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June 30, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (50-34) at Rays (49-32), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Justin Masterson (42 IP, 3.43 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 32 K) vs. James Shields (103, 4.46, 1.16, 83)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 49-35 (424 RS, 351 RA); Tampa Bay, 46-35 (382 RS, 327 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: With the end of interleague play, the divisional races now start to heat up, beginning with the first critical second-half series in Tropicana Field history. With yesterday's Tampa Bay victory and Boston's loss, the Rays went a half-game up on the Red Sox for first place in the AL East, and also moved into a tie with the Cubs for the best record in baseball, having long since dispelled the notion that their early-season success was an aberration. Boston and Tampa Bay have already met nine times this year, with the Rays sweeping the first series at Tropicana Field and the Red Sox sweeping both at Fenway Park-results which are not a surprise given the sizable home-field advantages of each team. (Fear the dome!) The last of those meetings at Fenway featured the season's biggest brawl, which was set off when Shields intentionally hit Coco Crisp in retribution for Crisp's hard slide into Akinori Iwamura at second base the night before. Crisp then charged the mound, deftly avoided a haymaker from the Rays starter, and soon found himself at the bottom of a pile while Jonny Gomes and others scratched and clawed and punched away. Tampa Bay has quickly gained the fighting spirit to match its ascension into the ranks of the AL elite, and the brawl served as a further signal that the young bunch is raring to take on the defending champions and hit back against the rest of the division after a decade spent playing the punching bag of the AL East. "We've been getting stomped around the last 10 years, and that's not going to happen anymore," Shields said after the brawl. "I had to let [Crisp] know early and right away, and he decided to come out."

Those anticipating more fireworks between Crisp and Shields-after Shields said Coco was "not a professional player"-will have to wait until the next series between the two teams, since Crisp will be sidelined for all three games against the Rays after his suspension (reduced from seven to five games following an appeal) began on Saturday. Iwamura will also be out tonight, as he serves the final game of his three-game penalty. The other players suspended due to the brouhaha-Shields, Jon Lester, Sean Casey, Edwin Jackson, Carl Crawford, and Gomes-have already sat for their terms.

Matchup: Dodgers (38-43) at Astros (39-43), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Eric Stults (15 IP, 1.80 RA, 0.80 WHIP, 8 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (109 1/3, 5.35, 1.40, 85)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 41-40 (331 RS, 328 RA); Houston, 38-44 (360 RS, 395 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #19; Houston, #22
Prospectus: Stults was expected to be a temporary rotational fill-in while both Brad Penny and Hiroki Kuroda were out, but he has pitched so well in his two starts that the team has decided to go with a six-man rotation until the All-Star break once Kuroda returns on Wednesday. Given Stults' past results-the 28-year-old left-hander entered this season with a career RA of 5.52 in 512 1/3 minor league innings, and 6.07 over 56 1/3 frames in the big leagues-and his poor PECOTA forecast, that decision might not produce the results that manager Joe Torre is hoping for. The two strong starts by Stults were preceded by his good work at hitter-friendly Triple-A Las Vegas this season, however, where he had a 3.69 NERA in 14 starts before getting called up, so perhaps there is reason for hope. Between Stults and the two recent starts of Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers have collected a combined 26 innings with four runs allowed in the past 10 days from a pair of pitchers who each had an RA above 6.00 in the Pacific Coast League last season.

This series features a pair of speedy center fielders and leadoff hitters who have proven to be very similar players this year. The Dodgers' Juan Pierre and Houston's Michael Bourn rank second and third respectively in stolen bases in the National League, but they also rank first and third in the circuit amongst those qualified for the batting title in a less palatable category: the lowest extra-base hit percentage (XBH/PA). Pierre's slugging percentage has fallen all the way to a career-low .317, and he is on pace to collect just 20 extra-base hits over the course of the season. He has also now gone a Tynerian 1080 plate appearances since his last home run, which came on September 18 of 2006 at Citizens Bank Park against Jon Lieber. Bourn has a good bit more power than Pierre, with four long balls on the year, but given his speed he has shown a curious inability to leg out doubles and triples, with just eight combined so far in 317 PA. Bourn's teammates have picked up much of the slack (the Astros rank fifth in the NL in doubles and sixth in homers) but the Dodgers are having serious power issues for the second straight season, ranking last in the NL in doubles while tying for last in homers with the Giants.

Matchup: Tigers (41-40) at Twins (45-37), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Armando Galarraga (76 IP, 4.14 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 52 K) vs. Glen Perkins (58 1/3, 4.78, 1.54, 31)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 41-40 (393 RS, 389 RA); Minnesota, 42-40 (394 RS, 385 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Minnesota, #18
Prospectus: The Tigers play their 82nd game tonight, entering a second half that promises to be thoroughly wild in the AL Central. With Detroit having clawed its way back to the .500 mark, the Twins recently ripping off a nine-game winning streak to challenge Chicago, and the White Sox hanging tough (while Cleveland hesitates over whether or not to join the party), it appears that a legitimate three- and even possibly four-team race could emerge. This series pits perhaps the two hottest teams in the majors, for the Twins have won 13 of their past 15 games, and the Tigers 15 of their past 18.

