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April 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (6-6) at Pirates (5-6), 1:35 ET
Probable Starters: Johnny Cueto (13.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 18/0 K/BB) vs. Tom Gorzelanny (8.1 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 5/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd NL Central); Pittsburgh,72-90 (tied for 5th)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #2; Pittsburgh, #27
Prospectus: Johnny Cueto takes the mound at PNC Park for his third major league start this afternoon. Cueto put up a startling 170/34 K/BB ratio at three minor league levels last season, exactly 5 to 1, and his performance in that department so far in the big leagues has been even more remarkable. Cueto struck out 18 Diamondbacks and Brewers in his first two starts, and has yet to issue a free pass. The Pirates would not appear to be the team to test Cueto's control, either, as last year Pittsburgh ranked last in the National League with 463 walks, less than three per game.

The Pirates have improved their plate discipline so far this season, with over walks per game thus far, while Cincinnati has been the most disciplined squad in the majors, with 57 walks in 12 games. That's bad news for Tom Gorzelanny, who has walked seven thus far in 8.1 innings. Gorzelanny has had control issues in the past, which he cut down on last year in posting an unintentional walk rate of under three men per nine. That rate was even lower, however, before last year's stretch drive, when Gorzelanny's performance significantly worsened. Before the 2007 season, in which he threw 201.2 innings, Gorzelanny's high for innings was the 161.2 he threw in 2006. As he blew past that barrier in the season's final month, the young left-hander wore out. September left Gorzelanny with a 5.77 ERA and 1.95 WHIP in 34.1 innings. That rough finish has carried over into the start of this season, leading to speculation about whether Gorzelanny's arm is completely sound. In the most recent Under the Knife, Will Carroll expressed his concern over Gorzelanny's recent workload and his results thus far, and indicated that he should be watched closely in his next start to determine whether something might be amiss.

Say what you will about Dusty Baker--and certainly, we've said quite a bit--but the Reds' new manager has managed his assets in center field well thus far. Baker has played Corey Patterson all nine games in which the Reds have faced right-handed starting pitchers this season, and sat him the three games they were opposed by lefties, in favor of right-handed batters Ryan Freel (twice) and Norris Hopper (once). The lefty-swinging Patterson has rewarded Baker by hammering righties so far to the tune of a team-leading four home runs and five doubles. Until Baseball Prospectus' No. 1 Prospect Jay Bruce comes up to end the playing time discussion in center field for good, it makes sense for Baker and the Reds to continue running Patterson out on a daily basis against right-handers to see if he can keep hitting for power. At 28, Patterson is the youngest of the three current options in center field, and has the highest PECOTA-projected breakout and improve rates, as well as the highest upside. Patterson's hitting leadoff, however, can not be endorsed. Patterson is fast, of course, but his slugging ability far outstrips his ability to get on base. Three of Patterson's four homers thus far have been solo shots. By moving him down in the order in place of a high-OBP top-two tandem of Jeff Keppinger and the Joey Votto/Scott Hatteberg first base platoon, Cincinnati would put itself in position to better take advantage of Patterson's pop and better set up its middle of the order.

Matchup: Orioles (7-4) at Rays (5-6), 1:40 ET
Probable Starters: Brian Burres (121 IP, 6.02 RA, 1.7 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jeff Niemann (131 IP, 4.74 RA, -9.1 VORP at Triple-A)
PECOTA Projection: Baltimore, 66-96 (5th AL East); Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #6; Tampa Bay, #13
Prospectus: With Matt Garza heading to the shelf as a result of radial nerve irritation, the Rays have opted to fill the rotation hole by calling up Jeff Niemann from Triple-A Durham, where he had allowed six runs (four earned) this season in 11 innings, with a 9/5 K/BB. Niemann, a massive right-hander who was the fourth pick in the 2004 draft out of Rice, will make his major league debut tonight, one night after his teammate on the Durham Bulls, Evan Longoria, picked up an RBI single against Baltimore's Daniel Cabrera in his debut. Niemann has had serious problems staying healthy since getting drafted, but he managed to rack up 25 starts and 131 innings last season in Durham. His 2007 numbers look pretty decent on the surface--a 3.98 ERA, 123/45 K/UBB ratio--but in digging a little deeper, some problems stand out. For one thing, he gave up 11 unearned runs in those 131 innings, a high total, pushing his RA to 4.74. He also hit nine batters, adjusting his baserunners-per-inning figure up to 1.52. Those numbers were fed into Clay Davenport's minor league translator, which spit out an EqERA of 6.27. The 6'9", 280-pound Niemann could well turn out to be a solid starter in Tampa Bay, but he no longer has the top-of-the-rotation potential that Rays pitching prospects such as David Price, Wade Davis, and Jacob McGee possess.

