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September 12, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Blue Jays (79-67) at Red Sox (85-60), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: David Purcey (53 1/3 IP, 5.23 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Tim Wakefield (159 2/3, 4.45, 1.23, 102)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 84-62 (653 RS, 556 RA); Boston, 87-58 (766 RS, 611 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #7; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Blue Jays are still theoretically in control of their own fate in their improbable quest to hunt down the Red Sox for the wild-card spot, for Toronto is seven games back in the loss column and plays seven of its final 16 games against Boston. In reality, the Jays will have to win six of those seven games to have a shot at pulling off the more difficult American League version of last year's remarkable Rockies run. Since going 14-5 against the Blue Jays during its 2004 championship season, Boston has struggled against J.P. Ricciardi's charges, as Toronto won 11 of 18 from the Sox in 2005, 12 of 19 in 2006, and split last year's 18 contests. This season, the Jays have taken seven out of 11 games, including the last three at Fenway Park. In those 11 games, Toronto's pitchers have remarkably held the bats of Boston to just 2.8 R/G. On the season Toronto's ERA has fallen all the way to 3.52, a mark that has not been bettered by an AL team in over 20 years. The last time a squad from the junior circuit posted a lower ERA was 1985, when the Royals had a 3.47 and Toronto was at 3.29.

The Jays will need to begin the assault on Boston's wild-card lead by getting a good start from the rookie left-hander Purcey, who has proven to be extremely hit-and-miss on the mound thus far. Purcey has alternated between good and bad in his last five turns, with his latest start resulting in eight shutout innings against the Rays after giving up five in three innings versus Minnesota. That fluctuation has led to an elevated Flake rating of .279, the highest mark on the Jays' staff. Purcey doesn't have a good matchup tonight, as Boston boasts the majors' best offense against lefties, having strummed them to the tune of .296/.376/.475 as a team this year, better by over 20 points of OPS than any other team. Boston is also 21-12 in games against an opposing left-handed starter.

Matchup: Brewers (83-64) at Phillies (80-67), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (158 2/3 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 138 K) vs. Cole Hamels (208, 3.55, 1.06, 180)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 80-67 (687 RS, 622 RA); Philadelphia, 83-64 (713 RS, 619 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #4; Philadelphia, #10
Prospectus: As pointed out in the Baseball-Reference Stat of the Day blog two months ago, Phillies' reliever J.C. Romero has constructed nearly an exact replica of his 2007 season this year, as he has again been extremely stingy giving up hits and extremely liberal handing out free passes. Last season Romero gave up 39 hits in 56 2/3 innings, or 6.2 H/9, while this year he has allowed 38 in 54 2/3, 6.3 H/9. Romero's walk rate has lowered a bit, down from 5.6 UBB/9 last year to 4.8 in 2008. There are very few pitchers in history who have combined that low a hit rate with that high a walk rate: last year Romero put up the 24th campaign ever with at least 50 innings, a H/9 less than or equal to 6.5, and a BB/9 greater than or equal to 6.0. This year, he is in line to become the fifth pitcher to have back-to-back seasons of under 6.5 H/9 and over 5.5 BB/9. The others to do so are Tommy Byrne in 1948-49, Nolan Ryan in 1976-77, and Jeff Nelson in 2000-01, while "Bullet" Bob Turley (1953-55) and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams (1986-88) had three consecutive such seasons. Romero has been able to revitalize his career in Philadelphia; after giving up 40 runs in 48 1/3 innings for the Angels in 2006, he has now put up a 2.18 RA in 91 innings since being traded to Philadelphia from Boston in June of last year.

Romero will likely be called upon in the next three games to get out the Brewers' only real threat from the left side of the plate, Prince Fielder, who is hitting just .228 against lefties with a 729 OPS this season, down from 834 last year. Fielder hasn't only been struggling against lefties, however-since the All-Star break he has just 16 extra-base hits in 227 plate appearances, good for a .454 slugging percentage. He did homer against a lefty (Jamie Moyer) in last night's 6-3 loss that opened this critical four-game series, ending a stretch of 24 straight games in which Fielder did not go deep, the longest of his young career. After putting up the seventh-highest slugging percentage by a 23-year-old in history last season (.618), Fielder is now just sixth in slugging among the 10 Brewers with 200-plus at-bats so far in 2008.

Matchup: Braves (65-82) at Mets (82-63), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Hampton (53 IP, 5.77 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 24 K) vs. Johan Santana (203 1/3, 3.05, 1.15, 175)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 71-76 (685 RS, 707 RA); New York, 81-64 (724 RS, 636 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #20; New York, #5
Prospectus: Tonight opens the final series at Shea Stadium between the Braves and Mets. No opposing player will be sadder to see the old park torn down following this season than Chipper Jones. "I might be the only one that is sad to see the place go," Jones told the New York Times last month. Despite-or perhaps partly because of-the Shea faithful's chants of "Laaa-rry" (Chipper's given first name), Jones has continually tormented the Mets in their home ballpark. He owns a career line of .308/.404/.553 at Shea, with 19 home runs and 54 RBI in 372 plate appearances. "I always thought it was a good hitter's background there, a park that kind of plays to my strengths." Mets fans will never forget how badly Jones torched their team at Shea during his MVP season in 1999, with three home runs and a 1357 OPS in six games. It was that season that really started the special relationship between Jones and Mets fans; after Atlanta took two of three in New York during a late September series that put the Mets two back of the wild card, Chipper said "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees stuff on." The Amazin's ended up making the playoffs and meeting Atlanta in the NLCS, and the Shea partisans heckled Jones relentlessly during the three home games, but Jones further added injury to insult by helping the Braves knock New York out in six games.

