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June 5, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (29-31) at Phillies (35-26), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Homer Bailey (69 1/3 IP, 4.29 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Cole Hamels (82, 3.95, 1.11, 69)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 28-32 (270 RS, 288 RA); Philadelphia, 36-25 (323 RS, 260 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #21; Philadelphia, #7
Prospectus: Today is the 2008 major-league debut of Homer Bailey, and the Reds are hoping for better results than his 2007 season offered. Bailey didn't dominate at Triple-A Louisville last year, striking out eight hitters per nine while walking 4.3 men, and he proved he wasn't ready when he reached the majors, ending up with a 5.76 ERA and an even number of strikeouts and walks--though if you count his three HBP in 45 1/3 innings, he walked more than he punched out. At the start of this year, the Reds wisely plopped Bailey back into Triple-A to give him some additional seasoning. Bailey responded by striking out 7.1 per nine and dropping his walk rate slightly as well, down to 4.0. Those numbers look similar to last season's at Louisville, which may be worrisome to those who are hoping for another weapon in the Reds' rotation.

Kevin Goldstein ranked Bailey as the #9 prospect in the major leagues heading into this year, and the second-best in the Reds organization behind Jay Bruce. As Goldstein notes in the Reds Top 11 Prospects report, Bailey is not going to succeed consistently at the major league level until he gets his control under wraps. That's a problem that didn't go away with more time in the minors, and it could pop up in today's start against the patient and offense-heavy Phillies.

Matchup: Rays (35-24) at Red Sox (37-25), 6:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: James Shields (80 2/3 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 58 K) vs. Jon Lester (76, 4.03, 1.38, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 32-27 (262 RS, 240 RA); Boston, 36-26 (314 RS, 266 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; Boston, #2
Prospectus: Last year, the Red Sox won the World Series thanks to a team that had high levels of success in every facet of the game. Their offense was fifth in the majors in EqA, their defense was second overall in Defensive Efficiency, their starting rotation was ranked third in SNLVAR, and their bullpen also ranked third in WXRL. The offense is still there this year, as their .279 EqA is second in the majors, and they haven't fallen far in defense, currently converting 71.3 percent of balls in play into outs, but their pitching has been problematic relative to last year. The pen had as much value as it did in '07 thanks to Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima, who combined for almost 9.57 WXRL out of the team's 13.85 total. It was essentially a two-man production, with Manny Delcarmen's 1.65 WXRL good for third on the Sox. This year, Papelbon has been very good, but not as good as last year, and his 1.11 WXRL leads the team. The Sox have roughly the same amount of success and failure from the rest of their bullpen as they did last year, but without epic seasons from Papelbon and Okajima to prop things up, the results have not been anything to write home about-Boston currently ranks 26th in team WXRL.

The rotation has not been as good either. It sits at #11 on the team SNLVAR rankings, which isn't bad, but isn't close to last year's stellar outcome. The inability of the starters to perform as well as they did in '07 has allowed opponents to attack the soft underbelly of the Sox bullpen. Boston's bullpen has 181 appearances in 62 games this year (2.92 trips to the pen per game) versus last season's 451 in 162 games (2.78 per game), and things may get worse if the rotation has to deal with any additional injuries. Beckett left last night's game soon after twisting his ankle on the rain-slicked mound-it was the same sort of situation that caused his back to act up in spring training-and Daisuke Matsuzaka is dealing with his own issues as he attempts to get back into the rotation.

Matchup: Marlins (32-26) at Braves (31-29), 7:00 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (60 1/3 IP, 4.48 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Jair Jurrjens (70 1/3, 3.84, 1.38, 51)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 29-29 (284 RS, 280 RA); Atlanta, 35-35 (283 RS, 233 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #11; Braves, #3
Prospectus: Four hundred seems to be Chipper Jones' number of choice in 2008. As many have noted, Jones is still hitting above .400 for the season. It's early yet, with more than half of the season to play, but you can see the probability of Jones' hitting .400 thanks to old friend David Pinto. The more realistic 400, and the one we'll see first, is that of Jones' career home run total. Chipper is sitting at 399 homers, tied for 43rd all time with former Brave Andres Galarraga and Al Kaline. He passed Dale Murphy, another former Brave, earlier this week with #399. Jones, much like Manny Ramirez, who recently crossed the 500 mark in career homers, is an excellent all-around hitter, not known exclusively for his power. He's hit a homer every 16.7 at-bats since 2005-a time frame in which he has been a .334/.427/.597 hitter-and he's well on his way to the Hall of Fame, according to JAWS: Jones has 103.4 career WARP3, a Peak score of 65.6, and a JAWS of 84.5, and he's just in his age-36 season.

