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August 4, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (53-57) at Blue Jays (55-56), 6:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (127 IP, 4.25 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Roy Halladay (167 1/3, 3.17, 1.04, 141)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 58-52 (454 RS, 427 RA); Toronto, 59-52 (475 RS, 446 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #12; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: Athletics left fielder Jack Cust walked twice and also struck out once in yesterday's 5-2 loss to Boston. Cust now has 79 walks on the year, tying him with Reds left fielder Adam Dunn for the major league lead. He's also struck out 139 times, tops in the junior circuit and trailing only Ryan Howard's 144 among all major leaguers. Cust's league lead in strikeouts looks to be safe; the next-highest hitter in the AL is Carlos Pena, with 110. The walks category is a bit more contested, as B.J. Upton is just five behind, with 74 free passes. If Cust does hang on to the lead in bases on balls, he'll become the ninth player in major league history to pace his league in those two of the three true outcomes, a feat which has been accomplished 11 times:


Player         Team    Year    BB   K
Jason Giambi    NYA    2003   129  140
Jim Thome       CLE    1999   127  171
Dale Murphy     ATL    1985    90  141
Mike Schmidt    PHI    1983   128  148
Mickey Mantle   NYA    1958   129  120
Dolph Camilli   BRO    1939   110  107
Hack Wilson     CHN    1930   105   84
Babe Ruth       NYA    1928   137   87
                       1927   137   89
                       1924   142   81
                       1923   170   93

Interestingly, in the most recent four such seasons the player had more strikeouts than walks (five, counting Cust), as opposed to the first seven, in which the player had more walks than strikeouts, thanks largely to Ruth's dominance. That trend also jibes with the rising number of strikeouts in the modern era. Cust's season does not fit in with the rest-his .228 batting average is preventing him from producing as well as he did last year, when he posted a 912 OPS, but the lefty slugger's patience and pop still make him the best offensive player (.290 EqA) on a run-starved Oakland club (an AL-worst .246 EqA, 28th in the majors).

Cust will have a tough time working a free pass against Halladay, who has surrendered just 1.5 BB/9, and 1.3 BB/9 when you take out his three intentional bases on balls. (Halladay has however hit 10 batters, the second most in the AL and already a single-season career high.) Halladay shut the Athletics down in an eight-inning, one-run performance on May 28, walking just one in that game, although Cust did touch the Toronto ace for three singles in the Oakland loss.

Matchup: Indians (48-62) at Rays (66-44), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (146 2/3 IP, 2.70 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 125 K) vs. Matt Garza (124, 3.92, 1.21, 80)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 55-55 (511 RS, 509 RA); Tampa Bay, 60-50 (494 RS, 443 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #20; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: The Indians' offense has been a one-man band all season long, with Grady Sizemore playing heartily on the deck as the ship sinks to the bottom. Sizemore has compiled a VORP of 53.6, exactly double the total of any other Cleveland bat-Jhonny Peralta is second at 26.8. With 27 home runs and 27 steals, Sizemore is on track to reach 40 in both categories, which would make him the fifth 40-40 player in baseball history, joining Alfonso Soriano (46 HR/41 SB in 2006), Alex Rodriguez (42/46 in '98), Barry Bonds (42/40 in '96), and Jose Canseco (42/40 in '88). Even if Sizemore falls short of that elite feat, he is a near lock to have the best power/speed season in franchise history: the only Indians player to reach 30/30 was Joe Carter in 1987, who had 32 long balls and 31 steals. Sizemore has stolen bases at a 90 percent success rate, and is just about the only Indian doing any running, as Jamey Carroll ranks second on the squad with six stolen bases, and Cleveland is 12th in the American League with 53 swipes. The Rays have more than double that total, 113, as they lead the majors by a comfortable margin in the category.

Tampa Bay picked up a thrilling victory yesterday afternoon against the Tigers, erasing deficits twice and scoring two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning to walk away with a 5-4 win. Capped by a bases-loaded walk of Carlos Pena, the comeback earned a win for Trever Miller, who'd come on to record the final two outs of the tenth inning after Troy Percival blew his third save of the year. Miller's victory snapped the pitcher's streak of 121 straight games pitched without a decision, dating back to last April 6th, which is a major league record. The previous mark had been held by Bobby Seay, who pitched in 116 consecutive games without a decision from 2001-2007. Remarkably, Miller is also fourth on the list (since 1956), with an 87-game streak from 2004-05. In neither stretch did the lefty specialist come close to pitching as many innings as games in which he appeared, which does much to explain the lack of decisions. This season, Miller has pitched less than one inning in 32 of 45 games.

Matchup: Yankees (61-50) at Rangers (58-54), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Joba Chamberlain (84 1/3 IP, 2.56 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 99 K) vs. Vicente Padilla (127 1/3, 5.15, 1.44, 84) Pythagorean Record: New York, 61-50 (538 RS, 483 RA); Texas, 54-58 (631 RS, 662 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Texas, #19
Prospectus: Chamberlain has a 2.67 RA in his 11 starts, and hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of them. He goes up against a formidable Rangers offense in one of the toughest places to pitch tonight, although recent injuries have weakened the potency of the Texas attack. The Rangers have been worn down to their third string at third base, as shoulder issues have knocked out both the chronically-disabled Hank Blalock (back on the 15-day DL for the second time this season) and Ramon Vazquez (day-to-day after leaving Friday's game), forcing the team to turn to Travis Metcalf, who had a 648 OPS at Triple-A Oklahoma this season. Milton Bradley has also missed the last five games with a quadriceps injury, which has threatened to put the All-Star on the DL for the first time this season, while shortstop Michael Young is playing through a fractured finger suffered in last Monday's game. Young's injury seems to be affecting his play, for he's had just three hits in 22 at-bats since suffering the fracture, seriously endangering the shortstop's chance at extending his streak of 200-hit campaigns to six. Young's Yankees counterpart, Derek Jeter, is even more of a long shot to continue his own 200-hit season streak of three; with 118 hits the New York captain is on pace for 172. As Rany Jazayerli uncovered in the offseason, Jeter is the only shortstop in baseball history other than Young to have 200 hits in three straight seasons, and he has two separate such streaks, the first coming from 1998-2000.

