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August 28, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (77-55) at Yankees (70-62), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (170 IP, 3.65 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 116 K) vs. Mike Mussina (159 1/3, 4.01, 1.21, 109)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 78-54 (688 RS, 565 RA); New York, 69-63 (638 RS, 603 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; New York, #8
Prospectus: Tonight will be the last regular-season game ever played between Boston and New York in the House that Ruth Built. It also represents perhaps the last stand for the Yankees in their quest to send off the historic venue with a few playoff games. That quest is getting increasingly difficult; lose tonight, and not only would New York suffer the shame of being swept by the Red Sox in the arch-rivals' final clash at the Stadium, but they would also be eight games behind in the wild-card standings, with two teams to pass. After last night's drubbing at the hands of the Sox, New York's playoff chance dropped to 1.41, the lowest it has been at any point this season.

Lester tossed a complete-game shutout in his first career start at Yankee Stadium on July 3, becoming the 13th pitcher in the last 50 years to blank New York while pitching in the Bronx for the first time. Two days later, Mussina tossed six shutout frames versus the Red Sox to win his 11th game of the year. Moose is now up to 16 wins on the season, and will need to win four of his six remaining turns down the stretch in order to reach the 20-win landmark, which he has yet to achieve. Mussina has won 19 games twice (in both 1995 and '96) and 18 three times (in '92, '99, and '02). Finally reaching 20 could be seen in the eyes of many in the BBWAA as the last accomplishment Mussina needs in order to be worthy of their Hall of Fame votes. Even if he doesn't win 20, Mussina's strong comeback in 2008 has made his case for enshrinement a very strong one-as a reader recently noted in a chat, it's hard to think of another player who has better bolstered his chances with a late-career effort. Even before the year began, Mussina already rated above the HoF pitcher average in terms of Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, as well as three of the four tests derived by Bill James (Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Standards, and Hall of Fame Monitor).

Matchup: Blue Jays (68-64) at Rays (80-51), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jesse Litsch (128 IP, 4.57 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 66 K) vs. Edwin Jackson (149, 3.99, 1.44, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 73-59 (580 RS, 513 RA); Tampa Bay, 74-57 (600 RS, 521 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #9; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: The top two squads by run-prevention in the American League play the rubber match of their three-game set tonight, after each showed off their pitching prowess in last night's 1-0 Rays victory. Toronto and Tampa Bay rank one-two in the AL in starting pitchers' performance by SNLVAR, respectively, and the two squads also top the major leagues in the quality of relief work: Toronto's firemen have amassed a major league-leading 64 ARP, with Tampa Bay second at 59. That latter figure for the Rays represents an improvement of over 154 runs of ARP from last season's record-low -95 performance, far and away the largest single-season jump in the Baseball Prospectus database. Despite not being quite as good as Toronto this year by context-free performance, Tampa Bay's relievers have delivered a far better showing in high-leverage situations-the Rays bullpen has been a major league-best 13.1 wins better than replacement (by WXRL), nearly twice the Toronto total of 7.4, which ranks them just 12th. The Blue Jays have dropped 11 games this year that they led at the start of the seventh, as opposed to just three such defeats for Tampa Bay.

Litsch has kept the Blue Jays' pitching rolling of late, having not allowed a run over 13 innings in two starts since returning from a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse. While Litsch doesn't throw particularly hard, he has five different pitches that he mixes up quite well-his main offering is a cutter, which he throws 44 percent of the time, while he also tosses a changeup, a curve, a slider, and a four-seamer. Litsch's opponent on the hill enters tonight's game in a groove as well, having won five of his last six starts while posting a 2.86 RA. Jackson is having a fortuitous season with runners on base, holding hitters to a .234/.300/.387 line with men on. He has also induced 24 ground-ball double plays, the second most in the American League, despite the fact that his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio ranks in the bottom 25 percent of all qualified pitchers (192 grounders to 195 flies).

Matchup: Dodgers (65-68) at Nationals (48-85), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Clayton Kershaw (76 2/3 IP, 4.11 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 69 K) vs. John Lannan (148, 4.38, 1.35, 92) Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 67-66 (546 RS, 539 RA); Washington, 49-84 (493 RS, 661 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #14; Washington, #30
Prospectus: The Nationals haven't drawn all that well during the first season in their new stadium, averaging a shade under 30,000 fans per game. That figure represents 71.5 percent of the capacity of Nationals Park, and is the fourth-lowest average attendance in the National League. Still, a lot more fans have come out to watch the Nationals play live than are listening to the team on the radio. The new park provides some attraction to distract from the abysmal product on the field, while the airwaves simply carry the strains of a losing team with little promise, and the denizens of the nation's capital therefore aren't bothering to tune in: the Washington Post recently reported that the team's radio broadcasts garnered around 26,500 listeners per week from May to July, less than the average attendance at a single home game. In fact, according to the Post the sample of listeners measured by Arbitron is not big enough to produce a reliable estimate, meaning that the actual number of people listening is likely even lower than what has been reported. As Joe Sheehan wrote on Tuesday, Washington this year has one of the worst offenses of the high-octane era that began in 1993, and that punchless attack has put the team on pace to lose 100 games for the third time in franchise history, and the first since the 1976 Expos dropped 107 contests.

