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April 1, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Matchup: Blue Jays at Yankees, 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (4.03 RA, 50.6 VORP in 2007) vs. Chien Ming Wang (3.79, 48.5)
PECOTA Projection: Toronto, 78-84 (4th, AL East); New York, 97-65 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #21; New York, #1
Prospectus: After a rain delay and then a postponement yesterday, the final season at Yankee Stadium finally starts tonight, as the Bombers and Blue Jays will kick off their seasons under the shadow of the New Yankee Stadium. The old Stadium is likely going to be demolished after the year, but it will get a nice send-off as the site of this summer's All-Star Game, and more than likely a few playoff games as well. The Yankees will begin their quest to give the old stomping grounds a proper October good-bye with two premier sinkerballers on the mound, their own Wang going up against Toronto's Halladay. Thanks to their groundball-inducing stuff and penchant to pitch to contact, both Wang and Halladay are among the most efficient hurlers in the business--Halladay needed 14.8 offerings per inning last season, and Wang just 14.4. That means that this game could clock in at something considerably less than the 7 1/2 hours a typical Yankees game takes, and should provide plenty of work for the infield defenses of both teams.

That should be more to Halladay's advantage than to Wang's. Toronto had the best defensive efficiency in the major leagues last year, converting 71.4 percent of balls put in play into outs, while New York ranked 14th, at 69.6 percent. A look at Toronto's infielders reveals why the team was so strong--last season the Jays were 44 runs above average around the horn. Most of the four-plus bump in wins over the average infield was due to the play of defensive maestro John McDonald, who put up a +14 at shortstop. However, McDonald's below-replacement-level stick has led to his being replaced by David Eckstein at short, worsening the defense.

In contrast, the Yankees did not support Wang quite as well as Toronto supported Halladay last year, as their infield compiled 19 fielding runs above average. The Bombers only reached that high because of the +24 of second baseman Robinson Cano, a case where the defensive metrics do not match the overall perception of a player's defense.

Matchup: Mets (1-0) at Marlins (0-1), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Pedro Martinez (3.54 RA, 7.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Rick Vanden Hurk (6.94, -11.3)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Florida, 71-91 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Florida, #29
Prospectus: The Big Apple's Johan Santana Era got off to a successful start yesterday in Miami, as the new Mets ace pitched seven innings and struck out eight in a 6-2 victory. Santana is followed tonight by New York's former No. 1, Pedro Martinez, who is coming off of an abbreviated season in which he threw just 28 innings after coming back from shoulder surgery. The Marlins will therefore be facing, in back-to-back starts, arguably the best left-handed changeup and best right-handed changeups around. Martinez has used his change to strike out 10.2 per nine for his career, the third-highest rate of all pitchers in history (minimum 1000 IP), while Santana has relied on his for 9.5 K/9, the fifth-best rate all time. The Mets and their fans certainly aren't feeling sorry for Florida--after all, it was the Marlins who put the finishing touches on New York's epic collapse in the final series of the 2007 regular season, winning two of three, including 8-1 on the season's last day, to ensure the Mets finished a game behind Philadelphia for the NL East title. In their quest for vengeance, New York's hitters are likely glad to see Vanden Hurk on the mound, as they tagged the Dutch righty for 12 runs and four homers in nine innings during his rookie season last year.

Matchup: Angels (0-1) at Twins (1-0), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jon Garland (4.92 RA, 26.6 VORP in 2007) vs. Boof Bonser (5.62, 7.3)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st, AL West); Minnesota, 74-88 (4th, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #6; Twins, #25
Prospectus: Jon Garland makes his first start tonight for the Angels after coming over from the South Side in an off-season trade for shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The swap looked like a good one for both sides at the time, and now it seems like a lifesaver for the Halos after the injuries to starting pitchers John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. Garland is the sort of pitcher who can soak up innings and help keep the Anaheim bullpen from getting overworked until Lackey comes back sometime in May. (Escobar is likely done for the season.) Bonser came over to the Twins in the same trade that netted Minnesota electric left-hander Francisco Liriano and closer Joe Nathan, and will be looking to move beyond 2007's rough sophomore campaign, which saw him allow 1.53 WHIP and 1.4 HR/9.

