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July 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (55-33) at Yankees (47-42), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (72 IP, 2.88 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Andy Pettitte (111, 4.62, 1.39, 80)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 52-36 (424 RS, 349 RA); New York, 47-42 (417 RS, 394 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #1; New York, #7
Prospectus: The old dynasty will look to rage against the birthing of the light and prevent the Rays from sending them into that good night, a state which New York has not experienced since October of 1993. The aging Yankees find themselves 8˝ games behind the neophytes in Tampa Bay, and their current odds of winning the division flag they have captured in nine of the past 10 years are down to 0.8 percent, with their chances at the Wild Card not much better (5.7 percent). Two left-handers will face off in the opener of this brief two-game set. Pettitte entered this season with a 13-2 career record against the Devil Rays, but he has been knocked around this season by the Rays, who have scored 13 runs in his 16 innings and pinned two losses on him in three starts. Kazmir, meanwhile, baffled the Yankees at the Stadium in his third start of the season on May 15, throwing six shutout innings while allowing just three hits.

However, reports of the Yankees demise, if they have been published at all, might be a bit premature. Lest anyone think it it will be easy to end the longest consecutive run of playoff appearances in baseball history, consider that the Yankees have been the best second-half team in baseball since their playoff streak began in 1998, and have stormed back from sizable midseason deficits to take the division in both 2005 and 2006. Now, 8˝ games behind and a 0.8 percent shot at the title is another matter, of course, but New York still possesses one clear advantage that has been present since the beginning of the Yankees' run: closer Mariano Rivera. Rivera just keeps rolling along, and perhaps incredibly is having his best season at age 38, having converted all 23 of his save opportunities and posted a 1.12 RA. With three walks and 46 strikeouts, Rivera has a 15.3 ratio, which is currently the third best in a season of 40 or more innings since 1900, behind Dennis Eckersley in 1989 (18.3, 55 K/3 BB) and 1990 (73 K/4 BB). Rivera's 0.65 WHIP would also rank third behind Eckersley's in those 1989-90 seasons, when he had consecutive marks of 0.61.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Cardinals (50-40) at Phillies (48-42), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joel Pineiro (75 2/3 IP, 4.64 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Cole Hamels (128 2/3, 3.36, 1.02, 110) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 47-43 (415 RS, 399 RA); Philadelphia, 53-37 (457 RS, 380 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #8; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: Hamels cannot be happy to be missing from the All-Star team, and he will have two more starts, tonight and Sunday afternoon, to show the rest of the league the true magnitude of the mistake that it made in not placing him on the squad. The Philadelphia ace ranks sixth in the majors in SNLVAR, and also third overall in innings pitched, behind Roy Halladay (137 1/3) and Aaron Cook (132 2/3). Hamels is one of only four pitchers this season who has averaged more than seven innings per start, along with Halladay, John Lackey, and Adam Wainwright, and his two shutouts this season ties him with C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, Jon Lester, and Hiroki Kuroda for the big league lead. The left-hander has increased his innings per start markedly since breaking in-he averaged 5.8 innings in 23 starts during his rookie campaign of 2006, then bumped that to 6.5 last year, and now 7.1 so far in 2008. As could be expected from that rise, Hamels has grown more efficient with his pitches during his time in the big leagues, as his pitches per inning has fallen from 16.5 to 15.2 to 14.8, while his pitches per game has consequently increased. Tied to that increased efficiency is a drop in his strikeout rate, from 9.9 in '06 to 8.7 lsat year to 7.7 in '08, which supports the notion that Hamels has exchanged a bit of stuff and velocity for earlier contact at times, in order to become an innings-eating ace.

One of the interesting things about Hamels is that he has virtually no platoon limitation. This season, in fact, right-handers are hitting worse (618 OPS in 395 PA) against him than lefties are (688 in 111), and for his career those numbers are very close to equal (682 for righties, 696 for lefties). Hamels' best pitch-and indeed one of the best in baseball-is his changeup, which he throws 30 percent of the time, and which effectively neuters right-handed swingers, keeping them from sitting on his fastball/curve combination. Pineiro also throws a changeup, and he has also been better against the opposite hand, as lefties have a 735 OPS in 2533 career PA and righties a 778 in 2463. This is very rare over so long a career-PECOTA projected just 11 right-handed pitchers to have a reverse platoon split this season; amongst pitchers currently in the majors, Pineiro is joined by Scott Linebrink, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, and Tim Wakefield.

Thanks to William Burke and Nate Silver for database research

Matchup: Rockies (38-52) at Brewers (49-40), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Mark Redman (37 IP, 7.54 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 20 K) vs. C.C. Sabathia (122 1/3, 3.97, 1.23, 123)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 39-51 (406 RS, 474 RA); Milwaukee, 46-43 (409 RS, 399 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #23; Milwaukee, #13
Prospectus: C.C.-or rather CC now, if you ask the big left-hander-is officially a Brewer, as he jumps from an extremely disappointing Indians team whose chance at the playoffs has dipped to less than one percent to a Milwaukee club whose playoff odds have surged to 50.5 percent. Sabathia becomes just the second pitcher in history to be traded in the middle of the season following a Cy Young campaign. The situation of the 1989 Twins was roughly similar to the 2008 Indians: a year after winning 91 games-thanks largely to the efforts of Cy Young winner Frank Viola, who won 24 games with a 2.64 ERA-Minnesota found itself two games under .500 and 12˝ games behind in the division at the trading deadline, and so decided to deal Viola to the Mets for Rick Aguilera, David West, Kevin Tapani, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage. That trade worked out well for Minnesota, as Tapani and especially Aguilera went on to have excellent seasons in the twin cities. Three other times has a team traded a pitcher following a Cy Young campaign, all in the offseason after he won the award: the Royals dealt David Cone to the Blue Jays in early April of 1995, the Expos sent Pedro Martinez to the Red Sox in November of '97, and Toronto shipped Roger Clemens to the Yankees in February of '99. None of the teams that dealt their Cy's did very well in the exchanges, although the Blue Jays did net David Wells, who picked up 37 wins in his two seasons in Toronto before being dealt again.

