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April 12, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (6-4) at Mets (5-4), 1:10 ET
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (15.1 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 15/2 K/BB) vs. Johan Santana (14 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 11/2 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd NL Central); New York, 93-69(1st)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #4; New York, #9
Prospectus: Saturday afternoon at Shea features a fantastic early-season pitcher's duel, with Ben Sheets going up against Johan Santana in the latter's first home start since joining the Mets. Sheets is off to the best start of his career, although before getting too excited about his seasonal prospects, keep in mind the 2006 campaign, when he struck out 25 batters in 18 innings over his first three starts, then got hurt in his fourth and missed nearly three months. The risk of injury is always there with Sheets, but while he is on, he is among the most dominating pitchers in the game, with a blistering fastball and arguably the NL's top hammer. Santana is of course at the head of the class with his changeup and slider, and has delivered on his record-setting contract in his first two starts with the Mets. For his career, the left-hander's worst month by ERA has been April, but he has been perhaps the game's best pitcher in the second half, with a 2.79 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in over 600 career innings. Sheets has struggled against the Mets in six career starts, with a 5.45 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. Santana has faced the Brewers nine times in interleague play, including making five starts against them, and has a 3.32 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 58/9 K/UBB ratio in 40.2 innings versus Milwaukee.

The Mets won the opener of the series yesterday 4-2, as journeyman right-hander Nelson Figueroa held the Brewers to two hits in six innings, and the bullpen was perfect over the final three. Third baseman Ryan Braun took an 0-for-4 collar, and has now failed to draw a walk in 44 plate appearances this season. Plate discipline was the one thing missing from Braun's sublime rookie campaign last year, as he worked just 29 walks in 492 PA. Sixteen of those walks came in the 128 PA he had against lefties, meaning that in regards to plate discipline, as with every other category, Braun is significantly more effective against left-handers. That trend has continued this season--if you take away Braun's 11 PA against lefties, he is hitting .212/.212/.424 in 33 PA. It should be highly entertaining to watch Braun and another young lefty-masher for the Brewers, right fielder Corey Hart, get their crack at hitting against the game's best left-hander this afternoon. Braun is an outstanding young hitter, and a potential MVP candidate this season, but until he learns some more patience, especially against righties, and keeps himself from swinging at those sliders down and off the plate, he won't be able to fully reach his considerable offensive potential.

Matchup: Yankees (6-5) at Red Sox (5-6), 3:55 ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Mike Mussina (11.2 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 5/3 K/BB) vs. Josh Beckett (3.41 RA, 6.2 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st AL East); Boston, 91-71 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #18; Boston, #14
Prospectus: Mike Mussina returns to the site of the greatest near-miss of his career this afternoon. In 2001, his first season with the Yankees, which would also turn out to be his best, Mussina made his 29th start of the season on September 2 at Fenway Park. Facing a lineup that included Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon, and Dante Bichette, as well as less-familiar names such as Izzy Alcantara, Lou Merloni, and Joe Oliver, Mussina retired the first 26 batters. Carl Everett pinch hit for Oliver with two outs in the ninth and the Red Sox down 1-0. Mussina got one strike away, but on a 1-2 pitch Everett looped a single into left-center field to break up the perfect game and no-hit bids, although Mussina did close out the shutout.

That game wasn't the only time Mussina has come painfully close to recording a perfect game, either. While with the Orioles in 1997, he was perfect into the ninth in a start against Cleveland, but gave up a one-out single to Sandy Alomar Jr. The next year, he went into the eighth against Detroit before surrendering his first baserunner, with Frank Catalanotto reaching on a two-out double.

Those games were all in Mussina's heyday, and the 39-year-old likely no longer has the kind of stuff that would allow him to ask for one last dance with perfection, especially not at Fenway, where he has given up 20 runs in 20 innings over the past three seasons, with a WHIP of 2.05. Mussina doesn't have the velocity he used to, and his K/9 slipped to 5.39 last season, his worst campaign in the majors. Mussina still has his excellent command of the strike zone, however--his UBB/9 IP rate last season, despite his struggles, was still under 2, as it is for his career--which is what's keeping him afloat at this stage.

