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April 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (3-3) at Blue Jays (3-2), 1:07 ET
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (3.41 RA, 6.2 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Roy Halladay (4.03, 6.7)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East); Toronto, 78-84 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #7; Toronto, #21
Prospectus: After starting the year on the DL with back spasms, Beckett comes off of it to make his first start this afternoon against the Blue Jays' ace, Roy Halladay. Beckett is coming off of the best season of his career, when he won 20 of his 30 regular season starts, struck out 194 in 200 2/3 innings, and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to C.C. Sabathia. He will also be making his first appearance since one of the most dominant post-season pitching performances in history--Beckett allowed just four runs in 30 playoff innings last season, with a amazing 35/2 K/BB ratio, to bring Boston its second title in four years. Perhaps the key ingredient to Beckett's breakthrough season was improving his home run rate, which he essentially halved from the year before. Beckett gave up 36 home runs in 204 2/3 innings for Boston in 2006, or 1.6 bombs per nine, which contributed to the worst ERA of his career (5.01). Last season, though, he improved on that by allowing only 17 homers during the regular season, or 0.8 per nine, that despite pitching in what played as the best hitters' park in the AL. Beckett also posted by far his best walk rate, only 1.8/9, which was a walk per nine innings lower than his previous best (2.8/9 in 2005).

Beckett and Halladay faced each other last September 3. Each pitcher went eight innings, walked two, and struck out seven, but Halladay gave up a pair of home runs and took the loss in a 5-3 Red Sox victory. Halladay was hit very hard by Boston last year, as he gave up 23 runs in 33 1/3 innings over five starts. Doc was also roughed up by the Sox in 2006, and over the past two seasons has a 5.86 RA and 1.42 WHIP in 58 1/3 innings pitched against Boston, with eight home runs allowed (1.2 HR/9). Against the rest of the major leagues in that span, Halladay has put up a 3.37 RA, 1.13 WHIP, and allowed 26 home runs (0.6 HR/9).

Matchup: Phillies (2-3) at Reds (3-2), 1:15 ET
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (4.33 RA, 1.6 WXRL in 2007) vs. Edinson Volquez (4.76, 0.5 SNLVAR)
PECOTA Projection: Philadelphia, 85-76 (tied for 2nd NL East); Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; Cincinnati, #16
Prospectus: Right-hander Edinson Volquez makes his debut for the Reds this afternoon, after being acquired by Cincinnati in an off-season trade for outfielder Josh Hamilton. Volquez, 24 years old, will be looking to keep pace with the other youthful member of Cincinnati's rotation, rookie right-hander Johnny Cueto, who had an electrifying one-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout debut in seven innings on Thursday. In his ranking of the Reds' top 25-and-under talent, BP's Kevin Goldstein placed Volquez fourth, one spot ahead of Cueto. PECOTA likes Volquez to build on his improvement from last season, pegging him with a 35 percent chance of a breakout and 66 percent improve rate, although his forecast is extremely volatile (wit a Beta value of 1.26). Volquez's biggest issue is walking too many batters, and he failed badly in two major league trials before last season, giving up 50 runs in 46 innings between 2005-2006. After being sent down to High-A Bakersfield at the beginning of last year to get his stuff under control (he had walked 72 in 121 Triple-A innings in '06), Volquez worked his way back up the ladder, and dominated the Pacific Coast League in his second stint with Triple-A Oklahoma (allowing only eight runs on 25 hits in 51 innings, with a 66/21 K/BB). That earned him a third trip up to "The Show," and this time he held his own, with a 4.50 ERA and 29/15 K/BB in 34 innings.

While it is nearly impossible to divine anything meaningful from performance in spring training, the March statistics that might have any significance at all are those of young players hoping to break in with the big club. The Reds therefore certainly had to be encouraged by how Volquez pitched this spring, as he put up a 2.74 ERA, struck out 26, and, most impressively, walked just four in 20 spring innings. That strong showing surely built up the confidence of the young pitcher, which is perhaps especially important for Volquez, who some felt simply did not have the mentality to succeed at the big league level after his early struggles in Arlington.

