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August 22, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Dodgers (65-62) at Phillies (68-59), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Maddux (153 1/3 IP, 4.70 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 80 K) vs. Kyle Kendrick (134 2/3, 5.55, 1.58, 61)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 67-60 (536 RS, 505 RA); Philadelphia, 71-56 (607 RS, 537 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #14; Philadelphia, #12
Prospectus: Maddux begins his second stint with the Dodgers tonight after approving the trade from San Diego. He takes the rotation spot of Brad Penny, who is back on the DL for the second time and likely out for the year after lasting just two starts in his attempted comeback from shoulder difficulties. The Dodgers are hoping that Maddux can give them the same lift that he did during the stretch drive in 2006, when the future Hall of Famer posted a 3.79 RA in 12 starts, eight of which Los Angeles won, to help his new team secure the wild-card berth. Angelenos shouldn't expect too much from their new import, however, for Maddux has been largely reliant on Petco Park this season (6.4 RA/9 in 12 road starts). Out of the other dugout, Kendrick has failed to get out of the fourth inning in either of his last two starts. The first of those came on August 11 in Los Angeles, when the Dodgers battered him for nine hits and seven runs, and then last Saturday Kendrick gave up six to the Padres in San Diego. Kendrick's K/9 is now down to 4.1 this season, the lowest of any NL qualifier. (Livan Hernandez, who recently arrived in the senior circuit with Colorado, is last in the majors with a 3.5 K/9.)

Ryan Howard took an 0-for-4 collar last night in Philadelphia's 4-3 loss to Washington, and with three strikeouts barely avoided the Golden Sombrero. Howard's seasonal slump has grown steadily worse: in his last 14 games, the slugger has five hits in 50 at-bats (.100), while his yearly rates have slipped down to .229/.317/.474, an OPS well below the NL average of 821 for the position. The woes of their first baseman have badly limited the Phillies' offensive capability, for this month Philadelphia is hitting .211 and has scored just 3.2 runs per contest, the second-lowest total among National League teams during August. The Phillies' outage has cost them 4˝ games in the standings over their last nine games, as they now trail New York by 2˝ in the NL East. Things just aren't going Philly's way in the division hunt right now; last night they were beaten by an infield single from light-hitting middle infielder Anderson Hernandez, whom the Mets recently traded to Washington.

Matchup: Yankees (67-60) at Orioles (61-65), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Mussina (153 1/3 IP, 3.93 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 106 K) vs. Radhames Liz (47, 7.85, 1.79, 33)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 67-60 (610 RS, 571 RA); Baltimore, 63-63 (650 RS, 647 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #8; Baltimore, #17
Prospectus: After putting up a Boeing-like 7.47 ERA in his first major league stint this year, Liz went down to Triple-A Norfolk and turned in three quality starts in four tries, including eight shutout innings against Charlotte in his last turn. That performance was good enough to get him back up in the name of mending the parent club's tattered rotation. The rookie right-hander will be going against Baltimore's former ace, who has been unable to handle his old team this season: the Orioles are the only squad Mussina has failed to beat among the 10 which he has faced at least twice this year. Mussina's two outings against the O's have both been ugly. Back on May 20 he failed to get out of the first inning for just the second time in his career, giving up seven runs (six unearned), and on July 28 allowed a pair of homers and six runs over five innings.

Mussina tonight will have to contend with Melvin Mora, who has been on a ridiculous tear of late. Mora knocked in four runs in Baltimore's last game on Wednesday, the fifth time in the past 12 that he has driven in four or more. That surge has pushed him into the AL top five in RBI with 95, just nine short of his career high set in 2004. Mora has been binging on RBI since the start of last month: from July 3 onward, he has knocked in 56 runs in 41 games, while hitting .385/.422/.683 in 180 plate appearances. The only other player to drive home more than 38 runs over that same stretch is Miguel Cabrera, with 49 RBI. Mora has now cashed in 21.1 percent of the runners on base during his at-bats this season, the third-highest OBI percentage amongst qualifiers behind Josh Hamilton and David DeJesus. Mora's exploits with runners on have helped the Orioles score 130 runs in August (6.8 per game), 10 more than the next-best team, the White Sox, has totaled for the month.

Matchup: Tigers (62-65) at Royals (55-72), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Justin Verlander (164 1/3 IP, 5.04 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 129 K) vs. Brian Bannister (120 1/3, 6.35, 1.52, 91)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 64-63 (644 RS, 634 RA); Kansas City, 51-76 (522 RS, 646 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Kansas City, #25
Prospectus: Bannister will attempt to rebound tonight from the worst start any pitcher has made this season, a -10 by Game Score. The right-hander was hammered by the Yankees for six runs on six hits in the first, and then gave up four more in the second without getting an out. Bannister became the seventh pitcher since the beginning of game-log data in 1956 to give up 10 or more runs in a game while recording three outs or less, and the second this season, after Bronson Arroyo was torched by Toronto in late June. As the Baseball-Reference Stat of the Day recently pointed out, three of those unlucky seven pitchers were Royals, with the other Kansas City barbecues coming at the expense of Luke Hudson in 2006 and Tom Gordon in 1995. In his start Flash Gordon allowed 13 baserunners, a previously unprecedented total for one inning of work, which Bannister matched in his outing.

