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June 14, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cubs (43-25) at Blue Jays (35-44), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jason Marquis (67 1/3 IP, 4.95 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Roy Halladay (102 2/3, 3.24, 1.00, 81)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 44-24 (374 RS, 273 RA); Toronto, 38-31 (280 RS, 254 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: In a late-April edition of Sports Illustrated, Joe Sheehan discussed the uncharacteristic plate discipline and on-base prowess of the surging Cubs, and wondered whether Japanese walk machine Kosuke Fukudome might have something to do with the team's collective uptick in patience:

Could this newfound patience be attributed to the arrival of Fukudome and his watch-and-wait approach at bat? There are no studies that suggest plate discipline is contagious, but it's hard not to notice that the Cubs were 15th in walks and ninth in OBP a year ago with almost entirely the same personnel.

Sheehan went on to compare this year's Cubs with the 1993 Yankees, who had a similar increase in walks and OBP across the roster coinciding with the arrival of Wade Boggs. Two months after Sheehan's article, the Cubs are still packing the basepaths, as they rank second in the majors in walks (281) and first with a .362 OBP. If Fukudome--who leads the club and ranks 10th in the majors with 44 walks--has indeed rubbed off on his teammates' ability to work the count, then the prime beneficiary has been third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs third baseman's season high in walks entering 2008 was 50, and he sported a sub-.340 career OBP and more than twice as many strikeouts (662) as walks (322). This year, however, Ramirez has already walked 40 times, giving him a career-high and team-leading .420 OBP. Ramirez has never before walked more than he's struck out in a season, but this year he's fanned 39 times, putting him on pace to finish with 99 walks against 96 strikeouts. Combine that surprising discipline with nine homers, 19 doubles, and a .305 average, and Ramirez tops the league-leading Cubs offense in VORP (21.8), EqA (.309), and MLVr (0.287).

Besides Ramirez, several other Cubs are headed towards career highs in walks, most notably Ryan Theriot and Mark DeRosa. Theriot walked once every 12.2 plate appearances in 597 PA last year, but this year is down to once every 8.9 in 286 PA, while DeRosa has bumped his rate from once in 9.9 last year to once in 8.5 in 2008. Even Ronny Cedeno has gotten in on the act; the backup infielder entered the year with 25 walks in 741 PA, but has taken 10 in 109 this season.

Matchup: Dodgers (31-36) at Tigers (30-37), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Brad Penny (82 IP, 5.60 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Eddie Bonine (74 1/3, 4.60, 1.29, 46--AAA)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 34-33 (281 RS, 280 RA); Detroit, 32-35 (311 RS, 326 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #15; Detroit, #21
Prospectus: Bonine gets the call from Triple-A Toledo to take the place of Dontrelle Willis, who was optioned down to High-A Lakeland due to his wildness. The 27-year-old Bonine was in his sixth minor league season since being selected in the 23rd round of the 2003 draft by San Diego. The Tigers took him away from the Padres in the Triple-A phase of the December 2005 Rule 5 draft after he posted a RA north of 7.00 at High-A Lake Elsinore in '04. Detroit's scouts were rewarded for what they saw in him, as Bonine put up a decent season for Lakeland in 2006, with a sub-4.00 ERA and better than 3/1 K/BB ratio. Bonine then pitched well again last year upon a promotion to Double-A Erie, lowering his WHIP to 1.18 to go with a 3.90 ERA, which prompted Detroit to push him up again this season. There's little in Bonine's statistical record to think he's more than an organizational soldier who has finally received his papers, but it's certainly worth rooting for him to burst onto the scene after more than half a decade spent in the bush.

Bonine draws a nice matchup in his debut, pitching at home against a Los Angeles team that ranks last in the National League in home runs. The Dodgers have not scored in their last 23 innings, and have put up just 3.1 runs per game with a 632 OPS since May 6, the first game they played without shortstop Rafael Furcal, whose back injury has lingered on and on. Will Carroll reports that Furcal won't be back until early July, in the best-case scenario, which means that Dodgers fans will be treated to a good deal more Angel Berroa in the coming weeks after both Chin-Lung Hu and Luis Maza failed in their auditions at the position. Los Angeles general manager Ned Colletti picked up Berroa from the Royals last week for Low-A infielder Juan Rivera (at least one Juan Rivera was freed from Los Angeles). Berroa was hitting .291/.323/.519 with 10 homers for Triple-A Omaha at the time of the trade, but Kansas City desperately wanted to get rid of the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year, the lingering symbol of the pre-Dayton Moore regime in Kansas City, so much so that Moore and Royals ownership agreed to pay all of Berroa's salary, plus the $500,000 buyout for his 2009 option.

Matchup: Pirates (33-35) at Orioles (33-33), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (24 1/3 IP, 2.59 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 18 K) vs. Radhames Liz (94, 4.60, 1.33, 82)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 32-36 (331 RS, 354 RA); Baltimore, 31-35 (289 RS, 305 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #25; Baltimore, #19
Prospectus: This interleague battle royale features two teams that have surprised by hanging around the .500 mark. It also features a defensive mismatch, between the second best team in efficiency, Baltimore, and the worst team in the National League at converting balls in play into outs. Pittsburgh has however produced nearly six-tenths of a run more per game than the Orioles, as the Pirates rank third in the National League with 331 tallies. That puts them on track to outstrip their PECOTA-projected offensive showing by nearly 63 runs. Pittsburgh is just seventh in the circuit in OBP, however, and 10th in slugging, which clearly doesn't add up. Indeed, their adjusted-equivalent runs total (AEqR) is 28 fewer than their actual total, which ties them with the Cubs for the largest negative differential of any team. Part of the gap can be explained by Pittsburgh's performance with runners on base, as the Pirates have amassed a team line of .277/.352/.434 in such situations, as opposed to .247/.308/.385 with none on.

