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May 29, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Nationals (23-31) at Padres (20-34), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: John Lannan (58 IP, 3.72 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Wil Ledezma (31, 5.23, 1.61, 24)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 22-32 (208 RS, 255 RA); San Diego, 19-35 (190 RS, 261 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; San Diego, #30
Prospectus: There are many who have wondered why the Padres front office deemed it necessary to turn Chase Headley, a third baseman in the minor leagues, into a corner outfielder in order to keep Kevin Kouzmanoff at the hot corner in the majors. After all, Kouzmanoff was a problem defensively in 2007, his first full year in the majors. Though his Revised Zone Rating of .680 was around the average (12th among 21 qualified third basemen), he had a Rate of 86, which led to -17 FRAA. Since Kouzmanoff was an above-average hitter but not a spectacular one (.276 EqA) , this showed up in his WARP of 2.3, a below-average value. Considering Headley was prospect #23 on Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospect list, leaving a poor defensive third baseman who didn't produce that much over the average in place seemed an odd choice.

The tables have turned in 2008, as Kouzmanoff has hit roughly the same (.267 EqA), but has improved his defense dramatically a third of the way into the season. His RZR of .779 is first in the majors among qualified third basemen, and his Rate, which was so far below the average in '07, is now at 109. He's already earned +5 FRAA, and thanks to this he has almost matched last year's WARP total already. Add to this the fact that Kouzmanoff is one of the few Padres who isn't negatively affected by Petco Park all that much-he's hit .285/.333/.456 at home and .306/.355/.505 on the road from 5/15/07 through yesterday-and you start to see why the front office stuck with him at the hot corner. And in a further bit of good news, Headley has also overcome his early problems at the plate at Triple-A, and is now hitting .301/.364/.524. Despite ranking last in BP's Hit List and in their division, the Pads and their fans do have some things to look forward to.

Matchup: Blue Jays (29-26) at Athletics (29-24), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jesse Litsch (58 IP, 3.72 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Dana Eveland (62, 3.05, 1.16, 44)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 29-26 (211 RS, 199 RA); Oakland, 32-21 (236 RS, 187 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, 12#; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: Toronto's rotation is tied for second best in SNLVAR in the league, behind the Indians and knotted up with today's opponent. That performance has helped them to their 29-26 record and third-place standing in the AL East. There's plenty of talent in this rotation: Roy Halladay is the known quantity who has pitched even better than we expected, Dustin McGowan is coming into his own after what seems like years of unfulfilled promise, and though A.J. Burnett has been disappointing with a 4.57 ERA, if that's your worst-performing starter, that's nothing to gripe about. Litsch has performed well despite a league-average strikeout rate and pedestrian homer rate by keeping his walks down to a minimum, while also receiving an assist from Toronto's defense, which ranks fourth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency. This strong defensive effort has benefited all of the starters-one wonders where McGowan (.332 BABIP) and Burnett (.335 BABIP) would be without it-but it has done the most for Litsch and Shaun Marcum (71 1/3 IP, 20.6 VORP, .180 BABIP), and made a solid rotation into an excellent one.

With the rotation going strong, how are the other components of the ballclub doing? The bullpen has also been doing an excellent job, with the fourth highest WXRL in the majors and an opponent line of .227/.307/.361. The problem with this team is the offense, which is hitting just .257/.333/.368, and an even less-appealing .252/.324/.342 on the road. Their pitching and defense are good enough to carry the offense, but when you have to face the Rays and the Red Sox seemingly every other series, you're going to need a boatload of intra-divisional victories to find yourself atop the standings come October; given the balance of the other teams, that could be an issue.

Matchup: White Sox (29-23) at Rays (32-21), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: John Danks (57 IP, 3.00 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Edwin Jackson (59 2/3, 3.47, 1.39, 43)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 30-22 (235 RS, 200 RA); Tampa Bay, 29-24 (248 RS, 219 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #5; Tampa Bay, #7
Prospectus: Today's matchup gives us two young pitchers who have reversed their fortunes this season. John Danks, #58 on Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospects list from 2007, struggled in his rookie campaign, walking 3.5 batters per nine while giving up 28 home runs in just 139 innings pitched (1.8 HR/9). In addition to his problems with 2/3 of the Three True Outcomes, Danks had to contend with a Chicago defense that let him down consistently; he gave up 10.4 H/9 and a .318 BABIP thanks to a defense that converted just 68.9 percent of batted-balls into outs. This year, Chicago is improved on that front, with a .711 Defensive Efficiency. Danks has also helped himself out by cutting his walks down to 2.7 per nine, and slicing his home run rate by 2/3. Danks has started to throw a cutter, and it's a legitimate pitch; it averages 86.6 mph, and he uses it over 10 percent of the time, and it has helped him induce more grounders. His G/F was 0.8 last year, but is almost double that this year at 1.5, and 50 percent of his batted balls have been on the ground. This former member of "DVD" may not be lead his league in strikeout rate like Edinson Volquez, but he has found a way to succeed at a high level in just his second year in the majors.

