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August 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cardinals (64-53) at Cubs (69-46), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Braden Looper (134 1/3 IP, 4.62 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Ted Lilly (140 2/3, 4.54, 1.34, 129)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 62-55 (558 RS, 527 RA); Chicago, 71-44 (615 RS, 472 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #12; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: Tonight's clash of two old rivals will bring together two very different pitching staffs. The Cardinals rank last in the National League with 664 strikeouts, and last in the majors with a 5.6 K/9, which would be the lowest rate since the 2005 Mariners (also at 5.6 K/9). The Cubs pitching staff has struck out a total of 890 batters, the most in the majors, and 200 more than has St. Louis. San Francisco is right on Chicago's heels, however, at 889 (7.9 K/9) with two fewer games played, a shade better than the 7.7 K/9 of the Cubs.

If the Cubs do finish behind the young Giants staff in strikeouts, it will mark the end of a North Side dynasty. Chicago has ranked first in the majors in seven straight seasons, from 2001 to 2007, setting an all-time record in the process-the 1,404 K's racked up by the Prior-Wood Cubs of 2003. (The Cubs matched the Dodgers' streak of seven straight years leading the majors from 1957-63; Brooklyn/LA also led the NL 16 consecutive seasons from 1948-63.) Chicago's feat is a remarkable one in the era of free agency, with so much player movement year-to-year-the only two pitchers who have been on the staff for that entire period are Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. Ted Lilly has been a big part of the Cubs' strikeout machine the past two years, and this season he's second on the squad to Ryan Dempster in total strikeouts, posting his best K/9 mark (8.3) since the 8.4 he put up in 2001. Lilly and Co. are also pitching in front of an excellent defense, as the Cubs now rank first in the NL in percentage of balls in play turned into outs at 70.7, their highest figure since the 1992 season. Playing such great defense in front of a staff that strikes out so many batters is clearly a recipe for domination. The Cubs' defense has been steadily improving since the turn of the century: when the team began its strikeout run it was a poor defensive unit, posting efficiencies below 69 percent in 2001 and 2002, but then Chicago improved three straight years from '02 to '05, before topping the 70-percent mark last season (70.2 percent), when it also led the senior circuit.

Thanks to Jay Jaffe and William Burke for research assistance.

Matchup: Indians (49-64) at Blue Jays (59-56), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Anthony Reyes (65 2/3 IP, 3.43 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 55 K--AAA) vs. David Purcey (18 1/3, 8.35, 1.69, 11)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 56-57 (527 RS, 529 RA); Toronto, 62-53 (496 RS, 455 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #20; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: Reyes will make his first start for Cleveland tonight after coming over in a trade-deadline deal with the Cardinals for minor league right-hander Luis Perdomo. A former star pitcher at USC, Reyes made it to the majors after two strong seasons in the St. Louis chain, and actually started Game One of the 2006 World Series, pitching eight innings of two-run ball to beat Justin Verlander. It looked like that would be the start of a long and successful career in the St. Louis rotation, but Reyes was cuffed around for a 6.46 RA in 22 games the next season, and quickly fell completely out of the team's favor (and that of pitching coach Dave Duncan, with whom Reyes reportedly did not get along). It seems, then, that Reyes would be near the top of the list of players who would benefit from a change of scenery, and the Indians will put that to the test starting tonight. The right-hander pitched well in his two starts for Cleveland's Triple-A team in Buffalo, allowing four runs over 13 innings, after putting up a 3.59 RA and 1.37 WHIP in 11 starts for Triple-A Springfield.

Reyes will likely be throwing to catcher Kelly Shoppach, who has assumed the primary catcher duties after Victor Martinez went down in mid-June. Shoppach has been fantastic in his first chance to play regularly for the Tribe, stepping in as Grady Sizemore's much-needed offensive sidekick. In an extra-inning loss to Detroit last week, Shoppach hit two home runs and doubled three times to tie the major league record for extra-base hits in a game. For the season his 0.21 MLVr is better than all on the team save Sizemore's 0.26, and ranks him fourth amongst major league catchers, behind only Ryan Doumit (0.34), Brian McCann (0.33), and Joe Mauer (0.21). Shoppach has not been nearly as good behind the plate, as he has thrown out just four of the 27 runners attempting to steal against him (15 percent), and his 74/17 K/BB ratio isn't very pretty, but it's clear that the former backup has more than enough power to be one of the best-hitting catchers in the league for the next several years. Considering how bad Tribe first baseman Ryan Garko has been (.239/.311/.348), Cleveland might want to consider working Martinez and Shoppach in at the position to get both their bats into the lineup card regularly when Martinez returns in late August.

Matchup: Red Sox (66-49) at White Sox (63-50), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (146 1/3 IP, 3.32 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 101 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (148 1/3, 4.73, 1.34, 84)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 68-47 (576 RS, 469 RA); Chicago, 63-50 (571 RS, 505 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: The two Sox square off for the first time this season tonight in the start of a big four-game series at U.S. Cellular Field. The best home run-hitting team in the majors this season will look to pop a few out of the power-friendly Cell against Lester, something that not many teams have been able to do this season. Lester's outstanding campaign-he leads the defending champs with an SNLVAR of 3.9-has been fueled primarily by an enormous drop in home run rate: last season the lefty gave up 10 in 63 innings, or 1.4 per nine, while this year he has allowed just 10 in well over twice the number of frames, 0.6 per nine. From 2006-07, his first two big league seasons, Lester's ground ball/fly ball ratio was under one, but this season he has bumped it to 1.45, having generated 220 ground balls against 152 flies. Lester has won his last seven decisions, pushing his record to 10-3 this season and 21-5 for his career. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci recently uncovered that Lester's .808 winning percentage is the best of any pitcher in history with at least 25 decisions. Of course, the Red Sox have supported their youngster admirably at every turn, averaging 6.1 runs per game in his 15 starts during his rookie season, 6.1 R/G in his 12 games last year, and 5.7 R/G in his 23 so far in '08. Lester has had a historic beginning; as Verducci points out, the 24-year-old is the only pitcher under the age of 25 to both throw a no-hitter and win the deciding game of a World Series.