One of the Pirates who has been particularly deadly with his teammates on the base paths is Xavier Nady, who leads Pittsburgh with 48 RBI, putting him on a pace for 117. Nady has experienced a breakout so far in his age-29 season, and is currently sporting career highs in average, on-base percentage, and slugging. Call it Littlefield's Revenge, as erstwhile stud lefty Oliver Perez--whom the Pirates' former GM dealt to the Mets for Nady at the deadline in 2006--has proven to be unpalatably flaky this season. Nady has also considerably improved his hitting against right-handers, his long-time bugaboo: since the start of 2007 he has an OPS above 800 against them, as compared with a mark around 700 from 2003-2006. The Pirates will likely look long and hard at any trade offers they receive for their right fielder, since Nady is not likely to keep up his current pace, but is also poised to rack up the counting stats that will make him quite expensive this offseason heading into his final year of arbitration eligibility.

Matchup: Twins (33-35) at Brewers (35-32), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Glen Perkins (39 1/3 IP, 5.03 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (78 2/3, 4.69, 1.49, 42) Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 31-37 (314 RS, 347 RA); Milwaukee, 32-35 (300 RS, 310 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #20; Milwaukee, #23
Prospectus: The Twins took the first game last night 10-2, helped along by some poor Milwaukee defense. Bill Hall started at second base for the third time since regular Rickie Weeks went on the DL, after not playing there at all last year and in just four games in 2006. Hall booted a ball in the first inning, leading to a Minnesota run, and then made another fielding error in the top of the seventh that helped the Twins to five more, breaking open a 3-0 game. Getting Hall's bat into the lineup against lefties--like Perkins tonight--is a necessity given his one-dimensional crushing of portsiders, but against right-handers the cost of Hall's defense at second base makes playing him a two-sided problem: in 99 games at second for his career, Hall has a sub-standard Range Factor, has made 19 errors, and amassed -10 FRAA. Joe Dillon also offers a below-average glove at second--or perhaps even worse than that--but PECOTA absolutely loves his bat, giving him a weighted mean forecast of .286/.375/.500, with a projected MLVr of 0.149. Hall was expected to post a 0.041 MLVR by PECOTA, or a tenth of a run worse per game than Dillon, and Hall's MLVr on the season is currently -0.122.

While Hall has struggled at both third and second since moving to the infield, Ryan Braun's transition in the other direction has gone much more smoothly. Braun has acquitted himself well so far in left--he has yet to commit an error, has a Range Factor (1.95) that is almost exactly league-average (1.92), and is middle of the pack in Zone Rating. Given Braun's status as a first-time outfielder, as well as his struggles last season with throwing to first from the hot corner, teams have understandably tested Braun on the basepaths. The second-year slugger has responded with five assists, tied for tops in the National League with Pat Burrell and Fred Lewis. Add in that Braun has actually been better than the average left fielder by FRAA Rate, at five runs above average per 100 games, and it's clear that his switch to the outfield has gone about as well as the team could have hoped for.

Matchup: Braves (33-35) at Angels (41-27), 6:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Charlie Morton (79 IP, 2.28 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 72 K--AAA) vs. Ervin Santana (89 2/3, 3.11, 1.03, 76)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 38-30 (312 RS, 276 RA); Los Angeles, 34-34 (286 RS, 282 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #9; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: Morton makes his major league debut tonight while trying to fill the cleats of future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, who recently went on the DL for the second time this season. The Braves' rookie right-hander is actually the second Charlie Morton to play big league baseball: Charles Hazen Morton, born October 12, 1854, debuted in 1882 with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the American Association, then went on to play for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, the Toledo Blue Stockings, and the Detroit Wolverines, the latter two teams as a player-manager. The younger Morton entered his age-24 season this year as a veteran of six minor league campaigns since being chosen out of a Connecticut high school in the third round of the 2002 draft, and the owner of a career 5.89 RA and 1.62 WHIP in 515 1/3 innings spread from rookie ball to Double-A, with 408 K/275 BB. The Braves decided to bump Morton up to Triple-A following his mediocre Double-A debut last year, and he responded with a surprisingly strong showing. Morton's chief ability appears to be keeping the ball in play; he has not yet allowed a home run this season, and since the start of last year's campaign at Mississippi has given up just three in 158 2/3 innings. If he manages to maintain that ability in the show, he could experience some success while pitching in front of a team that ranks second in the National League in defensive efficiency.

The chief contributor to that strong defensive showing has been Yunel Escobar, who leads all National League shortstops with a Range Factor of 4.94, and ranks fourth in the majors with an .858 Zone Rating and .984 Fielding Percentage. Escobar's defense this year has been superb as measured by FRAA, for he has already put up nine runs above average with a Rate of 115. Last season, Escobar was exactly average at shortstop, with a rate of 100 and 0.1 SFR in 53 games, so the 25-year-old Cuban has taken important strides towards becoming a franchise cornerstone in the middle infield.

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

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