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July 7, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Twins (50-38) at Red Sox (52-39), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Baker (69 IP, 3.65 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (75, 3.48, 1.39, 65)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 47-41 (436 RS, 406 RA); Boston, 53-38 (453 RS, 377 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #11; Boston, #2
Prospectus: Minnesota enters Fenway for the start of a four-game set having won 16 of its last 18 games to pull within a game of first-place Chicago. Today's contest features two pitchers with widely varying styles-Matsuzaka has walked 5.9 per nine, while Baker has passed only 1.6. Matsuzaka has had success against the Twins, who are not a very patient team, ranking 11th in the American League in walks: the right-hander beat Minnesota back in early May with seven innings of two-run ball, walking three while striking out seven, and he also beat them in his last start of 2007, with an eight-inning, two-run, 8/2 K/BB performance.

In the game Matsuzaka pitched against the Twins earlier this season, he managed to fan catcher Joe Mauer twice, while walking him once. Mauer has struck out more than once in a game only two times this season, with the other occasion coming on June 21st against Arizona and Micah Owings. On the season, Mauer has struck out exactly half as often as he has walked, 23 whiffs to 46 free passes. Achieving that ratio over the course of a full season is an uncommon feat in today's age of high power and high strikeouts: in the past 10 seasons, just five players have walked twice as many times as they've struck out while qualifying for the batting title: Luis Castillo in 2005, Barry Bonds from 2002-04, Mark Grace in 2000, Eric Young in '99, and Gary Sheffield in '98 (Bonds in '06 and '07 and Tony Gwynn in '99 also did so without qualifying for the batting crown). This season, both Mauer and Albert Pujols (58 walks, 28 strikeouts) are on pace to join that list. The last catcher that qualified for the batting title with twice as many walks as Ks was Mike Scioscia, in 1987 (Scioscia finished with a 2/1 ratio every year from 1984-87). Yogi Berra is the king of this category amongst catchers, with six such seasons in his Hall of Fame career, and 704 walks against 414 strikeouts overall. Mauer's counterpart on the Red Sox, team captain Jason Varitek, has conversely struggled with strikeouts all year, and has racked up 70, most amongst AL catchers, in the final season of his four-year, $40 million contract.

Matchup: Mets (44-44) at Phillies (48-41), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Pedro Martinez (35 1/3 IP, 7.64 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Adam Eaton (97 2/3, 4.79, 1.50, 51) Pythagorean Record: New York, 45-43 (419 RS, 408 RA); Philadelphia, 52-37 (448 RS, 370 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #15; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: New York has the chance to take three of four at Citizens Bank Park tonight and shave a second game off of Philadelphia's lead in the NL East. Yesterday's contest was wild, including a total of six stolen bases from the two most efficient baserunning teams in the majors (Philadelphia upped its percentage to an all-time high 90, while New York clocks in at 81); a 168 minute rain delay before the Mets scored just the fourth earned run plated against Phillies closer Brad Lidge all season to gain a 2-0 lead in the top of the ninth; a game-tying homer from Jayson Werth off of former Phillie Billy Wagner which erased that lead in the bottom of the ninth (handing Wagner his fourth multi-run blown save in the past month); and finally the second 12th-inning game-winning hit this season by reclamation project Fernando Tatis. The Mets have now victimized the Phillies bullpen in two straight games, the same bullpen which transformed itself from a unit that posted a -1.2 ARP last season to one which leads all of baseball with 48.8 ARP. Philadelphia's pitching stability is beginning to disintegrate, however: first Brett Myers' ineffectiveness led the team to send him to the minors and recall J.A. Happ, breaking up the five-man unit which had the longest run this year of starting all its team's games, and now Tom Gordon is heading to the disabled list, which will force Philadelphia to use an eighth reliever for the first time all year.

Ryan Howard had another tough afternoon in yesterday's game, going 1-for-6 with four strikeouts in the extra-inning affair. While Howard is undoubtedly suffering through his worst major league campaign thus far, he has had an excellent sense of timing, allowing him to help the ballclub even in the throes of a deepening slump. Howard's numbers with runners in scoring position are formidable: a line of .330/.449/.624 in 138 plate appearances, as compared to .163/.234/.384 in 188 with nobody on base, and he has consequently knocked in 76 runs on just 75 base hits. If Howard finishes the season with the same or a greater number of RBI than hits, he will become just the fourth player to do so in the last 50 years (minimum 200 PA):


Year Hitter          PA   H   RBI
1999 Mark McGwire   661  145  147
2006 Jason Giambi   579  113  113
1995 Mark McGwire   579   87   90
1995 Paul Sorrento  378   76   79
2008 Ryan Howard    386   75   76
2000 Mark McGwire   321   72   73
2001 Mark McGwire   364   56   64

Matchup: Rockies (37-52) at Brewers (49-39), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (100 IP, 5.13 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 79 K) vs. Seth McClung (64 2/3, 4.18, 1.36, 52)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 38-51 (402 RS, 471 RA); Milwaukee, 45-43 (406 RS, 395 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #23; Milwaukee, #13
Prospectus: Two of the hottest offenses in the majors clash in the first of four games at Miller Park, where the Brewers have posted the second-best home record in the NL this year. Milwaukee has hit 12 homers in its last six games, scoring 6.5 runs per contest, and with five wins in that stretch is now within three games in the loss column of first place Chicago and is the favorite to win the NL Wild Card. Six of those long balls have come off the bat of J.J. Hardy, who is going through a scorching stretch at the plate. Hardy had his 16-game hitting streak snapped on Saturday, but came back yesterday to launch two more homers, and is now batting .437/.481/.915 with eight homers since he returned from sitting five days due to a strained shoulder in mid-June, a span of 79 plate appearances. Hardy has proven himself to be one of the streakiest hitters in the major leagues-his recent surge is reminiscent of last year's start to the season, when he posted a 1004 OPS with 12 homers in his first 37 games (170 plate appearances), before hitting just .259 with a .304 OBP the rest of the way. This year, the cold streak came early, as he had a 617 OPS with just a lone homer after Milwaukee's game on May 17 before beginning to hit.

