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September 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (57-94) at Royals (68-84), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ryan Feierabend (32 2/3 IP, 5.79 RA, 1.65 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Zack Greinke (188 1/3, 4.16 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 172 K)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 63-88 (621 RS, 750 RA); Kansas City, 65-87 (637 RS, 752 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #28; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: Ichiro went 3-for-3 in a losing effort last night, reaching 200 hits for the eighth consecutive season to tie the major league record set by Willie Keeler from 1894 to 1901. Fittingly, his 200th hit was a grounder up the middle that he beat out for an infield single. Just three other players besides Ichiro and Keeler have notched at least eight seasons of 200 hits-Pete Rose holds the record with 10, Ty Cobb had nine, and Paul Waner also had eight. Back in July Ichiro was in some danger of not reaching the record, but a .349 average over his last 48 games has allowed him to clear the bar again with plenty of room to spare and get his average back to its customary place above .300. Ichiro has played in every game for the Mariners this season, and since he entered the league has missed just 16 games in eight years, playing in more contests during that period (1,269) than any other player. Ichiro also snagged another stolen base, his 43rd of the year against four times caught, bumping his stolen-base percentage to an astounding 89.9 since the start of 2006.

Ichiro could not fully enjoy his big night, however, thanks in part to Ryan Shealy, who hit a solo homer to put Kansas City on the board in the fourth. The shot was the sixth that Shealy has hit in 39 at-bats since being called up from Triple-A Omaha, where he had 22 homers and an 879 OPS. Shealy has nearly doubled the home-run total of Kansas City first basemen in just 10 games; before the slugger's September call-up, Royals first basemen, led by Ross Gload, had just seven homers all season. Take out Shealy's production and the Royals have had just a .275/.320/.369 line out of first base in 572 plate appearances, but that poor production out of such a key offensive spot should disappear next year. The Royals not only have the righty-swinging Shealy, but also Kila Ka'aihue, a 24-year-old left-handed masher who launched 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A this season, and ranked fifth in all of the minors with a .628 slugging percentage.

Matchup: Brewers (84-68) at Cubs (91-59), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dave Bush (172 IP, 4.55 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 103 K) vs. Rich Harden (137, 2.23, 1.04, 170)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 82-70 (704 RS, 649 RA); Chicago, 93-57 (797 RS, 613 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #7; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: After a 12-day layoff due to some arm troubles-what exactly they were was not made clear-Harden beat the Cardinals last Thursday with a six-inning, two-run performance. His fastball was down in velocity a bit averaging 90 mph, compared with 92 for the season, and 94 the last several years. He also struck out just three, his second-lowest total of the season. Still, he held the Cards at bay for a quality start, and given the quality of the Cubs' bullpen, six strong innings are probably all that Chicago needs out of Harden.

Dale Sveum has only been in charge for two games, but has already put his stamp on the Brewers, or at least on their batting order. Sveum quickly ended the brief tenures of Corey Hart and his .310 OBP in the leadoff spot and Ray Durham in the three hole, a configuration Ned Yost resorted to in both games of Sunday's doubleheader, which was his last experiment before the axe fell. Instead, Sveum has elected to hit Mike Cameron leadoff, a position he occupied just once earlier this season, while moving J.J. Hardy out of the two hole in place of Durham and bumping the slumping Ryan Braun back up to his usual position batting third. Putting Cameron atop the order is an interesting move, but the veteran center fielder's .333 OBP is lower than the major leagues' leadoff man average of .343. Getting on base is a team-wide problem for Milwaukee, with the best choice still seeming to be Durham and his .378 mark. Durham has seen much more playing time since returning from a strained shoulder earlier in the month, as the Brewers, finally fed up with Rickie Weeks' disappointing season, have elected to go to a straight platoon at second: Durham has started each of the last four games, all against right-handers, while Weeks played the two against lefties before that. Going to the timeshare is the correct call according to the numbers: Durham is at .309/.386/.463 this year versus righties, while Weeks is at .259/.392/.430 against southpaws, and both players have a sub-700 OPS versus the other hand.

Matchup: Cardinals (78-73) at Reds (70-81), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kyle Lohse (187 1/3 IP, 3.94 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 111 K) vs. Edinson Volquez (181 2/3 IP, 3.81 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 192 K)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 78-73 (706 RS, 677 RA); Cincinnati, 67-84 (654 RS, 737 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #13; Cincinnati, #25
Prospectus: The first time Lohse and Volquez squared off this season led to a five-game suspension for the St. Louis right-hander. Volquez tossed a fastball up and in near Lohse's head in the top of the fifth inning on August 17, and Lohse returned fire against Volquez with an up-and-in offering in the bottom of the frame, which prompted a warning to both dugouts and a rebuke for Lohse from Bob Watson in the commissioner's office. The former Reds starter is having the best season of his career for the rival Cards, and can tie a career-high with his 14th victory tonight.

