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April 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rangers (7-12) at Red Sox (13-7), 11:05 a.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kason Gabbard (18 2/3 IP, 21 H, 5 R, 7/6 K/BB) vs. Clay Buchholz (14 2/3 IP, 18 H, 12 R, 12/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Texas, 73-89 (4th, AL West); Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #21; Boston, #9
Prospectus: The Red Sox play their annual Patriot's Day morning game today against the Rangers at Fenway Park. The early start time coincides with the beginning of the Boston Marathon, so that fans leaving the stadium can potentially catch the runners going through Kenmore Square. Given the typical Red Sox affair, the marathon might well have long since passed through Fenway by the time the contest wraps up--Boston's games have been marathons in their own right, averaging more than three hours this season, with six contests lasting at least 3:39 already. Gabbard will be pitching against Boston for the first time since the Red Sox dealt him (along with David Murphy) for Eric Gagne at last year's trading deadline. Gabbard isn't the man Bostonions looking to catch the marathon want on the mound; heading into this season, he had issued 4.7 unintentional walks per nine in his 106 major league innings. Without much ability to strike batters out, Gabbard will have to cut down that walk rate significantly in order to succeed as a starter in the majors.

After yesterday's 6-5 comeback win, Boston will be looking for the sweep of the four-game series today. Rookie Jed Lowrie was a key part of Sunday's drama, with two hits and two runs, and is now 5-for-12 with three doubles and five RBI in five games since his call-up. Lowrie started the game at second base, then moved to shortstop later in place of Julio Lugo. Lowrie vs. Lugo at short is an interesting choice between offense and defense. Lugo is off to a rough .273/.304/.303 start after posting a sub-.300 OBP last year, and it is likely that Lowrie would provide more pop in the middle infield. Many feel Lowrie does not have the glove to stick at shortstop in the majors, a sentiment backed up by PECOTA's projection of -4 FRAA for 2008. However, Lugo's glove has been declining for several years:


Year  Innings at SS     SFR  FRAA
2003      1198.0       14.1   12
2004      1238.0       13.6   12
2005      1338.2       -0.1    5
2006       647.2       -6.2   -5
2007      1228.1        1.2   -4
2008       156.0        ---   -4

The 32-year-old Lugo is clearly no longer the elite defensive shortstop he was with Tampa Bay in 2003 and 2004. While he might still be a better shortstop than Lowrie this season, Lugo also might not have enough of an edge with the glove at this point in his career to justify playing full-time over the hot-hitting rookie.

Matchup: Mets (10-7) at Cubs (12-6), 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: John Maine (16 2/3 IP, 18 H, 7 R, 10/12 K/BB) vs. Carlos Zambrano (26 2/3 IP, 27 H, 9 R, 23/3 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Chicago, 91-71 (1st, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Chicago, #7
Prospectus: The first-place Cubs and the Mets begin a brief two-game set at Wrigley Field tonight for the first series between the two teams considered the best in the NL by PECOTA. As a result, the next two games could prove to be a preview of a playoff tilt come October, because these teams don't play again after tomorrow until the last week of the season in New York. Zambrano has flashed improved command in the early going, having not walked more than a single batter in any of his four starts thus far, a feat he accomplished in just six of his 34 outings last season, and in just three of 33 the year before; Zambrano walked more batters than any pitcher in baseball from 2006-07. He has never before had a four-start stretch in which he's gone at least five innings and walked a total of three batters or less until now. The big right-hander doesn't seem to be sacrificing any of his natural stuff to gain command, either, as evidenced by 23 strikeouts. He's also in mid-season form with regards to his famous temper, overturning the Cubs dugout gum tray during an April 11 game.

Today's game also features the two best defensive teams in the National League from last season--Chicago ranked first in defensive efficiency in '07, and the Mets second. This year New York is near the top again, ranking second in the majors behind Arizona in the early going. Much of that can be attributed to Jose Reyes, who after playing the position erratically early in his career has turned himself into arguably the best shortstop in the National League. Reyes would have been better choice for the Gold Glove last year than MVP Jimmy Rollins, according to both SFR (he had 18.5, an exceptional total) and FRAA (10, worth a full win over the average glove). So far this season, Reyes has been even better, as measured by FRAA, with an eye-popping rate of 123 (23 runs above average per 100 games played) through his first 14 games.

Matchup: Cardinals (12-7) at Brewers (11-7), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Adam Wainwright (22 2/3 IP, 21 H, 8 R, 16/3 K/BB) vs. Carlos Villanueva (16 IP, 23 H, 11 R, 10/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: St. Louis, 75-87 (4th, NL Central); Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #5; Milwaukee, #15
Prospectus: With yesterday's loss to Jonthan Sanchez and the Giants, the Cardinals fell a half-game behind the Cubs, but still ahead of the Brewers. Milwaukee had the chance to jump ahead of St. Louis yesterday, but wasted a fine effort from Yovani Gallardo in his first start of the season, as closer Eric Gagne blew a two-run lead in the 10th. At the end of the game, the right side of the box score was a particularly ugly sight for Milwaukee's regulars: a .174 batting average for Rickie Weeks, .231 for J.J. Hardy, .222 for both Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and .211 for Bill Hall. The current top four on the Milwaukee offensive VORP list read like a random assortment of names from 1999 rosters: Gabe Kapler, Jason Kendall, Craig Counsell, and Tony Gwynn (that's Tony Gwynn Jr., not his father, but you get the idea). Both Kapler, who has four homers, and Kendall, who is hitting .358, are certainly playing like it's 1999, the year that Kapler put up his career-high in homers (18) and Kendall his in batting average (.332 in half a season).

