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June 29, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rockies (32-49) at Tigers (40-40), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Greg Reynolds (50 2/3 IP, 6.04 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 15 K) vs. Kenny Rogers (94, 5.17, 1.54, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 33-48 (338 RS, 413 RA); Detroit, 40-40 (389 RS, 386 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #25; Detroit, #15
Prospectus: We're nearing the end of June, and the Rockies still look like they haven't shaken off their drubbing in the World Series at the hands of the Red Sox. The team on the field this year doesn't resemble last year's, despite having much of the same personnel. Whereas the 2007 club won in part thanks to a very strong defense-they were ranked eighth in Defensive Efficiency, and adjusted for their home park were even better-this year's club has struggled in the field, ranking just 20th in the majors. This has made the pitching less effective; as a unit, the Rox have 4.3 SNLVAR (27th), which puts them well off pace of the 17.0 they accrued last season. Though the bullpen is performing roughly the same-3.368 WXRL against last season's 7.523, both ranked 21st-a better performance would have helped a club struggling to keep its starters in the game. However, the relievers have pitched comparatively better than the starters, giving up an opponents' line of .255/.329/.388 against the rotation's awful .280/.351/.454.

It's tough to win games when your pitching makes every hitter look like the equivalent of Kelly Johnson, but it's even more difficult when your lineup is putting up only a .260/.331/.403 showing. The Rockies' .255 EqA is a bit below average and under last year's .264 output. Equivalent Average is adjusted to account for home and road differences, but a closer look at the split is worthwhile: the Rockies are unsurprisingly doing well at home, with a collective .276/.350/.449, but on the road this doesn't look like a team that was in the World Series less than a year ago, as they've put together a meager .247/.314/.364 performance.

Matchup: Yankees (44-37) at Mets (39-41), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Darrell Rasner (52 IP, 4.67 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Oliver Perez (83 1/3, 5.94, 1.56, 68)
Pythagorean Record:New York, 43-38 (384 RS, 361 RA); New York, 40-40 (375 RS, 378 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; New York, #14
Prospectus: Last year Perez had things together enough that he became an important part of the Mets rotation. He struck out nearly a batter per inning, kept homers to a minimum relative to what we're used to seeing from him (1.1 in '07, against a career per-nine rate of 1.4), and posted his best BB/9 since his 2004 campaign with the Pirates. This year everything has gone right back down the tubes: he's lost a strikeout and a half per nine, he's walking about that many more, and he's seen his homer rate balloon to a ghastly 1.6 per nine, the equivalent of 36 home runs over 200 innings pitched. About the only thing going well for Perez is his BABIP, as it's just .274 when, given his lofty liner rate of 23.2 percent, it should be closer to .352. One problem Perez may be having is that he's simply too predictable on the mound. At this stage in his career, he's essentially a two-pitch pitcher, relying on a fastball and slider. Very rarely he'll throw a curve or a changeup-we're talking less than four percent of the time between the two-as he too reliably uses his 78-79 mph slider as his one off-speed breaking pitch to alternate with his low-90s heater.

One of the symptoms of his problem in terms of his limited repertoire is that Perez throws a ton of sliders when the count is 3-2. Via Pitch F/X data collected by Josh Kalk, we see that Perez throws his slider nearly 35 percent of the time on 3-2 counts, which seems like a lot for a pitcher with control and command issues. We can also see that Perez throws a few sliders that don't break all that much or just go flat; this may explain both some of the extra homers as well as the drop in his strikeout rate. He's not throwing more pitches per hitter (3.94 both this year and last) so the opposition isn't sitting around waiting for a walk any more than before. Perez has simply just not been as effective with the two offerings he has, and has paid for it by seeing all of his Three True Outcome stats heading in the wrong directions.

Matchup: Brewers (44-36) at Twins (44-37), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (104 1/3 IP, 2.67 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Kevin Slowey (63 2/3, 3.96, 1.13, 46)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 40-40 (364 RS, 361 RA); Minnesota, 41-40 (389 RS, 385 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Minnesota, #18
Prospectus: Here's the pitching matchup of the day, with two pitchers more similar than you would think (at least statistically) facing off. Sheets does most of his damage with his fastball/curve combination, as his low- to mid-90s heat and low-80s bender keeps hitters off balance. It helps that Sheets has impeccable command of his pitches and can put them where he wishes-for his career he's walked 1.9 hitters per nine, and this year is at 1.8 per-while also keeping the ball on the ground more often than in the past. Though he's had seasons where his GB% was around 46 percent, last year's 36.5 mark put him well below the average G/F ratio. With Milwaukee able to field the ball without tripping over themselves this season-they rank seventh in the majors in Defensive Efficiency thanks to 71.1 percent of balls in play converted into outs, a significant boost over last year's awful .684 showing-the extra grounders have been key for Sheets' success.

