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July 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (55-43) at Cardinals (57-43), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (75 2/3 IP, 4.16 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Joel Pineiro (87 2/3, 4.62, 1.40, 45)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 52-46 (464 RS, 437 RA); St. Louis, 53-47 (478 RS, 445 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #13; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: The top two teams in the NL's wild-card chase face off in the opener of a four-game set at the new Busch Stadium. After this series, the Brewers and Cardinals play each other just two more times, so these next four games are critical for both teams. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds show that there is over an 83 percent chance that the NL Wild Card will come out of the Central, and currently the Cardinals lead the Brewers by one game for that final post-season berth. Milwaukee actually has a better chance of reaching the playoffs, however-55 percent to the Cardinals' 40 percent-thanks to possessing a better third-order winning percentage than St. Louis. The Cardinals have a slightly greater run differential than the Brewers, +33 to +27, but Milwaukee's pitchers have faced markedly tougher hitters than have the Cardinals' pitchers to this point: the Brewers' adjusted equivalent runs allowed total is nine fewer than their raw runs allowed, while St. Louis' is 17 higher. The PECOTA-adjusted odds favor the Brewers even further, giving them a 59 percent shot at advancing, to 32 percent for the Cardinals. Those numbers don't take into account Milwaukee's recent acquisition of CC Sabathia (as well as Ray Durham), which further boosts the team's stretch-drive advantage over St. Louis. The one ace the Cards are holding is that all six of their remaining head-to-head games with the Crew take place in Busch Stadium. Other than that, the schedule over the season's last two-plus months seems to favor the Brewers-St. Louis' extra-division opponents down the stretch are the Phillies, Dodgers, Braves, Marlins, Diamondbacks, and Mets, all quality teams, while the Brewers have 10 games remaining with the two worst teams in the majors, Washington and San Diego. Milwaukee also has an easier intra-division slate, with nine games left against the last-place Bucs compared to five for St. Louis, and four out of its seven scheduled against Chicago at home, as opposed to six out of the nine left for St. Louis against Chicago to be played at Wrigley.

Matchup: Twins (55-43) at Yankees (53-45), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (118 1/3 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Sidney Ponson (72 2/3, 5.45, 1.58, 34)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 52-46 (484 RS, 451 RA); New York, 52-46 (449 RS, 417 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #14; New York, #8
Prospectus: The Yankees started the second half with a home sweep of Oakland, which moved them 4 games behind Tampa Bay in the AL East, and just two behind Boston in the wild-card race. New York has now cut its divisional deficit in half from where it stood two weeks ago, and improved its playoff odds from a low of four percent on July 6 to 17 percent. Ponson will look to push that number higher while pitching against one of his former clubs, as Minnesota enters the Bronx for its final series ever in the House that Ruth Built. The Twins signed Ponson before last season in hopes that the journeyman would be able to hold down the fifth slot in the rotation, but cut him loose after seven starts in which he allowed 31 runs in 37 2/3 innings. Ponson has given the Yankees two quality starts in three tries since coming over from Texas, and New York has managed to win all three of the games he has pitched for them.

Fortunately for New York's offense, the All-Star break has come and gone, which means that Robinson Cano has been authorized to start hitting; on cue, the team's franchise second baseman with the dramatic split between halves picked up eight hits in his first 14 post-break at-bats. Cano's resurgence actually began a month before the break: after an 0-for-3 game on June 13 dropped his OPS to 676, he has hit .355/.377/.533. Yankees fans can likely expect a very similar line from Cano going forward, as his career second-half averages are .338/.369/.547 in 870 plate appearances. Cano did not let his first-half slump affect his defense, which has been characteristically excellent all season; he currently ranks third in Range Factor and second in Zone Rating at the position. The Yankees have not been a good defensive team this year, but one of the few others doing strong work afield is Jose Molina, who has caught 49 percent of potential basestealers (26 of 53). Jorge Posada is unhappy about not getting as much time as usual behind the plate-he has started just three of the past 12 games at catcher-which has created the classic offense/defense platoon debate for New York. Since returning from injury in early June, Posada has thrown out only three of 23 basestealers (13 percent) in 21 games catching, while Molina is hitting a meagre .215/.255/.297.

Matchup: Athletics (51-47) at Rays (57-40), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dana Eveland (113 1/3 IP, 3.57 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 74 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (83, 3.25, 1.17, 91) Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 56-42 (415 RS, 358 RA); Tampa Bay, 53-44 (445 RS, 401 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: After being forced into throwing an inning of relief-and picking up the win-during the American League's wild 4-3, 15-inning victory in the All-Star game, Kazmir had his first post-break start pushed back from Saturday to today. That's bad news for the Athletics, who have lost five games in a row, and against whom Kazmir fired seven innings of one-run ball in a late-May victory. A day after Kazmir shut down the A's, Eveland came back to do the same to the Rays, allowing one run in the first complete game of his young career to help Oakland record a 9-1 victory. Eveland has struggled since that point, with more walks (32) than strikeouts (30), and a 1.69 WHIP in nine starts. Kazmir has had his own problems of late, for the lefty's last quality start came eight outings ago, and he has given up over five runs per nine in his last seven while routinely compiling triple-digit pitch counts by the fifth inning. Oakland has been the worst team in the majors this year at hitting left-handed pitching, however, with a line of .243/.310/.348, and last year Kazmir set his career-high in strikeouts by fanning 13 Athletics without walking a batter in a 14-3 Tampa Bay victory.

