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September 30, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Game to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Twins (88-74) at White Sox (88-74), 6:35 p.m. CT, TBS
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (187 IP, 4.86 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 93 K) vs. John Danks (187, 3.56, 1.25, 155)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 89-73 (829 RS, 744 RA); Chicago, 89-73 (810 RS, 729 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Chicago, #7
Prospectus: Thanks to Alexei Ramirez's major league rookie-record fourth grand slam of the season yesterday, the White Sox and Twins will play a 163rd regular-season game tonight at the Cell to determine the AL Central champion. For the fourth straight game, the Sox will be starting a pitcher on three days' rest. It didn't work out with Javier Vazquez on Saturday, but Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd both turned in excellent outings to keep Chicago in the hunt. Danks has never before pitched on short rest in his two major league seasons, but he did throw only 80 pitches his last time out, when he was shelled by the Indians for seven runs in four innings on Friday night. The worst start of the season for Danks came against Minnesota back on April 9 (he allowed seven runs in less than three innings), and for the season he has given up 18 runs in 19 1/3 innings to the Twins across four starts. Blackburn has faced the White Sox five times already, most recently just last Wednesday, when he earned the victory in a game Minnesota won 3-2. That start came after he had allowed six runs in back-to-back outings, a rough patch which may be related to the fact that Blackburn is in uncharted territory in terms of innings,; the 160 1/3 he threw last season was his previous career high.

Last night's 8-2 victory for Chicago highlighted the team's major strength, but also one of its weaknesses. The strength is the home run, and in particular the slam-Chicago has now hit 12 on the season, a new franchise record and only two behind the major league mark set by the 2006 Indians and 2000 Athletics. As Joe Sheehan revealed the other day, Chicago leads the majors by a healthy margin in the percentage of its runs scored on homers, which has been the hallmark of the White Sox during this decade, and especially during their recent run of success. The Sox have gotten 48 percent of their offense this season via the long ball; 43 percent is the next-best figure, shared by Florida and Philadelphia.

The Twins, conversely, are second to last in the majors, getting only 23 percent of their offense from the homers they've hit, with only the Giants (22 percent) less reliant on homers. Despite the fact that Minnesota has hit 123 fewer homers than Chicago to this point, the Twins have actually outscored the White Sox on the season by 19 runs. Minnesota managed to rank third in the AL in runs while finishing last with 111 homers. There have been just two teams in the last 50 years that scored more than 829 runs while hitting less than 120 home runs-the 1996 Twins (877 R, 118 HR) and the 1979 Royals (851 R, 116 HR)-and no other teams that scored as many runs per game while hitting so few homers. The team most similar to the 2008 Twins offensively might be the 1987 Cardinals, who scored 798 runs on only 94 home runs, and hit the same amount of triples (49) as Minnesota has this year. That St Louis team won 95 games and went to the World Series, where it lost to... the Twins, of course.

Now to the aforementioned White Sox weakness: the Gavin Floyd/A.J. Pierzynski battery allowed four Tiger stolen bases without catching any Detroit baserunners last night, which pushed Chicago's stolen bases allowed total this season to 139, the most in the American League, against just 30 thieves caught. That runs the caught-stealing percentage for the Sox defense down to 17.8 percent, the worst mark in the majors, a shade below the 18.4 percent of the Padres, who in recent years have been the easiest team to run on in baseball history. You might think that Danks is somewhat immune to this syndrome as a left-hander, but he has allowed 23 steals, more than any other southpaw in the game this year. Danks has picked off six runners, however, and eight more have been caught stealing, so his opponent percentage (74) is at least better than the team's overall mark.

This weakness could be a particular factor in tonight's action, because Minnesota has quite a bit of team speed. However, while the Twins boast the youngest collection of hitters in the majors, they have not yet learned to perfect the art of the theft, ranking just 10th in the AL with a stolen-base percentage of 71. They have managed just 11 out of 16 on the basepaths in 18 games against Chicago thus far.

Of those 18 games the two teams played against each other, 15 were won by the home team, with the White Sox holding a 7-2 record versus Minnesota at the Cell. Given the sizable home-field advantage that the White Sox possess this year-a .654 winning percentage, compared with .432 on the road-Chicago certainly is favored in this matchup, but it's hard to see why they deserve that edge. Minnesota won the season series 10-8, but the venue of all tie-breaking games is determined by a coin flip, which the Sox won. Major League Baseball seems to have it backwards: in the event of a tie for the division title when both teams are going to the playoffs anyway, and it is simply a matter of accounting who takes the division and who gets the wild card, the head-to-head record is used, but when they actually have to play the game to determine which team moves on and which goes home, MLB allows a random act to determine who gets the advantage rather than giving it to the team that earned that right during the 162-game grind.

Thanks to William Burke and David Laurila for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Chicago White Sox,  Minnesota Twins,  The Who

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