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April 30, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (12-14) at Indians (12-14), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jarrod Washburn (29 IP, 34 H, 4.03 RA, 15/5 K/BB) vs. Cliff Lee (31 2/3 IP, 11 H, 0.57 RA, 29/2 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Seattle, 76-86 (3rd, AL West); Cleveland, 92-70 (1st, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #23; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: Lee has started the season with a stretch of pitching that hasn't been seen in the last 50 years. As Rany Jazayerli noted on BP Unfiltered, Lee has been remarkably effective lately. His success is even more remarkable when seen in light of his struggles last season, when he posted a 6.75 RA and 1.52 WHIP in 97 1/3 innings. An extreme fly-ball pitcher, Lee has posted ground-ball percentages of 36, 34, and 37 in the past three seasons; this season that figure is at a career-high 45 percent, which helps to explain why he hasn't allowed a single homer. Ground balls usually lead to more hits, but Lee's BABIP is a major league-low .158. Without taking anything away from Lee's amazing performance, it's worth noting that he has put together the streak against three of the least powerful offenses in the majors, having faced Oakland twice, Minnesota, and Kansas City, teams that rank 12th, 13th, and 14th in the AL in home runs. Lee has an excellent chance to keep rolling tonight, because Seattle's offense was projected by PECOTA to score the fewest runs in the AL this season.

Part of that offensive drain is due to the struggles of right fielder Brad Wilkerson. Ever since being traded for Alfonso Soriano in December of 2005, Wilkerson has failed to produce consistently: with the Expos he put up three straight seasons with an OBP of .370 or greater from 2002-04, but in 2006 and 2007 his OBPs fell to .306 and .319 in abbreviated campaigns, and this year he sits at .232/.348/.304. Wilkerson never hit for a high average and always struck out a lot, even in his good seasons, but those trends have grown worse in the past three years, which has kept him from contributing much despite a strong walk rate. This year, hitting mostly in the sixth and seventh spots in the Seattle lineup in front of a struggling Kenji Johjima, Wilkerson has scored just a single run in 68 plate appearances, an indictment of the Mariners' offense as much as Wilkerson's lack of power so far.

Matchup: Blue Jays (11-15) at Red Sox (15-12), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dustin McGowan (28 IP, 32 H, 4.50 RA, 23/16 K/BB) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (28 2/3 IP, 18 H, 3.14 RA, 28/17 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Toronto, 77-85 (4th, AL East); Boston, 91-71 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #20; Boston, #6
Prospectus: Matsuzaka has yet to allow an unearned run in his 28 2/3 innings this season, and Boston's Japanese right-hander has now thrown 233 1/3 innings and allowed 110 runs in his stateside career without surrendering an unearned tally. Just four batters reached on an error against Matsuzaka last season, when Boston committed the second fewest errors in the American League (81) and had the second best defensive efficiency in the majors (.712), and none have gotten on base via error this year. In addition to Boston's strong defense, batters find it difficult to even put the ball in play against him: 38 percent of opponents' plate appearances against Matsuzaka this season have ended in a walk or a strikeout, up from 32 percent last season. Hitters have been especially hard-pressed to make good contact against Matsuzaka's bevy of breaking pitches so far, with a .182 batting average off of him, but Matsuzaka's control has been even worse than it was last season, leading to 5.3 UBB/9, 18.1 pitches per inning, and less than six innings per start.

Boston extended Toronto's poor run of luck in close games last night, handing the Blue Jays a 1-0 defeat, their seventh one-run loss. Toronto has now dropped seven of its last eight, and the Jays' offense has been mostly to blame, as it ranks 12th in the AL in both slugging percentage (.364) and runs per game (4.3). The team's two biggest culprits are Marco Scutaro (.200/.351/.250, -2.9 VORP) at third and Shannon Stewart (.200/.308/.255, -3.3) in left. Both positions are primed for improvement; third baseman Scott Rolen just got into action for the first time for his new team, and the Jays also recently called up Adam Lind from Triple-A Syracuse to help stop the bleeding in left. The Red Sox have had no such problems scoring, as Boston's offense leads the league in both batting average and on-base percentage, and has put up the AL's second highest run total (134) to help carry a pitching staff that is 12th in the circuit in RA. That represents a large difference from last season, when the Red Sox gave up the fewest runs in the majors. The back of the bullpen has been mostly to blame, as all relievers besides closer Jonathan Papelbon and set-up man Hideki Okajima have combined for a 6.93 RA.