This three-game series should feature some excellent defense, for Oakland and Tampa Bay are the two best teams in baseball by the defensive efficiency rankings. The Athletics have turned 71.7 percent of balls in play into outs-the best mark by any team since the 2003 Mariners-while Tampa Bay has converted 71.0 percent. One of the strong points for both teams is center field. B.J. Upton tracks down nearly everything out there for the Rays, and has gunned down nine runners on the bases, tops amongst all center fielders. Upton's work in the alleys is certainly appreciated by Kazmir, who has been one of the most extreme fly-ball pitchers in the majors to this point-amongst the 125 pitchers who have thrown 80 or more innings, Kazmir's 0.66 G/F ratio is the second lowest (behind only Jason Bergmann, at 0.59). The A's Carlos Gonzalez, meanwhile, already has four assists from center field in just one-third of the innings that Upton has played at the position. Gonzalez also has a Zone Rating of .939, leading all those with 100 or more innings in center.

Matchup: Marlins (52-46) at Braves (46-52), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jorge Campillo (85 1/3 IP, 3.48 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 59 K) vs. Chris Volstad (91 IP, 3.66 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 56 K-Double-A)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 47-51 (476 RS, 501 RA); Atlanta, 52-46 (436 RS, 412 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #19; Atlanta, #12
Prospectus: Volstad will make his second major league start tonight after he nearly tossed a complete-game shutout in his first. Pitching at Dodger Stadium, the organization's top young starter cruised through eight shutout innings while allowing just four baserunners, and had two outs in the ninth before Russell Martin singled in a run, prompting manager Fredi Gonzalez to call on closer Kevin Gregg to get the final out of a 3-1 win. It was the best debut start by Game Score since Johnny Cueto tossed seven innings of one-run, 10-strikeout ball on April 3; before that, you have to go back to June of 2006 to find another rookie pitcher who had a score of at least 75 in his inaugural start (Chuck James). Volstad generated 15 ground balls in the contest, which is the key component of his pitching style: the 6'7" righty throws a fastball with "sink and a heavy downward plane," per Kevin Goldstein's evaluation.

That means that Volstad is going to need a strong infield defense behind him in order to reach his full potential in the majors, something the Marlins cannot provide him at this point. At third base, Jorge Cantu has made 16 errors, third most at the position, and ranks last amongst the 24 qualifying hot cornermen in Zone Rating. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez has improved upon his horrendous defensive season last year, hiking his Range Factor and Zone Rating figures more into the middle of the pack, but he still leads major league shortstops with 16 errors. At second base, Dan Uggla has not been as bad as his performance in the All-Star Game would suggest, but he is not anywhere close to being as special with the glove as he is with the bat. First baseman Mike Jacobs might be the most egregiously weak of the group this season, as he has been far and away the worst at the position statistically. Of the 25 qualifying first basemen, Jacobs is last in fielding percentage (.984), Range Factor (8.26), and Zone Rating (.734). Not just that, but no one is even close to him in the latter two categories-the next-worst Range Factor is the 8.67 of Carlos Pena, and the next-worst Zone Rating is .800, belonging to Richie Sexson. Overall, therefore, Florida's infield defense has certainly had a glove in the Marlins poor pitching this season, and it will be a challenge for Volstad, with his ground-ball style, to overcome it.

Matchup: Cubs (58-40) at Diamondbacks (48-50), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (82 1/3 IP, 2.30 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 102 K) vs. Randy Johnson (98, 5.97, 1.41, 95)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 60-38 (518 RS, 407 RA); Arizona, 49-49 (435 RS, 432 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Arizona, #16
Prospectus: Two of the best strikeout pitchers in the majors go at it tonight in a rematch of last season's NLDS won by the Diamondbacks. In the first meeting this year between these two, the Cubs got back at Arizona by sweeping a three-game set in Wrigley Field. Harden will be making his second start for the Cubs, and will be working on seven days' rest, as Chicago chose to keep its rotation intact rather than go back to its top starters following the All-Star break. Giving Harden extra time to recuperate seems to be a good idea; for his career the injury-prone right-hander has posted a 3.11 RA in 18 starts on six or more days of rest, an improvement upon his 3.81 RA in games started after four or five days off. Harden has 11.2 K/9 this season, which is by far the best mark amongst pitchers with at least 80 innings; Kazmir is second at 9.9, and Randy Johnson is 10th at 8.7. The Diamondbacks and Cubs rank three-four amongst National League clubs in strikeouts, so there will likely be a large number of Ks on both sides tonight. Arizona especially could have trouble with Harden, whom the team has never faced, for the heavily right-handed Snakes lineup is hitting just .248/.319/.402 versus righties.

Right-handers have been particularly rough on center fielder Chris B. Young, holding him to a .201 batting average and .269 OBP. In 2007 Young had a similar average/OBP versus right-handers, but managed to hit 26 home runs and slug .480 (.246 ISO) against them; this year, however, Young has not been driving the ball versus righties at all, with a .347 SLG. Lately he has not been driving the ball versus anyone, as he has not hit a homer in his last 109 plate appearances, and has only one in his last 177. Young's 13 homers still rank second on the team, however, a fact which makes Arizona's trade last week to bring back Tony Clark understandable. Clark led the Diamondbacks in Isolated Power last year (.262, besting Young's .230) thanks to his 17 long balls in 245 plate appearances. Considering the late-career success Clark had in Arizona-he blasted 53 homers with the Snakes and slugged .546 in 785 PA from 2005-07-the veteran switch-hitter is likely thankful to be back in the air-conditioning of Chase Field.

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

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