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April 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Marlins (13-9) at Brewers (13-9), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Scott Olsen (27 2/3 IP, 19 H, 9 R, 8/13 BB/K) vs. Yovani Gallardo (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 3/4 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Florida, 71-91 (5th, NL East); Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #24; Milwaukee, #15
Prospectus: The Marlins have done surprisingly well in the first few weeks of the season, and will take on a potential playoff club in the Brewers tonight when Olsen takes the mound against Gallardo. Olsen flashed a lot of potential in 2006, with 8.3 K/9, a 4.04 ERA, and 180 innings pitched, but 2007 was a different story: 5.81 ERA, 6.8 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9 (despite pitching half of his games in a park that lowers offense) and a .350 BABIP. That last lofty figure was in part a product of his 23.7 percent liner rate; Olsen may have been easy to read after off-season scouting reports were put together, and the opposition smacked his offerings around. If he can keep the liner rate around a more normal 18-20 percent, we'll see Olsen pitch more effectively.

The Marlins have been outscored 111 to 105 this year, and against a guy like Gallardo that trend probably won't reverse itself tonight. Part of Florida's issue thus far is their defense: their Defensive Efficiency rating of .691 is 22nd in the league, and remains something they will need to address if they plan on contending anytime soon. In the lineup, Jeremy Hermida needs to pick up the pace, as his .245/.286/.434 line is a big drop from last season's .296/.369/.501. In 2007, he got a boost from a .350 BABIP that more normally would have been around 25 points lower, while his BABIP in '08 is 36 points under expectations; given time, his performance should stabilize. Milwaukee's offense is having issues, ranking only 11th in team Equivalent Average in the NL. Taking their offensive shortcomings into account, 13-9 is a great record for an offense-laden club that isn't hitting yet, so if the Brewers can keep up the starting pitching that's propping them up, they'll be able to keep pace with the Cubs.

Matchup: Braves (11-11) at Mets (11-10), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (25 1/3 IP, 23 H, 9 R, 9/21 BB/K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (17 IP, 20 H, 6 R, 6/9 BB/9)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 86-76 (tied for 2nd, NL East); New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #8; New York, #2
Prospectus: This is an interesting game due to the parallels between the starters: Jurrjens and Pelfrey are both young pitchers who could help their teams make the playoffs if they deliver solid performances, especially since both rotations have starters with significant injury histories. So far, Jurrjens has risen to the challenge, with 7.5 K/9. Jurrjens' current peripherals look similar to his minor league numbers with the Tigers, and he's kept the ball on the ground this year, with a 1.9 GB/FB ratio and 52 percent of all batted balls winding up grounders. In contrast, Pelfrey continues to put up disappointing numbers for the Mets. Although he finally dropped his walk rates under four per nine, his strikeout rates have dropped even further, to a below-average 4.8 per nine. Pelfrey has stranded 87 percent of his baserunners-given his 1.53 WHIP, there have been plenty of those-which is why his ERA looks nice. Pelfrey has dropped the velocity on his fastball and started throwing it more often, at the expense of his changeup; that's probably not a good thing for a guy who was already being told to use his secondary pitches more often.

Yesterday was Chipper Jones' 36th birthday, and he celebrated by collecting three hits, including a home run. Jones is now hitting .442/.485/.733 for the season. That won't last, of course, but his hot start shouldn't be a surprise-Jones has hit .327/.419/.594 since the start of 2005, and that the slugging mark ranks fourth amongst all hitters with 1000 PA over that time frame, behind only Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Ryan Howard. The OBP ranks fourth as well, behind Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Todd Helton. Pretty impressive for a guy who plays hurt and is supposed to be past his peak years.

Matchup: Red Sox (15-9) at Rays (11-11), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tim Wakefield (25 IP, 23 H, 12 R, 12/18 BB/K) vs. Matt Garza (8 IP, 12 H, 8 R, 5/5 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East); Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #9; Tampa Bay, #13
Prospectus: The Rays are a team Wakefield has had success against in the past: on his career, Wakefield sports a 3.12 ERA, 6.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9 against the Rays over 196 1/3 innings pitched. In the larger picture, if he remains healthy and in the majors for a few more seasons Wakefield may find himself in some nifty company. He currently has 170 career wins and 1808 strikeouts; if he were to reach 200 and 2,000, respectively, he would become the 39th pitcher to do so since 1957. There are plenty of impressive names on that list, and Wakefield wouldn't be the only knuckleballer on it. Garza makes his first start while coming off of the DL. The Rays would love for him to replicate the success he had with the Twins last year, when he had a 3.69 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 0.9 HR/9 and 73 percent of his baserunners stranded despite a lofty .345 BABIP. PECOTA's 75th percentile forecast looks similar to that, and with the Rays' improved defense-their Defensive Efficiency is .725, sixth in the league, after last year's historically poor showing-Garza should have some help getting there.

