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April 26, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Braves (12-11) at Mets (11-11), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tim Hudson (30 2/3 IP, 28 H, 3.23 RA, 16/5 K/BB) vs. John Maine (22 2/3 IP, 23 H, 3.57 RA, 16/14 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 87-75 (2nd, NL East); New York, 93-69 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #5; New York, #9
Prospectus: The remarkable moment in the Braves-Mets game last night wasn't when Kelly Johnson smacked a two-run go-ahead homer in the sixth inning. It actually came one batter before that, when Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens knocked out his first career hit, a single to center field, before coming around to score what proved to be the winning run on Johnson's blast in a 6-3 Braves victory. Jurrjens' single was the first hit by an Atlanta pitcher on the season. In their initial 22 games before last night, Braves' pitchers went 0-for-39, with five walks, 13 strikeouts, five sacrifice bunts, three RBI, and only a single run scored. The hitless streak was the 13th longest by a team's pitchers since 1959. Atlanta owns the top spot on the list as well--in 2006, it went 34 straight games at one point without a pitcher getting a knock. Tonight's starter Hudson was also a part of the 2006 fallow period, and finished the 2006 season with six hits in 62 at-bats. Surely it's no coincidence that Mike Hampton last played for the Braves in 2005--Hampton is one of the best hitting pitchers ever, with a .242/.292/.354 line and 15 career homers. Atlanta needs Hampton to overcome his latest injury and get back into action, if for nothing else than to return the ninth slot in its lineup to a level of respectability.

Matchup: Yankees (12-12) at Indians (11-12), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Ian Kennedy (14 IP, 19 H, 9.64 RA, 13/13 K/BB) vs. Jeremy Sowers (67 1/3 IP, 6.55 RA, 0.4 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 96-66 (1st AL East); Cleveland, 92-70 (1st AL East)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #14; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: The Yankees battle the Indians in the second of four games in Cleveland, as the two teams continue their first series meeting since last year's tilt in the ALDS. Gnats didn't play a role in last night's game, but Cleveland prevailed again anyway, winning 6-4 despite a trio of Yankee homers. Tonight, two young pitchers face off that had no part in the teams' 2007 playoff series--Kennedy was not on New York's playoff roster, while Sowers was left off of Cleveland's after he struggled badly in the first two months of the season and spent the bulk of the year at Triple-A Buffalo. Sowers pitched very well in 14 starts with Cleveland in 2006, but it is clear that his success had a lot to do with good fortune, with only 3.6 K/9 and a very low .257 BABIP, continuing on in the same vein he had struck at Triple-A (a .263 BABIP and a lone homer allowed in 97 2/3 innings). Last year with the big club, Sowers' BABIP stabilized at .310 and his K/9 fell to 3.2, which boiled down to his getting hammered.

Sowers begins his third tour of the AL tonight, getting the call from Buffalo--where he had a 3.57 RA and 16/8 K/BB in 22 2/3 innings--to replace the injured Jake Westbrook. Throwing a lefty at the Yankees is usually a good idea, because of their preponderance of lefty bats (notably Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu, and Robinson Cano). Major league teams in general hit better against lefties, but not the Yankees: this year they have an OPS of 717 off southpaws, versus 785 off right-handers, and they have put up a higher OPS against right-handers each of the past two seasons, as well.

Matchup: Marlins (14-9) at Brewers (13-10), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Hendrickson (30 2/3 IP, 29 H, 4.99 RA, 14/10 K/BB) vs. Carlos Villanueva (23 IP, 26 H, 5.09 RA, 11/11 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Florida, 72-90 (5th, NL East); Milwaukee, 86-76(2nd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #15; Milwaukee, #12
Prospectus: Last night, the Brewers were shut out in a 10-inning game started by Scott Olsen, a left-hander. It was the first time Milwaukee had been shut out this season, and the first time it had been blanked in a game started by a southpaw since July 2, 2006, when the Brewers lost 8-0 to the Twins and Francisco Liriano. Last year, Milwaukee was whitewashed five times, but it was by four of the game's premier right-handers--Jake Peavy, Justin Verlander (in his no-hitter), Tim Lincecum, and Adam Wainwright--and Tony Armas Jr. Last night's game is a good indication that the Milwaukee offense just isn't right yet, because the Brewers entered Friday's game against Olsen with a team 885 OPS versus lefties, the third-best mark in baseball, and last year the Brewers led the majors with an 860 OPS and 73 homers against southpaws. So, even after Olsen's success last night, finesse lefty Mark Hendrickson has a difficult job facing him tonight. That job is made even more tough by the fact that Hendrickson has a more severe platoon split than most left-handed pitchers do. PECOTA projects Hendrickson this season to give up a .452 slugging percentage to righties versus .375 to lefties, a differential 23 points greater than what the average lefty allows. That means that the struggling Milwaukee right-handed bats--Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Bill Hall, and J.J. Hardy--could be in for a breakout.

