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June 2, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (27-29) at Phillies (33-25), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Bronson Arroyo (64 2/3 IP, 6.12 RA, 1.61 WHIP, 61 K) vs. Kyle Kendrick (57 2/3, 5.93, 1.53, 27) Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 26-30 (255 RS, 278 RA); Philadelphia, 35-23 (315 RS, 252 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #21; Philadelphia, #7
Prospectus: After sweeping the Braves and winning five of six on their homestand, the Reds travel to the bandbox in Philly for what promises to be a high-offense series. The Phillies rank second in the majors in runs, and while the Reds are a modest 12th, they have scored over six per contest and are collectively hitting .279/.384/.462 since rookie phenom Jay Bruce joined the lineup. That's because Bruce has gone through a surreal beginning: after a 2-for-3 night that included his second home run in yesterday's 6-2 win over the Braves, Bruce now has 13 hits in his first 22 at-bats, and has reached base safely in 20 of his first 29 plate appearances. There is only one player since 1956 who had more hits in his first 22 at-bats than Bruce has--Chris Jones, also a Reds outfielder, with 14 in 1991. Bruce is also the first player since '57 to get on base as often as he has in his first 29 PA. He shattered the previous high of 17, which had been done six times, most recently by Ian Kinsler in 2006, and most ominously by Ruben Rivera in 1996, a reminder of just how tough it is to project future stardom. (For the curious, Kosuke Fukudome reached base in 16 of his first 29 this year, as did the father of Bruce's teammate Ken Griffey Jr. in 1973.) Reds first baseman Joey Votto, another of Cincinnati's key young building blocks, got on 15 times in his first 29 PA last year.

According to Baseball Reference, Bruce could also become the first player in the era for which exists play-by-play data (since 1956) to ever possess a batting average of .300 or better after every at-bat of his major league career (minimum 50 at-bats), since he singled in his first at-bat and went 3-for-3 in his first game. Bruce's PECOTA forecast pegs him for a .270 average, with a 90th-percentile mark of .298, so Bruce may well dip below the .300 line at some point. But that forecast was also generated before the beginning of this year, in which he has now hit .388 (80-for-206) combined between Triple-A Louisville and Cincinnati.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (32-25) at Brewers (29-28), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Doug Davis (21 2/3 IP, 4.98 RA, 1.71 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (66 1/3, 4.88, 1.49, 33)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 34-23 (287 RS, 234 RA); Milwaukee, 27-30 (248 RS, 262 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #4; Milwaukee, #23
Prospectus: The Brewers are in the midst of their first consistently strong stretch of play since they began the season 6-1, having won five of six to climb above .500. Milwaukee shut down the Astros in three straight games at home over the weekend, allowing only a run in each. Suppan will look to keep that strong pitching going tonight, and he is coming off eight shutout innings against the Braves, his best performance since April 24 of last season. Davis has had one good start and one rough one since returning from successful cancer surgery May 23, and now faces the team for which he pitched from 2003-06. The Brewers hit Davis hard in his last start against them, knocking three home run and scoring six runs in two innings in late August. (Davis did post a quality start versus Milwaukee at Miller Park in July.) Both of today's veteran starters get by at this point in their careers despite putting a ton of runners on base: since the start of 2006, Davis has the second highest WHIP of the 57 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings (1.56, behind Miguel Batista), and Suppan is eighth on the list (1.48). Davis has been particularly adept at limiting the damage of late: in 2007 he posted a park-adjusted ERA 11 percent better than league average despite putting nearly 1.6 baserunners on per inning thanks to a 838/746 split between opponent OPS with none on/runners on, and this season so far that differential has been more extreme.

The Milwaukee offense has been a severe disappointment this season overall, but Brewers fans can take comfort in knowing that the team's players are doing everything they can to get on base. Milwaukee ranks first in the NL in getting hit by pitches, thanks to the combination of Rickie Weeks and Jason Kendall. Weeks leads the majors by getting plunked 10 times already, and since the start of the 2006 season has been hit 43 times, second only to Chase Utley (46). Kendall has been hit seven times this year. The soon-to-be 34-year-old catcher ranks seventh on the all-time hit-by-pitch leaderboard, and owns the fourth and fifth highest season totals since 1901, with back-to-back 31 HBP seasons in 1997 and '98.

Matchup: Tigers (24-32) at Athletics (30-27), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kenny Rogers (59 2/3 IP, 6.34 RA, 1.76 WHIP, 27 K) vs. Rich Harden (34 2/3, 2.60, 1.24, 41)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 27-29 (268 RS, 284 RA); Oakland, 32-25 (254 RS, 218 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #22; Oakland, #6
Prospectus: The top player in Oakland's minor league system graduated to the majors over the weekend, and did so with a flourish, as Carlos Gonzalez began his big league career with four doubles in three games. The 22-year-old Gonzalez had already averaged 42 doubles per 162 games during his six minor league seasons. Acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade, Gonzalez was hitting a modest .300/.352/.447 for Triple-A Sacramento, and carries a career minor league line of .288/.341/.476: strong numbers for a player his age, but not overwhelming, especially considering he mostly worked in favorable hitting environments. Gonzalez, however, has some of the best tools of any prospect in the game, and was ranked No. 2 in the A's organization behind Daric Barton by Kevin Goldstein, who wrote the following:

You could argue with me that Gonzalez should be the number one guy, and I probably wouldn't put up much of a fight. His tools are outstanding, his performances merely good, and his effort highly questionable. Still, there is tremendous upside here, including the possibility of a Hanley Ramirez-like "OK, I'm in the majors, now I'll be good" type of breakout.