The Twins won the opener against Anaheim yesterday thanks to another young player acquired in trade, former Mets farmhand Carlos Gomez, a speedy outfielder who was the centerpiece coming over in the Santana deal. Many believe that the 22-year-old Gomez would benefit most from a full season in Triple-A, but the Twins decided to throw him into the fire as their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. He paid immediate dividends, getting two hits, stealing two bases, and scoring two of the Twins three runs in their 3-2 win. Perhaps most auspiciously, Gomez worked out a walk against Anaheim starter Jered Weaver. Gomez walked just 82 times in 338 career minor league games, and just eight times in 139 plate appearances with New York last season.

Matchup: Astros (0-1) at Padres (1-0), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Brandon Backe (4.08 RA, 5.9 VORP in 2007) vs. Chris Young (3.43, 45.8)
PECOTA Projection: Houston, 72-90 (tied for 4th, NL Central); San Diego, 78-84 (4th, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #28; Cubs, #4
Prospectus: For the first four months of 2007, Chris Young, the 6'10" right-hander out of Princeton, was having a season worthy of his namesake, the all-time wins leader. Young's ERA stood at 1.82 in 118 2/3 innings through July, but in what turned out to be his last start of the month on the 24th, Young strained an abdominal muscle, which forced him to leave early and miss his next two starts. Upon returning, Young clearly wasn't right, giving up 36 runs in 54 1/3 innings (5.96 RA) and posting a 53/33 K/BB ratio, as compared to 114/39 before his injury. The oblique strain also cascaded into back problems for the tall hurler, causing him to miss more time when it wasn't reducing his effectiveness. Without Young's dominance to rely on, San Diego, in the wild-card lead for most of the year, lost its advantage during the last regular-season weekend, and then fell to the Rockies in a one-game playoff.

Young is healthy to start this season, as is Brandon Backe, the 30-year-old right-hander who has made just 13 starts combined over the past two seasons thanks to 2006 Tommy John surgery. The Astros expect Backe to be their No. 2 starter, but PECOTA forecasts him as the worst member of the team's starting rotation, a sub-replacement-level pitcher. For his career, Backe has struck out 5.8 batters per nine innings, walked 4.0, and given up 1.2 homers. A former position player, he does have the distinction of being one of the best-hitting pitchers in the majors; Backe was 4-for-10 with a homer and a double upon coming back in September last season, and for his career owns a .247/.304/.400 line in 100 plate appearances.

Matchup: Red Sox (1-1) at Athletics (1-1), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (4.40 RA, 37 VORP in 2007) vs. Joe Blanton (4.15, 46.3)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #7; Oakland, #14
Prospectus: These two teams split a two-game series in Japan last week to officially start the 2008 season. Back stateside, the Red Sox and A's resume their series in the East Bay, opening up McAfee Coliseum for what might be the second-to-last season the A's play there before moving to Fremont. This game features the same starters that hooked up in the Japanese opener, which the A's would have won if not for a meltdown by closer Huston Street. Matsuzaka pitched decently in his home country, allowing two runs in five innings while striking out six, although his familiar problem of pitch efficiency cropped up, as he needed 95 pitches to get through those five frames. Last season, the highly-touted rookie averaged 17 pitches per inning and 3.98 pitches per plate appearances, both high rates, and it often appeared that he tried to be too fine with his arsenal of exotic deliveries, leading to a high walk rate (3.5/9 IP). Despite all the pressure he undoubtedly felt to perform in front of his native fans, he arguably is feeling even more pressure upon returning to the US. Matsuzaka struggled down the stretch last year, as evidenced by his 5.19 second-half ERA, and Boston's chances at the division title this season are directly tied to what the team gets from its No. 2 starter. A replication of last year's performance from Matsuzaka might not be enough to overcome the loss of Schilling from the rotation and guide Boston to its second straight AL East win.

Blanton and the rest of Oakland's players, on the other hand, have much less pressure upon them, what with GM Billy Beane tearing down the roster this past winter. Literally every start Blanton makes could be his last with the Athletics, for he seems to be next in line to be shipped out for young talent--although Beane's strategy might possibly shift in light of the bevy of injuries that division favorite Anaheim has suffered.

