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August 24, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (74-55) at Blue Jays (67-62), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (126 2/3 IP, 2.98 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 109 K) vs. A.J. Burnett (171 2/3, 4.82, 1.41, 178)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 63-64 (572 RS, 579 RA); Toronto, 70-57 (623 RS, 557 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Toronto, #9
Prospectus: With their blowout loss to Toronto yesterday, the Red Sox fell more than five games behind Tampa Bay for the first time this season, remaining only a half-game ahead of Chicago for the wild card. Boston is still solidly aligned for a playoff spot, with an 80 percent chance at the postseason thanks in large measure to their outstanding run differential, which at +99 is second only to that of the White Sox in the American League. There is however some slight cause for Boston to be concerned due to its recent burst of injuries: J.D. Drew was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his back on Friday, and has not played in the team's last five games, Mike Lowell hasn't played in the last nine because of an oblique strain that sent him to the DL, and Josh Beckett will have his next start pushed back to Friday after the tingling sensation in his fingers was determined to be the result of elbow inflammation.

The good news for the Sox is that Matsuzaka takes the hill this afternoon, behind whom Boston is 18-4 this season. The Japanese right-hander is now 15-2 in his second year stateside, which is the highest single-season winning percentage in franchise history (.882) among pitchers with at least 20 starts in a season. Number two on that list is Joe Wood, who went 34-5 in 1912, while Roger Clemens put up a 24-4 season in 1986. Matsuzaka has one less victory than Burnett, who has won each of his last six starts and who ranks second in the circuit to Cliff Lee with 16 wins, despite being in the midst of the worst full season of his career. The Red Sox have had a tough time with the hard-throwing righty in the last several seasons: Burnett has earned the win in each of his previous four starts against Boston, allowing just six runs in 32 1/3 innings over that span. Despite his overall sub-par numbers, the notoriously-fragile Burnett is on pace to set a new career high in innings, and with 10 more strikeouts than his teammate Roy Halladay is also on pace to earn his first league strikeout title.

Matchup: Pirates (57-72) at Brewers (75-55), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Paul Maholm (168 IP, 3.80 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 117 K) vs. CC Sabathia (195 1/3, 3.23, 1.16, 192)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 51-75 (519 RS, 636 RA); Milwaukee, 64-61 (594 RS, 581 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #27; Milwaukee, #6
Prospectus: Sabathia threw his eighth complete game of the season last Monday, and his fifth in nine starts with Milwaukee. He needed 130 pitches to finish out the 9-3 win over Houston, his major league-leading fourth Category IV start (122-132 pitches; no one else has more than two this year). Sabathia now also tops all hurlers in Pitcher Abuse Points by a wide margin, with over 2,000 more than second-place Roy Halladay. Even so, this is not something to be overly concerned about-Sabathia is a 27-year-old ace who has passed through the injury nexus, and as Joe Sheehan wrote last month should therefore be allowed to go 120 pitches deep into games with regularity. One argument against Sabathia's recent heavy load is based upon how poorly he fared in last year's postseason, when he gave up 15 runs in 15 1/3 innings, three ugly starts that came after he had topped his previous regular-season career high in innings by more than 30. While it certainly appeared that Sabathia was tired last October, three starts is not enough to draw any firm conclusions, especially since he pitched very well in his last five outings of the 2007 regular season (4-0 with a 2.37 RA).

Pittsburgh will throw its own left-hander at the formidable Milwaukee southpaw, one who has become the ace of the Pirates' staff. Maholm has been among the best starters in baseball over the last three months; after turning in just three quality starts in his first 10, he has now tossed 12 in his last 15, and hasn't gone less than six innings in any of those 15 turns. Over that stretch, Maholm has a 2.88 RA and 1.06 WHIP, with a K/BB ratio of over 3/1. His second-best start of the season by Game Score came in Miller Park back on July 5, when he gave up four hits and one run over eight innings in a game Pittsburgh lost 2-1.

Matchup: Twins (74-55) at Angels (78-50), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kevin Slowey (121 1/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Ervin Santana (169 2/3, 3.55, 1.13, 166)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 69-57 (641 RS, 579 RA); Los Angeles, 69-56 (587 RS, 528 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #10; Los Angeles, #7
Prospectus: Slowey is coming off of a 12-strikeout performance versus the Athletics in his last outing, the most he has fanned in any professional start since being drafted out of Winthrop in 2005, besting his previous high of 10. The second-year right-hander is not known for swing-and-miss stuff, but he has posted a respectable 6.8 K/9 this season, while walking 17 total batters, or 1.3 BB/9, good for the second-lowest rate (behind Mike Mussina's 1.2) of the 105 pitchers who have thrown 120 or more innings this season. Slowey has given free passes to only two batters over 33 2/3 innings in his last five starts, a stretch in which he put up a 4-1 record and 2.41 RA.

