Matchup: Mariners (13-17) at Yankees (15-16), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (44 2/3 IP, 39 H, 2.62 RA, 41/16 K/BB) vs. Mike Mussina (32 1/3 IP, 36 H, 5.01 RA, 12/5 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 15-15 (130 RS, 127 RA); New York, 15-16 (134 RS, 142 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #19; New York, #21
Prospectus: Morgan Ensberg has had a rapid fall from the top. His 36 homers for Houston in 2005 won him the Silver Slugger at third and a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting. The next year he started off with nine home runs in his first 78 plate appearances, hit eight more in May, and was at .256/.380/.562 through June 9, the fateful day when, in a win over the Braves, Ensberg dove for a foul pop and hurt his shoulder. He was not himself upon returning to action several days later, batting .158 with a .263 slugging percentage before going on the DL in mid-July. Ensberg’s power still hadn’t returned upon his activation in August. Despite not being able to drive the ball, Ensberg retained some offensive value, putting up a .415 OBP in 229 PA from when he got hurt to the end of the season despite hitting just .208, upping his walks from one in six PA to one in four.
Despite those on-base skills and his ’05 season, Ensberg lost the faith of manager Phil Garner and played sparingly down the stretch. Reminiscing about his downturn after being designated for assignment last summer, Ensberg told MLB.com “Once I got hurt, just as a plot, that’s when things went south. I guess I never got all the way back.” Ensberg arrived on the scene late and peaked late, so it makes sense that he would lose his value faster than most. It’s still curious why Houston gave him so little time and opportunity to work his way back into form, but perhaps Ensberg’s injury reports were severe enough to merit their action. It depends upon the status of his shoulder, but Ensberg has the potential to be a highly productive part-time player for the Yankees despite a low batting average. Due to the volatility inherent in his uncertain health and up-and-down performance record, Ensberg has an extremely high PECOTA Beta of 1.38. That’s the fourth highest mark among current major league hitters, behind Moises Alou, another injury-plagued slugger.
Matchup: Mets (15-12) at Diamondbacks (20-9), 12:45 p.m. MT, FOX
Probable Starters: Mike Pelfrey (22 1/3 IP, 29 H, 4.43 RA, 10/10 K/BB) vs. Brandon Webb (41 IP, 29 H, 2.41 RA, 34/14 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 14-13 (126 RS, 120 RA); Arizona, 19-10 (167 RS, 116 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #12; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: This afternoon’s pitching matchup does not favor the Mets, but recent history is on New York’s side. The Mets have played four-game series at Chase Field each of the past three seasons, and won 11 of those 12 games. In both 2005 and 2006 New York swept the four games in Phoenix, and did so in crushing fashion, outscoring Arizona 76-16 overall. Last year the Mets won three of four with a more modest 21-12 run differential. In each of those three visits, New York beat Brandon Webb. The D’backs ace is just 1-4 against the Mets in six starts against them the past three years, but that’s not because he has pitched poorly: in those games, Webb has a 3.07 RA, 1.02 WHIP, and 33/11 K/BB ratio in 44 innings. Both of the Mets’ best batters have enjoyed hitting at Chase Field in their careers–David Wright has a 1099 OPS in 59 plate appearances there, while Carlos Beltran is at 1191 in 64. Pelfrey, however, was the loser in the Mets’ last defeat at Chase Field, in the final game of last year’s early-May series with the Snakes; before that, New York had won 13 in a row in Arizona.
The D’backs’ young hitters have grown up in a hurry to dominate the National League: Arizona leads the majors in slugging at .462. In contrast, the Mets rank 20th overall with a .384 SLG and are 12th in the NL with 18 homers, half as many bombs as the Diamondbacks have (36). Perhaps playing in their favorite road spot will spark their bats; in last night’s series-opening 7-2 win the Mets got homers from Wright and Ryan Church, as well as two Jose Reyes triples. More good news for New York came with the return of left fielder Moises Alou to the lineup, who knocked an RBI single last night in his first 2008 at-bat. Although Angel Pagan performed admirably in Alou’s absence, he failed to hit any home runs, as the Mets are one of four major league teams this year without a homer from their left fielders.
Matchup: Rays (16-13) at Red Sox (18-13), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: James Shields (39 IP, 36 H, 4.15 RA, 28/9 K/BB) vs. Josh Beckett (26 1/3 IP, 18 H, 4.44 RA, 29/7 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 16-13 (137 RS, 118 RA); Boston, 16-15 (143 RS, 136 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; Boston, #10
Prospectus: Shields and Beckett get a rematch of their duel last Sunday in Tampa Bay, a game in which Shields threw his first career complete-game shutout and Beckett struck out a career-high 13 in the Rays’ 3-0 win. That victory completed the series sweep for Tampa Bay, its first ever of the Red Sox. Tonight the Rays’ young right-hander will attempt to repeat his success in a much more hostile environment–Fenway Park was the best hitter’s park in the AL last season, and the Red Sox are on pace to break the all-time sellouts record set by the Indians at Jacobs Field. Shields and Beckett will also be without the benefit of home plate umpire Dale Scott’s generous strike zone (eight of the 20 strikeouts racked up by the two pitchers on Sunday were called–for comparison, over the previous two seasons called strikeouts have made up a quarter of all Ks). From the statistical oddities department, Shields has given up seven of the Rays’ 11 unearned runs on the season, the most in the American League, and already more than he gave up in 215 innings last season, despite the fact that Tampa Bay ranks second in the AL in defensive efficiency.
