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May 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (14-21) at Mets (17-15), 1:10 p.m. ET, 7:30 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Belisle (14 1/3 IP, 8.16 RA, 1.88 WHIP, 7 K) vs. Johan Santana (46 1/3 IP, 3.11 RA, 1.01 WHIP, 47 K) in Game One; Bronson Arroyo (32 1/3 IP, 9.74 RA, 1.95 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (27 1/3 IP, 5.27 RA, 1.90 WHIP, 11 K) in Game Two
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 15-20 (146 RS, 170 RA); New York, 17-15 (152 RS, 143 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #22; New York, #8
Prospectus: After yesterday's rainout, we have a day-night doubleheader in which Santana will start the day game, looking for his first home win as a Met. Five of the seven home runs Santana has given up this season have come over 12 1/3 innings in his two starts at Shea, a park that has historically suppressed homers even more than it has runs. Santana will need to be wary of having that trend continue, as the Reds are coming off a seven-homer barrage in their last game, a 9-0 win over the Cubs on Wednesday. Cincinnati hit four homers in the second inning, including back-to-back blasts from Joey Votto and Adam Dunn; Votto was later involved in another back-to-back pairing in the fifth with Brandon Phillips, and added a third shot in the sixth. The left-handed Votto hit his second homer of the game against southpaw Sean Marshall, and over the course of his short big league career now has a 973 OPS against lefties in 59 plate appearances, versus 908 off right-handers in 135. Unless Votto has made a major adjustment, those numbers versus southpaws appear to be due mostly to sampling error, for while Votto has smoked righties in the minor leagues, he has not performed as well against left-handers. Last season in Triple-A, Votto hit .242/.325/.354 with two homers in 120 AB versus lefties, and in 2006 at Double-A his line against them was .262/.357/.399 with five homers in 183 AB.

Opposing New York's ace in the opener is Belisle, who has gotten pounded in his three starts since taking the spot of Josh Fogg. The Reds' fifth starter slot has been a disaster, as Belisle and Fogg have combined to give up 38 runs in 36 2/3 innings. Belisle could use a strong outing this afternoon to stave off for at least another turn what looks to be the inevitable recall of Homer Bailey from Triple-A. Reds fans are likely wondering why the organization hasn't already addressed the carnage at the back of the rotation by bringing Bailey to the majors, for the 22-year-old righty has a 2.72 RA, 1.06 WHIP, and 39/12 K/BB ratio in 46 1/3 innings for Louisville. If Bailey comes up and pitches well and Bronson Arroyo reverts to his career averages, then the Reds would have one of the best rotations in the NL, a unit that could give them the chance to get into the wild card hunt.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (23-13) at Cubs (20-15), 2:40 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Max Scherzer (8 1/3 IP, 5 R, 1.20 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (43 IP, 4.19 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 29 K)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 23-13 (202 RS, 151 RA); Chicago, 22-13 (198 RS, 152 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: Arizona's heterochromatic rookie flamethrower takes the hill for his second career start and first on national television. Scherzer's initial start was not nearly the eye-popping affair that his debut out of the bullpen was, as he gave up five runs in four innings to the Phillies. Today he has a seemingly more favorable matchup against the heavily right-handed Cubs lineup. Chicago has drawn the second most walks of any team in the majors, however, and command will still likely be Scherzer's biggest hurdle this season--he walked nearly five an inning at Double-A last year, and his top PECOTA comparable is Mike Pelfrey, another young midwestern college product with an electric fastball but far less fully developed secondary stuff and command.

Scherzer will be going up against Dempster, whose move into the starting rotation from the bullpen has so far produced a 2.72 ERA, 10th best in the NL. Dempster has not pitched as well as that mark would indicate, however: he is tied for the major league lead with seven unearned runs allowed, and is also tied with Scott Olsen for the lowest BABIP in the NL amongst ERA qualifiers, two clear warning signs. That BABIP figure is particularly out of whack considering that Dempster has a high ground-ball percentage of 54.8, eighth in the NL, and has a higher ground-ball/fly-ball ratio than he did each of the previous two years pitching out of the bullpen. A look at Dempster's pitch data shows that he has not been throwing as hard this season as he did while serving as the team's closer--90 mph on the heater as compared to 92 the past two years--which is logical, and also that he is throwing more fastballs (59 percent to 46 percent) and fewer sliders (22 percent to 33 percent) this year than last. The decreased velocity and increased reliance on the fastball over the slider, as discussed in relation to Chien-Ming Wang recently, helps explain why Dempster's strikeouts are down but his ratio of ground-ball outs has risen.

Matchup: Phillies (21-16) at Giants (14-22), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (39 IP, 4.85 RA, 1.59 WHIP, 17 K) vs. Tim Lincecum (42 1/3 IP, 2.34 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 45 K)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 20-17 (180 RS, 163 RA); San Francisco, 12-24 (121 RS, 172 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: Moyer continues his attempt to school the senior circuit's hardest-throwing youngsters in turn; after matching up against the 23-year-old Scherzer he now faces the 24-year-old Lincecum, who has just about as good a fastball as any starter in the majors. The 45-year-old soft-tosser got the better of Scherzer, on both the mound and at the plate: Moyer pitched his best game of the season, holding the top offense in the majors to two runs in seven innings, and also singled and doubled to drive in a run in his two at-bats versus the rookie.

