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April 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Dodgers (4-4) at Diamondbacks (6-2), 12:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Hiroki Kuroda (4.56 EqERA, 19.6 VORP in 2007, Japan) vs. Micah Owings (4.78 RA, 2.9 SNLVAR)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; Arizona, #11
Prospectus: The Dodgers and Diamondbacks play the finale of their three-game set in the desert, with Arizona looking for the three-game sweep and an early three-game leg up on LA for first place. Tonight's starter for the Dodgers, Hiroki Kuroda, had an excellent debut last week, throwing seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball while striking out four and walking none as he beat San Diego 7-1. Kuroda also broke out his shuuto in that game, and it's a devastating pitch with screwball action that dives down and in to right-handers. Kuroda gets a significantly tougher test than the light-hitting Padres this afternoon in his second start, pitching against one of the NL's better offenses in a strong hitter's park.

Making the challenge that much greater is the fact that Kuroda will not have the benefit of facing an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup. Micah Owings, Arizona's starter this afternoon, is not your typical weak-swinging pitcher batting in the ninth slot. In Owings' rookie campaign last year, he hit .328/.343/.656 in 64 PA, with four homers, seven doubles, and 15 RBI. Owings had one of the most remarkable performances in recent baseball history in an August 18 game against Atlanta, getting four hits in five at-bats, and delivering two home runs, a double, and a single, six RBI, and four runs scored. The last pitcher to rack up more total bases than Owings' 11 in a game was Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves, who hit three home runs on May 13, 1942. Owings also went seven innings on the mound, giving up three runs on three hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts, to earn the win in a 12-6 Arizona victory.

Owings' big season last year is backed up by his career minor league batting statistics: .371/.375/.516 in 66 PA from 2005-2007. Owings also owns a career line of .335/.430/.672 in 472 NCAA at-bats between Georgia Tech and Tulane. Those numbers are even more foreign to Kuroda than you might automatically expect. Kuroda is just about the complete opposite of Owings at the plate: he struck out 164 times in 327 at-bats in the Japanese Central League from 2001-2007, while totaling just 11 walks and 27 hits, including one extra-base hit (a triple), to produce a career batting line of .083/.118/.089. Given that futility, it's surprising that Kuroda was even able to work his way aboard with a walk in his first start. Owings didn't produced one single in four at-bats in his first outing, but he was fantastic on the mound, giving up one run in 6 2/3 innings to beat Colorado 8-1 at Coors Field.

Thanks to Clay Davenport for Japanese statistics.

Matchup: Tigers (0-7) at Red Sox (4-4), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Bonderman (5.42 RA, 2.4 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jon Lester (10 2/3 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 7/6 K/BB in 2008) br /> PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #5; Boston, #7
Prospectus: After yesterday's 5-0 loss to the Red Sox, you've undoubtedly read that no playoff team has ever started the season 0-7. While that statistic is damning, there is an alternate--and perhaps more accurate--way of looking at the Tigers' bad start to the season, one which does not place quite so heavy a historical burden upon the team in its quest for a post-season berth. A seven-game losing streak at the start of the season is no different, from accounting purposes, than one in the middle of June or late August. The only difference is that the consecutive losses stand out more at the beginning of the season rather than later on.

Without controlling for the specific timing of a losing streak, are there past playoff teams that have dropped as many as the Tigers have in a row at some point? There have been many. Over the past two seasons, in fact, five out of the 16 playoff teams have suffered losing streaks of at least seven games. The 2006 Cardinals suffered two separate losing streaks of eight games, and one more of seven, yet they still managed to win 83 games, take the weak NL Central, and go on to win the World Series. Of course, a win total in the mid-80s wouldn't get the Tigers within pouncing distance of the AL Central this season, but consider that last year's 94-win Yankees team lost seven straight in late April, the 93-win 2006 Athletics lost seven straight in late May, and last year's NL champions, the Rockies, dropped eight in a row in late June en route to 90 regular-season wins. Going back further, we find that 23 pre-2006 division title winners also suffered losing streaks of seven or more games, including the 99-win 2005 White Sox.

So there is certainly still hope for the floundering Tigers, and tonight's game would seem to be as likely as any to bring an awakening of the Detroit bats, which have produced just 15 runs in the first seven games. That's because the Tigers are built to destroy left-handed pitching, and they'll be going up against Boston southpaw Jon Lester at Fenway. Detroit's probable lineup will consist of eight right-handed batters and one switch-hitter: Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen (switch), Ivan Rodriguez, Marcus Thames, and Brandon Inge; every one of those players besides Guillen has a significantly higher OPS for his career against lefties than against righties. Last season the Tigers ranked second in the American League with an 828 OPS versus left-handers, and the team added two All-Star righty hitters in Miguel Cabrera (997 career OPS versus left-handers, 908 versus right) and Edgar Renteria (849 vs. 727).

Thanks to William Burke for data.

