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September 1, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Labor Day's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (76-61) at Brewers (80-56), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (190 IP, 3.08 RA, 1.14 WHIP, 159 K) vs. Ben Sheets (174, 3.31, 1.14, 144)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 76-61 (674 RS, 597 RA); Milwaukee, 77-59 (656 RS, 567 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #6; Milwaukee, #5
Prospectus: The Mets and Brewers begin a big three-game series with as good a pitching matchup in the National League as you will find this year. Sheets and Santana hooked up way back on April 12 in each pitcher's third start of the year, with the Brewers' ace besting the Mets' top starter in a game Milwaukee won 5-3. Sheets has remained healthy throughout the year for the first time since 2004, setting himself up for a huge contract in the offseason when he hits free agency. Right now, however, the right-hander has the playoffs on his mind, a place his team has not visited since 1982. The Brewers currently have a 94.6 percent chance at getting there, the highest it has been all season.

These three games at Miller Park could be a preview of one NLDS matchup in October; if the season ended today the Mets and Brewers would meet in a five-game series. Given the one-two punch of Sabathia and Sheets, one has to figure that Milwaukee-which currently has the better record by 4 games-would even be favored to win that potential matchup despite its lack of home-field advantage. Neither club rates out as a theoretical post-season juggernaut, as among the 11 clubs which currently have a 25 percent or higher shot at the postseason, the Brewers rank sixth and the Mets eighth in the "Secret Sauce" formula (which averages a club's strength of defense, strikeout rate, and closer). The bullpen is likely to be the biggest issue for both teams should each make it to October-the Mets have been grasping at straws without closer Billy Wagner, and have no one who would strike fear in opposing batters come the ninth inning; the Brewers have been getting a fantastic season from Salomon Torres after Eric Gagne's flameout, but he is not the picture of a shut-down closer, either. Of the 33 relievers with at least 10 saves this season, only two-Bobby Jenks and Todd Jones-have a lower K/9 than Torres' 5.9. In their research for Baseball Between the Numbers (which led to the "Secret Sauce"), Nate Silver and Dayn Perry found that strikeouts are even more important to success in post-season play than they are during the regular season.

Matchup: Astros (71-66) at Cubs (85-52), 3:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (164 1/3 IP, 4.49 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 135 K) vs. Jason Marquis (141 1/3, 4.71, 1.40, 74)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 65-72 (612 RS, 646 RA); Chicago, 86-51 (743 RS, 554 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: Oswalt has always been among the best in the majors at limiting home runs, so there was a great deal of concern when he surrendered 16 in his first 12 starts of the year-two more than he had given up all of last season, and just two less than his previous career high. In the last 14 starts, however, Houston's ace has returned to his typical dominating form, giving up a total of five homers in 88 1/3 innings-0.5 HR/9, which is even lower than his career rate of 0.7 HR/9 coming into the year, and much better than the 1.9 HR/9 hit against him in his first 76 innings of '08. In that latter stretch, Oswalt has also posted a 2.95 ERA/3.46 RA with an 80/21 K/BB ratio.

While Oswalt gave up just two home runs across six starts in August, teammate Ty Wigginton hit six times that number against enemy hurlers by himself. Wigginton's two-run blast in the eighth inning of yesterday's 3-0 win over St. Louis was his 12th of the month, tying the franchise record for August (Jeff Bagwell also hit 12 back in 2000). Nobody else in baseball tallied more home runs this August-in fact, no one else even cracked double figures, with Manny Ramirez, Ryan Ludwick, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Pena, and Mike Cameron all ranking second with nine. Wigginton also topped all August comers with an .806 slugging percentage. At the midway point of Houston's season, Wigginton had just five home runs in 185 plate appearances, but he more than tripled that total in the next 185, and in the process raised his seasonal OPS to 935. Among those players with at least 350 plate appearances, that ranks seventh in the National League, one spot behind injured teammate Carlos Lee, whose production in the lineup Wigginton has capably gone about replacing. With Wiggy enjoying a career season, the Astros have won five in a row and are 24-10 since July 27, the second-best record in the National League behind Chicago over that period.

Matchup: White Sox (77-59) at Indians (65-70), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Clayton Richard (27 IP, 7.67 RA, 1.67 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Cliff Lee (185 1/3, 2.57, 1.07, 145)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 77-59 (693 RS, 597 RA); Cleveland, 70-65 (655 RS, 626 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Cleveland, #14
Prospectus: Lee will try tonight to become the first pitcher this year to win 20 games, and the first Cleveland pitcher to do so in 34 years, last accomplished when Gaylord Perry won 21 for the Tribe in 1974. In the interim since Perry's '74 season, every non-expansion team other than Cleveland has had at least one pitcher rack up 20 victories. (Colorado has not had a 20-game winner in its 16 years of existence, nor has Tampa Bay in its 11.) The 33 years that Cleveland has gone without a 20-game winner ties for the longest drought in major league history with the Phillies, who after Grover Cleveland Alexander's 30-win season in 1917 did not have another 20-game winner until 1950, when Robin Roberts broke the spell with a 20-11 campaign. Lee is on pace to finish with a league-leading SNLVAR of 8.2, which would be the best season by a Cleveland pitcher since Perry's '74 season, when he had a 9.3 SNLVAR.

