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August 29, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (73-61) at Cubs (84-50), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Joe Blanton (165 IP, 4.96 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 89 K) vs. Rich Harden (126, 2.14, 1.03, 162)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 76-58 (649 RS, 561 RA); Chicago, 85-49 (735 RS, 542 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #12; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: Blanton was Oakland's Opening Day starter this season, while Harden took the ball in the second game, but after being split up in midsummer trades, the former top two starters in the Athletics rotation now find themselves pitching against one another as National Leaguers. Harden and Blanton have both had success for their respective contending teams upon leaving Oakland, where they were partnered for four and a half seasons, although Harden's level of success has been unmatched throughout the entire major leagues. In fact, thanks to a blistering beginning for his new club, in which he has reached double-digits in strikeouts in five out of eight starts, Harden's K/9 on the season stands at a MLB-best 11.6. Although he hasn't pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, if Harden stays healthy for the stretch drive and maintains his current strikeout prowess he will crack the top 10 best seasons (all-time) by strikeout rate. Only three pitchers have fanned a greater number per nine than Harden this year in a season while throwing at least 120 innings : Randy Johnson (six times), Pedro Martinez (twice), and Kerry Wood (once).

Wood is of course now in the Chicago bullpen, and with the midseason additions of Harden and Jeff Samardzija (18 K in 17 1/3 relief innings), Chicago has now regained its now-customary position at the top of the majors in K/9-a position which it has occupied every season since 2001-after briefly losing the spot to the Tim Lincecum-led Giants earlier in the summer.

While Blanton's impact looks pedestrian in contrast to the huge splash Harden has made on the North Side, the right-handed workhorse has pitched better since arriving in Philadelphia, with a 4.03 RA in 38 innings (compared with 5.24 in 127 for Oakland). Although Blanton has won only one game and thrown just three quality starts for his new team, the Phillies are 5-2 in his seven starts.

Matchup: White Sox (76-57) at Red Sox (77-56), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (171 IP, 4.47 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 163 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (132 2/3, 3.19, 1.38, 117)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 77-56 (687 RS, 579 RA); Boston, 78-55 (690 RS, 568 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Boston, #2
Prospectus: The White Sox make their first trip of the year to Fenway Park for a series that could preview an October matchup. Vazquez will be looking to move past his last, frustrating outing; the right-hander was cruising past Tampa Bay at US Cellular Field, retiring the first 17 batters to face him, but with two outs in the top of the sixth the Rays peppered Vazquez with three straight hits to push a run across, and two innings later loaded the bases with none out to force him from the game, eventually scoring four times against the White Sox bullpen to steal away the win. Forgive Sox fans if they experienced a bad sense of deja vu while watching the latter innings of that game unfold, for Vazquez's outing was the second time in the past three weeks that a Sox pitcher got the first 17 outs before having things unravel. In the fourth and final game of the last series between the White Sox and Red Sox on August 11 in Chicago, John Danks lost his perfect game when he nailed Jacoby Ellsbury in the back with two outs in the sixth, lost his no-hitter in the seventh when Kevin Youkilis singled with one out, and lost his shutout-and the game-when J.D. Drew doubled home two runs three batters later. Chicago also had two near no-hitters earlier in the season, both thrown by Gavin Floyd, who went 7 1/3 without allowing a safety against Detroit, and then 8 1/3 versus Minnesota, but the White Sox managed to win both of those games.

Matsuzaka has been moved up in the rotation to start tonight's series opener in place of Josh Beckett, who instead of taking the mound will be in Alabama having Dr. James Andrews examine his right elbow. (Matsuzaka is still on regular rest due to Boston's offday on Monday.)

Matchup: Orioles (63-70) at Rays (81-51), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Guthrie (183 2/3 IP, 3.53 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 117 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (121, 3.42, 1.23, 134)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 66-67 (682 RS, 684 RA); Tampa Bay, 75-57 (603 RS, 523 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #17; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: All-Star George Sherrill has been on the disabled list for the last 11 games, but no clear ninth-inning alternate has emerged for Baltimore in the interim. The Orioles have won just three of those 11 games, all of which were blowouts-16-8, 11-6, and 11-3-so there have been no save opportunities through which to vet a replacement candidate. Actually, that last statement isn't quite correct, since their game with the White Sox from April 28 that had been suspended after 11 innings was played to its conclusion on Monday, and the Orioles pulled out a 4-3 win in the 14th, with the recently-recalled Rocky Cherry picking up the save. (Cherry was down in Triple-A Norfolk when the game began, Luis Montanez, who got the winning hit, was in Double-A Bowie, and the losing pitcher Horacio Ramirez was a member of the Royals organization.) Cherry's save is not necessarily indicative of manager Dave Trembley's future ninth-inning preference, because Jim Johnson, the best reliever currently on Baltimore's roster, had already been used in the April game before the contest was suspended, and was therefore unavailable.