Shields will have the benefit of throwing to receiver Dioner Navarro, who caught his shutout in Tampa Bay. Navarro returned on April 22 from a stint on the DL with a hand injury, and has 11 hits in his 30 at-bats since. The young catcher is an intriguing part of the Rays’ rise, and could be poised to have a breakout season. Navarro flashed his on-base skills with a .359 OBP in 285 plate appearances for the Dodgers before being traded to the Rays in 2006, and then he flashed his power late last season, putting up a .285/.340/.475 line in 205 PA after the All-Star break. Those two factors contributed to Joe Sheehan‘s choice of Navarro as one of his breakout candidates for 2008 in January.
Thanks to William Burke for database research
Matchup: Reds (12-18) at Braves (13-15), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Belisle (9 IP, 17 H, 11 RA, 5/2 K/BB) vs. Jo-Jo Reyes (50 2/3 IP, 6.93 RA, 0.2 SNLVAR in 2007)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 13-17 (124 RS, 141 RA); Atlanta, 17-11 (131 RS, 107 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #18; Atlanta, #8
Prospectus: Both of these teams have been unlucky so far this season–one in a fairly obvious way, and one more subtly so. The Braves beat Cincinnati yesterday 2-0 behind Tim Hudson, but have yet to win a one-run game, with an 0-9 record in those contests; that has helped build a four-win deficit between their actual and Pythagorean records. The Braves’ first five losses of the season all came by one run, and the team reached seven such losses in its first 14 games, the fastest to that mark in the past 50 years. The last team to start the season 0-9 in one-run games was Houston in 2000. That Astros season was one of baseball’s greater flukes: Houston moved into Enron Field and fell from 97 wins to 72, nine below their Pythagorean projection, before coming back to go 93-69 in 2001. The 2000 Astros had a 5.64 bullpen RA and blew 25 of 55 save chances; this year’s Braves have not been as weak in the endgame, but the potentially season-ending injury of set-up man Peter Moylan and current disabled status of closer Rafael Soriano has weakened their bullpen. That was apparent in last Wednesday’s game, when manager Bobby Cox felt compelled to leave Manny Acosta in for a third inning of work to try to nail down a 2-1 lead in the 12th; Acosta coughed up a 3-2 Nationals victory. The shoulder troubles of John Smoltz could aid the undermanned bullpen, as Smoltz announced that he would return from the DL to his former relief role.
The Reds are 6-3 in one-run affairs, but Cincinnati currently has a 3.3 game deficit between its actual and third-order records, the second-largest mark in baseball behind the Rockies. The Reds played a tough schedule in the first
month, with 18 of their 29 games coming against the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Brewers, Cubs, and Dodgers, all teams expected by PECOTA to finish with winning records, and in particular have faced a tough crop of hitters, evidenced by their AEqRA being lower than their EqRA. Things don’t get easier with this series against Chipper Jones and company, although the Reds will be facing a young pitcher making his season debut tonight. Reyes pitched well at Triple-A Richmond in April, allowing three runs in 23 innings over five starts, and if he improves upon last year’s major league showing there’s a good chance he could stick in the Atlanta rotation given Smoltz’s latest problems and Mike Hampton’s continual rehabilitation.
Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.
Matchup: Giants (13-17) at Phillies (17-13), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Cain (28 2/3 IP, 35 H, 6.91 RA, 24/7 K/BB) vs. Brett Myers (19 IP, 23 H, 8.53 RA, 15/17 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 11-19 (98 RS, 137 RA); Philadelphia, 16-14 (142 RS, 129 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #25; Philadelphia, #9
Prospectus: Myers has already given up 10 homers so far, more than he allowed in 68 2/3 innings pitched mostly out of the bullpen last season, and concern is on the rise in Philadelphia due to his falling velocity. After Myers’ last start, in which he allowed four runs and two homers in five innings to Pittsburgh, the Phillies’ No. 2 starter was less than confident in his stuff, telling reporters, “I’m lost throwing 88 mph. I’m thinking I’m still a fastball pitcher because I usually am. But right now I’m going to other crap earlier than I want to. Right now I’m pitching backward.” According to the Pitch f/x data (courtesy of FanGraphs), the average velocity on Myers’ fastball this season is 89.8 mph, down from 92.1 last season, and 91.4 in 2006, his last year as a starter. The “other crap” Myers has been throwing is primarily his cutter, which he has tossed 27 percent of the time, up from 13 percent last season and 16 percent in ’06. It also appears that Myers has lost confidence in his curve, which he has thrown just 15 percent of the time, down from 27 percent last year and 21 percent in ’06. This data is backed up by Philadelphia’s pitching coach Rich Dubee, who said after the Pirates start that Myers and he had “talked about getting away from the cutter and throwing more fastballs and throwing more curveballs because of the separation between the speeds. But he got away from that game plan for whatever reason.”
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.