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July 23, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Twins (55-45) at Yankees (55-45), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glen Perkins (84 1/3 IP, 4.06 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Mike Mussina (113 1/3 IP, 4.21 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 74 K)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 52-48 (490 RS, 471 RA); New York, 55-45 (469 RS, 423 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #14; New York, #8
Prospectus: Today is a special day in New York-the last time ever that one can go to a game at Yankee and Shea Stadium on the same day. It's rare for the Yankees and the Mets to both be at home on the same date, and rarer still for one game to be scheduled in the afternoon and one at night while both in the Big Apple. But that's the scenario today in the final season for the two stadiums, so truly intrepid fans can hop the Four Train to the Bronx for this afternoon's game with the Twins, then get on the Seven to Queens for the nightcap between the Mets and Phillies. Those fans will see a Yankees team that has won all five of its games since the All-Star break, pulling within 3 of the first-place Rays, and one which will be going for the sweep of Minnesota with its once and current ace Mussina in search of a major league-leading 13th victory. The hallmark of what should be a Hall of Fame career for Mussina has been his control, and at the age of 39 the Moose has amazingly been more precise than ever before this season, which has made up for his ever-dropping velocity. Mussina has issued 16 walks in 113 1/3 innings, a major league-best 1.3 BB/9, which bests his previous low of 1.6 BB/9 set in 2006.

Mussina will be facing a different Twins lineup than the one the team has utilized for most of the season, as last night manager Ron Gardenhire switched Denard Span, who had been batting ninth, with leadoff man Carlos Gomez. Gomez played well in the first two months of the season after being handed the starting center-field job, but since May 30 is hitting just .203/.237/.267 in 213 plate appearances, with a 47/7 K/BB ratio. Span, meanwhile, has kept on hitting since his promotion from Triple-A Rochester, and most importantly has kept up his excellent plate discipline-his OBP is now up to .437 and he has walked 15 times against 16 strikeouts in 105 plate appearances. The new lineup should allow the Twins to get more men on base for their lone prolific run producer, Justin Morneau, who despite Gomez's presence in the leadoff spot has still batted with more men on base than any other AL player this year.

Matchup: Rangers (52-49) at White Sox (56-43), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Kevin Millwood (106 2/3 IP, 5.57 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Clayton Richard (121 2/3, 2.87, 0.91, 82-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 47-54 (549 RS, 590 RA); Chicago, 58-41 (493 RS, 412 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #18; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Sending a pitcher out to face the Rangers in his first major league start is a dangerous proposition, but Richard has pitched well enough in the minors thus far to earn this chance, which comes due to the right elbow tendonitis of Jose Contreras. Up until today, the White Sox have needed just one spot start all season, which went to long reliever Nick Masset, but in replacing Contreras the Sox elected to call up the 24-year-old left-hander from Triple-A rather than go back to Masset. Entering this season Richard had not pitched above the High-A Carolina League in the three years since getting selected in the eighth round of the 2005 draft out of the University of Michigan, and consequently he was left off the White Sox's Top 11 Prospects list and not issued a PECOTA projection. However, promoted to Double-A Birmingham to open the year, Richard was excellent, posting a 3.12 RA in 13 starts over 83 2/3 innings. That earned him a bump up to Charlotte, where he won all six of his starts while allowing less than a baserunner per inning. Richard's progression has been due primarily to better control: last season he had a 3.3 BB/9 for Winston-Salem, but this year issued only 20 walks in 112 2/3 innings, or 1.5 BB/9. His performance is somewhat deceiving given the depressed run-scoring environment of the Southern League, as Richard's equivalent ERA at Birmingham was 4.42. He did put up a 3.16 equivalent ERA at Charlotte, however, and has given up just four home runs all year, so his breakthrough season certainly has merit.

Furthermore, throwing a lefty against Texas has been the way to go this year, as Mark Buehrle proved again last night: the Rangers are the only team in baseball with an OPS north of 800 versus right-handers (824), but fall into the middle of the field with a 750 mark against southpaws. In games versus left-handed starters, Texas is 11-20 (.355 winning percentage), compared with 41-29 versus righties (.586). One of the few Rangers batters who has performed better against left-handers is rookie first baseman Chris Davis, who homered last night off Buehrle. Davis already has five extra-base hits in 26 plate appearances against southpaws, notable considering that Davis is himself a lefty. In his minor league career, however, Davis actually put up a nearly identical OPS versus lefties and righties (.315/.378/.573 in 275 PA versus .299/.351/.602 in 873, respectively).

Matchup: Blue Jays (49-51) at Orioles (48-51), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (134 IP, 5.17 RA, 1.45 WHIP, 132 K) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (135, 3.93, 1.24, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 52-48 (426 RS, 404 RA); Baltimore, 49-50 (479 RS, 487 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #9; Baltimore, #20
Prospectus: Balls have been exiting Camden Yards at a prodigious rate all season, and that continued last night, as the Blue Jays hit two home runs and the Orioles three in a 10-8 Toronto victory. There have now been 130 home runs hit in 47 Baltimore home games, with an even split between what the offense has produced and the pitching given up, 65 each. At this rate, Orioles management will run out of the little bronze baseball plaques that are affixed to each spot on the Eutaw Street concourse in front of the warehouse where any particularly well-struck ball to right-field lands. There have been 2.77 home runs per game at the Yards, as compared with 1.83 in Orioles road games (the O's have hit 49 on the road and given up 46 in 52 games) so far. That gives Baltimore's home park a factor of 1.51 for long balls (2.77/1.83), meaning that there have been more than 50 percent more home runs in Orioles home games than in their road games this year-the highest percentage of any stadium in baseball. Park factors are extremely variable, so one should not draw conclusions from a half-season's worth of data, but Oriole Park did rank third in home run factor last season and eighth the year before, so this year's results are not a complete fluke. One possible explanation for the home run frequency could be humidity-Baltimore lies in that swampy subtropical climate zone in the mid-Atlantic, and generally experiences extremely muggy summers. Humidity reduces air density, which in turn reduces resistance and helps the ball to carry further.

