April 17, 2008
Thursday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Brewers (8-6) at Cardinals (11-4), 12:15 p.m. CT
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
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
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
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
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.