Matchup: Indians (15-17) at Yankees (17-17), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (37 2/3 IP, 1.19 RA, 0.56 WHIP, 32 K) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (45 IP, 3.00 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 32 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 17-15 (137 RS, 131 RA); New York, 17-17 (151 RS, 150 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #15; New York, #21
Prospectus: Wang and Lee are two of the five best starters in the American League, having combined to win 11 of their 12 starts, and even the one game without a victory–a Wang no-decision versus Boston on April 16–was a Yankees win. None of the offenses Lee has faced have been among the league’s better ones, but he has been the strongest in the majors on a per-start basis (by SNLVAR) anyway. Lee will get another break tonight in facing a Yankees attack that is without its two best hitters, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. In the eight games in which Posada has been out of the lineup, the last six of which Rodriguez has also missed, New York has had a 662 team OPS, as compared with 773 in the 25 games to start the year in which the Yankees’ catcher was active.
Wang has succeeded so far with a ground-ball rate of 54 percent, which, though still high, would be the lowest mark of his career. This dip may be related to the fact that Wang is throwing more sliders this year. In fact, a look at Wang’s ground-ball percentage compared with pitch selection over the course of his career reveals an interesting trend:
Year IP GB% %SINKER* %SLIDER* K/9 2005 116.1 65.3 77.9 12.9 3.6 2006 218.0 63.8 75.5 14.7 3.1 2007 199.1 58.4 76.4 16.2 4.7 2008 45.0 54.0 74.8 20.6 6.4
*Data courtesy Baseball Info Solutions and FanGraphs
Wang has consistently thrown more sliders and a few less sinkers since his rookie season, which seems to be related to the lowering of his ground-ball percentage and the rise in his strikeout rate, as the sinker induces few swings-and-misses, while the slider is Wang’s out pitch. Fewer groundballs this season have also led to a lower BABIP (.272) and hit rate (7.6 H/9) than he’s had the past two years, which makes sense because grounders are more likely to turn into hits than fly balls are. All in all, it appears that Wang’s increased balance between slider and sinker is a definite positive, as he has traded some groundballs for some strikeouts, while still so far maintaining his ability to keep the ball in the park (one homer allowed).
Matchup: Giants (14-19) at Pirates (13-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Barry Zito (28 2/3 IP, 9.42 RA, 1.95 WHIP, 11 K) vs. Phil Dumatrait (24 2/3 IP, 5.11 RA, 1.70 WHIP, 17 K)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 12-21 (112 RS, 157 RA); Pittsburgh, 14-18 (163 RS, 187 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #25; Pittsburgh, #29
Prospectus: That unfamiliar sound you’ve been hearing in the past week is the Pirates offense grinding into gear. Last night’s 12 runs in the series-opener versus the Giants was the third double-digit output of the past week for Pittsburgh, a six-game stretch in which the team has averaged eight runs per contest. Pittsburgh now sits 12th in the majors in runs–not anything to write home about, certainly, but the last time the Pirates ranked at least that high over a full season was 1992, which was also the last time the team had a winning record and made the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s offense has been a top-heavy attack powered by four men, their starting outfielders and catcher, who have combined for 97 percent of the Pirates’ positive position player VORP total. That trend continued last night, as center fielder Nate McLouth knocked home runs number eight and nine to continue his breakout season, while right fielder Xavier Nady drove in two runs and now leads the NL with 32 RBI.
Pittsburgh ripped a Giants left-hander last night, and will look to do the same tonight when Zito takes the hill after a nine-day break from mound duty. The veteran lefty was the third pitcher since 1956 to begin the season with six losses in March/April, along with Dave Stewart in 1984 and Mike Maroth in 2003, and will resume his quest tonight to avoid becoming the first 20-game loser since Maroth. Zito will be opposed by fellow southpaw Dumatrait, who is making his second start since taking the spot of the now-retired Matt Morris. Dumatrait doesn’t promise to be that much of an improvement over Morris: he lasted just four innings in his first start, and dating back to last season has completed the fifth inning in only one of seven career starts. Dumatrait and the rest of the Bucs pitchers have allowed more runs than any other major league staff this season, so this series against the toothless Giants represents a stoppable force vs. movable object type of battle.
Matchup: Twins (16-15) at White Sox (14-16), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Livan Hernandez (31 IP, 1.16 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 19 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (35 2/3 IP, 4.29 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 21 K)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 14-17 (125 RS, 137 RA); Chicago, 18-13 (146 RS, 121 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #24; Chicago, #7
Prospectus: Hernandez has shown no sign that this will be the year his arm finally gives way from the past decade’s workload–the crafty Cuban is munching innings as usual, with an average of six per start, a pace that would lead to 219 over the full season. If Hernandez reaches the 200 IP barrier it would be for the 10th time in 11 years, with the sole exception being 1999, when he fell one out short. Hernandez has made at least 30 starts in every season since 1998, and leads the major leagues in innings pitched over that span with 2314 1/3, ahead of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson. Not surprisingly, Hernandez also leads the majors in total Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) in that period, ahead of Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens–just remember, it’s a counting stat, not a predictive tool, and in his own way Livan’s as unique a pitcher as the Rocket and the Big Unit. Hernandez has taken well to his first spin through the junior circuit, and the Twins have won six of the seven games he has started–not bad for a pitcher signed to be the veteran innings sponge.
