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August 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Pirates (53-64) at Mets (62-55), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (133 1/3 IP, 5.54 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 63 K) vs. Pedro Martinez (56, 6.11, 1.55, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 51-66 (559 RS, 641 RA); New York, 62-55 (565 RS, 528 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #28; New York, #8
Prospectus: Today was originally scheduled to be an offday for the Mets, but they will instead make up their rained-out April 28th game with the Pirates. New York is in the midst of a 23-day stretch in which it plays every day, which began last Wednesday and will stretch to the 27th, ending with two road games against the rival Phillies. As the baseball cliché goes, these are the dog days of August.

The Mets could have maintained their position one game back of first place with a win yesterday, but they failed to sweep the Marlins, losing 8-2 in the series finale. David Wright knocked in one of those two runs, giving him 90 on the season. That puts him second in the NL behind Ryan Howard, and on pace to finish with 125 this year, which would just barely break the franchise record of 124 set by Mike Piazza in 1999. There have been a total of 376 runners on base during Wright's plate appearances, the second-highest total in the National League, behind the 386 that Garrett Atkins has had the chance to drive in, and Wright has knocked home 18 percent of those, the 21st-best mark amongst qualifiers. Nate McLouth, who has continued to play well for the Pirates after his strong beginning to the season, leads the National League in that category, having plated 21 percent of his baserunners by batting .309/.394/.586 with runners on, good for an OPS 166 points higher than his mark with the bags empty. The speedy outfielder started the season in the leadoff spot, but since the trades of Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, he's been hitting third for the Bucs, a position better suited for the increased power and run-producing ability he has shown this season.

Matchup: Cardinals (65-55) at Marlins (62-56), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joel Pineiro (110 2/3 IP, 5.12 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 53 K) vs. Anibal Sanchez (28 IP, 2.89 RA, 1.18 WHIP, 25 K-minors)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 63-57 (574 RS, 539 RA); Florida, 57-61 (560 RS, 578 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #12; Florida, #18
Prospectus: On Saturday night, Jorge Cantu hit his 20th home run of the year for Florida. With the two-run shot, the third baseman joined his teammates in the infield-shortstop Hanley Ramirez, second baseman Dan Uggla, and first baseman Mike Jacobs-at the 20-homer plateau, making Florida the only National League team in history to have all four of its infielders hit at least that many long balls. The Marlins became the sixth team overall to accomplish such a feat. The first five were the 1940 Red Sox (1B Jimmie Foxx, 2B Bobby Doerr, SS Joe Cronin, 3B Jim Tabor), the 1986 Tigers (1B Darrell Evans, 2B Lou Whitaker, SS Alan Trammell, 3B Darnell Coles), the 1996 Orioles (1B Rafael Palmeiro, 2B Roberto Alomar, SS Cal Ripken, 3B B.J. Surhoff), and the 2004 and 2005 Rangers (1B Mark Teixeira, 2B Alfonso Soriano, SS Michael Young, 3B Hank Blalock). That last group from Texas just missed out on having all four infielders hit 25, by one homer, as Michael Young finished the season with 24. All four hitting 25 is something that the Marlins have a real shot at accomplishing; all they need is five more home runs from Cantu, because Ramirez (25), Uggla (26), and Jacobs (25) are already there. Jacobs hit homers in back-to-back games over the weekend against his former team to reach the mark, going 5-for-7 with five runs and four RBI in the process. The first baseman is aware of the history that he and his teammates might make, as he told MLB.com following Cantu's 20th that "what we've talked about in here, off the bat is 25. Nobody has ever done that. That's something to be proud of."

Matchup: Yankees (63-55) at Twins (65-52), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Sidney Ponson (95 2/3 IP, 5.36 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Glen Perkins (102 2/3, 4.56, 1.47, 52)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 63-55 (569 RS, 528 RA); Minnesota, 62-55 (582 RS, 545 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #4; Minnesota, #14
Prospectus: Minnesota suffered the indignity of being beaten by a Tony Pena Jr. walk-off single in the 12th inning yesterday afternoon, which dropped the Twins back to a half-game behind Chicago in the AL Central. Minnesota failed to come through with the big hit in the latter innings, a situation in which they've succeeded more often than not this season. Minnesota's batting stats aren't terribly impressive-a .336 team OBP (seventh in the AL) and .408 slugging percentage (ninth)-but they've scored nearly five runs a game, the fifth-best average in the American League. That's thanks largely to the timeliness of their knocks: with runners in scoring position, the Twins as a team are hitting .312 (no other team is batting higher than .293), with a league-leading 846 OPS, compared to their hitting just .260/.311/.382 with none on. Justin Morneau has been the chief masher in such situations, having posted an 1141 OPS with runners primed to score. He also ranks second in the American League in RBI (91), having seen more runners on base than any other AL batter.