Mussina's numbers of late at Fenway Park are mirrored in the numbers of David Ortiz against the right-hander. Mussina owned Ortiz over a large part of the designated hitter's career, as Ortiz was 2-for-29 against him, with no extra-base hits, three walks, and 14 strikeouts through the 2004 season. Ortiz, in fact, has called Mussina the toughest pitcher that he has ever faced. From 2005-2007, however, Ortiz turned that completely around, going 12-for-25 against Mussina with three home runs. It will be interesting to see if Ortiz can get his season going against Mussina this afternoon, as the slugger who has finished in the top five of the AL MVP voting each of the past five seasons enters today with averages of .077/.250/.154 in 48 plate appearances.

Matchup: Rockies (4-6) at Diamondbacks (8-2), 12:55 MST, FOX
Probable Starters: Franklin Morales (3.43 RA, 1.3 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Dan Haren (12 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 9/1 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Colorado, 82-80 (3rd NL West); Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #25; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: The Diamondbacks continued their outstanding early play last night, beating up Rockies ace Jeff Francis for the second time this season en route to an 8-2 victory, a score which equals their record, which is the best in the majors. As Jay Jaffe pointed out in yesterday's edition of the Hit List--rather eloquently, I might add--the Diamondbacks are no longer doing it with smoke and mirrors, as they did in 2007 in putting up 90 wins while getting outscored on the season. Instead, they are flat-out thumping teams this year, having scored 62 runs, most in the majors by both bulk and average per game, and given up 29, tied with Kansas City for the fewest in the majors.

The Diamondbacks seem to be harboring a grudge with regards to last season's sweep in the NLCS at the hands of the Rockies, as Arizona has taken all four of its games against Colorado so far, outscoring the struggling Rockies by 28-7. Yesterday's win was highlighted by another blast from Justin Upton, his fourth of the season, three of which have come against Colorado. The absurdly talented Upton was cited by Dayn Perry yesterday as one of the chief reasons the Diamondbacks could outperform their PECOTA-projected total of 87 wins. Upton, just 20 years old, was the youngest player in the majors last year, and he is the youngest again this season. The next youngest, Yankees starter Philip Hughes, was born 14 months before Upton.

Upton and the D'Backs, however, were shut down by Rockies lefty Franklin Morales last Sunday, as Morales pitched six two-hit shutout innings in his first outing of the year, although Arizona came from behind against the Rockies bullpen to win. Morales, who had a 3.43 RA in 39.3 innings over eight starts for Colorado last season, ranks No. 13 overall, and No. 6 in the National League, on the Baseball Prospectus 2008 Top 100 Prospects list. According to Kevin Goldstein, Morales is "the best pure arm the Rockies have ever had in their system." Morales, however, will face a challenge in duplicating his initial success against Arizona, as the D'Backs are a heavily right-handed lineup--shortstop Stephen Drew is the only regular who bats exclusively from the left side--that boasts several players whose greatest offensive skill is crushing lefties. Eric Byrnes is already an esteemed member of the Eduardo Perez All-Stars thanks to his career OPS split when facing lefties/righties of 865/743, and Conor Jackson is on his way to joining him, with an 886/769 dichotomy through his first three plus seasons. Chris Young (830/742) and Chris Snyder (804/661) also hit significantly better against southpaws, and PECOTA projects Morales to have a greater-than-average platoon split on the mound this season by OPS against.

Matchup: Cubs (6-4) at Phillies (5-6), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (8.1 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 5/2 K/BB) vs. Cole Hamels (15 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 10/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 91-71 (1st NL Central); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd NL East) Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #3; Philadelphia, #20
Prospectus: The Phillies came from two runs down to beat the Cubs yesterday, as Pat Burrell continued his hot hitting to start the season, socking his fourth homer and driving in three more runs to get to 12 RBI on the season, one less than Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds for the major league lead. Brett Myers picked up the win despite giving up two solo homers in the first inning, and three overall, as he walked no one and gave up just two other hits, both singles. What was unusual about yesterday's outcome was that, in a game started by two pitchers with control issues, only one total walk was issued. Myers had five walks in 10 innings coming in after walking over 3.5/9 IP last season, while Zambrano walked more batters than anyone in baseball from 2006-07, but the game featured a lone free pass, which was handed out to Shane Victorino with two outs in the fifth.

