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April 27, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Yankees (12-13) at Indians (12-12), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chien-Ming Wang (32 IP, 31 H, 14 R, 9/18 BB/K) vs. C.C. Sabathia (24 IP, 36 H, 27 R, 16/25 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st, AL East); Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #14; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: Sunday features multiple marquee pitching matchups, with Wang versus Sabathia in Cleveland up first. Wang has brought his strikeout rate up from 4.7 last year to 5.1 over his first five starts, a trend that would serve him well in the long run. Wang induces so many grounders that hits are bound to get through on occasion-he's giving up almost one hit per inning before today's start-so the extra strikeouts will help him on days when the defense is failing him, or when he can't keep the ball on the ground as much. Sabathia is coming off of his first decent start of the year; he didn't dance around hitters, going right at them early. He'll need to utilize the same strategy against a patient Yankee lineup.

Robinson Cano's early-season issues continue, as this is the second year in which he's started poorly. His .152/.212/.217 line has been a drag on an otherwise excellent Yankee offense, but it's early enough that it could just be sample-size issues. What interests me is seeing how long it takes for his power to come around this year, in order to see if Cano is going to be a perpetually slow starter in terms of his extra-base hits and adjustments to pitchers. His Isolated Power is just .067, with a mere four extra-base hits over 90 at-bats; if you're looking for positives, his BB/PA is at 7.2 percent, which would far and away be a career high for the young second baseman.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (17-7) at Padres (10-15), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Brandon Webb (35 IP, 24 H, 10 R, 10/29 BB/K) vs. Jake Peavy (36 IP, 25 H, 8 R, 11/29 BB/9)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); San Diego, 78-84 (4th, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; San Diego, #27
Prospectus: Here's a pitching combination I would love to see every time out. With Webb, you have a pitcher who can get you out on the ground (64.2 percent grounder rate for his career, 60.6 in 2008) or with a strikeout (7.5 per nine this year), both necessary given his home park's tendency to inflate offense. Peavy throws half of his games in the pitcher-friendliest park in the league, but even without that he's a force on the mound: he's posted an ERA under three in three of the last four seasons. Peavy's strikeout rate is down this year, "only" 7.3 K/9 against last year's 9.7 and his career 9.0 rates, but he's inducing more groundballs and using his cutter more often at the expense of his fastball.

As a team, San Diego is barely hitting above replacement level, even with the park adjustment. They won't compete in the NL West if they don't do better than a .236 team EqA, no matter how good the rotation and bullpen are; everyone besides Adrian Gonzalez (.286/.343/.480) and a healthy Brian Giles (.267/.352/.456) needs to start hitting. Don't look to the farm for instant help either-Chase Headley would need to hit the majors running, given that he's hitting .224/.307/.328 at Triple-A.

Matchup: Reds (10-15) at Giants (11-14), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Edinson Volquez (22 1/1 IP, 15 H, 3 R, 13/23 BB/K) vs. Barry Zito (25 2/3 IP, 34 H, 22 R, 12/10 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central); San Francisco, 68-94 (5th, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #22; San Francisco, #26
Prospectus: Unless you're someone who likes to see former quality pitchers tank, Zito is not going to be the draw for you in this contest. The lefty has seen a drop in velocity for all of his pitches, and now his fastball is all the way down in the 83 mph range. He has utilized both of his breaking pitches less as the seasons go by in favor of his changeup; whether this is intentional shunning of pitches to mix it up or because he's lost a lot of break is tough to answer thanks to the lack of Pitch f/x data from the beginning of the decade, but if you're looking for another reason he's struggled as of late, you can point there.

Volquez is the pitcher to watch here, as he's put together a solid strikeout rate (9.3 K/9) while inducing plenty of grounders from the opposition (almost 60 percent GB rate, and 2.1 G/F). He's improved on essentially every aspect of his peripherals from his previous stints in the majors with the Rangers, though his walk rate (5.2 per nine) remains a concern. He's already had to work hard to keep his ERA as low as it is, with an 89.3 percent strand rate; in a tiny four-start sample, Volquez has allowed hitters a .179/.324/.214 line with runners on (not much different than his numbers pitching from the windup: .213/.302/.277).

