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July 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Marlins (53-49) at Cubs (60-42), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Josh Johnson (11 2/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 10 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (132 2/3, 3.53, 1.16, 111)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 48-54 (487 RS, 520 RA); Chicago, 61-41 (536 RS, 427 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #19; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: Tonight Dempster makes his first career start against his former team, for which he played the first four and a half seasons of his career. Dempster had one good season for the Marlins, in 2000, when he tossed a career-high 226 1/3 innings (nearly seven per start) and gave up 4.1 R/9. Even that year hasn't come close to what he's done in 2008, however, and Dempster's success is one of the bigger surprises of the year considering his transition to the rotation after four years pitching from the bullpen.

For the Fish, Johnson's similarity to Dempster extends beyond the fact that both are right-handers from northern climes (Dempster from British Columbia, Johnson from Minnesota) who have pitched for Florida. Both hurlers have also undergone Tommy John surgery, and both also made it back very quickly after placing their elbows under the knife. Dempster had his in early August of 2003, and returned to the mound by May 26 of the following year, when he made his first minor league rehabilitation start—remarkably, less than 10 months later. Johnson underwent the surgery on August 3 of last season, and was back pitching professionally just a little more than 10 months later, as he made his first minor league rehab start this season on June 14. Will Carroll addressed the speed with which Johnson made it back in a recent Under the Knife, writing "It's a quick schedule, but not overly so; B.J. Ryan returned much more quickly, and something just south of 12 months seems to be the point where recovery times are heading." Interestingly, Carroll noted in that piece that pitchers who were forced to the shelf due to overuse/fatigue—as Johnson was—generally are able to come back quicker than those whose trouble was mechanical. So far Johnson has not had any setbacks, and in fact is throwing harder than he did before his surgery: according to the Baseball Info Solutions data on Fangraphs.com, Dempster's fastball has averaged 93 mph in his first two starts, up from 92 the last two seasons and 91 in '05, while his slider and changeup have both been faster as well.

Matchup: Yankees (56-45) at Red Sox (60-43), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joba Chamberlain (71 1/3 IP, 2.78 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Josh Beckett (120, 4.05 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 113 K)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 56-45 (474 RS, 424 RA); Boston, 61-42 (517 RS, 421 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #8; Boston, #1
Prospectus: Now separated by only two losses in the AL's wild-card standings, the Yankees and Red Sox begin a three-game weekend series at Fenway Park just as DH David Ortiz makes his return to the Boston lineup. Ortiz has been out since June 1, missing 45 games with a left wrist injury. Without their big slugger, the Red Sox still managed to score 5.4 runs per game, actually a slight improvement on what they compiled without Ortiz this season (5 R/G) thanks to some excellent work from J.D. Drew, who began carrying the club with his bat right at the point that Ortiz went down. Now Drew will ask Ortiz to return the favor, since Boston's right fielder and All-Star game MVP has just eight hits in his last 39 at-bats (.205).

A perhaps underrated aspect of Ortiz's greatness is that he seemingly got better every season with the Red Sox up until this year. In fact, beginning in 2000, Ortiz improved his adjusted OPS+ in eight straight seasons. His jump between 2003 and 2004 was the closest call, as Ortiz went from 44 percent better than league average to 45 percent; last year he was actually 10 percent better than he was in 2006 despite hitting 19 fewer homers, as a result of a surge in doubles (29 to 52) and a big spike in batting average (.287 to .332). Ortiz's streak will likely end this year, unless he goes absolutely berserk over the season's last two-plus months—which given Big Papi's history in the Hub cannot be entirely ruled out. In his six seasons with Boston, Ortiz now has a 154 OPS+, just one percentage point behind what Manny Ramirez has produced during his Red Sox tenure, who is in turn one point behind Jimmie Foxx's Boston OPS+ for the third-best mark in franchise history (minimum 2000 Red Sox plate appearances). Ortiz currently has the lowest at-bat/home run ratio in the team's annals, 13.3, and his .603 slugging percentage ranks third, one spot ahead of Ramirez's .588 and a mere two thousandths behind Foxx for second.

Matchup: White Sox (57-43) at Tigers (52-49), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Gavin Floyd (117 2/3 IP, 4.74 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 81 K) vs. Nate Robertson (118 2/3, 5.76, 1.54, 75)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 58-42 (503 RS, 420 RA); Detroit, 54-47 (507 RS, 474 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Detroit, #15
Prospectus: Winners of four straight, the Tigers are now three games over .500 for the first time all season, and have closed to within 5.5 games of the front-running White Sox, with the chance to move up further in this three-game home series. The pitching matchup in the opener certainly seems to favor Chicago, for Robertson has the highest ERA of all American League qualifiers, and Floyd has already beaten Detroit twice this season, giving up three runs in 13 1/3 innings. Both of those wins came in early April, though, and Floyd has not pitched quite as well recently. Furthermore, the performance of Floyd and Robertson is not quite as disparate as their respective ERAs would suggest, for while Robertson has allowed a lone unearned run, Floyd has a major league-leading 16 on his ledger. Chicago has committed 73 errors this season, the second most in the American League behind Texas, while Detroit has only one fewer miscue.

