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May 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Indians (14-17) at Yankees (17-16), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Fausto Carmona (34 2/3 IP, 3.12 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 13 K) vs. Andy Pettitte (36 2/3 IP, 4.66 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 20 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 16-15 (132 RS, 128 RA); New York, 17-16 (148 RS, 145 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #15; New York, #21
Prospectus: Tonight's contest at Yankee Stadium features the same pitching matchup from ALDS Game Two last year at Jacobs Field, which the Indians won 2-1 in 11 innings. Pettitte pitched very well, throwing 6 1/3 shutout frames, but Carmona was masterful, giving up just one run and five baserunners in nine before yielding to Rafael Perez, who threw the next two innings before Travis Hafner singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 11th.

Those three heroes from that thrilling victory have all fallen on tough times in 2008. Carmona is tied for the AL lead in walks with 26, and his strikeout rate has fallen all the way down to 3.4 K/9 from 5.7. He has avoided getting shelled thus far because of his still-deadly sinker, which has led to a lone home run and 67.5 ground-ball percentage, the highest of any pitcher in the majors with at least 25 innings. Perez exploded onto the scene last year by allowing less than a baserunner with more than a strikeout per inning, but has been less effective so far. As much as those two young pitchers have struggled, there's even greater concern for Hafner, who has seen his drop-off from 2007 turn into a genuine free-fall, with a .209/.305/.345 line in 128 plate appearances. Manager Eric Wedge has responded by dropping his DH from third in the lineup to sixth for the past three games, in which Cleveland scored just five runs with Hafner going 2-for-10. Hafner isn't the only hitter to blame for the team's offensive anemia; the team has also gotten sub-replacement level production from second and third base and the outfield corners. The Indians attempted to address that last issue yesterday, designating veteran Jason Michaels (-4.5 VORP) for assignment and calling up Ben Francisco, who had an 878 OPS in 425 PA for Triple-A Buffalo last season.

Matchup: Cubs (18-14) at Reds (13-20), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (47 IP, 2.11 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Aaron Harang (48 1/3 IP, 3.35 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 41 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 20-12 (192 RS, 142 RA); Cincinnati, 14-19 (137 RS, 167 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Cincinnati, #18
Prospectus: In this battle of aces, you can call Harang the Red Baron, although the Cubs were the ones that shot him down in mid-April with five runs in six innings in a 9-5 Chicago win. Harang is nonetheless off to the finest start of his career, but has only one win despite his outstanding effort, two less than expected, because Cincinnati's offense has scored just over three runs per game for him. Overall the Reds are averaging a meager 4.2 runs per game, in part because the team's entire outfield has been a massive disappointment.

The good news is that manager Dusty Baker has committed to playing the kids at the infield corners, and they have hit well enough to end all debates about playing time. Edwin Encarnacion didn't have as much competition at third base as his teammate Joey Votto did at first, but he still needed a strong start, and seven homers and a .518 slugging percentage later, E.E. looks like he's breaking out. Meanwhile, Votto's solid performance while starting 18 of the past 20 games at first has led backup Scott Hatteberg to question his role on the team. There are a limited number of trade destinations that make sense for the lefty-swinging veteran, but one landing spot which could work is Seattle, where incumbent Mariners first-sacker Richie Sexson posted just a 675 OPS versus righties last season, and this year is at .180/.282/.393 in 103 plate appearances against them.

Matchup: Nationals (14-18) at Astros (16-16), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shawn Hill (18 IP, 4.00 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Shawn Chacon (38 IP, 3.55 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 24)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 13-19 (125 RS, 157 RA); Houston, 17-15 (152 RS, 144 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #28; Houston, #21
Prospectus: Two winless Shawns square off tonight in Houston in the opener of a three-game set between a Nationals team that has won eight of their last 10 to climb out of an early hole and the Astros, who swept Milwaukee over the weekend to get back to .500. Not only has neither Hill nor Chacon earned a win, neither has gotten a loss in their nine combined starts, either. Chacon's stretch of six straight without a decision is unusual, in fact, especially when you consider that he has averaged a decent 6 1/3 innings per turn. The longest a pitcher has gone in one season without getting a decision since 1959 is 10 consecutive starts, a streak reached by both Randy Lerch of the Phillies and John D'Acquisto of the Padres in 1977. (Neither of those pitchers, however, went at least five innings in each of his starts, as Chacon has so far.)