The White Sox will be looking for a little vengeance tonight, for the last time Boston visited Chicago it swept a four-game series from the Pale Hose, and did so in demoralizing fashion: 11-3, 10-1, 14-2, and 11-1, for a total tally of 46-7. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Boston's massacre of the White Sox was the fourth time since 1900 that a team had scored at least 10 runs in each game of a four-game series, and the first time it happened in the AL in 85 years, since the 1922 St. Louis Browns. Boston has not lost a series at U.S. Cellular Field since 2002.

Matchup: Yankees (63-52) at Angels (71-43), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ian Kennedy (37 2/3 IP, 7.65 RA, 1.75 WHIP, 26 K) vs. Jered Weaver (129 2/3, 4.58, 1.30, 101) Pythagorean Record: New York, 63-52 (528 RS, 479 RA); Los Angeles, 62-52 (485 RS, 450 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #4; Los Angeles, #6
Prospectus: Kennedy has pitched very well for Triple-A Scranton of late, and the Yankees will call him up today to replace Joba Chamberlain in the rotation. New York's first-round pick in 2006 has not appeared in the majors since May 27, when he went down with both a strained lat muscle and bursitis in his shoulder. The 23-year-old right-hander holds a 2.33 RA and 0.91 WHIP in 46 1/3 innings at Scranton this year, and over his last four starts for the Red Barons allowed just five runs in 27 innings, with a 20/5 K/BB ratio. That strong control is a good sign for the Yankees, because walks are what killed Kennedy during his rough first two months in the Bronx: he handed out 25 free passes in 37 2/3 innings of work, leading to a 7.65 RA. Kennedy had a 3.1 BB/9 spread over three minor league levels last year, his first full professional season, a figure which fared poorly in translation: PECOTA predicted the 2006 first-rounder's command problems this year, with a weighted-mean projection of 4.4 BB/9. Kennedy is the rare pitcher who combines a strong fly-ball profile with very low home-run rates, a profile that could make him a solid middle-rotation starter should the command fall more into place. Last season he allowed six homers in 146 1/3 innings, or less than 0.4/9, and this year opponents hit only three against him in 54 1/3 minor league frames (0.5/9), but he was touched for five in his nine appearances with the big club at the start of the year.

Both Kennedy and Weaver are natives of Southern California who stayed near home to play their college ball: Kennedy at USC, and Weaver at Long Beach State. Weaver is two years older than Kennedy, but their college careers overlapped by one season, 2004. They met once that year, and Weaver, then a junior, beat the freshman Kennedy by allowing one run in seven innings while striking out 14 in a 3-1 Long Beach victory. Weaver struck out 13.3 men per nine innings that season in 144 frames, leading the NCAA, and he fanned 11/9 IP in his 164 innings in the minors. So far those lofty strikeout totals have not translated to the top level, however, for Weaver has struck out 7/9 IP over the course of his three big league seasons.

Matchup: Dodgers (57-57) at Giants (48-65), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Brad Penny (85 2/3 IP, 6.09 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Barry Zito (116 2/3, 6.09, 1.74, 76)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 60-54 (478 RS, 454 RA); San Francisco, 47-66 (436 RS, 526 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; San Francisco, #27
Prospectus: While the commissioner's office investigates the circumstances surrounding Manny Ramirez's trade from Boston, the mercurial left fielder keeps on crushing the ball for his new team. Ramirez added another homer yesterday in the Dodgers' 4-1 victory over St. Louis, and is now batting .565 (13-for-23) with four jacks in his six games with Los Angeles. Tonight he'll be attempting to support Penny, who returns after over a month and a half spent on the shelf with shoulder tendinitis. Los Angeles is hoping that it won't get the bad Penny, who was lit up for most of the season's beginning, although his exceedingly-poor early-season returns were almost certainly the result of injury, since Penny has been an outstanding first-half pitcher throughout his Dodgers tenure. Penny appears to be fully recovered now, since he had a strong rehab start for Triple-A Las Vegas last Saturday, throwing 44 of 55 pitches for strikes and hitting 98 mph on the radar gun. That was the only rehab start he has made, however, and given the low number of pitches thrown, it's questionable how long he'll be able to last in tonight's outing.

Penny rejoins a Dodgers staff that leads the National League with a 3.98 RA. The team's bullpen has been especially strong, and has hardly been affected at all by the absence of closer Takashi Saito, who went down in mid-July. Los Angeles leads the major leagues with an ARP total of 64.1, nearly 10 runs better than the next-best team, Toronto. San Francisco has the second-lowest ARP in the National League, -8.3, and the gap in wins between the two clubs' relief performance has been around six, as measured by WXRL (9.7 for LA to 3.7 for SF). Brian Wilson has been far from untouchable in the closer role for the Giants-he went through a month-long stretch from late June to late July where he allowed nine runs in 10 2/3 innings, and sports a 4.17 yearly RA-but he has still managed to rack up 4.1 wins above replacement, second in the NL behind Brad Lidge, thanks to a streak of 23-straight save opportunities converted and 32 of 34 cashed in overall. The rest of the Giants pen has been far less effective in crucial situations, combining for a sub replacement-level performance.

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

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