The Yankees pulled out a wild 14-9 victory yesterday in Anaheim, rallying from five runs down against John Lackey and, aided by four Angels errors, scoring nine unearned runs off of the bullpen. Bobby Abreu contributed three hits and a walk to the cause, continuing his post-break surge. In his first full season with the Yankees last year, Abreu hit for a 918 OPS after the All-Star Game after putting up a 723 in the first half, and to this point he is producing a similar split in 2008: the Bombers' right fielder hit .274/.345/.436 before the break, and is at.387/.472/.742 in 72 plate appearances since.

Matchup: Orioles (53-57) at Angels (69-42), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dennis Sarfate (54 IP, 4.67 RA, 1.46 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Joe Saunders (139 2/3, 3.54, 1.15, 68)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 53-57 (537 RS, 555 RA); Los Angeles, 60-51 (513 RS, 467 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #21; Los Angeles, #5
Prospectus: Saunders is one of three pitchers searching for his major league-leading 15th win tonight, along with Aaron Cook and Cliff Lee. The 27-year-old lefty is having a fascinating season for the best team in baseball, as he is succeeding despite an unimpressive strikeout rate-just 4.4 K/9, the sixth-lowest mark amongst AL qualifiers. If Saunders reaches 20 wins, he would become the first pitcher to attain that total with a K/9 of less than 4.5 since Bill Gullickson did it in 1991, when he won 20 for the Tigers with just 3.6 K/9. Due to the rising trend in strikeouts that accompanied the early-'90s expansion era of high offense, the staff ace with a sub-par strikeout rate has become a thing of the past. In the 1970s, when the major league strikeout rate was much lower than it is now, there were 23 individual seasons of 20 wins from pitchers with fewer than 4.5 K/9. In the 1980s, that number fell to five. (Pitchers of all stripes won 20 games more often in the '70s, of course, because starters carried much heavier workloads then.) Saunders is having a throwback season, succeeding because of an excellent walk rate (2.5 BB/9) and a .244 BABIP, which is the sixth-lowest in the majors amongst qualifying pitchers.

The Angels return home tonight after a 10-game road trip, their longest of the season, in which they went 7-3. Fans at the Big A will be able to get their first look at newly-acquired Mark Teixeira in Halos home whites, a sight that they might not be able to enjoy for more than the next three months. With Scott Boras charting his course, the 28-year-old Teixeira is in line for a huge windfall in free agency after the season, and one of the long-rumored destinations for the switch-hitting slugger is Baltimore. Teixeira grew up in Maryland as an Orioles fan, and has said in the past how much he would enjoy playing for his hometown team. Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar will be a free agent after the season, and the 36-year-old has begun his campaign for a new contract by hitting .327/.426/.654 over his last 61 plate appearances.

Matchup: Braves (51-60) at Giants (46-64), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (132 1/3 IP, 3.47 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 96 K) vs. Matt Cain (148 1/3, 3.94, 1.27, 138)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 57-54 (500 RS, 488 RA); San Francisco, 46-64 (425 RS, 511 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #17; San Francisco, #27
Prospectus: Of the two hard-throwing young right-handers facing off tonight, Cain has pitched better of late after a sub-par first few months, with a 2.99 RA in his last 10 starts. However, he only has six wins on the season, or about four fewer than what his performance has deserved, as measured by E(W). Just like last season, Cain is receiving very little run support from the San Francisco offense. The Giants have put up a paltry 3.9 runs per game this season, but in Cain's starts have averaged exactly three, which is actually lower than what he received last season (3.2) when he went 6-17 despite a 3.78 RA. Over his last four starts, the Giants have scored just three runs total, but Cain still managed to win one of those games by shutting out the Nationals 1-0 on July 24. Jurrjens, meanwhile, is being backed by over two runs per contest more by the Braves offense (5.1 R/G) than what Cain has gotten thus far.

A large part of that dearth of runs for Cain is San Francisco's complete lack of home-run power. Yesterday's 3-1 loss to San Diego was the 11th game in a row in which the Giants did not hit a home run, a stretch where they are slugging .287 as a team. For the season, the Giants are stuck on 61 homers, 17 fewer than the teams tied for the next-lowest total (the Dodgers, Twins, and Blue Jays). San Francisco's middle infield is especially powerless; since the trade of second baseman Ray Durham to the Brewers on July 20, the Giants have rotated rookies Ivan Ochoa, Emmanuel Burriss, and Eugenio Velez through the second base and shortstop positions, three players who have yet to hit a major league home run. Velez has the most power of the three, as he owns a slugging percentage of .450 with 28 homers over six seasons in the minors, while Burriss has hit just one long ball in 1,076 plate appearances since he was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft. Between Burriss, Ochoa, Omar Vizquel, and Brian Bocock, Giants shortstops have not hit a single homer this season-the only position on any team to not produce one so far-and have slugged just .251.

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

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