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July 26, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (38-64) at Blue Jays (52-51), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: R.A. Dickey (68 2/3 IP, 3.93 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 40 K) vs. David Purcey (117, 3.15, 1.12, 121-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 43-59 (399 RS, 473 RA); Toronto, 55-48 (443 RS, 410 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #28; Toronto, #11
Prospectus: Toronto beat the Mariners in 10 innings last night to win its fourth straight and send the Mariners to their sixth straight loss, the last two of which have both come in extras. The Blue Jays will look to keep both streaks alive with the rookie Purcey on the mound, called up from Triple-A Syracuse in place of Jesse Litsch following a three-start stretch in which Litsch gave up 20 runs over 12 2/3 innings. Purcey will be making his third major league appearance and first since getting torched in spot duty on May 16. The 16th overall pick in the 2004 draft out of the University of Oklahoma, Purcey is a 6'5" left-hander with good velocity and a good slider. He will therefore likely be given plenty of chances to establish a major league career, although at 26 years old the team would surely like that career to begin soon. Purcey walked 5.3/9 IP combined between 2005 and '06, his first two full seasons in the minors, but cut that down to 2.3 in an abbreviated campaign last year, which earned him the No. 10 spot on Kevin Goldstein's list of the best 11 Blue Jays' prospects. This year Purcey maintained his newfound control, and he has also cut down his hit rate and struck out more batters. He currently leads the International League with a 2.69 ERA, and his 121 strikeouts rank him second behind J.A. Happ of Lehigh Valley (Phillies), a performance that has helped Purcey leap ahead of the other big-name lefty pitching prospect in the Toronto system, Ricky Romero-who is again pitching poorly in his third season at Double-A. According to Clay Davenport's minor league translations, however, Purcey's defense-independent ERA, normalized ERA, and peripheral ERA at Syracuse were all in the high-3.00's, over a run higher than his actual mark.

Matchup: Braves (49-53) at Phillies (54-49), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Mike Hampton (27 IP, 2.67 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 27 K) vs. Cole Hamels (150 2/3, 3.23, 1.01, 133) Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 55-47 (457 RS, 422 RA); Philadelphia, 58-45 (506 RS, 440 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #14; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: Hampton is scheduled to make his first start in nearly three years tonight, and in prime time, no less, going up against the Phillies' ace in the Fox Saturday Game of the Week. Braves fans likely won't believe it until they actually see him throw that first pitch, so long has it been and so many injuries have befallen the former ace since he was last seen in an actual game. Hampton's last start came on August 19 of 2005, before elbow pain forced him to the DL and eventually to the operating table to undergo Tommy John surgery. The elbow ligament transplacement knocked him out for the entire 2006 season, and the next year Hampton suffered a torn oblique muscle in spring training, which preceded more elbow pain, necessitating a second operation. Hampton recovered from that and seemed ready to go at the start of this season, but a pectoral muscle strain scratched him from his first scheduled start in April, and more recently a groin injury slowed down his rehabilitation. Although it's hard to remember now, Hampton was once a front-of-the-rotation workhorse, pitching nearly 1100 innings in the five seasons from 1997-01, the ninth-highest total in that period, while putting up an ERA 21 percent better than the park-adjusted league average. It was that consistent excellence that led the Rockies to sign Hampton for eight years and $121 million in the winter of 2000, which at the time was the richest contract in baseball history. (There have since been 10 others signed for a greater amount, including Barry Zito's $126 million deal, which looks very similar in terms of early return on investment.) Hampton is now in the final year of his infamous deal, of which, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Braves have had to pay $48.5 million. That includes a whopping $28 million for the 2006 and '07 seasons in which Hampton did not throw a single pitch, as well as $15 million for this season. Thankfully for Atlanta, the Rockies are on the hook for the $6 million buyout of Hampton's $20 million team option for 2009.

Matchup: Rangers (53-50) at Athletics (52-50), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Matt Harrison (14 2/3 IP, 9.20 RA, 1.84 WHIP, 1 K) vs. Justin Duchscherer (115 2/3, 2.26, 0.89, 70)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 49-54 (571 RS, 606 RA); Oakland, 57-45 (432 RS, 381 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Oakland, #9
Prospectus: Perhaps the greatest surprise of the first half was the performance of Duchscherer, who earned his way onto the All-Star team with a league-leading 1.82 ERA. Defense and luck have played a large part in that figure, but Duchscherer's accomplishment is still remarkable, made more so by the fact that he pitched all of 16 1/3 innings last season, and hadn't started a major league game since 2003. As Joe Sheehan mentioned in his recent rundown of the top trade targets, Duchscherer is a good bet to decline in the second half, both because of common sense, and that he last threw over 100 innings in 2003 when he was a starter in the Pacific Coast League (his career high is 182 2/3). Since the offensive explosion began in 1994, there have been just six seasons in which a pitcher posted a 2.00 or lower ERA while qualifying for the ERA crown: Greg Maddux (1994 and '95) and Pedro Martinez ('97 and'00) each own two, with the others belonging to Roger Clemens ('95) and Kevin Brown ('96). A pitcher had a 2.00 or lower ERA at the All-Star break while qualifying for the ERA title 14 times in that span. The ones who fell short of sustaining the mark were Tim Wakefield and Hideo Nomo in '95, Clemens in '97, Maddux and Al Leiter in '98, Randy Johnson in '00, Francisco Liriano in '06, and Chris Young last year. The only one of those pitchers who can be said to have fallen apart in the second half is Young, who went from a 2.00 ERA before the break to a 4.80 after; all the rest posted an ERA at least under 4.00 post-All-Star Game.

