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April 20, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Nationals (5-13) at Marlins (10-7), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Odalis Perez (20 2/3 IP, 24 H, 10 R, 13/9 K/BB) vs. Scott Olsen (20 2/3 IP, 16 H, 8 R, 10/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Nationals, 73-89 (5th, NL East); Marlins, 71-91 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Nationals, #30; Marlins, #24
Prospectus: With a 3.48 RA and 1.06 WHIP through his first three starts, is Olsen on the way to a career-revitalizing season? Last year, Olsen had a 5.81 ERA in 33 starts, and actually pitched significantly worse than that: he gave up 20 unearned runs, the highest total among all pitchers qualifying for the ERA title in unearned run average, and last in the majors with a 6.83 RA. This year Olsen has given up one unearned run, and is pitching more like he did in his promising rookie season of 2006, when he was one of the five Marlins pitchers age 24 or younger who won 10 or more games. Olsen and Ricky Nolasco are the only two of those five currently pitching for Florida, with Dontrelle Willis having been shipped to Detroit, and both Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez expected to be out for most or all of 2008 while rehabbing from injury.

Olsen beat the Nationals on April 9, pitching 7 2/3 innings in a 10-4 Marlins win, one of the five Florida wins this season that wasn't of the one-run variety. The Marlins have been outscored by more than a run per game on average, but sit at 10-7, a half-game behind the Mets in the East, and three wins better than their Pythagorean record. Washington, meanwhile, has been outscored by 1.5 runs a game. The Nationals' bats have failed to produce thus far, and have been worse than replacement level in the aggregate, with a team VORP of -1.1 runs, lower than all but San Francisco in the NL. Cristian Guzman is a surprise as their most productive player, with a 6.2 VORP, while Austin Kearns is second from the bottom, at -3.3, which should tell you all you need to know about April statistics. Kearns will of course pull out from his .206/.342/.286 funk, but his power drought is the continuation of a trend that began with his move to Washington in 2006. Kearns posted Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) figures of 212 and 218 in partial seasons with the Reds in 2005 and 2006, which dropped to 179 over the final 63 games of 2006 upon being traded to the Nationals, then dropped to 145 in 2007. Much of that has to do with hitting in RFK Stadium, which had the lowest home run park factor in the majors last year, and played as the second toughest offensive environment overall, so it will be telling to see what sort of power numbers Kearns can put up in the new Nationals Park, which in its infancy has given an edge to the batters.

Matchup: Brewers (11-6) at Reds (7-11), 1:15 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Yovani Gallardo (110 1/3 IP, 3.92 RA, 4.1 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Aaron Harang (27 IP, 22 H, 11 R, 21/7 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central); Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #15; Cincinnati, #16
Prospectus: The late innings of yesterday's Brewers-Reds game served as a vehicle for cross-continental time travel, from the Great American Ballpark of 2008 to the Dodger Stadium of 2003 and 2004. Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne closed out Milwaukee's 5-3 win over Cincinnati yesterday by combining for three perfect innings and three strikeouts, just as they so often slammed the door on foes in the endgame several years ago with Los Angeles. In 2003, Gagne led the majors in both WXRL and ARP, as he had a 1.31 RA, 0.69 WHIP, and 114/22 K/BB in 82 1/3 innings, saving 55 games without blowing a single one. Mota also put up cartoonish numbers behind Gagne in the Dodgers pen--he led the NL with 105 innings in relief while posting a 1.97 RA, 99/26 K/BB, and allowing seven home runs. The next year, Mota moved into the set-up role in front of Gagne, and fired 63 innings of 2.14 RA ball while Gagne, in another stellar season, saved his first 21 chances to set the consecutive saves record at 84.

Mota was then shipped to Florida at the deadline with Paul LoDuca and Juan Encarnacion in the deal that brought Los Angeles Hee Seop Choi and Brad Penny. Neither player has been the same since leaving the other's company. Gagne hurt his elbow and pitched just 15 2/3 innings between 2005 and 2006 before coming back last season. Mota's RA shot up to 4.81 upon moving to Florida, stayed above 4.50 in 2005 and 2006, then escalated to nearly 6.00 last year with the Mets. Milwaukee brought in both players in an attempt to recapture their former late-innings glory. So far, the reunion has worked well for both relievers--Gagne blew two of his first three save chances, but has converted five straight since, while Mota has allowed just a run in 7 2/3 innings. Despite Mota's struggles over the past three years, the Brewers have thrown him right back into his old role, as he leads the club with a leverage rating of 2.09.

Today Milwaukee will look for the three-game sweep of Cincinnati with young stud Yovani Gallardo's return to the mound. Gallardo spent the first three weeks on the DL after minor knee surgery. Last year, the 22-year-old right-hander debuted in the majors to excellent results, which included a 3.92 RA and 101/37 K/BB ratio. Gallardo's work in the rotation ranked him second on the Brewers in SNLVAR behind Ben Sheets, despite the fact that he was sixth on the club with 17 games started.

