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September 4, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Pirates (59-79) at Reds (61-78), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tom Gorzelanny (99 1/3 IP, 6.70 RA, 1.77 WHIP, 60 K) vs. Josh Fogg (75 1/3, 7.65, 1.58, 44)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 57-81 (624 RS, 759 RA); Cincinnati, 60-79 (593 RS, 692 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #29; Cincinnati, #26
Prospectus: The Pirates and Reds will give new meaning to the phrase "getaway day" this afternoon when they send Gorzelanny and Fogg to the hill in the series' final game, with Pittsburgh looking for a sweep. Fogg and Gorzelanny have both been lit up like no others this season-among National League pitchers with at least 75 innings, Fogg ranks last in ERA at 7.29, and Gorzelanny second to last at 6.61. Despite their struggles, though, this game will be a battle between the moveable object and the resistable force, for neither the Pittsburgh nor Cincinnati offense is potent after recent trades stripped both of their major salable parts. The Pirates at least have some reason for optimism regarding Gorzelanny; after being hit hard by Milwaukee in his first start after returning from a demotion to the minors he came back against the same Brewers last Friday and turned in a quality outing. Gorzelanny pitched very well down at Triple-A Indianapolis as well: in seven starts, he gave up 11 runs over 35 innings (2.83 RA), with a 0.91 WHIP and 33/4 K/BB ratio.

The 25-year-old lefty lasted just two-thirds of an inning in his last outing at the Great American Ball Park, the shortest start of his career, but that was back when the Reds still had both Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, and when Gorzelanny was in the midst of his early-season struggles. Gorzelanny fell victim to Tom Verducci's Year After Effect, as his innings increased by 40 from his rookie season of 2006 to 2007, and his performance this season has suffered badly, likely at least in part both because of that innings jump and the way that he was pushed last September. If Gorzelanny can make his way back to the form he showed throughout most of the '07 campaign, he could team with fellow southpaw Paul Maholm, himself in a breakout campaign, to form an excellent young left-handed rotation tandem in Pittsburgh.

Matchup: Angels (84-54) at Tigers (67-72), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (184 2/3 IP, 3.46 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 183 K) vs. Kenny Rogers (167, 5.66, 1.59, 80)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 75-63 (639 RS, 582 RA); Detroit, 69-70 (704 RS, 709 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #7; Detroit, #16
Prospectus: The Angels will be celebrating their second straight AL West title and fourth in the last five years sometime in the coming week, as the team's magic number for clinching the division is down to seven. Los Angeles is not without problems however, and the luxury of resting up for the playoffs in September has become a necessity for the Angels in the infield. The Angels are currently down their two starting middle infielders, who are both suffering hamstring woes: second baseman Howie Kendrick hit the DL last Thursday with the same strain that kept him off of the field for 42 games during the first two months of the year, and shortstop Erick Aybar is not with the team on its current six-game road trip because of soreness in his left hammy as well, instead remaining at home in Anaheim to receive treatment. Super-sub Maicer Izturis is already out for the season with a torn ligament in his left thumb, so the Angels have consequently been starting a pair of 23-year-old rookies up the middle: Brandon Wood at shortstop, and Sean Rodriguez at second base. Wood started out as a shortstop before being moved to third last year, and was moved back to short again this season. If he can stick at the more difficult defensive position, Wood could be a tremendous asset; the 23-year-old has tremendous power, hitting 31 homers this season at Triple-A Salt Lake to go along with a .595 slugging percentage, and he has mashed 122 long balls over the past four minor league seasons. Rodriguez hit even better than Wood this year for the Salt Lake Bees, putting up a 1042 OPS. Given that hamstring problems often linger, and that both Kendrick and Aybar clearly have difficulty with remaining in working order for any length of time, both Wood and Rodriguez could end up playing a larger role in LA's October quest than either they or the team originally thought.

Matchup: Nationals (54-86) at Braves (60-80), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Shairon Martis (116 1/3 IP, 4.02 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 99 K-Double- and Triple-A) vs. Jo-Jo Reyes (90 1/3, 5.86 RA, 1.63 WHIP, 73 K)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 55-85 (544 RS, 693 RA); Atlanta, 67-73 (642 RS, 674 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; Atlanta, #21
Prospectus: Martis will make his major league debut tonight after being called up in Washington's September roster expansion. At 21 years old and with a March, 1987 birth date, Martis will become the second-youngest pitcher to appear in the majors this season (the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw was born in March of '88). Martis is just the 10th major league player to hail from the Netherlands Antilles, and coming from Willemstad, on the island of Curacao, he's only the second pitcher (along with Braves rookie starter Jair Jurrjens). He is also the second player from Curacao to be called up by the Nats this September, following in the footsteps of outfielder Rogearvin Bernadina. Martis pitched for the Netherlands in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, and tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama. He came to the Nationals near the trade deadline in 2006 from San Francisco in exchange for Mike Stanton.

