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April 29, 2008

Prospectus Today

Totally Unreal

by Joe Sheehan

Yesterday we broke down five things we know are real. Today, it's five things that are not.

1. The Marlins. Their lead in the NL East is a mirage created by a 6-2 record in one-run games. The Marlins have been outscored by three runs this season, and currently have the NL's biggest positive gap between their record and their third-order record, the latter of which is a better indicator of underlying performance. Their offense has been productive thanks to its balance-just one player, Cody Ross, has been substantially below replacement level, and six regulars have at least a .280 EqA. At that, the combination of being next-to-last in walks drawn and strikeouts probably bodes ill for a team already carrying an unimpressive .325 OBP.

Keep in mind that the offense is the best thing about the Marlins. Their defense has improved from wretched to average, at least by Defensive Efficiency. Looking around, they have a center fielder at shortstop, a third baseman at second, a second baseman in center half the time, and a DH in left field, so they're more likely to drift back towards the bottom of the league than do anything else. That's a problem, because the pitching staff-next-to-last in the NL in strikeouts-needs all the help it can get. Scott Olsen's 2.03 ERA is a mirage; he's walked as many men (13) as he's struck out, and is getting by on an absurdly low .187 BABIP for a team that allows about 30 percent of the balls in play to become baserunners. He's gotten all of Andrew Miller's good fortune-the prize of the winter's big trade is being let down to the tune of a .450 BABIP. Those two numbers will move towards each other.

The combination of a soft early schedule (14 games against the Nationals, Pirates, and Astros, in which they went 9-5) and some luck in close games (3-0 in extra innings to go with the 6-2 record in one-run affairs) has served to make the Marlins April's mirage. Not only will they be evicted from first place soon enough, they could plummet rapidly come the end of the next month, which features a 10-game road trip through New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. At least there aren't a lot of people who will be disappointed when it happens.

2. The Cardinals. Just a hair behind the Cubs in what was expected to be a rebuilding year, the Cardinals are doing it by throwing strikes. No NL pitching staff has walked fewer men than their 74, leading to the third-fewest runs allowed and second-best ERA in the league. Without overpowering stuff-165 strikeouts, a mere 11th in the league-Cards pitchers have been pounding the strike zone and taking their chances.

They're winning this game of chance thanks to a strangely low home-run rate: just 19 allowed, third in the NL, in 243 1/3 innings. That number almost has to go up when you look at the pitchers on the staff. Just to pick on one guy, Kyle Lohse has thrown 34 1/3 innings without yielding a long ball. He has an ERA of 2.36 despite a 14/8 K/BB in that time. His G/F of 1.80 is out of whack with his career mark of 1.04. Lohse usually gives up a homer every seven or eight innings. Now, it's possible this is a mid-career reinvention; it's more likely that it's 30 strange innings, and that he'll go back to being Kyle Lohse shortly. The rest of the staff is similar-Braden Looper has allowed one homer in 26 2/3 innings; Ryan Franklin, of all people, none in 13 1/3 innings; Brad Thompson, one in 17 1/3 innings. These rates are unsustainable.

There's a reason beyond the pitching staff for these figures. Clay Davenport noted last week that the Cards have played the weakest schedule in baseball. It's weak largely because it's been populated by teams that can't hit. The Cards have played seven games against the Giants (.365 SLG, 14th in NL; 14 HR, last); six against the Astros (.410 SLG, seventh in NL); five against the Brewers (.385, 11th; almost all innings pitched by RHPs) and nine others against the Nationals, Rockies, Pirates, and Reds. The Cardinals have played 75 percent of their schedule against teams with below-average slugging percentages. When that changes, they'll allow more home runs, more runs, and slip away from the top of the NL Central.

3. The Tigers. Just about every team, even very good teams, goes haywire for a couple of weeks. The Tigers just happened to go haywire in the first two weeks of the season, causing a staggering amount of panic. Since their 2-10, 2.8 R/G start, the Tigers are 9-5 and scoring seven runs per contest. Their offense is fine, and with Curtis Granderson back in the fold, they'll score more than enough runs to contend.

Whether they win or not is going to be up to the pitching staff, which has been terrible. The Tigers are 13th in the AL in walks allowed with 119. Of their five Opening Day rotation starters, three have walked more men than they've struck out, and Justin Verlander can see the line (20/18 K/BB). Two relievers, Denny Bautista (7/9 K/BB) and Todd Jones (4/4 K/BB) are in the same boat while sporting excellent ERAs. There are no substantial solutions available from within the organization, and no high-value trade chits to move to bring in any help. Still, it seems incongruous that Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman would both continue to allow six runs per nine innings and a 1:1 K/BB all year long. When that changes, the Tigers will leapfrog the pretenders in the AL Central and be left battling the Indians-who have issues of their own-for the division crown.

4. Bronson Arroyo. This looked more insightful 24 hours ago, before Arroyo threw a quality start against the Cardinals Monday night in a 4-3 win. With that game in hand, you're looking at a pitcher with a 29/12 K/BB in 31 innings, excellent numbers. Once again, Arroyo is struggling with the long ball, allowing seven so far in his six starts (one last night). Even that is largely the result of one terrible day against the Phillies back on April 7, with four homers allowed to the 27 batters he faced.

Arroyo's real problem has been that old bugaboo, BABIP. The Reds aren't a good defensive team by any stretch-16th in Defensive Efficiency at .706-but when Arroyo has been on the mound, balls have found more holes than usual. Arroyo has allowed 43 hits despite striking out nearly a man an inning, largely thanks to a BABIP of .375. Even if that reverts to his career high of .313, set last year, it will bring his ERA down, and the rest of his numbers make him a good mid-rotation starter, an asset for a Reds team that can be a factor in the wild-card chase.

5. Ryan Dempster. The last time Dempster was a starter, he walked 22 men in 33 2/3 innings and was pulled from the rotation with a 5.35 ERA in six starts. The time before that, he had an ERA of 6.54. Before that, 5.38. So when you look at Dempster and his 2.90 ERA and 3-0 record, remember that he hasn't been successful as a starting pitcher since 2000.

While a good story, Dempster's low ERA is more about a .190 BABIP than anything else. He has a 21/14 K/BB in 31 innings, which won't get you very far. However, as with Kyle Lohse, a good defense and a new affinity for groundballs (2.17 G/F, by far his highest as a starter) are keeping the hits and extra-base hits (four) off the board. Dempster is due for a correction shortly, and one could come as early as Wednesday night against the power-laden Brewers.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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