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Today’s Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Angels (12-8) at Red Sox (14-7), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (25 IP, 25 H, 3.96 RA, 15/7 K/BB) vs. Josh Beckett (19 1/3 IP, 14 H, 5.12 RA, 16/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st, AL West); Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #11; Boston, #9
Prospectus: The Angels and Red Sox meet for the first time since Boston easily dispatched Anaheim in the ALDS last October, the second time in four seasons the Sox swept the Angels out of the first round. Playoff memories are not the only thing fueling this growing rivalry: before a four-game series in Fenway last August, Angels center fielder Gary Matthews shared his opinion of Red Sox fans, saying in the Boston Globe, “They’re loud, they’re drunk, they’re obnoxious… [Fenway is] one of the few places you’ll hear racial comments. It’s different from New York. Yankee fans are passionate about their teams, but they’re a little more couth. They have more class than Boston fans. At least in New York they appreciate guys who play the game hard and play the game right and they let you know it.” It’s questionable whether Matthews will be able to silence the inevitable boos with his bat, as he enters Boston hitting just .238/.303/.350 on the season, for a VORP of -1.2.

One outfielder who has endeared himself to the Fenway faithful with his play is Boston’s rookie center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury. Veteran Coco Crisp has not played since last Tuesday due to a minor hamstring injury, and Ellsbury has put up a .467 OBP in 30 plate appearances playing full-time in Crisp’s stead. Regarded as the fastest player in the American League (along with Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez), Ellsbury has stolen six bases since Crisp left the lineup. After yesterday’s pair of swipes against Texas, Ellsbury has now nabbed eight bases on the season without getting caught. He was also 9-for-9 in 33 games with Boston last year, leaving him a perfect 17-for-17 to start his major league career. That’s tied for the third-most steals to begin a career without being caught:

Player            SB     First in streak   Last in streak
Tim Raines        27        15-Sep-79         2-May-81
Mitchell Page     26        10-Apr-77         13-Aug-77
Jacoby Ellsbury   17        2-Jul-07            ???
Davey Lopes       17        23-Sep-72         20-May-73
Al Weis           16        23-Sep-62         20-Sep-63
Barry Larkin      15        19-Aug-86         3-Jun-87
Lee Tinsley       15        7-Apr-94          28-Apr-95
Gary Varsho       15        14-Jul-88         4-Jul-91

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research

Matchup: Marlins (12-7) at Pirates (7-12), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (15 1/3 IP, 19 H, 7.04 RA, 7/3 K/BB) vs. Paul Maholm (15 1/3 IP, 22 H, 6.46 RA, 13/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Florida, 71-91 (5th, NL East); Pittsburgh, 72-90 (tied for 5th, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #24; Pittsburgh, #26
Prospectus: Pittsburgh has made a major league-high 24 errors, and this time it appears that the conventional fielding statistic is indeed reflecting a glaring weakness. The Pirates are currently last in the majors in defensive efficiency, having converted 66.2 percent of all balls in play into outs. For context, that figure would rank Pittsburgh with last year’s Devil Rays team as the second most defensively inefficient team since 1959. Last year the Pirates defense was also bad, ranking second worst in the NL, ahead of only Florida. The team’s 2008 effort has been hampered by the absence of shortstop Jack Wilson, currently on the DL with a calf injury; the Pirates have plugged in a platoon of reserve second baseman Luis Rivas and rookie Brian Bixler to fill the gap. Rivas, a second baseman for most of his big league career, has already commited four errors; Bixler has been better, but not by much. Making matters worse, Bixler and Rivas have also completely failed to hit. Between Wilson’s 1-for-12 effort before he got hurt, Rivas’s 9-for-46 start, and Bixler’s 4-for-24, Pittsburgh has received a line of .178/.221/.205 from its shortstops, worse than what every other NL team has gotten.

In contrast, the Pirates have received outstanding production from center fielder Nate McLouth, more than any other team in the majors has gotten from the position so far this season. It looks like McLouth is building upon his excellent second half from last year, when he hit .267/.366/.502 in 256 plate appearances. What’s also encouraging is that McLouth’s hot start–with a .360 EqA and 14 extra-base hits–is much more substantial than an aberrant batting average-driven spike.

Matchup: Indians (7-12) at Royals (9-10), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: C.C. Sabathia (18 IP, 32 H, 13.50 RA, 14/14 K/BB) vs. Gil Meche (23 2/3 IP, 25 H, 6.08 RA, 18/13 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Kansas City, 73-89 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #25; Kansas City, #12
Prospectus: Last year’s AL Cy Young Winner gets his fifth shot at straightening things out tonight in Kansas City. Sabathia’s disastrous beginning has been shocking so far, but is such a slow start entirely unprecedented amongst members of the elite pitching club that Cleveland’s big left-hander joined last year? Here’s a look at the worst openings of four starts or more by pitchers the year after a Cy Young campaign, as ordered by ERA at their seasonal low-water mark:

Pitcher         Year    Starts   IP    ERA     K/BB  Opponent OPS
Jack McDowell   1994      8    45.1   7.54    26/18     911
Catfish Hunter  1975      4    25.2   7.36    14/10     809
Early Wynn      1960      5    18.1   7.36    12/15     949
Randy Johnson   2003      4    23.1   6.94    31/5      873
Steve Stone     1981      4    19.1   6.52     8/8      965
Roger Clemens   2002      4    23.2   6.46    26/10     725
Tom Seaver      1974      4    25.0   6.12    21/4      882
Denny McClain   1970      4    23.2   6.08    15/8      873
Randy Jones     1977      6    33.2   5.88    11/4      906
Bartolo Colon   2006      6    34.1   5.77    21/7      965