As mentioned, Longoria debuted last night at third base, and in addition to his run-scoring single to left, drew a walk in four plate appearances. The Rays still lost the game 3-2, however, despite the eighth-inning game-tying home run that first baseman Carlos Pena hit off reliever Jamie Walker. Pena's home run was his second in two days against Walker, as he also hit a three-run homer off the lefty on Friday night. Remember when Pena was viewed strictly as a platoon bat, a guy who could hit righties decently but who shouldn't be playing every day? Fifty-two home runs for the Rays later, that assessment has been pushed aside. Although Pena did hit better against righties last season, he still was a force against southpaws (.271/.381/.571 in 160 plate appearances). If early returns this year are any indication, Pena's ability to hit against left-handers has only grown stronger, as he now has three home runs in 16 PA against them (besides the two against Walker, he also victimized Seattle's Erik Bedard, one of the toughest lefties in baseball). Last year, Pena was 0-for-5 against Walker with four strikeouts.

Matchup: Marlins (7-4) at Astros (4-8), 1:05 CT
Probable Starters: Burke Badenhop (154 IP, 3.74 RA, 15.7 VORP in 2007--minors) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (12.1 IP, 11 H, 4 R, 12/1 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Florida, 71-91 (5th NL East); Houston, 72-90 (tied for 5th NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #22; Houston, #26
Prospectus: In addition to Niemann, Florida's Burke Badenhop will also make his first major league start this afternoon. Badenhop's debut came this past Wednesday, when he threw a scoreless inning of relief in a win over Washington, and now he moves into the fifth slot in the rotation with Ricky Nolasco on the DL. Badenhop was one of the lesser-known pieces that came over from the Tigers in the deal that sent franchise cornerstone Miguel Cabrera and starter Dontrelle Willis to Detroit. A 25-year-old right-hander, Badenhop is an extreme sinker-ball pitcher. In fact, in the three seasons he pitched in the minors from 2005-07, Badenhop allowed just 12 home runs in 402 innings, or 0.27/9 IP. Badenhop doesn't have much in the way of strikeout ability, however--he K'ed just over six per nine as an older pitcher in the lower levels of the Detroit system--and PECOTA projects that he'll walk exactly the same number of batters as he strikes out this season. Between Badenhop and Andrew Miller, who was lit up for the third straight start yesterday against Houston, the Marlins have two pitchers in their rotation who were both received in last winter's blockbuster deal with the Tigers, and who both would likely benefit most from a full season at Triple-A. The Marlins, however, don't have anyone in the minor leagues you can point to as being a suitable stopgap major league replacement to allow Badenhop and/or Miller to develop at a lower level.

Opposing Badenhop on the mound will be Wandy Rodriguez, who has continued to add to the gains he made last season in the early going this year. Entering 2007, Rodriguez was coming off his first two major league campaigns in which he had posted a collective RA of 6.06 with a WHIP of 1.53 in 264.1 innings. Last season, however, Rodriguez bettered his numbers across the board at the age of 28, finishing second to ace Roy Oswalt on the Astros in SNLVAR. Rodriguez also displayed one of the most extreme home/road splits in baseball, finishing the year with a 2.94 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 95 innings at home, versus a 6.37 and 1.55 in 87.2 on the road. This is especially confounding considering that his home ballpark is a much better environment for right-handed hitters than lefties, suggesting that the left-handed Rodriguez would struggle to keep righties from pounding it over the short fence in left field. PECOTA doesn't quite know what to make of Rodriguez, as the beta value of his forecast is a volatile 1.13, but the system does assign him a strong breakout rate of 29 percent despite handing down a less-than-stellar weighted mean forecast (4.74 ERA and 1.44 WHIP).

Matchup: Cardinals (9-3) at Giants (4-8), 1:05 PT
Probable Starters: Joel Pineiro (97.2 IP, 4.52 RA, 15.7 VORP in 2007) vs. Tim Lincecum (10 IP, 11 H, 2 R, 11/5 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: St. Louis, 75-87 (4th NL Central); San Francisco, 68-94 (5th NL West)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #8; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: Joel Pineiro comes off the DL this afternoon to make his first start of the season for St. Louis, his first appearance for the team since signing a questionable two-year, $13 million deal last October. Pineiro pitched decently after he moved from Boston to St. Louis last August, but he still made just five quality starts in 11 tries. It surely helped that his final start of the year was his best in four seasons--he threw eight shutout innings with three hits allowed against the Mets at Shea on September 27, a game which helped complete New York's late-season collapse.

