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June 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (30-33) at Marlins (33-28), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Aaron Harang (88 2/3 IP, 4.06 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Ryan Tucker (70, 1.54, 1.09, 62 in Double-A)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 30-33 (288 RS, 304 RA); Florida, 30-31 (300 RS, 305 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #19; Florida, #14
Prospectus: Today's slate of games involves a lot rookie starters, including Tucker's major league debut in Miami. Though not considered one of the top prospects in the game thanks to a sub-par outing at High-A in 2007, Tucker was rated as the seventh-best prospect in the Marlins organization by Kevin Goldstein. Before the season started, his 97-98 mph fastball was his sole worthwhile offering, with his secondary stuff a step behind it. As Goldstein noted, this year figured to be a big challenge for Tucker, as it would determine whether he had a career in the bullpen ahead of him, or if he would be allowed to remain a starter after developing some solid off-speed offerings. Thanks to a brilliant first two months at Double-A, where he raised his strikeout rate by a full K per nine, dropped his already minuscule home run rate further, and allowed 21 fewer hits than innings pitched, Tucker's skipped Triple-A to come straight to the majors.

Tucker is just 21 years old, so between that and his uninspiring performance at High-A, PECOTA was not too optimistic of his chances in the majors in 2008. His weighted mean forecast of 140 1/3 innings with a 6.04 ERA are far from what the Fish are looking for out of him; his 90th percentile forecast (4.55 ERA, 148 1/3 IP) would be a step in the right direction, but even that projection forecasts his striking out just five batters per nine. If he can adjust to the majors quick enough to keep punching hitters out at a respectable rate, you can expect him to perform more adequately than PECOTA suggested. That's not a given though, considering his relatively recent struggles in the lower minors and the fact that he has just 70 innings in the high minors, with none of those coming at Triple-A.

Matchup: Mariners (22-40) at Red Sox (39-26), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Erik Bedard (56 1/3 IP, 5.28 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Justin Masterson (18 1/3, 2.95, 1.09, 14)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 25-37 (252 RS, 315 RA); Boston, 38-27 (332 RS, 278 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #29; Boston, #2
Prospectus: After watching Bartolo Colon implode Friday night against the Mariners, Red Sox fans looked forward to seeing a pitcher, any pitcher who might replace him in the rotation in the near future. Today they will get a shot at seeing one of the candidates, with the 23-year old Masterson taking the mound against the same M's lineup Colon was hopeless against. Masterson's ERA at Double-A Portland was an unimpressive 4.23, but his peripherals were all positive, especially his 8.7 K/9 and no homers allowed. His walks were up a bit higher than I like at 3.8 per nine, but his low strand rate of 60.7 percent-most likely the cause of a small 38 1/3 inning sample-was the reason for the poor ERA. He's had success during his short time in the majors as well, with a G/F ratio approaching two and a .175 opponent batting average. His QuikERA, a more accurate predictor of future ERA than the stat itself, is 4.59, which would be excellent for a rookie starter over a full season, and just a tenth of a point higher than Colon's own QERA.

With the potential of Masterson improving his walk rates and inducing ground-ball outs in addition to the strikeouts-his ground-ball rate is second on the Sox among pitchers with the same number of innings or more-he's the logical choice for a club that could use some help in the rotation. The third best prospect in the Sox organization via Kevin Goldstein-and 53rd overall in the Top 100-has his work cut out for him in the majors, but he's had a solid start and given few indicators saying his performance will change for the worse. If not the rotation, the Sox could use him in their beleaguered bullpen, for reasons covered in this space Thursday.

Matchup: Giants (27-35) at Nationals (25-38), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Barry Zito (61 1/3 IP, 6.90 RA, 1.84 WHIP, 33 K) vs. Garrett Mock (61 2/3, 3.50, 1.22, 51 in Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 28-34 (253 RS, 284 RA); Washington, 23-40 (230 RS, 308 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #25; Washington, #30
Prospectus: Another rookie making his big league debut, Mock was acquired by the Nationals from Arizona in the deal that netted the D'backs Livan Hernandez. He was not one of Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 Nats prospects thanks to a performance at Double-A that dropped his stock considerably. He was however considered by Goldstein to be the sleeper in the system thanks to a solid showing the Arizona Fall League. After making the move to Triple-A, Mock has improved considerably; last year, Mock struck out 7.2 hitters per nine, and this season he's bumped that up to 7.4 despite a level jump, but more importantly he's cut his walks considerably from 4.9 BB/9 to a nifty 1.9. That, when combined with his pace for 16 homers allowed over 200 innings, has resulted in a 3.06 ERA and a trip to the majors.