A.J. Burnett has yet to pitch at Camden Yards this season, but given the returns from his two games at home against the Orioles this year, he cannot be looking forward to the experience. While Burnett gave up just one home run in those two outings, he was pounded for 17 hits and 15 runs in 9 2/3 innings. Burnett will have to especially watch out for Melvin Mora, who is on a tear of late, with four homers and 14 RBI in his past six games. After last night's five-RBI game Mora now leads the team with 62 batted in despite a sub-standard .246 EqA. As could be expected, Mora is hitting .375 with runners in scoring position, as compared to .206 with the bags empty.

Matchup: Phillies (54-46) at Mets (53-47), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (101 2/3 IP, 6.20 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 88 K) vs. John Maine (130 2/3, 4.62, 1.35, 98)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 58-42 (500 RS, 423 RA); New York, 53-47 (487 RS, 454 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; New York, #7
Prospectus: "I was an IronPig: The Brett Myers Saga" enters its third act tonight in Flushing, with the return of the embattled former ace to the Philadelphia rotation after nearly a month spent down in the minors. Myers made four starts for three of Philadelphia's affiliates following his banishment to the farm, beginning with two for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and then one apiece for Double-A Reading and High-A Clearwater. Myers allowed 12 runs in 27 innings over those four starts (4.00 RA), with 24 hits allowed and a 28/7 K/BB ratio. Most importantly, he gave up only one home run, which leads to hope for Phillies fans that his acute case of gopheritis has gone into remission. Even with having not made a major league start since June 27, Myers still leads all pitchers with 24 home runs allowed, or 2.1 HR/9. Just one other pitcher in baseball history has given up home runs with greater frequency while qualifying for the ERA title: Jose Lima, who was touched for 48 taters in 196 1/3 innings (2.2 per nine) while pitching for the Astros in 2000, their first season at then-Enron (soon nicknamed Home Run) Field. The list of ERA title qualifiers who have gotten smashed past the two-homers-per-nine barrier is just three deep. Besides Lima, it includes a pair of pitchers who were shell-shocked by the 1994 offensive explosion-Sid Fernandez, who was taken deep 27 times in 115 1/3 innings for the Orioles, and Jim Deshaies, who surrendered 30 in 130 1/3 frames for the Twins.

One of the Mets that Myers will have to be wary of is catcher Ramon Castro, who has homered and singled in three career at-bats against the Philly right-hander. At this point Castro is still the backup to Brian Schneider, but he has started the last two games, and the barrel-shaped slugger is making a serious case for a much greater percentage of the backstop timeshare-he has two hits in each of his last four starts, with homers in three of those contests. Schneider, meanwhile, has just seven extra-base hits in 248 plate appearances, giving him a sub-.300 slugging percentage and a negative VORP. To this point in the season, Castro has been worth two-fifths of a run more per game (0.256 MLVr to -0.145 for Schneider). Schneider's defense has been keeping him in the lineup, as he has gunned down 15 of 40 on the basepaths (37.5 percent).

Matchup: Brewers (57-43) at Cardinals (57-45), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: CC Sabathia (146 1/3 IP, 3.69 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 147 K) vs. Braden Looper (115 1/3, 4.99, 1.41, 53) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 53-47 (474 RS, 443 RA); St. Louis, 54-48 (484 RS, 455 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #13; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: It would be nearly impossible for a pitcher to have a better beginning with his new club following a trade than Sabathia has had with the Brewers, as Milwaukee's imported ace will look for his third straight complete-game victory and fourth straight win tonight. Not only has Sabathia been fantastic on the mound, but he has also contributed at the plate, too. It seems a shame that the 6'7", 250-pound lefty was prevented from swinging regularly for so many years while pitching in the American League, and Sabathia has celebrated his newfound freedom by knocking a homer and a double in nine at-bats with Milwaukee, this after he smoked a Chan Ho Park offering for a 440-foot homer earlier this year in his first interleague at-bat while with Cleveland. Sabathia's career batting sample size is tiny but nonetheless impressive: .286/.300/.510 in 51 plate appearances, good for the second-best OPS+ (110) of any active pitcher with at least 50 plate appearances, behind only Micah Owings (122). The Cards' Looper is seventh on that list, thanks to his 12 hits in 36 at-bats this season.

In other news regarding pitchers batting, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has continued his practice of having the team's starting pitcher bat eighth all season, while the Brewers' Ned Yost, who went with the strategy for the first two and half months, moved back to the traditional alignment beginning in mid-June. Has the non-conventional order worked for the Cardinals? It is hard to say it has mattered much either way because of how bad the Cardinals' ninth-place hitters have been, but theoretically the boost in OBP from the last spot in the order-.312, as compared with .260 for the pitchers in the eight hole-has meant more runners on base in front of cleanup hitter Albert Pujols. The Brewers actually have a more ideal player with which to execute the strategy in catcher Jason Kendall, who possesses the on-base skills to be the second lead-off hitter that Cards' shortstop Cesar Izturis does not. Yost must have felt that his club needed a change, however, as at the time he made the switch back, following Milwaukee's June 15 game, the Brewers' offense was producing a disappointing 4.46 R/G. The team's subsequent surge in offense cannot be connected to that switch-Milwaukee has scored 5.35 R/G from June 17 onwards-but the timing of their offensive breakthrough likely ensures that Yost won't be revisiting his experiment.

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

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