Those faithful few who are tuning in have been treated to some good news lately (for a change), as Washington played the spoiler role to perfection the last two nights by beating Los Angeles in back-to-back one-run games to open a nine-game homestand, handing the Dodgers their fifth and sixth losses in a row. Luckily for the floundering visitors, Arizona has dropped five of the past six, and so Los Angeles has fallen just one game further behind the Snakes in the standings.

Matchup: Phillies (73-60) at Cubs (83-50), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (188 2/3 IP, 3.63 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 162 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (170 2/3, 3.22, 1.17, 153)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 76-57 (645 RS, 555 RA); Chicago, 85-48 (729 RS, 538 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #12; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: Instant replay debuts with the three series that open tonight, including this one, as well as the Rangers at Angels and Twins at A's. Replay will only be available for disputed home-run calls. Each ballpark has had a television and a "secure" telephone installed that are both linked to Major League Baseball's Network Operations Center in Manhattan, where "all televised MLB games will be monitored and staffed by an expert technician and either an umpire supervisor or a former umpire." The crew chief will make the call on whether a disputed home-run call should be reviewed, and if so will call the operations center to have the technicians beam "the most appropriate video footage" into the ballpark. The call in question will then be altered only if the crew chief determines that there is "clear and convincing evidence that the umpire's decision on the field was incorrect and should be reversed." According to MLB, it will take 2 minutes and 30 seconds to review a play, and MLB has also stated that since the beginning of the season there would have been 18 disputed calls that would have received this treatment.

The player most likely to test the new system on this first night is of course Ryan Howard, who leads the National League with 36 homers. Howard also tops the senior circuit with 112 RBI, despite the fact that his batting average has dropped all the way down to .228 on the season after a .176 month of August (16-for-91). No other player in baseball history has driven in as many as 110 runs in a season with a batting average below .230, although three other players did so while batting .240 or below-Jose Canseco in 1986 (117 RBI with a .240 BA), Jeff King in '97 (112 with a .238), and Joe Carter in '90 (115 with a .232). There has been just one other player who knocked in 100 runs while hitting for a lower average than Howard: Tony Armas, who drove home 107 for Boston in 1983 while hitting just .218.

Matchup: Twins (75-58) at Athletics (61-72), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (157 1/3 IP, 4.58 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Dana Eveland (132, 4.36, 1.49, 92)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 73-60 (670 RS, 604 RA); Oakland, 64-69 (519 RS, 541 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #10; Oakland, #20
Prospectus: Last night Brad Ziegler's compelling season continued into its latest chapter, as he closed out his sixth save in six opportunities since taking over the closer's job from Huston Street, shutting down the division-leading Angels while lowering his RA/9 to 0.39 on the season. After Garret Anderson reached on an error to lead off the ninth and Rob Quinlan walked following a Reggie Willits sacrifice to put the winning run on first, Ziegler got Juan Rivera to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play to end the game. It was the third game-ending double play that the side-arming rookie right-hander has induced in his last seven appearances, and the 16th twin-killing the A's have turned in his 46 2/3 innings on the mound this year, 15 of them on ground balls. To put that number in perspective, Mark Buehrle has induced 27 double-play grounders this year to lead the majors, while throwing close to four times the number of innings that Ziegler has. Forty batters have hit against Ziegler so far in situations where a GIDP was possible, and they have complied a remarkable 37.5 percent of the time. Thus far his filthy sinker has produced 87 grounders versus 22 flies, a G/F ratio of 3.95 that ranks as the second best in baseball behind Chad Bradford (5.60). Batters have had extreme difficulty hitting anything hard in the air against him, and just four of the 28 hits Ziegler has allowed have gone for extra-bases-three doubles and a triple-leaving his opponent ISO a paltry .034. Last night's effort moved him into first place in the majors in ARP, with 25 runs prevented above average, and he now ranks seventh in WXRL at 4.3 wins added.

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

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