Early April was also the time when Detroit's bats were nowhere to be found. Since the start of June the Tigers have hit at the level most expected them to, with a line of .290/.355/.464 and 5.3 R/G, compared with .263/.333/.419 and 4.7 in the season's first two months. Detroit would not have been able to accomplish its resurgence without the play of first-year outfielder Matt Joyce, who has hit 10 home runs and slugged .655 since being called up from Triple-A Toledo. Joyce was selected in the 12th round of the 2005 draft out of Florida Southern College, and entering this season had not slugged any higher than .454 in his three minor league campaigns. In his first shot at Triple-A, however, the 23-year-old cracked 13 homers with a .550 SLG in 227 PA, good for a .292 EqA, and the Tigers felt he was ready to replace Jacque Jones in left field. Manager Jim Leyland has protected the lefty-swinging Joyce so far, using him almost exclusively in a platoon role—just 11 of Joyce's 128 plate appearances so far have been against lefties—and the result has been a .308 EqA, second on the team only to Ramon Santiago, who has also provided much-needed relief from an underacheiving veteran (shortstop Edgar Renteria).

Matchup: Braves (48-53) at Phillies (54-48), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (117 1/3 IP, 3.68 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 86 K) vs. Kyle Kendrick (109, 5.53, 1.51, 49) Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 54-47 (449 RS, 420 RA); Philadelphia, 58-44 (504 RS, 432 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #13; Philadelphia, #10
Prospectus: There is just a week left before the trading deadline, meaning the Braves have little time left to decide whether they will unload Mark Teixeira and others, or if they will instead look to add a piece or two for a run at the division title. Of course, if Atlanta's actual record equaled its Pythagorean mark, the team wouldn't be uncertain. Atlanta has a difficult series ahead of it against the Phillies, who have beaten the Braves seven consecutive times, the last six in Atlanta. Although the Braves have won their previous two series away from Turner Field, they are still just 17-33 on the road, and remain in search of their first one-run road win. Atlanta is 0-17 in one-run games on the road this season, and has lost its last 24 such contests dating back to the end of last year, breaking the major league record of 21 straight such losses, which according to the Elias Sports Bureau was set by the Royals from 2000-01. Overall this year, the Braves are 6-22 in one-run games, which not only is the worst record in baseball, but also the second-worst winning percentage in the history of the game. Since 1901, there have been 2,212 team seasons, and Atlanta's .214 winning percentage in one-run games is better than only the 1935 Boston Braves—the Beantown ancestors of the current Braves franchise—who went a remarkable 7-31.

The Phillies beat Jurrjens in the right-hander's only prior start against them, a 4-1 decision on July 3. Philadelphia hit three home runs off of Jurrjens in that one (by Pedro Feliz, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley), out of just the eight he has given up all year. Kendrick has beaten the Braves twice this season, and Philly has won all three times he has taken the mound versus Atlanta, thanks in large measure to the Philadelphia attack, which has propped him up with 6.1 runs per outing on the year. Thus Kendrick has won two-thirds of his decisions despite a distasteful set of peripheral statistics, including a 4.1 K/9 figure, which ranks as the second lowest amongst the 54 National League qualifying pitchers.

Matchup: Astros (46-55) at Brewers (59-43), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Wandy Rodriguez (81 2/3 IP, 4.30 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 72 K) vs. Manny Parra (107 2/3, 4.01, 1.47, 87)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 44-57 (432 RS, 494 RA); Milwaukee, 55-47 (481 RS, 446 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; Milwaukee, #13
Prospectus: The Brewers completed a thrilling four-game sweep of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium last night with their third come-from-behind victory in the series. Third baseman Bill Hall provided the critical blow in the first two by hitting go-ahead homers in the tenth and then ninth inning on back-to-back nights, and this time it was left fielder Ryan Braun who knocked a two-run shot in the ninth off of Cards closer Ryan Franklin to give the Brewers a 4-3 victory, their league-leading 22nd one-run win of the season (against 10 losses). Braun's blast marked the 20th straight game in which Milwaukee has homered, breaking the franchise record set in June of 1996. Since 1956, there have been 11 teams with longer home run streaks, topped by the 2002 Rangers, who went deep in 27 straight. The Brewers are up to 135 home runs on the season, the third most in the National League, and Braun is up to 60 home runs since arriving in the majors last May 25, more than all except Ryan Howard (70) in that span. Winners of eight straight games, the Brewers now return home to face Rodriguez, who has been touched for seven home runs in six career starts at Miller Park.

Houston's offense has been a disappointment this season, but neither Lance Berkman nor Carlos Lee can be blamed for that. Lee and Berkman rank third and fourth, respectively, in OBI percent amongst National League qualifiers, and have managed to find runners to knock in—Lee has the second-most RBI in the circuit, and Berkman is fifth—despite Houston's leadoff batters posting a miserable .267 OBP. Since manager Cecil Cooper realized he could no longer have Michael Bourn burning a hole in the offense from the top spot, Houston has auditioned a number of leadoff hitters, including Darin Erstad, Hunter Pence, and even Ty Wigginton. Kazuo Matsui recently claimed the role, batting leadoff in each of the past six games, a period in which he is just 5-for-20, but with six walks. Matsui is doing a decent job of reaching base this season, bumping his walk rate and his OBP to a career-high .351. The Astros would be better off trotting out Wiggington behind Matsui in the two hole instead of Erstad or Bourn, as the third baseman's .360 OBP gives Houston the best chance to maximize the hitting exploits of Berkman and Lee, at least until Pence breaks free from his sophomore slumber.

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

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