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July 4, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (51-37) at Yankees (45-41), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (101 IP, 3.74 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 101 K) vs. Darrell Rasner (57, 4.58, 1.40, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 52-36 (442 RS, 366 RA); New York, 45-41 (406 RS, 383 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; New York, #7
Prospectus: Not only is today the anniversary of our nation's declaration of independence from Great Britain, but also of perhaps the most famous words spoken in the history of baseball. Forty-nine years ago, on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig--forced to retire that season by the disease that would later take his life and eventually bear his name--stood before the Yankee Stadium crowd on the day his number 4 jersey was retired and said, "today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Here are some other highlights of Independence Day in Yankees history (taken from NationalPastime.com):

  • 1925: Two future Hall of Famers, Yankees lefty Herb Pennock and Athletics ace Lefty Grove, match zeros for 14 innings at Yankee Stadium before the Yankees score off of Grove in the bottom of the 15th to win 1-0.
  • 1932: Senators outfielder Carl Reynolds collides with Bombers catcher Bill Dickey at the plate, prompting Dickey to punch Reynolds in the face, breaking his jaw. Dickey is suspended for 30 days.
  • 1983: Dave Righetti throws a no-hitter against Boston at the Stadium in a 4-0 Yankees victory.
  • 1984: Phil Niekro, pitching for the Yankees, strikes out Larry Parrish of the Rangers to become the ninth major leaguer to fan 3,000 batters.

The milestones for the Bombers on the Fourth of July haven't always been positive, however. Back in 2003, the Red Sox hit seven homers in a 10-3 win in New York, the most long balls ever allowed by the Yankees in one game. Jason Varitek, Bill Mueller, and David Ortiz hit two apiece, and Manny Ramirez added the seventh. (The Red Sox have enjoyed batting on the Fourth--in 1977, they set a then-major league record with eight homers in a home win over Toronto.) Three years after that '03 blowout, the Yankees suffered a further embarrassment on Independence Day when they lost 19-1 to the Indians in Cleveland.

If something seems strange about this series between the long-time rivals, it's that neither team is in first place. The last time New York and Boston clashed without one or the other being atop the East was in September of 1997, when the Orioles were wrapping up their first division title since 1983 (and their last winning season).

Matchup: Dodgers (41-44) at Giants (38-48), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Derek Lowe (111 1/3 IP, 4.45 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 82 K) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (102, 3.88, 1.34, 102) Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 43-42 (348 RS, 341 RA); San Francisco, 39-47 (352 RS, 391 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #19; San Francisco, #23
Prospectus: Tonight's opener of the great imported New York City rivalry will also mark the return of two veteran former All-Stars for Los Angeles, as both Andruw Jones and Nomar Garciaparra join the club following protracted absences. Before he went down in late May, Jones was putting up a .192 EqA, the worst mark by any center fielder in baseball. Garciaparra was not much better, at .235. That number, however, would still represent a significant improvement upon the performances of the three players who have filled in for injured shortstop Rafael Furcal: Luis Maza (.202), Angel Berroa (.146), and Chin-Lung Hu (.130). Garciaparra can likely still outhit that trio even as the darkness settles in on his storied career, but can he still play shortstop well enough to justify the switch? That is what the Dodgers apparently intend to find out. The last time Garciapparra played shortstop was in 2005 with the Cubs, when he made six errors in 26 games and had a 4.02 Range Factor (compared to the 4.51 league average that year). According to FRAA, the last year Garciaparra was above-average was 2002, and from 2004-05 he racked up a combined -18.5 SFR at the position for the Red Sox and Cubs. Garciaparra would also seem to be a poor bet to stay healthy while playing the more physically taxing middle infield position, for one of the primary reasons he was moved to third base (and then later first) was to keep his fragile fading star on the field.

The Giants have a fading star of their own at shortstop in Omar Vizquel. Playing in his 20th season, Vizquel broke Luis Aparicio's major league record for games at shortstop this year, but his age has betrayed him at the plate, leading to a putrid .129 EqA in 147 plate appearances--the worst amongst shortstops besides Tony Pena Jr. Despite that black hole in their lineup, the Giants find themselves hanging around in the NL West, just five games back, in large part due to the breakout effort of Sanchez. The left-hander has tossed eight quality starts in his past nine, seven of which San Francisco has won. In fact, the Giants are 13-4 in games Sanchez has pitched this season. Only one other pitcher--Tim Redding, surprisingly enough--has seen his team win more when he has taken the hill. Sanchez is also tied for sixth in the National League with 102 strikouts, behind teammates Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Matchup: Royals (39-47) at Rays (52-32), 5:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (103 1/3 IP, 5.23 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Edwin Jackson (95 2/3, 4.33, 1.45, 60)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 38-48 (358 RS, 406 RA); Tampa Bay, 48-36 (397 RS, 338 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: Tonight's game could mark the major league debut of Reid Brignac at shortstop for Tampa Bay. Regular starter Jason Bartlett hurt his knee in Wednesday's series-sweeping win over Boston, leading to a DL stint and Brignac's recall. Brignac was rated by Kevin Goldstein as the fifth best prospect in the stacked Tampa Bay system, and the fifth of the team's quartet of five-star minor league talents. He was also rated No. 25 on the Baseball Prospectus Top 100 list. The 22-year-old has not improved his stock this season, however: Tampa Bay promoted the 2006 California League MVP to Triple-A after a mediocre year at Double-A in '07, and Brignac has again posted sub-par numbers, with a .265/.312/.431 showing at Durham. Brignac's performance was good for a .241 EqA, just seventh best on the Bulls. However, Tampa Bay will not be losing anything at the plate with Bartlett out, who had a .227 EqA in his 298 plate appearances. Additionally, according to Goldstein the major positive from Brignac's down season last year was his marked improvement on defense, and this year the rookie leads all qualified Triple-A shortstops with a .976 fielding percentage. Tampa Bay also has the luxury, if it chooses, of platooning the lefty-swinging Brignac with switch-hitter Ben Zobrist.

