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May 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (16-12) at Red Sox (17-13), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (30 1/3 IP, 23 H, 13 R, 16/22 BB/K) vs. Clay Buchholz (28 2/3 IP, 26 H, 14 R, 10/27 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 16-12 (134 RS, 111 RA); Boston, 15-15 (136 RS, 133 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #10; Boston, #6
Prospectus: In a battle for first place in the AL East, the Red Sox and Rays resume their fight from last weekend, in which Tampa swept the punch-less Sox. Jackson has improved from his earlier stints in the majors despite a lower strikeout rate than usual and his usual number of walks thanks to a 100 point decrease in his BABIP from the past two years with Tampa Bay. Expecting him to hold down a .248 mark for the season is a bit much; the more impressive statistic to watch is his homer rate. Jackson gave up 1.1 HR/9 last year, but is down to 0.6 this season. That's pretty close to the 0.5 HR/9 he allowed in 2006, so Jackson does have the ability to keep the ball out of the stands.

Buchholz is a fascinating pitcher to watch, as he uses his fastball more or less only half the time, instead relying on his secondary pitches to fool hitters. His changeup (26.7 percent, 78.3 mph average velocity) and curve (19.2, 76.1) are both excellent offerings that he uses liberally. Buchholz does have one notable flaw in the early going: the opposition is hitting a meager .188/.233/.275 when no one's on base, but they have had much more success when Buchholz pitches from the stretch (.310/.396/.524). He'll have to correct that issue before he can be labeled a frontline starter in the majors; watch to see what it is he does differently from the stretch tonight.

Matchup: White Sox (14-12) at Blue Jays (12-17), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (28 2/3 IP, 38 H, 19 R, 8/16 BB/K) vs. Shaun Marcum (33 1/3 IP, 22 H, 13 R, 12/26 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 16-10 (134 RS, 108 RA); Toronto, 15-14 (119 RS, 112 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Blue Jays, #20
Prospectus: Buehrle posted some ugly numbers in April-5.65 ERA, 11.9 H/9-but the good news is that some of those issues are not of his doing. The White Sox defense has allowed six infield hits (11.8 percent of all grounders) to slip by when he's on the mound, which has helped contribute to his .351 BABIP. Both of those figures should drop with more innings, and Buehrle's 4.65 QERA helps confirm that. His 1.9 G/F ratio is an improvement on his 1.1 mark from last season, and once the defense catches up, his numbers should improve. Marcum is once again defying the laws of BABIP; his .200 BABIP will eventually move back towards a league-average .300, and combine that with his 1.4 HR/9 and 3.2 BB/9, and his ERA will be headed up.

On the offensive side of the ledger, Toronto's team EqA is .252, below the league average and 22nd in the majors. Alex Rios (.306/.386/.449, .296 EqA) is the only full-timer really hitting well, though the return of Scott Rolen to the lineup should help. Matt Stairs (.280 EqA in 79 PA) and Gregg Zaun (.272 EqA in 85 PA) have hit well, but David Eckstein's at .230, Lyle Overbay's at .268, and Vernon Wells is at .250. They're the regulars who need to step it up if this team is going to have a chance in the AL East.

Matchup: Cubs (17-11) at Cardinals (18-11), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Rich Hill (19 IP, 13 H, 8 R, 14/14 BB/K) vs. Adam Wainwright (38 2/3 IP, 30 H, 13 R, 9/28 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 18-10 (174 RS, 124 RA); St. Louis, 18-11 (135 RS, 104 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; St. Louis, #7
Prospectus: Hill's had a rough time in his four starts of 2008, with an equal number of walks and strikeouts. Oddly enough, his ERA hasn't suffered too badly, thanks to opponents hitting just .197/.337/.333 with a .217 BABIP against him. He'll need to heal what ails him before too much longer, as his stats will regress towards his QERA of 6.38. Wainwright continues to be impressive, thanks in part to a lower walk rate-2.1 against last year's 3.1 per nine-and over three times as many strikeouts as free passes. The only significant change in his pitch distribution is an increase in his use of the slider at the expense of his changeup, but the two effective off-speed pitches in his repertoire should help him beat hitters often.