Colorado is coming off a classic Coors Field series, in which they scored 41 runs in winning three of four from Florida. The Rockies were driven by the bat of Ryan Spilborghs, who collected two homers, three doubles, and four singles in the series, going 9-for-18. Spilborghs is now up to .313/.418/.500 in 220 plate appearances this season, and ranks second on the team in VORP despite being just sixth in PA. Considering that the starter in center field, Willy Taveras, has been right around replacement level (1.3 VORP) despite his major league-leading 38 steals, Spilborghs should be in line to see more regular playing time even after Taveras recovers from the leg injury that kept him out last week.

Matchup: Angels (53-35) at Rangers (46-43), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (115 1/3 IP, 3.43 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 106 K) vs. Luis Mendoza (21 1/3, 9.28, 1.64, 10)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 46-42 (373 RS, 351 RA); Texas, 43-46 (488 RS, 511 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #5; Texas, #17
Prospectus: For the fourth consecutive season, a Santana will be a member of the American League pitching staff at the All-Star game-but this year that pitcher's name is not Johan. Named to his first All-Star team yesterday, Ervin Santana faces off tonight against a Rangers lineup featuring three fellow first-time All-Stars, in Josh Hamilton (voted the AL starter in center field), Ian Kinsler, and Milton Bradley. Santana is one of the few pitchers to have contained those bats this season, as he beat the Rangers with a seven inning, three run performance back on April 14. Now, however, he will have to deal with the July heat of northeast Texas, which helps the ball carry further and increases offense at the Ballpark in Arlington-an especially scary proposition for AL West foes given that the Rangers already rank first in the majors in runs scored without yet having entered the sweltering midsummer months. The Rangers have yet to be shut out in a game this year, and would seem to have a good shot to become the first team in the last 50 years to go an entire season without getting blanked once. [Correction: there have actually been two teams that were not shut out over a full season, the 2000 Reds and 1932 Yankees.]

Mendoza will make his fifth start of the year tonight for Texas, after he gave up six runs (one earned) in 4 2/3 innings during Wednesday's loss to the Yankees. The 24-year-old right-hander sports a 4.64 ERA, but has already allowed 11 unearned runs in his 21 1/3 innings of work in addition to the 11 he has earned. Mendoza is part of a Texas starting rotation which has compiled just 1.1 wins above replacement level to this point, less than a third as many as the next worse team (Florida, at 3.6). In fact, the Rangers are on pace to finish with the worst SNLVAR total in recorded history-and yet still post a winning record thanks to their offense. Of the teams that currently rank in the bottom five of SNLVAR since 1957-the 1964 Athletics, 1978 Mariners, 1964 Red Sox, 1984 Giants, and 1993 Rockies-none finished any better than 18 games below .500, and their combined winning percentage is .394. Perhaps the closest approximation to this year's Rangers squad is the 1976 Twins, who led the AL in runs and finished 85-76 despite a starting rotation that was the ninth worst in the past 50 years by SNLVAR.

Matchup: Marlins (45-43) at Padres (35-54), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (102 2/3 IP, 4.38 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Greg Maddux (107, 4.88, 1.26, 53)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 42-46 (439 RS, 460 RA); San Diego, 35-54 (329 RS, 416 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #9; San Diego, #29
Prospectus: The Marlins travel from the most extreme offensive environment in baseball to the game's best pitcher's park for the start of a three-game series with the last place Padres. On the mound for Florida is the pitcher who has quietly become the team's de facto ace over the past month. Nolasco has tossed quality starts in each of his last five trips to the hill, thanks to a sudden discovery of control: he has walked just four batters in 36 2/3 innings over those five starts while striking out 35, compared to a 40/25 K/BB ratio in 66 innings to open the season. The right-handed Nolasco is death on righty batters, who are hitting .228 against him with one homer in 200 plate appearances, but lefties have pounded him for a .519 slugging percentage and 13 long balls in 238 PA. This is nothing new for Nolasco, who exhibited similar platoon splits in his first two seasons in the big leagues.

Both of these teams have had issues behind the plate this year, but the Padres catching situation is the most dire in baseball. Regular starter Josh Bard wasn't hitting before he was knocked onto the DL by a collision with Albert Pujols, and neither was backup Michael Barrett before he was laid low last week by the second traumatic facial fracture suffered by a Padres player this season (a Pujols line drive-in the same inning he would later plow through Bard-deviated the septum of starter Chris Young, while Barrett had a foul ball bounce up and badly break his nose, causing further complications that could keep him out for six weeks). Neither Bard nor Barrett could stop the running game, as the Padres have continued their historic futility when it comes to throwing out base stealers this season. When Bard went down San Diego turned to Luke Carlin, who has approximated the offensive and defensive play of his predecessor, and the Padres promoted Nick Hundley to replace Barrett, despite the fact that Hundley had a .285 OBP in Triple-A. The rookie-no relation to the former father-son catching combination of Randy and Todd-caught 23 of 60 would-be basestealers for Portland this season (38 percent), which brings hope that he can at least halt the running attack that Padres opponents have been launching all season.

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

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