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April 29, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Padres (10-16) at Phillies (14-12), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Maddux (32 IP, 28 H, 3.94 RA, 19/6 K/BB) vs. Cole Hamels (36 IP, 27 H, 3.25 RA, 30/12 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: San Diego, 79-83 (4th, NL West); Philadelphia, 86-76 (3rd, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #27; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: Maddux makes his third attempt to get win number 350 tonight in Philadelphia. He's currently in ninth place on the all-time wins list, five behind Roger Clemens. If he wins 14 games again this year, as he did last season, Maddux will tie Kid Nichols for seventh with 361 wins; if he pitches again next season, Maddux has a good shot at eclipsing the 373 wins of both Pete Alexander and Christy Mathewson to move into third on the all-time list. Moving up any further than that doesn't seem to be realistic--Walter Johnson has 417 wins behind Cy Young--but at the rate Maddux has motored along after turning 40, who knows? If you exclude the 1994 strike season and the shortened campaign in 1995, Maddux has made at least 33 starts and won at least 13 games in every season since 1988. He is currently fifth on the all-time games started list, and with five more starts will surpass Phil Niekro for fourth. If Maddux finishes this year and pitches most of 2008, he'll be able to climb one spot further, past Don Sutton's 756 starts. PECOTA forecasts that Maddux will make 48 starts between 2008 and 2010 and collect 19 wins before retiring. The system, however, incorporates the reality that Maddux is on the fringes of statistical comparability, a reflection of his greatness, but also a confession of the difficulty in projecting his future.

Maddux's quest to move up the all-time wins list is not being helped by San Diego's offense, which is last in the majors in runs scored per game (3.2) and OPS (620). If the Padres were to finish the season at that level, it would be the lowest team OPS in the offensive boom era begun in the 1990s, and the lowest since the 1981 Blue Jays put up a 614 mark in that strike-shortened season. San Diego is also batting just .225; the last team to hit that poorly was the 1972 Mets. The Padres aren't the only team that's struggling to produce offense--there are five so far with an OPS below 670 (Washington, Kansas City, Minnesota, and San Francisco). Part of San Diego's doldrums can be explained by the fact that it has played 15 of 26 games at home in Petco Park, the most extreme offense-suppressing environ in baseball. The Padres have hit .214/.293/.291 in 621 PA at home, but haven't been that much better away from Petco: .240/.302/.371 in 424 PA.

Matchup: Blue Jays (11-15) at Red Sox (15-12), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (41 IP, 41 H, 3.73 RA, 25/6 K/BB) vs. Jon Lester (31 2/3 IP, 37 H, 5.40 RA, 16/19 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Toronto, 77-85 (4th, AL East); Boston, 91-71 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #20; Boston, #6
Prospectus: The Blue Jays and Red Sox begin a three-game set tonight at Fenway Park. Lester takes the hill for Boston, moving up a day to start in place of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is being given extra rest after missing a turn with the flu. Lester has not been able to keep the walks from piling up, which has limited him to an average of less than six innings per start. Halladay, meanwhile, is carrying his usual heavy load--he has averaged over eight innings in his first five turns, which easily leads the major leagues. Halladay has long been a paragon of pitch efficiency, but this year he has been even better, posting career-low averages of 13.1 pitches per inning and 3.37 pitches per plate appearance. Halladay's K/9 rate is a low 5.5, so it is clear batters are putting his sinker in play early in at-bats. That sinker has been working as well as ever, as he sports a 2.85 groundball/fly ball ratio, which would also be the best mark of his career should he keep it up. There's likely a decent chance that he can maintain that lofty figure, due to the fact that sinkerball pitchers are often said to become better with more work, as a somewhat tired arm actually serves to increase the downwards motion on the pitch. Halladay has been more effective after the All-Star break throughout his career, with a 3.73 RA and 1.21 WHIP in the second half compared with 4.23 and 1.24 in the first, which backs up the tired-arm theory.

The Blue Jays arrive in Fenway with the AL's largest deficit between actual wins and Pythagorean expected wins, as they have outscored their opponents by more runs than the Red Sox have, yet won four fewer games than Boston. The Blue Jays are 2-6 in one-run games, while the two blowout games they have been involved in this season were both wins. One of those blowouts was a 10-2 victory over the Red Sox in Canada on April 5, part of a three-game sweep of the defending World Champions. Halladay pitched eight innings to beat Josh Beckett in the finale of that series.

Matchup: Brewers (14-11) at Cubs (16-9), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (28 IP, 14 H, 0.96 RA, 24/4 K/BB) vs. Jason Marquis (23 1/3 IP, 26 H, 3.86 RA, 15/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 86-76 (2nd, NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: In the opener of an important three-game set, Sheets takes the hill tonight for the first time since missing a start with tightness in his triceps. The Brewers ace shut down the Cubs in Wrigley on Opening Day, allowing two hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings while striking out seven. Sheets didn't get any run support then, running up against Carlos Zambrano in a game Milwaukee eventually won 4-3 in 10 innings, and the Brewers have in general failed to give their pitchers much support since, scoring less than 4.5 runs per game. Their offense will receive an infusion tonight with the return of center fielder Mike Cameron from his 25-game amphetamine suspension. In his absence, Milwaukee's center fielders hit .278/.324/.433--a solid bit of filling, but a performance Cameron should be able to improve upon. Cameron slumped last year in San Diego, but he was sending balls into the canyons of Petco Park, which meant that his sub-par .242/.328/.431 season was actually above average, as evidenced by his 20.4 VORP, 5.8 WARP, and park-adjusted OPS+ of 103. Miller Park is essentially a neutral environment, and PECOTA projects that Cameron will come back to post very similar numbers to his excellent 2006 season.