As of May 1, these two teams are equals offensively according to EqA, with both posting a .283 mark. However, the Cubs have scored nine more runs than they are estimated for, while the Cardinals are underperforming expectations at 16 runs below their EqA estimates. As you can see from the shout-out to Pythagoras in the numbers above, they are essentially an even match in their actual and expected records. Regardless of whether April's performance by the Cardinals is reflective of their true talent or not, seemingly improbable starts like this are part of why we watch the games.

Matchup: Dodgers (15-13) at Rockies (11-17), 6:05 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Brad Penny (37 1/3 IP, 39 H, 13 R, 10/19 BB/K) vs. Jeff Francis (32 1/3 IP, 33 H, 18 R, 12/21 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 17-11 (142 RS, 110 RA); Colorado, 11-17 (114 RS, 144 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; Colorado, #17
Prospectus: Brad Penny's peripherals bear watching, as the strength of his performances rests on his ability to keep the ball from flying out of the park. He has a 2.89 ERA so far, but is only striking out 4.6 hitters per nine; that's down a full strikeout from his 2007 rate, which itself was below his career average of 6.4 per. On the positive side, Penny has seen a dip in his walks from 3.2 to 2.4 per nine, though his QuikERA isn't as optimistic as his ERA, coming in at 4.93. Penny pitches half of his games in Chavez Ravine, netting him an assist in run prevention, but his performance won't hold up if he can't get his strikeouts up above the league average. On the other side, Jeff Francis has lost a full strikeout per nine (6.9 to 5.9), replacing that with an extra walk (2.6 to 3.3). He's giving up two homers per as well, and has seen a jump in his HR/FB to 18 percent. There's no significant change in velocity or pitch distribution, so this could be a blip on the Coors-fueled radar.

Losing Troy Tulowitzki to injury won't help Francis, as Tulo's defensive chops were part of their run to the World Series in 2007. Tulowitzki was worth 9.4 WARP last year on the strength of a (Coors assisted) .291/.359/.479 line and 25 runs above average defensively. Clint Barmes takes over, and although Barmes is hitting .292/.324/.508, his career Rate2 at shortstop is 96, four runs below average. Considering he's a .254/.295/.387 career hitter with a forecasted .268/.316/.410 line, the Rockies will have a problem at short in Tulo's absence.

Matchup: Mets (14-12) at Diamondbacks (20-8), 6:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: John Maine (27 2/3 IP, 26 H, 11 R, 17/23 BB/K) vs. Micah Owings (31 IP, 22 H,128 R, 9/28 BB/9)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 13-13 (119 RS, 118 RA); Arizona, 19-9 (165 RS, 109 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #9; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Maine's 3.58 ERA is a wonder considering he's dishing out free passes to 5.5 hitters per nine. His 7.5 K/9 is a full strikeout below his '07 rate, but it's still impressive. Still, the walks are an issue, and with the low number of grounders he induces, his QERA is an ugly 5.69. On the other hand, Micah Owings has improved dramatically from '07 by increasing his strikeout rate from 6.3 to 8.1 per nine. According to Pitch f/x, he's throwing his fastball more often (73.9 percent against 68.6), and has cut his little used curveball out of the mix. This approach has earned him a 3.48 ERA (3.85 QERA) and has helped solidify the D'backs rotation as one of the best in the majors. Owings is also hitting .421/.450/.632, pushing his career line in the majors to .354/.373/.671.

Chris B. Young is once again hovering around a .230 batting average, but this time he remembered to bring his walking shoes to work: he's trotting to first in 13.4 percent of his plate appearances, though he's also seen a jump in his strikeouts to 30.9 percent. That batting average won't climb if he can't increase the number of balls in play, but a .227/.336/.455 line is an improvement on last year's .236/.296/.467. He's still only playing close to his 25th percentile PECOTA forecast, but he's brought his line-drive rate up considerably from last year (21.3 percent vs. 15.1). It's possible he'll raise the average and come closer to his weighted mean forecast by year's end.

Related Content:  Brad Penny

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