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August 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (61-47) at Royals (50-60), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (144 IP, 4.38 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 83 K) vs. Kyle Davies (58, 4.66, 1.60, 30)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 62-46 (543 RS, 465 RA); Kansas City, 47-63 (456 RS, 532 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Kansas City, #23
Prospectus: Ken Griffey Jr., one of three future Hall of Famers to be traded at this year's deadline, made his White Sox debut in center field last night, going 2-for-3 with two RBI in Chicago's 4-2 win. In terms of offensive production, as Christina Kahrl discussed, trading for Griffey was a good move for the south siders. Griffey's presence will serve to bring some balance to the White Sox lineup, for Chicago has received fewer plate appearances from left-handed batters this season (28.1 percent of their total through Thursday) than any other American League team. (Detroit, one of the teams chasing the White Sox, is also overly right-handed at 28.7 percent.) Griffey's bat had perked up lately; he hit .271/.386/.541 in 101 plate appearances in July, a significant improvement over Paul Konerko (who he'll likely be replacing in the lineup most days) who hit .209/.274/.284 in 67 PA for the month after his return from the disabled list. Griffey currently stands at 608 home runs, and with two more will pass North Side legend Sammy Sosa and move into fifth place all time. Between Griffey and Jim Thome, the White Sox now have two of the six greatest left-handed home-run hitters of all time in their regular lineup.

Of course, the biggest issue regarding the newly-pinstriped Griffey is his defense, for the White Sox plan to employ a 38-year-old in center field, where he hasn't played since 2006, and where he has not even been average (by Range Factor) since 2000. General Manager Kenny Williams isn't concerned about Griffey's play at the position, and he stated on Thursday that "Center field is actually the easiest of the outfield positions to play from a health perspective...we feel he's going to give us at least what we were getting out there. Remember, we didn't have the prototypical guy out there in the first place." Williams' assertion is backed up by the numbers: the White Sox got a collective 2.20 Range Factor from their center fielders (Nick Swisher, Bryan Anderson, DeWayne Wise, and Alexei Ramirez) before Griffey's arrival, the lowest of any team in the majors at the position. The bar Griffey will attempt to clear has been set pretty low then, although that alone does not justify the move.

Matchup: Athletics (53-55) at Red Sox (62-48), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dana Eveland (123 IP, 3.95 RA, 1.46 WHIP, 83 K) vs. Jon Lester (139 1/3, 3.36, 1.32, 96)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 59-49 (450 RS, 410 RA); Boston, 63-47 (540 RS, 457 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #12; Boston, #2
Prospectus: Red Sox fans got their first look at Jason Bay manning the monster last night, and greeted the team's new left fielder with a lengthy standing ovation before his first at-bat, in which he walked and later scored. It turned out to be a memorable debut for the former Pirates star, who ended up recording Boston's second (and winning) run as well: Bay hit a wall-ball triple with two outs and none on in the bottom of the 12th inning, then came in to score on Jed Lowrie's infield single. The Oakland loss soured what was another excellent performance by sidearming right-hander Brad Ziegler, who turned in two more scoreless innings to up his major league-record streak of shutout frames to open a career to 32. (The previous record was 25 innings, held by George McQuillan of the Phillies in 1907.) Ziegler also holds the record since 1956 for consecutive scoreless appearances to start a career with 25, surpassing the 22 clean outings in a row that situational left-hander Matt Smith posted for the Yankees and Phillies in 2006.

The A's carried over into August the offensive futility they displayed in July, which explains why Ziegler's shutdown showings haven't led to many Oakland wins. In their 25 games last month, the Athletics hit .235/.302/.346 and averaged 3.4 runs per game, leading to an 8-17 record. It wasn't that the hitters suffered a depression which bled into their bats following Beane's unloading of Rich Harden and Joe Blanton while Oakland was still close to the Angels in the AL West. The fade has been an accurate valuation of the team's true talent level-it is really the offense, and not the pitching, that has led to the A's recent swoon. Oakland was getting lucky early in the season: it managed to score 4.4 per game from April through June despite a 703 team OPS. Oakland did get Frank Thomas back yesterday following more than a two-month absence due to a quad injury, which should certainly help out. Thomas was the Athletics' best offensive force in the 108 plate appearances before he went down, and will add some badly-needed power, for Oakland ranks last in the American League in slugging, being led by the .437 mark of Jack Cust.

Matchup: Phillies (59-50) at Cardinals (62-50), 6:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (135 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Braden Looper (127 1/3, 4.74, 1.40, 61) Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 62-47 (549 RS, 475 RA); St. Louis, 59-53 (537 RS, 506 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #8; St. Louis, #14
Prospectus: Blanton has not been greeted kindly by the National League, giving up five runs over six innings versus the Mets in his Philadelphia debut, then allowing two more in the first two innings versus Atlanta last Sunday before a lengthy rain delay. The big right-hander did manage to keep alive a remarkable streak though: no baserunner has stolen a bag off of Blanton in his last 175 2/3 innings pitched, stretching back to August 25 of '07, when the then-Devil Rays' Brendan Harris swiped second base against him. Blanton has made 28 starts since then, with the only runner attempting to steal against him during that span being Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who was gunned down by A's catcher Kurt Suzuki in the fourth inning on April 16. Assuming this phenomenon is not simply the result of blind chance-which it could be-Blanton's efforts to control the running game are impressive considering that he's right-handed, and with a 1.44 WHIP this season he's had plenty of runners on base with the chance to steal. Blanton did not display this ability in past seasons, as opposing baserunners were successful on 40 of 50 attempted steals over the previous three years. Blanton is joined by Roy Oswalt this season as the only two qualifying pitchers yet to allow a stolen base. (Oswalt, who also pitches today, has had just one attempt against him in 121 1/3 innings.) Since 1956, the first year for which data is available, there have been 12 pitchers that did not allow a stolen base while qualifying for the ERA title. (Whitey Ford is the only one to record more than one such season, and he amazingly accomplished the feat four times.) Of those 12, just three were right-handed: Chris Carpenter (2004), Luis Tiant (1968), and Carl Erskine (1956), so Blanton (and Oswalt as well) could be in line to join a select group.