The Sabathia trade calls to mind another that the Indians made with a National League club. On June 13 of 1984, Cleveland sent 28-year-old Rick Sutcliffe-who had struggled to that point in putting up a 5.15 ERA in 94 innings-to Wrigleyville and the Cubs in exchange for Mel Hall, Joe Carter, Don Schulze, and Darryl Banks. Sutcliffe subsequently went on a remarkable run, winning 16 of his 20 starts the rest of the way and putting up a 2.69 ERA in 150 innings to win the NL Cy Young. The Brewers certainly hope that Sabathia can replicate Sutcliffe's success in the 16 or so starts he has remaining, and given that he has transferred to the weaker league and is in line to receive better run support, such a burst of effectiveness is a possibility, even if more hardware probably is not.

Matchup: Reds (43-47) at Cubs (53-36), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Aaron Harang (118 2/3 IP, 4.70 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 102 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (111, 3.81, 1.18, 93)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 40-50 (384 RS, 439 RA); Chicago, 54-35 (475 RS, 373 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #27; Chicago, #3
Prospectus: These two righties hooked up on April 15 in Chicago, and while neither pitched very well in that game, Dempster came out on top thanks to nine Cubs runs. Such support has been common when Dempster has taken the hill; Chicago has given him an average of 6.3 runs to work with, helping the right-hander to make his first All-Star team since 2000, when he was a member of the Marlins. Harang has been on the opposite end of the spectrum, for the Reds have averaged 3.4 runs for their Opening Day starter, and have totalled two or fewer in eight of his 18 starts.

Harang certainly hasn't had much help from his teammates, either on offense or defense. Cincinnati ranks second to last in Defensive Efficiency, and while it might have the most immobile pair of corner outfielders in the majors in Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., an even bigger issue is the infield's left side. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion is probably the worst-fielding glove at third in the bigs-he was last in the third-base rankings with -13.1 Simple Fielding Runs (SFR) two years ago, his sophomore season, and in 2008 finished ahead of only Ryan Braun, who was promptly moved to left field. This year has provided more of the same, for Encarnacion is second-to-last in Range Factor and has a sub-par .933 fielding percentage, as well as a particularly gruesome FRAA total. (Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez is last in range factor this season, and he was ahead of only Encarnacion by SFR amongst third basemen in '06.) Things aren't much better for Cincy at shortstop, where Jeff Keppinger-last in Range Factor amongst those who have played 50 or more innings at the position-is splitting time with Jerry Hairston Jr., who had played just six of his 5,743 major league innings at shortstop before this season, and for a reason. Added together, those three have approximated the negative production of last year's Hanley Ramirez/Miguel Cabrera left-side matador act in South Florida. The good news is that the Reds have received a surprising jolt from the bat of Hairston, whose career-year production has moved him into a tie with Adam Dunn for the team lead in EqA (.309).

Matchup: Braves (42-48) at Dodgers (44-45), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (105 IP, 3.60 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Chad Billingsley (104, 3.46, 1.31, 107)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 48-42 (395 RS, 370 RA); Los Angeles, 46-43 (368 RS, 356 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #21; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: Jeff Francoeur's minor league demotion left him "frustrated" and "a little betrayed," but after seven hits in 13 at-bats for the Double-A Mississippi Braves, Francoeur is right back with the big club thanks to an injury to Omar Infante, and will likely start tonight in right field. It seems that nearly every member of the Dodgers offense deserved the Francoeur treatment after the first three months of the season, but July has brought a slight awakening in the Tinseltown bats, and with it six wins in seven games for Los Angeles, which pulled into a tie with Arizona for first place out west thanks to last night's one-hitter by Hiroki Kuroda. Two of the best young right-handers in baseball will square off in game two tonight, and catching them will be two of the best young backstops: the Dodgers' Russell Martin was named to his second straight All-Star team in his third season, and Atlanta's Brian McCann made his third in a row in his fourth season.

The last Braves catcher to go to three straight All-Star games was none other than Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who came up with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960 and made the NL squad five consecutive seasons from 1963-67, the last two after the team moved to Atlanta. Of the 22 backstops who have amassed more than 1000 plate appearances for the Braves, Torre ranks first with an OPS+ of 129, while McCann is second, at 120. McCann is a similar hitter to Torre, in that both hit for power and average, with a decent OBP to boot. Torre's line with the Braves-.294/.356/.462 in 4100 plate appearances-is very close to McCann's current career numbers (.295/.353/.499), which is why Torre shows up at No. 10 on McCann's list of similar batters through the age of 23. The Los Angeles skipper also offers an interesting comparison to his opposing helmsman in the Atlanta dugout: Bobby Cox, who turned 67 in May, and Torre, who will turn 68 on July 18, are the two oldest managers in baseball, and each ranks in the top 10 all-time in victories. Torre's second managerial stint was with the Braves, and he guided them to their first division title in 13 seasons in 1982, his first year in their duguout. Torre left after the 1984 season, and Atlanta ran through four different managers before Cox came back out of their front office midway through the 1990 campaign.

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

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