Edwin Jackson's success is more problematic, because while he has struck out 43 hitters, he's also walked 30 of them. He slashed his homer rate from 1.1 to 0.6, but perhaps the most significant change has not been of his own doing. Tampa Bay's defense has received a lot of press thanks to their jump from converting a historically-worst 66.2 percent of batted balls into outs last year to a league-leading 72.2 percent so far this year. Jackson has been enjoying that turnabout, and has seen his BABIP improve from .351 in '07 to .281 in '08. His QuikERA of 5.26 helps confirm that if he were pitching for a league-average or worse defense, the results would not be as pleasant. He's a useful piece in the Rays' plans until more appealing options start to peek out their heads up into the majors.

Matchup: Dodgers (26-26) at Mets (25-26), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brad Penny (66 IP, 5.45 RA, 1.48 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Claudio Vargas (18 1/3 IP, 3.93, 1.04, 10)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 27-25 (233 RS, 220 RA); New York, 26-25 (243 RS, 239 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; New York, #14
Prospectus: Reasons for the Mets' mediocrity have been covered in this space before, so now it's the Dodgers turn to explain their .500 record. First, we have a team that isn't playing good defense: they rank 22nd in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, converting 69.6 percent of batted-balls into outs. Though the bullpen hasn't suffered much-they rank fourth in the NL in WXRL as a unit-that defense has contributed to the rotation's ranking only in the middle of the pack via SNLVAR. The offense is hitting .268/.340/.383, which boils down to an EqA of .257. When your rotation is average and your lineup is average, it's no surprise that your team's record is average.

The bullpen has helped them out in one-run contests (8-5) and extra innings (3-1) during the first two months of the season, but they are going to need improvement in one of the three areas-pitching, fielding, or offense-if they are to rise above their current position and give the Diamondbacks a scare. Losing Andruw Jones to surgery should help the offense out, as his .165/.273/.271 line was the source of more headaches than runs. Another of the lineup's old men, Jeff Kent, has issues of his own. He's hitting the ball on the ground more often-43 percent grounders versus last year's 38 percent and his career rate of 35-and has lost a bit on his power as well, dropping his HR/FB from 10.2 to 7.4 percent. Kent is also swinging at more pitches-with many of those offerings out of the strike zone-but he's making contact less often and has seen his walk rate cut in half. Almost 40 percent of his batted balls have been grounders that were weakly pulled as well. Without some switching around-Blake DeWitt to second when Andy LaRoche gets called up, perhaps?-the Dodgers offense is not going to see the vast improvement it needs to keep up with their rivals out.

Matchup: Astros (30-24) at Cardinals (31-23), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (69 IP, 5.87 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 53 K) vs. Kyle Lohse (63 1/3, 4.42, 1.33, 32)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 27-27 (262 RS, 257 RA); St. Louis, 30-24 (247 RS, 219 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #15; St. Louis, #8
Prospectus: It's been almost two months, and Oswalt has not improved in the areas analysts need to see to be convinced that his early struggles were a fluke. Oswalt's G/F ratio is the same as last year at 1.7, but that's somewhat misleading, because Oswalt is allowing fewer grounders and fewer fly balls, and is instead giving up line drives 24.1 percent of the time, a significant increase over last year's below-average (and uncharacteristic) 16 percent. Despite giving up fewer fly balls, he's also unfortunately giving up more homers on the fly balls he does allow, with a massive jump in HR/FB from 6.7 percent to 23.4 percent. Not a whole lot has changed as far as what he's throwing, though he has cut into his fastball usage in order to mix in more sliders and curveballs.

Only so much blame can be put on an Astros' defense with a .696 Defensive Efficiency, as Oswalt is lucky his BABIP is just .331, rather than the .361 expected BABIP that his line-drive rate suggests. Chances are good that the liner rate will fall back towards his career rate of 20.9 percent-unless he's being so predictable with his offerings that hitters are teeing off constantly. However, the homer rate is at a level that I wonder whether it truly is a mechanical issue, or if Oswalt, who has lost velocity and is striking out a lot fewer batters, has simply lost it. Oswalt was an excellent pitcher during his peak, so he still gets the benefit of the doubt to a degree, but that degree is getting narrower with every start, just like his margin for error.

Related Content:  Defense,  The Who,  Hit List,  Pythagorean Standings

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