Tonight, Martis will attempt to become the third Washington pitcher in five games to pick up his first major league win, after reliever Steven Shell and starter Garrett Mock got on the board in back-to-back games August 30-31. Washington has been playing the spoiler role expertly in the past week, sweeping the Dodgers and taking two of three from Philadelphia as part of their 8-1 homestand. Sandwiched between those two series with contenders was a sweep of the Braves, who the Nats will now visit for four games. Meanwhile, Atlanta continued its post-break scuffling last night with a 5-3 road loss to Florida, a game from which Bobby Cox was tossed for the eighth time this season, extending his major league record for ejections to 143. Washington has displayed a surprising mastery of Atlanta this year, winning 10 of 14 contests, including the last five. The Nationals only have a winning record against two other teams-Seattle and Pittsburgh.

Matchup: Yankees (75-64) at Rays (84-53), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Darrell Rasner (108 IP, 5.58 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (126 1/3, 3.28, 1.23, 140)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 74-65 (679 RS, 634 RA); Tampa Bay, 78-59 (643 RS, 554 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #10; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: Last night Alex Rodriguez became the first player to have a potential home run reviewed by an umpiring crew with instant replay, when A-Rod's ninth-inning shot careened off of the catwalk behind the left-field foul pole at Tropicana Field. Both Tampa Bay catcher Dioner Navarro and manager Joe Maddon argued the call of the home run on the field, and while all four umpires said they were in agreement that the call was right, they decided to review the play anyway, taking two minutes and 15 seconds to confirm that the ball was indeed fair. It was fitting that Rodriguez should be the first to test the new system, because back on May 21 against the Orioles he was robbed of a home run when the umpires incorrectly ruled that his fly ball was hit off of the wall and not over the fence. That was one of what MLB said were 18 boundary calls that would have been reviewed this year prior to the institution of replay last week.

Rodriguez's homer was also notable because of its timing: it was his second ninth-inning blast of the year. A-Rod has taken a considerable amount of flak this season for his failures in clutch situations, criticism which can be grounded in the numbers: when his OPS is broken down by inning, the second- and third-lowest marks come in his eighth- and ninth-inning plate appearances. In situations determined as High Leverage-categorized by Baseball-Reference as those featuring a leverage rating of 1.50 or above, generally about 20 percent of all plays-his OPS is 782, compared with 930 in medium-leverage spots, and 1176 in low-leverage ones. While those figures fit with the widespread feeling that A-Rod isn't clutch, the sample sizes are hardly large enough to be significant, and last year A-Rod was one of the most clutch players in the game, doing his best work (1146 OPS) in high-leverage spots. For his career, Rodriguez has essentially been the exact same hitter in all situations, actually sporting a slightly higher OPS in high-leverage spots (975) than in medium (960) or low (972). That is impressive, for high-leverage situations are more likely to feature set-up relievers and closers throwing fire, which is much tougher on a hitter than getting to face a starter several times in a row.

Matchup: Padres (53-86) at Brewers (80-59), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Estes (168 IP, 3.64 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 154 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (49, 7.71, 1.94, 34) Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 57-82 (537 RS, 655 RA); Milwaukee, 78-61 (665 RS, 586 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #27; Milwaukee, #5
Prospectus: The Padres have been one of the worst offensive teams this season, a malaise which has extended from the batter's box to the basepaths. In their last 63 games, the Friars have stolen just six bases, while getting caught six times. On the season, San Diego's total of 30 steals ranks last in the majors, ten below Pittsburgh. That puts the Padres on pace for 35 steals this year, which would be the second-lowest total since the '93 expansion (excluding the strike season), more than only the 2005 Oakland squad's 31. That A's team attempted 53 steals, with 22 times caught stealing, while this year's Padres team has been caught less often and is only on pace for 51 attempts fall year. If they do indeed punch out with that mark at year's end, it would be the lowest total of attempted thefts in 35 years, since the 1973 Mets ran just 49 times en route to the National League pennant. Don't expect the Padres to go on a thieving binge in the final month either, for their team leader in steals-Tadahito Iguchi, with a modest total of eight-was recently released to make way for youngsters; Jody Gerut, who ranks second with six, remains sidelined with a sore finger; and Khalil Greene, third on the squad with five, is out for the season with a fractured hand.

Combine San Diego's paucity of steal attempts with the fact that the Padres still rank last in the majors in caught-stealing percentage-31/184, or 17 percent-and it's clear that the stolen base, on offense or defense, simply isn't San Diego's forte. Milwaukee meanwhile has remained at the top of the chart in terms of gunning runners down, as Jason Kendall has helped the Brewers catch 41 of 106, or 39 percent. Because of his defensive prowess, Kendall has been worked very hard this year: the veteran has started 10 straight games behind the plate and 19 of the last 20. For the season, Kendall has received just 13 days off, or only about one every 11 games. Kendall tops all major league catchers with 126 games started behind the dish, heading towards a career high-tying total of 147.

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

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