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April 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games, at MLB.com

Matchup: Royals at Tigers, 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (4.15 RA, 34.9 VORP in 2007) vs. Kenny Rogers (5.14, 5.6)
PECOTA Projection: Kansas City, 73-89 (5th, AL Central); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; Detroit, #5
Prospectus: Mets fans are being haunted by two trades the franchise has made in the last several years. The one we all think of is the 2004 trade deadline deal that sent Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano. The second? The December 2006 swap of Bannister for flame-throwing reliever Ambiorix Burgos. Burgos threw 23 2/3 innings for New York last year before getting hurt, and after Tommy John surgery in August, is likely out for the entirety of 2008. Bannister, meanwhile, despite not having anywhere near the kind of stuff that can make radar guns read triple digits, made 27 starts for the Royals and threw 165 innings with a 3.87 ERA, finishing third in the AL RotY voting. Bannister succeeded despite a 77/44 K/BB ratio, success which was due in large part to a .264 BABIP, the third-lowest mark among the 78 major league pitchers last season who qualified for the ERA crown.

Can Bannister retain his success despite his lack of swing-and-miss stuff, or will his BABIP rise to meet the league average (usually around .300)? By all accounts, Bannister is one of the smartest players in baseball, if not the smartest. His knowledge of the game and its statistics, and his intelligent approach to his craft, can be attested to by an interview with Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila last summer, as well as this article in the Kansas City Star. The statistics say that Bannister's BABIP will come back to Earth--a PECOTA weighted mean projection of .303 for 2008, leading to a 5.15 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. Whether Bannister can beat that projection and continue to out-think and deceive opposing batters is one of the more intriguing possibilities to follow in the new season.

Matchup: Red Sox (2-1) at Athletics (1-2), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (9.00 RA, -1.6 VORP) vs. Rich Harden (1.50, 2.7)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #7; Oakland, #14
Prospectus: You can forgive A's fans for thinking last week's two-game series in Japan was just something they dreamed up, given its early-morning start--after all, was that really the team's notoriously brittle right-handed ace, Rich Harden, taking the mound and throwing six innings of one-run, nine-strikeout ball? Any further dreams Oakland fans might have of a fully healthy year from the Canadian fireballer, however, must be coupled with the sobering reality of last season, when Harden began the year with three excellent starts before going on the shelf, pitching just 5 2/3 innings the rest of the way. In fact, Harden has not seen May action in either of the last two seasons, and in 2005, Harden lasted until May 13 before getting hurt, but was able to come back in late June and dominate as he had before the injury, finishing with a 2.53 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 121 strikeouts in 128 innings.

That season, which has fueled what-if dreams about Harden's potential ever since, is what PECOTA envisions as his absolute best-case scenario for 2008, as Harden's 90th percentile projection has him making 20 starts and throwing 130 1/3 innings. In the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue, Nate Silver advocated that the A's try to take advantage of such a forecast by making Harden a "Sunday Starter"--have him pitch once a week to try to keep him healthy, and perhaps shuttle him to the bullpen for work on his throw day in between starts. Harden is in the final year of a four-year, $9 million deal signed before 2005, with the A's holding a $7 million club option for next season. Picking up that option seems like a long shot at this point, given Harden's injury history, and the Athletics might therefore try to trade him after a run of good health.

Matchup: Nationals (2-0) at Phillies (0-1), 7:05 p.m. ET.
Probable Starters: Tim Redding (3.75 RA, 19.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Cole Hamels (3.53, 48.8)
PECOTA Projections: Washington, 73-89 (4th in the NL East); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #24; Philadelphia, #13
Prospectus: With a number two through five of Lastings Milledge, Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, and Austin Kearns, the Nationals' lineup, which scored the fewest runs in the majors last season, is all of a sudden looking dangerous. Of course, with pop gun units like the Mariners, Padres, and Giants around, Washington will not repeat this season as the lowest-scoring offense. But whether the Nationals can exceed expectations (a PECOTA-projected 765 runs) depends largely on whether Nick Johnson can stay on the field. If Johnson, who missed all of last season, repeats his 2005 showing of 131 games, let alone his 147 game season of 2006, then the Nationals could score enough runs to creep up on people in the NL East. Getting Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Pena back from injuries and into the lineup wouldn't hurt either, nor would having right fielder Austin Kearns' production better resemble that of his second half last season (.285/.390/.461) than his first (.250/.323/.369).