Hernandez’s strong work has helped Minnesota quietly move into first place in the AL Central, that despite an offense that ranks next-to-last in the circuit in runs. The Twins’ ascension is mainly because every other team in the division has struggled significantly, none more so lately than the White Sox. Chicago had lost six in a row with just nine runs scored in that stretch before last night’s win, prompting an Ozzie Guillen blowup and a shuffle of the batting order, with Carlos Quentin moving from seventh to second, Orlando Cabrera from second to leadoff, and Nick Swisher from leadoff to sixth. Elevating the emerging Quentin in the lineup makes sense, but replacing Swisher and his .341 OBP with Cabrera and his .293 mark doesn’t seem like an inspired decision. Swisher was drawing walks out of the leadoff spot–he ranks second in the AL with 24, good for the highest rate of his career–but not doing much else, with a .196 BA and .304 SLG. It’s possible that Swisher was taking his responsibility as a leadoff hitter too seriously, and was letting hittable pitches go by in his effort to work the count–he has seen a career-high and AL-leading 4.27 P/PA. Guillen might feel that hitting lower in the order will take that pressure off Swisher and get him to focus more on driving the ball.
Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.
Matchup: Cardinals (22-12) at Rockies (12-21), 6:35 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Adam Wainwright (45 IP, 2.80 RA, 0.98 WHIP, 33 K) vs. Jeff Francis (37 2/3 IP, 5.26 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 24 K)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 20-14 (160 RS, 129 RA); Colorado, 13-20 (144 RS, 181 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #3; Colorado, #23
Prospectus: The last two National League champions have woven very different tales thus far: St. Louis has won six of seven to move 2.5 games up on Chicago in the NL Central and a half-game behind Arizona for the best record in the majors, while Colorado is tied with San Diego for the worst record in baseball, and finds itself 10 games back in the NL West. That’s certainly not insurmountable at this early juncture–if you recall, the Rockies were seven games behind as late as September 10 last year before rallying–but the team will have to get a much better performance from its ace, Francis, in order to move back into contention. Francis has run up against the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Phillies in five of his six starts, offenses which all rank in the NL top four in runs, so improvement can be expected soon.
Albert Pujols has reached base via hit or walk in all 34 games this season, and sports a .503 OBP, which would be the highest non-Bonds single-season mark since 1957, when both Ted Williams (.526) and Mickey Mantle (.512) had monster years. Pujols has drawn 34 walks already, putting him on pace for 162, which would tie the St. Louis franchise record set by Mark McGwire in his 70-homer 1998 season. The Rockies have had no such virtuoso performances, and rank 10th in the NL in runs scored. Colorado has never finished lower than fifth in the league in runs. The Rockies’ issues on offense stem from the middle infield–Colorado has gotten a sub-600 OPS from second base and shortstop, having been left scrambling to cover for Troy Tulowitzki‘s injury and Jayson Nix‘s failed trial. The good news is that catcher Chris Iannetta finally seems poised to deliver on his offensive potential. Iannetta is hitting .362 through 47 at-bats, and nine of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases. He has started three straight games over slumping veteran Yorvit Torrealba, and capitalized with five hits in the past two. Despite his major league struggles the last two years, PECOTA projected Iannetta for a very healthy .048 MLVr (as compared to -.114 for Torrealba), so the second-year man seizing the job would be a boon for Colorado’s production.
Matchup: Rangers (14-20) at Mariners (14-20), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Vicente Padilla (43 2/3 IP, 4.33 RA, 1.53 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Erik Bedard (24 2/3 IP, 3.28 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 20 K)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 14-20 (156 RS, 195 RA); Seattle, 16-18 (141 RS, 154 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #27; Seattle, #19
Prospectus: So far, the off-season trade between the Reds and Rangers involving Edinson Volquez and Josh Hamilton has been great for both teams. Volquez will pitch this afternoon against the Cubs, and ranks fourth in the majors in SNLVAR, while Hamilton leads the majors in RBI. The center fielder blasted his seventh home run of the year last night, a three-run shot off of Miguel Batista that gave him 36 runs driven in for the season; Hamilton currently leads the American League in the rate at which he’s cashed in his teammates on the bases. It appears that Hamilton could lock down the center field position in Arlington for the next several years, which would fill a big historical hole for Texas. The Rangers have seen a multitude move through the position in recent years, and no player has started more than two straight seasons in center for the Rangers since Oddibe McDowell from 1985-1988. Hamilton is also on pace to have the best season ever by a Rangers center fielder by park-adjusted OPS+; he currently has a 145 mark (100 is average), which would beat out Juan Gonzalez’s 1992 season, when the slugger put up a 133 in his last year playing center field.
There isn’t much that the 27-year-old Hamilton hasn’t done in his brief time in the major leagues–he ranked sixth among NL center fielders in Dan Fox‘s total defense metric in his rookie 2007 season, thanks largely to a fantastic throwing arm–but he has yet to prove he can hit lefties. Last season, Hamilton put up an unsightly .222/.296/.292 line in 81 PA against southpaws. So far this year he’s 9-for-31 against them, and will get another shot at showing he’s improved tonight against one of the game’s premier lefties. Bedard is not as tough on left-handed batters as might be expected given his dominance–last year, lefties actually had a higher OPS (696 in 153 PA) than righties (594 in 580) against him, and over the course of his career Bedard has allowed lefties to get on base at a far better clip than righties (.340 OBP vs. .314).
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.