Lohse will be attempting to stop the Cardinals' season-high seven-game losing streak, which has taken St. Louis out of the hunt for the wild card at six games behind with 11 to play. The Cards' offense produced just 17 runs in the losing stretch, leading Tony La Russa to attempt some desperate maneuvers to wake up his team's bats, including putting light-hitting middle infielders in the outfield corners. With Rick Ankiel down for the season due to a sports hernia (a painful injury that seemingly has become more common), the Cardinals have a conspicuous hole in one outfield spot which they have been unable to fill: last night La Russa started middle infield reserve Brendan Ryan and his 587 OPS in right field, a game after Felipe Lopez took his 689 OPS out to left field. La Russa also tried Aaron Miles in left field last week, in addition to mixing in veteran journeyman Josh Phelps and rookies Nick Stavinoha and Brian Barton. The Reds also have been working with a patchwork offensive mix-yesterday they started a particularly unimposing lineup that included Danny Richar, Wilkin Castillo, Andy Phillips, Corey Patterson, and Paul Janish-yet Cincinnati has managed to win seven of its last nine thanks to the pitching staff, which has allowed less than 3.3 runs per game in that run. The team's starters have been particularly impressive, with 14 runs allowed in 59 2/3 innings over the last nine, a 2.11 RA.

Matchup: Twins (82-70) at Rays (90-60), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glen Perkins (145 1/3 IP, 4.64 RA, 1.46 WHIP, 70 K) vs. James Shields (200 2/3, 3.86, 1.14, 149)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 84-68 (783 RS, 694 RA); Tampa Bay, 84-66 (700 RS, 614 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: The Rays won their 90th game last night, becoming the sixth team in major league history to reach that plateau while snapping a stretch of at least 10 straight losing seasons; the others were the 1912 Senators, 1914 Braves, 1956 Reds, 1979 Expos, and 2006 Tigers. With the victory, Tampa Bay also equaled the total projected for it by PECOTA before the season, with 12 games still remaining. Two more wins in this four-game set with the Twins will clinch the first playoff berth in Rays history. Now two up in the AL East, the Rays have a magic number of 10 to clinch the division, although in reality it's only nine-barring a scenario in which both the Rays and Sox collapse, the two will both finish with a better record than Minnesota, so the assigning of the division winner and the wild card team is a matter of accounting. The tie-breaker in that situation is their head-to-head record, and Tampa Bay's series win over Boston this week gave it a 10-8 edge on the season, meaning that the Rays would get the symbolic nod. Winning the division rather than the wild card and getting that extra home game would provide a bigger advantage for the Rays than for most teams, given their sizable home/road split this year (.714 winning percentage at home, .497 on the road).

The wild card is out of reach for the Twins, and after four straight losses the division title is receding into the distance as well. Minnesota put 22-game-winner Cliff Lee on the ropes last night and came up with 17 baserunners, but they were able to plate just four of them in a 6-4 defeat. As a result, Chicago remains 2 games ahead of the Twins, but Minnesota still has three left with the White Sox at home, so all is far from lost. To pull off the comeback the Twins will have to do something about their bullpen, which like so many potentially playoff-bound relief corps has been a flaming wreck in the second half.

Matchup: Giants (68-84) at Diamondbacks (75-76), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Tim Lincecum (207 2/3 IP, 2.69 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 237 K) vs. Randy Johnson (162, 4.72, 1.28, 159)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 65-87 (602 RS, 710 RA); Arizona, 77-74 (670 RS, 660 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #24; Arizona, #16
Prospectus: Lincecum tossed his first career complete game in a shutout of San Diego last Saturday night, but it came at the cost of 138 pitches, the most that have been thrown in one start since Livan Hernandez had a 145-pitch outing on July 31 of 2005. Manager Bruce Bochy wanted to get Lincecum the complete game, in part to bolster the 24-year-old's case for the NL Cy Young award, as Bochy told MLB.com "I didn't want that [of a CG] in the record when they talk about Cy Young votes." Bochy has been pushing Lincecum towards that end lately; in the start before last Lincecum pitched into the ninth inning, finishing with 127 pitches, and three starts ago he threw 132 in 7 2/3 versus Colorado. No pitcher has tossed at least 125 in three out of four starts since 2003, when both Kerry Wood and Javier Vazquez had similar stretches. As a result of the recent stress, Lincecum is now way out in front of all other major league pitchers in Pitcher Abuse Points, with a per-start average PAP that has not been topped since 2005, when Hernandez made six starts of 130 or more pitches.

The stories about Lincecum's freakish physical nature abound-how his twisting, off-kilter delivery is perfectly suited to get the most from his 5'11" 160-lb frame, or how he didn't need to ice his arm in college despite the fact that he regularly threw huge numbers of pitches (reportedly including 15 Category Five starts of 133-plus pitches during his three years at the University of Washington, according to college baseball analyst Boyd Nation). While Lincecum may well be a physical anomaly, the decision to push the limits of his rubber arm for a Giants team well out of contention is highly questionable, as BP founder Gary Huckabay expounded upon recently. Lincecum has passed through the "injury nexus," that period of heightened injury sensitivity when a pitcher is still filling out and his tendons and muscles are still growing; a 2003 study by Will Carroll and Nate Silver found that the risk of pitcher injury is most acute at ages 21 and 22, before dropping down to its lowest point at age 24. That fact doesn't excuse the last four starts for Lincecum, however, as Bochy and the Giants are threatening to bring back pitcher abuse, which had been virtually extinguished from today's game.

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

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