August 5, 2008
Tuesday's Games to Watch
Today's Full Slate of
Matchup: Astros (54-57) at Cubs (67-46), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Wandy Rodriguez (92 1/3 IP, 4.48 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 83 K) vs. Rich Harden (101 1/3, 2.13, 1.09, 131)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 51-60 (484 RS, 529 RA); Chicago, 69-44 (593 RS, 461 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #24; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: First baseman Derrek Lee had an outstanding April, hitting .364/.437/.682, and it appeared that he might be off to another monster season similar to the one he had in 2005. Since the start of May, however, Lee has put up a 741 OPS, bringing his overall seasonal averages down to .289/.354/.479. In the National League this season that represents about average production for a first baseman: in fact, Lee's 833 OPS exactly equals the aggregate positional OPS in the senior circuit (.275/.359/.474, the best numbers from any position in either league), and Lee ranks right in the middle of the pack amongst NL first basemen by Marginal Lineup Value (MLV). The National League first base average is as high as it is this season thanks in large part to the work of Lee's opposing number in this series, as Lance Berkman leads all major leaguers in both MLV and VORP.
Lee has grounded into a career-high 22 double plays this season, one more than Vladimir Guerrero, for the major league lead, a sign that the 32-year-old's speed has slipped. If Lee keeps bouncing into twin killings at his current pace, he'll finish with 32 on the season, which would break the National League record of 30, set by catchers Brad Ausmus in 2002 and Ernie Lombardi in 1938. (The major league record is the 36 hit into by Jim Rice in 1984.) Lee has come to bat with 175 runners on first base, the fourth-highest total in the National League, which has certainly contributed to his double-play proficiency. Not surprisingly, he is also hitting a large number of ground balls-170 so far, against 122 flies. In contrast, during his career 2005 season Lee hit 192 grounders and 197 fly balls, 46 of which left the yard.
Matchup: Marlins (59-53) at Phillies (61-50), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Johnson (23 2/3 IP, 4.18 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Jamie Moyer (133, 3.99, 1.33, 84)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 54-58 (535 RS, 558 RA); Philadelphia, 63-48 (556 RS, 480 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: The 45-year-old Moyer will take the mound tonight looking to keep a remarkable streak going: he has made 10 starts in his career against Florida, and won them all, posting a 3.03 RA and 0.98 WHIP in 65 1/3 innings versus the Marlins. Three of those wins came this season. On June 1 he gave up five runs over seven innings at Citizens Bank, but won 7-5, and then turned in two quality starts against the Fish in Miami. Moyer beat Florida three times in September of '06, after he was traded from the Mariners to the Phillies, and then four more times last year. It would seem that the Marlins' collection of young, aggressive power hitters is simply not a good match for the crafty Moyer, who has been able to stymie them with an assortment of 81 mph fastballs and 74 mph changeups.
Moyer has only struck out nine Marlins this season in his three wins against them, but Florida has been fanning prodigiously against pretty much everyone else, especially lately. The Marlins struck out 20 times in their 12-inning 3-2 win over the Cubs on July 26, the second 20-strikeout game in the majors this year and the fourth since the start of 2005. Florida whiffed in double digits in seven of their eight games following that one, including a 14-strikeout showing in Saturday's win over Colorado. For the season, Florida is now up to a major league-leading 972 strikeouts, or 8.7 per game. In the last 50 years, no team has struck out that often, and just six other squads cracked the eight-per-game barrier over that stretch, all of which did so in the Aughties: the 2001 (8.6 K/G) and 2004 (8.1) Brewers, the 2003 and 2004 Reds (both 8.2), and the Devil Rays and Marlins last season (both 8.2). At their current pace, the Marlins will finish with seven more strikeouts than did the 2001 Brewers (who had 1,399 strikeouts) to set a new record.
Matchup: Tigers (55-56) at White Sox (61-49), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Nate Robertson (127 2/3 IP, 6.13 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 82 K) vs. Gavin Floyd (131 1/3, 4.59, 1.21, 89)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 57-54 (560 RS, 542 RA); Chicago, 61-49 (553 RS, 488 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #13; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: After four straight losses, Detroit's playoff hopes are looking increasingly unlikely. There is still over 30 percent of the season left to play, of course, but the Tigers' post-season chance is down to 6.5 percent, and with the Wild Card almost certain to come out of the AL East, they will need to overcome both the White Sox and Twins if they want to play in October. Tonight's game is the first of nine games that Detroit has remaining against those two teams (six versus Chicago), so the Tigers badly need a series win to stay relevant.
