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May 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Indians (16-17) at Yankees (17-18), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Paul Byrd (33 2/3 IP, 35 H, 17 R, 5/15 BB/K) vs. Mike Mussina (38 1/3 IP, 43 H, 19 R, 5/17 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 17-16 (140 RS, 131 RA); New York, 17-18 (151 RS, 153 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #15; New York, #21
Prospectus: Following Cliff Lee's excellent start yesterday, Cleveland goes for the sweep tonight in the Bronx. Byrd takes the mound against a Yankees lineup that is still missing Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada; their absence has been felt keenly, as a Cleveland victory tonight would be the second swept series on this homestand alone. Their replacements, Morgan Ensberg and Jose Molina, have struggled to produce at all, never mind at the level of the injured stars. Ensberg has only one extra-base hit in 62 at-bats, and he's only secured a free pass twice. Molina is hitting .219/.239/.328, standard Molina fare. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if the Yanks were not sending the struggling Robinson Cano (.160/.216/.256 in 134 PA) and Shelley Duncan (.192/.323/.269 in 31 PA)-who batted cleanup last night-out there as well. Rodriguez is scheduled to be back by mid-May, which should fortify both the middle and back of the Yankee lineup somewhat.

Byrd may need to face New York in this altered state, as he has already given up 1.9 HR/9 and 14.9 percent HR/FB, both of which would be career highs if they last the season. Byrd has always been susceptible to the long ball, but with the decreasing velocity of his offerings over the past few years it's become even more of a problem. On the other side, since a beating at the hands of Boston stirred Hank Steinbrenner's ire, Mussina has pitched much better: over his last three starts, he has struck out five per nine while only walking one over the same time period, and he's kept his HR/9 down to one per nine as well. Granted, he did face Chicago and Seattle (21st and 19th in Team EqA) during those starts, but he threw a solid effort against Cleveland in that span as well.

Matchup: Phillies (20-15) at Diamondbacks (22-12), 12:40 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (44 IP, 48 H, 24 R, 12/37 BB/K) vs. Brandon Webb (47 IP, 34 H, 15 R, 16/37 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 20-15 (170 RS, 151 RA); Arizona, 21-13 (193 RS, 145 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #9; Arizona, #1
Prospectus: Two of the top offenses in the National League face off against each other in Arizona, but with two of the top pitchers in the league trying to shut those same offenses down. The 2006 Cy Young winner and last year's runner up is going for his eighth win in eight chances against a Phillies lineup averaging 4.9 runs per game. Webb has been a beast on the mound over his career, never posting an unadjusted ERA over 3.59 during his career despite pitching half of his games in one of the friendliest hitter's parks in the league. Nothing has changed about that during his first seven starts of 2008, where he has continued to induce grounders, keep opponents from going deep in a park designed to allow the opposite, and post a strikeout rate above the league average. Seeing him battle against a powerful Phillies' lineup makes for a great matchup.

His opponent has not found historical success like Webb, as Myers has lost a full strikeout per nine since his last go-round as a starter in '06 while adding on homers. Myers has given up 2.3 HR/9, coming on almost 22 percent of his fly balls. His drop in fastball velocity has made him susceptible to four-baggers, though looking back, this isn't a new issue: before Myers was moved to the bullpen in 2007, he posted a 9.39 ERA, 5.3 BB/9 and 2.9 HR/9 over 15 1/3 innings. That's a small sample, but if he needed the boost in velocity that comes with moving to the pen and shorter appearances if he's going to get hitters out consistently, moving back to the rotation in 2008 may not have been the best allocation of the Phillies' pitching resources. Then again, who else is going to start for a Phillies team that has Adam Eaton in the rotation?

Matchup: Red Sox (22-14) at Tigers (15-20), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Beckett (34 1/3 IP, 25 H, 17 R, 8/34 BB/K) vs. Justin Verlander (43 IP, 42 H, 35 R, 20/25 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 21-15 (182 RS, 156 RA); Detroit, 16-19 (171 RS, 194 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #10; Detroit, #11
Prospectus: As of April 8, the Tigers were 0-7 and had been outscored nearly three to one, 44 to 15. As a team, the offense managed to hit just .231/.299/.297, a line that wasn't going to win you any championships in 1908, never mind 2008. Since April 9 Detroit's offense has been a different animal, hitting .270/.356/.443 while contributing to a 15-13 record. Despite scoring 5.7 runs per game over that time frame, the Tigers have been unable to capitalize thanks to a pitching staff that has given up 5.4 runs per game over the same 28-game stretch. As a staff, they have allowed the opposition to get on base over 35 percent of the time and getting thumped (.157 Isolated Power against). They can't afford mistakes like that against a Red Sox team who has seen their rotation pitch well the last few weeks. Since April 24, Sox pitchers have only allowed hitters a .221/.311/.321 line. Beckett has done his part over that time, throwing 15 innings, striking out 10.8 per nine and walking just 1.2. He's just what the Sox need on the mound to avoid another loss because of 10 runs allowed, like they did last night.

