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June 17, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (44-29) at Phillies (42-30), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (89 1/3 IP, 3.73 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 57 K) vs. Jamie Moyer (83, 4.45, 1.37, 43)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 43-30 (373 RS, 309 RA); Philadelphia, 45-27 (389 RS, 293 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Philadelphia, #3
Prospectus: There's a reason Moyer remains a productive major league starter during his age-45 season, and that's because he's been able to adapt to the game around him. He's always been susceptible to the long ball, with a career HR/9 of 1.1 (or 25 per 200 innings) but leaving Seattle's expansive Safeco in Seattle for the much less pitcher-friendly environment in Philadelphia exacerbated the issue, with Moyer giving up 1.4 homers during both of his seasons in a Phillies uniform. Thanks to the Pitch f/x data that Josh Kalk has collected, we see a suggestion over how Moyer is combating this problem, as it looks like he's throwing a lot more sinkers. Moyer has seen his G/F ratio trend upwards significantly: for his career, Moyer has a 1.0 G/F ratio, with a few more fly balls allowed than your average pitcher, but this year, he's all the way up at 1.6, with 48.2 percent of his balls in play as grounders. This contrasts with the available data for his career rate of 39 percent, and has helped him keep the homer rate from continually rising in a hitter's park. The added benefit is that his 1.2 HR/9 mark would make for six fewer homers per 200 innings than his previous rates with the Phillies, but the greater number of grounders have allowed Moyer to succeed despite striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine. Being able to maintain the status quo or better as a major leaguer at Moyer's age is an impressive feat, and he picked the perfect season for change with the Phillies ranked fifth in Defensive Efficiency.

Matchup: Padres (31-40) at Yankees (37-33), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Randy Wolf (84 2/3 IP, 3.83 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Andy Pettitte (87 1/3, 5.05, 1.40, 61)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 30-41 (269 RS, 324 RA); New York, 36-34 (327 RS, 315 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #25; New York, #12
Prospectus: Though the Padres have not added him to the roster officially yet, it's well known that Chase Headley will make his 2008 major league debut against the Yankees this week. This season, the second-round selection of the Padres in the 2005 amateur draft has been groomed as a left fielder, as his natural position of third base is manned by Kevin Kouzmanoff-as has been covered in this space before, Kouzmanoff has made significant strides defensively that justify Headley's position switch. After a slow start at Triple-A this year, Headley adjusted and brought his line all the way up to an impressive .305/.379/.556, earning himself a spot in the Padres' weak lineup.

The #23 prospect in Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospects list will be taking at-bats away from Jody Gerut (.288/.364/.408, .287 EqA, +1 FRAA) and Paul McAnulty (.235/.373/.391, .284 EqA, 0 FRAA), who have performed well for the Padres this year. Headley will need to make a splash in order to replace the production of two of the Pads more productive part-timers, but the move is a step in the right direction for a franchise in rebuilding mode. Now if only the Padres other five-star prospect would start hitting-unfortunately, Matt Antonelli has cobbled together a meager .183/.302/.271 showing at Triple-A Portland-the Pads would have themselves an exciting youth movement to provide some second-half excitement in what's otherwise a down season.

