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July 19, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Padres (37-60) at Cardinals (55-43), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Randy Wolf (114 IP, 4.97 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 101 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (104 2/3, 4.21, 1.27, 75)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 38-59 (360 RS, 456 RA); St. Louis, 52-46 (463 RS, 435 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: Albert Pujols has led the Cardinals in home runs each of his first seven seasons in the majors, but that streak is in jeopardy this year. With 18 homers, Pujols ranks just third on the club so far in 2008, behind Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick, who each hit their 22nd bombs in last night's win over San Diego. The Cardinals probably would have been pleased if Ludwick and Ankiel combined to hit 44 homers for the entire season, let alone three-fifths of the way in. Both players are improving upon remarkable stories with their performance this year. Ankiel is of course replaying the theme from The Natural-a version which Cardinals fans surely hope has an ending resembling that of the movie rather than the book-and Ludwick has been cast as the veteran of over 3,100 minor league plate appearances who is finally getting the chance to show his power at the top level. Between Pujols, Ankiel, Ludwick, and Troy Glaus-who has an OPS of over 1000 since the start of June-St. Louis boasts what might arguably be the best middle of the lineup in the National League. That quartet has racked up more runs of VORP to this point (over 130) than any other gang of four in the senior circuit, especially impressive given that they all play the outfield or the infield corners, where it's harder to rise above the competition in terms of replacement level.

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
Probable Starters: Matt Harrison (84 IP, 4.07 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 55 K--minors) vs. Livan Hernandez (120 2/3, 6.04, 1.62, 45) Pythagorean Record: Texas, 46-51 (538 RS, 565 RA); Minnesota, 50-46 (470 RS, 448 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #18; Minnesota, #14
Prospectus: The final team standing was felled last night, as the Twins snapped Texas' run of 135 straight games without being shut out, dating back to last August 21. The Rangers were gunning to join the 1932 Yankees and the 2000 Reds as the only teams to avoid getting blanked over a full season. Doing the honors for Minnesota was starter Glen Perkins and relievers Craig Breslow, Jesse Crain, and Boof Bonser, who conspired to hold the formidable Rangers lineup to three hits. The rude hosts also broke second baseman Ian Kinsler's 25-game hitting streak three contests shy of the Texas franchise record, and soured the major league debut of catcher Taylor Teagarden, who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts out of the ninth slot after getting called up from Triple-A Oklahoma to fill in for the ailing Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Giving new meaning to the phrase Texas Tea, the 24-year-old Teagarden is by far the best defensive catcher in the Rangers system-he has caught 39 percent of basestealers this season-although his bat lags behind those of Max Ramirez and Saltalamacchia.

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
Probable Starters: John Lannan (106 IP, 3.74 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 59 K) vs. Jair Jurrjens (111, 3.49, 1.32, 81)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 36-61 (356 RS, 474 RA); Atlanta, 52-44 (428 RS, 389 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; Atlanta, #12
Prospectus: Tonight a pair of surprising young mound successes square off in Atlanta. Jurrjens and Lannan each rank in the top 13 of the National League in RA, yet their records are near inverses-9-4 for Jurrjens compared with 5-9 for Lannan-because Jurrjens has received more than twice the support that Lannan has, 5.3 runs per game to 2.6 for Lannan. The Nationals' lefty has been the best starter on his team, with 3.3 SNLVAR, which edges out Jurrjens by three-tenths of a victory.

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
Probable Starters: Yoslan Herrera (99 2/3 IP, 3.61 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 59 K, Double- and Triple-A) vs. Jorge De La Rosa (57, 7.89, 1.63, 60)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 42-54 (465 RS, 538 RA); Colorado, 41-57 (429 RS, 512 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #28; Colorado, #26
Prospectus: Herrera makes his second major league start tonight, and considering how the first one went-11 hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings-the rookie's follow-up assignment at Coors Field seems particularly tough. Herrera defected from Cuba in late 2006, and the Littlefield-led Pirates uncharacteristically raced in to sign him to a three-year, $1.92 million deal. In his first season stateside last year, Herrera was hit hard at Double-A Altoona, posting a 5.04 RA and 1.47 WHIP, but this season he pitched a good deal better in his second tour of the Eastern League, prompting Pittsburgh to push him up to The Show when Phil Dumatrait made his second trip to the disabled list last weekend. Despite a significant improvement from 2007, however, Herrera's translated statistics from Altoona this year don't bode well for success in Pittsburgh: a normalized ERA of 4.77, and a peripheral ERA of 5.28, chiefly due to a sub-par strikeout rate. According to Baseball Prospectus 2008, Herrera had trouble getting his fastball above the mid-80s last season, and in his first start last weekend against St. Louis it averaged just 87 mph. Nevertheless, Herrera will attempt to bolster a rotation that ranks last in the National League in both innings (527 1/3) and SNLVAR (4.18), and a pitching staff that has allowed over two runs more per nine innings on the road (6.81) than at home (4.58).

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
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (116 1/3 IP, 3.64 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 128 K) vs. Dan Haren (125 2/3, 3.08, 0.96, 112)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 49-47 (398 RS, 387 RA); Arizona, 48-48 (427 RS, 424 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #17; Arizona, #16
Prospectus: For the second consecutive season, Haren has put up a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in the first half, pitching well enough to make the All-Star team. This time, however, Haren will seek to avoid the second-half fade that has visited him in each of the last two years. In 2006 he put up a 3.67 RA and 1.13 WHIP in 127 2/3 innings before the break, numbers which turned to 5.38 and 1.31 in 95 1/3 innings afterwards. Last year the split was just as stark, as he had a 2.85 and 1.00 in 129 1/3 innings leading in to his starting the All-Star Game, then fell back to 4.82 and 1.50 in 93 1/3 frames over the season's final two and a half months. The Diamondbacks have needed Haren at his best to maintain their slim lead in the division over Los Angeles, so a similar slippage this season could prove deadly to the Snakes' hope of returning to the postseason.

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.

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Premium Article Can Of Corn: Chicago v... (07/19)
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