Matchup: Cubs (16-8) at Nationals (8-17), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (24 2/3 IP, 29 H, 20 R, 11/18 BB/K) vs. John Lannan (23 2/3 IP, 24 H, 9 R, 10/21 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 91-71 (1st, NL Central); Washington, 73-89 (4th, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Nationals, #28
Prospectus: Lilly has had an interesting run to begin the season: a 7.30 ERA, a drop in his strikeout rate by a full K from last year, and an increase in walk rate from 2.4 to 4.0 per nine. Lilly's Batting Average on Balls in Play is a lofty .327, surprising given the Cubs rank fourth in Defensive Efficiency with a .727 mark. The thing to watch for against the Nationals is whether this hike in BABIP is due to Lilly serving up hittable pitches or poor luck on defense in his five starts so far. His velocity is down a tick (86.6 mph on his fastball against 88.4 last year) and he's using his fastball and curve less in favor of his slider and changeup. He might want to switch back to last year's setup, where the fastball and curveball were his most frequently used offerings.

Lannan pitched at four levels last year, starting at High-A and ending the season with 34 2/3 innings for the Nationals. Though his 4.15 ERA at the highest level was decent enough, he walked more hitters than he struck out (17/10) and only sported a 2.6 K/9. In his first 23 2/3 innings of 2008, Lannan has posted a strikeout rate back in line with his A-ball numbers (8.0), though he is still walking 3.8 per nine. Lannan just missed making Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 Prospects list for the Nats, but that was based on the fact that he couldn't miss bats in the high minors or majors. If he has figured out a way to trick hitters-and it's worth noting that he's using his slider roughly 20 percent of the time now, against less than one percent of the time last year-then his upside is higher than it appeared to be only a month ago.

Matchup: Angels (15-10) at Tigers (11-14), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (30 IP, 35 H, 16 R, 7/19 BB/K) vs. Justin Verlander (30 1/3 IP, 28 H, 25 R, 14/17 BB/K)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st, AL West); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #11; Detroit, #18
Prospectus: Weaver's falling strikeout rate is cause for concern, as he started his major league career with 7.7 per nine, lost over a K on the way to 6.4 in 2007, and has started this season down at 5.7. Weaver is not a pitcher who is going to pick up ground-ball outs, as he G/F for every year of his career is below 1.0. He's using his curveball less often than he used to, mixing in a high-80s cutter in its stead. With the curve an effective pitch, despite its limited use, Weaver should mix it in more often. Verlander has seen everything he built up last year come crashing down, as his strikeout rate (5.0), walk rate (4.2), and homer rate (1.5) are all bad news. This isn't a matter of poor luck on balls in play either, as Verlander's BABIP is a well-below-average .251. He's stranding just over half of all his baserunners-and there have been plenty of those, with a 1.38 WHIP over five starts-and it could be even worse, as Detroit's defense ranks ninth in Defensive Efficiency. Drops in fastball velocity and effectiveness are causes for concern given his 200+ inning season last year, but the 6'5" pitcher was also in his age-24 season, and so not in the middle of the injury nexus. Still, it's something to watch for tonight, especially if you're familiar with his work.

The Tigers have clawed their way back into things in the AL Central after an 0-7 start. They now find themselves at 11-14 following yesterday's win versus the Halos. As a team they have a .277 EqA, and as mentioned previously, their defense ranks in the top third of all teams. The starting rotation that helped to doom their 2007 bid is once again a problem, though: Jeremy Bonderman (21/17 BB/K, 1.3 HR/9) and Kenny Rogers (15/9 BB/K, 32 hits in 24 2/3 IP) are struggling, and if not for Armando Galarraga, the Tigers wouldn't have a single decent starter in April. The thin pen hasn't been as much of a problem as everyone thought it would be, but that could merely be because the rotation is screwing up in advance. This will have to change if the Tigers want to make their way up the ladder in the AL Central, and if there's anything that can't just be tweaked to fix in the case of their struggling starters, we might not see that happen. That, more than a random 0-7 start, will be their downfall in the long run.

Related Content:  Strikeout Rate,  Year Of The Injury

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