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September 5, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (76-64) at Mets (79-61), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (157 1/3 IP, 4.69 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 134 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (169 2/3, 3.77, 1.35, 97)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 79-61 (676 RS, 585 RA); New York, 79-61 (693 RS, 606 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; New York, #6
Prospectus: Tonight the Mets will confront the memory of last September's stunning collapse full-on when the Phillies come to Queens for the two rivals' final series of the season, and the last ever played between the pair at Shea Stadium. In 2007, Philadelphia entered Queens on September 14 down by 6 games in the division, and proceeded to sweep New York to launch their monumental comeback, earning a division flag and an MVP award for Jimmy Rollins. Those three losses last September pushed New York's losing streak against Rollins and Co. to eight—the Mets were just 6-12 against Philadelphia on the season—but this year so far the Mets have turned that around, winning 10 of 15. Finishing the year with a winning record against Philly won't matter much, however, unless New York can continue its strong recent play with a series win this weekend. Anything less than two of three will surely refresh the latent anguish still left over from the '07 collapse among Mets fans, who are hoping not to experience that feeling of "deja vu all over again," in the words of former skipper Yogi Berra.

While the Phillies remain a frightening opponent, New York returns home from an eight-game road swing looking about as strong as any team in baseball. The Mets took six of those eight games on the trip, and have won 17 of their last 22 in all, boasting the best record in baseball since August 11. Carlos Beltran has put forth his first real hot stretch of the season, hitting five home runs while driving in 13 over the last 10 games, Ryan Church continued his return from the post-concussive symptoms that kept him out most of the past three months by belting a grand slam in Wednesday's 9-2 win over Milwaukee, and Jose Reyes tied Mookie Wilson for the franchise record in stolen bases with the 281st of his career and 47th of the season. While the offense is in good shape, New York's besieged bullpen has also held down the fort lately, with 15 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings over the last four games. The Mets will also be sending Pelfrey to the mound at Shea in tonight's opener, where he has put up a 2.84 RA this season while allowing just three home runs in 101 1/3 innings.

Matchup: Boston (82-57) at Texas (69-72), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (149 1/3 IP, 4.46 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 145 K) vs. Kevin Millwood (137 2/3, 5.10, 1.60, 101)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 84-55 (734 RS, 584 RA); Texas, 65-76 (769 RS, 836 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Texas, #22
Prospectus: Beckett comes off of the DL tonight in Texas to pitch for the first time since August 17, when he was pounded for eight runs in less than three innings by the light-hitting Blue Jays, his worst start in two seasons. That effort led to the revelation that Beckett was feeling some "tingling" in his right hand, which the pitcher said had been there all season, the result of elbow inflammation. Beckett had his start pushed back twice before traveling to Alabama for a visit with Dr. James Andrews, and was then retroactively placed on the shelf with a strained elbow after the tests revealed no serious issues. Boston could certainly survive the rest of the regular season without Beckett—since his last start they are 11-4, thanks in large part to the torrid hitting of new cleanup man Dustin Pedroia, and are 5 games ahead of Minnesota for the wild card—but the health of arguably the greatest post-season pitcher in history is obviously a big concern for Boston's attempt at a repeat title. Beckett will be limited to 60 pitches in tonight's return, putting some pressure on Boston's long-relief corps.

The last time these two squads hooked up, at Fenway Park from August 12-14, Boston scored 37 runs and hit .382 as a team in sweeping the three-game set. The Red Sox also swept a four-game series with the Rangers at home back in April, and therefore have a shot at going 10-0 against Texas on the season. Since the start of their last series with the Rangers, the Red Sox have scored an average of nearly seven runs in 20 games, pulling to within 35 of Texas's AL-leading 769 tallies. They have done that without Mike Lowell, who is expected to return from the inactivity forced on him by a strained oblique tonight and play for the first time since that last Texas series. Sean Casey might also come back from the DL, and Kevin Youkilis could return as well from the back spasms and illness that caused him to miss three of the last four games. Taken as a whole, that's bad news for the Rangers, although Texas pitching has performed a little better recently, putting up a 3.72 ERA in the last 10 games with seven quality starts. Texas also won a 1-0 game on Wednesday, which was just its third 1-0 win in 18 seasons since moving into the Ballpark at Arlington.

Matchup: Astros (74-66) at Rockies (66-75), 7:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Brian Moehler (127 2/3 IP, 4.23 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 72 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (167 2/3, 4.62 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 137 K)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 68-72 (544 RS, 693 RA); Colorado, 65-76 (658 RS, 717 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; Colorado, #20
Prospectus: After eight straight wins, the Astros find themselves on the far fringes of the playoff race, where they have joined the Rockies. Both teams stand six games out of a post-season berth, with multiple clubs to hurdle in the final three-plus weeks. For Colorado's 1.4 percent chance at the postseason to pay off, the team needs to get much better play from center fielder Willy Taveras, as Joe Sheehan wrote on Tuesday. Taveras has been the second-worst regular in baseball by OPS+, producing at 57 percent of capacity compared to an average player, which among the nearly 160 batting title qualifiers ranks ahead of only his opposite number in Houston's dugout, Michael Bourn (55). However, while Taveras is getting on base far less frequently than last year—his OBP has fallen from .367 to .309—he has already doubled the 33 steals that he had in each of the past two seasons, good for a league-leading total that has undoubtedly kept his powerless bat in the lineup on a regular basis. Taveras is achieving the rare feat of having more steals than runs scored, 66 to 61. There have been 11 players in the last 50 years to qualify for the batting title while stealing more bases than scoring runs, with the most recent being Deion Sanders in 1997:


Year  Player            SB   R   PA
1997  Deion Sanders     56  53  509
1991  Marquis Grissom   76  73  597
1990  Vince Coleman     77  73  539
1988  Vince Coleman     81  77  679
1986  Vince Coleman    107  94  670
1986  Mariano Duncan    48  47  445
1985  Vince Coleman    110 107  692
1984  Dave Collins      60  59  492
1983  Rickey Henderson 108 105  622
1982  Rickey Henderson 130 119  656
1981  Tim Raines        71  61  363
1980  Omar Moreno       96  87  745
1980  Ron Leflore       97  95  587
1974  Lou Brock        118 105  702
1965  Maury Wills       94  92  711

Matchup: Yankees (75-65) at Mariners (54-85), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Andy Pettitte (181 1/3 IP, 4.86 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 137 K) vs. Brandon Morrow (36 2/3, 1.96, 0.90, 47)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 74-66 (684 RS, 641 RA); Seattle, 59-80 (581 RS, 691 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #10; Seattle, #28
Prospectus: Morrow makes his first major league start, beginning his transition from bullpen stopper to what the Mariners hope is a frontline starter. In many ways, Morrow's path thus far is remarkably similar to that of the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain. Both were selected from major college programs in the first round of the 2006 draft—Morrow with the fifth overall pick out of Cal, and Chamberlain with the 41st in the supplemental round out of Nebraska. Both are right-handers who feature outstanding fastballs—each has averaged 95 mph on his heater thus far in the majors. Both were starters in college and in their first minor league exposure, yet both debuted in the majors last season out of the bullpen, with the 23-year-old Morrow arriving five months before Chamberlain, who is a year younger. And both either have made or are making the switch back to the rotation this season. Morrow was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma in early August after dominating as a reliever in order to stretch himself out for a late season return to the rotation. He made five starts for the Rainiers, increasing his innings from 1 2/3 IP in his first to six in his last outing on Sunday.

It's worth at least questioning the decision to have Morrow undergo re-entry in the middle of a lost season for the M's, especially given the experience of Chamberlain, who hurt himself after 12 starts this year and is now back in the Yanks' bullpen following a stint on the DL. Therein lies the most disturbing similarity between the two young pitchers—Chamberlain's injury was diagnosed as rotator cuff tendonitis, and Morrow also experienced some shoulder soreness this season which kept him out for a spell in early June, in addition to back spasms that also limited his availability. (For the record, Will Carroll termed Morrow's soreness as "garden-variety," stemming from shoulder tendonitis.) Morrow dealt with some elbow soreness as well back in 2006 after signing with Seattle, so he is not without baggage on the injury front. It's unclear at this point whether making the move midseason is any wiser or less wise than doing it in spring training, but several years from now we should be able to look back on how the decisions that New York and Seattle made impacted the development of their respective flamethrowers.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (71-68) at Dodgers (70-70), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (186 IP, 3.48 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 176 K) vs. Derek Lowe (180 2/3, 4.08, 1.20, 128) Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 72-67 (638 RS, 612 RA); Los Angeles, 71-69 (584 RS, 572 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #13; Los Angeles, #15
Prospectus: The D'backs and Dodgers start their final head-to-head series of the year tonight separated by 1 games at the top of the NL West. Lowe has pitched against Arizona four times already this season, matching up against ace Brandon Webb on three occasions and Haren on one, back in late-April, which was won by Lowe. LA's sinkerballer is pitching very well in the second half (3.34 RA in nine starts). He has typically performed better after the break—a career RA split of 4.08 after and 4.55 before, perhaps related to an increase in the dip of his fastball with more work. Haren has the opposite career split, and a rough August (5.63 RA in six starts, including a loss to the Dodgers his last time out) has again raised concerns about a second-half fade similar to the one he went through each of the past two seasons.

In Arizona's last game, third baseman Mark Reynolds committed a throwing error, his major league-leading 27th fielding miscue of the season. Reynolds now has more errors this year than any player did all of last season, and more than any third baseman since Aramis Ramirez made 33 in 2003. Reynolds also ranks among the bottom five qualified third basemen in both Range Factor and Zone Rating, so it is clear he's not an asset in the field. Arizona as a group is not a good defensive team; it has converted 68.9 percent of balls in play into outs, the 11th best figure in the National League, one spot behind Los Angeles. Arizona's defense has several players out of position, including Adam Dunn, who hasn't taken well to roaming right field thus far. The Diamondbacks don't need to worry about Dunn's defense with the way he has gotten on base, however—a .495 clip through his first 21 games, which nearly equals the number Manny Ramirez has put up for the Dodgers (.500 OBP). After the recent return of Justin Upton from a lengthy convalescence, Arizona manager Bob Melvin played Dunn at first base for the first time in two games this week.

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

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