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May 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Indians (22-21) at Reds (20-23), 1:15 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (53 2/3 IP, 0.85 RA, 0.67 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Edinson Volquez (48 1/3 IP, 1.31 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 57 K)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 25-18 (179 RS, 151 RA); Cincinnati, 19-24 (190 RS, 212 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #10; Cincinnati, #19
Prospectus: This is easily the pitching matchup of the day, though if this duel had been on the schedule back in March we never would have thought so. Lee has spent the past few seasons mired in injured mediocrity with falling strikeout rates, rising walk totals, and a propensity to give up the long ball far too often to be consistently productive. Lee was Baseball America's #3 prospect heading into the 2003 season after coming over from the Expos in the Bartolo Colon deal, and he held his own in the majors with a 3.30 ERA and 7.2 K/9 over two part-time seasons. Injuries and ineffectiveness sapped his productivity at various times through the ensuing seasons, but we've seen him pitch well this year now that he is healthy: 7.4 K/9, 0.7 BB/9, 0.2 HR/9, and a 2.74 QERA. As long as he keeps home runs out of the equation, Lee's performance should give the Indians a staff capable of dominating any series.

Volquez had a rough ride on his way to the majors, but after a stint in High-A in the Rangers organization to begin 2007, he began to turn a corner. He pitched well at Double-A (58 1/3 IP, 3.55 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9) and Triple-A (51 IP, 1.41 ERA, 11.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, zero homers allowed) to finish out the season, and then the Rangers dealt him to the Reds for Josh Hamilton in an exchange of top young talent. Though he wasn't eligible for the Reds Top 11 Prospects List thanks to losing his prospect status with major league time, Kevin Goldstein ranked Volquez fourth in the organization for players under the age of 25, saying, "He finished the year with a solid big-league run, and should fit in just fine at the back of the Reds' rotation; his stuff still allows for some star potential." If anything, that analysis was understated, because through eight starts Volquez is leading the majors in K/9 at 10.6 while limiting his homers to 0.2 per nine despite pitching in one of the top homer-friendly parks. That's thanks in part to a 55 percent ground-ball rate. Unfortunately, the Reds defense is last in the majors, which makes you wonder how long Volquez can keep up the low hit rate, but in the meantime he's a must-watch pitcher.

Matchup: Nationals (18-26) at Baltimore (23-19), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Lannan (45 2/3 IP, 3.98 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 29 K) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (56 IP, 4.82 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 39 K)
Pythagorean Record:Washington, 18-26 (175 RS, 217 RA); Baltimore, 21-21 (178 RS, 182 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; Baltimore, #18
Prospectus: Washington's rank in Hit List is no accident-as a team, their EqA is .236. That's .006 above replacement level, collectively, as a team. If they were to remain at this level throughout the year-and it isn't like they have much in the way of bats to reverse this problem overnight-it would be the lowest team EqA since the 1999 Minnesota Twins posted a .235 mark. That Twins team was led by Corey Koskie in his second year in the majors; he posted a .275 EqA and .310/.387/.468 line. For some real perspective, the 2003 Tigers-who lost 119 games-had a Team EqA of .238. The problems in the lineup may get worse before they improve, with Nick Johnsonhitting the disabled list for the ninth consecutive season; Johnson was the team leader in EqA (.302) among regulars, and he'll be replaced by Dmitri Young, who is coming off of the DL himself. The Nats better hope Young has some more of 2007 left in him, when he hit .320/.378/.491, but Young's expected BABIP was 23 points lower than his actual; adjusting his line downward to .297/.355/.450 doesn't do him any favors. PECOTA expects him to be around there, with a .292/.356/.467 weighted mean forecast.

If there's solace you need, Nats fans, look to the pitching. Though it isn't flashy or particularly good, it's a clear cut above their offense. The bullpen ranks 11th in the NL in WXRL and 19th in the majors. Via SNLVAR, the Nats rotation is right in the middle of the pack at #16, and would probably be better if their defense wasn't ranked 25thin Defensive Efficiency. Thanks to those like today's starter, the Nats should be able to avoid historical ignominy on the level of the '03 Tigers, even with a lineup that might have trouble in the International League.

Matchup: Rays (25-18) at Cardinals (25-20), 1:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (49 1/3 IP, 3.47 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Kyle Lohse (51 1/3 IP, 4.91 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 22 K)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 24-19 (197 RS, 171 RA); St. Louis, 23-22 (204 RS, 193 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; St. Louis, #7
Prospectus: The Rays are in first place thanks to their best defensive effort since 2003-it should also be mentioned that they are converting 6.1 percent more batted-balls into outs than last year, a massive improvement. Offensively, they just have not shown up to the park like expected. They have a .262 Team EqA, just a smidge above the league average and 14th in the majors. Carl Crawford is hitting just .283/.317/.380 with an Isolated Power of .098, well below his career rate (.141) and last year's results (.151). Considering his BABIP was 54 points higher than his eBABIP in 2007, a drop in his line should have been expected. PECOTA forecasted a .148 ISO and .447 SLG at his weighted mean, though his 25th percentile (.280/.323/.380) looks similar to his current performance. Carlos Pena has also fallen off of 2007's performance somewhat; after a monster .282/.411/.627 campaign worth 68.5 VORP, he's down to .214/.315/.403 with just a single point of VORP to his credit. Despite averaging 4.1 pitches per PA against last year's 4.0, he's walking 6.4 percent less often and striking out 4.1 percent more-it will be tough to raise his .255 BABIP when he only puts the ball in play 53 percent of the time to begin with. Evan Longoria is down to .230/.318/.398 in 113 at-bats, after a .275/.387/.549 line in his first 51 at-bats. Like Pena, his 30+ percent strikeout rate has been his downfall. Despite a .293 BABIP, right around the league average, Longoria can't bring up his batting average until he stops punching out so often.

