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September 1, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

CHW, OAK, SF

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox: It has been bandied about that the reason for the White Sox' recent struggles has been their lack of offensive firepower. Indeed, the hitting has been a problem. Let's take a look:

Month    RS/G   RA/G
April    4.42   3.38
May      4.39   3.82
June     5.64   3.92
July     5.38   4.88
August   3.50   4.25

Total    4.64   4.06

While it is certainly true that August was not kind to the White Sox offense, looking closer we see larger warning signs:

Month     RS/G   RA/G
Apr-Jun   4.81   3.71
Jul-Aug   4.41   4.56

Diff       .40   -.84

Since the end of June, the White Sox are allowing almost a full run more per game, a total that has put them into the red overall. Coincidentally, they have played exactly .500 ball in that time span--27 wins and 27 losses. We can narrow our focus this even further. Let's take a look at how the Big Three, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, and Mark Buehrle, or the "GGB," have fared compared to their teammates:

April-June
Players     IP     RA   HR/9     H/9   K/BB
GGB      342.3   3.15    .74    7.94   3.22
Rest     355.7   4.20   1.14    8.25   1.83

July-August
Players     IP     RA   HR/9     H/9   K/BB
GGB      218.7   5.06   1.15   10.62   2.22
Rest     265.7   4.17    .81    7.76   1.87

The caveat of the "rest" is that due to roster movement, that group doesn't contain the exact same members throughout the two time periods, but the Sox roster has been stable enough to keep the two comparable. The point here is that the Big Three have not been so big these past two months. It has been an across the board collapse for the GGB, while the rest of the staff has performed a bit better.

The situation boiled over this week down in Arlington, with Buehrle claiming that the Rangers beat him because they cheated. Nobody in the press or dugout agreed with Buehrle, and the overall numbers don't bear out his argument either.

While it's not fair to say that Buehrle is making a habit of such whining, it is fair to say that the White Sox are in danger of losing their stranglehold on the American League. They enter Thursday a mere three games ahead of the Red Sox for the top spot in the AL, and they still have one game in the Fens, where they are 0-2, on Labor Day. Less of a problem, but still a concern, are the Indians. They enter Thursday seven games ahead of the Tribe, which should be a comfortable lead for the Pale Hose, but they still have six games head-to-head with the surging Indians. In any event, the White Sox are counting on the GGB to make it through to greatest show on Earth, and in order for them to carry the Sox, they will have to pitch like they did the first three months of the season.

--Paul Swydan

Oakland Athletics: Much has been written at Baseball Prospectus about the A's methodology in tearing the pitiful flesh off virtually every team they've faced since June. They still take the cake in Defensive Efficiency and their pitchers still enjoy the perks of that super-steady defense--in fact, their five starting pitchers average .264 batting average in balls in play (BABIP). Dan Johnson has certainly kept pace with his instant success. Joe Kennedy, Jay Witasick, and Jay Payton, Billy Beane's three midseason acquisitions, have each stepped in as key contributors. In the big picture of that week in July, the three plus cash were acquired in exchange for Chad Bradford, Eric Byrnes, and Omar Quintanilla. It's insanely early, but the fresh A's have out-VORPed the former A's since the trades, 19.3 to -1.7.

With a turnaround like this, they're toying with history. On May 17 they ranked 29th, second worst on the Prospectus Hit List, fitting snugly between the Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals. This week they debuted at #2, behind only the St. Louis Cardinals.

While Rich Harden was one of the few Athletics pulling his weight during the team's early swoon, it was during his oblique issues that the team bottomed out. In his 12 starts since returning from the DL in June, Harden has thrown 78 innings. He's allowed 52 hits and four home runs. Had he stayed healthy all season, he'd probably be the Cy Young favorite. Now he's trying to fend off a recent lat strain. Kennedy has been starting in his place, and though he passed the first test with flying colors, that was a vastly different Joseph Darley Kennedy than the one we saw in Denver this season. Coors Field or no, a 52:44 K:BB ratio in 92 innings is not typically something to mess with, so maybe A's pitching coach Curt Young found something. And maybe it's best to quit rolling dice and get the man back in the bullpen where he was thriving. Kennedy's an excellent option as a swingman, but even so, this team obviously needs Harden back as soon as possible.

Yesterday the A's discovered that Bobby Crosby has a broken ankle. He's headed to the DL for a second time, again leaving Oakland's infield significantly crippled (no pun intended). Keith Ginter was recalled from Sacramento, but Mark Ellis will remain at second base and Marco Scutaro will once again try and fill the Crosby-sized hole. Actually, the one-month downgrade at shortstop might not be that crushing. Scutaro's fielding, achieved mostly during Crosby's first leave of absence, was tremendous according to FRAR (+28) and FRAA (+8). In similar amounts of playing time, Crosby's WARP (4.8) isn't so far from Scutaro's (3.3) that anyone should expect much more than a half-win difference over the season's final month.

