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July 28, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Orioles (49-55) at Yankees (58-46), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Guthrie (140.2 IP, 3.90 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Mike Mussina (121.1, 3.93, 1.21, 81)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 50-54 (497 RS, 518 RA); New York, 57-47 (487 RS, 436 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #20; New York, #5
Prospectus: Two of the best pitchers in the history of Stanford baseball square off today at Yankee Stadium, as Mussina also goes up against his original team. Mussina is without a doubt the best pitcher to come out of Stanford, where he pitched from 1988-1990, edging out Jim Lonborg and Jack McDowell, the two other Stanford alums to notch more than 100 career major league victories. Mussina helped lead Stanford to the '88 NCAA championship, the school's second straight national title, before being selected with the 20th overall pick of the 1990 draft by Baltimore. Twelve years later, Guthrie was taken just two picks later by the Indians in the 2002 draft. Guthrie pitched at Stanford for two seasons after transferring from Brigham Young, and in that time picked up 26 wins, one more than Mussina, while being named an All-American both seasons and the Pac-10 pitcher of the year in 2002, when he threw a school record 157 2/3 innings and posted a 2.52 ERA.

Guthrie has proven to be an outstanding find for the Orioles, who picked him up off of waivers from Cleveland following the 2006 season, as the right-hander was the team's second-best starter behind Erik Bedard last season, tallying 4.8 wins above replacement, and this season has taken over the role of staff ace. Guthrie's 3.0 SNLVAR so far ties him with Josh Beckett for the 15th highest mark in the American League, and is two times what the next best starter on Baltimore's staff has produced (the 1.5 of Daniel Cabrera). Last season, Guthrie struggled in the season's final two months, putting up a 6.15 RA over his last eight starts after a superlative first half. That fade could have been the result of going more than 30 innings past the total amount he had thrown in each of the past two seasons, 142 1/3, as well as surpassing his previous career high of 160 2/3 innings. Guthrie is on pace to throw nearly 220 innings this season, so he will either have to fight through the fatigue that might likely occur or the Orioles could lessen his workload slightly. The 29-year-old Guthrie is not particularly young, and thus has long since made it through the "injury nexus" without any major arm problems to speak of (although he did have an oblique strain last year), so the Birds might be content to let him continue carrying this kind of load.

Matchup: Reds (50-56) at Astros (48-56), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Johnny Cueto (123 IP, 5.34 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 113 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (116.1, 5.11, 1.38, 94) Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 47-59 (461 RS, 526 RA); Houston, 46-58 (450 RS, 507 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #23; Houston, #25
Prospectus: Oswalt comes off of the DL tonight against Cincinnati after spending over two weeks on the shelf with a strained hip-yet another top pitcher that has dealt with hip problems in the last couple of seasons (Bedard, Fausto Carmona, and Justin Duchscherer are others). The timing of his return is fortuitous for Houston, because Oswalt has dominated Cincinnati to a degree that has rarely been seen by a pitcher against any one club in the history of baseball. Oswalt has made 24 appearances against the Reds in his career, 22 of them starts, and owns a remarkable 19-1 record with a 2.64 RA in 157 innings pitched against them. He was 15-0 entering 2006 before suffering his first loss to the Reds in an April start, but went on to beat Cincinnati twice more over the rest of that season and twice more last year. Oswalt's .950 winning percentage versus the Reds is currently the best by any pitcher against one team in the past 50 years, minimum 20 starts. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been just four other pitchers in baseball history who won at least 19 of their first 20 decisions against an opposing team: both Juan Marichal and Larry Jackson started out 19-1 versus the expansion Mets in the 1960s, George Cuppy went 19-1 versus the Cardinals in the 1890s, and Charlie Radbourn went 20-0 against Philadelphia in the 1880s. Marichal's ownership of the Mets petered out later in his career, as he went 7-7 the rest of the way, while Jackson ended his playing days with a 21-2 lifetime mark versus New York.

Oswalt has yet to face the Reds this year, which might be a small part of the reason why his numbers look so uncharacteristically poor. Then again, the spell he cast against Cincinnati over the first seven years of his career might be broken this season, for the Reds lineup he will be facing has several players who have yet to bat against the Astros' ace, including rookies Jay Bruce and Joey Votto as well as Jeff Keppinger. Additionally, the Cincinnati batter who has seen Oswalt the most, Adam Dunn, has hit well against him, with three home runs and a 921 OPS in 69 plate appearances.

Thanks to William Burke for database research

Matchup: Cubs (61-44) at Brewers (60-45), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (128.1 IP, 4.70 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 120 K) vs. CC Sabathia (155.1, 3.48, 1.15, 154)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 63-42 (549 RS, 439 RA); Milwaukee, 56-49 (494 RS, 464 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Milwaukee, #6
Prospectus: Perhaps the single biggest series of the year to date kicks off tonight at Miller Park, as the first-place Cubs and the Brewers-just a game back-open a four-game set. For the Brewers, Sabathia carries with him a streak of three consecutive complete game victories. The last pitcher to win three straight complete games was Brandon Webb in August of last season; before Webb, it was done by Mark Mulder in both '03 and '04, and Jason Schmidt in '03. Sabathia will be looking to become the first pitcher since Roy Halladay in September of '03 to earn the victory in four consecutive complete games. Halladay allowed just two runs in his four-game stretch, and it was made even more impressive by the fact that the second win was a 10-inning performance in a 1-0 Toronto victory. Sabathia will have to overcome a bit of history to pitch well tonight, however-his only other start against Chicago came during interleague play in 2006, and the Cubs lit him up for nine runs in 2 1/3 innings. Up until the beginning of this season, when he was pounded by Oakland, that start against Chicago was the worst of his career by Game Score (rating a five).

