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July 28, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

White Sox, Padres

by Baseball Prospectus


CHICAGO WHITE SOX
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In 2005, the Chicago White Sox owed their championship in large part to their starting five. After replacing Orlando Hernandez with Javier Vazquez, that rotation looked even stronger and--true to form--the club's fortunes have risen and fallen with the performances of their starters.

All of this is a long way of framing the fact that, for Mark Buehrle, July has been an unprecedented catastrophe. He struggled this time last year as well, but that meant coming off of a sub-1.00 June ERA and posting a 5.01 figure in July. This year, Buehrle is 0-5 with an 11.48 ERA on the month. He's not alone: Vazquez and Freddy Garcia have ERAs of 6.48 and 5.76, respectively. But all by themselves, Buehrle's struggles are enough to sink a team's playoff hopes.

There are plenty of statistical signs pointing to Buehrle's downfall this year, but some are contradictory. The difference between his performance before and after July 1 is striking:

                  OBP    SLG    G/F
Before July 1     .310   .403   1.24
After July 1      .411   .692   0.90

Buehrle has faced a difficult July slate of opponents, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, and the streaking Twins, but that can't tell the whole story. His month started with a five-inning, 11-run, 13-hit calamity at Wrigley. The decrease in ground ball/fly ball ratio could be a cause, or it could be the effect of some other change in his approach.

The control that has been his signature doesn't appear to have slipped: his 2006 walk rate is 2.2 per nine innings, a tick up from his career rate of 2.1 per nine. His strikeout rate is down considerably on the year--4.0 per nine compared to 5.7 last year-but it's been down since April. Before July 1, he struck out 10% of the batters he faced and still put together a strong first half. Since then, he's punching out only 11%.

Among ChiSox fans, it would be a relief if Buehrle turned out to be injured. However, these five losses might just end up looking like a stretch of bad luck. The combination of a lower G/F ratio (from 2003-05, it hovered between 1.4 and 1.5) and the decreased strikeout rate strongly suggest a drop in effectiveness, so it's something of a surprise that the disaster didn't strike sooner.

BABIP, otherwise known as a pitching evaluator's best friend, suggests an explanation. In his last three seasons, Buehrle allowed hits on almost exactly 30% of balls in play. For the first three months of the season, with a lower G/F ratio that would suggest that rate would go up, he managed a BABIP of .271. With Brian Anderson in the outfield, the combination of a high fly ball rate and a low BABIP seems possible, but it's still unlikely.

In his last five starts, the tables turned. In July, Buehrle has allowed hits on over 40% of balls in play, almost impossible to achieve with the strong Pale Hose defense behind him. It would probably help if he managed to keep a few more balls on the ground, but it appears that a fair amount of his rough month can be attributed to bad luck. Buehrle doesn't look like he'll magically transform into the pitcher he was last year, but it's very possible that--even without surgery--he'll regain his above-average innings-eating form before the season is out.

--Jeff Sackmann

SAN DIEGO PADRES
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For a variety of reasons, Adrian Gonzalez was not expected to be the top offensive player on the Padres. First of all, on a team that has Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko, and Mike Cameron, one would assume that the first base prospect known more for his glove than his bat would not be the one leading the offensive charge. Secondly, his weighted mean PECOTA projection only saw him hitting .254/.313/.411 with an EqA of .253, well below average for first basemen. His 90th percentile PECOTA projection has also fallen short so far, although it is much closer to his production: .284/.346/.485--Gonzalez's current line is .305/.345/.525.

Gonzalez received his chance when Klesko went down with a bum shoulder, and outside of an early season slump, has performed exceptionally well.

                PA     HR     K%      BB%     AVG /OBP /SLG
4/03 - 5/11     127     1     18.1%   7.9%    .228/.283/.333
5/12 - 7-26     259    18     17.0%   4.6%    .340/.375/.615

His plate patience slipped a little from earlier levels, but he increased his home run rate from one every 114 at-bats to one every 13.6 at-bats. He has carried the San Diego offense in July--along with the Mike Piazza/Josh Bard catching arrangement--bopping at a .378/.418/.722 clip. With the race as close as it has been in the National League West, one could argue that the Padres would not be in first place if Klesko had not injured himself and been replaced by Gonzalez.

Gonzalez's performance is actually in line with his offensive breakout in Triple-A Oklahoma in 2005, where he slugged 18 homeruns in 328 at-bats, walked in 8.7 percent of his plate appearances, and had his first Isolated Power over .200 in his professional career. This success did not translate to the major league level with Texas, as Gonzalez only hit .227/.272/.407, striking out in 23 percent of his plate appearances and taking a step backwards with his power, continuing his disappointment from a cup of coffee in 2003 with the big league club.

Gonzalez's success seems to have come from an increase in groundballs--which most likely helped him raise his Batting Average on Balls in Play--as well as a serious drop in his pop ups that coincides with an increased homerun per flyball rate.

        LD%        GB%        IF/F        HR/F        BABIP       E. BABIP
2005    20.0%      39.1%      12.8%       11.4%       .262        .320
2006    21.1%      45.2%      2.0%        20.6%       .331        .331

To explain, 'E. BABIP' is expected BABIP, which is LD% plus .120. Last year Gonzalez under achieved his expected BABIP by a considerable margin, and this season his BABIP is perfectly in sync with it. He decreased his infield flies per flyball by almost 11 percent, while increasing his homeruns per flyball by almost 10 percent. For whatever reason, Gonzalez's power has erupted since mid-May, and the Padres have greatly benefited from it, even at home, where AGon has hit .308/.333/.500 on the season. Considering his BABIP is in line with his expected BABIP--and his line drive percentage this year is consistent with his previous ones--there is no reason to believe he cannot continue to put up numbers resembling his current season line.

--Marc Normandin


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