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September 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (66-79) at Brewers (82-63), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Bronson Arroyo (173 IP, 5.20 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 143 K) vs. CC Sabathia (217 1/3, 2.98 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 217 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 64-81 (634 RS, 725 RA); Milwaukee, 79-65 (680 RS, 613 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #26; Milwaukee, #4
Prospectus: The Brewers need Sabathia to pitch them to another victory today, because after seven losses in their past nine games, their wild card lead has been cut to three games over Philadelphia, 3 over St. Louis, and four over Houston. Sabathia has already beaten the Reds once this season as a member of the Brewers after beating them once while with Cleveland, giving up two runs in 17 combined innings with 20 strikeouts against three walks, and he also pitched a shutout against Cincinnati last year. Milwaukee is 11-1 in Sabathia's 12 starts, but just 22-22 in all other games since acquiring the ace left-hander from Cleveland. Brewers fans don't need to be reminded of the growing similarity to '07, when the Crew saw its 8-game lead in the NL Central bleed down completely by mid-August, and then wash away again around this time of the season after Milwaukee had come back briefly to regain the advantage. Today's game, the last of an unsuccessful nine-game homestand, is made even more critical by what awaits the Brewers: a 10-game road trip to Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati. The Reds have proven to be a nuisance for Milwaukee this year, having won nine of the 16 games the two teams have played. After last night's 11-inning 5-4 win, Cincinnati has now taken five of its last six, and four of those wins came thanks to final at-bat runs scoring. The Reds will try to extend that streak without second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose game-winning single in the top of the 11th came after he had broken his finger on a bunt attempt earlier in the at-bat. Second base duties will likely be turned over to Danny Richar, who was acquired from Chicago in the Ken Griffey Jr. deadline deal.

Matchup: Rangers (71-74) at Mariners (56-87), 1:40 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kevin Millwood (143 2/3 IP, 5.32 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 105 K) vs. Brandon Morrow (44 1/3, 1.83, 0.84, 55)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 67-78 (794 RS, 862 RA); Seattle, 60-83 (596 RS, 708 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #21; Seattle, #27
Prospectus: Based upon Morrow's debut as a starter last Friday, this afternoon's contest between non-contenders out west is a must-watch. Morrow nearly joined the illustrious company of Bumpus Jones and Ted Breitenstein, two late 19th-century National Leaguers, as the only pitchers to throw a no-hitter in their first major league start. (Any day is a good day to be mentioned in the same sentence as ol' Bumpus.) Morrow got 23 outs without giving up a safety to the Yankees, but with two outs in the eighth inning pinch-hitter Wilson Betemit doubled to break it up. The hit was probably a relief for manager Jim Riggleman, as Morrow's pitch count had reached 106, 24 more than Morrow had thrown in his last tune-up start at Triple-A Tacoma in his transition from short reliever. Morrow showed little fatigue however, as his fastball was still in the mid-90s in the eighth inning. For the night, the 23-year-old's heater sat in the 94-97 range, and he hit as high as 98 on four pitches. Morrow also supplemented that devastating heater by doing an excellent job mixing in the rest of his repertoire: 62 of his pitches were fastballs, 15 sliders in the high-80s, 16 changeups in the mid-80s, and 12 low-80s curveballs. Morrow rarely ever threw the curve when he worked out of the Mariners pen-as a reliever, he relied more extensively on his fastball than he did on Friday (throwing it roughly 80 percent of the time, compared with 60 percent in his start), while mixing it up with the changeup as well as the slider. That upgrading of the arsenal for a starting role makes fundamental sense-relievers are able to stick with steady diets of fastballs and other hard stuff in their short stints, while as a starter one must combine more carefully and with more variety, while offering up a greater contrast in speed and movement to keep hitters honest the second and third times around. [Editor's Note: As it turns out, Morrow isn't starting today, so while all of this is true about him and worth watching his next time out, you'll have to settle for seeing Seattle's Cesar Jimenez try and make like Morrow in what will be his first-ever big-league start.]

Matchup: Rockies (67-78) at Braves (63-82), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Livan Hernandez (163 2/3 IP, 6.60 RA, 1.65 WHIP, 61 K) vs. James Parr (150 2/3, 3.58, 1.24, 125-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 67-78 (672 RS, 734 RA); Atlanta, 70-75 (668 RS, 698 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #19; Atlanta, #20
Prospectus: The Braves pulled out a rare (for them) one-run win last night in even more rare fashion, rallying for a run in the bottom of the tenth on a Taylor Buchholz balk after Colorado had tied it up in the ninth off of closer Mike Gonzalez. The walk-off balk is one of the rarest plays in baseball, but the Braves had been involved in two of the six times it has occurred from 1989-2005, according to the blog of BP alum Dan Fox. Back on the Fourth of July in 1993, Marlins pitcher Matt Turner balked in Deion Sanders with Ron Gant at the plate to give Atlanta a 4-3 win. The Braves then returned Florida's favor on May 8, 2000, when John Rocker balked home Danny Bautista to give Florida a 3-2 win. For those scoring at home, Atlanta improved to 7-28 in one-run affairs, which is still the second-worst record of all time. Even more remarkable than the win for Atlanta was the Gonzalez blown save. It snapped a run of 39 consecutive saves converted by Gonzalez, the longest active streak in the majors. It also snapped a streak of 183 games in a row that Gonzalez had pitched in without giving up a lead for his team. Before Tuesday night, Gonzalez last blew a save on June 25 of 2004 when he was pitching for Pittsburgh. The 183 contests without another one before last night is the longest stretch in history dating back to the start of the game-log era in 1956, besting the 179 games that Dan Schatzeder lasted from 1983 to 1988. Gonzalez put up a 2.67 RA with 10.5 K/9 in 178 1/3 innings during his run, although he did take 10 losses.