Johnson sports a 2.39 RA this year in 67 2/3 innings, and while he has undoubtedly been the beneficiary of some luck-with a very low .256 BABIP and an unimpressive 37/27 K/BB ratio-the 25-year-old right-hander's ability to render opponents powerless in his rookie campaign has put him in historic territory. Of the 53 hits Johnson has given up, just four have been for extra-bases, all doubles. He has allowed batters to slug only .235 on the year against a .218 batting average, meaning opponents have managed a measly .017 Isolated Power figure against him. Among pitchers who have thrown 50 or more frames in a season, that number is the second lowest since 1956, the period for which the data exists. The only name ahead of him is Frank Williams, a reliever in the 1980s who in '86 with San Francisco gave up just one extra-base hit (a double) in 52 1/3 innings. There isn't much to help explain the season that Johnson is having, beyond the fact that it seems he has simply taken a liking to the bullpen-he was a starter in the minor leagues up until 2008, and was putting up nondescript figures the last two seasons at the upper levels.

Matchup: Dodgers (65-69) at Diamondbacks (68-65), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (151 IP, 4.29 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 94 K) vs. Doug Davis (112 2/3, 5.03, 1.50, 96) Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 67-67 (548 RS, 550 RA); Arizona, 70-63 (612 RS, 578 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #14; Arizona, #11
Prospectus: The battle for first place in the NL West has devolved into a Cold War of epic proportion. Arizona has lost four in a row, and five of the past six, but has actually padded its lead during the slump because of the ice age that has descended upon Los Angeles. The depressed Dodgers made the cross-country trek from Washington to Arizona last night having just been swept by the worst team in the National League, with the last game on Thursday an embarrassing 11-2 blowout in which light-hitting shortstop Cristian Guzman hit for the cycle. Los Angeles has now dropped seven in a row, all on the road; their nine straight losses away from home overall represents the team's longest road losing streak since 1991, when they fell in 11 straight away from Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers consequently enter this crucial series 3 games behind Arizona, with six head-to-head battles with the Snakes remaining, and a chance at the division flag that has fallen to 23 percent. LA does have a good shot at breaking its slide tonight in going up against Davis, who did not make it out of the second inning in his last start versus the Dodgers, a six-hit, five-run performance on August 3. Kuroda, meanwhile, beat the Diamondbacks in his last start against them with seven innings of one-run ball on August 2.

Both contenders enter tonight's opener with closers who have faltered lately. Brandon Lyon has allowed 11 runs in his last six appearances, although they all scored in non-save situations. His recent troubles extend back to Arizona's mid-July series in Los Angeles: after pitching a clean ninth in the opening game, the Dodgers torched him for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings over the next two. That outburst added to the August rough patch has raised Lyon's RA from 2.84 to 5.51 in the span of 11 innings. Manager Bob Melvin, however, gave his closer a vote of confidence recently, but Melvin doesn't have much choice given that his top set-up man, Jon Rauch, who started strong after getting dealt from Washington, has given up nine runs in his last seven outings. Dodgers stopper Broxton, meanwhile, has blown two saves and taken three losses in his last nine appearances, with seven runs allowed over that stretch.

Matchup: Rockies (63-72) at Padres (51-82), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Aaron Cook (182 IP, 4.30 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Dirk Hayhurst (84, 3.86, 1.33, 98-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 62-73 (632 RS, 688 RA); San Diego, 55-78 (512 RS, 622 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #21; San Diego, #28
Prospectus: Hayhurst will make his second major league start tonight after debuting last Saturday with a three-run, four-inning performance versus San Francisco. An eighth-round draft pick back in 2003, Hayhurst spent nearly six years in the bushes before getting the call. He has been sharing his experiences as a minor league veteran in a column for Baseball America entitled "Non-Prospect Diary," which he penned while pitching out of the bullpen across three levels of the Padres system beginning at the start of last year. In the series of pieces, Hayhurst discusses a wide variety of topics related to minor league life, including the unwritten seating laws on the team bus, the zoological classification of batting-practice shaggers, the extremely personal relationship a player has with his glove, how to catch a bullpen tarantula, and, of course, the dreaded Garfoose. Hayhurst also delves into more philosophical territory, especially his frustration with the idolization of ballplayers that leads to the constant requests for autographs, which he views as nonsensical and a "dead ritual." In one of his final entries last season, Hayhurst speculated about what it might be like to finally get that major league call: "If I am honest, the closest I come to toeing the rubber of a big-league mound may be in my imagination. But in my imagination, it's a great moment. ... I have no idea [if I'll make it]. Maybe next year, maybe never, but I wouldn't trade the experience of trying to get there for anything." Now, Hayhurst has made it and is in the midst of that moment. As Padres executive Paul DePodesta wrote recently on his blog, "I guess Dirk was right-he's not a prospect. He's a big-leaguer."

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

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