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September 15, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cubs (89-58) at Astros (80-68), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jason Marquis (154 2/3 IP, 4.54 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Brian Moehler (138 1/3, 4.36, 1.33, 76)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 91-56 (784 RS, 602 RA); Houston, 73-75 (665 RS, 677 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Houston, #15
Prospectus: The malaise that has afflicted the Brewers' bats over the past two weeks spread to the "home" team at Miller Park last night, as the Ike-transplanted Astros were no-hit by Carlos Zambrano. (Zambrano's nasty stuff also may have had something to do with it.) It was the first time that the Astros had been no-hit since Jim Maloney shut them down in April of 1969. There was a crowd of 23,441 at Miller Park to see Big Z's historic performance, a pretty good crowd considering the circumstances, but one made up of mostly Chicago fans who made the 90-mile drive from Milwaukee. The Astros-whose batting in the bottom of the inning was the only sign that they were the home team-can't be very happy about the situation. Manager Cecil Cooper even elected to use the visitor's clubhouse for its familiarity, and the Astros wore their road grays-but they'll have to face it again this afternoon before hitting the road for six true away games. [Ed. note-the Astros actually wore their red alternate jerseys.] Despite last night's loss, Houston remains just two back in the wild-card chase behind both Philadelphia and the Brewers, with 14 left to play.

The Astros also committed an error yesterday, their 62nd of the season. Houston is still way out in front of the majors in terms of fewest errors-the Mets are second with 75-and have a shot at setting the National League mark for fewest in a season. Last year Colorado tied that record, which was established by the 1999 Mets at 68 miscues. The 2007 Rockies also set a major league record with a .989 team fielding percentage, which Houston has equaled so far this year. With 70.0 percent of balls in play converted into outs, the Astros have not been the best defensive team in the NL by efficiency (both the Cubs and Mets are at 70.5 percent), but their third-place showing is a big improvement over last year, when they ranked 12th with a 68.5 mark.

Matchup: Twins (82-67) at Indians (72-77), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kevin Slowey (146 1/3 IP, 3.69 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 111 K) vs. Scott Lewis (97 1/3, 2.77 RA, 0.97 WHIP, 82 K-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 84-65 (769 RS, 673 RA); Cleveland, 77-72 (725 RS, 696 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Cleveland, #14
Prospectus: Lewis walked just 11 batters at his two minor league stops this season, and didn't pass anyone during his major league debut last Wednesday, when he threw eight shutout innings against Baltimore. Going back to 1956, only one Indians pitcher has had a better debut outing by Game Score: Luis Tiant, who shut out of the Yankees in July of 1964 while striking out 11, a game that rated an 86 on the scale, compared to the 79 scored by Lewis. Lewis's BB/9 now stands at 0.94 in 105 1/3 innings, and he has also given up just four home runs on the year, a surprise considering that Lewis is not a ground-ball pitcher. PECOTA projected a 40 percent ground-ball rate for him before the season, a figure that ranked in the bottom 15 percent of all profiled pitchers, and he induced 14 flies versus seven grounders from the Orioles. Lewis does not throw hard, with a fastball around 87 mph to go with a changeup and curve, so he needs to maintain his outstanding control in order to keep the balls that will inevitably leave the park against him from being more than solo shots.

It has been a lost season for the Tribe, but the Cleveland offense can take some pride in the fact that it is poised to set a new American League record. The next Indian hit batsman will be the team's 93rd of the season, which will break the mark they currently share with the 1996 Blue Jays. The overall major league record is 100 plunkings, set by Craig Biggio and the 1997 Astros, a mark that's within Cleveland's reach as well. Unlike the '97 Houston squad, which saw Biggio get hit 34 times, the Indians have spread their bruises around, as Ryan Garko leads the team with 14 HBP. David Dellucci has been drilled 11 times, Grady Sizemore on nine occasions, and six other players between five and eight. Conversely, Minnesota has been hit just 31 times all year as a group, the lowest total in the majors.

Matchup: White Sox (83-65) at Yankees (79-70), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (192 2/3 IP, 4.53 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 123 K) vs. Alfredo Aceves (14, 1.29, 0.86, 9)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 83-65 (747 RS, 655 RA); New York, 78-71 (719 RS, 686 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #6; New York, #10
Prospectus: New York welcomes the White Sox into Yankee Stadium for the final time tonight, the start of the second-to-last series that will ever played in the venerable old ballpark. Even though the Yankees won't be sending the House that Ruth Built out with any playoff games, they have managed to summon the old legends during this final homestand. Derek Jeter went 3-for-4 in yesterday's victory over the Rays to tie Lou Gehrig for the most hits at Yankee Stadium, 1,269 in all, although he still stands 191 hits behind the Iron Horse for the all-time franchise mark. Alex Rodriguez contributed to Sunday's win as well, hitting a grand slam, the 17th of his career. Only Manny Ramirez has more among active players, with 20; Gehrig owns the all-time mark, with 23. The long ball was the 34th of the season for A-Rod, and one more will give him a 12th season with 35 or more, moving the third baseman into a tie with Babe Ruth for the most 35-plus homer campaigns in history (as the Baseball-Reference Stat of the Day recently uncovered). Rodriguez's slam also gave him exactly 100 runs and 100 RBI on the season, the 11th straight year he has reached those marks. He now has 12 such campaigns overall, which ties him with Babe Ruth for the second most all-time behind-care to take a guess?-Gehrig, who scored and drove in 100 or more in 13 seasons.