It's less clear whether Cameron will be able to help the Brewers as much as expected with his glove, despite his sterling reputation. While hard to quantify, the 35-year-old Cameron is no longer the defensive maestro he once was. In 2007 Milwaukee finished 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency, converting 68.4 percent of balls in play into outs, while so far this year Milwaukee is 13th with a 71.2 percentage--and that's without Cameron. Issues remain--Bill Hall hasn't been much of an improvement over Ryan Braun at third base after shifting back to his old position, and Braun is still adjusting to life as an outfielder. The good news, however, is that the team's right side of the infield has played much better so far, especially Rickie Weeks, who has just one error at second base after making 13 in 115 games last season, when he cost the Brewers a startling -21.2 Simple Fielding Runs (SFR).

Matchup: Athletics (17-10) at Angels (16-11), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (25 IP, 21 H, 3.60 RA, 16/8 K/BB) vs. Joe Saunders (35 1/3 IP, 27 H, 2.55 RA, 15/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 79-83 (2nd, AL West); Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #3; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: In last Saturday's preview, it was noted that the Athletics were currently first in the majors in triples and last in home runs, a combination that has occurred over a full season just eight times in major league history. The Athletics are no longer last in homers thanks to three blasts last night, but they are still first in triples, tied with the Diamondbacks at nine. Their ninth triple came from perhaps the league's most unlikely of sources--Frank Thomas, who entered Monday with one triple in his last 4,511 plate appearances, but who lumbered around the bases to third when his first-inning fly ball down the right-field line eluded Vladimir Guerrero. The Athletics went on to a 14-2 blowout of the Angels to take sole possession of first place in the AL West, and also of the best record in the AL, a surprising position for a team many felt would struggle. Oakland has scored more runs than any other AL squad despite a .256 team batting average and .374 slugging percentage--an 863 OPS with runners in scoring position has helped--and also leads the junior circuit with 3.47 RA, having allowed 0.6 HR/9 IP and posted a greater than 2-to-1 K/BB ratio. Oakland's strong April is also a marked change for a team which has been notoriously slow to get going in recent years.

In addition to his triple, Thomas also drew a walk last night, one of six the Athletics accumulated. Oakland moved into first place in the AL with 121 free passes; by comparison, Los Angeles is in 12th place, with 79. That disparity continues a general trend with the two clubs: over the past seven seasons, the Athletics have finished no worse than fourth in the AL in walks, and the Angels no higher than ninth. The Garret Anderson-era Halos have been fueled not by patience but by hitting for a high average, and this year Los Angeles is second in the majors with a .283 average. The Athletics and Angels have both had great success in this decade--five playoff appearances for Oakland since 2000, and four and a world title for LA--which shows that there is more than one clear path towards successfully producing runs, although Los Angeles' method of collecting a group of high-average hitters is not as easy to duplicate.

Matchup: Rockies (10-16) at Giants (12-15), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Aaron Cook (34 IP, 24 H, 3.18 RA, 17/11 K/BB) vs. Tim Lincecum (29 1/3 IP, 27 H, 1.23 RA, 36/14 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Colorado, 81-81 (3rd, NL West); San Francisco, 68-94 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #17; San Francisco, #26
Prospectus: As Joe Sheehan discussed recently, Tim Lincecum has been essentially the entire Giants team this season. Should San Francisco fans therefore be worried about their franchise player in light of his last start, a 122-pitch effort forged in 6 1/3 stressful innings? The consensus appears to be no--at least not yet--for Lincecum is thought to be able to handle those types of intensive starts better than most young pitchers. Lincecum was worked extremely hard in college, throwing 342 innings over three seasons for the University of Washington, with 22 starts of over 120 pitches, according to college baseball analyst Boyd Nation. The small right-hander used to even come back after starting a Friday game to close on Sunday, and according to Kevin Goldstein did not even ice his arm in college, "because his arm never felt sore," suggesting that Lincecum is simply a "different beast," as Goldstein puts it. To play the devil's advocate, however, it's also worth considering that there have been pitchers thought by many to be beyond reproach injury-wise who broke down at least in part because of heavy usage. The most famous recent example is of course Mark Prior, whose mechanics were believed to be flawless.

Lincecum's latest start brings into focus the debate over just how important pitch counts are as a tool for evaluating and managing both injury risk and pitcher effectiveness. Tony La Russa, for one, does not think them very telling at all. And while pitch counts certainly have a great deal of merit as a rough barometer to prevent abuse and maximize production, pitch thresholds can be elevated to an importance that they oftentimes might not merit. The Pitcher Abuse Points metric (PAP) first created by BP's Rany Jazayerli was designed not to serve as a strict limit beyond which lies definite danger, but to attempt to record the risk inherent in pursuing what every team wants--the maximum amount of innings from its best pitchers. The 100-pitch mark was introduced as a point at which teams should begin to closely monitor a starter, it being the level at which starting pitchers' performance historically began to degrade, but that's not to say that having thrown 100 pitches, or 110 or 120, should be the sole reason for removing a pitcher. The challenge is to attain a sophisticated approach to balancing injury risk and performance reward that takes into account the pitch count and PAP data as well as more scouting-based knowledge of the durability, stamina, and injury history of individual pitchers--an approach that every team tries to master.

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

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