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April 28, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Orioles (14-11) at White Sox (14-10), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Daniel Cabrera (30 2/3 IP, 27 H, 4.40 RA, 19/14 K/BB) vs. Javier Vazquez (30 2/3 IP, 33 H, 4.40 RA, 30/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Baltimore, 67-95 (5th, AL East); Chicago, 78-84 (3rd, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #13; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Both Cabrera and Vazquez enter this afternoon's game having made the same number of starts, thrown the same number of innings, and given up the same number of runs. Cabrera began the year by allowing nine walks and 10 runs in his first two starts, but since then has fired off three straight quality starts with just five walks allowed in 20 2/3 innings. Cabrera led the majors in walks allowed last season, and the AL in 2006. His last outing against Seattle was just his fourth career start (out of 121) in which he did not walk anyone, and the first in which he went eight innings or more without surrendering a free pass. Chicago has been a more patient team than Seattle this season, so this afternoon's game will be a better gauge of whether or not Cabrera is truly fixing his control problem.

The White Sox lead the American League with 32 home runs, and they led the American League in home homers last season. They did so in '07 with 110 of their 190 hit at the Cell, and led the majors in home park homers in 2006, 2004, and 2002 as well. That's not simply a matter of talent; U.S. Cellular field is perhaps the easiest American League park in which to homer. Over the past five years, it has ranked fourth, second, first, first, and third, respectively, in major league park factor for home runs, and the White Sox have hit more home runs at home than on the road in each of the past eight seasons. The only other team with such a split is the Rangers, who also play in a homer-happy ballpark. This hasn't always been the case with U.S. Cellular Field; when it opened in 1991 (as New Comiskey Park) to 1999 the White Sox hit more home runs at their new park than on the road in just four of nine seasons, but the park has been radically altered since its opening.

Matchup: Yankees (12-13) at Indians (12-12), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Mussina (27 1/3 IP, 29 H, 5.27 RA, 10/4 K/BB) vs. Aaron Laffey (49 1/3 IP, 4.74 RA, 0.9 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 Bombers and Tribe play the finale of their four-game set in Cleveland, with New York seeking a split. Tonight Mussina goes up against a pitcher 16 years his younger in Laffey, who will be making his season debut. In some ways Laffey is a similar pitcher to fellow youngster Jeremy Sowers, who made his first start of the year in Saturday's win over the Yankees, and with whom Laffey is competing for the spot in the Indians rotation vacated by the injured Jake Westbrook. Both pitchers are left-handers, and both have sub-par strikeout rates. They differ in that Laffey is one of the more extreme ground-ball pitchers in baseball, a key reason behind PECOTA's rating Laffey a better prospect than Sowers, now and into the future. Laffey has not put up a ground-ball percentage below 62 at any of the six stops he has made over the past two seasons. That includes Cleveland last year, where he made nine starts with a ground-ball percentage of 64.5, which would have ranked third in the major leagues had he pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA crown. Laffey gave up just a pair of long balls in his 49 2/3 innings with the Indians, and in his 659 pro innings through this season has allowed a minuscule 0.3 HR/9.

Cleveland lost a 1-0 game yesterday thanks to the efforts of Chien-Ming Wang and the devastating Joba Chamberlain/Mariano Rivera duo, and is two wins below its Pythagorean record. The defending AL Central champs can't consider themselves too unlucky to be a game below .500, however. The Indians haven't hit much at all, as they carry the AL's second lowest batting average (.247) and fourth lowest OPS (707). However, an 840 OPS with runners in scoring position versus 631 with none on has helped push the Indians into the middle of the pack in terms of runs scored.

Matchup: Pirates (10-15) at Mets (13-11), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ian Snell (30 1/3 IP, 37 H, 4.75 RA, 21/9 K/BB) vs. Johan Santana (34 2/3 IP, 27 H, 3.37 RA, 32/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Pittsburgh, 73-89 (5th, NL Central); New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #30; New York, #9
Prospectus: Shea Stadium has not been kind to Carlos Delgado--not the park, and not the fans. The Mets faithful and Delgado have a rough relationship, going all the way back to when he refused to stand for the national anthem while with Toronto, and then made disparaging remarks about the Mets' organization upon signing with the rival Marlins before the 2005 season. Two years ago all was forgiven thanks to a 38-homer season in his first campaign with the Amazin's, but the discontent returned with Delgado's struggles last year. Then came yesterday, when Delgado, who has been booed all year at home due to his slow start, cracked two home runs, prompting roars from the crowd at Shea. Delgado refused to respond with a curtain call, however--after the game he said he felt his performance did not warrant such a show--and thus the fans turned around and booed him again.

It's not so hard to understand the fans' frustrations, because they have seen the absolute worst of Delgado. Even in his fine 2006 season, Delgado hit just .226/.331/.487 at home as compared to .304/.390/.608 on the road. Last year, matters got even worse, as Delgado hit .225/.313/.368 in 288 PA at Shea, against .288/.351/.519 away from home. Delgado entered yesterday's game hitting .158 in 47 home PA this year (although he has actually been better at Shea than on the road in the early going). None of this is really new--Delgado has put up a worse OPS at Shea over the course of his career than at any of the other 18 ballparks in which he has 100 or more lifetime plate appearances, but Shea is one of the best pitchers' parks in baseball.

