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April 16, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Astros (5-8) at Phillies (6-7), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (16 IP, 30 H, 17 R, 12/2 K/BB) vs. Kyle Kendrick (7 1/3 IP, 12 H, 11 R, 8/1 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Houston, 72-90 (tied for 5st, NL Central); Philadelphia, 86-76 (3rd, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #26; Tampa Bay, #20
Prospectus: What's eating Roy Oswalt? Opposing batters have certainly been eating up his offerings, as the Astros ace has surrendered 30 hits in his first 16 innings of work, including five home runs. In his last start, Oswalt gave up four homers to the Marlins at home, the first time in his career that he's allowed that many homers in a game. The start before that, Oswalt pitched 6 2/3 innings and did not strike out a batter, the first time he has gone more than two innings in a start while not striking anyone out. Oswalt's strikeout rate has dropped each year from 2004-2007, well down from its high of 9.2/9 IP in his rookie year to less than seven per nine each of the past three seasons. The home runs are even more of a concern; Oswalt has never given up more than 18 homers in any season, a total that he has already racked up more than a quarter of through his first 16 innings. Are all the hits he's allowed an issue of sample size exacerbated by some bad luck, or is there reason to believe Oswalt might be injured? Oswalt believes his problems are related simply to a minor mechanical flaw, which he and pitching coach Dewey Robinson are reportedly working on, telling the Houston Chronicle recently that his arm "feels good" and that he's "just a little low on my arm."

Citizens Bank Ballpark will provide an interesting test for Oswalt coming off his career-worst homer day, as the Phillies' park had the highest offensive park factor for home runs last season (per ESPN.com's component park factors), well higher than the next park, the Great American Ballpark. Citizens Bank Ballpark ranked sixth in home run park factor in 2006, second in 2005, and fifth in its first season, 2004, so last year was not an aberration. (For what it's worth, Oswalt has given up one home run in three career starts there over 20 2/3 innings.) Citizen's Bank Ballpark's homer-happiness was on display last night, as the Phillies hit two long balls in the ninth and scored four times against Houston closer Jose Valverde to come back from three runs down. The first of those blasts was hit by oft-injured outfielder and long-time BP favorite Chris Snelling, called up by the Phillies from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the wake of the injury to starting center fielder Shane Victorino.

Matchup: White Sox (8-5) at Orioles (8-6), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jose Contreras (11 2/3 IP, 16 H, 9 R, 4/7 K/BB) vs. Adam Loewen (9 2/3 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 8/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 77-85 (3rd, AL Central); Baltimore, 66-96 (5th, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Baltimore, #6
Prospectus: On the day that Erik Bedard was placed on the DL with inflammation in his left hip, Adam Jones knocked his first home run of the season for the Birds, quite literally adding insult to injury for suffering Mariners fans, who have already seen another piece of that trade, reliever George Sherrill, convert six of six save opportunities for Baltimore while the Seattle pen struggles to cope with the absence of injured closer J.J. Putz. Jones, the centerpiece of the off-season deal that sent Bedard to Seattle, has been installed in center field for the Orioles, starting 12 of the team's first 14 games. Jones hadn't hit much up until the last two days; on Monday he was 3-for-3 with a walk, and yesterday he walked two more times in addition to his solo homer. The walks are a good thing to see, as the aspect of Jones' game that could probably use the most work is his plate discipline; Jones walked in seven percent of his plate appearances in the minors, and drew just six walks in his 113 major league PA in 2006 and '07.

Maybe Jones has taken notes while watching right fielder Nick Markakis, who has already walked 12 times this season, and is off to a fantastic start at .326/.475/.500 season. Markakis has displayed a pattern in his first two major league seasons of coming on much stronger in the second half--in 2006, he had a 683 OPS in 251 pre-break PA and 896 in 291 after, and last year his OPS was 771 in 386 first-half PA and 939 in 324 second-half PA. It's still too early to tell, but Markakis' strong start could be a sign that the development of the 24-year-old is accelerating, and that he's ready to make good on PECOTA's 27 percent breakout rate for 2008. Markakis isn't talked about all that much as among the best young players in the game, but he undoubtedly should be, as he is a fantastic all-around outfielder who is strong in nearly every aspect of the game: he can hit for average and power, has strong plate discipline, can steal bases (four already this season, and 24 for his career at an 80 percent success rate), and is a very good defender in right field (PECOTA projected nine FRAA for this season). Markakis, along with Jones, represents the future hopes of Baltimore. The two make up the best young outfield tandem in the American League, and the best in the majors this side of Arizona's Chris B. Young and Justin Upton. They are also likely the only Baltimore hitters currently on the roster who will be key pieces on the next winning Orioles team--with 24-year-old third baseman Scott Moore having the potential to join them--as the Orioles have six offensive starters who are age 30 and above.

Matchup: Tigers (4-10) at Indians (5-9), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Armando Galarraga (8 2/3 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 7/2 K/BB) vs. C.C. Sabathia (14 IP, 24 H, 18 R, 13/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #30; Cleveland, #23
Prospectus: The last two games for the Tigers have played out exactly as they would in a baseball movie. After Detroit lost ten of its first 12 games, and with the offense in complete hibernation mode, having scored just 33 runs in that span, the Tigers found themselves trailing again, 5-0 to Minnesota in the bottom of the sixth on Monday night. Eleven runs and three innings later, Detroit had an 11-9 comeback victory and its first breakthrough offensive game of the season. The Tigers then did it again last night--after being down 4-1 in the sixth, the team pulled off a rally capped by a two-run eight-inning blast from the team's new franchise player Miguel Cabrera, his first homer since Opening Day. If this were a Major League-style flick, the Tigers would carry over their newfound momentum into pounding the division favorites in their home ballpark, the start of a stretch of torrid play leading to an improbable playoff berth. Well, maybe not Major League, seeing that they're now about to start their season series against that movie's featured team, but you get the idea.