The Yankees have had much less luck with men in scoring position-a .259 batting average and 729 OPS-which explains why, despite a substantially-better overall line than the Twins (.272/.345/.425), New York has plated 13 fewer runs than Minnesota. The advanced metrics further reinforce the wide disparity in offensive fortune these two teams have encountered thus far. The Bombers' adjusted equivalent runs total (AEqR) is 595, or 26 more than their raw total, while Minnesota's is 546, or 36 less than their raw total-the largest positive gap in the American League. The Twins have been pitching a little over their heads as well (a more modest seven-run difference), and have outperformed their Pythagenport record (based on adjusted-equivalent runs) by 7.2 wins, the second-largest gap in the league next to Anaheim (a remarkable 11.5-win difference). By that accounting, the Yankees are at -2.7 wins.

Matchup: Red Sox (67-51) at White Sox (65-51), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (139 IP, 4.21 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 134 K) vs. John Danks (137 1/3, 3.34, 1.21, 112) Pythagorean Record: Boston, 70-48 (590 RS, 482 RA); Chicago, 64-52 (584 RS, 519 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: The two Sox finish their four-game set tonight with Chicago seeking its first win in a home series over Boston since 2002. In yesterday's 6-5 Red Sox loss, David Ortiz was hitless in three at-bats, striking out twice, which lowered his averages since returning from a wrist injury to .254/.338/.356 in 68 plate appearances. If Ortiz is healthy, his slump is of no more than mild concern, but the fear in Red Sox Nation is that the slugger's left wrist is not yet fully sound. Controversy over the joint came to the fore after Ortiz reported heard a "click" in his wrist last Monday, but that turned out to simply be an "irregularity" that was to be expected over the course of his comeback. Boston is still scoring plenty of runs-50 in its last eight games-despite the team's mounting injury issues, which include Mike Lowell's hip flexor problem and the sore left shoulder of Kevin Youkilis (which kept the first baseman out on Sunday). Lowell's injury has contributed to his hitting .188 with a 492 OPS in 90 plate appearances since the All-Star break, although the third baseman did break a homerless stretch of 121 plate appearances with a three-run blast in the first inning yesterday.

Dustin Pedroia picked up a double yesterday, hitting in his 29th straight road game, which is the longest road streak in franchise history since Tris Speaker also hit in 29 straight during the 1913 season. Pedroia's run on the road is the third longest this century, tied with Gary Sheffield (29 in 2002) behind Justin Morneau (34 in '06) and Derek Jeter (44 from '06 to '07). The road batting streak is more flukish than an overall streak, but it does serve to illustrate that Pedroia has not simply been a product of his home park-Boston's second baseman is batting .335 away from Fenway, the highest road average amongst American League batting-title qualifiers, and has a 908 road OPS, compared to 786 at home. Last season's Rookie of the Year campaign featured an opposite breakdown, with Pedroia putting up a 912 OPS at Fenway and 729 away from it-with those splits canceling out, Pedroia is having a very similar season this year to last. He is on pace to finish the campaign with 209 hits, which would be the most by a Red Sox batsman since Nomar Garciaparra notched 209 in 1997.

Matchup: Phillies (64-53) at Dodgers (58-59), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kyle Kendrick (127 2/3 IP, 4.93 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 59 K) vs. Derek Lowe (147, 4.59, 1.25, 107)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 66-51 (573 RS, 498 RA); Los Angeles, 61-56 (490 RS, 464 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #7; Los Angeles, #13
Prospectus: The baseball deities were cruel to Los Angeles this past weekend, as they surely had a hand in the majors' best bullpen (by ARP) blowing final at-bat leads to the second-worst offense in the game on back-to-back days. Two of the toughest relievers in the senior circuit were victimized while trying to hold one-run advantages-first Jonathan Broxton and then Hong-Chih Kuo-and now the Dodgers are below .500 again and a game and a half behind Arizona in the West.

The good news, however, is that Joe Torre might well have read Joe Sheehan's column on Juan Pierre and the Dodgers' leadoff spot the other day ("Leadoff Follies in LA"), for in the last six games Pierre has started just once, with Matt Kemp hitting at the top of the order on those other five occasions. If the Ramirez trade not only gets his prodigious bat into the order but also leads to Torre playing Andre Ethier more often than Pierre, it will prove to be a doubly-productive maneuver.

From the Bureau of Miscellaneous Trivialities comes this important bulletin: tonight's game will feature two players wearing jersey number 99, Ramirez for Los Angeles and So Taguchi for Philadelphia. From the limited amount of research available on the topic, there have only been five major league players to wear the number, with the other three being the Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, with the 1993 pennant-winning Phillies; Turk Wendell, the eccentric relief pitcher with the 2000 pennant-winning Mets; and former Blue Jays slugger Cliff Johnson. In loopy disposition, Wendell was an original--he wore a necklace made of the teeth of animals he had killed, always leaped over the foul line, and slammed the rosin bag to the ground after its use. (In his younger minor league days, Wendell pursued an even more unique routine, which included waving to his center fielder before beginning to pitch and brushing his teeth between innings.) Wendell and Williams both wore 99 after Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn, the hero of the 1989 movie Major League, and Wendell even went so far as to sign a contract for $9,999,999. Manny was compelled by a different reason, according to the Boston Globe--with his first choices all unavailable, he chose 99 upon consultation with his barber. Incidentally, Ramirez has not yet had his hair cut to his old-school skipper's specifications.

Thanks to Derek Jacques for research assistance.

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

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