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September 17, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: White Sox (84-66) at Yankees (80-71), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Lance Broadway (145 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.45 WHIP, 101 K-Triple-A) vs. Philip Hughes (22, 9.41, 2.14, 13)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 84-66 (755 RS, 661 RA); New York, 79-72 (725 RS, 694 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #6; New York, #10
Prospectus: The Yankees won't make the playoffs this season for the first time in 14 years, but at least Bomber fans can take heart in the fact that their Triple-A affiliate in Scranton Wilkes-Barre advanced to the postseason and took home the International League title. The upstart Rays have buried New York in the AL East standings, but Scranton took revenge in a best-of-five series by beating Tampa Bay's top affiliate Durham for the title. The championship push was largely dependent upon Hughes, who made two strong starts in the playoffs. The righty tossed eight shutout innings against Pawtucket on September 7, giving up four hits and no walks while fanning 11 in a game that Scranton won 2-0 in 10 innings to advance to the Governors' Cub Championship against the Bulls. Hughes then served as the ice man last Friday night, going five innings while giving up one run and striking out 12 in a 20-2 blowout that clinched the title. It has been a very poor season for Hughes in the big leagues, as he had to spend three months on the shelf with a rib-cage stress fracture after being beaten around during April, and then went through a couple of rough outings in Triple-A upon his return to form last month. With just four runs allowed and 38 strikeouts over his last 25 innings, it seems as if Hughes might be regaining his old dominance. Just as they wished from him this year, the Yankees will need Hughes to be a major part of their rotation next year, and a good start or two in these final weeks could help build his confidence towards that end.

In last night's loss, Derek Jeter picked up two singles and passed Lou Gehrig to become the all-time leader in hits at Yankee Stadium. Jeter has been trying to catch up after a poor first four months of the season; since August 12 he has hit .397 in 138 plate appearances. Jeter's overall numbers are still his worst since 1997, but it has been such a down year for American League shortstops that he still tops his junior circuit positional brethren with a VORP of 41.9. American League shortstops as a group are hitting .265/.317/.370, with an OPS below 700 for the first time since 1995.

Matchup: Mets (83-67) at Nationals (58-93), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brandon Knight (43 1/3 IP, 2.49 RA, 0.92 WHIP, 55 K-Triple-A) vs. Shairon Martis (116 1/3 IP, 4.02 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 99 K-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 83-67 (737 RS, 654 RA); Washington, 60-91 (600 RS, 753 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #5; Washington, #29
Prospectus: Last September the Nationals dealt the deathblow to the Mets' playoff hopes in New York's fateful final 17 games, as a Washington team that finished with 89 losses took two of three from the Mets in DC and then swept them in three at Shea. The Nationals are an even worse team this year, having already dropped 93 games, but they again have the chance to cripple the Mets' shot at a division title in this four-game series, which they've already begun to do by taking the first two games, holding the Mets offense-the second-best NL attack-to just two runs on nine hits combined. New York would have scored more if not for Willie Harris' leaping catch of a David Wright liner with two on in the sixth. Harris has made a habit of putting a star in the scoresheets against the Mets: he robbed Carlos Delgado of a homer last August with arguably the best catch of 2007, made a diving ninth-inning grab this May in a 1-0 Nats win, and added another excellent grab in Monday night's series opener.

The 1-0 Washington win last night dropped the Mets out of first place for the first time since August 26, finishing the transformation of a 3-game lead into a half-game deficit in just six days, and the Mets squad received another blow in the form of a season-ending injury to outfielder Fernando Tatis, who separated his shoulder while diving for a ball. With the 2007 collapse looming larger by the game, the Mets now turn to the 32-year-old Knight, fresh from his trip to Beijing as a member of the bronze medal-winning US Olympic team. Knight will be making his second major league start after giving up four runs in five innings during a spot start on July 26. The need to give Knight a turn highlights the absence of John Maine, who went down in late August with a bone spur in his shoulder, and also provides an unnerving flashback for Mets fans to last September 26, when New York was forced to give Philip Humber his first major league start against the Nationals. That game was perhaps the most devastating loss of them all, for Humber blew a 4-0 lead and Washington went on to win 9-6 for the sweep.

Matchup: Phillies (84-67) at Braves (67-84), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: J.A. Happ (135 IP, 3.87 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 151 K-Triple-A) vs. Jair Jurrjens (176 1/3, 4.13 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 136 K)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 86-65 (741 RS, 633 RA); Atlanta, 73-78 (702 RS, 726 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Atlanta, #19
Prospectus: After five straight wins, the Phillies' playoff odds have jumped from a low of 16.5 percent on September 10 up to 80 percent, as they moved into first place last night in their continued quest to complete a second straight September comeback for the NL East crown. The Phillies used the long ball to win in the opener versus Atlanta, getting home runs from Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, as well as a rare Carlos Ruiz bomb, to push their seasonal total to an NL-leading 199, on pace to match last year's total of 213. Jurrjens has been pretty stingy about giving up homers this season, having allowed less than 0.6 HR/9, but he has been easy to run on-opponents have stolen 24 bases against him this year, more than any other National League pitcher, while getting caught only three times (89 percent success rate). That's an even better percentage than the lofty mark at which the Phillies as a team have stolen this year-Jimmy Rollins and company have swiped a bag on 84 percent of their theft attempts; while not as good as last year's major league-record 88 percent, that is still the best rate in the majors, and the third-best mark in league history after last year's Phils and the 1994 Orioles (also 84 percent). Rollins is a remarkable 42-for-45 on the year, a 93.3 percent rate, the third-best ratio in a season of at least 40 attempts, equaling Carlos Beltran's 42-for-45 effort from 2004, and trailing only Ichiro's 45-for-47 campaign in 2006. Philly's shortstop has been joined by Jayson Werth, who has nabbed 17 out of 18 attempted steals, and who is now 41-for-46 for his career. In contrast, Atlanta as a team is at the other end of the spectrum with a 66 percent success rate, next to last in the majors this year behind Cincinnati.