Ace lefty Cole Hamels takes the ball for the Phillies, looking to deliver the team's first win of the season. Hamels is a fly ball pitcher in the league's greatest bandbox, but he succeeds thanks to outstanding strikeout stuff and great control (he had a K/BB ratio above four last season). Hamels' opponent, righthander Tim Redding, was one of the more remarkable comeback stories of 2007. Redding spent all of 2006 in the minors and threw just 30.2 major league innings (giving up 41 runs) in 2005. He joined the desperate Nationals in the second half last season as the owner of a career ERA of 5.90, but pitched unexpectedly well for 84 innings from July-September, giving Washington eight quality starts in 15 tries. With Redding's history and low strikeout rate, PECOTA is of course not optimistic he can repeat such success.

Matchup: Rays at Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (4.77 RA, 11.3 VORP in 2007) vs. Daniel Cabrera (5.86, 2.2)
PECOTA Projection: Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd, AL East); Baltimore, 66-96 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #12; Baltimore, #30
Prospectus: The Rays received a fantastic projection from PECOTA, as the team, fresh from an exorcism of the Devil, has by far the best collection of young talent in all of baseball. That projection is contingent on ace Scott Kazmir making 28 starts, a total the organization and its fans would happily sign up for now that the lefty is starting the season on the DL. In Kazmir's absence, James Shields drew the Opening Day assignment for the Rays, and Matt Garza gets the nod for the second. Garza will be making his first start for Tampa Bay after arriving from Minnesota along with shortstop Jason Bartlett and minor league reliever Eduardo Morlan in an off-season trade for right fielder Delmon Young and infielder Brendan Harris.

Garza and the Rays will be facing a pitcher in Daniel Cabrera, who led all of baseball in walks last season, and has led the AL in walks each of the past two years. Cabrera is probably one of the hurlers who merits being included in the debate over which major leaguer has the best live arm--he has dominant, hard, sinking stuff, and is blessed with that rare ability to generate loads of both strikeouts and groundballs, similar to Felix Hernandez. Unlike Hernandez, however, Cabrera has been unable to throw the ball over the plate with any regularity. Cabrera found respite int a turbulent season in 2007 while pitching against the Rays, however, as he won three of his four starts against Tampa Bay, putting up a 3.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 26 innings. He also shut down the Rays in 2005, and for his career Cabrera has won six of 11 starts against Tampa Bay and allowed its hitters to bat just .203 in 68 innings.

Matchup: Blue Jays (0-1) at Yankees (1-0), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (4.02 RA, 37.5 VORP in 2007) vs. Mike Mussina (5.33, 11)
PECOTA Projection: Toronto, 78-84 (4th, AL East); New York, 97-65 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #21; New York, #1
Prospectus: One of the two pitchers to finish with a lower BABIP than Bannister last season was Burnett, who had a .262 mark, the lowest in the AL (San Diego's Chris Young had a .246 BABIP to lead the majors). Burnett is a far different pitcher than Bannister--he is an extreme ground-ball pitcher, whereas Bannister generates fly-ball outs, and he also strikes out batters at an extremely high rate. PECOTA projects Burnett's BABIP to climb back up close to the league average this season, but does not predict a drop-off in his overall performance. This is mainly because the system believes that the number of home runs Burnett gave up last year--23, which was a career high--was a fluke, and projects his HR/9 ratio to drop from 1.3 last season to 0.8 this year. Burnett broke a fingernail on his pitching hand at the start of spring training, and perhaps not coincidentally suffered through a rough March, as he was unable to properly grip his out pitch, the curve. Burnett has averaged 23 starts in his two seasons with Toronto, but the Jays will likely need him to reprise his 32 start, 209 IP, 3.44 ERA performance from 2005 in order to challenge in the AL East war zone.

Is Burnett opposing a future Hall of Famer? Mussina severely hurt his chances at induction with a disastrous 2007, which followed a strong bounce-back season in 2006. However, three of the four Hall tests listed by Baseball Reference--Gray Ink, HOF Standards, and HOF Monitor, all Bill James creations outlined in his book The Politics of Glory--have Mussina as already above the average Hall of Famer. And BP's own JAWS system? Mussina's score is 91.1, above the 86.6 of the average HOF pitcher, as he makes up for a lower peak score with a much higher career value.

