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August 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Royals (55-71) at Indians (58-67), 12:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (158 1/3 IP, 4.15 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 142 K) vs. Cliff Lee (170 2/3, 2.53, 1.08, 134)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 51-75 (519 RS, 636 RA); Cleveland, 64-61 (594 RS, 581 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: Lee leads the American League with 8.6 WARP, which as Joe Sheehan pointed out on Monday is a number that should make him the current favorite for American League MVP. As Joe wrote, Lee has very little actual chance of winning that award, but he is out front of a two-horse race for the Cy Young hardware in the junior circuit, currently a few paces ahead of Roy Halladay, who also pitches today. Lee has been the superior pitcher in baseball by SNLVAR-6.4 wins above replacement-and what helps his case significantly is that he also leads the AL in wins, a statistic that the BBWAA weighs heavily in its evaluation of the best hurlers. Not only has Lee won 17 games, but he has lost only two, a record that puts him in some extremely distinguished company. Lee is the 11th pitcher in the last 50 years to win at least 17 of his first 19 decisions in a season, with the last to do so being Roger Clemens, who was 17-1 for the Yankees in 2001 before finishing 20-3. Here are the others:


Year  Pitcher       Team  Finished
1959  Roy Face       PIT   18-1
1961  Whitey Ford    NYY   25-4, won CY
1966  Gaylord Perry  SFG   21-8
1968  Denny McLain   DET   31-6, won CY and MVP
1969  Dave McNally   BAL   20-7
1978  Ron Guidry     NYY   25-3, won CY
1986  Roger Clemens  BOS   24-4, won CY and MVP
1995  Greg Maddux    ATL   19-2, won CY
1995  Randy Johnson  SEA   18-2, won CY
1998  David Wells    NYY   18-4
2001  Roger Clemens  NYY   20-3, won CY

Roy Face was a reliever, so seven of the 10 starting pitchers to put up a 17-2 mark went on to win the Cy Young. However, no pitcher on this list was on a losing team other than Lee, who is channeling the 1972 season of Steve Carlton, albeit not quite in such an extreme fashion. Cleveland's ace lefty is 6-0 in his last seven starts, and has already beaten Kansas City twice in two starts this year, including his only shutout of the year back on April 24, a three-hitter in which he struck out nine without walking a batter. Thanks in large part to Lee, Cleveland has pulled ahead of Kansas City and out of last place in the AL Central, which it occupied for 31 days from late June through the first part of August. The Indians have gone 21-14 in their last 35 games and 9-3 in their last 12, while the Royals have slumped to 11 losses in the past 13 games.

Thanks to William Burke for database research

Matchup: Rockies (59-69) at Dodgers (64-62), 12:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jorge De La Rosa (87 2/3 IP, 6.57 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 95 K) vs. Derek Lowe (160 1/3, 4.43, 1.24, 113)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 59-69 (603 RS, 660 RA); Los Angeles, 66-60 (533 RS, 504 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #23; Los Angeles, #12
Prospectus: With five straight wins, the Rockies appear to have started their attempt at pulling off an over 100-1 shot in the NL West for a second straight season. Even with their recent surge, Colorado has not been able to gain much ground on the Diamondbacks; they're still eight games behind, nine in the loss column. With 129 games gone by last year, Colorado was 6 behind, but one comforting thought for Rockies fans is that they had three teams ahead of them in the division then-San Diego, Arizona, and Los Angeles-as opposed to the two they trail now. One player doing all he can to bring the Rockies back is last year's NL MVP runner-up, Matt Holliday: Colorado's left fielder has improved upon his outstanding campaign last year, and since coming back from a stay on the 15-day DL from late May to early June is batting .362/.453/.634 in 285 plate appearances. Holliday has also refined another component of his offensive game, stealing his career-high 20th base of the season, having been caught just once all year. Thanks to Holliday and teammate Willy Taveras, who has 59 steals against just six times caught, Colorado leads the National League in thefts (114), a number compiled at an excellent percentage of 80.9, which ranks second in the majors to Philadelphia's 83.8 success rate.

Taylor Buchholz pitched a clean eighth inning out of the bullpen for Colorado in last night's 4-3 win, his sixth straight scoreless appearance. Buchholz lowered his WHIP on the season to 0.87, the fourth lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 50 innings, behind only big-name closers Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Joakim Soria. If Buchholz maintains that figure, he will finish the year with the lowest single-season WHIP in Colorado history. Just two other Rockies relievers have posted a ratio below 1.00: Gabe White, with a 0.92 over 83 innings in 2000, and Steve Reed, with a 0.98 over 84 innings in 1995. Buchholz was knocked around badly in 27 starts for Colorado between 2006 and '07, with a 6.59 RA in 150 1/3 innings, but since moving to the bullpen last season has been outstanding. In his career as a reliever, he now holds a 2.67 RA and 1.04 WHIP in 114 2/3 frames.