Matchup: Rockies (50-61) at Marlins (58-52), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Valerio de los Santos (60 1/3 IP, 5.52 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 54 K-Triple-A) vs. Ricky Nolasco (134 2/3, 4.28, 1.23, 104)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 50-61 (517 RS, 571 RA); Florida, 53-57 (528 RS, 552 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #22; Florida, #18
Prospectus: Not to be confused with Jorge de la Rosa, his teammate in the Rockies rotation, or Eulogio De La Cruz, who pitched earlier this season for the Marlins, de los Santos will make his second start of the season tonight since getting recalled from Triple-A Colorado Springs. A career reliever, de los Santos had pitched in 233 major league games, yet started just two of those before this season. The left-hander is seeing his first major league action since 2005 when he was with Florida. Unfortunately, what is likely the most memorable occurrence of de los Santos's major league career took place on July 9 of that season, when he faced a Cubs outfielder named Adam Greenberg who was making his big-league debut, and accidentally hit the rookie with a fastball in the back of the head with the first-and to this point, only-pitch he ever saw in the majors. (Greenberg spent the rest of the season on the disabled list with post-concussive syndrome, and is now in the Angels system playing for Double-A Arkansas.) After pitching in the White Sox organization in '06, de los Santos spent last year with the Sultanes de Monterrey of the Mexican League, before signing with Colorado in the offseason. He gave up only two runs to the Pirates in his first start last Monday, but six walks forced him from the game after four innings.

In last night's rare Rockies road victory, lead-off hitter Willy Taveras, he of the .310 OBP, got on base three times and stole two more bases. Taveras now has 50 steals, a prodigious total considering he has spent time on the DL this season, and he's just three away from the franchise single-season record set by Eric Young in 1996. What's especially remarkable about the center fielder's baserunning is that he has been caught just four times so far, giving him a success rate of 92.6 percent. If Taveras maintains that ratio, it would be the best since 1956 by a player with at least 50 steals in a season. Here are the 10 best 50-steal campaigns by SB% in the past 50 years:

YEAR PLAYER           SB   CS     %
2008 Willy Taveras    50    4    92.6
1980 Jerry Mumphrey   52    5    91.2
1995 Barry Larkin     51    5    91.1
1987 Tim Raines       50    5    90.1
1997 Tony Womack      60    7    89.6
1987 Eric Davis       50    6    89.3
1985 Rickey Henderson 80   10    88.9
1962 Maury Wills      104  13    88.9
1980 Willie Wilson    79   10    88.8
1985 Tim Raines       70    9    88.6

Matchup: Diamondbacks (57-52) at Dodgers (54-55), 7:40 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Yusmeiro Petit (24 2/3 IP, 3.28 RA, 0.85 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (116 2/3, 4.94, 1.32, 69)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 58-51 (493 RS, 464 RA); Los Angeles, 57-52 (451 RS, 433 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #9; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: After he gave up 45 runs in his past 42 innings dating back to May 30, Micah Owings was sent to Triple-A Tucson and replaced with Petit, who has been effective this season out of the bullpen, and who allowed just a run in each of his two spot starts. Petit pitched better than his RA indicates at Tucson this year, as his impressive 67/8 K/BB ratio and 1.20 WHIP belie the 4.80 RA he compiled there in 60 innings. The problem for Petit, however, is the long ball-he gave up seven for the Sidewinders, and 19 in 83 1/3 major league innings entering this season. The right-hander is a Snake that relies upon deception: Petit's fastball sidles up to the plate at only an average of 86 mph, but he hides the ball extremely well and has great movement on his pitches. The 2008 BP Annual pointed out that scouts don't love Petit's potential, while statistical mavens see an undervalued asset. Still just 23, he's been traded twice in the last three years (first by the Mets along with Mike Jacobs for Carlos Delgado, and then by the Marlins to Arizona for Jorge Julio), so it's clear that there are substantially varying degrees of belief in his arsenal amongst major league organizations. Regardless, Petit certainly deserves this shot to show what he can do, and the right-hander comes with the added bonus of already having an outstanding nickname at the ready for when he joins Randy Johnson in the Arizona rotation.

Despite the fact that they lost Manny Ramirez's first-ever game at Chavez Ravine and fell three games behind Arizona, last night showed promise for LA when Joe Torre elected to start his right-handed outfielders (Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andruw Jones) against the lefty Johnson, putting Kemp in the leadoff spot instead of Juan Pierre. Since Rafael Furcal went down in early May, it was just the second game in which Pierre was active and did not lead off, the other coming on Wednesday against lefty Jonathan Sanchez. It can be strongly argued that Jones should be sitting no matter the handedness of the opposing pitcher, but the fact that Torre has shown a willingness to play matchups and not always pencil in Pierre at the top spot is an encouraging development for LA.

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

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