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April 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Pirates (7-8) at Cubs (9-6), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ian Snell (18 1/3 IP, 20 H, 9 R, 15/4 K/BB) vs. Rich Hill (9 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 7/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Pittsburgh, 72-90 (tied for 5th, NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #27; Chicago, #3
Prospectus: The Cubs were concerned enough about Rich Hill's mechanics recently to talk about moving him to the bullpen following his last start. Hill did not pitch in relief, as it turns out, but he was pushed back in the rotation two days. In Hill's last outing eight days ago, against these same Pirates at PNC Park, he gave up three runs on three hits and two walks in the first inning. Hill walked two more batters in the third, and Lou Piniella elected to pull him for the start of the fourth. BP's Will Carroll noticed that Hill's mechanics were off against the Pirates, and that he was throwing "uphill," causing him to lose his command, so it will be interesting to watch him this afternoon to see whether he has corrected that flaw. As Carroll noted, Hill has had mechanical issues before, and when he first came to the big leagues his chief issue was a lack of command, until the final two months of 2006, when he posted a 78/21 K/BB ratio in 76 2/3 innings, including a 50/10 K/BB and 2.36 RA in his six September starts. Hill then went on to become one of the NL's most solid starters last season, with a WHIP under 1.2, an ERA under 4.00, and a nearly 3/1 K/BB ratio (183/63) in 195 IP.

Snell also broke out last season, becoming the Pirates' best starting pitcher by leading the Pittsburgh staff with an SNLVAR of 5.3. He dropped his RA from 5.03 in 2006 to 4.07 in his age-25 season last year, and his home run rate declined from 1.40 per nine to 0.95. Snell's success was in large part attributable to his figuring out how to better handle lefties--while the OPS of right-handed batters against Snell fell 34 points from '06 to '07 (from 715 to 681), lefties were reduced 112 points, from a 912 OPS two seasons ago to 800 last year. That number needs to go down further for Snell to take another step forward, but his chances seem good considering that lefties have hit worse off of him in each of the three years since his 2004 debut. Snell already possesses an outstanding fastball and slider, and should be able to continue improving versus lefties with the development of his changeup.

Matchup: Mets (8-6) at Phillies (8-8), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (20 2/3 IP, 16 H, 8 R, 18/4 K/BB) vs. Cole Hamels (22 IP, 11 H, 3 R, 15/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd)
Hit List Rankings: Mets, #9; Phillies, #20
Prospectus: Two of the game's best left-handers face off tonight at Citizen's Bank Ballpark in the opener of a three-game series between last year's first- and second-place finishers in the NL East. The Mets lost their final eight games to the Phillies last season, hastening their September collapse and fueling the hatred these two teams have for each other, then dropped their first game to Philadelphia at home this season before taking the next two.

Santana missed facing the Phillies in that three-game set last week, so he will be pitching against Philadelphia for the first time since an interleague start in 2002. Santana led the AL in homers allowed last year with 33, and gave up thre homers in last week's start against the lefty-killing Brewers, his first appearance at Shea, for which he was booed by some in the stands. Like the Brewers, the Phillies are also adept at hitting left-handers, having ranked second in the NL with an 834 OPS against southpaws last season. Five Phillies in 2007 had an OPS over 900 off southpaws in at least 100 plate appearances--Jayson Werth, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand (now with the Giants), and Jimmy Rollins. Santana will need to overcome that obstacle tonight to give his club innings, as the Mets bullpen had to pitch seven frames in yesterday's 14-inning, 3-2 home victory over the Nationals.

