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July 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (51-44) at Yankees (50-45), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (110 1/3 IP, 3.67 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 74 K) vs. Mike Mussina (107 1/3, 4.36, 1.23, 68) Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 55-40 (410 RS, 345 RA); New York, 50-45 (436 RS, 412 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Yankees, #7
Prospectus: The two best second-half teams since the beginning of the 21st century, New York and Oakland both begin their second halves in the first of the final 32 regular-season home games in the final second half at Yankee Stadium. Joe Blanton was originally scheduled to pitch this game for the Athletics before he was dealt to Philadelphia for three minor league prospects yesterday, part of Oakland's ongoing effort to build up its farm system to the point where it can sustain another multi-year run of playoff appearances. One thing that can be said about the A's recent trades is that general manager Billy Beane is dealing from strength, for Oakland had the best starting pitching in the season's first half: the Athletics lead the rest of the field in SNLVAR by a healthy margin, nearly two wins better than the second-best team (St. Louis). New York was likely one of the teams that Beane spoke with about Blanton and Rich Harden (dealt to the Cubs last week), given that the Yankees rank 19th in the majors in SNLVAR, at 8.2 wins added above replacement to Oakland's 15.3. Mussina was actually the most dependable and effective Yankees starter in the first half, a shock considering how badly he was roughed up in 2007.

Oakland's offense has run well behind its starting staff all season, but the Athletics do have to be pleased with what they have received from rookie Carlos Gonzalez. Now splitting time between center and right field, the 22-year-old outfielder was the key piece of the Dan Haren trade last offseason, and has already hit 17 doubles in his first 39 major league games. Gonzalez reached 17 doubles in fewer plate appearances to start his career-147-than any player in the last 50 years, beating out Jorge Cantu, who got to the mark in 152 as a Tampa Bay rookie in 2004. (Another notable name on the list is Ben Francisco, Cleveland's rookie outfielder, who ranks fourth at 165 PA.) That doubles power is certainly encouraging, especially since it can often transform into home-run power as a player enters his prime, but Gonzalez now has to work on his plate discipline: he walked four times against 37 strikeouts in the first half. It will be intriguing to see whether the Athletics' emphasis on developing a keen batting eye and taking walks will change Gonzalez's free-swinging approach as he matures in Oakland.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Phillies (52-44) at Marlins (50-45), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (114 IP, 4.18 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 70 K) vs. Ricky Nolasco (116 2/3, 4.09, 1.19, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 56-40 (481 RS, 403 RA); Florida, 45-50 (462 RS, 490 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Florida, #20
Prospectus: Separated by 1˝ games in the NL East standings, the first-place Phillies and third-place Marlins begin the second half with starters who were equally effective in the first-Nolasco sports a park-adjusted ERA 11 percent better than league average, and Moyer's is 12 percent better-despite the fact that Nolasco was born 20 years and 25 days after Moyer. The 45-year-old Moyer has just about reached the number of innings PECOTA projected him to throw this season (118), and is on pace to toss more innings at age 45 or older than any non-knuckleball pitcher in baseball history, surpassing the 176 1/3 that Tommy John amassed in 1988 at age 45. (Knuckleballer Phil Niekro threw over 200 innings at the ages of 45, 46, and 47, as did Charlie Hough at the age of 45.) In his last start at Dolphin Stadium on June 12, Moyer shut down the Fish on two hits over eight innings, his best start by Game Score (an 80) in over two seasons. Moyer is 4-0 in four career starts pitching in Miami, with just four runs allowed on 18 hits in 27 2/3 innings.

Moyer's youthful opponent is working on a streak of seven consecutive quality starts, tied for the third longest in the National League this season. The 25-year-old Nolasco is having a breakout campaign in his third season since coming over to the Marlins from the Cubs in the December 2005 deal for Juan Pierre. That trade also netted Florida right-hander Sergio Mitre (out for the year after Tommy John surgery) and lefty Renyel Pinto, who has proven to be an extremely solid reliever. The Pierre trade therefore brought the Marlins their respective leader in both SNLVAR and WXRL this season, which makes it one of the bigger fleecings of the decade.

Matchup: Blue Jays (47-48) at Rays (55-39), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (127 IP, 5.31 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 126 K) vs. James Shields (122 1/3, 4.41, 1.15, 100)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 50-45 (399 RS, 376 RA); Tampa Bay, 52-42 (433 RS, 387 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #11; Tampa Bay, #2
Prospectus: The Rays open their second half tonight staring at a long stretch of uncharted territory, with sixty-eight remaining games standing between the team and its first-ever playoff appearance. The Rays need just 16 more wins to surpass their previous franchise high in victories, the 70 gained under Lou Piniella in 2004, and would have to go just 35-33 over those final 68 to finish at their PECOTA-projected total of 90 victories. Tampa Bay will likely need at least a few more victories than that in order to reach the postseason, for Clay Davenport's playoff odds report states that the average victory total of the AL Wild Card is 92. If you apply the team's Pythagorean winning percentage from the first half (.553) to the Rays' remaining games, Tampa Bay will win 37.6 of the 68, which puts it at 93 wins, right at the level it needs to reach. Tampa Bay has a good shot at climbing past the Red Sox and back into first place right out of the break, for 10 of its first 13 games are against the Blue Jays and Royals, with the other series a matchup versus the Athletics at home. The Rays in fact do not see either the Red Sox or Yankees again until September, when they play those two six times each.

