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April 17, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (8-6) at Cardinals (11-4), 12:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (9 1/3 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 11/3 K/BB) vs. Kyle Lohse (17 1/3 IP, 15 H, 2 R, 7/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central); St. Louis, 75-87 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #4; St. Louis, #8
Prospectus: The first-place Cardinals go for the three-game sweep of the Brewers at Busch Stadium this afternoon. That's only possible after St. Louis survived a ninth-inning adventure orchestrated by closer Jason Isringhausen yesterday to post a 5-4 win.

The Brewers bats are wilting; symptoms include the watch for both Ryan Braun's first walk and Prince Fielder's first homer. The former is the more troubling; everyone knows Fielder will soon start launching balls in droves, but the plate discipline of Braun, who walked in only eight percent of his minor league plate appearances, is less of a sure thing. The reigning Rookie of the Year is clearly putting a great deal of pressure on himself, but his natural talent should soon take over. Braun isn't the only Brewer who has been impatient in the early going, either, as the team ranks last in the major leagues with 34 walks; beyond Braun, third baseman Bill Hall has been the other main contributor to the problem, with one pass in his first 59 plate appearances. The Brewers were not a patient team last season, walking 501 times overall, which ranked them 14th in the league. St. Louis was just five walks ahead of Milwaukee last season, but this year has already drawn 64 walks, good for third in the NL, with shortstop Cesar Izturis (eight in 49 PA) rating as an unlikely early contributor.

Manny Parra faces pressure tonight to not only prevent the Brewers from getting swept, but to pitch well enough to keep his place in the rotation. That's because Yovani Gallardo--who as a rookie last year contributed a 3.92 RA, 1.27 WHIP, and 101/35 K/UBB ratio--is expected to rejoin the rotation this weekend after recovering from minor knee surgery. Consequently, one of David Bush, Carlos Villanueva, or Parra will be bumped to make room. Bush gave up 11 runs in his first two starts, but he is the relative veteran of the three, and he put up a quality start his last time out. Villanueva had a strong opening start but has been shaky in his last two. There is not much that differentiates the three pitchers in terms of their 2008 PECOTA forecasts, so unless Parra steps up with an excellent performance today, the decision will not be an easy one for Ned Yost. Parra is, however, the only left-handed option for the Brewers rotation now with Chris Capuano out indefinitely with elbow soreness. This could help him retain his spot if Milwaukee values having a lefty starter around to neutralize heavily left-handed lineups, such as Cincinnati's. Of course, it is extremely rare that a team goes through a season without suffering injuries in its starting rotation, and given Ben Sheets' recent history, there is a decent chance that whoever of the three starters loses out will be back in the mix before too long.

Matchup: Reds (6-9) at Cubs (9-5), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Edinson Volquez (10 1/3 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 9/5 K/BB) vs. Ted Lilly (12 2/3 IP, 19 H, 14 R, 8/4 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #2; Chicago, #3
Prospectus: Volquez has come a long way since the time when his name was misspelled on the first contract he signed (as Edison) coming out of the Dominican Republic as an 18-year-old. Volquez has done his best to keep pace with the excellent debut of rookie teammate Johnny Cueto thus far, and makes his third start of the season this afternoon at Wrigley against Ted Lilly, who is dealing with what has been deemed by pitching coach Larry Rothschild as a "mysterious" loss of velocity. That would obviously help explain why Lilly has been knocked around so hard in the early going, but today's game appears to be a good opportunity for Lilly to get going. The Reds lineup struggles against left-handed pitching, as five of their eight offensive starters--including core sluggers Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.--hit from the left side. Last season the Reds ranked 14th in the NL with a 732 OPS versus lefties, and so far this year they've hit .216/.331/.302 versus southpaws. Lilly made five starts against Cincinnati last year, and held the Reds to a 3.33 RA in 27 IP, with just 16 hits allowed and a 33/5 K/BB ratio.