Matchup: Cubs (45-25) at Rays (40-29), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ryan Dempster (89 2/3 IP, 3.51 RA, 1.06 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Scott Kazmir (51 2/3, 1.91, 0.97, 54)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 45-25 (387 RS, 279 RA); Tampa Bay, 37-32 (313 RS, 288 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Rays, #5
Prospectus: While the Rays have improved their pitcher's performances somewhat, simply by fielding a defense superior to last season's, Kazmir has also improved by how he's doing with two-thirds of the Three True Outcomes. He's cut his walks down by a full one per nine, and his unintentional walk rate is down from 10 percent to seven. It's not simply the walks, because with no hit batsmen in his 50-plus innings against last year's seven in 206 2/3 innings, it looks like he's simply a lot less wild, although that could just be random with a limited sample to draw from. What is noticeable though is that Kazmir is throwing far more fastballs this season than in the past: whereas Kazmir threw his fastball 69 percent of the time in 2007 (at the time, a career high itself) he's thrown the pitch over 75 percent of the time this year, at the expense of his slider. He's throwing 4.1 P/PA, the same clip as last year, but with a different strategy in play, he's able to walk fewer hitters and induce more outs in the field with a quality defense behind him. Kazmir is not a ground-ball pitcher, though, but he has instead relied on the Rays' speedy outfield defense, as well as his 14.3 percent infield fly percentage, to keep opponents hits down. With the change in strategy, we are seeing Kazmir evolve into a true ace who knows how to use his own talents-namely, overpowering opponents-in tandem with the strengths of the defense behind him. It makes him a difficult pitcher to beat, as a Cubs lineup that struggles on the road is sure to find out this evening.

Matchup: Pirates (34-36) at White Sox (38-31), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ian Snell (77 2/3, 5.79 RA, 1.78 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Javier Vazquez (90 IP, 4.00, 1.32, 90)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 33-37 (343 RS, 366 RA); Chicago, 41-28 (319 RS, 259 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #24; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: For those surprised that the Pirates' run differential and record Nate McLouth's performance as an answer to how it's happened. McLouth is outperforming his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast, thanks in no small part to his .270 ISO. More intriguing than his performance during the first three months of the season is how he got to that point, as there may be a new performance level established within his numbers. McLouth historically is a low average hitter thanks striking out over 22 percent of the time in '06 and 23.4 percent of the time in '07. Last year saw McLouth add value to his batting line despite this thanks to walking in 10.6 percent of his plate appearances, a significant boost on the 6.3 he posted the year prior.

McLouth has taken that success with patience this year and combined it with excellent control of the strike zone, cutting his strikeout rate from 23.4 percent all the way down to 13.7 percent. This makes him less reliant on a lofty BABIP in order to post decent batting average numbers-his average is up 38 points despite a BABIP three points under last season's figure-and this improvement in his eye has also shown up in is contact rates, via Fangraphs. McLouth is making contact with nearly 10 percent more pitches out of the zone that he swings at than last season, and is making contact on 89 percent of his swings overall. If this change is for real, and the indicators surrounding him show that it could be, then McLouth has improved from quality leadoff hitter to one of the top center fielders in the game, something the Pirates need to have happen to them more often as they rebuild from the previous administration.

Matchup: Tigers (32-38) at Giants (31-40), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kenny Rogers (81 1/3 IP, 5.29 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (80 1/3, 4.37, 1.44, 80)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 34-36 (334 RS, 345 RA); San Francisco, 31-40 (289 RS, 328 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #21; Giants, #23
Prospectus: This may come as a surprise to many, but Kenny Rogers' career has been one of the best for any starter after 1970. Via Jay Jaffe's JAWS, Rogers is the 30th most valuable starter to wear a uniform since that year, and his numbers are not all that far off from those of the average Hall of Fame starter either:


Pitcher      PRAA   PRAR  WARP3  Peak  JAWS
Kenny Rogers  105    912   99.6  54.7  77.2
Avg. HoF      279   1079  106.0  67.2  86.6

Now this isn't to say we should start the campaign to get the Gambler into Cooperstown, but there are worse pitchers than Rogers enshrined within those halls, and he deserves to be recognized for the level of greatness that he has achieved, in word and memory if in no other form. His shortened 2007 season was the nail in the mathematical coffin, as it's difficult for a 43-year-old pitcher to make up for new lost time, and Rogers needed every productive inning he could muster to pad his numbers. His struggles this year-35 walks against 34 strikeouts, a drop in his G/F from normally impressive heights down to a more average 1.2-have only made it more obvious that time is running out to improve on his career. Despite his season of decline, he's a pitcher who is fun to watch, and against a team like the Giants that scores just 4.1 runs per game, we may catch a glimpse of the old Rogers tonight, even if just for a few innings.

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