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July 12, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Giants (39-54) at Cubs (56-37), 12:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Kevin Correia (49 IP, 4.96 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 31 K) vs. Rich Harden (77, 2.45, 1.14, 92)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 40-53 (371 RS, 430 RA); Chicago, 57-36 (497 RS, 390 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #26; Chicago, #3
Prospectus: The newly-minted Northsider makes his Cubs debut this afternoon, and will be pitching in Wrigley Field for the first time in his career. Harden faces off against his former team's cross-town rivals, the Giants, who have to be wondering what they did to anger the baseball gods that they must face Harden for a second time due to his league transfer. Back on June 14, Harden pitched six shutout innings to beat San Francisco in the Bay Bridge series, giving up just one hit-Randy Winn's single-and two walks while striking out nine in his second-best game of the year. Somewhat lost in all the excitement surrounding the six-player Harden trade is the fact that the fragile right-hander has been in a dead-arm period in his last two starts for Oakland. After pitching eight brilliant two-hit shutout innings with a career-high 11 strikeouts against Philadelphia on June 26, Harden was far less sharp in his next outing, in which he gave up two runs in five innings versus the Angels. His fastball velocity was down 4-5 mph in that outing from where it was previously according to the San Francisco Chronicle's postgame report, and several Angels players said afterwards that they thought Harden was hurt. Harden himself said he had "kind of a dead arm," although he also stated that he otherwise felt fine physically. Against the White Sox last Sunday, Harden's fastball again routinely registered several ticks below the mid-90s gas he was pumping earlier in the year, and he walked four in struggling to get through five innings, in which he gave up three runs for just the third time this season in 13 starts. Many if not all pitchers go through dead-arm periods throughout the course of a season, but with Harden's prolific injury history such periods are of greater than average concern, so it will be interesting to see whether he can sail through this lull and regain his velocity.

Harden's career interleague stats are formidable: a 2.14 RA and 0.82 WHIP in 54 2/3 innings, with 59 strikeouts and just two homers allowed, which certainly bodes well for the Cubs. However, Harden is moving from one of the best pitchers parks in the majors-McAfee Coliseum sports a run factor of 0.858 this year-to one of the worst (Wrigley's run factor is 1.213, third highest). The park-adjusted league-average ERA so far this season for A's pitchers in McAfee is 3.82, whereas for Cubs hurlers in Wrigley it is 4.45.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (46-47) at Phillies (51-43), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (92 IP, 5.97 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Adam Eaton (100 1/3, 5.38, 1.57, 52) Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 47-46 (407 RS, 406 RA); Philadelphia, 55-39 (471 RS, 390 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: Just when it looked like Johnson's phenomenal career might finally be fading to black, the Big Unit produced a vintage performance to serve notice that his dominance has not yet come to an end. Johnson entered last Sunday's start at home against San Diego having lost each of his previous six outings, a span of 34 innings in which he gave up 33 runs on 49 hits and 13 walks. When the first Padres batter, Scott Hairston, homered on the second pitch Johnson threw, it seemed the lefty's slump would be extended. After that hit, however, Johnson retired 10 straight and 18 of the next 21 to face him, striking out 10 in the process. Whether his resurgent effort is the beginning of an old-time run for the Big Unit will be tested tonight with a much more difficult assignment, going up against the league's second-best offense on the road.

Johnson faced the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in early May, and gave up four runs over six innings in a 6-4 Arizona win. Phils first baseman Ryan Howard sat out that game, and in fact has yet to stand in against Johnson during his career, having been held from the lineup all four times that the Big Unit has faced Philadelphia since Howard entered the majors. This is not surprising, since many managers use a date with Johnson as an opportunity to give their lefty bats a day off. Given that Howard has homered in three straight games, and nine times in his past 13 games, however, Philadelphia skipper Charlie Manuel might decide that his premier run producer is up to the challenge. A challenge it would certainly be, for Johnson has been as hard on lefties as ever, holding them to 10 hits, a 500 OPS, and no homers in 67 plate appearances this year. Howard did a good job of hitting lefties in 2006 and '07, with OPS marks of 923 and 826 against them, respectively, but this year he is all the way down to 593 in 152 PA, which helps explain why his overall batting line is still lackluster despite a league-leading 84 RBI. If Manuel does decide to trust the numbers and sit his star, the replacement will likely be Eric Bruntlett, the righty-hitting utility infielder who smacked a double and a homer-one of his two on the season and 11 career-in his first time facing the Unit on May 6.

Matchup: Rockies (39-55) at Mets (49-44), 3:55 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (107 IP, 4.79 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 86 K) vs. Pedro Martinez (40 2/3, 7.08, 1.70, 31)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 40-54 (419 RS, 497 RA); New York, 49-44 (450 RS, 421 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #25; New York, #8
Prospectus: The Mets won their seventh straight game yesterday, a hot stretch which has brought them to just a game behind division-leading Philadelphia in the loss column. The latter part of New York's run-the team's best since August of 2006-has been powered by some remarkable pitching. The Mets staff has allowed no more than three hits in each of the last four games-the first three times holding down the Giants, and last night stifling Colorado in the series opener.

