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September 23, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Royals (71-86) at Tigers (71-84), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (195 1/3 IP, 4.01 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 179 K) vs. Freddy Garcia (58 IP, 6.05 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 50 K-2007)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 68-89 (664 RS, 768 RA); Detroit, 75-80 (791 RS, 814 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Detroit, #17
Prospectus: The Tigers opened the season by losing seven straight games, and 10 of 12. They are now threatening to go out in similar fashion, with losses in the last four and 10 of their last 11. If the Royals beat Detroit again tonight, they will move percentage points ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central for the first time since May 23. Finishing in last place would be a particularly embarrassing fate for a Tigers team expected to contend for the division title, one that also sports the second-largest payroll in the American League ($138 million). The Tigers will rely upon their latest purchase to help keep them from slipping into the cellar, and Chief looked strong in his first outing, giving up only an unearned run and two hits in five innings while throwing his fastball in the upper 80s. While Garcia looks to build investor confidence for the off-season shopping period, Greinke will try to neatly wrap up an already-outstanding season. Greinke has already struck out more batters this year than any Royals pitcher has since Kevin Appier fanned 196 in 1997.

Royals outfielder David DeJesus picked up four hits in KC's 6-2 win last night, scoring twice while driving in one. Batting primarily in the leadoff spot (with 103 starts there in 133 games), DeJesus has nevertheless managed to drive in 73 runs, second most on the team, thanks to his average of .419 with runners in scoring position, the best in the majors this season. That average with RISP is also the second-best in Royals history, next to the .469 that George Brett put up in 1980, when he hit .390. Brett that season drove in 118 runs in 117 games, good for the best OBI% in the BP database, knocking in 26.9 percent of runners on base. DeJesus hasn't approached that mark, but his 21.4 percent leads all batting title qualifiers this season.

Matchup: Indians (79-77) at Red Sox (91-65), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (216 1/3 IP, 2.62 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 162 K) vs. Tim Wakefield (170, 4.50 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 108 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 82-74 (772 RS, 726 RA); Boston, 93-63 (815 RS, 657 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #14; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Red Sox take another crack at clinching the AL wild-card berth tonight at Fenway, but it will be against the likely American League Cy Young winner. As Joe Sheehan mentioned in a recent post on Unfiltered, Lee has faced a relatively easy schedule this season in comparison with his main competitor for the hardware, Roy Halladay. That doesn't take anything away from his remarkable campaign, but it does mean that his first start against Boston this season could be his toughest assignment of the year, given that the Red Sox have hit left-handers better than any other team (846 OPS) and are also a particularly dangerous offense at Fenway Park (845 OPS). Lee is in search of his 23rd win, which would be the most in the AL since Barry Zito won 23 in 1999 [Correction: 2002], and if he gets it will have the shot to become the first AL pitcher with 24 or more victories since Bob Welch won 27 for the A's in 1990. Going 1-0 or 2-0 in his final two turns would give Lee the best winning percentage in baseball history amongst pitchers with at least 200 innings or 20 decisions in a season, beating out the 55-5 season of Al Spalding from 1875; he simply needs to avoid losing to become the first pitcher to make more than 30 starts in a season and not fall more than twice.

Lee will have to deal with a couple of his competitors for the MVP award in the Red Sox lineup, including Dustin Pedroia, who hit his 52nd double of the season over the weekend. With one more, Pedroia will move past the total that he shares with David Ortiz from last season, and into a tie with Tris Speaker for third place on Boston's single-season list. If he gets four more in the last six games, he could also tie Nomar Garciaparra's total of 56 from 2002, second in the team annals to only the greatest seasonal doubles total of all time, the 67 hit by Earl Webb in 1931. Jacoby Ellsbury is closing in on a team record, as well, and if he is able to get on base enough over the next several days could snag the five stolen bases he needs to tie Boston's single-season record, set at 54 by Tommy Harper in 1973.

Matchup: Cubs (95-60) at Mets (86-70), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Sean Marshall (59 2/3 IP, 3.62 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 50 K) vs. Johan Santana (217 1/3 IP, 2.98 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 187 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 95-60 (829 RS, 641 RA); New York, 86-70 (775 RS, 688 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; New York, #4
Prospectus: The Mets found a unique way to lose last night in the opener of their four-game series with Chicago, but one that they are nonetheless all too familiar with. Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis hit a grand slam in the fourth inning against rookie Jonathon Niese to break a 2-2 tie and send the Cubs on to an easy 9-5 win. Marquis's bomb to right field was the third slam by a pitcher since the start of the 2003 season-and incredibly, all three have been hit against the Mets at Shea Stadium in the last 15 months. Back in late June this year, Felix Hernandez took Johan Santana out to right in Seattle's 5-2 victory, and in July of '07 Dontrelle Willis hit a slam against the Mets' Jose Lima, also to right field. The Cubs have had the best-hitting pitching staff in the National League this year by far, as Carlos Zambrano (.301 EqA), Marquis, and the rest have posted a 524 OPS, over 100 points higher than the next-best unit. In contrast, Mets pitchers have contributed just a 312 mark, and have yet to homer on the year.