Matchup: Orioles (13-9) at White Sox (12-9), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Steve Trachsel (20 2/3 IP, 21 H, 5.66 RA, 9/12 K/BB) vs. John Danks (23 2/3 IP, 17 H, 3.04 RA, 16/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Baltimore, 67-95 (5th, AL East); Chicago, 78-84 (3rd, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #13; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Young lefty Danks will be looking to build on two consecutive scoreless outings in which he threw a combined 14 2/3 innings. Add in a good first start, and Danks now has three quality starts in four tries. He put together four in a row in early May last season, but proceeded to get shelled the remainder of the way, with just three quality starts in his final 18 turns, so it's far from certain whether Danks' good start is indicative of genuine improvement. However, there is reason for optimism; consider Danks's player comment from Baseball Prospectus 2007, which observed that he "has an annoying habit of needing more time than most to adjust to a new level, so expect some early adjustment blues when he gets the call." Last year was unquestionably a rough transition to the majors for Danks, for he allowed 28 homers in 139 innings with Chicago, or 1.8 per nine, the third-highest rate in 2008 amongst pitchers throwing 70 innings or more. Danks hasn't given up a single homer in his 23 2/3 innings this year, although he has had the benefit of facing Minnesota and Oakland in two of his four starts, teams currently tied for last in the majors in home runs.

Danks' opponent on the mound tonight is Trachsel, who over the course of his career has been the virtual epitome of a league-average innings muncher. The 37-year-old Trachsel owns a career ERA of 4.33, one-hundredth of a point below the park-adjusted league average over the course of his 16 years in the majors. Trachsel is perhaps best known for his slow pace on the mound, especially with runners on base. Is this reputation deserved, or are Trachsel's slow-down tactics more perception than reality? The average time of all games Trachsel has started in a given year has been longer than the major league average for that year in 13 of 16 seasons, including the last nine in a row. For his career, games Trachsel has started have averaged 3:01 hours, whereas the average major league game in that timespan has been 2:55. For comparison, games started by fast-working strike-thrower Mark Buehrle since he entered the league in 2000 have averaged 2:43, 12 minutes shorter than the major league average.

Matchup: Athletics (15-9) at Mariners (11-13), 6:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Justin Duchscherer (5 IP, 1 H, 1.80 RA, 6/2 K/BB) vs. Erik Bedard (11 IP, 8 H, 4.91 RA, 10/8 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 79-83 (2nd, NL West); Seattle, 76-86 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #3; Seattle, #23
Prospectus: Both Duchscherer and Bedard will be coming off of the disabled list to start tonight at Safeco Field. Bedard was shelved with hip inflammation after his first two starts, which, as Will Carroll reported, was not the first time he's had such problems in his career. Duchscherer also has a history with hip problems, which limited him to 16 1/3 innings out of the bullpen for Oakland last season. Surgery last year appears to have corrected that problem, but Duchscherer hurt his right biceps in his first start this year (and first since 2003 after being converted from relief). Duchscherer pitched poorly in his one rehab start at Triple-A Sacramento earlier in the week, but perhaps Oakland was loathe to witness another performance by fill-in Lenny DiNardo, who allowed seven runs and 15 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings during his two substitute starts. Despite DiNardo's efforts, the loss of Dan Haren in an off-season trade, and the additional loss of Rich Harden to an early-season injury, the Oakland rotation has been outstanding, ranking second in the AL with a SNLVAR of 3.4, and first with a 3.73 RA. Seattle's starters have also managed just fine, even without their new ace Bedard, as their rotation ranks ahead of Oakland with an AL-best 3.5 SNLVAR, and just behind the A's with a 3.74 RA.

The Athletics have hit four homers since we last checked on their power outage, but with 11 jacks they are still tied for last place (with Minnesota and Kansas City). Oakland has however hit eight triples, the most in the AL and tied with Arizona for the most in the majors. There have only been eight teams that finished last in the majors in homers and first in triples: the 1996 Twins and 1983 and '91 Cardinals, the 1949 White Sox, the original-incarnation Senators of 1935, '39, and '48, and the 1894 Orioles. Oakland significantly hurt its chances of becoming the ninth team on this list by signing free agent DH Frank Thomas several days ago, although the move helped its offense greatly. Thomas is 18th on the all-time home run list with 516, but the lumbering slugger has just one triple in his last nine seasons. However, the A's also recently claimed outfielder Rajai Davis off waivers from the Giants, who, with 32 triples in his pro career versus 26 home runs, could help to balance out the Big Hurt's presence.

Thanks to Jason Paré, William Burke, and Clay Davenport for database research

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

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