Considering the way he's been hitting during the time when he theoretically should be declining, it's not a stretch to imagine him closing the gap to the baselines for entry he needs: 118.3 WARP3, 68.2 Peak, 93.2 JAWS. The two best seasons of his career, if he keeps it up this year, would be his age-35 and 36 seasons. For my money, he's the best pure hitter in the game, and as long as he stays on the field he has a chance to hit 500 homers as well. PECOTA has him down for 13 homers at age 42, in 2013. If he matched his PECOTA for the next seven years, he would finish with 522 homers for his career, which doesn't seem far fetched given the second half of his career thus far.

Matchup: Royals (23-36) at White Sox (32-26), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Gil Meche (70 2/3 IP, 5.35 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 54 K) vs. Jose Contreras (74 2/3, 3.01, 1.06, 47)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 23-36 (216 RS, 275 RA); Chicago, 34-24 (259 RS, 218 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; Chicago, #8
Prospectus: There have been a mere handful of hitters over the last 30-plus seasons who performed as poorly as Tony Pena Jr. has this year. Since 1970, Pena has the third lowest EqA among players with a minimum of 164 plate appearances:

Player         Year   Team   EqA
Vic Harris     1972   TEX    .061
Angel Salazar  1984   MON    .066
Tony Pena      2008   KCA    .070
Bob Didier     1970   ATL    .093
Luis Pujols    1978   HOU    .099
Tim Bogar      1998   HOU    .105
John Vukovich  1971   PHI    .109
Bucky Dent     1982   NYY    .112
Doug Flynn     1977   NYM    .120
Doug Strange   1998   PIT    .127
Larry Brown    1971   OAK    .130

If the Royals continue to play him everyday-and he continues to disappoint-Pena may find himself atop this list of players with the lowest EqAs since 1970 in a minimum of 450 plate appearances:

Player           Year   Team   EqA
Larry Bowa       1973   PHI    .172
Bob Boone        1984   CAL    .184
Tommy Helsm      1970   CIN    .184
Tim Johnson      1973   MIL    .186
Hal Lanier       1970   SF     .186
Dal Maxvill      1970   STL    .188
Jack Heidemar    1970   CLE    .189
Cristian Guzman  1999   MIN    .190
Coco Laboy       1970   MON    .191
Cesar Izturis    2002   LAD    .192

The defense for Pena last year, when he hit .267/.284/.356, was that his defense made up for his bat to the degree that he was a better option than the recently ousted Angel Berroa, who could neither hit (.248/.271/.356 with a .209 EqA) nor field (-6 FRAA) in 2006. Pena was able to field, with +13 FRAA last year, which helped make up for his -25 BRAA to a degree-sadly 12 runs below average was an improvement over Berroa's -23 from the year before-but this year he's having difficulty fielding as well. According to Rate, Pena's defense is four runs below average for every 100 games played, and he's already cost the Royals two runs defensively in addition to his issues at the plate. John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating agrees with this assessment as well, with Pena ranking 14th out of 21 qualified shortstops.

Pena's .198 BABIP is 110 points below his expected BABIP, but even adjusting for that gives him a line of .212/.236/.263 for the year. At this point, Ozzie Smith's defense would have a hard time making up for the lack of production in Pena's bat, and it may be time for the Royals to look elsewhere for a shortstop…again. Indeed, Royals' manager Trey Hillman recently said that Esteban German will get an "extended look" at the position, and if he performs at least adequately then we might not have a chance at seeing a historically bad season from Pena, which would surely be in the best interest of Royals' fans mental state.

Thanks to Clay Davenport for database research.

Matchup: Cubs (38-22) at Dodgers (28-31), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ryan Dempster (75 1/3 IP, 3.59 RA, 1.12 WHIP, 63 K) vs. Chad Billingsley (65 2/3 IP, 3.56, 1.32, 71)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 39-21 (341 RS, 246 RA); Los Angeles, 30-29 (258 RS, 249 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Los Angeles, #14
Prospectus: Ryan Dempster is not going to finish the season with the 2.75 ERA he currently holds, but his second time around as a starter has gone much better than his first. Despite losing two mph on his fastball by switching back to the rotation from the bullpen, Dempster has been able to keep his strikeouts at the same level, actually increasing them slightly from 7.4 per nine to 7.5. He has also dropped his walks a tad, from 4.0 to 3.9, but the most significant change has been in his home runs allowed: Dempster has gone from giving up 1.1 per nine to 0.7. That's significant, as it's the difference between 24 homers allowed over 200 innings and 16 over the same number. His tendency to induce grounders has also proved worthwhile, with almost twice as many balls on the ground as in the air and 53 percent of all balls in play as grounders.

You can also see in this Pitch f/x chart, created by Josh Kalk, that he's been able to get hitters to swing and miss down low with his offerings, and when they aren't missing, they're hitting into plenty of outs. Keeping the ball down has kept homers out of the picture as well, so as long as he has that command at his disposal, there's no reason to believe his success isn't real, to a degree. His QERA is 4.24, so it looks like the Cubs may have something worthwhile in Ryan Dempster: Starting Pitcher.

Related Content:  A's,  The Who

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