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May 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit List

Braving the Storm

by Jay Jaffe

Overall W-L
Week W-L
Hit List Factor



Winning Uggla: Dan Uggla's eighth-inning homer off Roy Halladay carries the Braves to a win in the Civil Rights Game, which features both teams wearing circa-1974 uniforms to honor Hank Aaron. The victory gives Atlanta the series win as well helping them climb atop the Hit List thanks largely to a better run differential (+44 to +34). Uggla's hitting .196/.270/.375 with significant drops in his walk rate, isolated power, and pitches per plate appearance, accompanied by rising groundball rate and swing percentages both in and out of the strike zone—in short, he is a total mess. Less messy is Brian McCann, who doubles his season home run output in a dramatic three-inning span against the Astros, coming off the bench to hit a game-tying pinch-homer in the ninth inning, and a game-winning two-run shot in the 11th. Yeah, that's pretty rare.


Help a Guy Out, OK? After allowing a total of seven walks in his first eight starts, Cliff Lee issues a career-high six free passes as the Phillies fall to the Cardinals, part of a 4-7 skid that knocks them out of the top spot. Lee's ERA sits at 3.84, more than a run above his 2.68 SIERA; he has been victimized for a .350 BABIP, 54 points higher than the team average. He is not getting much help on the other side either, as the Phils have scored just seven runs in his last five starts, but then that seems to be going around, as the team is scoring just 3.20 runs per game this month, down from 4.62 in April. Help is on the way: Chase Utley's rehab assignment has begun, though his return date is uncertain; his fill-ins have hit a kitten-weak .230/.282/.288.


Shingles and Singles: Tony La Russa returns from a six-game absence due to illness, and the Cardinals string together enough one-base hits and walks to beat Cliff Lee in a game which also features Albert Pujols' first start at third base since September 23, 2002. Prior to his return, interim skipper Joe Pettini gets notable help from Kyle Lohse, whose impersonation of the skipper while delivering the lineup card provides some levity, not to mention the best in-game disguise since Bobby Valentine. Despite the team's resourcefulness—they've also spotted Allen Craig at second base—the Cards fall three games in the standings during La Russa's six-game absence.


The DL Giveth, the DL Taketh Away: Back from the disabled list and making just his second start of the season, Johnny Cueto takes a shutout into the eighth inning in beating the Cardinals. The win is part of a three-game sweep of the Cardinals and an 8-1 run which lifts the Reds into first place in the NL Central; it's the first time Cueto has faced St. Louis since last August's brawl. Additional help comes from Scott Rolen, who returns from the DL himself and goes 7-for-13 with a double and a triple in the series, but the Reds lose Aroldis Chapman due to shoulder inflammation which may have something to do with his frightening loss of control; he has yielded nine walks and eight runs over his last three appearances while retiring just one hitter.


They Shoot Fish, Don't They? Javier Vazquez is rocked for six runs in four innings in his third consecutive disaster start, and fourth overall, tied with Carl Pavano and John Lackey for this season's MLB lead. Whether or not Vazquez's woes owe anything to the elbow soreness he dealt with during the spring, his ERA's a sky-high 7.55, and his velocity continues to fall, as does his strikeout rate; the latter has dropped from 9.8 per nine in 2009 to 4.6 this year, . He has been getting particularly tagged in the first inning, yielding a .488/.542/.854 line and 14 runs in eight frames.


Welcome Back: Ubaldo Jimenez beats the Giants to notch his first win of the season and just his second quality start out of seven, lifting the Rockies into first place in the NL West. Jimenez strikes out seven while walking just one, in marked contrast to his 30/22 K/BB ratio prior, and lowers his ERA from 6.67 to 6.14. It's his first start which the Rox have won; they're 21-12 (.636) otherwise. Collecting the key hit in both Jimenez's win and the previous night's affair is Carlos Gonzalez, who has been in a rut himself; his two-run eighth-inning single follows his three-run homer off Tim Lincecum. Though he is hitting just .234/.317/.386 with five homers, three of those dingers have come in his last seven games.


Rain 'Song: Ryan Vogelsong's six scoreless innings in a rain-shortened game are enough to net him his first official major league shutout. It's Vogelsong's second scoreless outing in a row; filling in for Barry Zito, he has got a 2.36 ERA and 24/8 K/BB ratio in 26.2 innings, not too shabby for a guy who compiled a 5.86 ERA from 2000-2006 before spending three seasons in Japan and one in Triple-A. Those outings are part of a 7-2 run which temporarily carries the Giants into first place despite an offense which hasn't produced more than four runs in a game since May 3.


Pitching In: Shaun Marcum tosses seven strong innings against the Dodgers; admittedly, that's not the hardest thing in the world to do these days, though it helps the Brewers keep a 5-1 run going as they claw their way back towards .500. With a 2.54 ERA and a stellar 54/13 K/BB ratio in 56.2 innings, Marcum has outpitched both Zack Greinke (6.60 ERA through three starts) and Yovani Gallardo (4.88 ERA through nine starts). The latter did bank a solid follow-up to his no-hit bid, kicking off a sweep of the Pirates.