After yesterday's 8-7, 10-inning win over the Giants, St. Louis boasts the second-best record in the major leagues behind Arizona, and will look for the series sweep of San Francisco this afternoon. Jason Isringhausen blew the save in the ninth on Saturday, and after the Cards went ahead in the first extra frame, Anthony Reyes came on to get the save. Reyes has pitched well so far in relief, with a 6/0 K/BB in 5.2 innings, after winning just two of his 20 starts last season for St. Louis. Reyes has long been a pitcher that Baseball Prospectus has touted as one headed for a strong career as a starter, but he has failed to pitch up to his college and minor league performances thus far in the majors. Reyes is a fly ball pitcher, and as such has always had the ability to suppress BABIP below the league average. His fly ball-inducing stuff has also led to 36 home runs allowed so far in 210.2 major league innings, or 1.5/9 IP, and he has also walked 3.4/9, after passing less than two per nine and giving up just 0.7 HR/9 in 356.1 minor league innings. Reyes has worn out the Pacific Coast League as a starter for Memphis the last three seasons, and there's no reason he can't finally break through as a solid starter in the majors this season if he is given the opportunity. The Cardinals' rotation has begun the season well, but with two converted relievers (Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper) and a prime injury risk (Pineiro) currently holding down rotation spots, it's still a good bet that Reyes will get another crack at the rotation this season.

With Dave Roberts on the shelf after knee surgery, the Giants called up outfielder John Bowker, who began his big league career yesterday with two hits, including a three-run homer off Wellemeyer. Bowker's first professional season back in 2004 was a good one, but from 2005-06 Bowker failed to hit at San Jose of the High-A California League. This is not entirely surprising, because San Jose has played as the most extreme offense-depressing environment in the minor leagues over the past three seasons. The Giants decided to promote Bowker anyway last year despite his failings in the Cal League, to Connecticut of the Double-A Eastern League, which from 2006-07 played as even more of a pitcher's park than San Jose. Bowker responded, knocking 22 home runs and putting up an .886 OPS, very impressive figures given their context--so impressive, in fact, that after translation Bowker's VORP came out to 26.9. That's not to say that Bowker is a star in the making by any means, as it was just one season, but as Joe Sheehan pointed out, the Giants have absolutely nothing to lose by playing all the young bats they can find in order to see which of them is worthy of sticking around in the future.

Matchup: Yankees (6-6) at Red Sox (6-6), 8:05 ET
Probable Starters: Philip Hughes (9 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 6/5 K/BB) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (18.1 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 22/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st AL East); Boston, 91-71 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #18; Boston, #14
Prospectus: Twenty-nine pitchers have already made three starts this season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka leads all of them with 22 strikeouts. Matsuzaka also got out to a very strong start last season, with 24 strikeouts through his first three starts, and had a 3.52 RA and 1.2 WHIP in 138 innings at the All-Star break before falling to 5.10 and 1.44 in the second half, so it will be some time before we know whether Matsuzaka's good beginning portends a breakout sophomore campaign. Nate Silver, however, believes that the PECOTA system he created is underselling Matsuzaka this season in giving him a projected 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, as the adjustment to living stateside and getting to better know AL hitters could lead to a significant improvement over last season.

Another thing to note about Matsuzaka is that his ERA last year underrated him, because he didn't give up a single unearned run amongst the 100 that were scored off him. BP's Rany Jazayerli recently discussed the issue of unearned runs for pitchers in his piece on Zach Greinke's unusually low unearned run rate, and laid out six ground rules to identify pitchers likely to not give up many unearned runs: find those that pitched well, were fly ball pitchers, had good strikeout rates, good control, were right-handed, and had a good fielding percentage. Matsuzaka fits five of those six stipulations. He certainly pitched well last season, and is a fly ball pitcher--an extremely low ground ball percentage of 39 last season--with a very strong strikeout rate (8.8/9 IP in 2007). He is of course also right-handed, and did not make an error last season in 32 starts. The one category where Matsuzaka falls short is control--he walked 3.5 per nine last year. As Silver mentioned, however, you would have to figure that part of his control issue was due to tentativeness over pitching in a new league to unknown hitters, and that Matsuzaka will consequently throw more strikes as he better learns his opponents and their weaknesses. In Matsuzaka's last two seasons in Japan, he walked just 1.9/9 IP over 401.1 innings, with EqBB9 totals of 2.4 in 2005 and 2.1 in 06.

Matsuzaka will be looking to help Boston take the rubber match of its opening series with New York tonight. He started four games against the Yankees last season, and failed to turn in a quality start in any of them, as the Bronx Bombers walked 13 times and scored 17 runs off Matsuzaka in 25 innings. Philip Hughes did not pitch against Boston as a rookie last season, when he made 13 starts, so like Clay Buchholz, his young right-handed counterpart on the Red Sox, Hughes will receive his initiation into the great eastern rivalry tonight, on national television. Hughes, who will not turn 22 until June 24, is the youngest player in the American League.

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

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The Week in Quotes: Ap... (04/14)

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