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August 27, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (73-60) at Phillies (73-59), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (184 IP, 3.03 RA, 1.14 WHIP, 153 K) vs. Kyle Kendrick (140 1/3, 5.39, 1.55, 64)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 73-60 (654 RS, 584 RA); Philadelphia, 75-57 (642 RS, 549 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #5; Philadelphia, #12
Prospectus: Santana takes the hill for the Mets tonight looking to pitch New York to a split in this critical two-game series, and also looking to finally finish the job against his team's division rival. In each of Santana's last two starts versus the Phillies, he allowed just two runs in eight innings, but both times he was held back from going for the kill-on July 4 after 95 pitches in a tie game that the Mets lost in the ninth, and on July 22 after 105 pitches with a 5-2 lead that the Mets bullpen blew by allowing Philly to score six times in the final frame. It was those two games that inspired Joe Sheehan to write his piece last month on manageable workloads, in which he argued that it is "time for the pendulum to swing back a bit, and let starting pitchers take a greater share of the workload." Recently, Mets manager Jerry Manuel has begun to do just that, most likely because of how shaky his bullpen has been with closer Billy Wagner sidelined indefinitely. Manuel has been pushing his top starters deeper into games, and after going without a complete game up until July 27, the rotation has now delivered four-two by Santana and two by the emerging Mike Pelfrey. In that July 27 start, his first after the second blown Philly game, Santana threw what was at the time a season-high 118 pitches to go the distance against St. Louis, despite the fact that New York was winning handily (the final score was 9-1). Two starts ago Santana tossed his first shutout of the season in a 4-0 win over Pittsburgh, and on Friday he ground his way through seven shutout innings against the Astros on a season-high 121 tosses, the most he had thrown since April of 2006.

Last night, Pedro Martinez wasn't been able to do likewise, as he exited after a five-run fifth inning that cut the Mets' early 7-0 lead down to 7-5. New York's bullpen blew it again by allowing single runs in the eighth and ninth before Philly won it in the 13th. It was the largest comeback for the Phillies since 2000, the largest lead that the Mets had blown since 2003, and it dropped New York a half-game behind Philadelphia as the two continue their back-and-forth dogfight.

Matchup: Marlins (67-65) at Braves (58-74), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Johnson (48 2/3 IP, 3.51 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Mike Hampton (32, 6.47, 1.59, 12)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 63-69 (613 RS, 643 RA); Atlanta, 64-68 (600 RS, 621 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #19; Atlanta, #18
Prospectus: Hampton continues to reacquaint himself with the National League tonight with a start against the Marlins, one of his former clubs. The left-hander never threw a pitch for Florida, but he received a few healthy handfuls of Jeffrey Loria's teal-colored cash, as Hampton was a member of the Marlins for just two days. On November 16, 2002, he was dealt from the Rockies along with Juan Pierre and cash for Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, Vic Darensbourg, and Pablo Ozuna, and then on November 18 the Fish shipped him off to Atlanta along with more cash for Tim Spooneybarger and Ryan Baker, neither of whom panned out at the major league level. Under the terms of the complicated swap, Florida was responsible for $23.5 million of Hampton's then-record $121 million seven-year deal, a commitment that the Marlins finished paying off in 2005.

The Braves picked up one of their most memorable wins of the season last night, scoring four runs in the ninth off of Marlins closer Kevin Gregg to beat Florida 10-9. While Atlanta still hasn't won a one-run game on the road, it has now won seven at home, running its record for the season in such contests to 7-25. Since 1901, that is the second-worst winning percentage in one-run affairs of the over-2,200 team seasons that have been played, better only than the 1935 Boston Braves, who went 7-31 (or a .184 winning percentage) in a 38-115 season. These Braves aren't nearly that bad, but with Casey Kotchman on the bereavement list and Greg Norton dealing with a shoulder injury, they have resorted to playing a middle infielder at first base. Martin Prado is doing his best to act the part of a slugging corner man, and after two doubles in last night's game he is carrying a .344/.399/.520 line in 139 plate appearances, with the second-best MLVr (.342) and EqA (.306) on the team, behind Chipper Jones. While that's obviously well beyond his expected level of production, Prado's body of work in the minors (career .300/.352/.393 in over 2,000 PA in good pitcher's parks) shows that he can be at the least a very good utility infielder for Atlanta.

Matchup: Reds (58-74) at Astros (66-66), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Josh Fogg (69 1/3 IP, 8.05 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (157 1/3, 4.63, 1.33, 132)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 56-76 (556 RS, 660 RA); Houston, 62-70 (591 RS, 636 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #26; Houston, #23
Prospectus: Oswalt is starting to turn it on at the tail end of a disappointing season, and he has tossed four straight quality starts, retiring the final 20 Mets hitters that faced him last Friday in a complete-game loss versus Johan Santana. The first of those quality starts came against the Reds, whom Oswalt has now beaten twice in two starts this season, running his career record against Cincinnati to 21-1 in 26 games. That is by far the best winning percentage for one pitcher against any one team in the past 50 years (minimum 20 starts). Here is the top 10:


Pitcher          Victim    W  L  Pct
Roy Oswalt       Reds     19  1  95.0
Camilo Pascual   Rangers  13  1  92.9
Jake Peavy       Dodgers  12  1  92.3
Sandy Koufax     Mets     17  2  89.5
Dwight Gooden    Cubs     28  4  87.5
Sandy Koufax     Astros   14  2  87.5
Eric Show        Braves   18  3  85.7
Mel Stottlemyre  Angels   18  3  85.7
Jeff Suppan      Brewers  12  2  85.7
Barry Zito       Mariners 12  2  85.7

Oswalt's complete game in his last start was the first this year for any Astros pitcher, and left Cincinnati as the only team without one. The Reds removed themselves from that ignominious position last night, when Bronson Arroyo tossed a five-hit gem to win the first game of this series 2-1. Those nine innings pushed the overall number for Reds' starters to 736 2/3 on the season, the second-lowest total in the National League, more than only Pittsburgh. Fogg has failed to make it through five innings in four of his last five starts; in his 12 starts on the year he is averaging less than five per outing, with 53 runs allowed in 52 1/3 innings, a sub-replacement level performance.