Matchup: Padres (8-9) at Diamondbacks (12-4), 1:10 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Randy Wolf (19 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 18/7 K/BB) vs. Randy Johnson (56 2/3 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.5 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: San Diego, 78-84 (4th, NL West); Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #22; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Two left-handed Randys battle it out, both of whom are coming off outings in which they didn't allow an earned run. Johnson made his 2008 debut after off-season back surgery on Monday, and struck out seven Giants while allowing three hits in five innings, but his wildness (four walks) led to three unearned San Francisco tallies. Wolf pitched magnificently on Tuesday, going 6 2/3 innings before allowing the first Rockies hit. His pitch count at that point was already quite high, in part because of four walks and nine strikeouts, which brought into play Wolf's frightful past where high pitch counts are concerned. The fear was that the Padres would allow Wolf to stay in the game and amass a damaging tally of pitches as long as his no-hitter was intact, but that fear turned out to be unfounded, as it was revealed that Wolf would have been pulled after seven even if he hadn't allowed Brad Hawpe's hit. As is, however, Wolf threw 112 pitches, the most since he tossed 115 in an 11-strikeout performance over seven innings for Los Angeles last May 11. Following that outing, Wolf had an RA of 5.60 and K/BB of 39/26 in 54 2/3 innings over his next 10 starts before hurting his shoulder on July 3 and missing the rest of the season.

With the Big Unit on the mound, there's a good chance that Padres right fielder Brian Giles will be out of the lineup. Johnson has always been devastating to left-handed batters, and Giles has had a particularly miserable time standing in against the tall southpaw, delivering just three hits in 30 career at-bats, with one walk and 13 strikeouts. One of those three hits was a home run, however, which is impressive considering that Johnson has allowed a total of 24 homers to left-handers in 1895 career plate appearances. The Padres' roster currently contains players who have hit four of those 24 homers that Johnson has surrendered to lefties, one-sixth of the total. In his first game ever facing the Big Unit, San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez took Johnson deep last April 24; Gonzalez was hit by a pitch and walked in his other two plate appearances that day, so Johnson has yet to get him out. Beyond those two, new Pads center fielder Jim Edmonds has a pair of jacks against Johnson in 25 at-bats, as well as two doubles. For his career, Johnson has held lefties to a line of .195/.277/.285.

Matchup: Royals (9-9) at Athletics (11-8), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (152 IP, 5.68 RA, 138/47 K/BB in 2007--minors) vs. Dana Eveland (18 IP, 14 H, 5 R, 15/7 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Kansas City, 73-89 (5th, AL Central); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #12; Oakland, #18
Prospectus: Hochevar makes his season debut for the Royals this afternoon in Oakland, taking the rotation spot of John Bale, who was placed on the DL with arm fatigue. He'll try to keep Kansas City from being swept by the Athletics. The No. 1 overall pick in 2006, there was some question of whether Hochevar's selection by the low-budget Royals two years ago was an issue of "signability"--players drafted after him in 2006 include Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, and Clayton Kershaw--and Hochevar's professional performance thus far has not quieted the criticism. After an excellent 16 innings in A-ball following his signing, Hochever was assigned to Double-A Wichita at the start of last season, but he posted a 5.94 RA in 94 innings, and was victimized by 13 home runs and a very high .350 BABIP. Hochevar did have an excellent 94/26 K/BB ratio, however, and the Royals promoted him to Triple-A Omaha, where his BABIP fell but home run rate rose, from 1.2/9 to 1.7/9 in 58 innings, to go along with a 5.28 RA and 44/21 K/BB. Hochevar was then given a September demitasse in the majors, where he allowed four runs in 12 2/3 innings. The concern for the fly-ball pitcher is that the long ball is going to be a problem; he posted ground-ball percentages of 40 and 41 in his two minor league stops last year, both low marks. Luckily for Hochever, the A's thus far have not displayed much power, ranking last in the AL with seven home runs through their first 19 games.

Hochevar's opponent this afternoon, Eveland, offers a contrast to the Royals' rookie, as he belongs firmly in the ground-ball camp. Eveland has given up just one homer so far in his 18 innings after surrendering an astonishingly-low 0.2 HR/9 IP in 413 2/3 career minor league innings. The 24-year-old Eveland came over from Arizona in the Dan Haren trade, and has made Billy Beane's move look smart right off the bat by delivering quality starts in his first two turns through the rotation, holding the Indians and Blue Jays to one run on nine hits in 13 1/3 innings, before stumbling his last time out in Chicago.

Matchup: Mets (10-6) at Phillies (8-10), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Pelfrey (12 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 7/4 K/BB) vs. Adam Eaton (19 2/3 IP, 18 H, 9 R, 10/8 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: Entering Saturday, Pelfrey ranked second on the Mets in both SNLVAR (0.6) and VORP (5.2) to Johan Santana, despite the fact that he has made just two starts on the season. If you asked a Mets fan, they'd probably list that as their biggest surprise of the year to date, considering the disappointment Pelfrey had been in his first two seasons in New York. The big 6'7" right-hander has flashed his top-notch fastball in the majors, but not much else--a lack of secondary stuff led to a 5.84 RA in 94 innings entering 2008, with nearly as many walks (51) as strikeouts (58). Pelfrey is a ground-ball pitcher, and opponents hit him hard when they put wood on the ball, with a .353 BABIP in 21 1/3 innings during 2006 and a .338 in 72 2/3 last year. PECOTA projects that figure will come way down to .299 this year, right around league average, helping him get down to a 4.41 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Happily, the projection system is higher on Pelfrey than might be expected, with a breakout rate of 36 percent and improve rate of 70 percent.

The Mets, winners of five in a row, will be seeking a sweep of the three-game series in Philadelphia tonight against Eaton. Eaton had a dreadful 2007 season, with the third-worst RA in the majors (6.51), but amongst teams in which he started more than once against, he was most successful facing the Mets, posting a 4.24 RA and 1.29 WHIP in 23 1/3 innings over four starts. In the fun-but-statistically-meaningless department, he also pitched very well against New York during his salad days in San Diego--the period of time when he approached being a serviceable, league-average starter--and is 5-0 with a 3.08 RA in eight career starts against the Amazin's.

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

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