Matchup: Rays (14-12) at Orioles (15-11), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (30 2/3 IP, 31 H, 5.28 RA, 16/6 K/BB) vs. Matt Albers (16 1/3 IP, 13 H, 2.20 RA, 10/3 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Tampa Bay, 90-72 (3rd, AL East); Baltimore, 67-95 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #10; Baltimore, #13
Prospectus: The Orioles continued their surprisingly strong April last night, beating the Rays 7-4 in the series opener to remain percentage points ahead of Boston atop the AL East. The Orioles are doing it thanks primarily to a substantial defensive improvement--Baltimore finished last season 18th in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 69.1 percent of balls in play converted to outs, but so far this year is first with an efficiency of 74.1 percent. The logical place to look for the reason behind that big jump is to the team's new starters: Adam Jones in center, Luis Hernandez at short, and Luke Scott in left. Jones has a 2.68 range factor in center this season, compared with the major league average of 2.25. Last year Baltimore's primary center fielder, Corey Patterson, had a range factor of 2.09, below the MLB average of 2.42, and posted -1.8 Simple Fielding Runs (SFR). At shortstop, Luis Hernandez has made two errors in 164 2/3 innings, with a range factor of 5.36 per nine compared with the major league average of 4.68. He has taken over for Miguel Tejada, who was below average for the O's last season by both SFR (-0.7) and RF (4.27 to 4.47). In left field, Luke Scott's been better with the glove than last season's incumbent, Jay Payton, no surprise since Payton had -1.2 SFR in 2007 in left, while Scott was the best defensive right fielder in baseball last season, racking up 19.5 SFR. With Jones and Scott joining right fielder Nick Markakis, who was +7.7 in SFR last season with an above average fielding percentage and range factor, the Orioles have quietly created one of the best defensive outfields in the majors. All three of the Orioles' new starters on defense have greatly helped Baltimore's pitchers. Twelve of the 13 O's pitchers this season have BABIPs below .300, the league average, including Albers' .271. His GB/FB ratio is at 2.15 this season, so he has surely benefited from having Hernandez behind him.

Matchup: Tigers (12-15) at Yankees (14-14), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Bonderman (27 1/3 IP, 28 H, 5.93 RA, 17/21 K/BB) vs. Andy Pettitte (30 2/3 IP, 34 H, 4.11 RA, 17/10 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 90-72 (2nd, AL Central); New York, 96-76 (1st, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #18; New York, #14
Prospectus: The Yankees finally came home last night after playing a major league-record 18 April road games, but the Stadium did not help the Bombers to a victory, as Philip Hughes was roughed up for the fourth time this season in a 6-4 series-opening loss to Detroit. Tuesday brought more bad news--Alex Rodriguez would join Jorge Posada on the 15-day DL, costing New York the services of the hitters projected by PECOTA to rank 1-2 on the squad this year in both OBP and SLG.

Tuesday's news wasn't all bad, however, as relief pitcher Edwar Ramirez was recalled to the big club from Triple-A Scranton. Ramirez has one of the best pitches in baseball, and one of the best stories as well. The pitch is a surreal changeup that features a huge screwball break, down and in to right-handers. The story is that Ramirez, after throwing just two innings in the minors between 2004 and '05, signed on in 2006 for the inaugural season of the independent United League, and pitched himself onto the league's All-Star team as a member of the Edinburg (Texas) Coyotes before the Yankees signed him. Last year, in 56 2/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, Ramirez used his change to strike out 102 batters--that's over 16 per nine. Ramirez fanned 31 in his 21 major league innings, but was roughed up by six home runs; his changeup/fastball combination leads to large numbers of fly balls. Ramirez will have to work on that, but PECOTA is extremely bullish about his 2008 chances, generating a 70 percent breakout rate, the second highest of all pitchers who appeared in the majors last season, and a 91 percent improve rate, the highest mark. The system also projected an equivalent K/9 rate of 10.3 for 2008, the second highest of all professional pitchers, behind only Francisco Rodriguez. Ramirez's top comparable season is John Wetteland's 1993, when the future Yankees closer struck out 113 in 85 1/3 innings for Montreal. Between Ramirez and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees could have two of baseball's most proficient strikeout machines in the bullpen, and turn perhaps the most feared late-inning 1-2 punch (with closer Mariano Rivera) into a terrifying troika.

Matchup: Dodgers (13-13) at Marlins (15-11), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (20 2/3 IP, 24 H, 6.97 RA, 32/13 K/BB) vs. Scott Olsen (35 IP, 23 H, 2.31 RA, 13/13 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Florida, 72-90 (5th, NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; Florida, #26
Prospectus: Billingsley and Olsen have been almost complete opposites so far this season. The Dodgers' young right-hander has fanned nearly 14 batter per nine so far, yet his BABIP stands at .449, the second highest in the majors behind Florida's Andrew Miller. Olsen has the fourth-lowest BABIP, .187, but has struck out less than 3.5 men per nine, an even more steep deterioration of his strikeout rate than last season's drop from 8.3 K/9 in 2006 to 6.8. The easy explanation would be to say that Olsen has been lucky and Billingsley unlucky. While luck is almost certainly behind Olsen's run, however, there could definitely be more to Billingsley's high BABIP than misfortune, despite the fact that the Dodgers rank 26th in the majors in defensive efficiency. As Marc Normandin suggested in his Tuesday chat, one possible explanation is that Billingsley's wildness (5.7 UBB/9) has forced him to venture into the center of the zone with fat pitches on hitters' counts, leading to solid contact. Billingsley's BABIP will fall, of course, but it will take a significant improvement in his control in order to bring that BABIP and his high RA back down.

One player Billingsley probably can't blame for the hits that have been piled up against him is rookie third baseman Blake DeWitt. Entering the season with a strong defensive record in the minors at the hot corner, DeWitt has been excellent. With just one error in 165 2/3 innings, he leads all major league third baseman in fielding percentage. DeWitt's range factor per nine (3.72) also leads all major league third baseman, and he ranks fourth in zone rating. DeWitt has been surprisingly able with the bat as well, as he has thus far outperformed his PECOTA projection with a .270/.361/.365 line in 72 PA, better numbers than Nomar Garciaparra has put up in his last 500 PA, and also strong enough to carry DeWitt's defensive play. As sad as it is to say, the once-great Garciaparra's recent injury might actually help the Dodgers more than it hurts them.

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

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