Ramirez had just a 780 OPS in 400 minor league games with the Red Sox organization before exploding to become one of the best hitters in baseball once he reached the majors with Florida.

Speaking of doubles, the A's also got right fielder Travis Buck back from injury over the weekend, their second-year outfielder who has also shown an ability to hit two-baggers--in the minor leagues, Buck hit 58 doubles in 149 games, and in his rookie season last year, he knocked 22 in 334 plate appearances. That was the third most in any rookie season of 350 PA or less ever, behind Jacque Jones (24 in 1999) and Ed Morgan (24 in 1928), and ahead of some impressive double machines, including Howie Kendrick (21 in '06), Miguel Cabrera (21 in '03), and Jeff Kent (21 in '92). With 28 doubles overall in his first 362 major league at-bats, Buck is on pace to hit his 100th double in his 1,293rd at-bat, which as Rany Jazayerli and Jason Paré uncovered earlier this year would be faster than all but six other players in the past 50 years, just behind Lance Berkman and ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and Albert Pujols. The A's could use power of any sort in their lineup, as they rank ninth in the AL in doubles and 12th in slugging percentage.

Matchup: Cubs (36-21) at Padres (23-34), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (81 IP, 2.44 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Cha Seung Baek (31, 5.23, 1.32, 18)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 37-20 (324 RS, 232 RA); San Diego, 22-35 (208 RS, 264 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; San Diego, #28
Prospectus: Baek makes his first start for the Padres tonight after he was acquired in a deal last week for relief pitcher Jared Wells. Last year, Baek posted a very low ground-ball percentage of 36, and so he could possibly benefit more than most by moving to spacious Petco Park, but he gets a tough assignment in his first NL start going up against Zambrano, who ranks third in the circuit amongst qualifiers in ERA (2.33) and is also on pace for a career-high 234 innings. Zambrano is in the midst of a breakout season at the age of 27, and it has come in a very interesting package. The big right-hander's K/9 has fallen for the second straight year, from a career-high 8.8 in 2006 to 7.4 last season to 6.1 so far this year, which is about a full strikeout per nine lower than his previous season low in 2003. But rather than that slippage serving as a warning sign, it appears to be the marginal cost of a maturation process that is helping the Cubs' ace finally realize the full boundaries of his prodigious potential, for Zambrano's decline in strikout rate has been accompanied by a critical improvement upon his previous weakness--control. With just 2.7 UBB/9, Zambrano has come a long way from the last two seasons, when his UBB/9 rates were 4.7 and 4.0, respectively, and is also bettering his previous season low of 3.3. Additionally, Zambrano has allowed a meager four home runs so far, a reprisal of the power-suppressing ability that he showed in the first two full seasons of his career, 2003 and 2004, when he allowed just 0.5 HR/9 in 225 innings. The last three years, that rate increased to 0.9 in over 647 innings. Zambrano's fastball is averaging 90.5 MPH this season, down from his three-year average of 92, which provides evidence for the conclusion that the Cubs' ace is sacrificing a bit of velocity in order to gain greater command.

Matchup: Rockies (20-37) at Dodgers (27-29), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Greg Reynolds (23 1/3 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.41 WHIP, 8 K) vs. Derek Lowe (69 2/3, 5.30, 1.39, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 22-35 (240 RS, 314 RA); Los Angeles, 29-27 (249 RS, 242 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #27; Los Angeles, #14
Prospectus: Two groundball-inducing pitchers take the mound tonight in Chavez Ravine. Neither, however, is doing a very good job of keeping the ball down this season. Lowe has a G/F ratio of 2.27, which would be the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season of 1998. Reynolds was projected by PECOTA to allow 15 homers in 132 innings this season, but has already surrendered six--two at Petco Park in his first start, two at home versus the Mets, and two in Philadelphia. While Dodger Stadium has traditionally been a pretty good park in which to hit home runs--it ranked in the top seven in home run park factor in two of the past five seasons--this year it has played as by far the toughest park in which to homer through its first 26 games. That's mainly because of what the Dodgers pitchers have done at home: a 3.64 RA and just 10 home runs allowed at Dodger Stadium in 240 innings, as opposed to a 5.10 and 29 homers in 245 1/3 innings on the road.

The way it was drawn up before the season, the Rockies wouldn't have needed to bump the 22-year-old Reynolds, the second overall pick from the 2006 draft and the team's number two prospect, from Triple-A Colorado Springs into the major league rotation this season--especially since he had a 6.48 RA and 1.62 WHIP in 33 1/3 innings prior to his recall. Just about nothing has gone as the Rockies had drawn it up, however, particularly in the rotation, the extreme ineffectiveness of which led Colorado to make the move. Possessors of the worst record in the majors a year after their surprising playoff run, the Rockies have had the second worst starting staff in the NL by SNLVAR (1.72). That puts the team on pace to finish with 4.89 wins above replacement from its starters, the lowest Colorado total since the 1993 team posted a 4.05 mark in its inaugural season. That projected total would also be the fourth worst in the NL in the past 50 years, above just the 1984 Giants, those '05 Rockies, and last year's Marlins.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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