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April 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (3-4) at Mets (2-3), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (5.33 RA, 3.2 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Oliver Perez (4.58, 4.0)
PECOTA Projection: Philadelphia, 85-76 (tied for 2nd, NL East); New York, 93-69 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; New York, #2
Prospectus: The Mets play their final Shea Stadium home opener this afternoon against Philadelphia, the team that took advantage of New York's epic collapse to chase down the frontrunners during the stretch drive last year and win the NL East by one game on the final day of the season. The beginning of the end for the Mets came at Shea in a series against these same Phillies that started on September 14. New York had just taken two of three from the Braves at Shea from September 10-12, and entered the series seven and a half games up in the NL East. The Mets led the Philadelphia 2-0 in the sixth of the opening game before a Chase Utley homer tied it; New York had first and third with one out in the bottom of the eighth but couldn't score, and the Phillies pushed a run across in the 10th to win 3-2. The next day the Mets led again, 3-1 after six, but the Phillies came back once more, scoring a run in the seventh and three more in the eighth, with soon-to-be MVP Jimmy Rollins providing the killer blow with a go-ahead runs on a two-run triple. A Greg Dobbs grand slam the next day gave Philadelphia a 10-6 win and the series sweep, pulling them within 3 1/2 games of first place.

The Mets recovered to win four of their next seven on the road, but then returned to Shea, and the rest was infamous: losing six of seven in Flushing to end the season against NL doormats Washington, St. Louis, and Florida, which gave Rollins the opportunity to back up his pre-season prediction and endear himself to the BBWAA voters.

Thanks to that dreadful September at home, the Mets were actually worse at Shea than on the road last season--the only team in the major leagues that won fewer games at home than away. They wound up being significantly worse at Shea, with a .506 winning percentage at home (41-40) versus .580 on the road (47-34). In 2006, the Mets were just three games better at home (50-31) than on the road (47-34). With 2008 being the last year for Shea Stadium, it appears therefore that the Mets players will not miss their old haunt when they move at the start of next season into Citi Field, currently being built in the parking lot next door to Shea.

Matchup: Tigers (0-6) at Red Sox (3-4), 2:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kenny Rogers (5.14 RA, 0.8 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (11 2/3 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 15/5 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #5; Boston, #7
Prospectus: The Red Sox will raise the world championship flag this afternoon at Fenway for the second time in four seasons. For the Tigers, seeing Boston's players receive their championship rings might emphasize even further the predicament that their team is in. Six losses in six games can be easily overcome, but Detroit has dug itself an early 4 1/2 game hole in the AL Central, and Fenway Park is not the easiest of places in which to turn things around, and just two teams have ever made the playoffs after beginning the year 0-6. Those teams were the 1995 Reds, who were swept in the NLCS by the Braves, and the 1974 Pirates, who lost in the NLCS to the Dodgers. Detroit is eminently capable of joining that list once its formidable offense wakes up; the Tigers have scored just 15 runs through their first six games, with a collective batting line of .245/.316/.358.

Boston's offense has actually not been much better than Detroit's so far, with an overall line of .248/.308/.409. Outfielder J.D. Drew was a substantial disappointment last season in the first year of his five-year, $70 million contract, but he's one of the few Red Sox who has hit out of the gate, with two home runs and a team-leading 1188 OPS after 16 PA. Lest one get overly excited about what that might portend for a Drew bounce-back campaign, remember that last season the right fielder had a 1053 OPS through 35 PA, and went on to post the worst slugging percentage (.423) of his career. PECOTA sees that drop in power as permanent, projecting a .422 slugging percentage and 11 home runs, Drew's exact total from last season, and not putting him above a .423 SLG for the rest of his career. The BP projection system also spit out a BETA value of 0.79 for Drew, the 58th lowest among the 992 hitters in the system--that means that Drew's underwhelming projection is significantly less volatile than others, and that there is consequently a lower chance that he will deviate from it, which would obviously be bad news for Boston's offense.

Matchup: Yankees (4-3) at Royals (4-2), 4:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Philip Hughes (4.83 RA, 1.5 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Brian Bannister (4.15, 4.6)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st, AL East); Kansas City, 73-89 (5th, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; New York, #1
Prospectus: The Royals are off to a strong start, thanks in large part to the lights-out relief work of their closer, Joakim Soria--in four innings thus far, he's allowed two hits and no walks while striking out seven. Soria was a Rule 5 pick out of the Padres organization by the Royals before last season; the typical Rule 5 pitcher becomes the seventh man at the back of the bullpen before heading to the DL with a phantom injury, but Soria was the Kansas City's bullpen anchor last season, throwing 69 innings while allowing a 2.61 RA, 0.94 WHIP, and 3.9 K/BB ratio, and finishing seventh in the majors in ARP and seventh in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. BP's Nate Silver picked Soria as the reliver most likely to outstrip his PECOTA projection this season thanks to the unusual circumstances of his arrival in the majors and subsequent dominance upon arriving, despite almost no professional experience in the US. Soria was signed by the Dodgers in 2001 out of Monclova, Mexico, but pitched just four minor league innings for the team before he headed to the Mexican Leagues for the next several years. The Padres signed him before the 2006 season, but he threw just 12 innings in A0ball before the Royals nabbed him. Clay Davenport ran the translation on Soria's performance with the Mexico City Diablos after the Rule 5 draft, and came away with a strong liking for what the right-hander could provide in the major leagues. Mexico City is an extreme offensive environment--in Davenport's words, "as far above Denver as Denver is above Albuquerque"--so his performance there, posting a 4.48 ERA in 2005 and 3.89 in 2006, was far more impressive than it might appear to be at first glance. Soria is a fly-ball pitcher who held batters to a BABIP of .256 last season, and, as mentioned in Baseball Prospectus 2008, he has an outstanding cutter that allows him to shut down left-handed batters, similar to Mariano Rivera. PECOTA also projects Soria for an eqSO9 rate of 9.1, which is the 13th best among the 1018 pitchers the system assessed for this season.