The Rays offense is cause for additional optimism, even if hearing that Eric Hinske leads the offense (.327/.403/.727, with a .369 EqA) might make you think otherwise. B.J. Upton isn't producing at the same rate as his younger brother, but his .312/.393/.442 line is impressive, though he's been caught stealing three times already in seven attempts. Carlos Pena needs to get his batting average up (.197) but his batting eye and power are in working order (14 percent BB/PA, .243 Isolated Power); his ISO will jump up when he raises the batting average as well, as the hits he's losing out on are, most likely, not all singles. It will also help when Pena stops striking out in 38 percent of his plate appearances. Evan Longoria's first 12 games on the job went well enough, with a .282/.383/.564 showing; Rays fans hope to get used to that production, since he may be in town for nine years at a great price.

Matchup: Athletics (14-9) at Mariners (11-12), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dana Eveland (23 2/3 IP, 17 H, 6 R, 11/18 BB/K) vs. Miguel Batista (24 2/3 IP, 30 H, 13 R, 10/16 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 80-82 (2nd, AL West); Seattle, 75-87 (3rd, AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #18; Mariners, #17
Prospectus: Despite the walks, Eveland has done well in his first four starts; he's striking out 6.9 hitters per nine innings, and the homers that plagued him during his short stint in the majors with the Brewers haven't materialized. Eveland has been hit lucky so far (.247 BABIP) despite a liner rate approaching 22 percent. BABIPs for Oakland starters are usually lower than you'd expect, but that's a significant difference that should come back to hurt Eveland's ERA later in the season. Batista is coming off of his best outing of the season, and claims he's figured something out that can help when he doesn't have his best stuff. Batista's pretty average when he has his best stuff, so that's a good sign, and tonight should be a good opportunity to pinpoint what he's doing differently.

Last night was the first game of 2008 for Frank Thomas as an Athletic; he walked twice. Given that PECOTA pegged the A's for 80 wins prior to acquiring Thomas, you would think they may be just over a .500 team with him, assuming this is just a slow start and not the beginning of the end. My concern isn't with this year's slow start, it's with last year's numbers outside of Toronto, because the Big Hurt was a big drag outside of Canada, hitting just .272/.355/.409 stateside. He also hit .259/.360/.435 line against right-handers. Is his decline, based on these few early-season plate appearances, overstated? Of course, but that doesn't mean he can climb back to his previous heights, and playing in McAfee for half of his games won't help, either. Seattle was expected by some analysts to make noise in the West this year, but they won't do much of anything hitting a very meh .249/.310/.391. Things aren't pretty away from Safeco either, with a .229/.291/.368 overall showing. The good news for the M's is that it will be hard to hit that poorly on the road all year, so things should improve.

Matchup: Astros (11-12) at Cardinals (14-9), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Chacon (26 IP, 20 H, 8 R, 11/14 BB/K) vs. Braden Looper (19 2/3 IP, 23 H, 12 R, 7/12 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Houston, 72-90 (tied for 5th, NL Central); St. Louis, 75-87 (4th, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #27; St. Louis, #5
Prospectus: Normally a game between two teams slated by PECOTA to end up near the bottom of the division wouldn't be that exciting, but the Astros have won five straight and the Cardinals find themselves only 1 games out of first in the NL Central. Chacon is in for a rude awakening when his BABIP ends up around the league average; he's only allowed 10.3 percent of his batted-balls as line drives, and as the liner rate drifts closer to the league average, his BABIP should follow suit; he can kiss his 6.9 hits per nine rate away when that happens. Chacon's been lucky rather than benefiting from a quality defense (the Astros rank a mere 25th in Defensive Efficiency in the early going), so it may not take more than a handful of starts to straighten his line out. Looper seemed unlucky last year when he stranded just 66 percent of baseruners, but that trend has continued so far this season. Part of the issue this year is that Looper has induced more grounders; normally this is a positive for anyone, especially pitchers who aren't collecting lots of strikeouts, but Looper's had almost 11 percent of his hits allowed go on the ground through the infield defense, which suggests that this is just a stretch of poor luck.

Albert Pujols has been the Cardinals' best hitter so far, which is to be expected. Following him on the Cardinals' offensive leader board is Ryan Ludwick (.328/.418/.690, .393 EqA) and Skip Schumaker (.329/.418/.468, .317); Adam Wainwright has hit .333/.308/.583. Rick Ankiel, has struggled in his 86 plate appearances, as his line stands at .244/.314/.462; he'll need to do better than that if the Cardinals want to stay relevant in the NL Central. Last night, I overheard some baseball analysts on television-the program will remain anonymous, although I'm sure you know where this is going-say that if Lance Berkman played in Cincinnati everyday, he would be a Hall of Famer, this based on his hitting 18 homers there during his career. Berkman is a .321/.426/.566 hitter who walks often, rarely strikes out, and has even managed to pump out 875 RBI over eight full years and parts of two others. He has 265 career homers, 1302 hits, 69.5 career WARP3, and more than likely another eight, maybe 10 seasons left in front of him. He's also come through the steroid era unscathed, so I'm not sure what else he needs to do to impress the mainstream. My advice? Do yourself a favor and appreciate Berkman for what he is while you watch the game tonight.

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