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September 7, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Angels (85-56) at White Sox (80-61), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Joe Saunders (170 2/3 IP, 4.06 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 81 K) vs. John Danks (164 2/3, 3.55, 1.28, 134)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 76-65 (654 RS, 600 RA); Chicago, 80-61 (717 RS, 621 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #8; Chicago, #6
Prospectus: During April and May, the key to White Sox success had been their pitching; they had a lineup that was barely getting by with a .245/.326/.400 line, but their pitchers were holding opponents to a measly .241/.309/.358. That dynamic shifted with warmer weather; in June, they hit .300/.361/.521, and they haven't slowed down much since then, putting together a combined line of .280/.345/.489. Granted, their home park has plenty to do with this-their Isolated Power at home is .245 against a still-solid .164 on the road-but it was a welcome change regardless, because the pitching staff began to falter following their incredible start. Since the time the offense went into overdrive, the pitchers have had a more difficult time, giving up a .269/.325/.435 line, including a horrendous .304/.359/.479 away from The Cell. This explains some of the White Sox's struggles on the road; they are 32-39 there thanks to an offense with less production and a pitching staff that can't keep men from scoring. At home they are nigh unstoppable at 48-22. With Carlos Quentin out of the picture for now, the Sox may be in trouble for the remainder of the month; losing the club's best bat is going to sting, especially since the slugger was one of the few Pale Hose killing the ball on the road (.300/.390/.560 in 243 at-bats).

Matchup: Padres (54-88) at Brewers (82-60), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Chris Young (73 1/3 IP, 5.03 RA, 1.51 WHIP, 69 K) vs. Manny Parra (153 2/3, 4.39, 1.49, 133)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 59-83 (554 RS, 661 RA); Milwaukee, 79-63 (671 RS, 593 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego #28; Milwaukee, #4
Prospectus: The Brewers recently had a shot at catching up to the Cubs for the first time since the season began, but thanks to a skid of their own they were unable to make much progress towards that goal. August ended on a high note, with the team outscoring the Pirates 21-4 in a series sweep, but once September hit, the Brewers didn't. The first week produced an ugly line of .257/.341/.383, but the pitching was as good as the offense was poor, posting a .228/.306/.379 opponent line. After losing the first four games of the month, they've won the past two, but nothing has changed in the approach-beating the Padres 3-2 and 1-0 isn't exactly shedding your slumping ways, but they'll take it. This should not be a prolonged issue for the Brewers, but it is unfortunate timing; it's the last month of the season, and though they have some cushion in the wild-card race, beating up on the Mets would have caused further confusion out East while simultaneously making the wild card easier on them, and it would have moved them closer to first, as the Cubs suffered a five-game losing streak during the same stretch.

Today's meeting gives them a chance to return to their base-clearing roots, with the struggling Chris Young taking the mound for the Padres. Young missed much of the season after taking a batted ball to the noggin, but luckily he's returned healthy. The right-hander is walking 4.8 hitters per nine, a full walk over last year's high-enough 3.8 mark; he's also returned to his home-run filled past after a one-year deviation that saw him give up just 4.1 homers per fly ball, rather than the usual double-digit rates we've seen from him. You had to expect some regression coming-his BABIP was .252, and opponents hit just .195 against him-but the walks have made his struggles stand out this year. His 4.93 FIP is right around where his ERA lies, meaning that Young will need to show actual improvement next year in either homers or his walk rate to improve upon this low level of performance.

Matchup: Indians (68-72) at Royals (61-80), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (194 1/3 IP, 2.45 RA, 1.05 WHIP, 149 K) vs. Zack Greinke (176 1/3, 4.13, 1.32, 159)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 74-66 (681 RS, 639 RA); Kansas City, 58-83 (582 RS, 706 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #14; Kansas City, #25
Prospectus: The Indians have moved much closer to their expected record lately, and may even finish the season at or above .500 if things keep going in this direction. Since the middle of July, the lineup has turned into an above-average unit, and the pitching staff has improved considerably as well, even in the bullpen, where it seemed as if all hope was lost. On July 20, the Indians pen had a combined WXRL of -3.327, which was over five wins worse than the second-worst pen (Washington's). The best bullpens in the league are worth around 10-15 wins this year, which should give you an idea of just how significant that five-win difference is. They looked to be on pace to join the 1999 Kansas City Royals, whose -7.732 WXRL is easily the worst in recent memory, but the Tribe has since moved closer to zero, and now sit at -1.636 WXRL.

