Matchup: Tigers (47-47) at Orioles (45-48), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kenny Rogers (114 2/3 IP, 5.02 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Garrett Olson (73 1/3, 5.77, 1.57, 47)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 47-47 (449 RS, 444 RA); Baltimore, 46-47 (439 RS, 449 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #14; Baltimore, #19
Prospectus: It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for the Tigers to get themselves over .500 to stay this season, but it hasn’t happened for the Motor City Kitties thanks to the team failing to shine in any one area. As hard as it may have been to believe back in March, the Tigers and Orioles are two evenly-matched clubs who both deserve their .500-ish winning percentages. Detroit’s issue is mainly that they are, at best, average in their stronger departments, such as the offense. The team’s EqA is .260, exactly league average, which slots them in as the 14th-best attack in the majors. They are also ranked 13th in Defensive Efficiency, converting 70.4 percent of all balls in play into outs, but they rank last in the league in strikeouts, meaning the defense has been carrying the load for the pitching staff. This obscures some of the good on the defensive end, as that .704 mark, while solid enough in a vacuum, needs to be higher to support a rotation and bullpen that can’t buy themselves an out sometimes. To make things worse, the Tigers are sixth in the league in free passes allowed; the only saving grace for the pitching staff is that they’re keeping the ball in the park for the defense, with the third-fewest homers allowed in the majors.
The Tigers would be flirting with the Rangers and last place in the majors in pitching if not for their ability to limit home runs and the presence of a defense behind them, but as things stand they rank 25th in SNLVAR with 6.3 wins above replacement—that’s nine full wins below league-leading Oakland—and are 24th in WXRL. There are 13 relievers in the majors this year with larger WXRL totals than the Tigers’ entire bullpen, and the return of Fernando Rodney (-0.457 WXRL, 1.18 LEV) has done anything but help a bullpen in need, though Joel Zumaya has at least made his presence felt positively with 0.654 WXRL (1.68 LEV). Even if you take out the work of Francisco Cruceta, who hasn’t pitched since June 2 and is inarguably the worst reliever they had around this year (-1.256 WXRL in 11 2/3 IP), the team’s WXRL would move them up to 21st in the league, not much of an improvement at all. If the team is serious about contending in the second half—even with the collective lameness of the pitching and average play of the offense and defense, they are still just seven games out with over two months to go—they are going to need to fix the bullpen and add a pitcher who can miss bats before the upcoming trade deadline. Without that, it would take a miraculous stretch of luck to get them back in this race.
Matchup: Mets (51-44) at Reds (46-50), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (126 2/3 IP, 3.41 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 114 K) vs. Johnny Cueto (111 2/3, 5.16, 1.35, 97)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 51-44 (460 RS, 421 RA); Cincinnati, 43-53 (416 RS, 468 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #8; Cincinnati, #23
Prospectus: Back on June 1, I wrote about Santana’s struggles with home runs and his slow drop in velocity that inched him closer and closer to the 91 mph range,rather than the mid-90s heat we are used to seeing from him, and how this would negatively affect his value going forward if he couldn’t figure his way out of the funk. His fastball velocity has not picked up over the past six weeks and still sits at 91.3 mph on average, but he has managed to bring his strikeout rate up some, while dropping his homer rate to 0.3 per nine. He’s now allowing 1.0 home runs per nine with 8.1 K/9 on the year; though the increase in strikeouts is negligible, keeping his homer rate around that number would go a long way towards maintaining his ace status, and would benefit the Mets’ quest for the NL East crown. There are sacrifices to be made when trying to keep hitters off balance and unable to go yard on you constantly, and in Santana’s case, he’s been giving up a full walk more per nine since dropping his home run rate. Santana is one of the stingier pitchers around when it comes to free passes, so an increase isn’t back-breaking for his numbers, but he’s been unable to increase his innings per outing despite the drop in long balls, potentially because of the bump in walks. Luckily for the Mets, their pen ranks third in the NL in WXRL, so Santana giving way to a reliever isn’t a worst-case scenario every five days. Since it’s only a month and a half worth of innings, keeping an eye on his walk rate—and the things he’s doing on the mound to avoid serving up bleacher-bound pitches—should be the focus to see if this is just a statistical blip, or true progress to help stymie that ever-increasing homer rate.
