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September 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (84-71) at Reds (72-82), 1:20 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (98 IP, 4.22 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 80 K) vs. Bronson Arroyo (187, 5.01, 1.41, 150)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 82-73 (715 RS, 671 RA); Cincinnati, 70-84 (673 RS, 747 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #9; Cincinnati, #25
Prospectus: The motivation for impartial fans to watch the Brewers at this point is chiefly psychological-to study the reactions and attempt to gauge the temperament of players toiling for a team that is seemingly doomed to a second straight collapse, this one even greater than last year's. Either that or it's practical, if one wants to discover as many new ways as possible to lose a baseball game in agonizing fashion. Three days ago it was Salomon Torres who acted the goat, getting the first two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Cubs before coughing up three straight hits and a game-tying three-run homer; the Brewers later put runners on second and third with none out in the top of the 12th but could not score, and predictably Chicago pushed across the game-winner in the bottom of that frame. After being bludgeoned on Friday by the Reds, who smacked seven homers in their 11-2 win, Milwaukee again dropped a one-run game yesterday. This time it was Prince Fielder who failed to come through, making a key error that helped Cincinnati score three times to take the lead in the sixth, and then striking out with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth against former Brewer Francisco Cordero, who is now a perfect six-for-six in save chances against his former mates this year. Perhaps Milwaukee's recent failing in one-run affairs-they have lost three straight and five out of the past six-is simply compensation by the baseball gods for their unnatural success over the first five months; through August 13 Milwaukee was 23-10 in games decided by a single run, a winning percentage (.697) that would have placed it among the top 20 teams of all time in that category.

That luck has evaporated, however, and the Brewers' chance at advancing has dropped from a high of 96 percent on September 1 down to 15.6 percent. If Milwaukee does end up missing out on the postseason once again, its fall from among the ranks of the chosen will qualify as the 12th greatest in baseball history, according to the numbers run by Clay Davenport and the research done by Nate Silver; this after last year's squad squandered an 86.7 percent shot from July 2nd onward.

Matchup: Twins (83-72) at Rays (92-61), 1:40 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Francisco Liriano (64 2/3 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (181, 4.77 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 113 K)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 85-70 (797 RS, 720 RA); Tampa Bay, 87-66 (726 RS, 628 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #12; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: The Twins lost again last night, falling 7-2 to the Rays for their sixth defeat in the past seven games, but Joe Mauer did pick up a pair of singles in five at-bats to raise his league-leading average to .329. Mauer is gunning for his second American League batting title-with a .347 mark in 2006, the first pick of the 2001 draft became the first backstop to ever top the junior circuit in average. There haven't been many other catchers who won batting championships in the other league(s), either: in 1875 Deacon White of the Boston Red Stockings led the National Association with a .367 mark, Bubbles Hargrave (no relation) hit .353 for the Reds in 1926 to pace the NL, while Ernie Lombardi won a pair of titles, with a .342 mark for the '38 Reds and a .330 for the '42 Braves. (King Kelly caught part-time when he won two batting titles for the Cubs in the 1880s, but spent the majority of his playing time elsewhere on the diamond.) That's the list, or was until along came Mauer, who clearly needs a good nickname to join in the spirit of his historical peers.

It Mauer can hang on against Dustin Pedroia (.324) and Magglio Ordonez (.323), he would join Lombardi as the second catcher with more than one title. What makes Mauer's season especially impressive is that he has caught 132 games behind the plate-41 more than he did in his injury-shortened 2007 campaign, and already 12 more than when he won his first title in '06. In Lombardi's two winning seasons, he caught 123 and then 85 games, while Hargrave caught 93 in '26, and White 75 in 1875. Of course, one of the reasons why so few catchers have won titles is because of the physical abuse that they absorb behind the plate, which generally exacerbates their characteristic lack of foot speed. (Bill James opined in his New Historical Baseball Abstract that Lombardi was "surely the slowest player ever to play major league baseball well.") Mauer has had injury issues since the spring of 2004, when he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus suffered at the start of his rookie campaign, and has been playing with bone-on-bone in his knee ever since. He attempted 14 steals in 2005, his first full year, 11 in 2006, eight last year, and just two so far in '08.

Matchup: White Sox (85-69) at Royals (70-85), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: John Danks (176 IP, 3.43 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 147 K) vs. Brandon Duckworth (26 IP, 5.19 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 12 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 85-69 (769 RS, 684 RA); Kansas City, 67-88 (658 RS, 763 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Kansas City, #24
Prospectus: The White Sox haven't been able to add to their 2-game lead in the last four days despite Minnesota's swoon, because they haven't been playing very well either, losing three of four. Last night it was the light-hitting Royals who turned the tide against the powerful Sox, as Kansas City smashed three home runs in its 5-2 win, one of them the first in the majors for rookie slugger Kila Ka'aihue. The only Chicago offense was provided by a two-run blast from Alexei Ramirez, his 20th homer of the season. Two days ago, Ramirez hit a grand slam in Chicago's 9-4 win over the Royals, his third slam of the season, which ties the major league record for slams by a rookie, first set by Shane Spencer of the Yankees in 1998. Ramirez is hitting .375/.384/.587 in 113 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, compared with .295/.323/.467 with the bags clear. The White Sox as a team are hitting better with RISP than none on, and much of that is because of their performance with the bases full. Chicago has hit 11 grand slams this year, tying the franchise record. The overall record is 14, set by the 2006 Indians (who were paced by Travis Hafner's major league-record six) and the 2000 Athletics.

