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July 19, 2008
Saturday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Padres (37-60) at Cardinals (55-43), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
St. Louis has needed that power production from the corners and outfield, because the team's middle infield has combined for a total of four homers. Shortstop has been the real vortex, with Cesar Izturis contributing a below-replacement-level line of .233/.306/.297. Izturis has been bad, but not quite so bad as Padres' shortstop Khalil Greene's .262 OBP in 382 plate appearances. Since the '94 strike, there have been just three players to produce a lower OBP while qualifying for the batting title-Angel Berroa (.259 in '06), Scott Brosius (.259 in '97), and Neifi Perez (.260 in '02). Greene is on pace to rack up nearly 640 plate appearances, and there have been only two players in major league history to amass that many trips while getting on base as infrequently as Greene has so far: Cookie Rojas in '68 and Ozzie Smith in '79. That was Smith's second season before he progressed to become a decent offensive player, whereas Greene is 28 and should be in the midst of his prime.
Matchup: Rangers (50-47) at Twins (54-42), 6:10 p.m. CT
The Texas offense should not suffer through its foreign experience of the doldrums for more than one game, however, for the aging Hernandez takes the mound tonight for Minnesota. Hernandez leads the Twins with nine wins, but that's because he's had 5.7 runs per game to work with-his performance has been right around replacement level (0.3 WXRL). Hernandez has been so ineffective that one of his teammates is questioning the team's motivation in keeping the veteran in the rotation. According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Francisco Liriano's agent has "contacted the players' association about pursuing a grievance, and the union agreed to investigate whether the Twins are violating the collective-bargaining agreement by keeping [Liriano] in Class AAA Rochester." Liriano is apparently "extremely frustrated" at having not yet been promoted, and the reason for that emotion is apparent: Liriano gave up one run in eight innings on Thursday, the only run he's allowed in his last four starts, a stretch spanning 28 innings with 17 hits allowed and a 32/3 K/BB ratio. Hernandez, meanwhile, has just 3.4 K/9, tied for the lowest rate in the majors with Kenny Rogers. It's hard to believe that Minnesota would hold Liriano back strictly for financial service-time benefit, considering that each marginal win gained over the second half of the season has arguably more value for the Twins than any other franchise, given how the windfall of a playoff berth very much hangs in the balance for them.
Matchup: Nationals (36-61) at Braves (46-50), 7:10 p.m. ET
Lannan has certainly been hurt by his team's outfield, which has lacked any punch at all this season. In the first half, the Nationals failed to crack the .350 slugging percentage mark from any of their three outfield positions, and no Washington outfielder has more than seven home runs. The Braves also don't have an outfielder with double-digit home runs, and none of their outfield positions have produced any higher than a .385 slugging percentage. Washington and Atlanta are the only two teams in baseball this year without at least a .400 slugging percentage from any one of their outfield spots. The particular trouble area for both teams has been left field-the Nationals have started eight players at the position (including catcher Paul Lo Duca) while the Braves have used six. Washington's eight men out have combined to hit .199/.274/.287, the second-worst OPS by any major league team at the position in the last 50 years, better only than the 1968 A's. Oakland's left fielders that season-primarily Joe Rudi and Mike Hershberger-hit .216/.275/.280 with just four home runs in the year of the pitcher. Washington's struggles to field any offense at all at the bottom of the defensive spectrum reflects the general downturn in production that teams have gotten from left field in the past 50-plus years: as Nate Silver revealed in his recent article on LOESS curves, back in the mid-'50s left fielders as a group had the highest OPS+ of any position in baseball, but that has declined steadily since then (excepting Barry Bonds' peak) to the point where first base is now more productive, and right field is producing just about the same amount of value.
Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.
Matchup: Pirates (44-52) at Rockies (41-57), 6:05 p.m. MDT
This game also provides an opportunity to get a look at two of the most unheralded catchers in the majors. There have been few positives for Colorado this year, but near the top of that limited list is the play of Chris Iannetta, who has finally taken over the regular starting duties behind the plate thanks to his .281/.380/.544 line and 10 home runs in 200 plate appearances. The Pirates' Ryan Doumit has been the best offensive catcher in the majors on a per-game basis, as his .349 MLVr leads all backstops (Iannetta is fourth, at .244). At this point there is no doubt about Doumit's ability to hit; what will determine how much further he can go will be his defense and his health-Doumit has played less than 100 games in each of the past two years, mainly due to a variety of ailments, which included a thumb fracture and a concussion earlier this season.
Matchup: Dodgers (47-49) at Diamondbacks (47-49), 5:10 p.m. MST
Billingsley provides a worthy adversary for Haren tonight, as the 23-year-old ranks third in the major leagues with 128 strikeouts, and tops the over 100 pitchers qualified for the ERA crown with 9.9 K/9 IP. Billingsley is built like a classic workhorse, standing 6'1" and weighing 245 lbs., giving him a frame similar to the Dodgers' new closer, Jonathan Broxton, who is listed at 6'5" and 290. Los Angeles won't lose much, if anything, with Broxton on in the ninth inning to replace the injured Takashi Saito, but what about the trickle-down effect? The two candidates to step into the set-up void appear to be Hong-Chih Kuo and Chan Ho Park. Torre used Kuo as a long-relief bridge to the Broxton/Saito duo at the end of games during the first half, as the skipper ran Kuo out for more than one inning in 14 of his 19 relief appearances, bringing him in most often in the fourth, fifth, or sixth innings. Kuo has been absolutely untouchable in that role, posting a 0.81 RA and 0.81 WHIP in 44 2/3 relief innings, with a 57/8 K/BB ratio. That has led to a major league-leading 21.3 adjusted runs prevented, and a WXRL of 1.76, nearly equaling Saito's team-leading total despite the fact that his leverage of 0.73 ranks 10th on the team. Bringing Kuo into the seventh inning of tight affairs-as Torre did last night-and allowing him to bring it home to Broxton would appear to be the best way of shortening games in Saito's absence. Torre also indicated yesterday that he would move Park from the rotation back into a setup role, which gives LA a potentially excellent Asian set-up combination in front of its new Georgia-born stopper.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.