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April 4, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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

Matchup: Giants (1-2) at Brewers (2-1), 1:05 CT
Probable Starters: Jonathan Sanchez (5.88 RA, -0.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Carlos Villanueva (4.09, 23.1)
PECOTA Projection: Giants, 68-94 (5th, NL West); Brewers, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #27; Milwaukee, #8
Prospectus: Right-hander Carlos Villanueva ranked third on the Brewers in pitching VORP last season, behind only Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo, and ahead of four Milwaukee starters--Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, and Chris Capuano--who all threw significantly more innings than he did. Villanueva spent most of the season in the bullpen, where he had an underwhelming 4.76 ERA on the season, but once moved into the rotation in September he pitched very well, finishing the year with just eight runs allowed in 35 innings as a starter (2.06 ERA). Now Villanueva will get the chance to show whether his increased success as a starter is for real, or merely a fluke of sample size. An extreme fly-ball pitcher, one of Villanueva's major issues is the home run ball (he gave up 16 of them in 114 1/3 innings last season), as well as his control, which escaped him last season (3.9 BB/9). Because of his ability to generate fly-outs, however, Villanueva has significantly suppressed BABIP throughout his career, in a similar manner to young Yankees starter Ian Kennedy (see below). In 2006, Villaneuva had a BABIP of .230 in 53 2/3 major league innings, and last year it was .272 (~.300 is league average).

The Giants will throw a pitcher with a very similar profile to Villanueva's in left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. A year older than Villanueva at 25, Sanchez is also a fly-ball pitcher who has struggled with his command, and he also spent the last two seasons going between the rotation and bullpen, making eight starts and 52 relief appearances from 2006-07. Unlike Villanueva, however, Sanchez has struggled badly in his starts (7.27 ERA in 34 2/3 innings), and has not been able to keep opponent BABIP down (.372 last year). The sure regression of that figure, along with electric stuff that has led to 95 strikeouts in 92 career big league innings, has PECOTA predicting a significant improvement for Sanchez in 2008, from his career 5.48 ERA and 1.60 WHIP down to 3.98 and 1.38.

Matchup: Rays (1-1) at Yankees (1-1), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (6.48 RA, -8.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Ian Kennedy (2.84, 6.7)
PECOTA Projection: Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd, AL East); New York, 97-65 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #12; New York, #1
Prospectus: The Rays, armed with a new name and a new hope, and for the first time facing the pressure of expectations, begin their 2008 season series with the Yankees, the team that Tampa Bay hopes to supplant at the top of the AL East standings with its new wave of top talent. The Yankees have some fresh young talent of their own, however, some of which will be on display tonight in the person of rookie hurler Ian Kennedy, who is generally considered the third member of the Bronx Troika, behind Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Kennedy was drafted in 2006 out of USC, and made it all the way to the majors in his first full professional season last year, making three starts in September. He allowed just four earned runs in 19 innings after posting an ERA of 2.59 or under at all three of his minor league stops.

Kennedy is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, posting ground-ball percentages of 36, 42, 44, and 26 in his four stops last season. PECOTA projects him for a ground-ball percentage of 39 this year, which is the 953rd-lowest rate out of the 1017 pitchers with PECOTA projections for 2008. Because he generates so many fly balls, like Villanueva Kennedy has the ability to suppress BABIP (a ball hit in the air that doesn't clear the fence is less likely to fall in than one hit on the ground). At his four stops last season, Kennedy allowed opposing batters to hit just .266, .234, .267, and .231 on balls in play, and PECOTA pegs him for a .283 BABIP in his first full major league season this year. The corollary of a lower BABIP for pitchers with an elevated fly-ball rate, of course, is an inflated home run total, which is the reason why ground-ball pitchers are for the most part in higher demand than their aerial counterparts. Kennedy, however, does not have that characteristic weakness shared by most of his type of pitcher. He allowed just seven home runs in his 165 1/3 total innings last season, including only one in 19 big league frames. If Kennedy represents nearly the perfect mix of attributes, then--a fly-ball pitcher capable of limiting home runs, with an extremely low BABIP and good enough stuff to strike batters out--why does PECOTA project a significant dropoff, to a 4.24 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, in 2008? The answer is Kennedy's command, which was shaky last year, and which could lead to the home runs he does give up being of the damaging multi-run variety.

Matchup: Mets (2-1) at Braves (1-2), 7:35 ET
Probable Starters: John Maine (4.24 RA, 33.3 VORP in 2007) vs. Tim Hudson (3.49, 59.7)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Atlanta, 86-76 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Atlanta, #10
Prospectus: In its early history, Turner Field was a house of horrors for the Mets. From 1998, a year after Atlanta's new park opened, to 2000, the Braves won 17 of 18 games against the Mets at home. The most hurtful of those losses for the Mets came at the end of 1998, when New York entered the final series of the season at Turner Field tied for the wild-card lead with the Cubs, and were then promptly swept away from a playoff berth by an Atlanta team that finished with 106 wins. Gone is the Braves dynasty that won 101 games or more five times between 1997 and 2003, however, and recently the Turner Field aura has been punctured by the Mets' bats. In 2006, New York gained its first-ever sweep of the Braves in Turner field, taking a midsummer three-game series that was highlighted by an 11-3 drubbing in which Carlos Beltran thumped two home runs and drove in five. The Mets won six of nine games in Atlanta in 2006, the first year they had a winning record at Turner Field, and then turned the trick again last season by taking five of nine. New York swept Atlanta in Turner for a second time late last summer, a three-game series which began on August 31 with John Maine beating Tim Hudson 8-1.

