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September 16, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (89-61) at Rays (88-60), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (154 2/3 IP, 4.54 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (138 1/3, 4.36, 1.33, 76)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 91-59 (798 RS, 632 RA); Tampa Bay, 82-66 (688 RS, 610 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: The Red Sox's clobbering of Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field last night pulled Boston into a virtual tie for the AL East lead, although the Rays remain a game up in the loss column. Boston hit six home runs, the most in any one game for the Sox since August 3, 2003. One of those homers came from MVP candidate Kevin Youkilis, increasing his team-leading total to 26. Youkilis's game has undergone a transformation this season, one that has been extremely fortuitous for a Boston team missing the customary power of David Ortiz (who did homer and double last night) as well as J.D. Drew. Known for his superb batting eye, this season Youkilis has traded in a few walks for a great deal more power: he has nearly half as many homers as free passes (53), a substantial departure from the last two full seasons, when he combined for 29 homers and 168 walks. Youkilis has bumped his slugging by over 100 points from last year, while his walk rate has slipped from one in 8.1 plate appearances in '07 to one every 10.8 this season. The pitches Youkilis has seen per plate appearance have also dropped, from 4.42 in 2006 to 4.27 last year to 4.00 so far this season, leading to the conclusion that the Greek God of Walks has capitalized on his reputation for having an outstanding batting eye and translated that patience into the ability to pick out fat pitches to pound earlier in the count.

The Red Sox nevertheless lead the majors with 602 walks, and one of the reasons for that is the batting eye of Jed Lowrie, who drew three free passes last night to push his seasonal total to 33 in 262 PAs. Lowrie has quickly made Red Sox fans forget what was frustrating them earlier in the year (Julio who?)-he has yet to make an error in 41 games at shortstop, a conspicuous number in light of the 16 miscues Lugo made in his 81 games at short before getting hurt. Lowrie has also more than replaced Lugo's offensive production: since the start of August, he's hitting .279/.380/.464 in 172 plate appearances. It's unclear whether Lugo will be back from his strained quadriceps injury this year, but Lowrie has eliminated the need for Boston to hurry the veteran back into action.

Matchup: Phillies (83-67) at Braves (67-83), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (178 2/3 IP, 3.88 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 112 K) vs. James Parr (150 2/3, 3.58, 1.24, 125-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 86-64 (733 RS, 626 RA); Atlanta, 73-77 (695 RS, 718 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Atlanta, #19
Prospectus: Once the proud rulers of the NL East, for the third straight season the Braves been forced to settle for a September shot at spoiling the chances of the new contenders that have arisen in their division. Atlanta did a good job over the weekend: on Saturday the Braves erased a two-run deficit in the eighth to win a one-run game on the road for the first time all season, snapping a major league record streak of 29 such losses dating back to last year, and then came from behind again on Sunday to score five in the ninth and take two of three from New York. Now the Braves will try to beat the Mets' chief rival, in the first of their six remaining games versus Philadelphia tonight. As manager Bobby Cox said, "We're going to help the Mets as much as we can when we play the Phillies six times, so it's our job to be up for every game and go at it as hard as we can." Cox doesn't have to tell Kelly Johnson to be up for these games, as the second baseman is the hottest hitter in baseball, salvaging a blasť season by hitting nearly .500 in his last 12 games (.489/.529/.894 in 51 plate appearances). Both Johnson and his double-play partner, Yunel Escobar, had poor first halves, a big letdown given their outstanding play last season, but both have hit much better down the stretch, bumping their numbers back up to above-average levels. Both members of the underrated young duo have yet to hit arbitration, and they'll likely be a key part of Atlanta's next contending team.

The Phillies currently set the standard for middle infield combinations with Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, but their third-base situation has been troublesome. That Pedro Feliz is hitting like Pedro Feliz this season (an OBP around .300 and for the exact same OPS+ as last year) has been enough for Charlie Manuel to sit him more and more as the season has progressed, and in the last 16 games Feliz has split time equally with Greg Dobbs. There is a case to be made for the lefty-swinging Dobbs to be in the lineup whenever Philly faces a right-hander, for Feliz has just a 645 OPS against righties this year (706 career), while Dobbs is at 809 (754 career).

Matchup: Astros (80-69) at Marlins (77-72), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (190 2/3 IP, 3.87 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 148 K) vs. Chris Volstad (65 1/3, 3.44 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 41 K)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 73-76 (666 RS, 683 RA); Florida, 72-77 (697 RS, 722 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #15; Florida, #18
Prospectus: The Astros suffered through a rough last two games in the wake of Hurricane Ike sweeping through their hometown, losing two to the Cubs at decidedly un-neutral Miller Park while collecting just a single hit. The one small positive from the postponement of both Friday and Saturday's games is that the Astros can skip the fourth and fifth spots in their rotation to bring Oswalt back tonight on regular rest. Right now there is no pitcher in baseball who Houston fans would rather have out there to stop their team's two-game slide and get it back on the trail of the wild-card leaders. Oswalt has thrown back-to-back complete-game shutouts, and is working on a streak of 32 1/3 scoreless innings overall, surpassing J.R. Richard (31 consecutive innings) for the longest shutout run in Houston franchise history. In his last eight starts Oswalt is 7-1 with a 1.14 RA in 63 1/3 innings, having allowed only 37 hits (5.3/9) in that stretch.