Matchup: Giants (0-1) at Dodgers (1-0), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Matt Cain (3.78 RA, 47.6 VORP in 2007) vs. Derek Lowe (4.52, 30.5)
PECOTA Projection: San Francisco, 68-94 (5th, NL West); Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #27; Los Angeles, #9
Prospectus: Last season, Matt Cain was by far the unluckiest pitcher in the major leagues. He threw 200 innings of 3.65 ERA ball, struck out 163, and posted a strong WHIP of 1.26, yet lost 16 of his 23 decisions in 32 starts. Not surprisingly, Cain had by far the lowest LUCK figure of any pitcher last season. LUCK is simply the addition of the difference between how many wins a pitcher was expected to have (E(W)) and actually had, and how many losses a pitcher was expected to have (E(L)) and actually had. E(W) and E(L) are calculated on a start-by-start basis from the historical frequency with which a pitcher putting up the same in-game pitching line earned a victory. Cain was expected to earn 13.6 wins and 9.4 losses based upon his starts last season, giving him a LUCK figure of -13.23, far lower than the next-unluckiest, Anthony Reyes (-8.45). Cain's LUCK figure ranks him as the fourth-unluckiest pitcher in the Baseball Prospectus database, which dates back to 1959, behind Turk Farrell in 1963 (4-22, 3.02 ERA), Nolan Ryan in 1987 (8-16, 2.76), and Bruce Berenyi in 1982 (9-18, 3.36).

Will things get any better for the young power righty this season? Cain can only rely upon the law of averages, and not any improvement from his teammates, to assure himself that they will. The Giants scored 683 runs last season, the second lowest total in the majors, and this season PECOTA projects them to finish with 635, which is 52 fewer than the projected output of the next-worst offense, Seattle. Yesterday's Giants lineup, featuring Randy Winn (career 769 OPS) in the three-hole and Bengie Molina (719 career) hitting cleanup, was shut out by the Dodgers. San Francisco was shut out four times in games that Cain started last season, and based upon the team's offensive personnel, that number could well rise in 2008.

Matchup: Rangers (0-1) at Mariners (1-0), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Vicente Padilla (6.58 RA, -6.8 VORP in 2007) vs. Felix Hernandez (4.16, 36.4)
PECOTA Projection: Texas, 73-89 (4th, AL West); Mariners, 75-87 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Mariners, #17
Prospectus: Felix Hernandez turns 22 on April 8, and at that young age will have already pitched more than 466 major league innings. Great things were expected out of King Felix from the moment he debuted in 2005, and he delivered right away, with 12 strong starts and a 2.67 ERA. He has yet to get back to that level, throwing 381 1/3 innings with a 4.22 ERA between 2006 and 2007, yet has still managed to rack up a career total of 14.8 WARP--and a glance at Hernandez's PECOTA card reveals the potential he has to turn into an elite starter. His Stars and Scrubs chart claims around a 15 percent chance that he performs at a superstar level this season (EqERA of 3.25 or better), and two of the top four comparables for Hernandez this season are Don Drysdale (1958) and Bert Blyleven (1973, the year he threw 325 innings with a 2.52 ERA, striking out 258 against 67 walks). However, Hernandez's similarity index is a very low 19, meaning that his is an historically unusual profile, and thus more difficult to project. King Felix's combination of power sinking stuff, which is extremely hard to hit but even harder to hit in the air, makes him an especially rare talent.

One thing to consider in evaluating Hernandez's chance for a breakout is that his BABIP was .338 in 2007; the league average generally hovers around .300. This is not such a surprising figure considering that Seattle was the second-worst defensive team in the AL last year, converting just 67.8 percent of balls in play into outs. Infield defense is obviously crucial to a sinkerballer like Hernandez, and last season Seattle's infield was 18 runs below average between the four positions, per BP's FRAA metric. All four of the 2007 infield starters are back this season--Richie Sexson at first, Jose Lopez at second, Adrian Beltre at third, and Yuniesky Betancourt at short--so Hernandez will have to hope for those players to improve their glovework to have a better shot at putting up a monster season.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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