed most of last season with a hip ailment. As Nate Silver pointed out in a recent chat, Duchscherer's peripherals aren't close to matching up with his RA, but Duchscherer has always been tough to hit-he gave up 7.7 H/9 from 2004-06 while pitching out of the Oakland bullpen-and he's pitching this season in front of a strong defense (Oakland is ranked third in the majors in efficiency), so it's not unreasonable to expect him to maintain a below-average BABIP.

Oakland has now taken the first four games from the Giants this season, after winning five out of six in '07. One has to imagine that this makes general manager Billy Beane and team owner Lewis Wolff happy above and beyond a simple victory or the satisfaction derived from beating up on the crosstown rival. That's because the Giants have blocked a relocation of the A's franchise to San Jose, claiming that such a move would infringe upon their territorial rights to that area, which has led to the Athletics' plans to build a brand-new stadium in Fremont. Nate Silver found that the Giants' fears about an impending A's move could be legitimate, however, for in his market model, the opening of Cisco Field in Fremont would cut down significantly on San Francisco's TV audience, and would slash their attendance figure as well. Until Cisco Field opens in 2012 or so, the Athletics will have to be content with beating the Giants on the field, if not in the media and at the box office, and hope that this year's surprising contender will eventually bring the fans out to McAfee Coliseum.

Matchup: Angels (48-32) at Dodgers (37-42), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (96 2/3 IP, 4.66 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 71 K) vs. Chad Billingsley (89, 3.84, 1.38, 95) Pythagorean Record: Angels, 41-39 (339 RS, 327 RA); Dodgers, 40-39 (330 RS, 327 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Angels, #11; Dodgers, #19
Prospectus: The Angels have been a statistical anomaly in a number of ways this season, not least of which being their extraordinary play on the road. Even with last night's 6-0 loss in the opener of this year's Dodger Stadium edition of the Freeway Series, the Halos are still 26-14 away from home. The Angels are one of just five teams that have winning records on the road, with the next best being St. Louis, at 22-19. That strange split is mostly a result of the team's pitching: while the Angels offense has performed modestly better on the road (709 OPS) than at home (698), L'Anaheim's hurlers have a 3.65 road RA, as compared to a 4.56 mark at Angel Stadium.

This series features two closers who have put up very similar performances this season, but have widely disparate counting stats to show for it. The Dodgers Takashi Saito has numbers that are close to those of Francisco Rodriguez-a 2.76 RA to Rodriguez's 2.06, 1.19 WHIP to 1.17, and more strikeouts, 45 to 33, in 2 1/3 fewer innings-but Saito has just 11 saves, while Rodriguez leads the majors with 31, and is well on his way towards threatening Bobby Thigpen's single-season record of 57. As Joe Sheehan wrote this past week, it's all about opportunities. The Angels have generated 38 so far, and have only blown five, while Los Angeles has had exactly half as many save chances-the fewest in the majors at 19-and has blown seven. It's quite strange that the Dodgers have not generated more opportunities, considering that they have a weak offense (ranking only 13th in the NL in runs) and a very strong pitching staff which has allowed the second fewest runs in the senior circuit. However, that has not been the case, as the Dodgers have played 33 games classified as blowouts (a margin of five-plus runs), more than any other team in baseball. The Angels, contrastingly, have played 19 such games. That high number for the Dodgers seems like a fluke, and if it evens out in the second half as would be expected, it would not be a shock to see Saito and Rodriguez get a similar number of opportunities going forward.

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

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