Yesterday, Cubs fans got their first glimpse of what the lineup and batting order will look like with left fielder Alfonso Soriano sidelined for "a while." Second baseman Mark DeRosa began yesterday' the game in left field, while Mike Fontenot played second. The Soriano injury creates a number of interesting ripple down effects for Chicago. For one, it could increase the pressure to acquire Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. It also illuminates just how little the organization thinks of minor league left fielder Matt Murton. The Cubs' souring on Murton has been well-documented, but even given that it is hard to believe they called up Eric Patterson over Murton after Soriano went down. The 26-year-old Murton owns a .296/.365/.455 line in 929 major league plate appearances, and PECOTA projects him to hit almost exactly the same this season, with a .295/.359/.462 forecast. In order words, he would be an average left fielder (so far this season NL left fielders have hit .262/.346/.435 in 960 PA) and a slightly better offensive performer than both DeRosa and Fontenot. Even if the Cubs didn't want to play him everyday, it doesn't make sense not to carry him as a platoon player, as Murton is another of the Eduardo Perez All-Stars, with a larger-than-average split between his performance against lefties and righties (909 career OPS vs. southpaws in the majors, 771 vs. righties). Murton is projected by PECOTA to slug .488 with a .380 OBP vs. left-handers this season, and would help a Cubs lineup that has a low 725 OPS against lefties thus far.

Matchup: Tigers (5-10) at Indians (5-10), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Justin Verlander (19 1/3 IP, 15 H, 19 R, 13/8 K/BB) vs. Fausto Carmona (16 1/3 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 8/17 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: Verlander and Carmona are both viable candidates to win the AL Cy Young Award this year, but both have failed to help themselves in the early going. Verlander has not pitched well his last two outings, while Carmona, despite an excellent 2.76 RA through three starts, issued eight walks in just 3 1/3 innings his last time out. That came two days after signing a four-year, $15 million contract, but Carmona also didn't have very good control in his first two outings, either, walking nine in 13 innings. The most Carmona walked in any start last season was six, in six innings against the Royals on August 31. Carmona was especially precise against Detroit in 2007, walking four batters in four starts over 29 innings, while striking out 23.

On the other hand, the Tribe hit the warpath especially hard against Verlander last season; the Tigers' ace was worse against Cleveland than against any other team, allowing 26 runs in 27 2/3 innings, mainly because he gave up eight home runs to Indians batsmen. That's 40 percent of the total number of homers Verlander allowed all last season in just 14 percent of the innings. Most of that damage came at the stadium formerly known as Jacobs Field, where he pitches today--Verlander allowed four homers to Cleveland in 5 2/3 innings at the Jake last September 18, and two homers in a start there on May 31, which were his only two outings of the season in which he gave up more than a single long ball. During his first two full seasons in the majors, Verlander has now been beaten up to the tune of 27 runs in 27 1/3 innings in Cleveland, with seven homers allowed.

At least the Tigers have recovered from their slow start: after the team hit bottom in an 11-0 shutout loss in Chicago that dropped them to 2-10, Detroit's bats pounded out 17 runs in two games to sweep Minnesota, and then pounced on C.C. Sabathia last night, dropping nine runs on him in four innings, including a fifth-inning grand slam by shortstop Edgar Renteria. If Detroit wins again tonight, it will escape the basement, and the early "what the heck is wrong with team x?" spotlight will shift downstream, to the shores of Lake Erie.

Matchup: Braves (5-9) at Marlins (9-5), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Smoltz (11 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 11/4 K/BB) vs. Ricky Nolasco (10 2/3 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 3/3 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 86-76 (2nd, NL East); Florida, 71-91 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #17; Florida, #22
Prospectus: Smoltz takes the mound against the first-place Marlins, who will be looking for the sweep of Atlanta after winning last night's game 6-5. Smoltz will be opposed by the 25-year-old Nolasco, who was sidelined much of last season with elbow inflammation after appearing in 35 games, including 22 starts, during 2006. In his 140 innings that year, the right-handed Nolasco posted one of the most extreme platoon splits you'll ever see--righties batted .240/.302/.382 off him in 320 plate appearances, while lefties thumped him at a .338/.390/.546 clip in 293 PA. PECOTA figures that trend will continue, as the system forecasts Nolasco will let lefties hit 30 points higher this year (21 points above the right-handed average), post an OBP 53 points higher (19 points above average), and a slugging 52 points higher (13 points above average). Nolasco's Jekyll and Hyde show doesn't project to play well against Atlanta, which regularly deploys five lefty bats in its lineup, including two of the best in baseball in the sinistral lumber of switch-hitters Chipper Jones (968 career OPS vs. righties) and Mark Teixeira (895).