With a home run in Saturday's game, Hanley Ramirez reached the elite platform that eluded him by one long ball last year, becoming the second 30 homer/30 steal player in the majors this year (joining Grady Sizemore) and the second in Florida franchise history (reaching the feat previously only achieved by Preston Wilson, who had 31 homers and 36 steals in 2000). That is an impressive accomplishment, but what is even more encouraging for the continued development of the young superstar is that he ranks fourth in the National League in walks with 90. Last year he collected 52 free passes in 706 plate appearances, after he had 56 in 700 during his rookie campaign, but this year he has nearly doubled his rate, from one in every 13.6 plate appearances in '07 to one in every 7.4. Ramirez never showed much patience at all in the minors, but then again he didn't display the awesome power that has shown up in Florida, either. In a recent piece at SI.com, Nate Silver cited the betterment of Ramirez's batting eye while ranking the 24-year-old as baseball's most valuable long-term commodity: "The only offensive skill that Ramirez didn't have in abundance before was taking walks, but this year his walk rate has increased by more than 75 percent. Perhaps no player will ever match what A-Rod did over his first six or seven major league seasons, but Ramirez is the best positioned to give it a try."

Matchup: Brewers (83-67) at Cubs (90-58), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: CC Sabathia (224 1/3 IP, 3.01 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 225 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (190 2/3, 3.35, 1.21, 173)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 80-70 (694 RS, 642 RA); Chicago, 92-56 (790 RS, 603 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #7; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The Brewers will take the field tonight for the first time under interim manager Dale Sveum, who was promoted from third-base coach following the firing of Ned Yost yesterday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Yost's dismissal marked just the second time in major league history that a manager whose team was in playoff position was fired in August or later. As Steven Goldman explores today, the first was back during the strike season of 1981, when Montreal Expos skipper Dick Williams was axed before the team's game on September 8, when the team had a 44-37 record overall, and a 14-12 record in the second half. Under Jim Fanning, Montreal closed the year 16-11 to win the second-half title in the strike-shortened season and advance to the playoffs. Williams' Expos had dropped six of nine before his firing, a slump that seems relatively mild compared to the free-fall that the Brewers have found themselves in. Milwaukee has been defeated in 11 of its last 14, a stretch that has seen the playoff odds for the Crew tumble from their season high of 96 percent on September 1 following nine wins in 10 games, down to 49 percent-a drop of over 47 percentage points in two weeks. (Their double-header sweep at the hands of Philadelphia on Sunday alone decreased the team's odds by 39 percent.)

Two of the three wins in the Brewers' last 14 games have been started by Sabathia, so Sveum has a great shot at beginning his tenure as the new skipper with a streak-breaking victory. Beating Dempster should prove to be the biggest challenge that Sabathia has yet faced in the National League, however, for the Cubs' right-hander has already picked up three wins in three starts against Milwaukee this year. Sabathia also labored in his one start against the Cubs since coming over from Cleveland, giving up four runs on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings at Miller Park on July 28, the only start for Milwaukee in which he's allowed more than three tallies.

Matchup: Angels (92-57) at Athletics (69-80), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: John Lackey (149 1/3 IP, 3.44 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 113 K) vs. Sean Gallagher (97, 5.66, 1.59, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 82-67 (695 RS, 624 RA); Oakland, 70-79 (590 RS, 627 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #8; Oakland, #21
Prospectus: Much attention has been paid to the season that Athletics rookie reliever Brad Ziegler is having, but it has served to somewhat obscure the fact that teammate Joey Devine has been nearly as good. Devine is not a rookie due to his accumulation of service time, and though he entered this season with just 19 2/3 major league innings, he already held the stigma of having given up grand slams in his first two major league appearances back in 2005 with the Braves. A college closer at North Carolina State, Devine was considered an extremely polished product, and shot right to the majors in just a little over a month after he was drafted at the end of the first round. His struggles upon becoming the first 2005 draftee to make the majors spread into 2006, however, and despite a strong campaign last year the Braves dealt him to Oakland this offseason for Mark Kotsay.

Devine dominated after the A's called him up on April 10, giving up five runs with a 28/7 K/BB ratio in 22 innings through May, but then hurt his elbow, shelving him for all of June and July. Since coming back, Devine has been even better, throwing 18 2/3 innings while allowing two runs (neither of them earned) on only five hits. Devine and Ziegler now both have ERAs below one-Ziegler's is 0.50 in 54 innings, and Devine's is 0.66 in 40 2/3. If they each continue their dominance in the final two weeks, the pair of Oakland righties will become the first teammates to finish a season of at least 30 innings with an ERA below one in major league history. Before this year only 16 pitchers in history had put up a sub-1.00 in a season of at least 40 innings. Devine has accomplished his success by mixing a low-90s fastball with a low-80s slider, and like Ziegler, he has yet to give up a home run. The Ziegler/Devine combination has improved Oakland's bullpen ARP total to 65, the third best in baseball, and their WXRL to 11.2, fifth best.

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

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