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August 30, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (73-62) at Cubs (85-50), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (150 1/3 IP, 4.79 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 126 K) vs. Ted Lilly (168, 4.39, 1.31, 155)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 76-59 (651 RS, 564 RA); Chicago, 86-49 (738 RS, 544 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: The Phillies held multi-run leads in the first two games of this series, 4-1 on Thursday night and 2-0 Friday, but blew them both in the course of losing to the NL's best team. Yesterday's game was especially tough-the tying run was walked home on a borderline 3-2 pitch from Scott Eyre to Kosuke Fukudome in the bottom of the sixth, and Philadelphia was then robbed of re-tying the game in the top of the seventh on a blown call at first base involving Ryan Howard. The Phillies will attempt to stop the bleeding this afternoon with Myers, who has not given up a run over 16 innings in his last two starts, and holds a 1.85 RA in 48 2/3 innings since returning from a minor league demotion at the end of July. In seven starts after getting called back up, just a pair of balls have left the yard against him; before being demoted Myers allowed a major league-leading 24 in 17 starts. Prior to getting sent down Myers was struggling with his velocity, as his fastball was only reaching the upper 80s, but he is now regularly sitting in the low 90s with the pitch.

With Kerry Wood having thrown four days in a row, Carlos Marmol was given the chance to close out last night's win, and he set down all five hitters he faced, fanning three. Marmol went through some periods earlier in the year when he couldn't find the plate and he was giving up home runs, but his performance has been sublime in August, with one run allowed on just two hits over 16 1/3 innings. Those three strikeouts yesterday gave him an even 100 on the year in 74 2/3 innings, and he is the only major league pitcher with a K/9 rate over 12 this season. Opponents also have just 32 hits against him, or 3.85 H/9. In a season of 70 or more innings, that is the lowest hit rate in major league history, besting the 4.04 H/9 that Eric Gagne surrendered during his 2003 Cy Young season. Just nine other relievers besides Marmol have ever come in at less than five hits per nine in a 70-plus inning season.

Matchup: White Sox (76-58) at Red Sox (78-56), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (174 2/3 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 107 K) vs. Michael Bowden (144 1/3, 2.93, 0.98, 130-minors)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 77-57 (687 RS, 587 RA); Boston, 79-55 (698 RS, 568 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Boston, #2
Prospectus: With Josh Beckett now on the DL due to elbow inflammation, the Sox have called up 21-year-old right-hander Michael Bowden from Triple-A Pawtucket to make his major league debut tonight. Taken in the supplemental first round of the 2005 draft with the 47th overall selection, a pick that the Red Sox received as compensation for the loss of Derek Lowe to free agency, Bowden was rated by Kevin Goldstein last offseason as the sixth-best Red Sox prospect, and third-best pitching prospect behind Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson. After putting up mediocre numbers in his first crack at Double-A last season, Bowden dominated the circuit in his return engagement this year, with a 2.67 RA/9, a 0.92 WHIP, and a 101/24 K/BB ratio in 19 starts. He then moved up to Pawtucket in late July, and in seven outings for the PawSox posted a 29/5 K/BB ratio. Mainly a fastball/curveball pitcher with low-90s heat, Bowden has "funky mechanics," according to Goldstein, as his delivery "almost has a hitch in it and comes in a lot of parts, so it's easy for him to get out of synch." So far this season nothing has put Bowden out of synch, and his promotion means that all five of Boston's first-round picks in 2005 have reached the majors. Thanks to the departures of Lowe, Pedro Martinez, and Orlando Cabrera to free agency following Boston's title, the Red Sox chose five times between picks number 23 and 47, landing Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, and Bowden.

Dustin Pedroia collected another four-hit game in last night's 8-0 win over the White Sox, his major league-leading sixth of the season. He also leads the majors in three-hit games with 19, and in hits overall, with 178. The 5'9" dynamo has not cooled down for two and a half months; in 63 games from June 14 onward he is hitting .384 and slugging .605. That puts him on a pace to collect 215 hits for the season, which would be the third-most ever by a Red Sox player, behind the 240 of Wade Boggs in 1985 and the 222 of Tris Speaker in 1912. While Pedroia has been drawing fewer walks than last year, he has hit for substantially more power, with a .485 slugging percentage that rates well above his 75th-percentile PECOTA projection.

Matchup: Cardinals (74-61) at Astros (69-66), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Braden Looper (162 1/3 IP, 4.27 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 80 K) vs. Brian Moehler (121 2/3, 4.22, 1.33, 66)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 73-62 (654 RS, 600 RA); Houston, 64-71 (601 RS, 641 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #11; Houston, #23
Prospectus: With the ink still drying on his brand-new $2.3 million contract extension for 2009, Moehler will attempt to push the Astros four games above .500 for the first time since the end of May. Whatever Houston is paying him for, it's certainly not his hitting, since the 12-year veteran has just one base knock this season in 36 at-bats (it was a double). Surprisingly, that .028 batting average isn't even the worst in the league so far; among pitchers with at least 40 plate appearances, Johnny Cueto and John Lannan are both hitting .026 (1-for-38). However, Moehler is one of the worst-hitting pitchers ever by batting average, with just seven safeties in 142 career at-bats. Among pitchers with at least 150 career plate appearances, that .049 average is the third worst in history, ahead of only the infamous Ron Herbel (6-for-206, .029) and Mike Thurman (4-for-131, .031). Moehler has drawn eight career walks, though, and two of his hits have been doubles, which removes him from consideration for all-time worst-hitting pitcher-Moehler's career EqA is -.146, but as bad as that is there are a few contemporaries who have lower marks, including Aaron Harang (-.148) and Mark Redman (-.167). In contrast, his opponent has proven handy with the bat this season, as Looper has a .252 EqA thanks to 14 hits in 51 at-bats.