Speaking of the fans, Delgado has certainly been able to hear them, for the Mets in their final season at Shea have averaged 50,334 fans over their first 12 home dates, tops in the National League. The last time the Mets led the senior circuit in attendance was in 1988. New York is on pace to draw over four million fans for the first time in team history, which also would be the first time it has happened in the NL since the Rockies got 4.48 million fans to come out for their inaugural season in 1993. The Mets are also giving the Yankees in their last season at Yankee Stadium a run for their money, having drawn just 254 fewer fans per game than the Bombers so far.

Attendance data courtesy Baseball Reference

Matchup: Astros (12-14) at Diamondbacks (18-7), 6:40 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Chris Sampson (30 2/3 IP, 29 H, 4.99 RA, 14/10 K/BB) vs. Dan Haren (23 IP, 26 H, 5.09 RA, 11/11 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Houston, 72-90 (6th NL Central); Arizona, 87-75(tied for 1st NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #21; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Even if you can't catch the entirety of this one, you might want to tune in for the late innings in hopes of catching a glimpse of Arizona pitcher Max Scherzer's major league debut. Taken in the first round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Missouri, Scherzer was ranked the third-best prospect in the Diamondbacks system by Kevin Goldstein, and the 90th best prospect overall. Scherzer would likely have been rated higher if not for the general belief that his future will definitely be in a major league bullpen; before this season he'd shown an inconsistent slider and little else to mix in with his outstanding fastball. However, in four starts for Triple-A Tucson this year, he struck out an eye-popping 38 batters over 23 innings (14.9 K/9). Even more impressive, Scherzer gave up just 12 hits and only three walks. Last year, control was a problem for Scherzer at Double-A Mobile, as he allowed 4.9 BB/9 over 73 2/3 innings. It is unclear whether Arizona will have Scherzer pitch out of the bullpen for now or move him into a starting spot in place of either Edgar Gonzalez (the weakest member of the Snakes rotation) or Micah Owings, who left his start on Saturday with an ankle injury and might be forced to miss time.

It seems downright unfair that Arizona should have a weapon of Scherzer's caliber available to bring up now, for the Diamondbacks currently own the best record in baseball. Every move the Diamondbacks have made has worked in the first month, including the off-season trade with the Astros that swapped their closer Jose Valverde for set-up man Chad Qualls and utilityman Chris Burke. Valverde has always been prone to stretches where his stuff goes haywire, which is what he's suffered through in April, with four homers and 11 runs allowed in 12 innings. In his new uni, Qualls has been fantastic thus far, having yet to allow an earned run in 14 1/3 innings of work.

Matchup: Athletics (16-10) at Angels (15-10), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Chad Gaudin (24 IP, 20 H, 4.12 RA, 19/6 K/BB) vs. Jon Garland (30 1/3 IP, 41 H, 5.93 RA, 4/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 79-83 (2nd, AL West); Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #3; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: The two teams tied for the best record in the AL face off in the opener of a four-game series in Anaheim tonight. Oakland and Los Angeles offer an interesting contrast in managerial styles. Under manager Mike Scioscia, the Angels are an active bunch on the basepaths: this year they've attempted 33 steals through their first 26 games, and they led the AL last season with 194 attempts. Bob Geren's charges finished last in the majors last season with only 72 stolen base tries, and with 10 attempts so far this year, are on pace to end 2008 with 10 fewer than in 2007. Scioscia generally makes a lot more moves than Geren--examining the manager statistics in Baseball Prospectus 2008, one finds that he pinch-hit 101 times last year to Geren's 64, ordered 48 sacrifice attempts to Geren's 31, and had a runner in motion when a batter swung at a pitch 170 times, compared with 134 for the A's. One managerial move that Scioscia does not enjoy making is ordering his pitchers to intentionally walk a batter; that happened just 22 times last year, after Angels pitchers intentionally walked 24 and 27 in 2005 and 2006. Perhaps because he had a shakier bullpen to work with, Geren ordered 60 intentional walks in his first season at the helm.

Garland takes the mound to make his sixth start for his new team. Never a strikeout pitcher, his best season in terms of whiffs was his rookie year back in 2000, with 5.4 K/9. Last year his rate eroded to a new low, 4.2, and this year he has just four strikeouts in his first five starts. With last Wednesday's six-inning, one-strikeout performance, Garland became the fifth pitcher since 1997 to strike out four or fewer batters in a five-start stretch spanning 30 innings or more. Aaron Cook had such a run last season, Kirk Rueter in 2005, Nate Cornejo in 2003, and Tim Belcher in 1999. Obviously, this is not a good list to find oneself on. The news isn't all bad, as Garland's ratio of groundballs to fly balls is above two to one, which would be the highest mark of his career. Even so, unless Garland gets back up to the strikeout range he's accustomed to living in, it could be a long season for him.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

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

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