Matchup: Athletics (3-4) at Blue Jays (4-2), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chad Gaudin (4.88 RA, 3.8 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. A.J. Burnett (4.02, 4.3)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West); Toronto, 78-84 (4th, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #14; Toronto, #21
Prospectus: Rich Harden was originally scheduled to start this game for Oakland against A.J. Burnett, but he was scratched with back soreness, which is not a surprise given his already-extensive injury history. Harden had gotten off to a strong start, having given up just one run on the season in 11 innings against the defending world champions, with 15 strikeouts, while Burnett allowed just two runs in six innings at Yankee Stadium in his debut to beat New York. Harden and Burnett are in certain respects very similar pitchers, in that both are right-handers who have injury histories and outstanding, strikeout-inducing stuff. They even both have a Canadian connection, with Harden a native of British Columbia and Burnett a pitcher on baseball's only team north of the border. As evidenced by today's scratch, Harden is far and away the more fragile of the two starters--he has made just 32 starts over the past three seasons, while Burnett has made 78 in that span. In Harden's place, Chad Gaudin will come off of the disabled list to pitch for the A's. Gaudin started fantastically last season, and held a 3.21 RA at the All-Star break, but sputtered in 16 second-half starts, giving up 69 runs in 90 innings.

Gaudin will look to keep alive a strong opening stretch by A's pitching this season. The Oakland staff has an RA of 2.81 through the first seven games, second in the American League to Kansas City's 2.67, but the team's batters have put up just a .218/.305/.329 line, the lowest batting average and slugging percentage in the American League. Toronto's pitching has also propped up the Blue Jays in the early going, with a 2.94 RA and an AL-leading 1.08 WHIP. Toronto relievers have been particularly effective, with one run allowed and 13 walks plus hits in 13 innings.

One of the few Jays hitters that has gotten off to a fast start is center fielder Vernon Wells, who has two home runs and a 4/3 BB/K ratio. Last year, the first after he signed a $126 million extension for the seven years from 2008-2014, Wells suffered through his worst season in the majors, posting a .245/.304/.402 line, and hitting just 16 home runs. Wells was almost certainly affected by a torn labrum in his shoulder, which he underwent surgery to repair at the end of September in order to be fully ready to go this year. If Wells' shoulder is indeed sound, he would be a good candidate to better his PECOTA projection (.271/.334/.455 with 21 homers) and help Toronto improve on last season's run total of 753, which ranked 10th in the AL.

Matchup: Reds (4-3) at Brewers (5-1), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Johnny Cueto (3.27 RA, 6.8 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jeff Suppan (4.93, 3.0)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd NL Central); Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #16; Milwaukee, #8
Prospectus: Right-hander Johnny Cueto makes the second start of his major league career today after his spectacular debut last week against the Diamondbacks. He will be facing a Milwaukee offense that leads the National League in runs scored, generating 6.7 per game, an output which has propelled the Brewers to a 5-1 start and first place in the NL Central. However, Milwaukee is a much better hitting team against left-handed pitching than righties--last season the Brewers led the majors in OPS against left-handers by clobbering them at a .288/.360/.499 clip as a team, versus .252/.316/.439 against right-handers. The Brewers offense has displayed an even more dramatic lefty/righty split in the early going this season. Much of that has to do with Milwaukee's left fielder Ryan Braun and right fielder Corey Hart, who are both much better against left-handers.

Milwaukee's offense is humming thanks in part to an unlikely contribution in the early going from outfielder Gabe Kapler. The 33-year-old Kapler was out of baseball entirely last season and managing in the minor leagues, and therefore did not even receive a PECOTA projection for the 2008 season, but then he signed a one-year deal with Milwaukee last December, deciding to give it one last try. Playing center field in the early going in place of Mike Cameron (who's sitting out the first 25 games of the year after getting suspended for a positive test for a stimulant), Kapler has knocked two home runs and driven in six thus far. Kapler isn't the only 32-year-old who is attempting to stick with the Brewers; backup infielder Joe Dillon made the team this season after getting 82 PA with Milwaukee last year, which was just his second year in the majors, and first since 2005 with Florida. Dillon owns a career line of .296/.380/.524 in the minor leagues, with 151 home runs in nine seasons. After getting cut by the Marlins after 2005, Dillon traveled to Japan before returning to the bush leagues last season to destroy Pacific Coast League pitching.

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

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