Cleveland's struggles to start the season have been overlooked by many observers so far, in no small part because of Detroit's horrendous start. However, after two straight home losses to Boston, the Indians are now just a game ahead of the Tigers, who enter Progressive Field (yes, the Indians sold the naming rights to the Jake in the offseason) with a winning streak for the first time all season. Detroit and Cleveland are expected to be battling each other for first place in the AL Central down the stretch--and the bad start of each hasn't changed that outlook--but currently, the two teams are fighting on the threshold of the staircase heading down to the division's basement. The pitching matchup in the first of the two games feature Sabathia, the league's reigning Cy Young winner, but also someone who's been hammered in his last two starts, against the somewhat less immortal Armando Galarraga, who was called up from Triple-A Toledo to start in place of the injured Dontrelle Willis. Galarraga was a part of the package that Nationals GM Jim Bowden sent to Texas (along with Terrmel Sledge and Brad Wilkerson) for Alfonso Soriano. The Tigers got the right-hander in a minor deal this February, and he will be making his second career start tonight. A 26-year-old 6'4" right-hander, Galarraga spent most of last season at Double-A Frisco, where he put up numbers that do not portend big league success.

Matchup: Red Sox (8-6) at Yankees (7-7), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Clay Buchholz (11 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 10/5 K/BB) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 11/4 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East); New York, 97-65 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #14; New York, #18
Prospectus: Buchholz and Wang hook up for the second time this season, this time in the Bronx after they faced each other at Fenway Park last Friday night. The first two-thirds of that game produced a great pitchers' duel between the two, as they both went six innings with one run allowed. Buchholz, however, was far less efficient, as he walked three and threw 99 pitches before yielding to Mike Timlin, who gave up two runs in the seventh to provide New York's margin of victory. Wang threw just 93 pitches in going the distance in a two-hit, no-walk, three-strikeout performance. The Yankees' Taiwanese right-hander is well-equipped for pitch efficiency, seeing as he doesn't work deep into the count very often: he has a very low 3.9 K/9 in 555 2/3 career innings, with 2.3 UBB/9. The huge amount of groundballs he generates--including a ground-ball percentage of 58 last season--also help with his pitch efficiency, as they lead to double plays. Last year Wang induced 34 double plays, 32 on the ground, which was tied with teammate Andy Pettitte for second in the majors behind the Indians' Fausto Carmona. In 2006 Wang was second as well, with 36 DPs induced, behind only Jake Westbrook, who had 38 turned behind him. The major league average for pitches in an inning last season was 16.3, and Wang threw about two pitches per inning less, at 14.4, and for his career he has thrown 14.1 per frame.

Wang has also been a much more efficient pitcher in Yankee Stadium thus far in his young career, with a 3.06 RA and 1.16 WHIP in 309 home innings versus 4.82 and 1.40 in 246 2/3 innings on the road. There was a great deal of talk about Wang's home/road split at the start of the last year's postseason, as many in New York wondered whether the Yankees should push Wang back to ensure that he pitched at Yankee Stadium as opposed to on the road. Wang did get the start in Game One at Jacobs Field and was ineffective, giving up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings, but as it turned out, he pitched even more poorly in Game Four in the Bronx, allowing four runs before being pulled after only one inning.

Matchup: Royals (8-6) at Angels (9-6), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Gil Meche (17 2/3 IP, 19 H, 14 R, 16/10 K/BB) vs. Jered Weaver (19 IP, 15 H, 8 R, 14/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Kansas City, 73-89 (5th, AL Central); Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #5; Los Angeles, #10
Prospectus: The Royals have gotten off to their best start since 2003, the year Kansas City surprised the league by finishing with an 83-79 record. One of the major reasons so far has been a bullpen that has given up 10 runs in 36 innings, a major league-best 2.50 RA, and struck out 41 against 13 walks. The Kansas City pen is an international conglomeration that has thus far come together to form a shut-down unit. Closer Joakim Soria was a 2007 Rule 5 pick after playing most of his career in Mexico, set-up men Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez are both from the Dominican Republic, while Hideo Nomo and Yasuhiko Yabuta are two of the eight pitchers from Japan currently on major league rosters. The 35-year-old Yabuta pitched for former Mets manager Bobby Valentine on the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese Pacific League, where he formed one-third of the Marines' relief ace trio that also included Masahide Kobayashi, now with Cleveland. The bullpen also has a pair of American-born hurlers, Jimmy Gobble and Ron Mahay. Mahay has the bizarre distinction of having put up exactly the same statistics in two of the past four seasons: in 2004 and 2007, Mahay pitched 67 innings, gave up 19 earned runs (for a 2.55 ERA), and allowed exactly 89 walks plus hits (for a 1.33 WHIP). In 2004 he struck out 54, and last season he struck out 55. The Royals would certainly love it if he could duplicate those numbers for a third time in five years, as his stats in between those strangely similar bookends, in 2005 and 2006, weren't nearly as good.

Mahay and the rest of the Royals bullpen will be attempting to shut down an Angels offense that has been the best in the American League so far in slugging, and tops in the majors in batting average. The high batting average is no surprise, given the presence of Howie Kendrick, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and other average-fueled performers, but the slugging is more unexpected, considering that the Angels finished in the bottom half of the AL in that category in each of the past three seasons. Driving the team's power has been Los Angeles' catching tandem, with former backstop-of-the-future Jeff Mathis and the player who took his job, Mike Napoli, both delivering. Mathis has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances, while Napoli has four home runs in his 35. Napoli's four homers lead all major league catchers, so it goes without saying that the Angels have had the most production from their backstops of any team so far this season.

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

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