To get that win, the Detroit bullpen will have to shape up. Tigers relievers have compiled 1.7 wins above replacement level, the second-worst total in the majors next to the historically-bad Indians pen. Closer Todd Jones recently went on the shelf with tendonitis in his rotator cuff, and when asked by the Detroit Free Press if he feared that the injury would put his season in jeopardy, he responded "I'm fearful that my outings put my season in jeopardy." Jones might as well have been speaking for the whole relief corps, for he has hardly been the biggest or only problem: although the aging closer had an ugly 5.49 RA when he went down, Jones did manage to convert 21 of 24 save opportunities. Jim Leyland promoted Fernando Rodney to the closer role on July 27, and Rodney has given up at least one run in all four of his outings since, while blowing both of the save opportunities he had. Rodney has not been right since returning from the shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of the first half, as he has walked 16 in 18 1/3 innings after coming back. That lack of control has led to a WXRL of -0.93, the seventh lowest in the majors this season. Rodney came off the DL on the same day as his hard-throwing relief partner Joel Zumaya, who has also not yet been able to find his command, with 18 walks in 20 2/3 innings, suggesting that it is possible that the pair might have come back a bit too soon. Wildness has been the chief problem for the Detroit pen all season, which has allowed 4.9 BB/9, the highest rate in the American League. Chicago's pen, meanwhile, is giving up 3.2 BB/9, the fewest in the AL.
Matchup: Dodgers (56-55) at Cardinals (62-52), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (138 2/3 IP, 3.37 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 145 K) vs. Chris Carpenter (221 2/3, 3.29, 1.07, 184-2006)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 58-53 (464 RS, 438 RA); St. Louis, 60-54 (542 RS, 513 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; St. Louis, #14
Prospectus: Carpenter will be making the second start of his return from Tommy John surgery tonight, after he pitched four innings against Atlanta last Wednesday. The right-hander fared well considering it was his first major league mound duty since April 1, 2007, as he gave up a run on five hits, walking two and striking out two. Carpenter's command was clearly not yet fully recovered, as he threw just 36 of his 67 pitches for strikes (54 percent) before departing. During his three dominant seasons in St. Louis from 2004-06, the Cards' ace threw strikes on 65 percent of his deliveries. Carpenter's velocity was right where it used to be, however, as his fastball averaged 91.6 mph in the outing, essentially the same speed with which he threw several seasons ago. Tony La Russa says Carpenter will be on a slightly higher pitch count tonight than he was in his first start.
Carpenter will be trying for his first win since 2006, an effort that will be backed by an offense that has been carried of late by Ryan Ludwick. The 30-year-old right fielder has hit 11 homers in his last 24 games, and earned the National League Player of the Week honors by going 14-for-26 in the past seven games with four homers. Ludwick's recent surge has bumped his slugging percentage to a major league-best .614-not bad for a journeyman who entered this season with a .446 career slugging percentage in 704 big-league plate appearances. Ludwick also is second in the majors in Isolated Power, with a .308 figure, behind only Adam Dunn's .312. Joining Ludwick in the outfield the last eight games since Rick Ankiel strained an abdominal muscle has been 25-year-old rookie Joe Mather, another big right-handed slugger, who has three home runs and seven RBI in that stretch. A third-round draft pick out of high school back in 2001, Mather's play was largely a disappointment until last year, when he hit 31 homers combined between Double- and Triple-A. Mather has followed that up with his best season in '08, swatting 17 homers and a 1036 OPS at Springfield before earning a promotion to St. Louis, where he is slugging a solid .465.
Matchup: Twins (51-60) at Mariners (46-64), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Baker (102 IP, 3.53 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 89 K) vs. R.A. Dickey (81 2/3, 4.41, 1.52, 45)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 57-54 (500 RS, 488 RA); Seattle, 46-64 (425 RS, 511 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #15; Seattle, #26
Prospectus: The Mariners came from six runs down to beat the Twins last night and knock Minnesota from its sole position atop the AL Central. Seattle did so by scoring 10 runs in the seventh inning, the most it totaled in any frame since August 30, 2003, an outburst which prompted Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire to trenchantly observe after the game that "we got nobody out in the bullpen. Just terrible pitches. Balls flying around everywhere." Several of those balls flew off the bat of Raul Ibanez, who contributed a grand slam and a two-run single to the 10-run inning, breaking the franchise record for RBI in one frame (previously the five that Ken Griffey Jr. racked up on April 29, 1999). Ibanez has been deadly with the bags full for his career, as he now has seven grand slams and a .375/.391/.633 line in 127 bases-loaded plate appearances. The 36-year-old left fielder bumped his RBI total up to 73 this season for a team that has scored just 460 runs, a higher percentage of team runs batted in than every American League player save two, the Twins' Justin Morneau and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton. Ibanez has been remarkably consistent since he began his late career renaissance with the Royals, putting up an OBP between .345 and .355 in each of the eight seasons between '01 and '08 (and between .350 and .355 in each of his five seasons in Seattle). Ibanez has also hit between 31 and 37 doubles every year for the past seven seasons, and owns a slugging percentage of .476 with the Mariners, an impressive number given the tough hitting environment of Safeco Field. A free agent at the end of the season, Ibanez's steady production stands to earn him a sizable contract despite the high risk of a steep age-related decline in the next few seasons.
A member of the Mariners who has not been nearly as consistent as Ibanez is Dickey. Perhaps it's the fickle nature of the knuckleball that has made Dickey the flakiest pitcher on Seattle's staff, and the sixth-most up-and-down pitcher in the majors (minimum 80 innings). Dickey has made 10 starts, and five have been quality outings, in none of which he allowed more than two runs, while in the other five he has given up 29 runs in 22 2/3 innings.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.