One final daunting challenge is an especially tough upcoming schedule. Among American League teams with any inkling of playoff aspirations, Oakland has the toughest competition moving forward from September 1st. To demonstrate, we'll use a fun little metric called Hit List Factor, which Jay Jaffe explained Tuesday as his objective method of ranking teams for Prospectus Hit List. In layman's terms, HLF is a team winning percentage adjusted in order to level the playing field and weed out all kind of distorting factors that are based on circumstance. The following grid averages opponents' Hit List Factors, giving us an idea of the strength of each contender's schedule from today through October 2nd:


American League Playoff Contenders' Strength of Remaining Schedule

Team BAL BOS CHA CLE DET KCA LAA MIN NYA OAK SEA TBA TEX TOR  HLF
OAK    0   4   0   3   0   0   5   3   3   0   6   0   6   0 .526
BOS    6   0   1   0   0   0   3   0   6   4   0   4   0   7 .522
MIN    0   0   7   6   6   4   0   0   0   3   0   0   3   0 .518
LAA    0   3   3   0   4   0   0   0   0   5   6   3   6   0 .511
NYA    8   6   0   0   0   0   0   0   0   3   1   6   0   6 .505
CHA    0   1   0   6   8   6   3   7   0   0   0   0   0   0 .498
CLE    0   0   6   0   4   7   0   6   0   3   0   3   0   0 .481

Five of the six other contenders play Oakland for a total of 18 games down the stretch. Assuming Harden & Co. make good on their 76.33% shot at the playoffs, we're likely getting a sneak peek at October.

It's baseball at its best. Maybe even better than Little League.

--Dave Haller

San Francisco Giants: The big news in San Francisco this week was the arrival of Giants minor-league stud Matt Cain. First, a little history: In 2004, Cain rode a 2.67 ERA in 158.2 IP with 161 strikeouts and 57 walks all the way into a top-30 ranking in BP's 2005 Top 50 Prospects article. The most impressive thing about his dominance of the High-A California League and the Double-A Eastern League? Cain was 19 last year.

This year the team started Cain in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and he continued to impress.


Matt Cain - SP
Fresno Grizzlies
Year    Age   Level    GS      IP   HR/9    H/9   BB/9   SO/9     ERA      RA
2005     20     AAA    26   145.2    1.4    7.3    4.5   10.9    4.39    4.77
The home run rate is a little inflated, but that's almost definitely due to the ballparks in the PCL. Cain's walk rate is too high, but his strikeout rate is terrific, especially considering the kid is throwing against hitters who are sometimes five to ten years older than him.

Cain got the call last week and took his first start against the Colorado Rockies on Monday night. He acquitted himself well, though not as impressively as many were hoping.


Pitcher           IP    H    R  ER  BB  SO  HR    PC-ST    ERA
M Cain (L, 0-1)  5.0    3    2   2   4   2   1   102-65   3.60
The results were positive (two runs in five innings of work) but Cain's stuff wasn't as nasty as advertised. While his hard four-seam fastball sat comfortably at 93-96 MPH, his long arm action made the pitch extremely easy to pick up. Because Cain's slider and change-up both register in the high-80s/low-90s, he spent most of the game serving up foul tip after foul tip. At end of the night fully 38 of Cain's 65 strikes were fouled off; only four were swung on and missed.

To come close to his strikeout totals in the minors it seemed clear to scouts in attendance that Cain is going to have to rely more heavily on his 80-82 mph hard-breaking curveball, or perhaps develop a more deceptive change. Everyone uniformly praised his fastball ("unteachable heat"), and in his defense, for all the foul balls, only one pitch was solidly hit all night. The kid has a future, but probably isn't Felix Hernandez-like ready to dominate the majors.

Giants Aren't Done Dealing: In the last few days, three more members of the Giants Opening Day Roster were jettisoned (that makes nine members of the original 25 who are no longer on the roster). Utility infielder Deivi Cruz was shipped to Washington to take over as the starting shortstop there, Jason Christiansen went to Anaheim to step in as the sole LOOGY, and Michael Tucker went to the Phillies to serve as a pinch-hitter/reserve outfielder. All three role players were heading towards free-agency this offseason and none of them was being seriously considered for a significant role in 2006.

Did the Giants get any good swag in these deadline deals? The Angels sent journeyman LHP Dusty Bergman and RHP Ronnie Ray. Bergman's had a good year at Triple-A Salt Lake (3.17 ERA in 71 IP, 55 SO/18 BB) but he's 27 and in his seventh minor-league season. Ray has less impressive numbers (3.42 ERA in High-A ball, 43 K/30 BB in 71 IP) and it's his third year at that level.

The Nationals sent RHP Ben Cox for Cruz, and he's a little more interesting. The 2004 19th rounder features a mid-90s fastball and a low-80s slider according to Baseball America and his strikeout totals are impressive: 37 in 33 1/3 IP in the short season NY-Penn League in 2004, 51 in 63 IP at Single-A Savannah in 2005. Of concern is that in his professional career he's averaged a full 4.95 BB/9. He'll have to solve his command problems before he's much more than a live arm.

For Tucker the Phillies sent perhaps the most interesting prospect of the bunch, 19-year old Kelvin Pichardo. In his first year of pro-ball in 2004 Pichardo struck out 62 in 58 IP with just 15 walks allowed. Back in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2005 he is again showing off his good stuff and crisp control: 4.17 ERA in 54 IP with a 37/3 K/BB ratio.

--Tom Gorman

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