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June 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Indians (27-33) at Tigers (24-35), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Paul Byrd (63 2/3 IP, 5.09 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 24 K) vs. Justin Verlander (75, 5.76, 1.40, 44)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 31-29 (265 RS, 255 RA); Detroit, 27-32 (276 RS, 302 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #17; Detroit, #22
Prospectus: Arguably the two most disappointing teams in baseball this year, the Indians and Tigers have played just twice to this point, splitting a brief set in Cleveland. Neither team is completely buried in the AL Central, but the playoff odds also aren't very promising, assigning a 14.5 percent chance for the Tribe and a 4.8 percent chance for the Tigers. The PECOTA-adjusted version of the report, however, offers much more hope for each team, but right now both squads have offenses that have performed far below what PECOTA projected: Cleveland is on pace for 716 runs versus a projected 835, and Detroit is on pace for 758 versus a projected 842).

Both teams have of course also had problems with their pitching. For the Tigers those issues have resided mostly in the starting rotation--although their bullpen hasn't been good either--while the Indians have gotten great work from their starters and forgettable performances from the relief corps. The Indians are on pace to finish second in the majors in SNLVAR this season, with 23.64, and last in WXRL, at more than four wins below replacement level, which would be the fourth worst bullpen performance by expected wins below replacement since 1959. Of teams that have had sub-replacement level bullpens, here are those with the largest win gaps between starter and reliever performance:


Year Team SNLVAR   WXRL WinDiff
1980  OAK  29.94  -1.29  31.23
1977  BAL  28.39  -0.00  28.39
2008  CLE  23.64  -4.26  27.90*
1974  NYN  25.59  -1.90  27.49
1971  NYA  23.50  -3.86  27.36
1971  BAL  26.83  -0.07  26.90
1969  SFN  24.66  -1.89  26.55
1970  CHN  25.96  -0.44  26.40
1973  CAL  23.42  -1.55  24.97
1965  PHI  23.45  -1.11  24.56
*projected

This year's split between the rotation and the bullpen for Cleveland has been even more dramatic than that of 2006, when the Indians got over 20 wins above replacement from their staff, led by C.C. Sabathia, and 1.5 wins below replacement from their pen. Playing the 2008 role of Guillermo Mota--who had a 6.45 RA in 37 2/3 innings two years ago--has been Rafael Betancourt. Despite a strong 26/7 K/BB ratio, Betancourt has given up five homers in 25 innings and sports a 6.12 RA.

Matchup: Reds (29-32) at Marlins (32-27), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johnny Cueto (68 2/3 IP, 5.77 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Andrew Miller (60 1/3, 5.97, 1.66, 47)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 28-33 (270 RS, 293 RA); Florida, 30-29 (289 RS, 287 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #21; Florida, #11
Prospectus: Two of the youngest pitchers in the National League go at it tonight. Both have struggled in their debut NL seasons, but have also made brief displays of dominance. For Cueto, those struggles have mostly come on the road, for he has given up 24 runs in 23 2/3 innings away from the Great American Ballpark, as opposed to 20 runs in 45 innings at home. Dusty Baker has worked Cueto hard lately: in back-to-back starts on May 21 and 27 the rookie right-hander was allowed to throw 114 and then 119 pitches in grueling five-inning outings. Those two heavy tolls did not affect Cueto in his most recent start, a win over the Braves in which he needed 100 pitches to throw seven innings of two-run ball, but it will be interesting to watch how Baker handles the youngster throughout the summer heat in the Queen City, especially given the manager's questionable track record with young pitchers in his previous managerial stints.

Cueto and the rest of the Reds pitchers have struck out 485 men this season, more than any other team, while Florida's batters have fanned a major league-high 496 times, so this series is sure to produce a large number of punchouts. The Marlins increased their strikeout total from the previous season in both 2006 and 2007, and are on track to do so again this season, and set a team record in the process. Florida was second to last in the NL in whiffs in 2005, but the acquisition of three young prodigious whiffers: Mike Jacobs, Dan Uggla, and Hanley Ramirez--bumped Florida to first in the majors in both '06 and '07. All three of those batters are headed towards new career highs in strikeouts this season. With those whiffs, however, have come tremendous power: the Fish set a new team record in homers in both '06 and '07, and are on pace to demolish last year's total of 201 long balls. If the Marlins keep hitting homers at their current rate--1.5 per game--that would lead to 243 for the season, giving Florida a shot to challenge the 2000 Astros (249) for the most team homers in NL history.

Matchup: Phillies (36-26) at Braves (32-29), 7:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (69 2/3 IP, 5.04 RA, 1.48 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Tim Hudson (83 2/3, 3.33, 1.14, 51)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 37-25 (328 RS, 260 RA); Atlanta, 36-25 (290 RS, 238 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #7; Atlanta, #3
Prospectus: After a five-year absence, the Braves are back at the top of the National League in run prevention. Atlanta finished with the best pitching staff in the league every year from 1992 to 2002, then slipped to ninth in 2003 (while still managing 101 wins) and all the way down to 11th in 2006 before recovering somewhat to place sixth last season. Now, for the first time since Roger McDowell took over as Atlanta's pitching coach from Leo Mazzone after 2005, the Braves have gotten back to their traditional standing. Leading the way is Hudson, who is tied for fifth in the NL in strikeouts and has put up his lowest RA since 2003, while the bullpen has adapted nicely despite having closer Rafael Soriano and set-up man Peter Moylan throw just 14 2/3 combined innings to this point. The revamped Atlanta pitching staff will be challenged by the bats of Philly, which has scored the second most runs in the NL and hit the most home runs in baseball. With 90 long balls through their first 62 games, the Phillies are on pace to finish with 235, which would break the franchise record of 216 set in 2006.