Matchup: Padres (37-58) at Cardinals (53-43), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jake Peavy (94 2/3 IP, 2.57 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 93 K) vs. Kyle Lohse (119 1/3, 3.62, 1.25, 59)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 38-57 (350 RS, 441 RA); St. Louis, 50-46 (448 RS, 425 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; St. Louis, #12
Prospectus: Following the 2007 season, Kyle Lohse expected a big payday in a thin pitching market, but teams waited and waited until the Cardinals finally signed him to a one-year, $4.25 million deal that has turned out to be one of the better deals of the offseason. Context is the thing, as noted in Lohse’s Player Profile from last November:
It will be tough to find a park that will allow his batted-ball data to flourish, but staying in the NL and getting out of Cincinnati and Philadelphia should be enough of a start… the key to a club getting its money’s worth out of Lohse will be in large part determined by the environment he pitches in.
The batted-ball data referred to was Lohse’s tendency to induce balls in the air, with 41.3 percent of balls in play as fly balls and a 0.9 G/F ratio that’s well below the MLB average of 1.1-1.2. The thing is, Lohse picked up quite a few outs on popups in the infield, with 15.3 percent of those fly balls failing to reach the outfield grass—this helped balance out the high number of fly balls he allowed, and kept hit HR/FB down at a respectable 8.6 percent. This year, pitching in St. Louis, a neutral park so far during its short lifespan, he’s not only had an easier time of keeping the ball in the park thanks to a change in environment, but he’s also shifted away from the fly-ball tendencies he displayed for one year. His 47.3 percent grounder rate is a career high, as is the 1.5 G/F ratio he has posted.
He no longer has the lofty popup rates, but now he doesn’t need them with the ball hitting the infield dirt so often. He’s not an extreme groundballer by any means, but when you strike out just 4.5 hitters per nine, keeping your walks and the ball down are keys to success. His QERA is 4.81, considerably higher than his actual ERA, but you have to remember that a significant part of his performance this season has come from his ability to keep the ball in play instead of in the stands, which QERA does not take into account. With a solid defense behind him—St. Louis is converting 70.1 percent of balls in play into outs this year, and they’re even better than that when Aaron Miles isn’t manning second base—and a home park that doesn’t have outfield walls at Little League distance from home plate, we’ve seen Lohse earn his contract and then some thanks to a savvy move by the Cardinals that’s helped keep them in the NL Central race.
Matchup: Pirates (44-50) at Rockies (39-57), 7:05 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Paul Maholm (119, 4.16 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (113 IP, 4.79, 1.54, 94)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 41-53 (460 RS, 528 RA); Colorado, 40-56 (419 RS, 507 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #28; Colorado, #25
Prospectus: Despite improvements to the offense that led the team to posting the seventh-best EqA in the league, the Pirates still find themselves hanging around Hit List’s cellar thanks to their cringe-worthy defense and pitching staff. They’re dead last in the league in Defensive Efficiency, converting only 68 percent of balls in play into outs. That statistic is damning enough, but they also rank 26th in team strikeouts, and third worst in both walks and homers allowed. They have had 43 runners reach on an error, the fourth most in the majors, so it isn’t just a matter of not getting to the ball. Not that the pitching needed the help letting runners on, given their tendency to either direct the ball outside the strike zone or to throw batting practice to the opposition, but thanks in part to the lack of defense, they have allowed an overall .290/.366/.463 line. Turning every opposing hitter into this year’s David DeJesus isn’t a strategy for success, and it’s something the Pirates are going to need to address going forward if they want their offensive improvement to mean something.
Thankfully, there are some players within their own system they could use to improve the team defensively. Neil Walker is learning the ropes at third base after converting from catcher—this spring, Kevin Goldstein noted he’d need more repetitions at third, but it’s hard to imagine him performing worse than Jose Bautista; according to John Dewan’s Revised Zone Rating, Bautista is easily one of the five worst qualifying third basemen in the majors. Steven Pearce, their second-best prospect heading into the season, has played at first base as well as in the outfield; again, like Walker, he should not play as poorly on the defensive end as the current big-league regular, Adam LaRoche, the fifth-worst regular first baseman via RZR. Andrew McCutchen is the organization’s top prospect, and he’s supposed to have excellent range and a quality arm in center. If the team is able to keep Nate McLouth‘s bat around without having to endure his poor defense in center, having the two of them on the field would go a long way towards making Pittsburgh a better all-around ballclub. It will take some time and a makeover, but as the Rays have shown this past season, improving your defense can go a long way towards reaching respectability, and more than anything else, improving the defense should be the Pirates’ concern right now.