The fourth-best talent under the age of 25 in the Twins organization also gets by on his excellent control. For pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings this season, Slowey's 1.27 BB/9 ranks first, just ahead of Paul Byrd's 1.29. He's not a power pitcher like Sheets, as he relies on an assortment of offerings to get batters out, but he's managed to punch out 6.5 hitters per nine this year despite a significant lack of velocity between his two primary pitches. The one major complaint with Slowey is his home-run rate. Given his low walk tendencies, 1.4 HR/9 doesn't sting as much as it could, but if he wants to be a more consistent and more productive starter in the major leagues, he would need to cut down on those long balls. As it is, that figure is an improvement on last year's 2.2 (over 200 innings pitched, that would be 48 homers allowed). Given that he had no business posting a 4.73 ERA last year with those homer numbers, Twins fans should be happy that he's made the progress he has.

Matchup: Cardinals (46-36) at Royals (37-44), 2:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Braden Looper (96, 4.59 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 42 K) vs. Brian Bannister (98 2/3 IP, 4.83, 1.30, 56)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 44-38 (379RS, 354 RA); Kansas City, 36-45 (329 RS, 373 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #9; Kansas City, #24
Prospectus: Not that a single statistic from a limited sample suffices to "prove" one way or the other that the American League is superior to it's senior circuit brethren, but if you were going to pick one, the Royals interleague record since 2005 may be your trump card. The Royals, best known for their recurring role at the back end of Jay Jaffe's Hit List, are 42-29 against the National League over the past four seasons of interleague play. Granted, that figure is skewed by this year's nifty 13-4 run, but even before that they were a few games over .500. That's not something to be proud of if you're in the NL, given the Royals struggles in their own league.

As far as 2008 goes, the Royals have been heating up a bit at the plate. Jose Guillen has hit .330/.350/.569 since the calendar changed over to May, while David DeJesus has made his presence felt as well with a .313/.368/.483 showing. Alex Gordon continues to struggle-he's at .263/.344/.427 for the year-but at least Tony Pena's .073 EqA isn't getting so much playing time now that Mike Aviles is starting at short. Hitting .321/.348/.560, Aviles is a 27-year-old rookie, but he did make it into Baseball Prospectus 2008 as one of the Lineouts for the Royals. He's still the free-swinger he was described as, with 3.5 P/PA this year, but he doesn't strike out too often at 14 percent, giving him plenty of chances to put the ball in play and earn a hit. Additional walks would help assure he sticks in the majors, especially since he isn't the best glove at short, but after the brief Tony Pena Era that directly followed the ignominious Angel Berroa Era, Aviles' presence is more than welcome despite his defensive limitations.

Matchup: Cubs (49-32) at White Sox (45-35), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Sean Marshall (13 1/3 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (104 2/3, 4.56, 1.31, 57)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 50-31 (442 RS, 344 RA); Chicago, 48-32 (391 RS, 310 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: As of today's game, the Cubs are 16-22 on the road, against their impressive 33-10 mark at home, and much has been made of that. However, it's worth noting that the team from the other side of Chicago has the same problem: the White Sox are 26-11 at U.S. Cellular, but 19-24 outside of their home confines. The pitching has been consistent, with opponents hitting .233/.295/.375 in Chicago and .257/.319/.386 outside of it, but the lineup has been a different story. The White Sox are hitting .278/.355/.483 at home, which kind of makes you wonder how Chicago is only 26-11 there, given their pitching line, and they've hit a much more average .253/.323/.400 in the opposition's parks. There must be something in the air of their home city though, as the team hit .283/.333/.472 during its visits to Wrigley.

This split in effectiveness has put the White Sox at a very average .259 team EqA, despite their domination at the plate while playing on their home turf. One of the most significant differences has been in third baseman Joe Crede; he's destroyed the ball at home with a ridiculous .281/.360/.620 line, but his bat goes limp on the road, as he's slugging just .408 with a bland .146 ISO. It isn't just a difference in homers though-Crede's hit nine at U.S. Cellular and five on the road, but he's also lost out on some doubles. A dead-pull hitter when it comes to his power output, the right-handed Crede has hit 10 of his 11 doubles at home to left, and just four doubles total on the road. You can see how lumped together his power numbers are in this Hit Chart from MLB.com:

Crede

He rarely hits anything to the right side, even singles, and he hasn't been able to take advantage of other park's left-field wall like he does the one at home. Since Crede typically hits poorly on the road relative to his home stats-just .267/.305/.450 with a homer every 22 at-bats since 2006-the White Sox shouldn't be expecting this issue to resolve itself with more plate appearances.

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