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September 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Indians (69-73) at Orioles (64-78), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Sowers (98 IP, 6.80 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 51 K) vs. Radhames Liz (60 1/3, 8.20, 1.89, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 74-68 (687 RS, 654 RA); Baltimore, 68-74 (725 RS, 763 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #14; Baltimore, #23
Prospectus: Quite a few bar bets could be won with the knowledge of who currently leads the American League in both extra-base hits and total bases. Entering this season it was almost certain that Aubrey Huff had left his best years behind him in Tampa Bay; after three lackluster campaigns, he entered 2008 as what appeared to be an old 31-year-old, and a player sliding down the defensive spectrum after playing primarily at designated hitter and first base last year. Against those odds, Huff has exploded for an enormous comeback campaign, even better than his previous career season of 2003. A grand slam in the sixth inning last night was Huff's 31st homer of the year, more than double the number he hit in all of 2007, and his 77th extra-base hit, the most in the majors along with Ryan Braun. He also paces the American League with 309 total bases, is second in the AL with a 61.7 VORP, behind only the 62.6 of Alex Rodriguez, and is third in MLVr. If he closes out the year at his current pace, the lefty slugger will collect 87 extra-base hits for the season, which would be the second-highest total in Orioles franchise history, behind only the 92 that Brady Anderson hit in 1996, the year he shockingly launched 50 homers. Huff is seeing more pitches per plate appearance than ever before (3.84), which has led to his selection of better offerings to smack, and he is also hitting the ball in the air more often (a career-low 1.03 G/F ratio). Instead of looking like a financial burden, the $8 million that Huff will be paid next year in the last year of his contract now seems like a reasonable or even below-market sum for the reborn slugger, even though he will almost certainly be unable to repeat what he has done this year.

Matchup: Rays (85-57) at Red Sox (85-58), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (132 1/3 IP, 3.13 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 147 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (146 2/3, 3.13, 1.33, 131)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 80-62 (658 RS, 576 RA); Boston, 87-56 (760 RS, 602 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Rays were shut out for a second straight game yesterday, and now stand just a half-game ahead of Boston in the AL East. Tampa Bay would have gotten on the board in the opener if not for the quirky charms of Fenway: with two outs in the eighth, Ben Zobrist banged one off the very top of the Green Monster that only went for a single, followed by a ball hit by Carlos Pena that hopped over the short fence in right for a ground-rule double. Terry Francona then took out Jon Lester for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who got Rocco Baldelli to swing through a 97 mph fastball. Despite a rough game last night-0-for-4 with 4 Ks, good for the golden sombrero-Baldelli has been excellent for the Rays since returning from a mitochondrial disorder, with 15 hits in 40 at-bats, including seven for extra bases. The Rays have eased Baldelli back, starting him only against lefties, and even with the jolt his right-handed bat has provided to an left-leaning lineup, the Rays have struggled to put up runs in September. Tampa Bay remains without its best hitter, Evan Longoria, who has been activated from the DL but is not yet able to play, and the Rays' top source of OBP, center fielder B.J. Upton, will miss the final two games of this critical series after leaving early Monday with a strained left quad. Against the right-handed Matsuzaka tonight, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon will likely play lefty swingers Gabe Gross and Eric Hinske, as well as one of two switch-hitters, either Zobrist or Fernando Perez. If Boston puts the kibosh on Tampa Bay's weakened nine again tonight, it will complete its comeback from being 5 games behind just nine days ago to move into the top spot for the first time since the All-Star break.

Last night's game was played in a quick 2:38, the fastest Red Sox affair since they ran into Roy Halladay on August 17. Tonight's contest promises to be quite a bit longer than that, as both Kazmir and Matsuzaka rack up lots of strikeouts and walks on their way to high pitch counts. Kazmir has averaged 18 pitches per inning this season, tops in the American League, while Matsuzaka's 17.2/IP ranks him fifth. By pitches per plate appearance, Kazmir is first at 4.31 and Matsuzaka third at 4.04.

Matchup: Pirates (60-83) at Astros (77-67), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ross Ohlendorf (46 IP, 6.85 RA, 1.67 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Randy Wolf (167, 4.90, 1.41, 142)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 59-84 (651 RS, 788 RA); Houston, 70-74 (643 RS, 665 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #29; Houston, #17
Prospectus: Wolf is coming off of his best start in four years, an impressive complete-game shutout of the league-leading Cubs' offense at Wrigley Field, in which he struck out eight. It was the first complete game for the injury-riddled left-hander since he shut out Montreal on April 24, 2004. Most were left scratching their heads when Ed Wade added the veteran Wolf to an aging core of mediocre players in late July-for good reason, because at the time the deal was consummated, Houston sat seven games below .500 and 10 games out of the wild card spot while Wolf was struggling in San Diego. He has pitched better since coming over from the Padres, posting a 4.18 RA in 47 innings, and the impact of his arrival has been greater than that, as it allowed Houston to jettison the flammable Runelvys Hernandez. Since Wolf's arrival the Astros have won seven of his eight starts, and after last night's victory against Pittsburgh (the team's 11th in 12 games), and Milwaukee's ninth-inning collapse versus the Reds, Houston has moved to 10 games above .500 for the first time all season, and cut its wild-card deficit in half. Down five games with 18 left to play (12 of which are at home), the odds are still extremely long, especially considering that the Astros have three teams to catch and don't play any of them over the rest of the year, making it very tough to gain the necessary ground. When unknowns like Alberto Arias and Mark Saccomanno are helping the Astros to win, however, as they did in last night's 3-2 victory, Houston fans can be excused for thinking that the stars might just be aligning, and by the ELO method of calculating playoff odds, which gives more weight to recent performance, they have a slightly more tenable 1-in-20 shot at the wild card. While Houston's kamikaze drive towards a playoff slot has provided a fun couple of weeks, there is still the brutal reality of the future to be dealt with for a team with a very bad farm system, as Joe Sheehan wrote in his recent piece on the consequences of Houston's refusal to rebuild.

