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May 15, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (23-18) at Indians (21-19), 12:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (45 IP, 3.40 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Aaron Laffey (19 2/3 IP, 2.34 RA, 0.86 WHIP, 8 K)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 25-16 (187 RS, 151 RA); Cleveland, 24-16 (170 RS, 141 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #4; Cleveland, #17
Prospectus: Early this afternoon we are treated to a matchup between two young, left-handed starters who are both doing their part to keep their respective rotations respectable this season. Smith has thrown Quality Starts in five of his seven appearances this year, and just missed a sixth in his last go-round versus Texas. He was ranked by Kevin Goldstein as #13 on the organizational prospect list, so the Athletics have to be pleased with the results from one of the prospects they acquired from the D'backs this winter.

On the Indians side of things, C.C. Sabathia's 2-0 shutout last night gave the Indians 43 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak that began last Friday against Toronto; now it's the turn of 23-year old Aaron Laffey to continue that scoreless streak for as long as he can. Laffey leans on his defense to win, with just 3.7 K/9 and a 55 percent ground-ball rate (2.4 G/F). Happily for him, the Indians' defense is a talented unit, ranking ninth overall with a .714 Defensive Efficiency this year, so it's possible that the team's scoreless streak cracks 50 innings.

Matchup: Dodgers (20-19) at Brewers (20-20), 12:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Chad Billingsley (38 2/3 IP,5.42 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 48 K) vs. Ben Sheets (46 1/3 IP, 2.73 RA, 0.97 WHIP, 38 K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 21-18 (193 RS, 176 RA); Milwaukee, 18-22 (175 RS, 191 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #6; Milwaukee, #24
Prospectus: This afternoon's contest is between two teams trying to avoid a shared fate, as the Brewers and Dodgers both find themselves playing catch-up in their divisions already. The Brew Crew won Tuesday's game, with the Dodgers taking last night's affair. At this point, Webb needs little introduction, but Billingsley's struggles are interesting. His stuff is clearly there, with 11.2 K/9 and a 1.5 G/F ratio, but he's walking far too many batters (5.4 BB/9) while giving up a hit per inning. If the Dodgers want to take on the powerful D'backs offense and rotation both today and the rest of this year, Billingsley will need to straighten himself out.

The Dodgers' offense has issues of its own. We're more than six weeks into the season, and Andruw Jones' bat still looks like it needs last rites performed on it. Jones is hitting .179/.287/.284; although he's walking in over 13 percent of his plate appearances, Jones is also getting punched out a third of the time, and has collected just eight extra-base hits in 117 at-bats. His line-drive rate is down, and his HR/FB-an accurate detector of when a hitter has truly given up the ghost as far as bat speed is concerned-has dropped to three percent. It's somewhat sad to watch Jones' steep decline, but the past two years have shown us a different Andruw than we're used to seeing. Jones was on a Hall of Fame career path, but if he can't stick around long enough to pad numbers now that his peak is over, that turns into an entirely new debate.

Matchup: Yankees (20-21) at Rays (23-17), 4:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ian Kennedy (23 2/3 IP, 8.37 RA, 2.03 WHIP, 16 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (10 IP, 3.60 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 11 K)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 21-21 (171 RS, 174 RA); Tampa Bay, 22-18 (181 RS, 159 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #15; Tampa Bay, #12
Prospectus: The first-place Rays host the Yankees in the finale of a three-game series. Last night the Yankees broke the Rays 11-game home win streak with a 2-1 victory, but the Yankees will try to build on that by bringing Kennedy back to the majors after a brief stint at Triple-A. Kennedy threw 8 1/3 innings in the minors, striking out eight and walking none, which presumably fixing whatever the Yankees felt ailed him. For their sake, they better hope Kennedy-the #34 prospect in Kevin Goldstein's Top 100-can improve on his 20/16 BB/K ratio that helped get him sent to the minors in the first place.

Kazmir makes his third start of the season after beginning the year on the DL. He's still working on getting his command back, and while normally this might represent a major problem against a patient Yankees lineup, the offensive struggles of Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano on top of injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada have taken some of the bite out of the offense. The Yanks have posted a collective .259/.326/.411 line with a very average .262 EqA, so they can't just count on mashing their way out of trouble-they need strong production from Kennedy and their other young pitchers.

Matchup: Braves (20-19) at Phillies (22-19), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chuck James (19 IP, 7.58 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 17 K) vs. Cole Hamels (56 1/3 IP, 3.69 RA, 1.10 WHIP, 48 K)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 24-15 (193 RS, 149 RA); Philadelphia, 21-20 (196 RS, 187 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #3; Philadelphia, #13
Prospectus: Just because the Mets acquired Santana does not mean they have a free pass to the NL East Division crown. In today's rubber match of the three-game set, we'll see if James can overcome his early-season struggles. James has brought his strikeout rates up closer to where they were in the minor leagues, but he has still been unable to scale back his walk totals, giving up free passes to 5.2 batters per nine innings pitched. It doesn't help that he's once again giving up far too many home runs to be consistently successful, with 1.9 HR/9 so far this season; homers on 14 percent of your fly balls are a problem when you're a fly-ball pitcher whose G/F ratio hovers around 0.6.

For the Phillies, second baseman Chase Utley has been their biggest positive on offense. After hitting his 14th homer last night, he's tied with Lance Berkman for the major league lead. Utley has a way to go before he can think aboutsetting the record for homers by a second baseman, but Utley has both the right home park and the ability to hit that 40-homer mark in a given season during his peak. As the season progresses, it'll be a story to watch for more than just those who love the record books.

Matchup: White Sox (19-20) at Angels (24-18), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (52 IP, 3.63 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 52 K) vs. Jon Garland (52 1/3 IP, 4.84 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 12 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 22-17 (181 RS, 161 RA); Los Angeles, 21-21 (191 RS, 191 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #11; Los Angeles, #10
Prospectus: The White Sox will attempt to get back to the .500 mark by sending their ace to the mound against a former White Sock. The pitchers are different breeds, with Vazquez a strikeout pitcher who limits walks, and Garland giving up more walks (16) than strikeouts (12), but not a significant number of either. Garland's success in 2008 despite his increasingly extreme reliance on his defense stems from his newfound ground-ball tendencies. Though not an extreme case, Garland has seen his G/F rise from his career rate of 1.2 (and last year's 1.0 effort) to 1.8, with 51 percent of his batted-balls going into play as grounders. Vazquez has done everything he did well last season, but he's also cut his homer rate by more than half. Given their tendencies and styles, today's matchup should be a good look at how pitchers can succeed with different approaches, especially now that we're in the Pitch f/x age, where successes and failures are neatly cataloged for our later perusal and study.

Related Content:  The Streak

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