Fortunately for Fogg, he will be facing an Astros lineup that has turned into a repository for past-peak former stars and fading role players. The Astros have only two players under 30 in their regular lineup-Hunter Pence in right field, and the platoon of Michael Bourn and Reggie Abercrombie in center. By the team-age calculations of Baseball-Reference, the Astros' batch of hitters are a collective 31.1 years old, almost a full year older than any other NL unit-an especially disconcerting thought when considering that Houston ranks just 11th in the circuit in scoring. Houston is not much younger on the pitching side either, averaging 30.7 years, tied with Philadelphia for the circuit's oldest group. Combine that with the worst farm system in the NL, and it's hard to fault the Astros for making their quixotic charge toward the postseason.

Thanks to William Burke for research assistance.

Matchup: Brewers (77-55) at Cardinals (73-60), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (142 2/3 IP, 4.35 RA, 1.51 WHIP, 120 K) vs. Adam Wainwright (97 2/3, 3.32, 1.09, 66) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 73-59 (632 RS, 558 RA); St. Louis, 72-61 (647 RS, 594 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #6; St. Louis, #13
Prospectus: Wainwright looked sharp last Friday in his first outing in over two and a half months, beating the Braves with a six-inning, one-run performance. The Cardinals were debating whether to bring their Opening Day starter back in his 2006 role as a short reliever to help out the embattled bullpen, but decided to stick with him as a starter. Especially in the wake of Chris Carpenter's latest injury, that appears to be the correct call; Wainwright's return allows the Cardinals to avoid resorting to the alternatives (Mitchell Boggs, Brad Thompson, Mike Parisi, and Jaime Garcia) they have shuffled through this season without finding much success. Wainwright's return also adds a dominating element to a rotation that has performed surprisingly well this season: despite getting only three starts from Carpenter and 14 from Wainwright, St. Louis ranks sixth in the majors with an SNLVAR of 18.2. The Cardinals need their ace to deliver a victory tonight, for this is the last chance that St. Louis has to cut down its 4 game wild-card deficit in head-to-head play.

The Cardinals entered last night's game having been shut out just twice all season, fewer times than any other team. The Brewers pushed that number to three with a 12-0 romp, the second time they have shut down the Redbirds this season (the first came on July 23, also at Busch Stadium, on a complete-game effort from CC Sabathia). Milwaukee's pitching has been dominant lately, and is sporting a 2.70 RA and 1.13 WHIP during August, both the best marks in the majors for the month. While the starting pitching, powered by Sabathia, Ben Sheets, and Dave Bush has been phenomenal, Milwaukee's bullpen is also turning around its act, and over the last six games has given up just three runs in 20 innings. All that has helped the Brewers go 15-4 from August 5 onward, tied for the best record in baseball over that stretch with the Cubs, who remain five games ahead of the Crew in the NL Central.

Matchup: Rockies (63-71) at Giants (58-74), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Livan Hernandez (152 IP, 6.75 RA, 1.70 WHIP, 59 K) vs. Tim Lincecum (177 2/3, 2.74, 1.19, 200)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 62-72 (631 RS, 684 RA); San Francisco, 55-77 (505 RS, 611 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #21; San Francisco, #24
Prospectus: Lincecum fanned eight in eight shutout innings against the Padres last Friday, becoming the 13th pitcher in Giants franchise history to strike out 200 men in a season, and joining Jason Schmidt as the only two Giants to do so in the last 30 years. Lincecum is on track to start six more times this season, and would fan around 45 more batters at his current pace, which would give him nearly 400 strikeouts combined between his first two major league seasons. The record for strikeouts in the first two seasons of a career since 1900 is held by Doc Gooden, who fanned a remarkable 544 in 1984 and '85; just three other pitchers have topped 400, including Hideo Nomo with 470 in '95-'96.

This game therefore offers a striking contrast (no pun intended), for while Lincecum tops all 94 major league qualifiers for the ERA title with 10.1 K/9, Hernandez is at the very bottom, with 3.5 K/9. Hernandez has not been treated well by the National League since returning to the senior circuit from Minnesota, as he has given up 25 hits in 12 1/3 innings over three starts for Colorado. That barrage has pushed his seasonal H/9 rate up to 13.3, the third highest ever by a pitcher with at least 150 innings since the turn of the 20th century, while Lincecum has a lower H/9 (7.3) than every pitcher except Ryan Dempster this year among NL qualifiers. Lincecum also leads all National Leaguers with 6.7 SNLVAR. While their results on the mound this year couldn't be any different, in some sense the 33-year-old veteran Cuban is a colleague of the 24-year-old skinny right-hander, for both pitchers are physical freaks of the rubber-armed variety: Hernandez because of his ability to pitch every fifth day and throw more than 200 innings every season, and Lincecum for his ability to contort his 160-pound frame to deliver consistent mid-90s heat without ever needing to ice his arm.

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

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