Matchup: Yankees (4-4) at Royals (5-2), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ian Kennedy (2.84 RA, 0.7 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Zack Greinke (3.84, 2.2)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st AL East); Kansas City, 73-89 (5th AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; New York, #1
Prospectus: The surprising Royals look to take their second straight game against the Yankees after winning yesterday's home opener at Kauffman Stadium 5-2. Tonight's game features a matchup between two promising young right-handers, the 24-year-old Kennedy and the 25-year-old Greinke, a pair of fly-ball pitchers. Kennedy wasn't sharp his first time out this season, as he gave up six runs on four hits and four walks in 2 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay, which was just the fourth start of his major league career. Greinke pitched very well in his inaugural 2008 outing, beating the Tigers with a seven-inning, six-hit, one-run performance. The Yankees have not been kind to Greinke in the past, however, pasting him for 21 runs on 28 hits and 12 walks in 23 innings across four starts and three relief appearances.

The Royals pitching staff has been superb so far on the young season, and yesterday's win continued that trend. Brian Bannister got into trouble early, but he struck out Alex Rodriguez looking three straight times, and turned over a 5-2 lead to the bullpen. (Rodriguez struck out four times on the day, just the fourth time in his career that he has done so.) With four shutout innings to preserve that 5-2 lead and get Bannister his second win, Kansas City's relief corps has now tossed 21 innings on the season and allowed just two runs on 10 hits, with a 27/4 K/BB ratio. Besides the team's closer, Joakim Soria, the relief pitcher who has stepped to the fore thus far this season is Leo Nunez, who has become Soria's primary set-up man. Nunez came up from the minors at midseason in 2007 and made six starts before the team moved him to the bullpen in September, after which he struck out 12 and walked none in 10 1/3 innings. After a perfect, two-strikeout inning yesterday in the eighth, When evaluating Nunez's PECOTA forecast, which pegs him for a 1.42 WHIP and 4.99 ERA, keep in mind that PECOTA evaluated Nunez in his 2007 role of swingman; if Nunez sticks at the back end of the bullpen, as it looks like he will, he could very well push his 90th percentile projection for WHIP (1.20) and ERA (3.42), due to the significant improvement in performance that pitchers historically experience upon moving from the rotation into the bullpen full-time.

Matchup: Twins (3-5) at White Sox (5-2), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Scott Baker (4.39 RA, 3.1 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. John Danks (5.96, 0.7)
PECOTA Projection: Minnesota, 74-88 (4th, AL Central); Chicago, 77-85 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #25; Chicago, #20
Prospectus: Chicago's chances of making a run at the AL Central title got a little bit better on Monday when Ozzie Guillen announced that he would keep Nick Swisher in the leadoff spot "for the forseeable future." Swisher is not a leadoff hitter in the classical mold, of course, but he is an excellent choice for the White Sox. Swisher is one of the best in the majors at working a walk; he walked 100 times last year and 97 the year before, and is projected by PECOTA for 88 more this season, the 12th most in the majors, in 633 plate appearances. Swisher has taken a real liking to hitting first in the order thus far, with a .469 OBP in his first 32 PA, having already walked nine times.

Thanks to Swisher and Paul Konerko, who has drawn seven free passes, Chicago leads the AL in walks per game, with 5.1, while Minnesota is last in the AL in that category, at two per game thus far, in no small part due to the additions of free-swingers such as Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young to the lineup. It might be time to start the annual DiSar Award watch for Young, who dating back to last year has now gone 97 AB since his last walk. The best-case scenario for Young is that he turns into a similar hitter to Vladimir Guerrero, although Young has a ways to go before justifying such a comparison--Vlad hit .302/.350/.483 in his age-21 season, then slugged 38 home runs the next year, while Young hit .288/.316/.408 for Tampa Bay as a 21-year-old last year.

Matchup: Braves (3-5) at Rockies (3-5), 6:35 MDT
Probable Starters: Chuck James (4.30 RA, 4.3 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Mark Redman (8.06, -0.2)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 86-76 (tied for 2nd, NL East); Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #10; Colorado, #15
Prospectus: Chuck James is not a good match for Coors Field. James, who comes off the DL tonight from a partially torn rotator cuff to make his first start of 2008, is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. He ranked second among all those who threw 160 or more innings last season in lowest ground ball percentage, at 32.8, behind Chris Young's 30.3. This season, PECOTA projected him to have a 35 percent ground-ball rate, the fifth lowest of all pitchers who appeared in the majors last year, behind Al Reyes, Mark McLemore, Rafael Betancourt, and Young. It's not surprising, therefore, that James' biggest problem is the home run ball--he gave up 32 in 161 1/3 innings last season, 1.8 per--and that he has struggled in his career at Coors Field, with 10 runs and three homers allowed in 10 1/3 innings over two starts.

Tonight's game could well be a classic Coors slugfest, because James will try to dance through the raindrops in pitching against his former teammate and the current Rockies fifth starter, Mark Redman, whose stint with the Braves in 2007 was brief and disastrous. Redman allowed 29 runs in 21 2/3 innings before being cut by Atlanta after a stay on the DL. An All-Star for Kansas City in 2006, Redman wandered through the Rangers and Blue Jays' organizations following his release by Atlanta before winding up with Colorado. Redman allowed just eight runs in 19 2/3 innings during the month to contribute to the team's remarkable season-ending stretch of 14 wins in 15 games. That performance earned him a one-year deal for 2008 with the defending NL champs and a spot in the rotation, although PECOTA foresees that he'll make about half his appearances out of the bullpen this season.

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

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