Jones has acknowledged his mastery of the Mets in Flushing. In fact, he's done more than acknowledge it-he named his third son Shea. After the birth of Shea, in late August of 2004, Jones told reporters "I hit my first homer [at Shea Stadium]. I love that place. Check the numbers." In a June Sports Illustrated article, Jones said that his now four-year-old son is already "a stud" at hitting, so perhaps one day Shea Jones will be raking at Citi Field just as his father did in the park that preceded it. Jones recently stated that he will attempt to take a picture together with his son at Shea this month, and wants to take home a souvenir from the park before its demolition: "I would love for something that says Shea Stadium, New York Mets, and have him know the old field behind the new field is where his dad played." New York fans will surely be booing louder than ever in these last three games to provide a lasting Shea farewell to their favorite villain and one of the greatest hitters of this generation.

Matchup: Dodgers (75-71) at Rockies (67-80), 7:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (182 IP, 3.26 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 186 K) vs. Jeff Francis (137 2/3, 5.30 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 89 K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 76-70 (616 RS, 585 RA); Colorado, 67-80 (681 RS, 751 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; Colorado, #19
Prospectus: There have been a number of things that soured for the Rockies since their dream season of 2007, but perhaps the most troublesome has been their team defense. Colorado made two more errors last night, pushing their total on the season to 86. That's not especially high-it's just the 11th most in the NL-but it serves to shed some light upon the defensive decline from last season, when Colorado committed just 68 errors all year, a major league low. Last season the Rockies' defensive efficiency rating was 70.0 percent, the second best in the NL and the fourth best in baseball. This year that mark is down to 67.9, better than only that of the Reds, Pirates, and Rangers. The absence of Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop for all of May and much of June and July helps to explain the drop, for Tulowitzki had a historically great defensive season as a rookie last year, and while he will likely not reach those heights again, he is turning in a solid year with the glove. Being without Todd Helton for the last two-plus months has also hurt, as his strong glove has been replaced mostly by the poor one of Garrett Atkins. The move of Atkins across the diamond from third base in turn led to increased playing time at the hot corner for rookie Ian Stewart; while that has been a positive development for the Rockies' future and their offense, Stewart at this point is no great shakes in the field. Furthermore, Brad Hawpe is an exceedingly poor right fielder, ranking last in the majors this year in fielding percentage, Range Factor, and Zone Rating among qualifiers at the position.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, has improved its defensive efficiency from 68.2 percent of balls in play turned into outs last season to 69.0 percent so far this year. LA's defense should also get better as Blake DeWitt grows more accustomed to second base; DeWitt has already proven to be an improvement upon Jeff Kent, who was last in Zone Rating and second-to-last in fielding percentage at second base before he got hurt.

Matchup: Mariners (57-88) at Angels (89-57), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ryan Rowland-Smith (92 1/3 IP, 3.90 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Joe Saunders (178, 3.99, 1.24, 85)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 61-84 (608 RS, 722 RA); Los Angeles, 80-66 (681 RS, 616 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #27; Los Angeles, #8
Prospectus: An all-time great Angel reached a major milestone in last night's 7-4 win over Seattle. That's right, Garret Anderson played in his 2,000th game, all of them with the Halos, becoming the 35th player in major league history to reach that mark with one franchise (Anderson has been with his team since when they were known as the California Angels, two name changes ago). The only active player to have appeared in more games with one team is Chipper Jones with Atlanta (Jones recently reached the 2,000 mark, and is currently at 2,012); the record is held by Carl Yastrzemski, who appeared in 3,308 with the Red Sox. "G-Dog" celebrated the historic marker by doing what he has done so well time and again for the Angels, driving in a trio of runs on a pair of singles. During his prime, which came later than for most players, Anderson was one of the best RBI men in the American League-he ranked ninth in the AL among qualifiers in OBI percentage in 2001, eighth in 2002, fourth in 2003, and third in 2005. This year he is again ninth in the circuit, having cashed in 18.6 percent of baserunners during his plate appearances. Due to that continued prowess with the bags populated and his divine longevity, Anderson tops the Angels franchise leaderboard in RBI as well, with 1,286.

There was another all-time great Angel who reached a momentous mark last night, as Francisco Rodriguez recorded his record-tying 57th save, and will get his first crack at entering uncharted waters tonight. The opposing number on the mound in the second game of the series might make it difficult for K-Rod to get that opportunity, however, for Rowland-Smith has been sharp since stepping into the rotation from the bullpen. A career reliever, Rowland-Smith made the first two starts of his big-league career in early July, then joined the rotation for good at the beginning of August. He struggled a bit in the new role at first, but has now turned in four straight quality starts. Rowland-Smith is one of two Australians currently in the majors, along with Rays reliever Grant Balfour.

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

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