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August 16, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Angels (75-45) at Indians (55-66), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: John Lackey (114 1/3 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 90 K) vs. Fausto Carmona (77, 5.38, 1.64, 35)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 66-54 (569 RS, 507 RA); Cleveland, 61-60 (570 RS, 565 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #5; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: Last year, Lackey and Carmona finished first and second among AL starters in SNLVAR, and three/four in the American League Cy Young voting behind CC Sabathia and Josh Beckett. This year each has dealt with injuries, but while Lackey put his trouble (a triceps issue) solidly behind him after starting the year on the DL, Carmona's hip problem appears to have lingered; the right-hander has allowed 24 runs in 19 innings with a 12/13 K/BB ratio in four starts since returning from the DL. Carmona's K/BB on the season is now an unhappy 35/51. In this decade there have been just two other pitchers to post a K/BB ratio of less than 0.7 in a season of at least 70 innings-Steve Trachsel, who last year walked 69 while fanning 45 in 140 2/3 innings, and Kirk Rueter, who walked 47 against 25 Ks in 107 1/3 in 2005. Those pitchers were either in the last (Rueter) or second-to-last (Trachsel) seasons of their career, while Carmona is a 24-year-old stud who was supposed to dominate as he did last season, when he had over a 2.2 K/BB ratio.

Jhonny Peralta stroked a pair of doubles last night in Cleveland's 3-2 win, which gave the shortstop 36 two-base hits on the season to break his previous career high of 35, set in his breakout 2005 campaign. Peralta's collection of doubles ties him for fourth in the American League along with Nick Markakis and Raul Ibanez, behind the circuit's trio of outstanding second baseman: Brian Roberts (44), Ian Kinsler (40), and Dustin Pedroia (39). Peralta had a bad first half of the season, and was hitting .227/.277/.408 after 73 games. Since that point, however, Peralta is batting .345/.382/.619 in 207 plate appearances, a run that has established him as the best offensive shortstop in the AL, as Peralta now leads his league brethren at the position with a VORP of 34.6, more than eight runs better than second-place Derek Jeter. Peralta has also killed Lackey over the last several years, with 10 hits in 20 career at-bats against the Angels ace.

Matchup: Orioles (59-62) at Tigers (59-63), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dennis Sarfate (61 IP, 5.90 RA, 1.61 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Justin Verlander (158 1/3, 5.12, 1.30, 123) Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 61-61 (615 RS, 615 RA); Detroit, 62-60 (611 RS, 596 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #20; Detroit, #15
Prospectus: A month ago, Verlander looked to have turned his disappointing season around, having just come off a stretch in which he allowed no more than two earned runs in eight straight starts, going 6-0 with a 2.47 RA. In his last four outings, however, Verlander's early-season difficulties have returned, as he's lost all four while allowing 24 runs in 21 2/3 innings. After his most recent game, in which he gave up six runs over 4 1/3 to Toronto, Detroit manager Jim Leyland said that his ace pitcher's sub-par performance was the result of a dead arm: "This was just the blahs from his last outing-130 pitches. No doubt in my mind," Leyland told MLB.com. "It was kind of a dead-arm night for him, certainly related to the 130-pitch night in Chicago." Verlander agreed with his manager's assessment, saying "I felt a little fatigued, but I don't want to make excuses." Thanks in part to that effort versus the White Sox, Verlander ranks third in the majors in both average pitches per start (108) and pitcher abuse points, behind Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia in both instances, and he's second in average PAP per start behind Halladay. Verlander is carrying a slightly heavier load than last season, when he averaged 105 pitches per start and finished ninth in the majors in total PAP.

Verlander will be facing a slightly different-looking lineup from the one he saw in his previous game versus Baltimore, a win at Camden Yards on July 20-which was also his last good outing. With rookie Adam Jones down for the season after breaking his foot, the Orioles have turned to Jay Payton as their full-time center fielder, and Payton has responded by putting up a 590 OPS in 11 games as the starter. Playing Payton every day represents neither a commitment to this season-the 35-year-old can't hit right-handers (544 OPS in '08, 728 career)-nor to the future, as there is no reason to not give regular at-bats to a younger player like Luis Montanez, who made his first start in center last night after being called up last week, in order to get a better read on whether he can be a 2009 contributor. Montanez is 26 years old and no great prospect, but he was hitting .335/.385/.601 at Double-A Bowie, leading the Eastern League in slugging, and leading all of the minors with 271 total bases.

Matchup: Cardinals (69-56) at Reds (54-69), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joel Pineiro (117 2/3 IP, 4.97 RA, 1.46 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Aaron Harang (127, 5.39, 1.43, 111)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 67-58 (595 RS, 552 RA); Cincinnati, 52-71 (523 RS, 622 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #10; Cincinnati, #25
Prospectus: The Cardinals seem to have finally found an answer to their bullpen woes in the form of rookie right-hander Chris Perez, who recorded his fourth save in four opportunities by striking out Javier Valentin and Edwin Encarnacion back-to-back to close out a 5-3 win last night. After being sent back down to Triple-A Memphis last month following his first stint with the parent club, Perez fanned 16 against three walks in 7 2/3 innings for the Redbirds, prompting his quick return, and he hasn't given up a run in six innings of work since being recalled. Perez is going to walk people-29 in 54 1/3 innings combined this year-but he also throws harder than just about anybody in the game, with an average velocity of 95.2 mph, one of the five fastest heaters in the major leagues. He's the best late-inning option for a Cardinals team that has lost 12 games in which they led entering the eighth inning, the most of any team. Perez's success in the closer role also has the ancillary benefit of providing further incentive for the Cardinals to bring Adam Wainwright back as a starting pitcher, rather than preparing him for a return to his former relief role, which they were planning on doing before Chris Carpenter's latest injury. Wainwright is slated to start tonight for Memphis and throw 65-70 pitches.