This isn't meant to say that the Rays are going to fall off the map and back into mediocrity soon. In fact, what we have are three players who are well under the production their talent level suggests they are capable of. Longoria should adjust to the majors with some more experience-check out Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Kouzmanoff's awful starts last year before you pass judgment-and both Crawford and Pena have played much better than this in the past. An improvement from two of these three would do wonders in bumping this team up from a league average offense to the top-third in the majors, which would in turn make them (somehow) more exciting to watch than they already are.

Matchup: Astros (24-20) at Rangers (22-22), 2:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Brandon Backe (48 2/3 IP, 5.04 RA, 1.68 WHIP, 37 K) vs. Kason Gabbard (29 2/3 IP, 2.12 RA,1.42 WHIP, 11 K)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 23-21 (218 RS, 205 RA); Texas, 20-24 (222 RS, 239 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #12; Texas, #21
Prospectus: The Lance Berkman Traveling All-Stars take on the Rangers in a battle of two teams who do nothing but score, score, and score some more. Friday's game showed us the power these two poor pitching staffs but powerful lineups are capable of producing, with the Rangers taking the contest 16-8. The Rangers and Astros are ranked fourth and fifth in Runs, respectively, but given their home park and team line of .273/.350/.444, Texas is the better bet to stay close to the top of the league in runs scored. The Astros are hitting just .261/.325/.425 as a club, and are ranked 12th in the majors in team EqA, whereas their opponents are second behind the Red Sox. Houston's formula for success has been simple thus far:

  1. Put Lance Berkman in lineup
  2. Put runners on in front of Lance Berkman
  3. Pitching? That doesn't concern Lance Berkman!

Miguel Tejada has performed admirably with a .337/.369/.514 showing, but that's going to get ugly when he stops hitting 30 percent of his batted balls for liners and falls towards a more normal 20 percent, right around his career average. Carlos Lee is hitting a solid .287/.331/.527, and we may even see his average bounce up a few points given his initial liner tendencies, but Lance Berkman has been the offense so far: .399/.478/.816 in 186 plate appearances, with a league-leading 45.7 VORP. The rest…well, it hasn't been pretty, and the same can be said about the pitching staff, where Geoff Geary (a reliever) and Wandy Rodriguez, who has been on the DL since April 20, lead the team in pitcher VORP.

Texas' lineup is led by this winter's acquisitions, Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley. Neither has disappointed: Hamilton has improved on last year's return to baseball, making this trade worthwhile for the Rangers so far. He's hitting .320/.372/.600, and while he's lost a few walks (down from 10 to 9 percent), he has made serious strides in cutting down on strikeouts (22 to 14 percent). One way for Texas to outperform their PECOTA forecasted standings is for Hamilton to obliterate his forecast of .283/.349/.481; right now he's outperforming even his 90th percentile projection (.306/.375/.538). Milton Bradley is also outperforming expectations with a .323/.437/.569 line, but the portion of his forecast that's most important for him to beat is the playing time of 407 PA. Bradley has played in 36 of his team's 44 games so far, and just by coming back from that ACL tear in time for 2008 surpassed Will Carroll's expectations, so there's hope.

Matchup: Mets (21-19) at Yankees (20-23), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (41 IP, 5.70 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 37 K) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (59 IP, 2.90 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 38 K)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 21-19 (193 RS, 182 RA); New York, 21-22 (177 RS, 186 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #11; New York, #17
Prospectus: There has been a lot of emphasis on the problems with the Yankee pitching staff-Ian Kennedy's implosion, and Philip Hughes' poor performance followed by the discovery of a rib injury-but the offense has had plenty of problems as well. As a team, the Yankees are hitting .258/.325/.410; since the start of the century, the Yankees have never performed this poorly through May 17:


Year   AVG   OBP   SLG
2000  .265  .335  .440
2001  .269  .327  .413
2002  .277  .357  .477
2003  .279  .365  .474
2004  .251  .345  .427
2005  .279  .356  .449
2006  .285  .373  .457
2007  .274  .351  .423

So, while 2001 comes close, this season is far from what we are used to out of the Bombers. Most of the problems came about when Jorge Posada left the lineup at the same time that Alex Rodriguez exited it for the second time. From Opening Day to April 27, the first day without Posada, the Yanks hit .263/.331/.429; since then, .250/.315/.381. Posada's return is still shrouded in mystery, but Rodriguez should be back in time for the Orioles series that's next on the Yanks schedule. It won't help the rotation, but at the least the Yankees can focus on improving their .258 Team EqA, 16th in the majors.

The Mets have their own set of problems to focus on, or at least manager Willie Randolph does, if you've watched the news wire. A series win against their cross-town rivals should soothe the anger of the torch-bearing masses, considering being two games back of the division leader was reason enough to go head-hunting in the first place. The Mets defense is above-average, and their lineup is right around there with a .264 EqA, and the pitching, in both the rotation and the pen has been solid. What's the problem then? The Mets have been average in so many ways that their record shows it, as does their Pythagorean one, and that won't change until the lineup or the rotation start to excel, especially given the divisional competition they have to deal with.

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Prospectus Q&A: Josh O... (05/18)
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