Before looking ahead to the playoffs, however, the Rays will first have to prevent their seven-game pre-break losing streak from carrying over to the second half. They will look to end the slide against a Toronto team that won five of its six games heading into the break, capped by a gem from Burnett, who turned in eight shutout innings against the Yankees before getting touched for a solo shot by Jason Giambi in the ninth frame of Toronto's 4-1 win. Burnett has been maddeningly inconsistent this season-last Sunday's start followed two outings in which he allowed eight and seven runs, which in turn came after a two-start stretch in which he gave up just a single tally in 15 innings. Of pitchers qualifying for the ERA title, Burnett has the fourth-highest per-start variation in SNLVAR, as measured by Flake. That certainly hasn't helped his trade value, which took a further hit when the team rumored to be the one most interested in his services, Philadelphia, decided to instead acquire Oakland's Joe Blanton.

Matchup: Dodgers (46-49) at Diamondbacks (47-48), 6:40 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (105 IP, 3.94 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Doug Davis (71, 4.18, 1.48, 58)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 49-46 (390 RS, 380 RA); Arizona, 48-47 (420 RS, 416 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #17; Arizona, #15
Prospectus: The Dodgers and Diamondbacks kick off what could be a two-and-a-half month long crawl to the finish tonight in Pheonix, as Arizona still occupies first place despite having played .403 baseball since the start of May (27-40). Neither team can hit, with the Dodgers the more egregious offenders, ranking 13th in the National League in runs scored. The league's best pitching staff has prevented a tumble to the bottom of the execrable NL West, and therefore this year's LA team somewhat resembles the 2003 edition, which boasted one of the best pitching units of all time, but was kept out of the playoffs by a major-league worst offense.

The Dodgers could clearly use a return even to last year's inferior form by center fielder Andruw Jones in order to help take back the West from Arizona. How bad was Jones' first half? If you answered "historically bad," you've won an autographed Tony Pena Jr. bat shard. Jones currently has more than twice as many strikeouts as hits (59 to 27). in the last 50 years, there have been just six other players to do the same in a season of at least 180 plate appearances:


Year  Player          Team     PA    H    K    OPS+*
1991  Rob Deer         DET    539   80   175    92
1964  Dave Nicholson   CHA    351   60   126    96
2001  Mark McGwire     SLN    364   56   118   105
1962  Dave Nicholson   BAL    202   30    76    80
1985  Rob Deer         SFN    187   30    71    88
2007  Jason LaRue      KCA    195   25    66    33
2004  David Ross       LAN    190   28    62    44
1968  Ray Oyler        DET    247   29    59    20
2008  Andruw Jones     LAN    189   27    59    35
*Data from Baseball-Reference.com

That doesn't tell the full story, however. Not only has Jones whiffed more than twice as often as he's reached on a hit, but he's also been hitting for less power than usual, as 2/3 of his 27 safeties have been singles. That has led to a slugging percentage of .248, and just 41 total bases. If you divide strikeouts by total bases, Jones comes up with the third-highest ratio (minimum 180 plate appearances) in the last 50 years, at 1.44. The only players with a worse ratio of K/TB are two obscure shortstops from the late '60s: Darrel Chaney, who struck out 75 times while collecting 49 total bases in his rookie season for the '69 Reds, and Oyler, who whiffed 59 times versus 40 total bases for the '68 Tigers. Oyler apparently boasted his own fan club, but Jones hasn't won over many fans in his new hometown, as the Chavez Ravine crowd has taken to booing him at every opportunity, despite the strains of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" which accompany his trips to the plate. Even laid-back Angelenos, it turns out, don't appreciate being told not to "worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be alright," when they can clearly see that there is a great deal to be concerned about.

Matchup: Red Sox (57-40) at Angels (57-38), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Clay Buchholz (47 1/3 IP, 5.89 RA, 1.67 WHIP, 49 K) vs. John Lackey (80 1/3, 2.80, 1.07, 66)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 58-39 (495 RS, 396 RA); Los Angeles, 50-45 (409 RS, 388 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Los Angeles, #9
Prospectus: The two best teams in the American League open their second halves going head to head. Los Angeles took two of three at Fenway Park back in April, one of only two series that the Red Sox have lost at home this season (out of a total of 15). The Angels send their ace to the hill, but Lackey has always found it difficult to pitch against Boston. In 11 regular-season starts versus the Red Sox, he is 1-6 with a 7.31 RA over 60 1/3 innings, and has given up 90 hits, or 13.4 H/9, including 10 home runs. Lackey has pitched against no other team so poorly, although most of the pain Boston has inflicted upon him has come at Fenway. The biggest nightmare for Lackey in the Boston lineup is Manny Ramirez, who has 10 hits-four home runs and three doubles-in 23 at-bats lifetime versus the right-hander, and has also walked seven times, for a line of .435/.581/1.087 in 31 plate appearances.

The question for Los Angeles as it enters the second half is whether or not the team can keep outstripping its Pythagorean record to the degree it has to this point. It sounds simple, but perhaps the single most important thing a manager can do to help win close contests is to give the highest-leverage innings at the end of games to the team's best relief pitchers. Mike Scioscia has done just that-Francisco Rodriguez leads the team in leverage, old rubber-armed warhorse Scot Shields ranks second, and rookie Jose Arredondo is third. That trio has been worth seven wins above replacement level, bumping the Angels to fourth in the majors in WXRL despite their overall bullpen performance ranking just 16th by ARP. No other bullpen threesome has added more wins than the Angels' trinity. Arredondo entered the majors on May 14 after a strong start to the season at Triple-A Salt Lake, and almost immediately was promoted by Scioscia to a late-inning role: he entered the game in the seventh inning or later in 19 of his 21 first-half appearances. The rookie has thrived with that pressure, and proven to be extremely difficult to hit, with just 12 safeties allowed in 24 innings. Arredondo has already undergone two transitions in his career-first from shortstop to pitcher, and then from starter to reliever-but he appears to have now found his calling as the inimitable Frankie's flame-throwing sidekick.

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

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