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September 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Twins (77-60) at Blue Jays (70-66), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glen Perkins (131 2/3 IP, 4.10 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 63 K) vs. David Purcey (42 1/3, 5.53, 1.37, 36) Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 76-61 (698 RS, 616 RA); Toronto, 76-60 (596 RS, 526 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Toronto, #8
Prospectus: The Twins were idle on Labor Day, but gained a share of first place when Chicago lost to Cliff Lee. With 25 games remaining, Minnesota opens up its September slate with a three-game set at the Rogers Centre, the final scheduled contests on the team's 14-game road trip, starting off with a matchup between a pair of young left-handers. The Twins are coming off a four-game series against the all-lefty Oakland rotation, and tonight's game will be the seventh straight in which Minnesota has faced a southpaw starter, the longest stretch of facing lefties that any team has gone through in 17 seasons. The Twins are not a strong offensive team versus left-handers, with a 727 OPS that ranks them 23rd in the majors and 12th in the American League, not surprising when considering that their four best hitters-Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span-all bat from the left side. (At least Mauer and Span have both posted dramatic reverse OPS splits, with Span at 771/973 vs. RHP/LHP, and Mauer at 804/964.) Minnesota has still managed to put up an excellent 27-18 record so far in games started by lefties, as opposed to 50-42 when facing a right-hander. The lefty the Twins face tonight is coming off of the best start of his professional career, during which Purcey allowed one run on five hits in eight innings versus Tampa Bay, striking out 11 without walking a batter.

Both of these pitching staffs have just had an outstanding month-Minnesota's hurlers led the American League during August with a 3.45 RA, while Toronto's were second at 3.61. That showing lowered the Blue Jays' RA on the season to 3.87, the lowest mark in the majors and also the lowest in the American League since the dawn of the high-offense era in 1993. The 2001 Seattle team that won 116 games also had an RA of 3.87, but Toronto's mark is actually a shade below that before rounding. Unfortunately for the Jays, their -6 accounting in the Pythagorean W/L department is matched this season only by the luckless Braves, and with a more even allotment of fortune the league's top staff might be pitching for a playoff spot.

Matchup: Phillies (75-63) at Nationals (53-85), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (195 2/3 IP, 3.54 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 168 K) vs. John Lannan (154, 4.32, 1.34, 94)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 78-60 (665 RS, 576 RA); Washington, 54-84 (535 RS, 682 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Washington, #30
Prospectus: Lannan has not yet finished his first full season in the majors, but he already has a substantial bit of history with the Phillies. In his major league debut on July 26, 2007, Lannan nailed Chase Utley with a pitch in the fifth inning that broke his hand and forced him out for a month, derailing what otherwise might have been an MVP campaign. Lannan then hit the next Phillies batter, Ryan Howard, prompting the rookie's ejection. Lannan did not get to face Utley and the Phillies again until July 31 of this year, when he was knocked around for eight runs in 5 2/3 innings of an 8-4 Washington loss; Lannan hit the second batter of the game, Shane Victorino, but refrained from plunking Utley, who went 1-for-3 with a walk. Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick would hit two Washington batters, including franchise player Ryan Zimmerman, who was forced to leave the game with a bruised wrist, and Utley was hit again in the eighth by reliever Jesus Colome. While those four hit batsmen could possibly have been due to something more than coincidence, Utley reaching base via a hit-by-pitch is a common occurrence. After leading the majors with 25 HBPs last season despite the time he missed, Utley is again holding the overall lead with 22 times hit this year, two more than Carlos Quentin.

Utley and the rest of the Phillies will have to deal with the hottest team in baseball tonight; after yesterday's 7-4 win over Philly, Washington has now won seven straight for the first time since going on a 10-game winning streak in June of 2005. The Nationals have finally become almost fully healthy, with their three best hitters-Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, and Elijah Dukes-all in the lineup together for the first time since late May. That combination has helped lead to 42 runs in the last five games for what had been the worst offensive team in the majors (no longer, as after yesterday's games Washington moved ahead of San Francisco in scoring). Dukes and Milledge in particular have been showing DC fans lately what the future of the franchise could look like-since the beginning of August Milledge has found his missing power stroke, hitting .333/.405/.559 in 123 PA, while Dukes has put up an 1195 OPS in six games since returning from a calf strain.

Matchup: Mets (77-61) at Brewers (80-57), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jonathan Niese (164 IP, 3.73 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 144 K-Double- and Triple-A) vs. Manny Parra (148 2/3, 4.24, 1.49, 127)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 77-61 (678 RS, 599 RA); Milwaukee, 77-60 (658 RS, 571 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #6; Milwaukee, #5
Prospectus: With John Maine possibly out for the season due to a bone spur in his right shoulder, the Mets have called up the 21-year-old left-hander Niese to make his major league debut tonight in the midst of a pennant race. Ranked second in New York's depleted system behind outfielder Fernando Martinez, Niese will become the second 2005 Mets draftee to make the majors, joining first-rounder Mike Pelfrey. Niese was a seventh-round selection that year out of Defiance, Ohio, the same high school that produced young Dodgers star Chad Billingsley. Niese is making his major league debut at almost exactly the same age that Billingsley did-55 days before his 22nd birthday for the former, compared with 44 before for the latter back in June of 2006-and Niese comes with a similar amount of hype, having turned in a superlative season in his first shot at the high minors. The lefty ranked fourth in the Eastern League with a 3.04 ERA over 22 starts before being promoted to New Orleans, where he was 5-1 with a 3.40 RA over seven starts. The Mets are throwing Niese into a precarious situation right away, on the road against a Milwaukee club that eats up left-handers (823 OPS against, second best in the NL).