Matchup: Tigers (70-80) at Rangers (75-77), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Freddy Garcia (58 IP, 6.05 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 50 K-2007) vs. Dustin Nippert (61, 6.34, 1.80, 45)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 73-77 (759 RS, 782 RA); Texas, 71-81 (835 RS, 897 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #17; Texas, #20
Prospectus: Garcia last pitched on June 8th of 2007, when he was pounded by the Royals for six runs in less than two innings. Garcia felt pain in his shoulder during that outing, admitted he had been pitching at less than 100 percent, and three months later underwent labrum surgery under the knife of Dr. James Andrews. Garcia held an open workout for teams in early August, after which Phillies' assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. remarked "He's got a ways to go." Desperate for starting pitching, the Tigers signed him to a minor league deal several days later. Garcia pitched just five innings in the minors for Detroit, then threw a simulated game in early September in which his fastball was clocked in the mid-80s. Following that performance, manager Jim Leyland told the Detroit News "If we're going out there expecting to see him throw 90, we're wasting our time. That's not going to happen. But he was 4-0 against us two years ago throwing 85. This guy knows what he's doing." If he sticks in the rotation, Garcia will have three remaining chances to prove himself healthy and earn a guaranteed contract for next season.

Garcia will likely have to contend with one of the hottest hitters in baseball tonight, Rangers rookie catcher Taylor Teagarden. Since being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma on September 1, Teagarden has hit five homers and four doubles in 10 games. Counting the six plate appearances he received in late July, Teagarden has now put up a line of .361/.425/.972 in the first 40 plate appearances of his major league career, and driven home a ridiculous 11 of the 23 runners that have been on base during his at-bats. Teagarden's hot start is the seventh best by OPS that any player has put up in his first 40 plate appearances since 1954. Here are the top 10:


Hitter            Year Team    AVG   OBP   SLG
Jay Bruce         2008  CIN   .500  .600  .875
Brian Giles       1996  CLE   .472  .525  .944
Craig Wilson      1998  CHW   .514  .553  .914
Earl Williams     1971  ATL   .485  .525  .939
J.D. Drew         1998  SLN   .400  .450  .971
Bill Freehan      1963  DET   .455  .538  .879
Taylor Teagarden  2008  TEX   .361  .425  .972
Sam Horn          1987  BOS   .400  .475  .914
Alvin Davis       1984  SEA   .400  .475  .886
Mitchell Page     1977  OAK   .444  .500  .861

Thanks to William Burke for research assistance.

Matchup: Giants (68-83) at Diamondbacks (74-76), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Jonathan Sanchez (151 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 150 K) vs. Brandon Webb (205 2/3, 3.76, 1.18, 168)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 64-87 (596 RS, 703 RA); Arizona, 76-74 (663 RS, 654 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #24; Arizona, #16
Prospectus: Dan Haren kept Arizona's dim playoff chances alive last night by tossing a complete-game shutout of the Giants. The Diamondbacks essentially need to win out over their remaining 12 games to have a realistic shot of capitalizing upon what is now just a 1-in-90 shot at overtaking Los Angeles for the NL West title, especially given the Dodgers' exceedingly easy stretch schedule. Webb likely lost out on a second Cy Young award by being lit up in three straight starts from August 26 to September 6, but he came back last Friday to shut out the Reds over eight innings and pick up his 20th win, and he has beaten the Giants three out of three times this year. Webb will be facing a restructured Giants lineup, which has been given energy by four minor league call-ups since Webb's last outing against San Francisco: first baseman/catcher Pablo Sandoval is hitting .342/.360/.487 in 125 plate appearances, first baseman Travis Ishikawa .309/.382/.515 in 76, right fielder Nate Schierholtz .341/.396/.500 in 48, and journeyman corner infielder Scott McClain has chipped in .333/.360/.625 in 25.

D'backs slugger Conor Jackson has missed the last five games with shoulder soreness, which perhaps helps to explain his .230 batting average and 612 OPS in 36 games since the start of August. Jackson is reportedly close to rejoining the lineup, but even if he was laid up in the training room with several broken limbs, it would behoove him to hobble to the plate for tonight's game, as the Giants are starting a pitcher who Jackson has completely dominated. In eight plate appearances this season against Sanchez, Jackson has two homers, a double, two singles, a walk, and a hit by pitch; in 14 career PA versus Sanchez, Jackson is 9-for-11 with two walks. Jackson has killed lefty pitching overall this year, with a .333/.468/.520 showing in 158 PA.

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

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