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August 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (74-55) at Orioles (61-68), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Clayton Richard (20 IP, 8.55 RA, 1.75 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Chris Waters (90, 6.20, 1.17, 72-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 75-54 (672 RS, 561 RA); Baltimore, 64-65 (664 RS, 669 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Baltimore, #17
Prospectus: Before this contest kicks off, the Orioles and White Sox need to finish a game that was suspended back on April 28. At that time, the O's were 14-11 and the White Sox 14-10, and MVP candidate Carlos Quentin had hit his sixth homer of the young season. The game was suspended after the 11th inning's conclusion, when both teams had scored one more run to prolong the evening. The White Sox should have won the game much earlier, as they stranded 14 baserunners during the course of the game against the Orioles' three, and wasted an excellent eight-inning effort from Javier Vazquez (one run, seven strikeouts, one walk). The significance of having this game's outcome pushed to today is that the White Sox are just half-a-game up on the Twins, and have a chance to gain as much as 1 games on their rivals if they are able to wrap up the extra-inning game as winners and then take the regularly-scheduled clash as well.

As for the highlighted Preview game, the White Sox send Richard against an Orioles lineup that's hit very well during the second half. While Richard has performed well on the K/BB front-he has 6.8 strikeouts per nine and just 2.3 free passes per nine over his five appearances in the majors this year-he's given up an eye-popping 30.7-percent liner rate, which explains the .395 BABIP he's allowed. There are obviously small-sample issues if you try to draw much from those figures-he has thrown just 20 innings in the majors-but the thing to watch for is whether or not he's too predictable, either in strategy, or perhaps due to tipping his pitches. As a guy with a sinker and a high-80s fastball and no dominant offering to put hitters away, anything that helps the hitter is going to cause fluky stats, like his 52 percent strand rate and unsightly BABIP.

Matchup: Dodgers (65-65) at Phillies (71-59), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (162 2/3 IP, 3.37 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 168 K) vs. Brett Myers (143 1/3, 5.02, 1.39, 118)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 67-63 (541 RS, 527 RA); Philadelphia, 74-56 (629 RS, 542 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #14; , Philadelphia, #12
Prospectus: Though the games mean the same thing mathematically in late August as they do in early April, the sense of urgency is more apparent now that the competing teams can see the finish line. Today's bout between the Dodgers and Phillies is a fine example, as both teams need this game in order to keep pace with the teams ahead of them. The Phillies find themselves just a half-game back of the Mets, while the Dodgers may be the more desperate club at three games back and with little or no shot at October baseball through any means except for the division title. While the Phillies would have their own issues catching the Brewers for the wild card (4 games behind Milwaukee), the Dodgers are 10 games out of that slot, with five teams ahead of them.

The lineup has performed well in August (.275/.333/.439) thanks to the contributions of newbie Dodgers Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake, but the pitching staff has not been able to do anything productive outside of Chez Ravine. They have given up a .284/.358/.412 line on the road this month, and for the year, the team is 26-35 away from Dodger Stadium. That's easily the worst road winning percentage among teams competing for a playoff spot:


Team       RoadWP%
Cardinals   .561
Brewers     .530
Phillies    .523
Cubs        .500
Marlins     .492
Mets        .485
D'backs     .477
Astros      .471
Dodgers     .426

The Dodgers have played fewer road games than the other clubs on that list, with just 61 completed on the year. With that in mind, they will need to buck that trend if they want to make the playoffs-preferably starting with this series in Philadelphia-because 20 additional road games at that rate means another 11-12 losses outside of LA before the year ends.

