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May 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Diamondbacks (23-14) at Cubs (21-15), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (26 2/3 IP, 6.87 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 28 K) vs. Carlos Zambrano (55 IP, 1.80 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 38 K)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 23-14 (204 RS, 158 RA); Chicago, 23-13 (205 RS, 154 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: The best matchup of the day according to Hit List, Diamondbacks/Cubs has been a popular Preview feature this season thanks to their places in the standings and multiple matchups. The D'backs send the Big Unit to the mound, who has had some issues this year. Johnson's giving up too many fly balls, far from his career G/F rate (1.2 for his career, just 0.7 this year), and he calls the wrong park home for that kind of shift to work. It shows in his homer rate-1.4 per nine on the season-but he's also had some bad luck contribute to his poor ERA. Despite the Diamondbacks' third-place standing in Defensive Efficiency this year, Johnson has had over 15 percent of his groundballs go for infield hits. Between the homers and the few extra hits tacked on, it's easy to see why he's managed to strand fewer than 60 percent of his baserunners. Wrigley isn't as extreme a hitters' park as Chase Field, but between the opposing lineup and the venue, Johnson may be looking at some problems today if he doesn't keep the ball on the ground.

The player to watch today is Kosuke Fukudome, in part because any excuse to watch him play is a good one. Despite not being much of a homer threat, Fukudome has a .153 Isolated Power on the strength of ten doubles and a pair of triples. He has shown excellent bat control thus far, with walks in over 14 percent of his plate appearances and only two more strikeouts than walks on the year. He's also avoided popping up, with just 2.7 percent of his fly balls ending up in the infield. You have to love a hitter who swings at pitches he can drive instead of ones he can't do anything with, and Fukudome looks like he's one of those smart, patient types based on his performance.

Matchup: Athletics (22-16) at Rangers (18-20), 2:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (11 IP, 0.82 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Sidney Ponson (20 1/3 IP, 3.13 RA, 1.18 WHIP, 11 K)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 23-15 (175 RS, 139 RA); Texas, 17-21 (173 RS, 199 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #4; Texas, #23
Prospectus: Today's game represents the beginning of Harden's most recent comeback attempt, and for the A's sake as well as his, hopefully it's the last "first start back from the DL" he needs to make in quite some time. You should watch for no other reasons than he's a talented starter when he's actually on the mound, even if his starts are few and far between. Will Carroll recently said he thinks Harden's strength should help his stamina, which has been a problem in the past for his health and performance. Before hitting the DL, Harden was blowing his stuff by plenty of hitters, but he had a problem with walks (5.7 BB/9). He's notorious for dishing out free passes, and the Rangers lineup has plenty of patient hitters (.265/.337/.427 on the season) to exploit that.

Ponson takes the mound for Texas with a shiny ERA that could be ready to have the shine taken off of it. He's just striking out 4.9 batters per nine, standard Ponsonian fare, but he's held his walks down from his career rate of 3.1 to just 1.8 per nine. He's also yet to allow a home run, and that's despite pitching in Arlington. This has something to do with his G/F ratio that sticks out compared to his career numbers: 3.2 G/F for 2008, against 1.7 for his career. It's difficult to tell with the limited data whether he's doing something new that has caused this, or if it's just a 20-inning statistical blip. Use today as an opportunity to spot something different in his approach, or check out the movement in his fastball, which he's using more often, about 72 percent of the time, this season.

Matchup: Phillies (21-17) at Giants (15-22), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Adam Eaton (38 1/3 IP, 5.63 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (38 IP, 4.97 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 44 K)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 20-18 (182 RS, 171 RA); San Francisco, 14-23 (129 RS, 174 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: Philadelphia has the better team heading into today's contest, but with Adam Eaton and his replacement-level performance on the mound today against the very talented Jonathan Sanchez, this game could go either way. If Sanchez can ever find a way to keep his walks down-without losing out on the strikeouts, like another flamethrower with control issues has-he could be closer to a frontline starter, giving the Giants an excellent rotation to build on. In other Giants news, Brian Bocock's consistent playing time is over now that Omar Vizquel is back from the DL.

Matchup: Astros (20-17) at Dodgers (19-17), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Shawn Chacon (45 IP, 3.80 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 32 K) vs. Hiroki Kuroda ( 41 IP, 4.83 RA,1.44 WHIP, 21 K)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 20-17 (177 RS, 161 RA); Los Angeles, 20-16 (179 RS, 159 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #16; Los Angeles, #6
Prospectus: This matchup gives you a look at a pitcher who may be over his head going up against an import who you may want to watch more of. Chacon and the Astros are both performing better than expected-Chacon's 3.60 ERA is a full run lower than his weighted mean PECOTA forecast, and the Astros were projected to finish at 72-90-and though there's plenty of time for that trend to reverse itself, Houston fans have to be pleased with the results of the early season. Chacon is striking out 6.4 batters and walking 4.4 per nine, both better than his career rates. Despite allowing a .240 opponent batting average, his WHIP is a lofty 1.38; the Astros, ranking 21st in Defensive Efficiency, can only stave off the inevitable jump in average and BABIP for so long. There was a time when it looked as if Chacon had some control over hits on balls in play, but it's too early in the season to tell if that's a factor or not in '08.

Kuroda has not adjusted to the majors as handily as Fukudome, as he's put up some pedestrian figures for the Dodgers over 41 innings. Kuroda comes at hitters with a multitude of offerings: he uses his fastball the most often, with his slider and splitter rounding out his primary pitches, but he'll also occasionally mix in a cutter or curve. Personally, I'm interested in seeing if he adjusts to hitters and strikes out a few more, or if they figure him out before too much longer. For those of you who have seen more of him, feel free to shoot out an e-mail detailing what you've seen.

Matchup: Red Sox (24-15) at Twins (18-17), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Tim Wakefield (46 IP, 3.72 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 25 K) vs. Nick Blackburn (44 1/3 IP, 3.88 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 20 K)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 23-16 (198 RS, 166 RA); Minnesota, 17-18 (149 RS, 155 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Minnesota, #19
Prospectus: There's no excuse to miss this game, since it's on when all of the others have concluded. Wakefield is attempting to follow up on his best start of the season, but perhaps the even more interesting starter than the knuckleballer is Blackburn, who struggled in his major league debut, but has turned it around in the early going this season. Blackburn was ranked the sixth-best prospect in the organization by Kevin Goldstein heading into 2008, though the line "Blackburn doesn't miss many bats with his stuff, and will always need defensive support to be effective" stands out in Kevin's description. That has held true in Blackburn's 40-plus innings this year, with just 4.1 strikeouts per nine resulting in a 3.65 ERA. If he keeps his walks down like he has so far-just 1.8 free passes per nine in 56 career major league innings-he won't need to blow it by hitters, especially if he keeps his homer rates down. A team like the Red Sox that will watch pitch after pitch waiting for the right one to hit is the kind that could show us what Blackburn has to offer; if he isn't going to strike them out, and they force his hand with walks or more offerings in the zone, how effective will he be?

Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon hit a bump in consecutive appearances this week, blowing two straight saves (one against the Tigers, and one against the Twins) and raising his ERA a full run before returning to form last night with a save. Locating his splitter was the issue in his blown save against the Twins, as Papelbon couldn't put away the hitters at the bottom of the Twins' lineup effectively because he couldn't hit his spots and they knew it. For those who may panic after a few iffy appearances, it looked more like Papelbon was just throwing too many sliders in the dirt, rather than having something mechanical or injury-related going on. His command is something to watch for over his next few appearances, as he's untouchable when he can locate and mix in that devastating splitter.

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