Bannister started off the year better than any pitcher in baseball, winning each of his first three starts while allowing two earned runs over 21 innings. There was much thought at that juncture of the season, including in this space, that Bannister had the ability to post abnormally low BABIP figures due to his results from 2007 (a .262 mark), his profile as a fly-ball pitcher, and his intelligence on the mound. The baseball goddess who oversees the variability of balls in play has proven to be a harsh mistress, however, for Bannister's early-season success has swung around completely: after posting a .175 BABIP over those first three starts, he has been hit for .335 since, and .400 in his six games after the All-Star break. Bannister has failed to put up a quality start in any of his last nine, a stretch in which 46 runs have scored against him in 41 2/3 innings.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Rays (77-49) at White Sox (73-53), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (143 IP, 4.03 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 83 K) vs. John Danks (150 1/3, 3.23, 1.20, 126)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 71-55 (578 RS, 502 RA); Chicago, 74-52 (659 RS, 542 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Two of the AL's three best teams meet up in the first and only visit that Tampa Bay will pay to U.S. Cellular this season. The Rays won four of seven games against the White Sox in Florida this year, but Chicago has played .703 ball at the Cell so far (45-19), and enters this series with five straight wins. The White Sox are on a roll offensively, and have scored 46 runs over the past four games while hitting a total of 14 home runs. Chicago has now launched 188 homers on the year, 19 more than Philadelphia, which ranks second in the majors. Of those 188, 115 have come at home, where the Sox are slugging .491. Chicago is on pace for 240 for the season, which would put it two shy of the 242 that the Pale Hose hit in 2004 to set the franchise record.

One of those 188 home runs has been hit by Ken Griffey Jr., who connected for that first blast with his new club on Wednesday in Chicago's 15-3 stomping of Seattle. The shot tied Griffey with Sammy Sosa for fifth place on the all-time home run list at 609. The other aging lefty slugger in Chicago's lineup could also hit a milestone home run tonight, for with one more long ball Jim Thome will move into the top 15 all-time, tying Jimmie Foxx at 534. Jackson has the highest homer rate of any of Tampa Bay's starters, at 1.1 HR/9 (18 surrendered on the season). He has also given up eight over 33 innings in his last six starts, although in each of his last two a solo home run was the only damage that Jackson allowed.

Matchup: Marlins (65-63) at Diamondbacks (67-60), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Anibal Sanchez (23 IP, 3.91 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Randy Johnson (138 1/3, 4.75, 1.28, 126) Pythagorean Record: Florida, 61-67 (593 RS, 620 RA); Arizona, 68-59 (591 RS, 549 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #19; Arizona, #11
Prospectus: When Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco threw a shutout in Florida's 6-0 win over San Francisco Tuesday night, it broke a streak of 301 straight games in which Florida pitchers had not tossed a complete game, which was the longest drought in recorded history (dating back to 1956). The last Marlin with a complete game before Nolasco's gem was Sanchez, who did so in his no-hitter on September 17, 2006. Only one other team has gone more than 201 games in a row without having a pitcher complete one-Washington, which had its 261-game stretch stopped at the end of May when Jason Bergmann went eight innings in a losing cause. It doesn't appear that Sanchez will be adding to his complete-game total down the stretch, as he is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, and has not yet found his command, walking five the last time out versus the Cubs.

This series pits the two offenses that rank first and second in the majors in strikeouts against one another, with Florida fanning 8.5 times per game and Arizona 7.8. The Big Unit could rack up plenty of strikeouts this evening, for the Marlins, in addition to their prodigious whiffing, have not fared well against left-handed pitching, with a .231/.314/.385 team line, the second-lowest OPS in the National League versus southpaws. Johnson has also been on a roll lately, with six consecutive quality starts, a stretch in which he has given up just eight runs in 40 1/3 innings while posting a startling 31/3 K/BB ratio. Johnson has not walked a batter in four of his last eight starts, and walked only one in each of the other four. The D'backs have scored just six runs in Johnson's last four starts, getting shut out twice. On the season Arizona is averaging 3.85 runs scored per game for Johnson, who has nevertheless won 10 times to move within six victories of 300 for his career, leaving the milestone within reach with an especially strong finish (if the rotation holds, he has seven turns remaining). Johnson can expect better support for the stretch run; since Adam Dunn arrived on August 12 the Snakes are scoring 6.3 runs a game, thanks in large part to Dunn's .537 OBP in 41 plate appearances with his new team.

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

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