Granted, that's still awful and it's still the worst in the league, but they're now just 3.2 WXRL behind the second-to-last team, instead of five wins back; though the turnaround was quick, so much damage was done that it's impossible to fully repair 2008. The .264/.318/.416 line that the bullpen has allowed since July 20 looks solid but unimpressive, until you see that they gave up a .277/.347/.477 line prior. The club has also gone 6-3 in one-run games since, something they never would have dreamed of given their struggles in close games to that point in the season. They can thank the dominance of Rafael Perez (3.54 ERA, 10.9 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9 since July 20) and the return to form of Rafael Betancourt (2.75 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9) for most of the quality pitching in the second half; the Indians hope that this success carries over into 2009, or else they may struggle to contend in the AL Central again.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (71-70) at Dodgers (72-70), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Max Scherzer (34 IP, 3.44 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Clayton Kershaw (86, 4.50, 1.55, 77)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 72-69 (640 RS, 626 RA); Los Angeles, 74-68 (598 RS, 5749 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; Los Angeles, #13
Prospectus: Not only do we get to see the Diamondbacks try to reclaim first place from the Dodgers this afternoon, we also get to see a pitching matchup between two of the most talented young starters in the league-two names we should probably get used to seeing go at it in big games. For the D'backs, Scherzer was their third-ranked prospect in the organization heading into the season, and is making a start in place of Randy Johnson. It's Scherzer's fourth start of the year, but his first since May 17: in his first three starts, he threw 15 innings and struck out 16 batters, didn't give up a home run, but walked seven. He's been successful coming out of the bullpen when on the roster, holding opponents to an incredibly low .172/.274/.266 line as a reliever. The Diamondbacks are going to need a quality start from him today, especially since club ace Brandon Webb once again failed to notch his 20th win in last night's contest.

He'll have to do so against the Dodgers' tyro, Clayton Kershaw, the top-ranked prospect in the Dodgers organization and the fifth-ranked prospect in all of baseball. Kershaw was called up to the majors and made his first start back in late May, but he struggled with his control before being sent back down at the beginning of July. Despite a solid 7.7 K/9 and 0.7 HR/9, Kershaw had been walking far too many hitters at 5.6 per nine, but he's improved on that over his last nine starts: Kershaw's struck out 8.4 per nine while walking 3.8 since his recall. The sample is small (47 1/3 innings), but you would like to believe that the reason for the improvement had something to do with his being sent back down and having his confidence restored after solid outings while in the minors.

Matchup: Phillies (77-64) at Mets (79-62), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (203 IP, 3.41 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 174 K) vs. Johan Santana (196, 3.08, 1.15, 169)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 80-61 (679 RS, 585 RA); New York, 79-62 (693 RS, 609 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #10; New York, #5
Prospectus: This is game two of a doubleheader today between the Phillies and Mets, and while both games have a storyline-look no further than yesterday's Prospectus Preview for that-tonight's game has the pitching matchup that can top anything the that the NFL's opening weekend might have to offer. The Phillies can either tie for the NL East lead with the Mets by winning both games (and make Mike Schmidt look prescient while doing so), or they can lose both and end up further in the hole than when they started, doing away with all of the fuzzy feelings that Friday night's victory sent out. There's always the option of a split as well, which could have the same unsatisfactory feeling that losing both contests would bring; the Phillies would have only gained one game on the Mets in their last meeting of the year despite taking two of three.

It's tough to top watching Hamels and Santana (hopefully) trading zeros, as Phils' ace Hamels ranks second in the National League in SNLVAR with 6.6, while Santana is tied for third place with 6.4. They are similar pitchers as well, and not just statistically. Both are left-handed, and both work in the low 90s with their fastball while working in a changeup as their chief secondary offering. They both have a breaking ball as their third pitch, though Hamels works with a mid-70s curveball and Santana throws a low-80s slider. Between the two, they have are 343 strikeouts in 399 innings pitched, with both hurlers stingy on the walks (2.1 per nine for Santana, and 1.8 per nine for Hamels), and both starters have their issues with the long ball, giving up over one per nine. They have also both been effectively the same pitcher this year in end result, with Hamels posting a 3.62 FIP and Santana coming in at 3.68; the difference in their actual ERA comes from Santana's high strand rate of nearly 82 percent.

Related Content:  Prospectus,  Fourth Of July

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