As per their usual profile, the Angels are not a very patient team, having drawn only 379 walks, third fewest in the American League. They would be even less patient without Mark Teixeira, who has already walked 15 times in 97 plate appearances for his new team. Teixeira now has 80 walks on the season, a total which would rank fifth in the American League. Not only is Teixeira on pace to set a new career high in free passes (his previous best being 89 in 2006), but he is also on pace to fan a career-low 101 times, as he actually has the same number of walks as strikeouts to this point, a highly impressive 1:1 ratio for a slugger of Teixeira's ilk. It has become increasingly clear over the last month that the acquisition of Teixeira was not a luxury move for the first-place Halos, but one that was needed to shore up a weak lineup. The rest of the Angels' infield has not hit in August: Jeff Mathis has a 459 OPS for the month, Howie Kendrick is at 517, Chone Figgins at 608, and Erick Aybar at 661, while Torii Hunter has also had a down August (640). Teixeira, meanwhile, has hit a prodigious .367/.474/.620 in 22 games with his new club.

Matchup: Marlins (66-64) at Diamondbacks (68-61), 1:10 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (164 1/3 IP, 3.94 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 137 K) vs. Doug Davis (105 2/3, 5.11, 1.53, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 59-69 (603 RS, 660 RA); Arizona, 66-60 (533 RS, 504 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #19; Arizona, #11
Prospectus: Nolasco is coming off of a two-hit shutout of the Giants his last time out, in which he struck out 11 and snapped Florida's record streak of 301 straight games without a complete game. The right-hander's blanking was also the best effort in the National League in over three seasons as measured by Game Score: it earned a 93 on the scale created by Bill James, better than every other senior-circuit outing since Chris Carpenter threw a 10-strikeout one-hitter on June 14 of 2005 for the Cardinals versus Toronto, which rated as a 94. Nolasco has dominated in the last three months, with a 3.11 RA and 97/11 K/BB over 14 starts and 98 1/3 innings since June 10; in that stretch he has tossed 12 quality starts out of 14, including all of the last five. Nolasco has continued to stifle right-handed batters, who are hitting for a 625 OPS against him in 315 plate appearances, while lefties are slugging a healthy .464 in 367 PA. Arizona was an extremely right-handed team at the beginning of the season with Justin Upton in right field, Eric Byrnes in left, and Conor Jackson at first base, but now with the Chad Tracy/Tony Clark platoon at first and Adam Dunn patrolling in the outfield, the Snakes can run out a lineup versus righty pitchers that features five left-handed bats.

One of those lefty bats is backup catcher Miguel Montero, who has hit very well in limited duty of late after beginning the year poorly. Montero has started the last two games, reaching safely in five of eight plate appearances, and over his last eight games has collected 13 hits-four of them home runs-in 27 at-bats, bringing his seasonal line to .290/.358/.462. After putting up a 689 OPS in his rookie year last season, Montero is now showing some of the offensive ability that helped him win the High-A California League batting title as a 21-year-old in 2005 (.349 for Lancaster), which he followed up with an 834 OPS in '06 between Double- and Triple-A. Montero and Chris Snyder have led Arizona's catchers to an 804 positional OPS, the fourth-best figure among team backstops behind Geovany Soto and the Cubs, Joe Mauer and the Twins, and Brian McCann and the Braves.

Thanks to Jason Paré for research assistance.

Matchup: Athletics (59-70) at Mariners (47-82), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dan Meyer (122 2/3 IP, 4.77 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 109 K-Triple-A) vs. Felix Hernandez (156, 3.63, 1.34, 140) Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 61-66 (590 RS, 616 RA); Seattle, 51-75 (481 RS, 590 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #20; Seattle, #29
Prospectus: With the recent recall of both Dana Eveland and Meyer from Triple-A Sacramento to take the places of injured righties Justin Duchscherer and Sean Gallagher, the A's are now running with a complete set of five left-handers in their rotation. This is the second time in franchise history that Oakland has gone with an all-lefty rotation, with the first being during 1973 when the club had Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Darold Knowles, and Paul Lindblad in a four-man posse for a few weeks while Catfish Hunter was disabled and Blue Moon Odom especially ineffective. Quality left-handed starters are perhaps the rarest commodity in the majors, and Oakland GM Billy Beane has compiled a sizeable stable of young southpaws in the last year, with Meyer at 26 being the oldest of the current quintet.

While Beane's rebuilding effort has been amassing young starters, the influx of hitting talent has been slower to make an impact, and Oakland's offense has been flatlining this month. The A's have not scored more than six runs in any of their 22 August games, and for the month are hitting .213/.281/.331 with an average of 2.6 runs a game, both major league monthly lows. Since their high-water mark of 51-42 after a win on July 11, Oakland has gone 8-28, collecting two fewer wins than any other team in that span, and have lost 15˝ games on the first-place Angels. Seattle is just 11-25 after July 11, and has lost 12 of its last 14. The problem for the M's lately has not been so much the offense, which has put up a 770 OPS and scored 4.2 runs a game in the nightmare stretch, but rather the pitching staff, which has allowed 110 runs in 124 2/3 innings, including nearly two homers per nine. Hernandez has been the one rock on Seattle's pitching staff, and the 22-year-old is producing his best full season in the majors. King Felix alone has not been able to sway the Mariners from plotting their course towards 100 losses for the first time in 25 years, though; Seattle is currently on pace for 103 defeats, which would be the most for the franchise since it lost 103 in 1980, the team's fourth season.

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

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