Thirteen seasons is also the magic number for the Yankees' streak of playoff appearances which will come to an end this year. Chicago, meanwhile, went a long way towards advancing for the first time since its 2005 title run with yesterday's sweep of a doubleheader against the Tigers combined with the Twins' loss, which put the Pale Hose 1 games ahead in the AL Central with 14 games left. Tonight's game starts the critical stretch for Chicago, as it plays 10 in a row on the road, the final three of which will be in Minnesota.

Matchup: Red Sox (88-61) at Rays (88-59), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (151 2/3 IP, 3.20 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 136 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (138 1/3, 3.12, 1.22, 151)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 90-59 (785 RS, 627 RA); Tampa Bay, 83-64 (683 RS, 597 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: After Boston took three of four from the Blue Jays and the Rays dropped two of three in the Bronx over the weekend, Tampa Bay's lead is back down to one game in the AL East. However, the Rays now get to spend the next week at home, where they are a major league-best 53-21 (.716) this year. Boston is in search of its first win of the season at Tropicana Field, having been swept in two three-game series already. Tonight's pitching matchup between two hurlers with sub-3.00 ERA's is a reprisal of last Tuesday at Fenway Park, when Kazmir outdueled Matsuzaka in a game that Tampa Bay eventually won 5-4, thanks to a ninth-inning rally against Jonathan Papelbon.

Boston's middle relief has been maligned for much of the season, but the unit has become a highly effective one of late. Manny Delcarmen, Terry Francona's top right-hander out of the pen besides Papelbon, has given up just six hits and one run in his last 16 innings, lowering his ERA by nearly a full run. Francona has also added another excellent righty to Boston's late-inning arsenal, as rookie Justin Masterson has a 1.95 RA since moving to the bullpen at the end of July, a span of 27 2/3 innings. Masterson's slightly sidearm delivery and hard breaking stuff has proven impossible for right-handers, who are hitting .197/.278/.289 against him in 170 plate appearances. Francona has been using the rookie in more important spots with his continued strong results, bringing Masterson in during the eighth or ninth inning each of his last seven games after starting him out mostly in the sixth and seventh. The Sox also have two highly effective pitchers against lefties in Javier Lopez and Hideki Okajima. Last year both southpaws had reverse platoon splits-Lopez gave up an 805 OPS to lefties vs. 565 to righties, while Okajima was at 648/512-but that has been turned around this season, as Lopez has held lefties to a 590 mark and Okajima a 586.

Matchup: Tigers (70-78) at Rangers (73-77), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dontrelle Willis (56 1/3 IP, 4.95 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 38 K-High- and Triple-A) vs. Brandon McCarthy (21 1/3, 4.64, 1.31, 10)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 72-76 (747 RS, 766 RA); Texas, 70-80 (819 RS, 885 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #17; Texas, #20
Prospectus: Willis makes his first major league appearance since June 9 tonight. The former NL Rookie of the Year and 2005 Cy Young runner-up did not perform very well at his two minor league stops, and in his final three appearances for Triple-A Toledo he allowed eight runs in 12 innings, walking seven while striking out nine. Overall, Willis' K/BB ratio for Toledo and High-A Lakeland was 38/25, with four walks per nine innings, a number one would like to see reduced by a veteran sent down to find his command. Detroit manager Jim Leyland did not exactly give the left-hander a vote of confidence upon his recall, telling the Detroit News "Obviously there will be a moment at some time when he has to pitch." Leyland is understandably hesitant to give another turn to Willis, who he watched throw just 48 percent of his pitches for strikes during the lefty's rough 111/3 major league innings this year. But with the Tigers out of the playoff hunt, and given the state of their rotation and the fact that they owe Willis $22 million over the next two seasons, the team would undoubtedly like to see something from him in the final two weeks that can be used as a positive for 2009.

The Rangers aren't quite as dangerous an offensive force without Ian Kinsler at second base and with Milton Bradley in and out of the lineup due to a strained back and sore wrist, but right fielder Nelson Cruz is doing his best to replicate the production of those key cogs. Cruz didn't hit after Texas threw him into the fire upon his arrival from Milwaukee in the Carlos Lee/Francisco Cordero trade in late July of 2006, then failed again in a more extensive trial last season. But he killed the ball after going down to Triple-A Oklahoma in 2007, and continued that performance for the RedHawks this year, mashing 37 homers and leading all of the minor leagues with a .693 slugging percentage. That earned him a call-up on August 25, and he has made good upon his third shot with Texas, adding four more homers while putting up a line of .328/.430/.627 with 17 RBI in 19 games. Already 27, Cruz appears to have set himself up for a full-time job opportunity in the Texas outfield to open 2009.

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

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