Duchscherer has surely been lucky in terms of the defense behind him, for he is holding opponents to a major league-low BABIP of .213; just seven pitchers in the BP database (dating back to 1959) have posted a lower seasonal BABIP while throwing as many innings. His performance cannot be deemed as lucky with respect to pitching out of jams, because he has allowed less than 0.9 baserunners per inning. There have only been two ERA qualifiers since '94 to post a lower WHIP than Duchscherer did in the first half: Martinez in 2000, when he had an obscene 0.74 (the lowest for an ERA qualifier in baseball history), and Maddux in '95, at 0.81. The only other seasons in that time span that come in at 0.9 or lower are Maddux's '94 (0.896) and Johnson's '04 (0.90).

Matchup: Twins (55-47) at Indians (45-56), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Baker (91 IP, 3.26 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 76 K) vs. Fausto Carmona (58, 3.41, 1.59, 23)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 52-50 (495 RS, 481 RA); Cleveland, 51-50 (466 RS, 457 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #16; Cleveland, #21
Prospectus: Carmona comes back tonight after recovering from a strained left hip that shelved him for over two months. Hip problems seem to be the injury currently in vogue amongst junior circuit hurlers, as Carmona joined Erik Bedard and Justin Duchscherer as top starters who have been troubled by balky hips in the past two years. It's likely that the physical issue hampered Carmona's ability to throw strikes in the season's first two months, for he walked almost six batters per nine innings in his 10 starts before going down, a serious inflation from the 2.6/9 Carmona passed last season, when he was a legitimate candidate for the American League Cy Young award.

Tonight's game therefore provides a noteworthy contrast in moundsmen, for Baker has walked just 1.5/9 so far. If anything, that figure probably underestimates just how good his control has been: amongst the 183 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in 2008, Baker ranks first with a strike percentage of 69.3, edging out Cliff Lee-who beat the Twins last night while throwing 80 of his 108 pitches for strikes-and his teammates in the Twins rotation, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn. Carmona contrastingly threw 60 percent of his pitches for strikes before getting hurt this year. Baker is the latest initiate into a Twins tradition of strike-throwing: since 2000, the first year for which pitch data is available, the top two seasons by qualifying pitchers in terms of strike percentage belong to a pair of Twins, Carlos Silva and Brad Radke, both in the 2005 campaign. (That 2005 Minnesota team actually had three pitchers in the top 10, with Johan Santana throwing strikes 70 percent of the time, and had the second-lowest team BB/9 average-2.14-in the last 50 years.) Even despite Carmona's wildness, the Indians have issued the second fewest walks in the majors this season, behind only Minnesota, which is poised to lead the AL in that category for the fourth time in the past five years.

Matchup: Cardinals (57-48) at Mets (56-47), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joel Pineiro (93 2/3 IP, 4.61 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Brandon Knight (39 1/3, 1.83, 0.84, 49-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 55-50 (489 RS, 469 RA); New York, 56-47 (503 RS, 460 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #13; New York, #7
Prospectus: With Pedro Martinez in the Dominican Republic following the death of his father, the Mets need a fill-in for tonight's game, and they've decided to call up Knight from Triple-A New Orleans to make his first career major league start. Despite a lack of experience at the top level, Knight is no youngster-the 32-year-old has been pitching professionally since 1995, the year he was drafted in the 14th round out of Ventura College by the Rangers. Knight spent five seasons in the Texas chain, then moved to the Yankees organization, where he eventually got his first crack at the majors, making four appearances out of the Bombers bullpen in 2001 and seven in '07, in which he allowed 24 runs in 19 1/3 innings combined. After that '02 season, Knight headed to Japan, where he pitched two years for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and one for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He returned stateside for the 2006 campaign, catching on with the Pirates chain, but was unable to find a deal with any major league team last season, and finally signed on with the Somerset Patriots of the Independent Atlantic League. Knight was thinking about ending his playing career after last season and going into coaching, but he decided to give the mound one last shot, and the Mets picked him up in May. Knight pitched excellently in limited work for the Zephyrs, which helped earn him the honor of being named to the US Olympic team for next month's Summer Olympics in Beijing. His performance was strong in translation as well, for Knight's equivalent ERA is 2.48, the fifth best mark in the Pacific Coast League. In his last start for New Orleans this past Saturday against Albuquerque, Knight struck out 12 in six shutout innings, and in five total starts for the Zephyrs has fanned 39 in 30 1/3 innings, while giving up eight runs.

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

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