Maine and Hudson were the respective 2007 pitching VORP leaders of the Mets and Braves, and thus it is fitting that they usher in this now-classic NL East rivalry this season. While Hudson is certainly a prime candidate to lead Atlanta in VORP again in 2008, if Maine tops this year's Mets' list for a second straight season it will likely be bad news for New York, as it would probably signal that something had gone wrong with Johan Santana. Maine is still the second-most valuable commodity on the Mets staff behind Santana, however, which is quite remarkable considering that he was discarded as a trade throw-in by the pitching-thin Orioles two years ago. Any time Mets fans get too down watching Brian Bannister befuddle AL Central batters or Scott Kazmir blow away the AL East, they should remember the January 22, 2006 trade that sent Kris Benson to Baltimore for Maine and Jorge Julio. Maine gave up 34 runs in 43 2/3 innings with the O's before the deal, but has turned into an outstanding, young, inexpensive starter for New York. Benson, meanwhile, pitched one below-average season with Baltimore before going under the knife and missing all of last year.

Matchup: Indians (2-1) at Athletics (1-3), 7:05 PT
Probable Starters: Paul Byrd (5.01 RA, 18.9 VORP in 2007) vs. Justin Duchscherer (4.96, 1.8)
PECOTA Projection: Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #3; Oakland, #14
Prospectus: Like Ryan Dempster yesterday, Justin Duchscherer will make his first start tonight after spending the last four seasons in the bullpen. Duchscherer was a starter for almost his entire lengthy career in the minor leagues, with 155 starts against 18 relief appearances, and a cumulative ERA of 3.51 in 952 innings. He toiled for five years in the Red Sox system before being traded to Texas in 2001 for Doug Mirabelli and finally receiving a brief taste of the majors with the Rangers that season. Duchscherer was then dealt again to the A's in March of 2002, and didn't get back to the majors until September of 2003. The A's decided to convert him into a long reliever, and Duchscherer was outstanding in the role, posting a 3.27 ERA while averaging 1.8 innings per appearance in 53 games. In 2005 he was even better, with an 85/19 K/BB ratio and 2.21 ERA in 85 2/3 innings, which earned him a berth on the All-Star team. The last two seasons, however, Duchscherer has struggled with elbow and most recently hip problems, the latter of which causing him to miss most of 2007. The A's and Duchscherer feel that pitching less frequently but for longer stretches will be easier on the right-hander's hip following off-season surgery.

Matchup: Dodgers (2-1) at Padres (3-1), 7:05 PT
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (4.56 EqERA, 19.6 VORP in 2007, Japan) vs. Justin Germano (4.86 RA, 13.1)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); San Diego, 78-84 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; San Diego, #18
Prospectus: Does it ever seem as if Japanese pitchers who come over to the States usually have their best season in their first year? There have been 11 Japanese pitchers who have thrown at least 98 career innings over two or more seasons, and of those, five have had their best season by ERA+ in their first full year, while another (Kazuhiro Sasaki) won the AL RotY award. The most famous example of initial success is of course Hideo Nomo, who had a 2.54 ERA and struck out 236 batters in 191 1/3 innings with the Dodgers in 1995, but former starters Masato Yoshii and Tomo Ohka, as well as relievers Shingo Takatsu and Akinori Otsuka, also were most effective in their first year pitching at the major league level. The reason for that early success most likely has to do with a lack of comprehensive scouting reports for the foreign-born hurlers, as pitchers generally have the upper hand given an overall lack of familiarity with them among opposing hitters. There is also the fact that most Japanese pitchers come over in the middle or end of their careers, and thus their performance is often already on a natural downward plane.

That could be good news for the chances this season of Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, who makes his major league debut tonight for Los Angeles after pitching the last several years with the Hiroshima Carp. Kuroda is already 33, so his career in the majors is not likely to be a long one, but he could provide the Dodgers with a valuable above-average starter for the next couple of years. Kuroda's best asset is his fine control (with a translated equivalent BB/9 marks of 2.2, 1.4, and 2.5 the last three seasons) and ability to hold down BABIP (.257, .280, and .285). Kuroda certainly has things set up to make a strong first impression, as he starts tonight in Petco Park, perhaps the best pitchers' park in the majors, against a Padres lineup projected by PECOTA to score the second-fewest runs in the National League.

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

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