With Adam Dunn joining Ken Griffey Jr. as a former Reds outfielder, the Cincinnati pasture is now wide open. The Reds called up Chris Dickerson from Triple-A Louisville to fill the hole in left field, and he has picked up six hits in 13 at-bats so far, including his first major league home run in last night's ballgame, building upon the solid season the 26-year-old was having for the Bats: a .287/.384/.479 line and .274 EqA. Cincinnati's trades and the injury to Jerry Hairston Jr. have also provided Dusty Baker with an excuse to play Corey Patterson, who has started 11 of the last 13 games in center field despite posting a lower OPS+ than any other player with at least 250 plate appearances. Baker doesn't have many options on his major league roster, however, besides playing Hairston or Jolbert Cabrera over Patterson, and the Reds have little outfield stock left down on the farm that might be ready to contribute.

Matchup: Rays (74-47) at Rangers (61-62), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (137 IP, 4.14 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 77 K) vs. Matt Harrison (35 2/3, 8.07, 1.82, 7)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 68-53 (557 RS, 484 RA); Texas, 57-66 (688 RS, 750 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Texas, #22
Prospectus: The Rays just keep on winning, taking down six of their last seven despite the absence of Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford. Three of those wins came by one run-two in extra innings-and Tampa Bay is now 23-13 in such contests, the second-best record in the American League behind Texas at 23-12. The Rays are running a solid six games above their Pythagorean record, but according to Baseball Prospectus' advanced metrics their impressive raw mark doesn't have that much to do with luck. Being in the AL East has led to a murderous schedule for the Rays, who have faced some of the toughest pitching in baseball-their adjusted equivalent runs scored total is 619, or 62 more than the 557 they've actually scored. No team has a larger deficit between adjusted equivalent and actual runs (Boston is second at -55). Tampa Bay's +6 in the Pythagorean column therefore gets shaved down to just +0.5 in the Pythagenport calculation based upon AEqR and AEqRA. Even so, the Rays are the only team in the AL East with a better record than expected, and the division as a whole is at -14.4 third-order wins-compare that with the NL Central, in which every team is above its third-order record, for a combined +30.4 wins.

With Longoria on the shelf, Tampa Bay has turned over the reins at third base to Willy Aybar. The 25-year-old Aybar's comeback from the off-field issues that caused him to miss all of 2007 has been something of a disappointment so far, but he has started to hit since Longoria went down, producing the first two-homer game of his major league career last Sunday and collecting six extra-base hits since getting the full-time nod. To fill in for Crawford, the Rays have switched over to straight platoons in both left and right field, going with lefties Eric Hinske and Gabe Gross against right-handers, and righties Justin Ruggiano and Rocco Baldelli against southpaws. Baldelli hurt himself in Thursday's game while sliding into home plate, so it will be interesting to see who is paired with Ruggiano in the outfield for tonight's game against the rookie left-hander Harrison, who has struck out just seven batters in his seven starts thus far (1.8 K/9).

Ed note: Baldelli was not hurt on his slide into home; his exit from the game later was unrelated.

Matchup: Brewers (70-53) at Dodgers (63-59), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: David Bush (132 1/3 IP, 4.76 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 87 K) vs. Derek Lowe (153 1/3, 4.58, 1.24, 110)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 66-57 (575 RS, 528 RA); Los Angeles, 65-57 (517 RS, 483 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #6; Los Angeles, #12
Prospectus: Bush sported a 6.94 RA after his first nine appearances of the season, but has pitched much better lately, teaming with Manny Parra to provide a reliable three/four tandem in the rotation behind twin aces Sheets and Sabathia. In his last nine starts Bush has six quality turns to go with a 3.21 RA, 0.86 WHIP, and 49/9 K/BB ratio over 61 2/3 frames, which included his gem against Colorado on July 10 in which he fanned 13 Rockies without walking a batter, tying him for the most Ks in a game by any pitcher this season (Ricky Nolasco, Tim Lincecum, Chad Billingsley, Cole Hamels, and Josh Beckett are the others with 13-K outings).

Bush will have to pitch carefully to the surging Dodgers, who won their fifth straight game last night by beating Milwaukee in the series opener. Los Angeles may rank 13th in the National League in runs per game, but with Manny Ramirez in the fold, Nomar Garciaparra back at shortstop (for the time being), and Andre Ethier playing regularly in right, Los Angeles can put a lineup on the field that is without a single offensive hole, as evidenced by the fact that LA's eighth-place hitters in the final three games of their four-game sweep of Philly were James Loney, Russell Martin, and Casey Blake. The only member of LA's best eight who has been below average with the bat this season is Jeff Kent at second base, and Kent is one of the hottest hitters in baseball right now, with 26 hits in his last 60 at-bats (.433). The Brewers don't have that same luxury, as they have holes at second, catcher, and also third base. At that last slot, Brewers fans have to be wondering whether Mat Gamel-the top prospect hitting .331/.399/.540 at Double-A Huntsville-might be getting close to making the trip to Milwaukee.

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

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