The Nationals are in dire need of a young pitcher who can step up and fill the role as staff ace. Matt Chico led the club in innings last season, but he's a back of the rotation guy. John Lannan has made strides this year, but he's not an overpowering pitcher, instead earning his outs by inducing grounders and relying on his defense to limit the opposition. The combination of Mock and Lannan at the top of the rotation would provide some promise for a Nats team that's in rebuilding mode, and certainly would be more appealing as a building block than the Odalis Perez/Tim Redding combo currently atop the depth chart.

Matchup: Rays (37-25) at Rangers (31-33), 4:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (57 2/3 IP, 4.68 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 32 K) vs. Doug Mathis (15, 10.80, 2.53, 8)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 34-28 (280 RS, 255 RA); Texas, 30-34 (355 RS, 377 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #6; Texas, #17
Prospectus: The Rangers have been getting press this year thanks to the performance of Josh Hamilton, but there's an interesting bit in their team stat line that bears notice. The Rangers are on pace to score 899 runs and allow 954 this season; if they were to score 900 and allow 900, they would be just the sixth team since 1901 to do so. The 1929 Tigers scored 926 runs while allowing 928 thanks to a terrible defense and bullpen: the defense was ranked last in the American League with a .664 Defensive Efficiency and team Fielding Percentage of just .961-they made 24 more errors than the second worst club, and 94 more than the league-leading Athletics, while the pitching staff's collective ERA+ was 86, the same percentage below the league average as the offense was above, measured by OPS+. The rotation was not all that bad, with George Uhle posting an ERA+ of 105, while Earl Whitehill (93) and Ownie Carroll (92) performed a bit below average; Vic Sorrell (83) was the only really sore spot. The issues were in the bullpen, where oft-used reliever and part-time starter Augie Prudhomme logged 94 innings with an ERA+ of 69 The team gave up 766 earned runs, but allowed 162 unearned to boot. Tigers shortstops made 73 errors, and the outfield added 59, never mind the 25 from pitchers or 85 from the rest of the infield.

That edition of the Tigers was by far the worst of the teams on the list, as the other four clubs all managed to stick around .500. The next two clubs to achieve this feat-the Rockies (961 RS, 964 RA) and Red Sox (928 RS, 921 RA)-both did so in 1996. The 1997 Rockies (923 RS, 908 RA) are the only instance of a repeat, and the Rox once again scored and allowed at least 900 runs in 2001 (923 RS, 906 RA). The Rangers, currently sitting at 31-33 with a Pythagorean record of 30-34, have more in common with the modern teams than the sad '29 Tigers club, so at the least, being put in the record books for a negative statistical oddity won't be as painful as it could be for Rangers' fans.

Matchup: Cubs (39-24) at Dodgers (30-32), 5:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jason Marquis (61 IP, 5.31 RA, 1.66 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Brad Penny (76 IP, 5.68, 1.57, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 40-23 (349 RS, 260 RA); Los Angeles, 33-29 (272 RS, 257 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: The Cubs are ranked atop Hit List and possess the best record in the major leagues despite a 13-16 record on the road. The reasons for the average home/road record are odd, as the hitting and pitching veer off in opposite directions. While they both excel at home-hitters are clubbing the ball with an authoritative .309/.387/.500 showing, while pitchers are limiting the opposition to just .236/.306/.375-there have been some struggles on the road. The pitching is still performing well, though in relative terms they are doing worse with a .251/.333/.416 showing. It's the hitters who lose their clout outside of Wrigley, scraping together a meager .256/.335/.390 line that belies the true nature of the offensive talent on the club.

The pitching is able to succeed in Wrigley thanks to a combination of ground-ball outs and strikeouts that helps keep them the ball out of the gaps and out of the stands. This act also works on the road, which is why there is not a significant difference in the opposition's lines for the pitchers. The hitters' problems are tougher to answer. There have been slight differences in the H/R Isolated Power's of the team in the past-from 2005-2007, the Cubs posted ISO of .166 at home and .151 on the road-but this year's split is larger, at .191 and .134. The main problem seems to be the team's BABIP at home versus on the road: .348 against .298. Combine all of those missing hits with the 21-homer difference between their home and road games, and you can see why the team has struggled like they have. Though the homers aren't a guarantee to show up outside of Wrigley, chances are good that a few more hits will land on balls in play going forward, helping to close the distance between their home and road performance somewhat. If not, the Cubs will need to hope that, at the least, they can keep it up at home and earn themselves a playoff spot that way.

Related Content:  The Who,  Kevin Goldstein,  Pythagorean Record

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