Matchup: Dodgers (26-24) at Cubs (30-21), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (62 IP, 4.21 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Sean Gallagher (19, 5.68, 1.58, 14)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 27-23 (231 RS, 215 RA); Chicago, 30-21 (291 RS, 210 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; Chicago, #1
Prospectus: Tonight’s game at Wrigley will feature a battle initiated on the other side of the Pacific. Before signing stateside, Cubs right fielder Kosuke Fukudome played for the Chunichi Dragons in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and Kuroda pitched for the Hiroshima Carp. Now, they will face each other for the first time in the major leagues. Fukudome will also be facing a countryman in America for the first time. So far this season, Japanese major league batters are just 1-for-13 with five walks against Japanese pitchers. Fukudome would love to get a hit against anyone right now, Japanese or no, as he has slumped to .256/.354/.329 in 97 PA since the start of May after hitting .327/.436/.480 in 117 April plate appearances.
Kuroda is not the only Asian pitcher that Fukudome might see tonight. Besides Japanese closer Takashi Saito, the Los Angeles bullpen features Taiwanese-born Hong-Chih Kuo, as well as Chan Ho Park, the first Korean to ever pitch in the majors. Kuo has been a revelation for the Dodgers since moving to relief, having given up two runs in 20 1/3 innings with a 28/3 K/BB ratio after faring poorly in his three starts. Park has done good work in his return to the organization that signed him way back in 1994, and for which he pitched the first eight seasons of his career. He left LA for Texas on a five-year, $70 million contract after the 2001 season as the owner of a 4.15 career RA in nearly 1200 innings, but from his first season in Texas through last year he put up a 5.95 RA in 567 innings. Park threw just four innings in the majors all of last season, giving up seven runs while with the Mets, and it appeared that his career might be over, but he has been revitalized by his return to the Dodgers, giving up just eight runs in 30 innings, mostly out of the bullpen. For his career, Park now sports a 3.29 RA at Dodger Stadium in 651 2/3 innings; everywhere else, he’s at 5.51.
Matchup: Braves (28-23) at Brewers (24-27), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Tim Hudson (35 1/3 IP, 4.58 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Dave Bush (58 2/3, 4.76, 1.33, 54)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 31-20 (246 RS, 196 RA); Milwaukee, 23-28 (224 RS, 249 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #3; Milwaukee, #22
Prospectus: The Brewers have been treading water all year, and have scored just 4.4 runs per game. That puts them on pace to finish the season with 712 runs, well below their PECOTA preseason projection of 809. Part of that underperformance is due to the play of second baseman Rickie Weeks, who is one of seven Brewers below-average bats this season (a -.098 MLVr). Weeks is hitting .206, the second lowest average in the National League amongst players qualified for the batting crown. He however leads the Brewers with 29 walks, and has been hit by nine pitches, more than any other major leaguer–consequently, Weeks has a .335 OBP, and has scored 39 runs, 13 more than anyone else on the team. That puts him on pace to score over 120 runs. No player in the history of the game has ever scored so many with so low a batting average. In fact, just two players have scored 120 or more with an average below .250–Donie Bush for the 1911 Tigers, and Frankie Crosetti for the 1937 Yankees. Here are the 10 lowest batting average seasons in which the player also scored 100 runs:
Hitter Team Year AVG R Donie Bush DET 1912 .231 107 Max Bishop PHA 1929 .232 102 Donie Bush DET 1911 .232 126 Frankie Crosetti NYA 1939 .233 109 Frankie Crosetti NYA 1937 .234 127 Rickey Henderson OAK 1998 .236 101 Ike Davis CHA 1925 .240 110 Rickey Henderson SDN 1996 .241 110 Jack Graney CLE 1916 .241 106 Jay Buhner SEA 1997 .243 104
Coming out of college as the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, no one would have guessed Weeks might one day top that list. Starring at Southern University, he was a batting average machine, leading the nation in hitting in both 2002 and ’03 with mind-boggling averages of .495 and .479. His career collegiate batting average of .473 is the highest in Division I history. Weeks’s average dipped to .289 during his minor league tenure, and he now holds a .243 career mark in the majors. His secondary skills are so strong, however, that Weeks can hit .235–as he did last year–and still be a positive contributor. The problem for Weeks this season is that he’s hitting the ball on the ground rather than on a line–he has a 51.3 fly-ball percentage, up from 41.6 last year, and is hitting liners on just 11.7 percent of his batted balls, down from 17.1 in 2007.
Matchup: Astros (29-23) at Cardinals (30-22), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Chacon (61 1/3 IP, 4.70 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 40 K) vs. Braden Looper (58, 4.34, 1.41, 26)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 26-26 (253 RS, 249 RA); St. Louis, 29-23 (239 RS, 210 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #15; St. Louis, #8
Prospectus: Two of the bigger surprise teams in the season so far square off tonight. Chacon had his record-setting streak of nine straight starts without a decision to open the season broken in his last outing, when he beat the Cubs, and will now look to start a positive streak going up against Looper, who pitched seven scoreless innings at home against the Astros on April 25. Looper was opposed in that game by Chacon, who gave up two runs (one earned) over seven in–what else–a no-decision.