The series opener at the Metrodome tonight will feature a Twins battery composed of two St. Paul natives, Perkins and catcher Joe Mauer. Mauer was of course the first overall pick in the draft back in 2001, while Perkins was taken with the 22nd selection in 2004. Not surprisingly, the Twins have long dominated the market for Minnesotan products, setting up a local talent pipeline in a manner similar to the way in which the Braves scout and develop regional talent. In recent years it appears that the Twins have stepped up their local efforts-12 of the 28 players selected out of Minnesota high schools or colleges in the past three drafts were taken by the Twins, including six of 10 last June. Mauer has a chance to become the best St. Paul native to ever play in the big leagues, but right now he is behind two Hall of Famers: Paul Molitor-who went to the same high school as Mauer and played for the Twins the last three seasons of his career-and Dave Winfield. On the pitching side, Jack Morris is the top talent to have come from St. Paul. He also boasts the best season by a hometown hero in franchise history, signing a one-year contract with Minnesota in 1991 and then leading them to the World Series, where he won Game One and then threw a 10-inning shutout in Game Seven to deliver Minnesota's second championship.

Matchup: Indians (37-45) at White Sox (46-35), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jeremy Sowers (31 2/3 IP, 6.25 RA, 1.80 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Gavin Floyd (43 1/3, 4.61, 1.12, 57) Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 42-40 (361 RS, 350 RA); Chicago, 49-32 (396 RS, 311 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #21; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Coming off of a home series loss to Cincinnati in their final interleague action this past weekend, the Indians are now 9˝ games and two teams behind division-leading Chicago. Cleveland is faced with a make-or-break 25 games between now and the July 31 trading deadline, 15 of which are against divisional foes. Whether the Tribe can awaken and make up ground during this key stretch will likely determine whether or not GM Mark Shapiro decides to trade C.C. Sabathia for prospects or hang onto him for the stretch run. Cleveland faces a tough task tonight, for the White Sox, fresh off a sweep of the best team in the NL at U.S. Cellular Field, have a better home record than every team other than Boston and the Cubs.

Both of today's starting pitchers were taken with a top-10 pick in the draft-Floyd went fourth overall to the Phillies in 2001, and Sowers sixth to the Tribe in '04. Sowers is the team's highest draft pick since 1992, when Cleveland picked second overall and grabbed Paul Shuey. So far, however, Sowers has not been able to regain the success he had in his rookie season, when he put up a 3.67 RA in 14 starts. Floyd has finally found success in his fifth big league season, although his 3.39 ERA is deceiving. For one thing, Floyd has allowed 13 unearned runs to score (more than any other major league pitcher) and he is also still sporting far and away the lowest BABIP (.209) of the 105 pitchers who currently qualify for the ERA crown. Sowers, in contrast has the sixth highest BABIP (.363) amongst pitchers with at least 30 innings. Floyd also does a poor job of holding runners: opponents have stolen 17 bases off of him this season (more than any other pitcher besides knuckleballer Tim Wakefield's 18), and they have been caught just twice. For his career, baserunners have nabbed 49 bases in 54 attempts with Floyd on the mound, a 91 percent success rate. Of course, that is not all Floyd's fault: the Sox have had 78 bases stolen against them as a team, the most in the AL, and the A.J. Pierzynski/Toby Hall tandem has thrown out just 16 percent of would-be thieves, a lower rate from a team's backstops than all others save the Padres.

Matchup: Athletics (44-37) at Angels (49-33), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (90 1/3 IP, 3.99 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Jon Garland (102 1/3, 4.40, 1.44, 41)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 47-34 (357 RS, 298 RA); Los Angeles, 42-40 (340 RS, 328 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: Thought by many to potentially be the worst team in the AL West before the season began, Oakland now finds itself 4˝ games behind the first-place Angels at the season's midway point. Beginning with this series, the A's will get the chance to back up their run differential advantage-which states that Oakland is actually 5˝ games better than Anaheim-and make the case that they are indeed the superior team. On Billy Beane's watch the A's have a history of hot second halves. Beginning in 2000, Oakland found itself out of a playoff spot after 81 games in four straight seasons, but each year the A's fought back in the second half to make it to the postseason. In 2000 they were 2˝ games behind Seattle, but finished a half-game ahead of the Mariners for their first division title since 1992. The next year the Mariners set an AL record with 116 wins, but Oakland ripped off the best record of any team in the majors after the midway point-an incredible 63-18-to turn an 8˝ game deficit in the wild-card hunt into a 17-game lead. That 63-18 mark is the best for a team over its final 81 games since the 162-game schedule was instituted in 1961. In 2002, the A's were again behind in the AL West, in back of both Seattle (by five games) and the Angels, but again reeled off the majors' best record after the halfway point (57-24) to take the West by four games. The pattern was evident by 2003, when the A's did the same thing once more-down by seven to Seattle after 81 games, Oakland won 50 games the rest of the way, the most in the AL, to take the West again by three games.

The A's did not exhibit as dramatic a first/second half split from 2004-2007, but were still a better team overall in the final 81 games during those years by a total of eight wins. In fact, Oakland entered last season with a better record in the final 81 games of a season since 2000 (.634) than any team in baseball, although the A's finally laid a dud in the second half last year (34-47) which bumped them into second place in that category behind the Yankees.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

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

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