The Phillies can't match the Braves' quality of pitching, but Philadelphia's staff does have one outstanding trait which Atlanta, or any other team in baseball this season, has not matched: stability. With approximately 38 percent of the season gone by, the Phillies have used a total of 12 pitchers this year, the same 12 with which they broke camp. Philadelphia has had only one pitching injury--Brad Lidge began the year on the 15-day DL after off-season knee surgery--but his replacement, Rule 5 pick Tim Lahey, never got into a game before being let go on April 5. The last team to go through an entire season with just 12 pitchers was the 1983 Red Sox, and since the 1993 expansion there has been only one team to use less than 15 in a full season--the 1993 Braves (at the time of the strike in '94, the Braves and Astros had used 13 pitchers, and the White Sox 14). What makes the static nature of the Philadelphia pitching staff this year especially remarkable is that last season the Phillies used an extremely high number of pitchers--28--and had eight make at least 10 starts.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Rays (35-25) at Rangers (31-31), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (37 IP, 1.46 RA, 0.95 WHIP, 38 K) vs. Vicente Padilla (73 2/3, 4.52, 1.45, 54)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 32-28 (263 RS, 247 RA); Texas, 30-32 (347 RS, 360 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #5; Texas, #18
Prospectus: The unstoppable force meets the immovable object. Since allowing four runs in four innings in his first start back from the DL on May 4, Kazmir has given up a grand total of two tallies in 33 frames, with a 0.79 WHIP, a performance which earned him the American League Pitcher of the Month award. Kazmir shut the league-leading Rangers offense down two starts ago in perhaps his most dominating outing of 2008, striking out a season-high 10 in seven innings while not walking a batter. The 24-year-old lefty will now have to face the Rangers on their home turf, where Texas has scored 6.3 runs/game and is hitting a remarkable .304/.376/.502 as a team. The Rangers have put up at least eight runs in their last six games, all at home, which is the longest streak of games with eight or more runs scored since both the Braves and White Sox did the same in 2006. There have been just eight teams including this year's Texas squad to score a least eight in six or more games since 1956, with the high of eight games in a row accomplished by the 2001 Indians and 2000 A's. Milton Bradley has been especially hot lately, with seven hits in his past three games, including four homers. Bradley leads the AL with a 1076 OPS, and is way out ahead in EqA, with a .352 mark. Teammate Josh Hamilton ranks second in both metrics, with a 993 OPS and .331 EqA.

The Tampa Bay-Texas matchup pits perhaps the league's most balanced team, in the Rays, against its most unbalanced. Texas is a fun squad to watch if you enjoy offense--the Rangers score more than anybody in the AL and give up more than anybody in the majors--and not so fun if you like good defense, as they have committed more errors (51) than any team and are second to last in defensive efficiency. Texas has converted about 3.6 percent fewer balls in play into outs than have the Rays, who rank second in the AL with a 71.8 percentage, and Tampa Bay has also committed the fewest errors of any team in baseball, 25.

Matchup: Brewers (32-28) at Rockies (22-38), 6:05 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (76 2/3 IP, 2.83 RA, 1.05 WHIP, 60 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (63 2/3, 6.22, 1.73, 53) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 30-30 (269 RS, 267 RA); Colorado, 23-37 (247 RS, 323 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #23; Colorado, #27
Prospectus: Jimenez was one of the young pitchers that Tom Verducci identified before the season as being in danger of what he calls YAE, or Year-After Effect. That's because the 24-year-old right-hander threw 201 innings last year, after notching 158 2/3 in 2006, a jump of 42 1/3. Sure enough, Jimenez has struggled to recapture his magic from last year's stretch drive, and has been right at replacement level this season. (Incidentally, if it hadn't already, Verducci's +30 danger zone for young pitchers has proven to be a theory of consequence this season: of the seven pitchers he identified as being in trouble, five--Ian Kennedy, Fausto Carmona, Jimenez, Tom Gorzelanny, and Yovani Gallardo--have either gotten hurt, been ineffective, or both .) Then again, it's difficult to separate out any effect of potential overwork late last season on Jimenez, as his struggles can be explained by his minor league track record, and PECOTA projected an ERA for Jimenez (5.28) that is very close to the mark he currently sports (5.37). There have been some positives from Jimenez's campaign--namely his low home run rate of 0.4/9 IP, especially impressive for a pitcher in Colorado. Amongst Rockies pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, the lowest home run rate was the 0.7 of Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook two seasons ago, when both allowed 17 homers in 212 innings of work. Jimenez will be making just his fourth start at Coors Field tonight, however, against eight on the road, but he has given up only a single long ball in 25 home innings so far, and he allowed homers at a lower rate at home last year as well.

Jimenez's ground-ball tendencies will be put to the test against a Brewers squad that has been launching balls with regularity of late. Milwaukee has hit 13 home runs and slugged .561 in its last six games, all of them wins, and rolls into Coors Field having taken nine of its last 10 to climb back to relevancy in the NL playoff race. The Rockies lost the first eight games of their recently-completed 10-game road trip, but recovered to take the final two in Los Angeles.

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

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