Matchup: Reds (65-79) at Brewers (82-62), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ramon Ramirez (145 1/3 IP, 4.09 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 145 K-Double- and Triple-A) vs. Jeff Suppan (161 2/3, 5.23 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 80 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 63-81 (629 RS, 721 RA); Milwaukee, 79-65 (676 RS, 608 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #26; Milwaukee, #4
Prospectus: The Reds erased a two-run deficit to pull out a victory in the ninth inning for the second game in a row last night, hanging three runs on Brewers closer Salomon Torres a day after they got to Kerry Wood for three and a walk-off win. Throw in last Thursday's game, when Cincinnati came from 6-5 down in the bottom of the eighth against Pittsburgh at home to score three, and the Reds have made their final trips to the plate mean something in the past week. The Brewers meanwhile lost their sixth of their last eight, and saw their record in one-run games fall to 27-13 (18-6 at home), still the best mark in the majors.

The Reds will try to keep rolling tonight with 25-year-old rookie right-hander Ramon A. Ramirez making his second major league start. Ramirez is not to be confused with the 26-year-old right-hander of the same name who currently pitches out of the Kansas City bullpen. The younger Ramirez was born in Venezuela (KC's version is Dominican), and turned in a quality start in his major league debut, a three-run, seven-inning performance versus the Giants on August 30. Ramirez struck out 137 in 119 1/3 innings last season as he shot up three levels from High-A to Triple-A. He started this year back at Double-A, and thanks to a 52/15 K/BB ratio and a ticking developmental clock, was promoted up to Louisville in late May despite an RA close to six. The move worked out well, for Ramirez's RA caught up to his strong peripherals at the higher level: in 19 appearances (15 starts) for the Bats, he fanned 93 over 99 1/3 innings, with a 3.35 RA and less than seven hits per nine. Contrary to what might be expected from his high strikeout totals, Ramirez is not a flamethrower; his fastball has hovered around 89-90 mph thus far in the bigs. The rookie's main pitch is instead an excellent changeup, which he has thrown 83 times out of 144 tosses in his 10 innings for Cincinnati. Ramirez is getting by on just two pitches right now, and he will certainly need to develop a third (his slider) in order to make it as a starter, but it should be fun to get a glimpse of a rare pitcher who throws the change more often than his fastball.

Matchup: Yankees (76-68) at Angels (87-56), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Alfredo Aceves (140 2/3 IP, 3.01 RA, 0.98 WHIP, 114 K-High- Double- and Triple-A) vs. Ervin Santana (192, 3.38, 1.11, 191)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 75-69 (695 RS, 665 RA); Los Angeles, 78-65 (669 RS, 603 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #9; Los Angeles, #8
Prospectus: Aceves makes his first major league start today, completing a rapid rise from the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol to a major league mound in just one year. As Christina Kahrl discussed last week, Aceves' recall is a reflection of just how many things have gone wrong for the back end of the Yankees rotation this year, but it's also a chance to test out an intriguing hurler who allowed less than a runner per inning in his first crack at minor leaguers. Aceves throws a plus fastball which he can pump into the 93-94 mph range, but has far more than that to offer, as his six seasons south of the border led to the acquisition of a formidable arsenal that includes a curveball, changeup, cutter, and slider. The rookie right-hander also knows how to utilize all those offerings, having mixed each in with equal frequency thus far. His catcher at Double-A Trenton, A.J. Pilittere, elaborated on this point to New York Times beat writer Tyler Kepner: "The thing that makes [Aceves] unique is he has completely no patterns whatsoever. It can be a 2-0 count, a time when you might think fastball, and it could be a curveball, it might be a changeup or a cutter-anything, anytime. It really opens up some things... with him, there's absolutely no book." The native of San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora also furthered his image as the mystery man by becoming the first Yankee to ever wear the jersey number 91, which he picked because of notorious Chicago Bulls power forward Dennis Rodman, whose mentally savvy play he admired while watching the Bulls play in high school. As Kepner and Kahrl have both pointed out, between Aceves and reliever Edwar Ramirez, who was signed out of independent ball two years ago, the Yankees have done a good job with scouting alternate talent pipelines to fill in their pitching staff with some intriguing young arms.

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

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