So far, Astros general manager Ed Wade’s off-season strategy of going for broke to try to win the weak NL Central has played out well, as the aging Astros are in the thick of the division race. However, while the team has hit better than expected, the Astros have played above what their component stats would indicate. Their Pythagorean record is just .500, and the Astros fare even worse after adjustment, as Houston’s differential between actual wins and third order wins (based on AEqR and AEqRA) of +4.2 is the second largest in the NL. Much of that has to do with the team’s pitching staff, which ranks 11th in the league in runs allowed, giving up nearly 4.8 per game. The main problem for the Astros pitchers has been homers, as opponents have hit 73 off of them already, most in the majors. Three Houston starters have allowed double digits in homers–Roy Oswalt with 15, Brandon Backe‘s 11, and Chacon’s 10–but the pitcher who truly stands out is middle reliever Oscar Villarreal, who has had 10 balls leave the yard in 25 1/3 innings on his watch, or more than 3.5 homers per nine innings. Last year, Villarreal surrendered six home runs in 76 1/3 innings while pitching for Atlanta. Entering 2008 his career major league HR/9 was 0.9 in nearly 300 innings, and he had allowed less than 0.6 HR/9 in 444 minor league innings, especially impressive given he pitched in the Diamondbacks‘ chain of hitters’ parks. Villarreal has never been quite the same, however, since undergoing surgery after his excellent rookie season with Arizona, in which he won 10 games in 85 appearances out of the bullpen with a 2.57 ERA.
Matchup: Blue Jays (28-25) at Athletics (28-23), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (63 1/3 IP, 4.97 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Greg Smith (56 2/3, 3.49, 1.18, 46)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 28-25 (208 RS, 195 RA); Oakland, 31-20 (232 RS, 184 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #12; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: Both teams are riding high: the Blue Jays swept a four-game set from the Royals over the long weekend, while Oakland took three from the defending world champions. The A’s swept the Jays three games at the Rogers Centre in early April, back when Toronto had Frank Thomas. Thomas was cut loose in mid-April and picked up by Oakland, and will now get the chance to do damage against the team that is paying his $8 million salary for 2008. Since being signed by the Athletics, the Big Hurt has put up a .315/.415/.506 line in 106 PA. That performance with Oakland has been good for a .331 EqA, which would rank third in the AL. Thomas has been in the habit of starting slowly before coming on strong beginning in May: in 2006 with the A’s, he had a 669 OPS in April, but a 977 mark the rest of the way, and last year with Toronto he had an 870 OPS from May onwards after putting up a sub-800 figure in the first month. For his entire career, in fact, the Big Hurt hasn’t much liked April–he has fewer home runs in the month than in any other, and his April OPS (917) is the lowest of any in his career, the next worst being September’s 965.
Toronto could use someone producing like Thomas has of late, for the Blue Jays rank fourth from the bottom of the AL in runs scored. Since Thomas left, in fact, the Jays have scored just 3.4 runs per game, with an OPS below 700. It hasn’t helped that Vernon Wells has been on the shelf with a wrist injury since May 10, and that the team’s other key hitter, Alex Rios, has just three home runs and a sub-.400 slugging percentage. Now the Blue Jays’ attack will go up against an Oakland pitching staff that has a 3.27 ERA, which would be the lowest in the AL since the 1981 Yankees. Toronto’s staff has been outstanding as well, with a 3.41 ERA. The last time a junior circuit squad had an ERA below 3.50 was 1985, when both the Blue Jays and Royals clocked in under that figure.
Matchup: Nationals (22-30) at Padres (19-33), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Shawn Hill (35 1/3 IP, 4.58 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Randy Wolf (58 2/3, 4.76, 1.33, 54)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 21-31 (200 RS, 247 RA); San Diego, 18-34 (182 RS, 253 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; San Diego, #30
Prospectus: The two worst teams in baseball by the Hit List rankings begin a three-game series tonight. The Padres will be playing for the first time since beating the Reds in 18 innings on Sunday with a three-run homer off the bat of Adrian Gonzalez; thankfully, San Diego had Memorial Day off to rest its beleaguered bullpen. Washington, meanwhile, is also coming off an extra-inning game, an 11-inning loss to Milwaukee yesterday. The 18-inning game was the second game for the Padres this season lasting at least that long, with the other being their 22-inning loss to Colorado back on April 17. San Diego became the first team to have two such marathons in a season since 1989, when the Dodgers had two 22-inning contests, and a 17-inning game for good measure. Extra-inning games had been bad news for the Padres up until recently–San Diego lost its last three of 2007, including a crucial one on the second-to-last day of the season before the 9-8 13-inning wild-card tiebreaker loss to Colorado, and then its first three of this season, but has now won two of them in a row.
The Padres have played two 13-inning games this year in addition to their 18-inning plus affairs, and all four of those lengthy battles have come at home in Petco Park. Petco is a threat to produce a double-digit-inning game every night, between of its run suppression and the Padres’ weak offense. In fact, with the Nationals (14th in the NL in runs, at 3.8 per game) playing on the road against San Diego (last, at 3.5 per), the ingredients are just about perfect for a low-scoring battle lasting deep into extras. Getting the nod tonight are two injury-prone starters, both of whom missed large chunks of time last season. As could be expected, Wolf has performed much better at home this year, with his RA at Petco (3.00 in 24 innings) nearly half what it is on the road (5.97 in 34 2/3), while Hill also has an extreme split this season, which plays to his career averages (3.81 RA at home, 5.94 on the road).
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.