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May 5, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (20-13) at Tigers (14-18), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (35 2/3 IP, 2.52 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 32 K) vs. Jeremy Bonderman (35 IP, 36 H, 5.14 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 18 K)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 18-15 (162 RS, 143 RA); Detroit, 15-17 (158 RS, 174 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #10; Detroit, #11
Prospectus: This game is a good candidate to last far longer than usual--both starters are prone to walks, and both offenses know how to exploit them. The games Matsuzaka has pitched this season have averaged over 3:19 in length, with five of six going three hours or longer. Bonderman pitched against the Red Sox back on April 9, a game that lasted 3:45 and produced the Tigers' first win of the year, although he struggled to get through the requisite five innings, walking four and giving up five hits. Matsuzaka threw 6 2/3 shutout innings the previous night to beat the Tigers by a 5-0 score, but walked four in a game that lasted 3:29. Bonderman carried a 17/21 K/BB ratio into his last start against the Yankees, and promptly loaded the bases on two hits and a walk in the first inning, but after getting out of that jam with only one run scoring, he allowed just three baserunners in the next 6 2/3 innings to pick up the win in his first quality start of the season. Bonderman struck out only a lone batter in the game, however, suggesting that he still has yet to conquer his early-season struggles.

After sweeping the Yankees in the Bronx, Detroit traveled to Minnesota and was swept by the Twins. The AL's best offense entering the series was held to one run in each of the first two games by the likes of Livan Hernandez and Brian Bass, and after the Tigers jumped on Boof Bonser for six in the first inning yesterday, they were shut out the rest of the way while Minnesota crept back for a 7-6 win. Frustrated by his offense's sporadic showing and his team's slipping back down after having pulled within a game of the .500 mark, manager Jim Leyland said after the game that "there will be changes tomorrow" to the team's lineup in the start of Detroit's seven-game home stand against the Red Sox and Yankees. The real problem for Detroit, however, has not been the offense, but the starting rotation: the Tigers' rotation has been worse than replacement level thus far, with Detroit being the only AL team to post a negative SNLVAR. Bonderman is one of two Tigers with a positive SNLVAR, along with fill-in Armando Galarraga, who has remarkably been by far the team's best starter.

Matchup: Cubs (18-13) at Reds (12-20), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ryan Dempster (37 IP, 3.65 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 22 K) vs. Johnny Cueto (35 IP, 5.91 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 33 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 20-11 (189 RS, 137 RA); Cincinnati, 13-19 (132 RS, 164 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Cincinnati, #18
Prospectus: Cueto's 33/6 K/BB ratio and low WHIP shouldn't translate to that high RA, but opponents are batting .421/.442/.711 in 45 plate appearances with runners on base against him. That highly inflated line with the bags occupied (compared with a .170/.204/.351 opponent performance in 98 PA with none on) could be bad luck, or it could reflect a problem with pitching from the stretch, such as a mechanical flaw or tipping of a pitch. Cueto has also given up six home runs so far, more than 1.5/9 IP, a far cry from his time in the minor leagues, when he allowed 24 homers in 348 1/3 career innings (0.6/9 IP). Just 83 of those innings came above A-ball, however, and Cueto is a fly-ball pitcher, so his home run totals were bound to rise, especially when factoring in pitching in the homer-happy Great American Ballpark.

After being thumped 14-7 yesterday by the Braves, the Reds are tied for the worst record in baseball with San Diego, so they could surely use another performance from Cueto tonight like his first two starts. Cincinnati has been involved in 12 blowout games this year (games decided by five runs or more) and has generated just four save opportunities, the fewest in the majors. (In contrast, the league-leading Cardinals have generated 19, and Chicago 14.) That means that closer Francisco Cordero--who signed a four-year, $46 million contract in the offseason--has had very little opportunity to make any impact. Cordero has pitched well in his limited chances, and the Reds bullpen has yet to blow a save on the season, but that's primarily because the pen has been given so few leads to protect.

Matchup: Phillies (18-14) at Diamondbacks (21-10), 6:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (32 IP, 5.34 RA, 1.75 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Max Scherzer (90 2/3 IP, 3.87 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 106 K in 2007--minors)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 17-15 (150 RS, 137 RA); Arizona, 20-11 (179 RS, 125 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: The must-see game of the day features a remarkable contrast on the mound. The 45-year-old Moyer, who has thrown 3,582 1/3 major league innings and whose fastball averages around 81 mph, will be opposed by the 23-year-old rookie Scherzer, who has thrown 4 1/3 big league frames and who owns a heater that was touching 98 mph in his debut last week. Scherzer was promoted to the rotation in place of Edgar Gonzalez following that debut against the Astros, in which he retired all 13 batters he faced while striking out seven and showcasing stunning stuff, with an excellent slider and a changeup in addition to his blazing fastball. Scherzer also showed no sign of the tenuous control that caused him to walk 42 men in 90 2/3 minor league innings last year, as he located his offerings with frightening precision. The bar has been raised for the rookie tonight, for he makes his first major league start against one of the best offenses in baseball.