In so doing, New York tied a modern-era record, becoming just the fourth team since the dawn of play-by-play data in 1956 to hold its opponent to three hits or less in four straight contests. The other squads to do so were the 1974 Orioles, and the 1968 and '69 Indians. Baltimore in '74 built its streak on back-to-back-to-back-to-back shutouts by Ron Grimsley, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, and Dave McNally, perhaps the most dominant four-start stretch by any team in baseball history. The Tribe in '68 got a complete game from Sam McDowell (in a 16-strikeout three-hitter of Oakland) followed by consecutive shutouts from Luis Tiant and Steve Hargan, and then seven one-hit innings from Sonny Siebert. Tiant fired a shutout to begin Cleveland's streak the next season, as well, and he was followed up by a McDowell blanking and then two less lengthy stints. The Mets starting pitching wasn't as dominant as that of the Orioles and Indians in their runs, but New York's bullpen has been outstanding-in the four games, opposing batters had just two hits off Mets relievers in 13 1/3 innings, both of them singles, and did not score a run. Aaron Heilman was a part of that performance, and the embattled set-up man has settled down after getting pounded the first two months; since allowing four runs without retiring a Dodgers batter on May 30, Heilman has been scored upon in only three of 21 outings.

New York will look to set the record this afternoon with Martinez on the hill, who for his career has allowed just 6.96 H/9, the seventh lowest all-time average. This season Martinez has been very hittable, though, with 11.95 H/9 allowed, fourth most amongst NL pitchers with 40 or more innings. Martinez has not fared well against Colorado in his career, with a 2-3 record in nine games pitched. That makes the Rockies one of four teams against which he has a losing record, the others being Boston (0-1), Houston (6-7), and the Dodgers (3-5).

Matchup: Rays (55-37) at Indians (39-53), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (107 IP, 3.95 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 109 K) vs. Matt Ginter (100, 5.13, 1.41, 65, at Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 52-40 (427 RS, 374 RA); Cleveland, 46-46 (413 RS, 412 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #2; Cleveland, #21
Prospectus: Replacing a reigning Cy Young award winner is certainly no easy assignment, but Ginter is probably just glad to be back in the big leagues, whatever the reason. The 30-year-old right-hander has not pitched at the highest level since 2005, when he put in 35 innings of work for Detroit. Ginter split 2006 between the Triple-A affiliates of the Pirates and Red Sox, then spent most of last season pitching for the Memphis Redbirds before signing with Cleveland as a minor league free agent. The Indians are the ninth organization for Ginter, who spent his first five professional seasons with the White Sox. His name in the lineup will likely serve to drive it home to Tribe backers that the big lefty ace really is gone-but then, starting pitching isn't the team's problem this season, even without Sabathia. The Indians have received three straight quality starts (the last two shutting down the first-place Rays to snap a 10-game losing streak), as well as the good news that Fausto Carmona is on the path back to Cleveland. The real problem has been the Tribe bullpen, which has already cost the team a whopping four wins more than what a replacement level pen would have this season (-3.88 WXRL). The next-worst team, Washington, is not even within hailing distance, at 1.5 wins better than replacement. Texas' pen has been worse by raw pitching performance, with -26 ARP to the Indians' -21, but Texas has pitched far better in high-leverage situations, leading to a WXRL of 4.48.

Even though the season is not yet 60 percent complete, Cleveland's relievers have already given away more wins than all but three other teams since 1957: the 1999 Royals (-7.7 WXRL), the 1973 Braves (-6.6), and the 1990 Braves (-4.6). Just one Indians reliever-Rafael Perez-has a positive WXRL total. In contrast, just one Rays reliever-Al Reyes-has a negative WXRL total, as Tampa Bay leads the majors this year with 8.68 wins added above replacement. That's nearly 13 wins better than Cleveland, which goes a long way towards explaining the wide and unexpected disparity in the two teams' records. This year's performance represents a complete reversal from last season, when the Devil Rays ranked at the league's bottom with -1.75 WXRL and Cleveland was second in the AL with 13.52 wins added.

Matchup: White Sox (55-39) at Rangers (49-45), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: John Danks (107 IP, 2.61 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 86 K) vs. Kevin Millwood (95, 5.31, 1.66, 68)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 54-38 (445 RS, 363 RA); Texas, 45-49 (519 RS, 539 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Texas, #18
Prospectus: Formerly one-third of the "DVD" Texas trio of pitching prospects, Danks faces his old organization tonight in Arlington for the first time this season. Danks squared off once against Texas last year after getting traded from the Rangers to the White Sox in December of 2006 for Brandon McCarthy, and gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings on August 30 to take the loss in a game that Texas won 13-6. This year Danks has become one of the league's best pitchers, and based upon his support-neutral performance deserved to go to the All-Star game over the two Angels starters that made it, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana. (If Danks had made the team, he would have joined Edinson Volquez in the Bronx, his former teammate and fellow prospect-the "V" in DVD-who has torched the National League this season.)

The Rangers have watched Danks make mincemeat of the AL while McCarthy has yet to throw a pitch this year, having been sidelined since the spring with inflammation in his right forearm. Even one of the secondary arms Texas added to the deal, Nick Masset, has pitched reasonably well out of the White Sox bullpen. Meanwhile, the one member of that pitching prospect trinity that the Rangers hung on to, Thomas Diamond, has run into injury issues of his own, and sports an ERA north of 7.00 in 36 2/3 innings at Double-A this year. With the way the Rangers have played of late, however, there likely aren't many in Arlington looking back with regret at past transactions-especially since the trades the team has made in the past year (Josh Hamilton for Volquez, and a huge haul for Mark Teixeira) have proved to be excellent transactions so far. Texas beat the first-place Sox last night 7-2 to move four games above .500, and is hanging around the AL West race at 6 games behind LA.

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

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