Lee gave up only one run over eight innings in his lone start against the White Sox this season, but took a no-decision in a game that Chicago won 3-2 in 10. The left-hander has lost only twice all year, and if he is not beaten in his remaining six starts while picking up at least one win, he will finish with the best won-loss percentage of all pitchers who have started more than 20 games in a season. Lee's current 19-2 mark is the same as that which Greg Maddux put up in 1995, when Mad Dog had a 1.63 ERA. (At 16-2 this year Daisuke Matsuzaka is creeping up the list as well.) One has to go all the way back to the first professional baseball league to find a starter with a better won-loss percentage than Lee and Maddux; legendary Hall of Famer Al Spalding went 55-5 (.917) in 1875 for the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association, a team that was 71-8 overall. Lee's Indians are below .500, which makes his lack of losses even more impressive. There have been only three pitchers besides Lee to start at least 26 times in a season and take as few as two losses-both Maddux and Randy Johnson (18-2) in '95, and Red Sox rookie Mike Nagy in '69 (12-2), who all played on winning clubs.

Thanks to William Burke for research assistance.

Matchup: Orioles (63-73) at Red Sox (79-57), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Garrett Olson (108 2/3 IP, 6.54 RA, 1.71 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Paul Byrd (150 1/3, 4.79, 1.30, 65)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 66-70 (698 RS, 718 RA); Boston, 81-55 (708 RS, 574 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #18; Boston, #2
Prospectus: The Orioles were swept by Tampa Bay yesterday, losing 10-3 to continue the tailspin that many thought would come earlier this season for the overachieving Birds: Baltimore has lost 10 of its last 12 games and fallen 10 games below .500 for the first time this year. In the defeat, the O's did manage to knock three doubles, including the 43rd of the year from Aubrey Huff and the 42nd from Nick Markakis. Together with second baseman Brian Roberts, who leads the major leagues with 46 doubles, Baltimore has three of the top four collectors of two-base hits in the junior circuit this year.

All three players are currently on pace to finish the season with at least 50 doubles, a feat that has never before been accomplished in the history of Major League Baseball. There have been only 84 player seasons of 50-plus doubles all-time, and just 10 years in which three players in all of baseball each collected 50+ doubles, let alone three on the same team. Two teammates have hit 50 or more two-sackers in the same season only four times: George Burns (64 doubles) and Tris Speaker (52) on the 1926 Indians, Charlie Gehringer (60) and Gee Walker (55) on the 1936 Tigers, Mickey Vernon (51) and Stan Spence (50) on the 1946 Senators, and Todd Helton (59) and Jeff Cirillo (53) on the 2000 Rockies. Only three players in O's franchise history have reached the half-century mark: Roberts in '04 and Miguel Tejada in '05 with exactly 50, as well as Beau Bell of the St. Louis Browns in 1937, whose club record of 51 Roberts is on pace to break. Remarkably, even with their trio of gap hitters, Baltimore only ranks fourth in the AL in team doubles with 280; no one else on the squad has more than 27. Boston is second with 291, led by Dustin Pedroia, whose 42 doubles break up the party of O's at the top of the chart.

Thanks to Clay Davenport for research assistance.

Matchup: Padres (53-83) at Dodgers (67-70), 5:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Chris Young (68 1/3 IP, 4.87 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 66 K) vs. Greg Maddux (164 1/3, 4.98, 1.25, 84) Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 56-80 (527 RS, 636 RA); Los Angeles, 69-68 (565 RS, 562 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #27; Los Angeles, #15
Prospectus: Traded two weeks ago by San Diego, Maddux will go up against his former club this evening at Chavez Ravine. Things have not gone well for the future Hall of Famer thus far in his second tour with the Dodgers, for he has been hit hard in each of his two starts since joining the fray atop the NL West, giving up 11 runs over 11 innings in losing at Philadelphia and at Washington. Now Maddux gets to pitch in front of the LA fans at Dodger Stadium, where he gave up just seven runs in winning five of six starts during the stretch drive of 2006. Thanks to the recent influx of youth on San Diego's roster and the fact that Maddux pitched there for the past year and a half, the Padres have virtually no experience at all versus The Professor, with Brian Giles (38 plate appearances) and Adrian Gonzalez (seven) the only Friars to have faced him.

One of the youngsters yet to face Maddux is Will Venable, a 25-year-old outfielder who was called up from Triple-A Portland last Friday and started each of his first three games in center field, going 4-for-12. Venable wasn't much of a prospect entering this season, as he was an older minor league corner outfielder with a .287/.355/.415 line across his first three seasons. Two things put him on the San Diego radar this year, however: he experienced a modest breakout with a .292/.361/.464 line in his first shot at Triple-A, and he made what Padres' executive Paul DePodesta called a seamless transition to center field. Consequently, it appears that the Padres will give Venable plenty of time out in the wide Petco pasture during September to find out if he can play his way into the team's future. The new center fielder's call-up means that two of the best two-sport athletes ever to play in the Ivy League could each be in the San Diego lineup against Maddux-Venable and tonight's starter Young played both baseball and basketball at Princeton, and were named to the All-Ivy first team in each sport. According to DePodesta, an Ivy man himself, they are the only two players in league history to earn that dual distinction.

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

Related Content:  Greg Maddux,  The Who,  Prospectus,  The Call-up

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