The Astros' season has produced a number of offensive disappointments, with one of the greatest being Miguel Tejada. Found to be two years older than was thought before the season, the now-34 Tejada got off to an excellent start, hitting .345 with a 947 OPS in April, but he soon began to show his advancing years. Since May 19, Tejada is batting just .249/.281/.355 in 366 plate appearances, and overall is having his worst season since 1998, which was his second year in the league. That's particularly bad news for next year's Houston club, as Tejada is signed through 2008 at $13 million. The PECOTA Nate Silver ran before the season to reflect Tejada's altered age jumped his attrition rate up to 30 percent for next year, and his MORP down from a pre age-adjustment $9.2 million to $6.0 million.

Matchup: Mets (75-60) at Marlins (68-67), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Pelfrey (163 IP, 3.81 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Ricky Nolasco (171 2/3, 3.88, 1.13, 147)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 75-60 (665 RS, 591 RA); Florida, 65-70 (623 RS, 653 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #6; Florida, #17
Prospectus: Because of their ugly bullpen situation, the Mets have needed their starting pitchers to take more of the innings load, and Pelfrey has stepped forward to do exactly that, becoming the first Mets pitcher since Bret Saberhagen in 1995 to win back-to-back complete games. Pelfrey has been notably efficient in the two outings in which he handcuffed first the Braves and then the Astros, as he threw just 108 pitches in each, or 12 per inning. Since his start on June 16, Pelfrey has now produced an 11-2 record in 14 turns, more wins than any other pitcher in that stretch (A.J. Burnett and Glen Perkins both have 10), and the Mets have won 13 of the last 15 times he has taken the hill. The 6'7" right-hander will try to continue pushing his breakout season forward tonight by becoming the first Mets pitcher since Doc Gooden to win three complete games in a row, but Pelfrey is going against the team that has proven to be his chief foil this year. Pelfrey has been knocked around in all three of his starts against the Fish-for six runs in four innings on May 26, five in four on July 30, and six in 4 2/3 on August 10-taking the loss each time.

The Mets and Marlins played an entertaining ninth inning last night in the first game of this series. With two outs, none on, and the Marlins up 2-1, closer Kevin Gregg gave up back-to-back singles and then hit Delgado in the foot, before Carlos Beltran deposited a hanging splitter into right field for his eighth career grand slam. Nothing has been easy for the Mets bullpen lately, though, and new closer Luis Ayala would end up needing each of those runs, as he gave up four hits in the bottom of the frame, letting the Marlins close to 5-4, before finally retiring Wes Helms with the tying and winning runs in scoring position to end it. Gregg has earned an honorary position in New York's bullpen with his pitching lately; last night was the second consecutive game in which he gave up four runs, after blowing a three-run ninth-inning lead versus the Braves on Wednesday. Gregg has now blown a major league-leading nine saves (in 38 chances), and despite his decent-looking 3.79 ERA has been worth less than one win above a replacement-level pitcher (0.744 WXRL).

Matchup: Twins (76-59) at Athletics (62-73), 6:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Francisco Liriano (40 IP, 4.50 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 30 K) vs. Dallas Braden (56 2/3, 4.13, 1.34, 34) Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 75-60 (684 RS, 609 RA); Oakland, 64-71 (524 RS, 555 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Oakland, #19
Prospectus: The Twins continue their daunting 14-game road trip tonight in the third of four games in Oakland. After taking the first two games of their swing in Anaheim, Minnesota has dropped five of the last seven to fall out of first place in the AL Central.

The Twins beat Braden last week at home, but the left-hander has been solid in his second stint with the A's since he was recalled from Triple-A Sacramento in July, posting a 3.92 RA in 42 2/3 innings. Braden has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of top pitching prospects that has taken place in Oakland over the last year, pushed off the radar by the acquisitions of top-notch arms like Gio Gonzalez and Brett Anderson, as well as the rapid rise of internal hurlers such as Trevor Cahill, but he has quietly compiled some impressive statistics. Between this year and last at Sacramento, Braden's RA stands at 2.99 in 117 1/3 innings, with a K/BB ratio of over 4.4 (128 strikeouts versus 29 walks). Braden no longer throws his screwball, the pitch that helped him quickly move up to Double-A Midland a year after being selected at the bottom of the 24th round out of Texas Tech in 2004, as Oakland won't let him throw the pitch for fear it led to the shoulder injury he suffered in 2006. Braden has made good use of his modified arsenal, however, and has increasingly worked in a slider this year, as reflected in the Pitch F/X data: just 4.9 percent of Braden's pitches in the majors last season were sliders, a ratio he has more than tripled this year. That increased faith in the slidepiece has allowed Braden to prevent hitters from lying in wait for his excellent changeup, which he relied on heavily in 2007 for 28 percent of his tosses.

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

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