The Royals, on the other hand, have just two grand slams, and more than 100 fewer homers than the total of the league-leading ChiSox. Their team leader, Jose Guillen, has the same number of long balls as Ramirez, which is at least better than the last two seasons, when a total of 18 homers was good enough to lead in Kansas City. Guillen has hit 20 homers and driven in 95 runs, an impressive number given the Royals' total offensive output, but his OBP only broke above .300 for the first time since July 5 with last night's 3-for-4 effort, and his .259 EqA makes him a below-average offensive contributor in both left and right field, the two positions he has played this year. Guillen has also grounded into 21 double plays, seventh in the AL and one fewer than teammate Billy Butler; Kansas City is the only team to have two players with more than 20 GIDPs. If Guillen does manage to drive home five more runs while finishing with an OBP below .300, he would become the 10th player in major league history with that curious combo.

Matchup: Phillies (87-68) at Marlins (81-73), 4:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (184 1/3 IP, 4.05 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 118 K) vs. Chris Volstad (73 1/3, 3.19, 1.31, 45)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 88-67 (762 RS, 653 RA); Florida, 77-77 (740 RS, 737 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Florida, #16
Prospectus: Volstad has been outstanding for the Marlins since being called up on July 6. Eight of the rookie's 12 starts have been quality outings, and he sports the lowest RA of any Marlins starter, despite the fact that at 21 years old he is currently the fourth-youngest pitcher in the NL. Volstad is utilizing his sinking fastball to great effect, as he has allowed only two home runs to this point, a lower HR/9 (0.25) than any other pitcher with at least 70 innings in 2008. Both of those homers-hit by Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs and Chris B. Young of the Diamondbacks-came on the road, so he has yet to be taken deep at Dolphin Stadium, which has played as the second-toughest National League venue in which to homer this year, behind only San Diego's Petco Park.

Cameron Maybin had a decent-enough season for a 21-year-old in the Southern League this year-a .277/.375/.456 line at Double-A Carolina-but he has been much better than decent since getting his second call-up to "The Show" last week. Maybin struck out swinging to lead off the bottom of the first last night, which ended his streak of reaching base in 10 straight plate appearances on eight singles and two walks. That tied a Florida franchise record, which the rookie now holds along with Derrek Lee and Juan Encarnacion. He also tied the franchise record with hits in eight consecutive at-bats; Preston Wilson and Gary Sheffield also had 8-for-8 stretches while with Florida. (The all-time record for consecutive plate appearances reaching base is 17, which was accomplished by the incomparable Piggy Ward back in 1893, when he played for both the Orioles and Reds; Ted Williams holds the modern mark with a streak of 16 in 1957.) Maybin isn't the only Marlin who has been on fire-Jorge Cantu has a 10-game hitting streak during which he has a .381 average with a .905 slugging percentage. Cantu has six home runs in the streak, pushing his total to 29 on the year. With one more, the Marlins would become the first team to have all four infielders hit 30, having already become the first ever with all four at 25. Just 11 teams had four players hit 30-plus long balls; not surprisingly nine of those have come since 1994, the lone outlier being the 1977 Dodgers.

Matchup: Orioles (67-86) at Yankees (84-71), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chris Waters (53 IP, 5.09 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Andy Pettitte (199, 4.93, 1.41, 155)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 71-82 (761 RS, 821 RA); Yankees, 82-73 (743 RS, 699 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #23; Yankees, #10
Prospectus: The last game ever played at this version of Yankee Stadium will be a regular-season contest, a strange farewell for a park that has hosted 37 World Series and more than 100 World Series games. Gates will open for the final time at 1 p.m. today to allow fans to visit Monument Park all afternoon, and they will then be allowed to go onto the field, exiting via the warning track and behind home plate. There will also be a pre-game ceremony that is expected to include a good number of Yankees luminaries, including Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Bobby Richardson, Bernie Williams, and Willie Randolph, as well as representatives from the families of a number of deceased legends, including Mantle, Maris, Munson, and Rizzuto. Two Yankees legends who will not be there are the aging George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, although Sheppard's voice will be heard as it has all season in the recorded announcement of Derek Jeter's at-bats. The Yankees have also said that "a historic artifact from the Yankees' past will be unveiled," and thus fans should be in their seats by 6:50 p.m. (If any of those fans are thinking about trying to circumvent the expensive sale of the cathedral's memorabilia, the Yankees have beefed up security-"to ensure a safe and enjoyable fan experience"-and assure treasure seekers that they "will be prosecuted by the Bronx District Attorney's Office to the fullest extent of the law.") For more on the passing of what ESPN.com Page 2 writer Jim Caple recently listed at the very top of his 100 most important sports venues, both MLB.com and the New York Times have extensive sections of articles on Yankee Stadium, and Sports Illustrated recently put the cathedral on its cover.

As for the game itself, Pettitte's an appropriate choice for the Bombers, an 11-year pinstripe veteran who ranks fourth on the Yankees' all-time list with 177 victories. Other things that seem certain: Mariano Rivera will pitch the ninth, both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will play all nine, and Hideki Matsui will DH. Pettitte will have to pull out of a major slump in order to send the House that Ruth Built out with a victory and a series sweep, for the left-hander has lost his last five starts, and seven of his last eight decisions; in those last five Pettitte has a 7.22 RA in 28 2/3 innings.

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

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