That offense would be even better if not for the rough start of Ryan Howard, who is hitting .167/.294/.351 through his first 136 plate appearances. Howard has fanned 45 times already, putting him on pace for 228, which would break his own major league record of 199 set last season in just 648 PA. Howard also began the year badly in 2007, however, and through May 5 was hitting .198/.380/.374 in 121 PA, with two fewer homers than the six he has this year. The 2006 MVP then went on the DL in mid-May, but upon returning mashed to the tune of .283/.395/.619, with 41 homers in 519 PA. Howard has to this point been a player who comes on later in the year--he has performed significantly better in the second half in each of the three seasons since his September debut in 2004, and for his career owns a 1078 OPS in 1010 PA after the All-Star break, as opposed to 870 in 863 before. With no speed and very little defensive value, Howard is not likely to be a player who ages well, which is confirmed by a glance at the PECOTA comparables in Baseball Prospectus 2008--Mike Epstein was out of baseball by his age-32 season, Calvin Pickering never made it through a full season, and both Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn were done after the age of 34. Howard is still several years away from such a decline, though, and can be expected to pick up in his usual fashion as the weather warms.

Matchup: Angels (20-13) at Royals (14-16), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (40 IP, 2.70 RA, 0.98 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Brett Tomko (27 1/3 IP, 6.59 RA, 1.68 WHIP, 14 K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 17-16 (160 RS, 154 RA); Kansas City, 12-18 (107 RS, 133 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: The Angels are sailing along in first place in the AL West and tied for the best record in the league with Boston thanks to the largest positive differential between their actual win total and their third-order wins of any team in the majors. They have outscored their opponents by just six runs despite this lofty perch, and actually have fewer adjusted-equivalent runs scored (148) than allowed (154). That's because the Angels have played a relatively easy schedule so far, with 13 games against the Twins, Royals, Rangers, and Orioles, the four teams projected by PECOTA to finish in last place (or tied for last) in the American League. That continues tonight in Kansas City with the start of a three-game series against a Royals team that ranks last in the AL in runs (3.5 per game) and OPS (667). Kansas City has been able to outperform its poor run differential mainly because of a strong front-end of the bullpen, as Joakim Soria and Ramon Ramirez both rank in the AL top 10 in ARP, having allowed only a run in 26 2/3 combined innings.

The Angels offense has been highly productive so far, with the second most runs in the American League (160, 4.8 per game), which would be their highest ranking in the junior circuit since two franchise names and 13 years ago, when the 1995 California Angels finished second. That offense will get a further lift tonight when second baseman Howie Kendrick returns from the DL. Kendrick's injury came after he began the season a blistering 18-for-36; in his absence, Angels second basemen hit .231/.344/.295 in 93 plate appearances. The lowest Kendrick has ever batted over the course of a full year is .318, which he hit in his first minor league campaign in 2002, and his lifetime major league average stands at .317 in 641 at bats entering tonight. It will be fascinating to see what Kendrick can do over a full major league season, and whether his approach of swinging very early and very often (career 19 walks and 3.24 P/PA in 675 major league PA) can lead to stardom, but after three trips to the DL in the past 13 months, whether or not Kendrick can stay on the field for more than a couple months at a time is at this point the bigger question.

Matchup: Mets (16-13) at Dodgers (17-14), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (29 IP, 35 H, 5.59 RA, 1.69 WHIP, 26 K) vs. Chad Billingsley (27 2/3 IP, 5.53 RA, 1.59 WHIP, 40 K)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 14-14 (130 RS, 130 RA); Los Angeles, 19-11 (165 RS, 123 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #12; Los Angeles, #6
Prospectus: After taking two of three from the Diamondbacks and earning their fourth straight series win at Chase Field, the Mets now travel to Chavez Ravine to play the other chief contender in the NL West. Mets fans will wait with bated breath for the bottom of the first to see whether Perez is able to throw strikes. Over his last three starts he has walked 14 in 13 innings, and control issues have kept him from going six innings in any of his five outings since a strong opener. Perez has always lived on the razor's edge with regards to his erratic control; even in last season's comeback, he walked five or more batters in seven of 29 starts. The good news is that Perez's wildness seems to have prevented batters from squaring up on his offerings, as opponents have just two extra base hits in 109 at-bats against him. Like Perez, Billingsley has been extremely erratic and hard to hit this year, as he has walked, hit with a pitch, or struck out 46 percent of the batters to face him. Billingsley is coming off his best outing of the season; while Perez lasted 1 2/3 innings last Wednesday in a 13-1 loss to Pittsburgh, Billingsley pitched seven one-run innings in LA's win over Florida by the same score.

The Dodgers' eight-game winning streak was snapped yesterday by a 7-2 loss in Colorado, but LA has moved back into the NL West picture with Arizona. In the final two games of that streak, on Friday and Saturday, Russell Martin moved out from behind the plate to start at third base in place of Blake DeWitt. Martin began his professional career as a third baseman, and played 40 games there with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers in 2002. After he made nine errors and posted a .930 fielding percentage, Martin was moved to catcher, and had not played third since appearing in a single 2003 game there until last weekend. While the arrangement is a creative way to give Martin a day off from catching, it does weaken both the team's defense and offense, given that DeWitt is an outstanding glove at third and a better bat than backup catcher Gary Bennett. Dodgers manager Joe Torre should be careful in viewing the move as a day off for his tough catcher, so as not to have him burn out later on: Martin has now gone 14 straight games since his last day out of the starting lineup, a longer stretch than at any point last season, when he caught more games than anyone in the majors and lost over 50 points of slugging from the first to the second half.

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

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