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July 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Tigers (42-41) at Twins (46-38), 12:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Eddie Bonine (20 1/3 IP, 3.98 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 7 K) vs. Nick Blackburn (97 2/3, 3.67, 1.19, 68)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 42-41 (402 RS, 399 RA); Minnesota, 43-41 (395 RS, 361 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Minnesota, #18
Prospectus: So far, Bonine has provided another Armando Galarraga-style minor miracle as a reinforcement for the beleagured Tigers starting corps. After a rough major league debut (six runs in 5 1/3 innings, although he did pick up the win) the right-handed veteran of six minor league seasons has turned in back-to-back quality starts for the surging Tigers, and not of the cheap six-inning, three-run variety, either. Bonine has shown excellent control thus far, and is similar to his opponent today in that he relies upon precision to get by without phenomenal stuff. True to the Twins mold, Blackburn has walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings this season, which among the 100-plus pitchers qualified for the ERA crown ranks third. Minnesota's staff has now walked 2.39/9 this season, which since 1980 would be the fourth lowest average by any team, behind the 2005 Twins (2.14), the 2006 Twins (2.23), and the 2003 Yankees (2.31).

With Michael Cuddyer placed on the DL on Sunday, Minnesota elected to recall Denard Span from Triple-A Rochester, and Span has started in right field the first two games since making the trip west. Seen as a massive disappointment since getting selected with the 20th pick of the first round in 2002, Span entered this season with a career line of .282/.349/.347 in 2184 minor league plate appearances from 2003-07. Span didn't show any pop, with just seven homers, and he also was unable to turn his excellent speed into an offensive advantage: his 101 stolen bases were nabbed at a 66 percent clip, well below the break-even point on the basepaths, and he even was among the worst in the minors last season at bunting for a hit. While Span's stolen base percentage did not increase this season in his second crack at Triple-A--he was 15-for-23 at Rochester--his more important offensive numbers took off, as he batted .340/.434/.481 in 184 plate appearances for the Red Wings. While the increased batting average could well be a fluke, it is encouraging that Span drew 26 walks down on the farm, or one every 7.1 plate appearances, a substantial improvement on his rate of one in every 11.9 that he carried into 2008.

Matchup: Red Sox (50-36) at Rays (51-32), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (70 IP, 3.60 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 60 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (67, 4.70, 1.36, 54)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 50-36 (429 RS, 359 RA); Tampa Bay, 48-35 (390 RS, 332 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: Kazmir has earned the reputation as a Red Sox killer, and for good reason: the team's ace has a 2.82 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 105 1/3 innings versus Boston in his career, having held the Red Sox to a batting line of .224/.323/.328 in 453 plate appearances. Those numbers would look even better if not for his May 4 start in Fenway Park, when he allowed four runs in four innings, but a pass can be granted for that outing given that it was his first since returning from his early-spring elbow injury. Kazmir was brilliant in the six starts he made following that debut, giving up a total of 22 hits and four runs in 41 innings, but in his most recent four has hit his first rough patch of the season, with four homers allowed and 11 runs over 22 innings. The one thing keeping Kazmir from becoming an innings-eating monster is pitch efficiency, as he has thrown a high total of 17.1 pitches/inning, and a career-high 4.30 pitches/plate appearance. The Rays have sensibly been extremely cautious with Kazmir due to his history of elbow trouble, and the lefty has not made it out of the sixth inning in his last three starts due to pitch counts that ran above 100.

Matsuzaka has the same problem: he has thrown a whopping 17.9 pitches/inning this season, and has yet to pitch more than seven innings in any of his 13 starts, something he did five times last year. Both of these teams are very patient--the Red Sox are first in the AL with 320 walks, while the Rays are fourth with 308--so whether either starter can work deep into tonight's game is a questionable proposition. When it comes to the bullpens, Tampa Bay, unlike last year, is the team with the decided edge, as it showed last night when J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour slammed the door in the absence of set-up man Dan Wheeler (who had pitched the previous three days) and closer Troy Percival (nursing a hurt hamstring). The Rays rank first in baseball with nearly eight and a half wins above replacement added by their relief corps (8.46 WXRL), while Boston is fourth from the bottom, with 1.89. Rays relievers have also been strong by ARP, at 39 runs above average (compared with last year's record-setting total of 95 runs below), while Boston is one of six teams with a negative ARP total, at -1.3.

Matchup: Phillies (45-39) at Braves (40-44), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Adam Eaton (92 2/3 IP, 4.86 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Jorge Campillo (67 1/3, 3.07, 1.03, 53) Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 50-34 (428 RS, 351 RA); Atlanta, 46-38 (377 RS, 342 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Atlanta, #8
Prospectus: The Phillies used three relievers in last night's 8-3 win, closing the game out with innings from J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon, and Brad Lidge after getting six from starter Kyle Kendrick, while Atlanta trotted out five relievers following the third-inning flameout of starter Charlie Morton. The Braves have had to rely on their bullpen heavily this season, and rank second in the majors in pitching changes, with 269 through 84 games, behind only the Mets (273 through 84). That high number of switches represents the continuation of a 21th century trend: Atlanta has ranked in the top five in games pitched by its relievers every season since 2002, which serves as another reminder of how the Braves have been forced to adapt as their core pitchers have faded, switched roles, or left the fold. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has made fewer changes than any other National League team, with 217 through 84. The Phillies bullpen has had to work less than any other in the NL, both in terms of appearances and innings, for the team's starters have turned in a circuit-leading average of six frames per outing. That light load on the pen has helped Philadelphia stick with the same seven relievers all year, and post the best ARP total in baseball (46 runs above average).