On the other hand, Lilly knows his opponent tonight well, having faced the Brewers four times already since joining the Cubs for the 2007 campaign. Despite a quality start his first time out against them, all told in those four starts the lefty has struggled against a righty-heavy Milwaukee offense, allowing 15 runs in 21 2/3 innings, with five home runs surrendered, two of which came off the bat of second baseman Rickie Weeks. The Brewers have an OPS against left-handers more than 50 points higher than against right-handers this season (810 to 753), and their record in games started by an opposing left-hander is 22-11, tops in the National League. The Cubs have also been strong versus lefties, with a 793 OPS and 19-11 record against them, the third-best mark in the senior circuit.

Matchup: Mariners (39-65) at Rangers (54-51), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (125 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 115 K) vs. Scott Feldman (93.2, 5.28, 1.37, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 44-60 (407 RS, 482 RA); Texas, 50-55 (585 RS, 616 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #28; Texas, #19
Prospectus: In this otherwise unremarkable divisional matchup, a truly noteworthy milestone could be reached: with two hits, Ichiro Suzuki will get to 3,000 for his professional career, which began back in 1992 with the Orix Blue Wave in the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Over the course of his nine seasons playing in Japan, Ichiro collected 1,278 hits, good for a batting average of .353. Upon moving to Seattle in 2001, Ichiro has added another 1,720 safeties, putting up a batting average of .330. Ichiro owns the major league record for most consecutive 200-hit seasons to open a career, which he extended to seven last season. That streak is in a slight bit of jeapordy this season, as he's on pace for 199 hits, and with a .297 average he's also in danger of hitting below .300 for the first time in his career. If Ichiro does continue at his current pace, he would need 1209 more hits after this season to reach 3,000 in his stateside career, which he would attain by averaging 201.5 knocks over the next six campaigns, his age-35 to age-40 seasons. Should Ichiro eventually reach 3,000 major league hits-which the odds are against, at least according to perpetual Ichiro pessimist PECOTA, which projects him to be out of baseball by the age of 39-Ichiro would have 4,278 for his career, which would move him past Pete Rose (4,256) for the most professional hits all-time.

The Rangers' Michael Young has one less hit than Ichiro this season, meaning that his own streak of 200-hit seasons is also in trouble. Young has had five straight campaigns with 200 or more hits, making him just the seventh player to accomplish such a feat, as Rany Jazayerli discussed earlier this year. Besides Ichiro, the others are Willie Keeler (eight straight, 1894-1901), Wade Boggs (seven from 1983-89), Chuck Klein (five from 1929-33), Al Simmons (five from 1929-33), and Charlie Gehringer (five from 1933-37)-all players who are in the Hall of Fame. Young is the only shortstop on the list, and deserves credit as well for improving his defensive play. After rating as the worst shortstop in the game by SFR in his first two full seasons at the position, 2004 and '05, Young pulled himself up to average, and this year has the second-best Range Factor in the AL at the position behind Orlando Cabrera.

Matchup: White Sox (59-44) at Twins (57-47), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (139 IP, 4.21 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 81 K) vs. Kevin Slowey (87.2, 4.41, 1.14, 64)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 60-43 (520 RS, 437 RA); Minnesota, 54-50 (510 RS, 487 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Minnesota, #16
Prospectus: While one Windy City team battles for its division lead in Milwaukee over the next four days, the other will do the same in Minnesota in what is another critical series. The Twins are 2 games behind the White Sox, so winning three of four would pull them to within a half-game of their rival. However, Minnesota has lost five in a row to Chicago, as it was swept out of U.S. Cellular Field in four straight games at the beginning of June. Since then the Twins have gone 26-14, just a half-game behind the Tigers and Yankees for the best record over that stretch.

Unfortunately for the Twins, they might have to play their biggest series of the year without center fielder Carlos Gomez, because he suffered a frightening injury on Friday night when he crashed into the wall and had to be put into a neck brace and carted off the field. The injury turned out not to be too serious, but it is unclear when Gomez will return to action. Gomez hurt himself following a spectacular running grab, the type of remarkable play he has made all season. While the Twins will not miss the rookie's bat-Gomez has been the worst offensive center fielder in the American League, with a -6.1 VORP-being without his leather is a significant loss. Gomez leads all major league center fielders in both Range Factor, at 3.34, and Zone Rating, .939. He has also thrown out six runners, second in the AL to B.J. Upton's nine, and turned three double plays, more than any other center fielder. He has, in short, been a defensive maestro. Minnesota replaced Gomez over the weekend with Denard Span, who is outstanding himself in the outfield-his 3.02 Range Factor in right this season leads all fielders with at least 50 innings at the position. Span's transfer from right to center, however, leaves Jason Kubel to play in the corner, and major knee injuries have led to limited range afield for him. The Twins could also put Craig Monroe out there against lefties, but he has played just two games in right this season and is a below-average defender. Minnesota has not been a good defense team this season-its 68.5 percent defensive efficiency ranks them ahead of only Texas in the American League-so it can be argued that getting Gomez's circus act back in center is critical to the team even despite his unproductive bat.

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

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