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May 25, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Twins (24-25) at Tigers (21-28), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glenn Perkins (18 1/3 IP, 3.93 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Justin Verlander (61 IP, 6.34 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 40 K)
Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 23-26 (221 RS, 241 RA); Detroit, 23-26 (245 RS, 258 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #21; Detroit, #20
Prospectus: Expected to be the ace of the staff, Verlander has instead been the second-least productive starter the Tigers have thrown on the mound according to VORP. Looking at his numbers, it's easy to see what the problems are: he's only striking out 5.9 hitters per nine, a significant dip from last year's career high of 8.2. Verlander is also walking 3.7 hitters per nine, versus last year's 3.0. He's giving up 1.2 HR/9 against 2007's 0.9, and opponents are getting on base at a .343 clip with an ISO of .145.The good news for Verlander and the Tigers (and all of the fantasy owners who have had their standings ruined by his problems) is that Verlander has shown signs of improvement since the calendar switched months:


Month      IP    ERA  K/9  BB/9  HR/9
Mar/Apr   36.0  6.50  5.0   4.5   1.3
May       25.0  4.32  7.2   2.5   1.1

Opponents have also had a harder time hitting Verlander since May began, with a .271/.324/.385 showing versus the .250/.355/.414 he was allowing prior to that. Though it's only a handful of innings and starts, it's easy to believe that Verlander is getting back on track. Even so, his velocity still isn't where it should be, as his fastball is averaging 92.9 mph, almost two mph fewer than last season, thanks in part to some early mechanical issues. Today's game is a good opportunity to see if he's still pitching with his front side flying open; this makes command and control an issue while also making it easier for the hitter to pick up a pitch. If you're looking for the reason that Verlander was walking more hitters and was having difficulty putting hitters away, look no further than this mechanical issue.

Matchup: Giants (20-29) at Marlins (27-20), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Cain (61 IP, 4.72 RA, 1.43 WHIP, 53 K) vs. Mark Hendrickson (58 IP, 4.50 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 31 K)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 19-30 (179 RS, 231 RA); Florida, 24-23 (225 RS, 217 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, 27#; Florida, #11
Prospectus: This is the first of two Giants/Marlins games today, but as of this writing, it's the only one with scheduled starters and a start time. Florida's offense is hitting .262/.325/.454 overall, powered by 66 team homers (second in the majors), and they rank seventh in the majors with 727 total bases. This outburst of power has helped make up for their below-average on-base percentage, something that's even more pronounced on the road: the Marlins are hitting .281/.344/.485 outside of Florida, and just .248/.310/.430 at home. The difference isn't shocking given their home park's tendency to favor pitchers, but expecting the team to slug .485 on the road all season may be asking a bit much.

The offense needs to keep up its blistering pace on the road to save their pitching staff. Their run differential is only +8 thanks to a rotation that can't keep the opposition off the basepaths, allowing a .275/.345/.420 line. Marlins starters rank 25th in the majors in SNLVAR as a team, with just 2.5 wins above replacement coming from the entire staff. For some perspective, the Giants, with a 20-29 record, have 4.9 SNLVAR as a club, and rank ten spots higher. The Marlins' bullpen is nowhere near as awful, with opponents managing just .231/.322/.365 against them. The Fish pen also leads the majors in WXRL by a wide margin, but the team spends as much time pitching while trailing (701 PA) as they do while leading (693 PA), which makes it hard to believe that their current record will stick without some improvements-or changes-in the rotation.

Matchup: Red Sox (31-21) at Athletics (27-23), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (66 IP, 3.68 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Joe Blanton (74 1/3 IP, 4.24 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 34 K)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 29-23 (268 RS, 232 RA); Oakland, 30-20 (226 RS, 181 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: Lester was thrown into the national spotlight last week thanks to his no-hitter against the Royals, but this time around he takes on an Oakland team that could exploit his problem with walks. Oakland's .332 OBP is right around the AL average of .329, but their Isolated Patience of .082 ranks third in the majors. Considering Lester is walking 4.2 hitters per nine this year, it's a legitimate problem, especially since he's only punching out 5.7 per nine. The Red Sox defense has been Lester's best friend in 2008; the lefty has induced grounders on 51 percent of his batted balls, good for a G/F of 1.6, a career high. The Boston defense has responded by converting 71.3 percent of all batted balls into outs for their pitchers, good for eighth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency.