Speaking of walks, both of today's starting pitchers took major steps forward with their command last season, which allowed them both to enjoy the best years of their major league careers so far. For Hamels, of course, his career only spans two seasons, but still, dropping his UBB/9 IP rate from 3.0 in his rookie season to 1.9 last year was certainly a nifty trick. Walks had long been an issue for Lilly (3.5 UBB/9 IP entering 2007), but last year he posted a 2.3 UBB/9 IP rate in a career-high 207 innings. Part of that drop might have had to do with Lilly's change in scenery--in signing as a free agent with Chicago after three seasons in Toronto, he moved from the AL to the NL, which lately is a pretty good move for a pitcher. Not only that, but Lilly also went from facing the murderous AL East lineups of Boston and New York--offenses which ranked first and third in the majors in walks in 2006, respectively--to facing the weaker and less patient offenses in the NL Central (Pittsburgh was last in the NL in walks in 2007, while St. Louis and Milwaukee ranked 13-14, and Houston and Cincinnati 5-6). The Phillies, however, led the NL in walks last year, and posted an 834 OPS against lefties.

Matchup: Marlins (7-3) at Astros (3-8), 6:05 CT
Probable Starters: Andrew Miller (15 IP, 15 H, 7 R, 9/4 K/BB) vs. Brandon Backe (16 IP, 13 H, 4 R, 7/4 K/BB in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: Florida, 71-91 (5th NL East); Houston, 72-90 (tied for 5th NL CEntral)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #22; Houston, #26
Prospectus: Off to a surprising 7-3 start and currently atop the NL East by a game and a half, the Marlins look for their fifth consecutive win tonight when they take on Houston, which is currently tied with Washington for the worst record in the National League and second-worst record in baseball behind Detroit. Florida did not win five in a row at any point last season, when it went 71-91, the same record that PECOTA projects for the Fish this season. As Jay Jaffe pointed out in yesterday's Hit List, the Marlins have gotten extremely lucky thus far--even after yesterday's win, Florida is last in the majors in ERA, at 5.44, and tied with the Tigers for second to last in RA, at 6.00. A big part of that poor pitching has been the work of 23-year-old left-hander Andrew Miller, who in two starts has given up 11 runs on 16 hits over 7.2 innings. Miller--who came over from the Tigers along with top prospect Cameron Maybin in the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit--has had issues with his velocity so far in the young season. According to the Palm Beach Post, Miller has failed to hit 90 mph with his fastball in his two starts, after he was throwing in the mid-90's during spring training. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez consequently feels that Miller is sacrificing speed in the attempt to gain better control, and wants Miller to go back to throwing as hard as he's capable of. Keep an eye on the radar gun tonight at Minute Maid Park.

While the team's pitching has been dreadful, the offense has been the second best in baseball this season by team OPS, behind only Arizona. The Marlins hit six home runs in yesterday's 10-6 beating of the Astros, two of which came off the bat of right fielder Jeremy Hermida, who was making his third start of the season after opening the year on the DL. The 24-year-old lefty-swinging Hermida has found it nearly impossible to stay healthy so far in his young career, although he did manage to play in 72 games after the All-Star break last season, and hit a robust .340/.401/.555 in 285 PA. PECOTA projected Hermida to hit .283/.378/.483 this season in 532 PA, with a 26 percent breakout rate. Hermida's teammate Mike Jacobs, who has also had trouble staying healthy, is tied for the major league lead with five homers at the start of his breakout-potential age-27 season. If 2008 is finally the year that both Jacobs and Hermida stay in the lineup for full seasons, then the Marlins could put quite a few more runs on the board than people expected them to.

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

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