Matchup: Mets (2-2) at Braves (2-3), 1:35 ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (3.62 RA, 5.4 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. John Smoltz (3.41, 6.0)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Atlanta, 86-76 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Atlanta, #10
Prospectus: Smoltz comes off the DL to throw in his first game of the year against Santana in what looks to be the most notable pitching matchup of the young season. Tom Glavine was originally scheduled to pitch this game for the Braves against the team that employed him last season, but Atlanta did not want Smoltz to pitch in the thin air and potentially cold weather of Colorado, where the Braves travel tomorrow. Smoltz will turn 41 on May 15, an age at which just 27 pitchers have thrown 150 or more innings in a season. Smoltz has been bothered by a sore shoulder the last several years, yet he has still managed to throw 200 innings in each of the three seasons he has spent as a starter since moving back into the rotation in 2005. PECOTA expects him to continue that trend for at least another season, with a weighted mean forecast of 30 starts and 202 innings. Smoltz's top two comparable seasons for 2008 are Gaylord Perry's 1979, when Perry threw 232 2/3 innings for the Padres as a 40-year-old, and Roger Clemens's 2003, when the Rocket threw 211 2/3 innings for the Yankees, also at the age of 40. However, PECOTA also gives Smoltz a 23 percent chance of seeing his 2008 innings dip under the 100 mark due to injury.

Santana won his Mets debut on Opening Day against the Marlins by giving up two runs in seven innings with an 8/2 K/BB ratio, and will receive his initiation into the Mets/Braves rivalry at Turner Field today. Santana faced the Braves twice during interleague play while with the Twins, including once last season, when he allowed two runs in seven innings and struck out nine in a no-decision.

Matchup: Mariners (2-2) at Orioles (2-1), 1:35 ET
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (4.16 RA, 4.3 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (4.00, 4.8)
PECOTA Projection: Seattle, 75-87 (3rd, AL West); Baltimore, 66-96 (5th, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #17; Baltimore, #30
Prospectus: The Orioles try to complete a three-game sweep of the Mariners this afternoon at Camden Yards with their ace, Jeremy Guthrie, on the mound. The right-handed Guthrie turns 30 years old on Tuesday, and was the O's second-best starter last season behind lefty Erik Bedard, who incidentally was supposed to start this game for Seattle against his former teammates before being scratched with hip inflammation. Drafted back in 2002 out of Stanford by the Indians, Guthrie was claimed off of waivers by the Orioles in January of last year. Baltimore initially put him in the pen, where he had made 15 of his 16 major league appearances entering 2007, and Guthrie gave up nine runs in 10 1/3 relief innings in April. You wouldn't think that performance portended great things upon a promotion to a more difficult role, but Guthrie, who started in 97 of his 101 minor league games pitched, proved to be much more comfortable as a starter. Upon moving to the rotation in May, each of Guthrie's first 10 turns resulted in quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three runs or fewer allowed). Guthrie finished the season with 18 quality starts in 26 tries (with one lost after the sixth), and a 3.76 RA in 165 innings as a starter, a performance that was well out of line with his upper-level minor league numbers.

Guthrie will be trying for his first quality start of the season today, as he was touched up for six runs by the Rays on Opening Day. Baltimore has won each of its three games since then, however, and is currently tied for first place in the AL East along with Tampa Bay--it's that time of year, when such things are possible. The Orioles and Rays have finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the AL East standings in each of the last three seasons, and every season from 1998 (Tampa Bay's first year of existence) until 2003. The lone exception was 2004, when the O's finished third and the Rays fourth.

Matchup: White Sox (3-2) at Tigers (0-5), 8:05 ET
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (3.85 RA, 5.1 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Justin Verlander (3.93, 5.6)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 77-85 (3rd, AL Central); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #20; Detroit, #5
Prospectus: The BP staff expects big things out of Verlander this season, as the 25-year-old right-hander was picked to be the 2008 AL Cy Young winner in BP's staff poll, and the Baseball Prospectus 2008 annual set the over-under on future Verlander Cy Young awards at 2.5. It's not hard to see the reason for such optimism--last season, Verlander improved in all major peripheral categories over his strong 2006 rookie campaign. He lowered his hit rate (from 9.0/9 to 8.1) and home run rate (from 1.0/9 to 0.9), and bumped his strikeout rate significantly (from 6.0/9 to 8.2). He also threw a no-hitter last June 12 against Milwaukee, and has a fastball that can reach up to 100 mph. The thing that has kept Verlander from being an elite hurler thus far has been his command, as he's walked almost three batters per nine in each of the last two seasons. Like many young pitchers, Verlander also has had an issue with wearing down in the season's stretch drive--in both 2006 and 2007, his ERA jumped more than a full run in the second half.

The Tigers will look tonight to Verlander, their ace, to get the team its first win of the season and pick up an offense that has batted just .247/.322/.383 in the first five games. Detroit is certainly used to bad starts--both the 2002 and 2003 Tigers teams began the season 0-9--but this year's squad, unlike those two, entered the season with expectations of a division crown. Luckily for Detroit, its main competition in the division, Cleveland, has also come out of the gate slowly, with just two wins in its first five games.

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

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