This game features two of the three best defenses in the majors so far by defensive efficiency, with the Mets ranking first, having converted 74.1 percent of balls in play into outs, and Philadelphia third, at 73.9 percent. That latter figure serves as a good illustration of the meaninglessness of both errors and unearned runs--Philadelphia ranks second in the NL with 16 errors, which have led to 13 unearned runs, tied for the most in the majors, despite the fact that the team has been so good at turning contact into outs. The Mets position at the top of the defensive efficiency rankings is not surprising, considering that they finished fourth in the majors last season, and brought in better defenders at catcher (Brian Schneider) and right field (Ryan Church). The Phillies ranked just 19th overall last year, although the team did bring in an excellent glove man at third base in Pedro Feliz. Eight of 12 Philadelphia pitchers have BABIPs under the league average of .300, with tonight's starter Hamels, who has given up just 11 hits in his first 21 innings, sporting a .164 mark. While that is obviously not close to sustainable, Hamels, like Santana, is a fly-ball pitcher who consequently has displayed the ability to suppress opponent hits on balls in play, with a .282 BABIP last season and .281 projected for this year.

Matchup: White Sox (9-6) at Rays (7-9), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (19 IP, 17 H, 7 R, 23/5 K/BB) vs. Jeff Niemann (131 IP, 4.74 RA, -9.1 VORP at Triple-A in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 77-85 (3rd, AL Central); Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Tampa Bay, #13
Prospectus: Vazquez is off to a great start this year after quietly putting up one of the better seasons of any AL starter in 2007. An extremely promising young pitcher entering his age-27 season in 2004 after three straight years of 200 + inning, sub-4.00 ERA seasons pitching in Montreal, Vazquez moved to the Yankees in '04. He did not perform up to expectations, with a 5.18 RA in 198 innings, and struggled in his next two seasons as well, with Arizona and then the White Sox. Vazquez had been worked extremely hard during his formative years in Montreal, which led to speculation that some of the life had been taken out of his right arm; he'd averaged 225 2/3 innings per season for the Expos in his age-23 through age-26 seasons, and ranked first in the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points in 2003. If Vazquez did suffer through some sort of a prolonged dead-arm period that served to affect his numbers from 2004-2006, he was certainly revitalized last season, striking out 200 batters and posting a WHIP below 1.2 for the first time since 2003, in addition to the RA that again dipped below 4.00. Vazquez did that while pitching in U.S. Cellular Field, which rated as the second-best hitters' park in the AL last year, behind Fenway.

Vazquez, the veteran in his 11th season, will be facing the rookie Niemann, who makes his second career start for Tampa Bay tonight. One of the tallest pitchers in baseball at 6'9", Niemann won his debut outing against Baltimore on Sunday by throwing six innings of one-run baseball. Niemann is pitching for his rotation spot, as it looks like Matt Garza, currently on the DL with radial nerve irritation, could return next week after missing the minimum amount of time. It is expected that Niemann will be sent back down to Triple-A Durham upon Garza's activation, but if he follows up his first good outing with another strong one tonight, he would make it hard for the Rays to remove him from the rotation with Andy Sonnanstine currently pitching so poorly (an 8.80 RA and five homers allowed in 15 1/3 innings). The Rays will then have another decision to make about their rotation when ace Scott Kazmir comes back off the DL, which will likely be at the beginning of May.

Matchup: Indians (6-10) at Twins (7-9), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (14 2/3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 12/1 K/BB) vs. Francisco Liriano (121 IP, 2.31 RA, 4.7 SNLVAR in 2006)
PECOTA Projection: Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Minnesota, 74-88 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Indians, #23; Twins, #21
Prospectus: Liriano makes his second start since 2006 tonight, after going through a rocky season debut against the Royals. The Dominican left-hander was making his first major league appearance since undergoing Tommy John surgery that had him out for all of 2007. Liriano will likely need several starts to regain his footing in the big leagues and confidence in his surgically-repaired elbow. He walked five in last week's start, and his velocity, routinely registered in the mid-90s in 2006, was not at its peak. If Liriano warms up his heater and shakes the rust off of his slider, he could come within shouting distance of the numbers he put up in 2006--and PECOTA projects that he can--he would then easily be the Twins' best pitcher, and even potentially a difference-maker in what is shaping up to be an intriguing year of baseball in the AL Central.