New York came from two runs down to beat Milwaukee 4-2 in yesterday afternoon's opener thanks to Carlos Delgado, who hit a two-run shot in the eighth inning off Eric Gagne despite what the slugging first baseman called "probably the worst shadows that I've been involved with since I've been in professional baseball." The blast continued Delgado's surprising resurgence-since June 27 he has 20 homers and 60 RBI, more of each than any other NL player in that span-and also continued the nightmare season of Eric Gagne, whose ERA rose to 6.81. Although 26 of Gagne's 39 outings have been clean, he has given up multiple runs in eight games, including three or more on five occasions. As a result, the expensive import has been worse than replacement level this year, contributing a WXRL of -0.42, the lowest mark on the Brewers. Gagne has also given up 10 home runs, a higher HR/9 (2.5) than every pitcher except Oscar Villarreal (2.9), who was released by the Astros for his efforts.

Matchup: Astros (72-66) at Cubs (85-53), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Brandon Backe (159 1/3 IP, 5.54 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 122 K) vs. Carlos Zambrano (168 1/3, 3.69, 1.30, 114)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 66-72 (615 RS, 646 RA); Chicago, 87-51 (743 RS, 557 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: After being pushed back from his scheduled start last Sunday because of a tired arm, Zambrano gets the nod tonight in an attempt to cool off the Astros, who beat Chicago yesterday afternoon for their sixth straight victory. This was the second time that the Cubs decided to be cautious with their ace and give him extra rest, which is a luxury that the National League's best team can afford given its 4-game lead in the NL Central. It certainly appears that the move was justified, for Big Z has given up 21 runs in 21 2/3 innings over his last four starts.

While Zambrano is no longer having the best season of his career on the mound, his recent pitching slump has not affected his bat. With five hits in his last 11 at-bats, including two home runs, Zambrano's seasonal line is now up to .365/.365/.608 in 76 plate appearances. That .365 average is the highest by a pitcher in a season of 70 or more plate appearances since 1939, when Curt Davis hit .381, and the fourth-highest slugging percentage of all time, behind Don Newcombe (.632 in 1955), Wes Ferrell (.621 in 1931), and Brooks Kieschnick (.614 in 2003). Zambrano has a .309 EqA, which is by far the best mark among pitchers this season; in second place is tonight's Astros starter Backe, at .278, while no one else is any higher than .242 (Braden Looper). It can be argued that Backe is the best-hitting pitcher currently in baseball-his career OPS+ in 153 plate appearances is 92, the highest of any active player. Dontrelle Willis is second at 68, Mike Hampton third, and Zambrano fourth (61). In Nate Silver's May article on pitcher hitting, Backe was rated as the ninth-best hitting pitcher now active, and Zambrano the fourth best.

Matchup: Cardinals (74-64) at Diamondbacks (70-67), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Adam Wainwright (103 2/3 IP, 3.39 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Yusmeiro Petit (47 2/3, 3.21, 0.80, 36)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 74-64 (665 RS, 619 RA); Arizona, 72-65 (632 RS, 601 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #11; Arizona, #13
Prospectus: Stephen Drew hit for the cycle in Arizona's come-from-behind victory over the Cardinals yesterday afternoon, becoming the third member of the Diamondbacks to pull off the rare feat. He also did so while collecting five hits total, with an extra double, making his accomplishment even more unique. Of the 135 cycles that have been recorded since the beginning of game-log data availability in 1956, only 26, or less than one in five, have featured more than four hits-and two of those came yesterday, after Adrian Beltre collected five hits and the cycle as well in Seattle's win over Texas. Drew's cycle was also just the 13th to feature four extra-base hits. One other Diamondback shows up on that list-Greg Colbrunn, who in a road game versus San Diego in 2002 hit two home runs in addition to his triple, double, and single. Colbrunn had one of only three recorded cycles to feature two home runs, with the others owned by George Brett (1979) and Carl Yastrzemski (1965).

Drew now ranks third in the National League with 10 triples, and Arizona leads the circuit with 40, or more than twice the Cardinals' total (19). Part of that disparity has to do with the parks that the teams play in: by the park factors that PECOTA generated for its use prior to this season, Chase Field is the easiest stadium in the majors to triple in for both right-handed batters (129.2 factor, with Coors Field second at 120.2) and lefties (141.0, with the Metrodome second at 134.9). Drew has indeed enjoyed dashing around the bases at home, for nine of his 10 triples have come in Arizona, and overall he is hitting .314/.351/.547 in the desert and just .265/.305/.436 on the road-not a surprising split given that Chase Field is the best hitter's park for left-handers other than Coors. Overall Arizona has a 792/694 OPS split between home and road, having scored almost a run more per game in Chase.

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

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