The good news for Lester is that he's improving. Since a start against the Blue Jays on April 29, Lester has struck out 6.8 hitters per nine against just 3.1 BB/9. He's also kept the ball in the park, with opponents managing just one homer off of him during this 34 1/3 inning stretch, but he's been generally impossible to hit, with opponents scraping together a .154/.233/.205 line across these four starts. Granted, expecting his .254 BABIP to last the year is asking a bit much, but he's going to succeed if he keeps the ball on the ground and in the park.

Matchup: Cardinals (30-21) at Dodgers (25-23), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (61 IP, 3.54 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Clayton Kershaw (42 1/3 IP, 3.40 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 45 K at Double-A)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 29-22 (236 RS, 206 RA); Los Angeles, 25-23 (226 RS, 209 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #8; Los Angeles, #9
Prospectus: Kevin Goldstein's fifth-best prospect in all the land makes his major league debut for the Dodgers today. Kershaw also rates as a five-star prospect as well as the Dodgers' best, via Goldstein's Top 11 Prospects series, and he was happy to talk with David Laurila about his initial pro success last season. This year, he dominated for Double-A Jacksonville with 9.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, no homers allowed in 42+ innings, and did all of this with a close-to-average .301 BABIP. Prior to the season, the seventh overall pick from the 2006 draft struggled with his command on occasion, and to make up for it he would toss fastballs in the zone for hitters to paste. It seems he's rectified this issue somewhat, but it's something to watch for this afternoon against the Cardinals.

The Dodgers certainly hope that Kershaw can help their beleaguered rotation, as they sit at #21 in the team SNLVAR rankings. He's on an incredibly short leash though, with the Dodgers holding him to 25 innings per month in order to keep his 20-year-old arm fresh for the stretch drive. He's pitched only 11 innings since May 2, and only a single inning in his last start in the minors. Given today's date, he's got some catching up to do, but you won't see the organization pushing the crown jewel of their minor league system too hard.

Matchup: Angels (30-21) at White Sox (26-22), 7:05 p.m. MT
Probable Starters: John Lackey (14 IP, 1.29 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 10 K) vs. Jose Contreras (59 2/3 IP, 3.32 RA, 1.14 WHIP, 32 K)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 27-24 (226 RS, 214 RA); Chicago, 28-20 (218 RS, 182 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: Joe Sheehan covered the White Sox success in some detail just the other day, but the Angels deserve the same treatment. They lead the AL West with a 30-21 record, but their Pythagorean record tells a slightly different story of a team with a run differential of just +12; that ranks a very 13th in the majors. Their Hit List ranking reflects this problem as well, and their third-order record has them 5.4 wins worse than they currently stand. The offense is partially to blame; it has delivered a bland .260/.323/.398 and a.256 team EqA that ranks 18th in the majors). As ever, the Angels live and die by the base hit, and thanks to a lack of walks-their OBP is 20th in the majors-they struggle at the plate when they can't hit .280. Look no further than their April and May splits for this: in April, they hit .279/.341/.430, and in May, .234/.303/.358.

The pitching has had its problems thanks to the loss of Kelvim Escobar, who was second on the staff in SNLVAR last year, and the initial injury to Lackey. Back now, the Angels' ace starts today after already making two excellent outings, one against these same White Sox. Though the Angels eventually lost 6-1, Lackey threw seven innings, scattering six hits, striking out four, and walking only one hitter while giving up a single run. Today's starter for the White Sox was the winning pitcher in that effort; both teams hope for similar performances from their hurlers today, though in the Angels case, they hope their bullpen doesn't explode on themůagain.

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