Verlander has not been as impressive, and his struggles are part of the reason the Tigers have not been able to walk all over the league during the past month. His velocity has risen over the past few starts, which is a positive sign; whereas he was closer to 91-92 mph earlier in the year, he's now averaging 93 mph. Location is still a problem, as evidenced by his 4.2 BB/9 and a lack of strikeouts. Considering his strong finish to the season in 2007-he struck out 8.5 per nine with just 2.5 walks per over his last six starts-and the recent increase in velocity, Tigers fans can breathe a tentative sigh in relief that their ace is not struggling due to an injury, but instead due to a mechanical issue or lack of adjustment. While that may seem problematic as well, the latter two can be fixed without his having to go under the knife.

Matchup: Orioles (16-18) at Royals (15-18), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Daniel Cabrera (44 1/3 IP, 37 H, 20 R, 23/27 BB/K) vs. Luke Hochevar (16 2/3 IP, 18 H, 9 R, 9/14 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 16-18 (139 RS, 153 RA); Kansas City, 14-19 (119 RS, 146 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #16; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: Baltimore and Kansas City may seem like an odd matchup to tout, but tonight we'll witness a contest between two young pitchers trying to figure themselves out in the majors. It's almost like prime-time drama, except with more walking and fewer pensive looks. For the Birds, Cabrera is pitching in a way that makes you wonder when the other shoe will drop. He's once again walking far too many hitters (4.7 BB/9), but this time he isn't even teasing you with strikeout potential. His current 5.5 K/9 mark would be his lowest since a 2004, when he was a rookie. That's not progress, it's maddening, especially if you're an Orioles fan who was hoping for some of the Bedard-less slack to be picked up by the flamethrower. Cabrera's QuikERA of 5.37 reminds us that nothing has changed about his production until he can rein in the walks. That doesn't make watching him pitch any less enjoyable; Cabrera is either dominant or baseball's version of a train wreck, and either is an experience for a neutral fan of baseball in general.

His opponent started the season at Triple-A before making his 2008 debut on April 20. Though that start against Oakland didn't go so well for Hochevar-he only lasted 4 2/3 innings, giving up six runs on nine hits and three walks-he's pitched well in his last two starts. PECOTA thinks the 6'5" right-hander is capable of league-average production at the upper levels of his forecast already, but his weighted mean is ugly: 5.53 ERA, 0.9 SNLVAR in 124 1/3 innings pitched. Hochevar has the talent-he was #72 on Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospects of 2008-so now it's to be seen if he has the ability to adjust to major league hitters. Tonight's start against an Orioles lineup with an EqA of .251 should give him a good shot at showing us what he's capable of.

Matchup: Rangers (15-20) at Mariners (14-21), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kason Gabbard (20 2/3 IP, 21 H, 5 R, 9/8 BB/K) vs. Felix Hernandez (50 1/3 IP, 51 H, 19 R, 19/44 BB/K)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 14-21 (158 RS, 195 RA); Seattle, 16-19 (141 RS, 156 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #27; Mariners, #19
Prospectus: Unless you're a big fan of Kason Gabbard-and hey, there's nothing wrong with that-the draw for this matchup is Felix Hernandez. Besides, there's no excuse to not watch this game if you're sitting around a television when it's on, since it's the only game in the late-night time slot. For those who need their Gabbard fix, he's a pitcher I could have covered yesterday in my look at pitchers outperforming their QERAs. The 3.25 difference between his QERA and ERA is the fourth largest among pitchers with a minimum of 20 innings and at least one start. If he keeps up the extreme ground-ball rate, this may not be a problem in Texas, since it eliminates a historical problem for Gabbard in homers, but at some point you would like to see some strikeouts from the left-hander. Seattle ranks only 19th in the league with a .253 EqA, so you would think they shouldn't pose much of a problem for Gabbard, who also has the benefit of pitching away from Arlington in a pitcher's park.

Everyone keeps waiting for the King to "arrive," but what we may not have noticed is that he's already here. Last year he had a 3.92 ERA, but his QERA was 3.38; you can blame Seattle's defense for that, as their Defensive Efficiency ranked 27th in the league at .678. This year it's more of the same, as they are ranked 26th with a .692 figure. If you want someone to point a finger at for giving you performances under your expectations, Seattle's defense is the place to look, not Hernandez. One thing to note while watching tonight is that Felix has cut down using his slider even further. After throwing it 21 percent of the time in 2007, he's down to 13 percent in '08, in favor of additional fastballs and changeups. It's a filthy pitch, and as Will Carroll tells us, thrown properly, it doesn't cause significantly more stress than a fastball.

Related Content:  The Who,  Flamethrower

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