Matchup: Marlins (65-62) at Giants (54-72), 12:45 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Josh Johnson (42 2/3 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Matt Palmer (135, 4.47, 1.49, 137-Triple-A) Pythagorean Record: Florida, 61-66 (590 RS, 616 RA); San Francisco, 51-75 (481 RS, 590 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; San Francisco, #27
Prospectus: The Marlins nearly pulled off a momentous comeback last night, as John Baker hit a two-out three-run homer off Giants closer Brian Wilson to tie the score at five in the ninth inning, but Matt Lindstrom couldn't keep the Giants from pushing across the winning tally on a Bengie Molina sacrifice fly in the bottom of the frame. With the walk-off win, their sixth of the year, San Francisco maintained its perfect record this season when entering the ninth inning with a lead, now 45-0. The only other National League team that hasn't lost a game in which it led heading into the ninth is Philadelphia, which is 57-0 thanks to closer Brad Lidge having converted 31 of 31 save situations. San Francisco's perfect record is a bit deceiving, however, for one of Wilson's three blown saves came when the Giants broke a tie against Philly with a run in the top of the tenth, before Wilson gave up two in the bottom of the frame.

San Francisco rookie Pablo Sandoval had another strong game in the win, going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk, and he's now 8-for-13 since going hitless in his major league debut. Part of the Giants' recent commitment to youth in the infield, which includes Travis Ishikawa at first base and Ryan Rohlinger at third, Sandoval has so far maintained his blistering pace from Triple-A Fresno, where he was hitting .310/.370/.737 in 192 plate appearances following a promotion from Double-A Connecticut. Sandoval landed in the ninth spot on Kevin Goldstein's preseason Top 11 Prospects list for San Francisco after slugging .476 as a 20-year-old switch-hitting catcher in High-A ball last year, and now he finds himself as the third-youngest position player in the National League, older than only Justin Upton and Jay Bruce. The Giants have used Sandoval both behind the plate and at first base, where he has platooned with Ishikawa over the last seven games, with the left-handed Ishikawa starting against right-handers and Sandoval against lefties. Between that situation and San Francisco's faith in Emmanuel Burriss at second base (he has 17 of the last 19 starts there) and Ivan Ochoa at short (13 of the last 16), San Francisco has started at least three rookies in the infield each of the last seven games, and went with four on four different occasions in the past week.

Matchup: Braves (56-71) at Mets (70-57), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Hampton (26 IP, 6.92 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 116 K) vs. Pedro Martinez (69, 5.22, 1.49, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 63-64 (572 RS, 579 RA); New York, 70-57 (623 RS, 557 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #16; New York, #7
Prospectus: Hampton faces his former team for the first time since 2005 in what is surely a park on the short list of his favorite places to pitch, Shea Stadium. In Hampton's lone season as a member of the Mets in 2000, he helped pitch New York to the World Series, and did so largely through domination in Queens: the left-hander made 19 regular-season starts at Shea, putting up an 11-4 record and 2.05 ERA in 132 innings (compared to 4-6, 4.83 in 85 2/3 on the road). He then backed that up by throwing a complete-game shutout in his only home playoff start, the series-clinching Game Five of the NLCS versus St. Louis, which the Mets won 7-0. (Hampton had also pitched seven shutout innings to win Game One in Busch Stadium, and was named the series MVP). For his career, Hampton has a 3.07 ERA at Shea Stadium in 219 2/3 innings.

With their win last night, the Mets improved to 30-15 since the start of July, the best record in baseball over that stretch (at 28-14, the Angels also have a .667 winning percentage from July 1 onward). New York has discovered a sound strategy towards winning games despite its unstable bullpen: score early and often to build up a big enough lead by the late innings. The Mets pushed across five runs in the first inning yesterday, the third straight game in which they got on the board right away, and as revealed by Gary Cohen in last night's SNY television broadcast have now tallied 104 first-inning runs on the season, the most of any team this year. The Dodgers are second with 101 runs in the first, while Atlanta has scored just 61. Overall, the Mets have now climbed to second in the league in runs scored (4.9 R/G, behind Chicago's 5.4), despite the fact that they rank just ninth among NL teams in both homers and slugging.

Matchup: Twins (72-54) at Angels (77-48), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Baker (119 2/3 IP, 3.91 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 101 K) vs. John Lackey (120 1/3, 3.44, 1.14, 93)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 69-57 (641 RS, 579 RA); Los Angeles, 69-56 (587 RS, 528 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #14; Los Angeles, #5
Prospectus: Just one back of the White Sox in the AL Central and just a half-game behind Boston for the wild-card spot, Minnesota begins a four-game series against the team with the best record in baseball. The Twins lineup will be bolstered by the return of second baseman Alexi Casilla, who missed the last 21 games with a torn thumb tendon, an injury that was initially feared to be serious enough to possibly knock him out for the season. Minnesota's offense performed well in Casilla's absence, scoring 5.9 runs per game, but of course the Twins are much better off with their 23-year-old switch-hitter in the fold, who has been Minnesota's best offensive option in the middle infield this year. Casilla's return to a starting role will push Nick Punto back to shortstop, where he will have to fight for playing time with Brendan Harris, who has been hitting lately (.340 average in his last 15 games).

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

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