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

As you can see, no one has struggled to the extent of Sabathia, who has allowed opponents to post a 1170 OPS so far, but there have been a number of rough beginnings by starters in the year after they collected their hardware. Many of those pitchers recovered to post excellent seasons: McDowell’s bad start extended into mid-May, but he put up a 2.45 ERA in his next 17 starts up until the strike. Similarly, after Hunter’s rough first four starts, he threw 302 innings the rest of the way at a 2.17 ERA clip, while Early Wynn fired 219 innings of 3.12 ERA ball after his beginning, and Seaver 211 innings with a 2.86.

The names on the list also sound a cautionary note, however, with regards to injury. In 2003, Johnson went on the DL after his first four starts, not to return until late July, and Bartolo Colon in 2006 made just ten starts all year, and has not been fully healthy or effective since. In 1981 Stone lost time to tendonitis (as well as the strike) after making three starts beyond those first four, and Jones also missed time in ’77. As Joe Sheehan recently mentioned, Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci has advanced the idea that a 30 inning bump from year to year can be a serious injury risk factor, and Sabathia threw 46 1/3 more innings last year than his previous high of 210 in 2002. The Indians were careful with their ace, however, as Sabathia did not make a single start that rated above Category Three (110-121 pitches).

Matchup: Twins (9-10) at Athletics (12-8), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Livan Hernandez (27 IP, 29 H, 3.67 RA, 8/4 K/BB) vs. Joe Blanton (34 IP, 41 H, 4.11 R, 11/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Minnesota, 74-88 (4th, AL Central); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West)
Hit List
: Minnesota, #23; Oakland, #18
Prospectus: The Athletics are tied with the Angels for first in the West, but that success has certainly not been based upon the long ball. Oakland has hit just seven home runs in its first 20 games, putting the team on pace for 57 homers over the course of the full season. That would rank the Athletics amongst the bottom ten teams in homers since 1959, the year BP’s database stretches back to. Here’s the list (NB: teams from strike-shortened years are ordered based upon their projected 162-game total, marked by an asterisk*):

Year Team      HR
1981 Padres    47* (actual 32)
1979 Astros    49
1975 Angels    55
1972 Rangers   56
1986 Cardinals 58
1968 Astros    59
1980 Mets      61
1981 Indians   61* (actual 39)
1963 Astros    62
1976 Cardinals 63
1976 Angels    63

The A’s were projected by PECOTA to hit 164 homers this season, so things will likely turn around soon. A breakout could even come tonight against Livan Hernandez, who gave up the second most home runs in the majors last season (34), behind only Woody Williams‘ 35 allowed for Houston. McAfee Coliseum is a good place for fly-ball pitchers such as Hernandez, though; last year it ranked 25th in home run park factor, and in 2006 24th. Contrary to its nickname–the Homerdome–Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome has actually been lower on the list than McAfee Coliseum in both those seasons, and so far this year it ranks last in the AL in HR park factor. That helps to explain why Minnesota is down with Oakland at the bottom of the league in long balls, with nine.

Matchup: Orioles (11-8) at Mariners (10-10), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Adam Loewen (15 2/3 IP, 16 H, 6.32 RA, 11/12 K/BB) vs. Felix Hernandez (30 2/3 IP, 35 H, 2.05 RA, 24/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Baltimore, 66-96 (5th, AL East); Seattle, 75-87 (3rd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #19; Seattle, #17
Prospectus: The Mariners have provided a fine example of the transient nature of bullpen performance thus far. In 2007, Seattle ranked third in the AL with 12.5 expected wins added above replacement level, lineup-adjusted (WXRL). Four players either in their first or second year in the majors–Sean Green, Brandon Morrow, Eric O’Flaherty, and Ryan Rowland-Smith–played key roles behind closer J.J. Putz and set-up man George Sherrill. This year, with Putz hurt and Sherrill now on the Orioles, the Mariners pen has been much less of a strength. Seattle ranks last in the majors in both WXRL (-1.44) and RA (6.00), which is largely the result of O’Flaherty’s implosion–the lefty gave up 16 hits and 15 runs in 6 2/3 innings before being sent down last week.

Luckily for the Mariners, the team’s bullpen has not had to do much work in the absence of Putz, for Seattle’s relief corps has thrown a major league-low 45 innings so far. Part of that is likely due to manager John McLaren riding his starters deeper into games to compensate for his weakened bullpen. Seattle’s rotation, however, has been deserving of the game’s top workload; as a group the Mariners starters have amassed the highest SNLVAR (2.7) of any AL squad, and rank second in the circuit to only Oakland in RA (3.85). Hernandez has been the chief workhorse, ranking third in the AL in overall innings and second to Roy Halladay in innings/start, at 7 2/3. On account of having thrown back-to-back Category 3 games, with 117 and then 115 pitches, Hernandez also leads the major leagues in total Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP). Hernandez has the frame and the ability to handle a heavy workload, but the increased toll on his arm so far this season is something that bears watching.

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

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