The nine hole isn't the only spot for New York that has been producing no offense of late, however. With Damion Easley unable to play the field due to a quadriceps injury, the Mets have been forced to go with Luis Castillo and Argenis Reyes at second base, and the results have been ugly. Castillo was having a rough season before he went down with a hip flexor injury, but since coming back in late August he has hit .188/.328/.208 in 59 plate appearances, with an uncharacteristically high total of 13 strikeouts. Reyes combines Castillo's punchless bat with an inability to work the count; the rookie has put up a 504 OPS in 117 PA this season. That lack of production out of second wouldn't be so much of problem, but right fielder Ryan Church has not been himself either since getting back off the DL with recurring post-concussive symptoms in late August, and the Mets need all the offense they can scrounge up in order to build margins that can withstand the destructive power of their bullpen.

Matchup: Pirates (65-91) at Brewers (85-71), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jeff Karstens (45 1/3 IP, 5.76 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 17 K) vs. David Bush (177, 4.53, 1.14, 106) Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 65-91 (713 RS, 861 RA); Milwaukee, 83-73 (723 RS, 672 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #30; Milwaukee, #9
Prospectus: After the Mets' loss last night, the Brewers are back to within a game of the wild card. As Prince Fielder said, "The [teams] in front of us could do what we did-play good baseball and kaplowie. As long as we just play our game and see what happens, we'll be all right. At least we'll be able to sleep at night." The Brewers probably slept well last night knowing that they would spend the next three days playing the Pirates, the worst team in baseball (per Jay Jaffe's Hit List rankings). Pittsburgh has the worst record in the majors since it traded away its two best hitters at the trading deadline, 15-33, and Milwaukee has dominated the Pirates this season, winning 11 of 12 games against them, including nine in a row. Bush, who is from Pittsburgh, beat the Bucs in back-to-back starts at the end of August, and sports a 2.08 RA in his last three outings against them. Karstens, meanwhile, has come unglued since throwing 16 shutout innings in his first two starts after coming over from the Yankees, with 29 runs allowed in 30 1/3 innings since. Opponents have also smacked seven homers off Karstens during his recent fallow stretch.

It's hard to single out a single scapegoat for Milwaukee's drop-off, but on offense during its 5-15 September you could number Corey Hart among them. Hart's average is under .200 for the month, with just three walks and no homers. Hart's finish has rendered his '08 campaign a disappointment after he broke out last season with an 892 OPS. Still, Hart has managed to post his second straight 20-20 season, equaling last year's total of 23 steals to go with 20 jacks. At 6'6", Hart's speed is highly unusual-according to the Baseball-Reference database, he is just the third player that tall to steal 20 bases in a season. The 6'6" Darryl Strawberry is the king with five such seasons (he is also the only 6'6" player to steal 30), while the 6'6" Dave Winfield did it four times. Just two other players of that height have even stolen 10 bags in a year-outlier seasons from Adam Dunn (19 in 2002) and Dave Kingman (16 in 1972)-and no player listed at 6'7" or up has ever stolen more than four bags in a year (Walt Bond in 1960).

Matchup: Chicago (86-69) at Minnesota (84-72), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (212 2/3 IP, 3.77 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 170 K) vs. Scott Baker (179 1/3, 3.91, 1.22, 124)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 86-69 (772 RS, 684 RA); Minnesota, 85-71 (801 RS, 721 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Minnesota, #12
Prospectus: Two and a half games behind the White Sox, the Twins begin their final stand tonight at the Metrodome. Minnesota will need a sweep or a series win to make the final weekend interesting. If Chicago and Minnesota are within a half-game after the last scheduled game of the season on Sunday, the White Sox will have to make up their postponed game with Detroit at home on Monday, and depending on that outcome perhaps play an 163rd contest against Minnesota at home the next night to decide the division, because Chicago won the tie-breaker coin flip, and thus would get to host the potential one-game playoff. These two teams have played practically to a draw this year, with Chicago winning eight of 15 contests. The White Sox have endured an offensive downturn since Carlos Quentin was felled on September 1-they have a 724 OPS in 18 games without their MVP candidate, scoring 4.4 runs a game, compared with 791 and 5.1 beforehand-but the slide has been kept from being worse by an unlikely source: Dewayne Wise, the 30-year-old Quad-A journeyman outfielder with 361 major league plate appearances to his name entering 2008, has hit four homers and driven in 10 in 44 September PA.

This Twins-White Sox series is not only a final-week battle for first place, it is also a clash of baseball ideologies, which makes the rivalry between the two franchises even more compelling. The White Sox are a slow team that runs on power-they're first in the majors in homers (223), last in the majors in triples (13), and second to last in the AL with just 63 steals. The Twins are a faster squad that preaches bat control and the ability to hit for average from the majors to the lowest levels on the farm, and it shows in the finished product-Minnesota is second in the AL with a .280 average, last in homers (108), first in triples (43, split 22-21 home and road, so they're not turf-generated), and fifth with 95 steals. Minnesota has speed spread equally throughout its roster, at least as measured by triples, for 11 Twins have between three and five three-baggers. No team in the integration era has had more than 11 players with three or more triples, while three other squads since 1947 besides this year's Twins have hit that number-the 1993 Rockies, and the 1983 Cardinals and Blue Jays. Chicago, meanwhile, doesn't have a single player with as many as three triples.

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

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