Matchup: Cubs (86-58) at Cardinals (78-66), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (176 2/3 IP, 4.58 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 161 K) vs. Braden Looper (174, 4.40, 1.31, 87) Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 89-55 (772 RS, 597 RA); St. Louis, 77-67 (689 RS, 636 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; St. Louis, #11
Prospectus: The worst stretch of the season for the Cubs was extended last night, as St. Louis scored four unanswered runs, including one in the bottom of the ninth against Carlos Marmol, to clip Chicago 4-3. The game's big blow was provided by Albert Pujols, who launched a game-tying three-run homer in the sixth off of Ryan Dempster, his 33rd of the season and just the fifth hit by a right-hander off Dempster all year. Pujols has now homered in three straight games, and is having his finest season, with career highs in average (.361) and OBP (.467), as well as EqA (.375), MLVr (.618), and OPS+ (193). Combine that with Gold Glove-level defense, and Pujols has already set a new career high in WARP in just 130 games, with 11.8 wins added. Pujols clearly deserves to win his second MVP award. The contending team argument can't even be used against him at this point, for after last night's win and Milwaukee's continued slide, the Cards are within 3 games of the wild card.

It appears that a frustrated Lou Piniella is just about ready to pull the plug on Kosuke Fukudome as an everyday player, as Fukudome has started only once in the last six games. Until Fukudome emerges from his slump, it would seem that the current split in right field between Mark DeRosa and Micah Hoffpauir (who slugged .752 in 313 plate appearances at Iowa this year) is best for Chicago's offense. Piniella would also be well-served to get Mike Fontenot more playing time, as he has been the Cubs' best hitter on a per-plate appearance basis, leading the club with a .256 MLVr thanks to a batting line of .297/.385/.524 in 247 PA. Despite that, Fontenot has started in just two out of the last 14 games at second base, and had only 78 PA in Chicago's 49 games since the All-Star break. Of course, it hasn't been easy to find starts for Fontenot to this point with DeRosa playing so well, but Fontenot is actually a better choice against right-handers, according to the pair's statistics both from this year and their careers, as well as PECOTA's pre-season assessment.

Matchup: Blue Jays (78-66) at White Sox (80-64), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (218 IP, 3.10 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 185 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (185 1/3, 4.66, 1.34, 117)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 83-61 (642 RS, 546 RA); Chicago, 80-64 (722 RS, 635 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #9; Chicago, #8
Prospectus: Games lasting less than two hours are all but extinct nowadays thanks to the explosion of offense and the increased emphasis on deep counts (and big bullpens), but tonight's contest could well challenge that fabled mark, as it features two of the fastest-working starters in the game. White Sox games started by Buehrle this season have averaged two hours and 37.4 minutes, the shortest duration for any starter in baseball (minimum 10 starts). Since 2001, the year Buehrle became a full-time member of Chicago's rotation, games he has started have averaged an even 2:40, the quickest amongst all pitchers with at least 50 starts in that span. The only active pitcher that checks in with quicker game times is Francisco Liriano, who has brought about an average of 2:34.9 in his 30 career starts. Halladay does not work quite as fast, but this year his average game time is 2:42, seventh quickest in the majors among pitchers with at least 10 starts, and his average since 2001 sits at 2:42.5, sixth among pitchers with 50+ starts. The last time these two matched up was on July 28 of 2007, when Buehrle threw eight shutout innings to beat Halladay, who earned a tough complete-game defeat in a 2-0 Chicago win that took only 2:07 to complete. The fast-working pair beat that low mark by a wide margin in their first meeting of last year, on May 31-on that occasion it was Halladay who pitched seven shutout innings, and Buehrle who took the complete-game loss in a 2-0 Toronto win, which was over in an extremely snappy 1:50.

Halladay will look to turn in a repeat performance in order to give Toronto its 11th straight win, the most since the Jays took 11 in a row late in the 1998 season. He will be pitching against a ChiSox lineup that suffered its second major blow this month in yesterday's game, when Paul Konerko was carried off the field after collapsing while trying to execute a run-down play. It appears that Konerko's injury is a mild sprain of the MCL of his knee, not as bad as was originally feared, but an injury that could still put him on the shelf for a bit.

Thanks to William Burke for research assistance.

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

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