Liriano is the rare specimen who combines extreme ground-ball inducing stuff with outstanding strikeout ability--in 2006, Liriano had a 57 ground-ball percentage (fifth in the AL of those throwing 100 innings or more), struck out 144 in 121 innings (10.7 K/9), and allowed just nine home runs (0.7 HR/9). Liriano's PECOTA-projected HR/9 IP rate for 2008, 0.6, is lower than that of every other starting pitcher in baseball. The lefty's profile is so unique that his similarity index is zero, along with Jonathan Broxton and Randy Johnson. Part of that has to do with Liriano's injury, because significant time missed affects PECOTA's ability to generate comparables, especially when it has so few major league innings to work with. But part of it is simply the fact that Liriano's strikeout/ground-ball stuff is virtually unprecedented amongst left-handers in the history of baseball. The list of left-handed pitchers since 1959 who have thrown at least 100 innings with at least 9.0 K/9 IP and a ground-ball percentage of at least 55 is four names long:


Name               Year   Team   IP     K/9   GB%
Terry Forster      1972    CHA   100    9.4  67.3
Sam McDowell       1966    CLE   194.1 10.4  57.3
Sam McDowell       1965    CLE   273   10.7  61.4
Bob Veale          1965    PIT   266    9.4  56.1
Francisco Liriano  2006    MIN   121   10.7  57.1

Veale gave up an absurdly low total of five home runs in 1965, while McDowell allowed just 21 between 1965 and 1966, but keep in mind that the 1960s were the high-mound era where pitchers dominated the game. Terry Forster ranks ninth on Liriano's list of comparables for 2008, and he had the distinction of not allowing a single homer in his 100 innings out of the White Sox pen in 1972, while striking out 104.

Thanks to Jason Paré for the data research.

Matchup: Padres (8-8) at Diamondbacks (11-4), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Greg Maddux (18 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 10/3 K/BB) vs. Dan Haren (18 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 16/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: San Diego, 78-84 (4th NL West); Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #15; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Last night the Padres lost a 22-inning game to the Rockies 2-1 at home, the longest in the majors since August 31 of 1993, another 22-inning affair in which Minnesota beat Cleveland 5-4. It was the longest game in Petco Park history, the longest in Rockies history by both innings and time, and the longest in Padres history by innings (one minute short of the longest by time, at 6:16). The contest featured three seventh-inning stretches and over 600 pitches. According to the Padres' television broadcast team, it was also the latest sporting event still being played anywhere around the world on Thursday night, with Australian Rules football games wrapping up Down Under somewhere around the 18th. The National League has no curfew--in the AL, no new inning starts after 1 a.m.--so the Rockies and Padres could have played all night; as it ended up, the game finally finished at 1:21 a.m. local time when Kip Wells struck out pitcher Glendon Rusch.

After all that, it's safe to say that San Diego might not quite be at its best tonight after traveling to play the division-leading Diamondbacks. The Padres also can't afford to have starter Greg Maddux exit early tonight, with the bullpen having thrown 14 innings (although the Padres did manage to avoid using reliever Cla Meredith). At this point in his career, Maddux is not very well suited to pick up the bullpen, as he's averaged less than six innxings per start in his 37 turns for San Diego between this year and last.

The Padres' offensive numbers from the epic game last night are particularly gruesome. They collected 11 hits, including only one for extra bases, a double by Paul McAnulty. Brian Giles went 1-for-9, Tadahito Iguchi 0-for-7, and Tony Clark 1-for-8. Even taking into account the significant run-depressing characteristics of Petco Park, the Padres have a bad offense this season. PECOTA projected 689 runs for 2008, which would rank second-to-last in the NL, ahead of San Francisco. So far, the Padres are well behind even that modest 4.3 R/G pace, and with 50 runs scored on the season, are ahead of only the Giants in both total and per-game production. San Diego also has the league's worst slugging percentage, at .329, with six home runs (tied with Oakland for the fewest) and a major-league-low 18 doubles. Not a single player currently has an OPS above 800, as 37-year-old Brian Giles leads the way with a line of .298/.354/.439.

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

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