Hip Hip Hawpe-Ity: Brad Hawpe's two-run ninth-inning homer caps a string of eight unanswered runs over the final three innings against the Rockies. After batting just .149/.194/.194 in April, Hawpe is hitting .372/.449/.581 thus far in May. In fact, the entire Padres' offense has risen from the dead this month, scoring 5.86 runs per game on .280/.340/.422 hitting, more than doubling their 2.85 runs per game on .211/.293/.308 "hitting" in March/April. Also especially lifelike: Chase Headley (.349/.472/.419) and Cameron Maybin (.321/.373/.453).


Black and Blue: Winners of 14 out of their last 23, the Mets can't buy a break in the injury department. They lose Chris Young (shoulder capsule) and Jennry Mejia (ulnar collateral ligament) to season-ending shoulder surgery, shelve Ike Davis due to a sprained ankle at a time when he is hitting .302/.383/.543, and find out David Wright has a spinal stress fracture in his lower back, which might explain his .226/.337/.404 struggles. Blame for all of this, of course, rests with Carlos Beltran, whose three-homer game, .286/.381/.564 performance, and—knock on wood—good health has been overshadowed by the ongoing drama surrounding the team's financial state and their injury situation.


Packing a Punch: Making his first major league start, Josh Collmeter tosses six innings of shutout ball against the Dodgers, while the Diamondbacks manage to win despite collecting just one hit and one run. Losers of six out of eight, the Snakes aren't doing a whole lot of hitting these days, but they're making their knocks count; via their .238/.310/.400 line, they're 11th in batting average and 12th in on-base percentage, but fourth in slugging percentage, first in isolated power, and third in home runs. Not surprisingly, that puts them tops in the league in Guillen number (percentage of runs on homers). Also: Guillen number in the stat reports!


Vortices of Suck: Oh, good, Juan Castro is here. He is just what the doctor ordered for an injury-wracked team averaging 2.53 runs per game in May. He is bound to hit better than Aaron Miles, whose .298/.315/.339 batting line is thinner than Frank McCourt's cash reserve. Hell, he may even give James Loney (.231/.265/.269) and the left field suckfest (.205/.271/.298) a run for their money, or even marquee offseason signing Juan Uribe (.214/.288/.328). At the very least, he is 110 percent guaranteed to prove Ned Colletti's genius in assembling an offense. You're doing a bang-up job, Stupid Flanders.


Meltdown on the Midway: A blown four-run lead and a 2-5 slide have manager Mike Quade running out of expletives as he progresses from anger to team meeting (that's sixth on the Kübler-Ross scale if you're scoring at home). Carlos Zambrano fritters away the lead in the game which pushes Quade to the brink, but it's the back-rotation fill-ins for Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner who are causing the real grief. Casey Coleman and James Russell have delivered just one quality start in 10 while combining for an 8.16 ERA as starters; the Cubs are 2-8 in those games. There's hope via Doug Davis' solid return to the majors amid a rainstorm which could have featured an ark, but concern as Cashner suffers a setback during his rehab.


We Interrupt This Slump: Danny Espinosa interrupts an 8-for-74 tailspin long enough to hit a game-winning two-run homer against the Pirates. Since hitting .281/.364/.484 through April 24, Espinosa's nosedive has plunged his line to .196/.296/.377. Adam LaRoche (.182/.298/.277) is below the Mendoza Line as well, with a slugging percentage 100 points lower, and the Nats are now either last or second to last in all three slash categories, which we won't print here in case children stumble onto this list.


Back in the Hole: After catching a break on a disputed call in a win over the Dodgers, the Pirates climb over .500, the latest they've been at that point since May 29, 2004. Whether due to bad karma, Pythagorean correction, or Pirates Being Pirates, they proceed to lose the next six in a row by a combined 23 runs. The team's .235 average and .355 slugging percentage both rank in the bottom three, with Pedro Alvarez's .210/.277/.286 by far the biggest concern. Neal Huntington says he doesn't plan to send Alvarez to the minors, but something needs to change; he is striking out in 31.5 percent of his plate appearances, second in the league, and finding himself in an 0-2 hole 34 percent of the time, a situation where MLB hitters are batting .147/.155/.207.


Here's the Keys, Sucker: Wandy Rodriguez's eight shutout innings go to waste when Mark Melancon yields a game-tying ninth-inning homer to Brian McCann; Jeff Fulchino one-ups him by surrendering a two-run homer to McCann in the 11th. The Astros can't get no relief; they're 11-7 when leading after seven innings, nearly five wins worse than the average team in such situations (.611 winning percentage vs. 875). At least they're no longer Drayton McLane's problem, as he completes the sale of the franchise to Jim Crane, who takes over a team that's had just one winning season and a .477 winning percentage (24th in the majors) since their 2005 pennant.

The Prospectus Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Thursday.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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