Matchup: White Sox (0-1) at Indians (1-0), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (3.95 RA, 51.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Fausto Carmona (3.27, 64)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 77-85 (3rd, AL Central); Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #20; Cleveland, #3
Prospectus: Indians closer Joe Borowski picked up right where he left off last season in Monday's season opener, a 10-8 Cleveland win. Borowski recorded the save, but gave up a home run in the process. Last year Borowski led the American League with 45 saves, but had a 5.07 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 65 2/3 innings. Borowski gave up at least one run while picking up a save on nine occasions last season, then added a tenth in the playoffs. Previously, the worst ERA by a closer who saved at least as many games as Borowski did last year was the 4.24 put up by Antonio Alfonseca, who also saved 45 in 2000. The most saves by a pitcher with an ERA of 5.00 or greater before last season was 35: Todd Worrell had that many in 1997 with the Dodgers while posting a 5.28 ERA, and Shawn Chacon reached 35 saves for the Rockies in 2004 despite posting a mind-boggling 7.11 ERA. Both Worrell and Chacon blew nine saves in their 35-save years, and graded out as below replacement level, while Borowski blew eight, and was 4.1 runs above replacement level. Glancing at those three seasons emphasizes once more the arbitrariness of the save statistic, and the less-than-stellar correlation between amassing saves and pitching well.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (1-0) at Reds (0-1), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (3.68 RA, 56.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Bronson Arroyo (4.66, 30.7)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #11; Cubs, #16
Prospectus: Dan Haren toes the hill tonight for the first time as a member of the Diamondbacks after being traded from Oakland for a gaggle of prospects. Haren is returning to the senior circuit for the first time since 2004, when he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted and developed the 6'5" righty before dealing him to the Athletics in the ill-fated trade that brought them Mark Mulder. Haren developed into one of the premier workhorses in baseball in Oakland, as he made 34 starts each of the past three seasons and threw at least 217 innings in each. Last year was his best season, but for the second straight campaign he faded in the second half. Haren was named the AL All-Star game starter after throwing 129 1/3 innings with a 2.30 ERA and 1.00 WHIP before the break, but those numbers moved to 4.15 and 1.50 after the midsummer classic, as batters raised their average off Haren from .205 to .298.

Running down flies in center field for Haren will be Chris B. Young, Arizona's 24-year-old star in the making who hit 32 home runs and stole 27 bases in 2007, his first full major league season. Young only walked 43 times in 148 games last year, however, and that combined with a .237 batting average put his OBP below .300. The lack of plate discipline Young has displayed thus far in the majors is curious, considering how sharp his batting eye was in the minor leagues. In 491 bush league games, Young walked 255 times and struck out 232, as compared with 49 walks and 156 strikeouts thus far in 175 major league games. On Opening Day, Young hit a solo home run and struck out in his other three at-bats. Such a line is something Young is familiar with--just three players in history hit 30 or more homers and drove in fewer runs than the 68 Young knocked in last season. Twenty five of Young's 32 jacks last season were of the solo variety.

Matchup: Giants (0-2) at Dodgers (2-0), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Tim Lincecum (4.31 RA, 26.5 VORP in 2007) vs. Chad Billingsley (3.38, 40.7)
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: The best pitcher's duel of the night features the first career matchup between two young right-handers who will likely be battling each other in the NL West for years to come, as Lincecum and the Giants will try to avoid a season-opening sweep at the hands of their arch-nemesis, the Dodgers. Lincecum has the better stuff and the higher ceiling of the two pitchers, but right now Billingsley, who is a year younger at 23, has more success at the major league level under his belt, with a 3.49 ERA in 237 innings between 2006 and 2007. Billingsley is also most likely the better bet to stay healthy and a starter in the long term, as his huge frame (6'1", 245 lbs.) says "workhorse," while Lincecum's (5'11", 170) might precipitate a move to the bullpen down the line. For now, however, Lincecum teams with Matt Cain to form a youthful one-two punch at the top of the rotation that is the envy of every team in baseball. Like Cain, Lincecum will have to get used to the frustration of dealing with little run support. He was introduced to that last season, when he won just seven of his 24 starts despite posting an ERA a good deal better than league average.

The Giants waited until the 16th inning of their 2008 season to score, and although they put two on the board in the seventh last night to take a lead, the Dodgers came back to win, 3-2. Keiichi Yabu, making his first major league appearance since 2005, gave up the winning run in the last of the ninth. The Dodgers also had an unfamiliar name show up in the box score--24-year-old reliever Ramon Troncoso, who made his major league debut and got a double play ground ball against the one batter he faced. Troncoso started last season in A-ball, and skipped Triple-A entirely to make the Dodgers this spring; he's a one-man groundball-inducing factory, with PECOTA projecting him to post a ground-ball percentage of 58.

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

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