One of the main reasons manager Bobby Cox has made so many pitching changes has been his usage pattern for lefty-specialist Royce Ring, who was one of the pitchers used last night, throwing 1/3 of an inning. Ring has now made 32 appearances on the season while throwing just 16 1/3 innings. He has been an uber-LOOGY, facing only one batter in 17 of his outings, including a stretch of nine times out of 10 in late April/early May. (It appears that Cox has come to trust Ring to face righties a bit more, however, for he has left him in for at least two hitters in 12 of his past 17 appearances.) If Cox keeps using him for outings of less than one inning, Ring will have the chance to join an exclusive fraternity of specialist relievers. Just five firemen have pitched half as many or fewer innings than games in which they appeared over a full season, minimum 30 outings, all of whom threw from the left side:


Player         Year Team    G  IP
Jesse Orosco   1999  BAL   65  32
Mike Myers     2006  NYY   62  30.2
Tony Fossas    1992  BOS   60  29.2
Jesse Orosco   2002  LAN   56  27
Rich Rodriguez 2002  TEX   36  16.2
Jesse Orosco   2001  LAD   35  16
John Franco    2005  HOU   31  15

Matchup: Padres (33-52) at Rockies (33-51), 7:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Randy Wolf (98 IP, 4.50 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 89 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (93 2/3, 5.38, 1.59, 75)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 33-52 (317 RS, 402 RA); Colorado, 34-50 (353 RS, 432 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #28; Colorado, #25
Prospectus: Chase Headley had an outstanding start to his season in the majors after getting recalled from Triple-A Portland on June 17, hitting a pair of homers in his first four games. Headley has struggled with his plate discipline, however, striking out 18 times without a walk in 53 plate appearances for San Diego. That calls to mind the 2008 start of another third baseman-turned-left fielder, Ryan Braun, who struck out 12 times in 62 plate appearances to begin the year without walking. Headley fanned 114 times in 522 plate appearances last year at Double-A San Antonio, and was on pace to outstrip that total at the time of his recall, with 65 whiffs in 295 PA for Portland. Headley might well turn into a fine player for San Diego, but will not hit for the average he did in the minors (career .301) unless he cuts his Ks. The Padres as a team have been an undisciplined group, as they rank second in baseball with 670 strikeouts, and are 10th in the NL in walks. San Diego was also second in the NL in strikeouts last year, and has had particular trouble with Jimenez's electric stuff, as the second-year right-hander has fanned 30 in 24 1/3 career innings versus the Padres.

While San Diego clearly still has trouble scoring runs--as evidenced by Aaron Cook's blanking them last night at Coors Field--the team has managed to find a good patch for second base, one of its biggest offensive holes. Edgar Gonzalez is the second player so named in the NL West and the second Gonzalez on the Padres--his younger brother is first baseman Adrian--but he made a name for himself with a fantastic June, hitting .341/.383/.534 in 94 PA after Tadahito Iguchi got hurt. Edgar was chosen by the Rays in the 30th round of 2000, the same year Adrian went number one overall to Florida, but while the top pick was up in the majors by 2004, Edgar did not receive so much as a cup of big league coffee while hitting .297/.376/.446 over eight minor league seasons through 2007. The 30-year-old entered his sixth organization in 2008 when he signed with San Diego, and after a strong showing at Portland was promoted for the first time on May 12. Less than two months later, Edgar ranks third on the Padres in offensive VORP, behind his brother and Brian Giles.

Matchup: Brewers (45-38) at Diamondbacks (42-42), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (59 1/3 IP, 4.25 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 46 K) vs. Micah Owings (92, 5.58, 1.35, 79)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 41-42 (375 RS, 378 RA); Arizona, 43-41 (378 RS, 370 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Arizona, #13
Prospectus: Owings' fortunes have mirrored those of the Diamondbacks over the past month, for since May 30, the right-hander has gone 0-5 and given up 29 runs in 29 1/3 innings over six starts. His slump on the mound has also been accompanied with one at the plate, as Owings has just a pair of singles in his last 24 at-bats after opening the season 10-for-24 with a homer and two doubles. To top it all off, Owings also injured himself in his last start, tweaking his back while trying to field a grounder, and will make his start tonight despite admittedly still not feeling 100 percent on Monday. [The Diamondbacks scratched Owings due to his back injury this morning and replaced him with Yusmeiro Petit, who was called up from Triple-A Tucson on Saturday. Petit will be making his first major league start this year after putting up a 5.10 RA, 1.20 WHIP, and 67/8 K/BB in 60 innings for the Sidewinders.--CP]

After stealing 109 bases last season at an excellent 82 percent success rate, the Diamondbacks have nabbed just 27 bags through 84 games in 2008. Last year's leader with 50, left fielder Eric Byrnes has been troubled by hamstring issues all season, and is currently on the DL with only four thefts to his name. Center fielder Chris Young had 27, but he is also down to four, a drop whose cause is more of a mystery. Leading the team in steals is Conor Jackson with six; he entered 2008 with three steals in 310 career major league games. The Diamondbacks did not attempt a theft last night, probably a wise decision considering the throwing prowess that Jason Kendall has exhibited this year. The Brewers' veteran catcher is having his best season in terms of gunning down thieves, as he leads the major leagues with a 46.8 caught stealing rate (nailing 22 in 47 attempts). Kendall has also bounced back at the plate to post a solid .353 OBP. His season represents a major turnaround from last year, when the catcher looked as if he was on his last legs, posting a .301 OBP and throwing out just 20 of 131 runners (15.3 percent). Kendall this year boasts a FRAA Rate of 109, his highest since he put up a remarkable 119 in 1999, the year in which he posted his career high for caught stealing percentage (43.5 percent, 30 CS/69 SBA). Kendall was in the midst of a career year in '99, not only defensively but also at the plate--hitting .332/.428/.511--but a horrific ankle injury suffered at first base cut short his season after 78 games.

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

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