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April 3, 2007

Prospectus Today

Opening Day Observations

by Joe Sheehan

I watched baseball all day. You got a problem with that?

 

  • All the games Monday seemed to be played much more quickly. The average time of game doesn’t really matter—you’d expect it to be lower due to the caliber of pitchers starting on Opening Day, and it’s a 13-game sample—but the games just felt faster. We’ll see if this continues, because pace of play—not length of games, but pace—is a factor in the enjoyment of the game for many fans. Now, if we could just do something about PA system sound levels that make it impossible to hold a conversation…

     

  • The Nationals are in for a long, long season. After John Patterson was pounded in yesterday’s 9-2 loss to the Marlins, they’ll follow up with Shawn Hill (nine career starts, 6.90 ERA), Matt Chico (major league debut), Jerome Williams (practically a god among this crew with 65 starts and a 4.03 ERA) and Jason Bergmann (seven starts, 5.76 ERA). I think Williams will be something of a revelation; the rest of this group is just frightening. Sometimes, you have to have a year like this to get where you’re going, but the 2007 Nationals look to be extra scary.

    It's probably a little mean-spirited to bring this up, but it was notable that the lineup the Nats had at the end of the game was probably better than the one they started with, thanks to injuries suffered by Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan. Josh Wilson is approximately as good as Guzman, and Chris Snelling is definitely better than Logan.

     

  • Cool new trend that I hope catches on: using non-traditional #2 hitters. The Blue Jays stuck Lyle Overbay in the #2 slot, the Reds returned Adam Dunn there, the Mariners elevated Adrian Beltre, and the Indians put Trot Nixon behind Grady Sizemore. The Dodgers, missing Rafael Furcal, even went with Russell Martin in the second spot. All of these are better solutions than a contact-hitting middle infielder with no discernible power or on-base ability.

     

  • After all of the discussion about whether Pat Burrell could protect Ryan Howard, Charlie Manuel decided to bat Howard third and Chase Utley fourth. Tactically, this is a fairly big mistake, as the edge given up by allowing lefty specialists free shots at back-to-back left-handed hitters dwarfs the effect of the “protection” Utley offers Howard. It’s not about the two players’ skill sets—both have improved against southpaws—but about the skill sets of the pitchers they’ll be facing in any late-game high-leverage situations.

    The Phillies now have a lineup that goes S/S/L/L/R/R/R/R, which is suboptimal at best, ridiculous at worst. As it is, going Rowand/Helms/Barajas in the 6-8 slots is just asking for trouble; the current alignment makes that problem one batter worse, not to mention setting Pat Burrell up for failure, as he’ll basically never see a left-handed pitcher in any game-relevant situation. Much of the contrived controversy over Burrell is related to this factor—he rarely gets to bat with the platoon advantage when it matters—rather than any shortcomings in his character.

     

  • Taking advantage of the fact that this is the first year since 2003 I didn’t hype him all spring, Ben Sheets was filthy yesterday. Working mostly with his fastball, he shut down the Dodgers on two hits, facing just two men over the minimum. Any chance the Brewers have to fulfill preseason expectations is contingent on Sheets making 34 starts and being one of the eight best starters in the NL. The thing is, he could do that.

     

  • I mentioned the Phillies’ lineup construction, but the Cubs started six right-handed hitters against Aaron Harang yesterday, including the first four hitters in their lineup. Unlike the Phillies, I don’t think there’s much the Cubs can do about this given their personnel, but I do expect that they’ll have some issues against power right-handers like Harang, and will be susceptible to right-handed relievers who are tough on righties, making for difficult late-game situations.

    Although I like Matt Murton in the #2 slot, I’m wondering if Jacque Jones might not be a better fit against many right-handers. Jones hits righties very well and, nestled among three big right-handed bats, would force opposing managers into some tough tactical decisions. As long as the #2 batter is not Cesar Izturis, the Cubs should be all right.

     

  • The Arizona Diamondbacks are tied for the best record in baseball. I'm just saying...

     

  • A number of people felt I had the Red Sox rated too low in my preseason Top 30. I just think the back half of their roster doesn’t match the front end, and the difference between the two is significant. I find the Mike Lowell/Jason Varitek/Coco Crisp/Dustin Pedroia run in their lineup highly unimpressive, and the five pitchers who succeeded Curt Schilling yesterday included three lefty specialists and two AL West castoffs (one of whom, Brendan Donnelly, I like). These aren’t the reasons they lost to the Royals, they’re just the reasons why I think they’ll miss the postseason again.

     

  • You know, Felix Hernandez is really freaking good. It wasn’t just the final stat line that was impressive. It was the way he got there, pounding his heat against a team that, a couple of lineup spots aside, doesn’t hit power pitching. The A’s didn’t even hit many balls hard against him.

    It’s worth noting the pitch count: 111. I think the sweet spot for starting pitchers is the 110s, a place Ozzie Guillen had his starters residing comfortable two years ago with no ill effects. To the extent that I would worry about Hernandez, my concerns are twofold: one, he’s a few days shy of his 21st birthday, and what we know about pitchers is that they do need to be treated differently in their early twenties. The second concern is that Hernandez, if asked to throw 111 pitches on Opening Day, might be asked to throw many more than that on a later date, and soon enough be replicating Mark Prior’s 2003 season.

    I think Hernandez can average 105 pitches a start this season with a max of 120 without hampering his development. The Mariners, with a management team on the hot seat, have to be careful to balance the opportunity for team success with the development of a very special talent.

     

  • Orioles’ pitchers used count: four. Against Johan Santana last night, they started five left-handed batters, the best of which (Nick Markakis) boasted a 711 OPS against lefties last year. If this were the NBA, it would have looked like they were tanking for lottery position.

     

  • Brad Lidge blew the save in Houston yesterday, costing Roy Oswalt a notch in his 2007 Cy Young case, and re-opening all the old wounds from 2006. I stubbornly refuse to believe this is mental, especially since Lidge started the ninth inning last night looking great. If you’re a right-handed pitcher and Xavier Nady is pulling your fastball nearly 400 feet, there has to be something you’re not doing correctly.

     

  • Finally, the Angels beat the Rangers behind John Lackey and four near-perfect innings from their bullpen. I’m fascinated by the Angels’ lineup, which somehow features Garret Anderson and Shea Hillenbrand batting in front of Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick, a very peculiar alignment of talents. If the pitching is as good as it was last night, it might not matter, but I can’t help but think that’s very close to a run-minimizing arrangement. Throw in Gary Matthews Jr. and Orlando Cabrera up top, both of whom can expect to see their numbers come down after peak or near-peak 2006 seasons, and this could be a wildly dysfunctional offense.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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