Wainwright will be looking to keep those averages down in going for his third quality start of the season, and second straight against Milwaukee. Last Wednesday, he threw 7 2/3 versus the Brewers, gave up two runs to earn the victory, and also hit a homer off Villanueva that was a critical blow in a 5-4 game, helping the Cardinals take two of three at Busch Stadium in the battle between the two squads that employ the pitcher in the eighth spot. Wainwright would probably merit hitting eighth even in a more conventional lineup: he could give fellow Georgia native Micah Owings a run for the Silver Slugger award in the NL this year with a .329/.354/.500 career line in 88 PA. He has contributed with the bat this season to a surprisingly productive Cardinals' offense, which PECOTA projected to be the worst in the Central but which currently ranks fifth in the majors with a 796 OPS.

Matchup: Padres (8-10) at Astros (7-12), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Justin Germano (20 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 6/5 K/BB) vs. Roy Oswalt (23 IP, 35 H, 18 R, 16/4 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: San Diego, 78-84 (4th, NL West); Houston, 72-90 (tied for 5th, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #22; Houston, #27
Prospectus: Heading into Sunday, three of the Padres' top five hitters by VORP weren't hitters at all: Randy Wolf was fifth, Jake Peavy was fourth, and Justin Germano was second, thanks to a single in his two at-bats this season. Of course, the threshold for a replacement level offensive performance at pitcher is far lower than at any other position, making that observation not quite fair, but even with yesterday's nine-run outburst the Padres have scored fewer runs per game than any other team in the majors, tied with San Francisco at 3.16 per. Germano has been excellent so far in his role of fifth starter, although two starts at Petco and one against the Giants in AT&T Park obviously may have aided his numbers. Of course, striking out less than three per nine won't play over the long run, no matter how well San Diego's defense performs.

The Astros are looking like they'll be a bad team this year, but that doesn't mean there aren't going to be some interesting things to watch. Center fielder Michael Bourn has already stolen 11 bases without being caught, putting him on pace for 98 on the season despite the fact that he's hitting .211 with a .300 OBP. Bourn's average is bound to rise, and unlike many speedsters he is willing to take a walk, with 10 already this season. Just for fun, here's a look at the company he could potentially keep if his OBP were to stay in its current general range:

Most Stolen Bases, OBP of .320 or Lower

Year  Player            PA    OBP    SB  CS
1985  Vince Coleman    692   .320   110  25
1986  Vince Coleman    670   .301   107  14
1980  Omar Moreno      745   .306    96  33
1988  Vince Coleman    679   .313    81  27
1991  Marquis Grissom  597   .310    76  17
1966  Lou Brock        678   .320    74  18
1984  Juan Samuel      737   .307    72  15
2004  Scott Podsednik  713   .313    70  13
1977  Frank Taveras    600   .306    70  18
1989  Vince Coleman    624   .316    65  10

Matchup: Phillies (9-10) at Rockies (9-9), 6:35 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Kyle Kendrick (14 1/3 IP, 16 H, 13 R, 6/9 K/BB) vs. Mark Redman (15 2/3 IP, 19 H, 10 R, 9/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Philadelphia, 86-76 (3rd, NL East); Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Phillies, #6; Rockies, #20
Prospectus: The Phillies begin a two-game rematch of last year's NLDS; the Rockies swept Philadelphia in that series, and the Phillies will take their vengeance where they can get it. They'll have to do it without Jimmy Rollins; Rollins sprained his left ankle in an April 8 game against the Mets, and after nearly two weeks of trying to get back to speed on the fly, the Phillies placed him on the DL yesterday. The unfortunate part of that for Philadelphia is that Rollins pinch-hit on Saturday, meaning the move can not be made retroactively, and he will have to miss the maximum 15 days. In his place the Phillies will continue employing backup Eric Bruntlett, who has hit .186/.255/.256 in 43 plate appearances so far. Using MLVr--a rate-based "estimate of the additional number of runs a given player will contribute to a lineup that otherwise consists of average offensive performers" which was created by David Tate and Keith Woolner--one can get a good idea of how much offense the Phillies will give up on a daily basis with their MVP on the shelf. Bruntlett's PECOTA-projected MLVr for 2008 is -.133, essentially 2/5 of a run less than Rollins' projection of .069. Multiply that out by 15 games, and you find that the Phillies can expect to miss about three runs of offense--not that meaningful a figure (10 runs is generally equated as worth one win). That's because Rollins' slugging is expected by PECOTA to regress from its career-high level of .531 last season, and the system also sees Bruntlett as nearly an equal source of OBP (.336 to .346).

Of course, that calculation doesn't take into account defense, and Rollins is a better glove man than Bruntlett, by both SFR and FRAA. Last year, Bruntlett had 0.3 SFR and -1 FRAA in 348 2/3 innings at short for Houston, while Rollins was at 5.0 and +5 in 1441 1/3 innings, and won the Gold Glove. Bruntlett made a pair of errors that contributed to a loss to the Mets in Philadelphia's first game with Rollins out of the starting lineup. He has settled in since then, however, as evidenced by the final play of last night's game, when Bruntlett made a diving stab of a hard grounder roped off the bat of Carlos Beltran and threw the speedy Beltran out to preserve a 5-4 win and allow Philadelphia to salvage the final game of their three-game series with New York.

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

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