If there is any pitching unit that can cool off the scorching Rays right now, it just might be the Royals bullpen, which enters this series on a serious roll. In Kansas City's four-game split with Baltimore, Royals relievers gave up one run in 15 innings, and over their past 10 games have allowed a total of five runs in 30 frames, a 1.50 RA. Fueling that drive has been the work of closer Joakim Soria, who has given up one baserunner--a Randy Winn single--in his last nine innings of work, while striking out 12. Soria's WHIP is now down below 0.75, a depth which just eight pitchers since the turn of the 20th century have been able to achieve in a season of at least 35 innings.

Matchup: Athletics (46-39) at White Sox (49-36), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (114 IP, 5.29 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (111 2/3, 4.35, 1.30, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 49-36 (373 RS, 313 RA); Chicago, 52-33 (416 RS, 328 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: The Athletics came up with a 3-2 win in last night's series opener at U.S. Cellular Field, breaking Chicago's nine-game home winning streak, and also handed ex-teammate Nick Swisher an 0-for-4 collar with three strikeouts. So far, the White Sox have not reaped as much benefit as they had hoped to from their offseason trade with Oakland for Swisher. He has been exactly average offensively, with a .260 EqA. Meanwhile, a third of the haul that Oakland GM Billy Beane received for Swisher, outfielder Ryan Sweeney, has produced a .276 EqA, the fourth best mark on the A's. Swisher has been on a tear recently, however, as he produced a 1032 OPS in 108 PA during the month of June, and seems poised to flip on the power that has been largely missing in the first half. Swisher and his teammates have been popping the ball out of the Cell all season--75 homers and a .482 SLG in 42 home games--but might find it difficult to continue that trend tonight and over the rest of the weekend, for Oakland has allowed fewer home runs (60) than any other team. Blanton is the pitcher most likely to be taken deep of any A's staff member (12 times), though, so White Sox fans hoping for in-game fireworks might yet be rewarded.

One of the Oakland pitchers contributing to that homer suppression is 28-year-old rookie reliever Brad Ziegler, who has tossed 15 scoreless innings since getting called up from Triple-A Sacramento on May 30. Ziegler's 14 straight scoreless outings to open his career represents the fourth longest such streak by a rookie since 1956. The right-hander was a starter in the minors up through 2006, but at the very end of that season was converted into a sidearming reliever by the A's, who were looking for the next Chad Bradford. It appears they may have found him: Ziegler gave up 20 homers in 163 innings during 2006, but upon moving full-time to relief in 2007 did not surrender a single long ball in 78 1/3 frames. Add in this year's 24 1/3 homerless innings at Sacramento, and his performance thus far in the majors, and Ziegler has now thrown 117 2/3 innings of relief since the start of last year without allowing a long ball. In that span he has also given up just 6.8 H/9, with an RA of 2.14.

Matchup: Cubs (51-35) at Cardinals (49-38), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (106 1/3 IP, 3.30 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Braden Looper (99 1/3, 4.71, 1.40, 44)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 52-34 (462 RS, 366 RA); St. Louis, 46-41 (408 RS, 386 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; St. Louis, #9
Prospectus: Zambrano returns from a brief stay on the DL to start the opener of a three-game series pitting the top two teams in the NL Central. Tonight's game will mark the first time that Jim Edmonds faces St. Louis, the team for which he played from 2000-07, hit 241 home runs, and finished in the top five of the MVP voting twice (2000 and 2004). If Edmonds does make it into the Hall of Fame--and there is a compelling case for his candidacy--he will surely go in wearing a Cardinals cap. That Hall of Fame bid looked to be a long shot in the wake of Edmonds' early-season flop in San Diego, which at the time seemed like it might signal the end for the 38-year-old fly chaser: as Joe Sheehan wrote, Edmonds is an underrated player whose true value on the field might very well not be fully appreciated by the voters. However, after a slow start with Chicago, Edmonds started hitting like it's 2004 again, with a remarkable .341/.447/.718 line and eight homers in his last 103 plate appearances.

Tonight's matchup is intriguing because it features the two best-hitting pitchers in the majors this season. Even with his two weeks spent on the shelf, Zambrano tops all pitchers in offensive VORP, with 9.4 runs, while Looper ranks second at 8.4. Amongst hurlers with at least 15 plate appearances, Looper is first with a .367 average (11-for-30), while Zambrano is second, hitting .362 (17-for-47). Looper's season appears to be a small-sample blip; in his first crack at starting last year he had just 10 hits in 53 at-bats. Zambrano, on the other hand, can really hit: he checked in at No. 5 on Nate Silver's list of the 10 best-hitting active pitchers. Big Z is not one for plate discipline, having whiffed 15 times without walking this season, and for his career has struck out 166 times in 458 at-bats with just five walks. Watching Zambrano take his cuts at the plate is however one of the game's real pleasures; if there was ever a player about whom the saying "he doesn't get cheated" holds true, it is Zambrano, and his vicious hacking has launched more homers since he came into the league in 2003 (13) than any other pitcher.

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

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