The other interesting development from last night's win was that the Marlins won their fourth one-run game of the young season yesterday. Because of that and the fact that they've been outscored by 39-5 in their five losses, Florida has a Pythagorean won loss record three games worse than its actual record. Atlanta, on the other hand, is suffering through the opposite scenario: the Braves' one-run defeat yesterday was already their seventh of the season. Atlanta's first five losses of the year came by one run, and it is now 0-7 in one-run games, yet has outscored its opponents by 37-10 in its five wins, giving the team a Pythagorean record of 8-6. Part of the reason behind Atlanta's dismal record in one-run affairs, besides bad fortune, has been a bad bullpen: the Braves' relievers have a 5.54 RA, and have blown three saves thus far. That bullpen got more bad news yesterday, when several days after closer Rafael Soriano went on the DL, Peter Moylan followed him to the shelf (talk about injury stacking!) It doesn't look good for Moylan, whose season is in jeopardy as he heads to visit Dr. James Andrews.

Matchup: Rockies (6-8) at Padres (8-7), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jeff Francis (11 1/3 IP, 19 H, 12 R, 5/4 K/BB) vs. Jake Peavy (22 IP, 14 H, 4 R, 16/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West); San Diego, 78-84 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #5; San Diego, #10
Prospectus: Francis seems like a pitcher in sore need of a Petco start. He's been pounded in his first two starts by Arizona, giving up three homers in both his start at Coors Field and then at Chase Field. Francis now gets a respite from the hot-hitting Snakes, and moves from pitching in the two most extreme offensive environments in the majors to the best pitchers' haven in baseball. The problem is, Francis has been one of the few hurlers who hasn't enjoyed working in Petco--he has a 5.64 RA and 1.66 WHIP in 44 2/3 innings over eight career starts there, including two last season in which he allowed 10 runs and three homers in 11 1/3 innings. That damage done to him has been primarily delivered by two players: Khalil Greene is slugging .677 off Francis in 31 at-bats, with three homers and two doubles, and Kevin Kouzmanoff ripped Francis for a pair of homers and three doubles in 15 at-bats last season. Both of those batters are right-handers. Francis has allowed a 690 OPS against lefties in his career versus 823 for righties, and his PECOTA platoon projection shows that he has a significantly larger split between what he allows lefties and righties to hit than the average left-handed pitcher does.

In contrast to Francis' slow start, Peavy has given up less than six hits per nine innings over his first three starts. Part of the reason for that success is the excellent defense San Diego has played this season. San Diego's staff has allowed a .226 batting average, second lowest in the majors, and on balls put into play that average raises to a BABIP of just .256. Turning that figure around tells us that Padres' fielders have converted 74.4 percent of balls put into play into outs, which leads the majors. The Padres ranked sixth last year in Defensive Efficiency, so that they are first so far is not too much of a surprise. However, San Diego did bring in new starters up the middle, Tadahito Iguchi at second base, and Jim Edmonds in center field. Iguchi rated as terrible with the glove during his time with Chicago, by both Dan Fox's Simple Fielding Runs metric (SFR) and Clay Davenport's FRAA. Oddly, upon his move to the NL last year at the trade deadline, Iguchi improved in both systems substantially, to the point where he rated as above average, and he has already been a whopping +4 FRAA at second so far this year. It was thought that Edmonds, at the age of 38 this season and in the midst of a steep decline phase, was no longer even an average glove in center due to aging and the toll of multiple injuries, but so far he too has out-performed expectations, with a FRAA Rate of +111 (11 runs better than average per 100 games). Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and right fielder Brian Giles were the Padres' two worst defenders last year by SFR and FRAA, but each has been much better in the early going of 2008. While the 37-year-old Giles will probably see his performance slip, there is hope that Kouzmanoff, starting his second full major league season, has made real strides at the hot corner.

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

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