Philadelphia's reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins returned from the DL last night to take up his customary position at shortstop and in the leadoff hole, going 3-for-5 with a homer to collect three RBI in the Phillies' 7-4 win. Rollins last started on April 8, but from the time he left the starting lineup until last night the Phillies posted a respectable 4.9 runs per game and 766 OPS, despite backup Eric Bruntlett hitting just .250/.308/.352. One of the main reasons Philadelphia stayed afloat is the play of Pat Burrell, who is hitting .303/.440/.622 with nine homers in 150 PA, on pace to set career highs in every major offensive category except runs. Such a fantastic start is surprising because Burrell is four years past the age at which most players historically peak (27), but not surprising given that he is in the last season of his contract. A study by Baseball Prospectus' Dayn Perry in Baseball Between the Numbers found that players do indeed perform better in their "walk years," with a nine percent average improvement in WARP over the year before and year after their contract season. That performance boost cannot be explained by age, as the average walk year player from 1976-2000 was exactly the same age Burrell is now--31, when a player is usually on the downslope. Burrell is not a good bet to age gently, so potential suitors would be wise to take into consideration the real phenomenon of the contract-year bump when evaluating Pat the Bat.

Matchup: Angels (22-15) at Rays (19-16), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joe Saunders (48 1/3 IP, 2.61 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (206 2/3 IP, 3.96 RA, 5.5 SNLVAR--2007)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 19-18 (173 RS, 168 RA); Tampa Bay, 19-16 (161 RS, 150 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #10; Tampa Bay, #12
Prospectus: The results weren't there in Kazmir's first start after returning from an elbow injury, but the stuff was, as Kazmir struck out five and threw his fastball at an average of 92 MPH, the speed at which it usually sits. The reigning AL strikeout king will now go up against the Angels and Saunders in his second start of the year. Along with teammate Ervin Santana, Saunders has begun the season 6-0 through seven starts, although he doesn't have nearly as impressive a set of peripheral stats as Santana does.

Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria had the biggest hit of his career last night, slamming a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Justin Speier to break a scoreless tie and give Tampa Bay the series opener. PECOTA projects that Longoria will have 37 game-winning hits over the course of his career... actually, no, the system hasn't yet gotten sophisticated enough to project performance in the ninth inning of close games, but Longoria is sure to have quite a few more signature moments before he's finished. Longoria's addition has significantly aided the Rays' offense, which ranks in the middle of the pack in the AL with a 4.6 runs per game average. That figure would be higher if not for the performance of the team's two table-setters at the top of the order. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura and left fielder Carl Crawford have hit first and second, respectively, in every game but one this season, but neither has gotten on base even 30 percent of the time--Iwamura has a .297 OBP in 159 plate appearances, and Crawford's is .298 in 161. Despite that, center fielder B.J. Upton has managed to knock in a team-leading 24 runs hitting mostly behind those two out of the three hole thanks to a .373/.469/.608 batting line in 64 plate appearances with runners on, as compared with an OPS of 619 with none on. That helpful performance split has given Upton an OBI% of 24, fourth highest amongst batting title qualifiers in the AL.

Matchup: Athletics (22-15) at Rangers (17-20), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dana Eveland (41 1/3 IP, 3.27 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 30 K) vs. Kevin Millwood (47 1/3 IP, 5.32 RA, 1.69 WHIP, 29 K)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 23-14 (171 RS, 133 RA); Texas, 16-21 (167 RS, 195 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #4; Texas, #23
Prospectus: One of the most unlikely developments in the majors so far this season has quietly taken place over the last three games. The Rangers pitching staff recorded its third straight shutout yesterday, and stretched its scoreless innings streak to 31, the second longest in the franchise's history. (The longest was a 39-inning stretch that came in April of 1981.) The Rangers haven't faced strong offenses--Seattle in the first two games and the A's yesterday--but considering how bad Texas pitching had been this season, and the cast of characters that have combined to post all those zeros, it's still noteworthy. Yesterday it was Scott Feldman throwing six shutout innings in his third career start, after five pitchers combined for a 5-0 win Thursday, and Vicente Padilla, who had a 6.58 RA last year, went seven scoreless frames on Wednesday. Even with the recent excellence, the Rangers have still given up the second most runs in the majors, fewer only than Detroit. Attempting to keep the roll going will be Millwood, who has allowed more hits than any other pitcher this year besides Joe Blanton.

The lineup that will attempt to finally crack through against the Rangers will begin with catcher Kurt Suzuki, who has taken over the top spot in the absence of outfielder Travis Buck. Suzuki's elevation to leadoff marks the fourth season in a row in which a catcher has hit at the top for the A's, after Jason Kendall was the team's primary leadoff hitter in 2005 and 2006, and started as such last year. Having a catcher in the leadoff spot is a rare phenomenon--according to this article by ESPN.com's Tim Kurkjian from last season, the Elias Sports Bureau dug up just nine catchers who spent time at the top in the past 20 years. That list includes five other active players besides Kendall: Ivan Rodriguez, Brad Ausmus, Michael Barrett, Jason Varitek, and Paul Lo Duca. Rodriguez is the only other catcher apart from Suzuki to hit leadoff this season, as he has done in five games for Detroit.

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

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