Matchup: Astros (66-64) at Mets (72-59), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Moehler (116 1/3 IP, 4.10 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (154, 3.97, 1.40, 86)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 61-69 (589 RS, 625 RA); New York, 72-59 (638 RS, 575 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; New York, #5
Prospectus: The Astros may not have even an outside chance at the playoffs, given that there is little more than a month to play and they are nearly double digits out of both available playoff spots, but that doesn't mean they aren't up to the task of playing spoiler down the stretch; they are already well on their way towards earning that title among 2008 teams, at least in the memories of New Yorkers. The 'Stros have already toppled the Mets in five of the six games they have played this month, and today's contest gives them a shot at knocking the Mets out of sole possession of first place in the East. More embarrassing for New York is that the Astros went just 3-6 against other teams competing for a playoff spot this month, losing series against the Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Brewers, while being outscored 59 to 23 in the losses. About the only way this could get worse is if the Astros wilt against the Cardinals to close out the month, making things even more difficult for the Mets on the wild-card front. The Astros have outplayed the Mets by a considerable margin, hitting .268/.318/.493 with 11 homers (and 23 extra-base hits overall) while holding them to an appalling .222/.282/.328 showing. They have not faced tonight's starter during the month, but Pelfrey has been New York's second-best pitcher after Johan Santana, and has only improved as he pitches more-he's walked just 1.3 per nine while giving up 0.7 home runs per nine since July 1, a stretch that covers his last 67 1/3 innings and 10 starts. He will endear himself even further to the Mets' faithful if he can put a stop to the bleeding and even up this four-game set against the Astros tonight.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (68-62) at Padres (48-82), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (173 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 160 K) vs. Jake Peavy (139 2/3, 2.96, 1.16, 135)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 69-61 (604 RS, 560 RA); San Diego, 52-78 (494 RS, 614 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #11; San Diego, #28
Prospectus: While the second-place Dodgers are forced to take on the potentially playoff-bound Phillies, the Diamondbacks attempt to pad their three-game lead against a disastrously bad Padres team that is tied for the second-worst record in the majors with the Mariners. Just like Los Angeles, the Diamondbacks' pitching staff has had issues over the past month that have kept them from rising far beyond .500. They have allowed opponents a .272/.310/.428 line during August, with a surprisingly more power-focused attack (.454 SLG, .184 ISO) outside of Chase, a park known for its hitter-friendly tendencies. It's a shame for their record too, as the offense has been locked in for what seems like the first time since the season began, when 'Zona was atop the Hit List rankings; they have hit .254/.335/.433 during the month, and just like their opponents, have hit better on the road than at home with a .260/.343/.453 showing. Adam Dunn (.256/.463/.487) hasn't added as much power since his trade to the team as you might wish for, but his .463 OBP has been a boost to a team that occasionally struggles to get on base via hit or walk. Chances are good that there won't be much offense in this series at San Diego, despite the team's recent trend for scoring and allowing plenty of runs outside of Arizona; between facing Jake Peavy and playing at Petco, the odds are stacked against a high-scoring contest, especially with the D'backs sending Haren to the mound.

Matchup: Twins (74-56) at Mariners (48-82), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Francisco Liriano (34 IP, 5.03 RA, 1.59 WHIP, 27 K) vs. Miguel Batista (100 1/3, 7.45, 1.91, 63)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 71-59 (660 RS, 592 RA); Seattle, 53-77 (540 RS, 659 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #10; Seattle, #29
Prospectus: As awful an awful club the Mariners have been this year, answering why is intriguing, given that even PECOTA's pessimism had them down for a win total in the 70s, not on pace to lose 100 games. You have the rotation to blame in part: although Felix Hernandez has been excellent, with a 4.3 SNLVAR, a number that ties him for 23rd in the majors, the next Mariner on the list (minimum 75 innings pitched) is Erik Bedard at 90th (of 149 starters), with 2.2 SNLVAR. Bedard has been on the DL since July 11. The other three-fifths of the rotation find themselves in the bottom third of the league in SNLVAR. Today's starter, Miguel Batista, ranks dead last among qualifiers, with -0.5 SNLVAR on the season. Ryan Rowland-Smith has been their best active starter besides Hernandez, but with just 72 2/3 innings, nearly four walks per nine, and a BABIP well below expectations given his above-average liner rate, that may not last either.

Their rotation has not been helped by their defense, which is 26th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency; converting just 68.7 percent of balls in play into outs is an easy way to ruin your staff's numbers, especially when they have the eighth-fewest punchouts in the majors. It's no surprise that the team ranks 26th in SNLVAR collectively; if not for Hernandez' excellent campaign, they would be down with the likes of the Rangers at the very bottom of the league. It doesn't help things when the offense is ranked 12th in the American League in EqA with a well below-average .250 showing. After Raul Ibanez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Jose Lopez, not a single Mariner is close to 20 VORP on the year, and their fifth-ranked player on the offensive side is Felix Hernandez and his two plate appearances, followed by Willie Bloomquist's literally punchless .279/.377/.285 line. For the first time during his stay in Seattle, Bloomquist has been one of the more productive players there, but he's done so by being nothing more than a replacement-level player.

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