Despite his clean ledger, Chacon has surprisingly pitched well, and owns the best SNLVAR mark on the team. The right-hander has thrived thus far despite a sub-par 4/3 K/BB ratio, which calls to mind his 2005 half-season in the Bronx, when he put up a 2.96 RA in 14 appearances for the Yankees (12 starts) with the same 4/3 ratio. Hill has been especially impressive when you consider that he is "pitching through a persistent ache in his right forearm" that has "fundamentally altered the way [he] prepares himself between starts." Hill began this year on the DL, and from the sound of things, and his history--missing three months last year due to injury--he's probably going to end up on the shelf again before 2008 comes to a close. When he has been able to take the mound, Hill has performed admirably, but Washington has never given him much support: from 2006-08, Hill has delivered quality starts in 16 of 25 outings, yet has earned just five wins in that span. By expected wins (E(W)), which measure how frequently a pitcher with a specific game line earned a win or loss throughout history, Hill should have amassed 10 victories during that stretch.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Angels (21-13) at Royals (14-17), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Nick Adenhart (31 IP, 1.16 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 19 K) vs. Brian Bannister (35 2/3 IP, 4.29 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 21 K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 18-16 (164 RS, 154 RA); Kansas City, 12-19 (107 RS, 137 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: Adenhart will make the second start of his major league career tonight after walking five men and allowing five runs in two innings versus Oakland during his debut last week. That performance magnified Adenhart's main bugaboo--the 21-year-old righty issued 3.4 UBB/9 in his 392 minor league frames, a figure that moves to 3.9 in his 184 innings in the high minors this year and last between Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake. Considering that Adenhart had a 1.46 WHIP last year in Arkansas, it's probable that he still needs more seasoning before being a contributor for the Halos, a notion his PECOTA projection confirms. Once Adenhart is ready to claim his spot in the bigs, he should be a solid mid-rotation starter for years, given his ability to generate groundballs and shut down opponents' power--Adenhart has allowed 10 home runs in his career, or 0.2/9, a figure that isn't a park-induced mirage, either, for three of the four minor league venues Adenhart has called home from 2006-08 have been hitters' havens.

On his home mound, Bannister will be looking to return to his early low-BABIP success after getting hit hard the last time out in Texas. This will be Bannister's first career start against the Angels, and it will be fascinating to see how his method of attack--constantly pitching ahead in the count in attempting to induce weak contact--will play against a Los Angeles team that features perhaps the most contact-oriented offense in the majors. One could argue that the Halos' hacking will play right into Bannister's craftiness and allow him to set them up, while another could say that Bannister's strike-throwing will give the Angels plenty of good pitches to smack around the park. Bannister threw a complete-game shutout earlier in the year against Minnesota, the most impatient team in the majors, but the Angels are a much better offensive unit.

Matchup: Phillies (19-14) at Diamondbacks (21-11), 6:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Adam Eaton (34 1/3 IP, 4.72 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 19 K) vs. Randy Johnson (20 2/3 IP, 6.97 RA, 1.45 WHIP, 22 K)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 18-15 (161 RS, 141 RA); Arizona, 20-12 (183 RS, 136 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: With last night's loss in the series opener to Philadelphia, the Diamondbacks have now dropped three of their past four and seen their lead in the NL West shaved down to three games. After sending its flame-throwing right-handed rookie to the hill last night, Arizona will call on its flame-throwing 44-year-old lefty tonight, who has had two good starts and two bad ones so far. Johnson's flames don't burn quite as hot any more--his stuff may finally be reflecting his age, as his fastball and slider are both down two ticks from where they were last year. That doesn't mean the Big Unit can't still be effective, however, as demonstrated by his having fanned more than a batter per inning. With another 35 punchouts, Johnson will move past Roger Clemens into second on the all-time list (but still a good 1000+ Ks behind Nolan Ryan). Johnson is ahead of Ryan and everyone else in the history of baseball in career K/9 (10.77), owning seven of the best 10 seasons by the metric. The career list contains six active players in the top 10, a good testament to the increased proliferation of strikeouts that has accompanied the rise in the game's power level in the past 15 years.

For the Phillies, Eaton has amassed the same streak that Chacon has, with six straight no-decisions to start the season. This is the second time in his career that Eaton has put together such a stretch, with the first coming in 2000. If such a triviality speaks to anything, it's mediocrity, which is a standard Eaton has even so failed to live up to in his career, with a lifetime ERA (4.70) that is well above the park-adjusted average over that span (4.12). Eaton has had the benefit of good run support, however, having gone 64-55 in his 119 career decisions; by E(W) and E(L), Eaton's career mark should have been 62-65. Much of that discrepancy can be traced back to last season, when Eaton went 10-10 despite a 6.51 RA. That .500 record was mostly due to luck, as the prolific Phillies offense actually scored well below its 2007 average in Eaton's starts.

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

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