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July 3, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (46-38) at Diamondbacks (42-43), 12:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (86 2/3 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Brandon Webb (112, 3.94, 1.13, 94)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 42-42 (379 RS, 381 RA); Arizona, 43-42 (381 RS, 374 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Arizona, #13
Prospectus: The #2 prospect in the organization, Parra has pitched well for the most part in 2008. Coming into the year, Parra relied mostly on two pitches, leaning heavily on his low-90s heater. That's changed this year, with Parra utilizing his changeup much more often at the expense of his fastball. Mixing in a third quality pitch has made the transition to the rotation from the bullpen in the majors easier for him as the year has gone on. Not everything is rainbows and baby pandas for Parra's season, though, as his lofty walk totals have helped to give him a QERA of 4.94, a run above his actual ERA.

Parra's main issue this year has been a lack of consistency. He was beat around in his first few starts, with a 5.79 ERA, 5.5 BB/9, and 1.1 HR/9, but since then has managed to stay in games longer (six innings per start in his last nine starts, against 4 2/3 per start his first seven) and has given up fewer walks, though 4.3 per nine is still too high given his strikeout rates. He's still struggling on occasion (three homers and 10 hits against Houston on 6/11; six walks versus one strikeout on 6/22) but the overall results are an improvement. He has the upside of a No. 2 starter, and he's briefly flashed that ability at times in 2008, sticking around his weighted mean PECOTA forecast.

Matchup: Phillies (46-39) at Braves (40-45), 7:00 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (120 IP, 3.53 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 103 K) vs. Jair Jurrjens (98, 3.49, 1.32, 69)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 50-35 (435 RS, 354 RA); Atlanta, 46-39 (380 RS, 349 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; Atlanta, #8
Prospectus: There's been a lot of discussion surrounding Ryan Howard's strikeouts this year, and the fact that he may surpass his own whiffs record set just last year. However, Howard is actually striking out less often this year, but since he only played in 144 games last season as opposed to 82 of his team's 85 in 2008, the raw total is getting plenty of attention. It's not that the strikeouts are a problem on their own; the issue has been that Howard is slipping in other areas of his game. He's homering only every 17.5 PA after delivering a bomb every 13.8 PA in 2007. His walk rate, after spiking in 2007 at 16.8 percent, has fallen to 11.8 percent. His BABIP is just .266, thanks to a drop in his liner rate from his career mark of 23 percent down to 19.7 percent. He should have a loftier BABIP-somewhere around .317 given that line-drive percentage-and adjusting his line for that puts him at .243/.350/.498. That's more respectable, and though it isn't the vintage Howard power we're used to seeing, it's at least tolerable relative to his actual results.

When you strike out (and walk) as often as Howard does, you will occasionally have campaigns where your average craters and your production suffers a bit. Adam Dunn, a player more similar to Ryan Howard than most, had this happen to him in 2003 when he hit .215/.354/.465 with 126 strikeouts-that's a strikeout 33.1 percent of the time. Carlos Pena is going through a spell of that this year as well, hitting .223/.335/.415 with strikeouts in 33.2 percent of his PA. A lot of things could change for Howard in the second half of the season if more of his balls in play start landing for hits like they are supposed to, so it's a bit early to think that his bat speed has slipped. His "disappointing" power output still has him crushing fly balls for homers 28.4 percent of the time, and he still has plenty of power to the opposite field, with seven homers there and 10 to center this season. Opposing pitchers have been busting him inside this year though, as he's hit the ball on the ground more often, and to his pull side. He's hitting .208 on pitches high and inside, and .153 on pitches low and in; pitchers going there with their offerings are most likely part of the reason he's hit 40.3 percent of his balls in play to the right side of the infield, a spot where he's hitting just .145 on the season. This is something he'll have to adjust to, or else he'll have to deal with losing his pull power; the results of that problem are seen in his season line.

Matchup: Cubs (51-34) at Giants (37-48), 4:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Sean Gallagher (53 2/3 IP, 4.53 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Tim Lincecum (109 2/3, 2.71, 1.24, 114)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 52-33 (459 RS, 358 RA); San Francisco, 38-47 (344 RS, 388 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; San Francisco, #23
Prospectus: Lincecum has started against the Cubs twice in his career, both last season, and though he's pitched well both times (eight strikeouts and one run in 6 1/3 on 7/16 and seven strikeouts versus one walk with three runs over 8 innings on 8/21) he has yet to win against them. Things won't be any easier this year, with the Cubbies ranked second on the Hit List in part thanks to their excellent offense. The good news for Lincecum is that he's at home in a run-depressing environment against a club that struggles (.254/.322/.388) outside of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

If there's one reason the Giants may be able to avoid losing 100 games this year, it's their rotation. We're a few games past the halfway point of the season, and Lincecum's accounted for 4.0 SNLVAR, third in the majors, but just one full win above replacement ahead of teammate Jonathan Sanchez. Between the two of them the Giants have seven wins above replacement in the bank, which makes it easy to see why they have been able to avoid the "historically awful" label pushed on them by many analysts during spring training. Let's not forget that they also have Matt Cain (2.2 SNLVAR) in there, and that Barry Zito, while pitching poorly overall, is essentially back to being at replacement level now (-0.1 SNLVAR) rather than well below it. The offense may not score many runs-just 4.0 per game-but with the rotation keeping them in games deep, they have been able to keep their run differential closer than expected.

Matchup: Athletics (45-39) at White Sox (49-35), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Justin Duchscherer (85, 2.44 RA, 0.92 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Javier Vazquez (106 1/3 IP, 4.66, 1.39, 104)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 49-35 (370 RS, 311 RA); Chicago, 51-33 (414 RS, 325 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Duchscherer has made starting look easy during his first year on the job, as he's posted a 1.91 ERA over 13 starts with a team-leading 3.3 SNLVAR. That's not an accurate reflection of his actual performance, as his QERA is 4.21; the reasons for that are that he doesn't strike out a ton of batters (5.8 per nine), but he keeps the ball in the park (just 0.4 homers per nine) and doesn't dish out free passes. He's historically stingy with walks, giving out just 2.3 BB/9 for his career, and we've seen that trend continue as a starter with 2.0 given up per nine innings pitched. His groundball rate is right around the league average, with a G/F of 1.1, but that's been enough for the league-leading Athletics' defense to make Duchscherer look like an even better pitcher than he is. The A's are converting 72.1 percent of all balls in play into outs, and McAfee helps reduces BABIP; since Duchscherer doesn't strike out, walk, or give up homers to many hitters, he relies heavily on his defense to get the job done. Considering his .229 BABIP should be around .346 or so, team dinners should be on The Duke before his starts, because he owes much of his success to the guys playing behind him.

Matchup: Tigers (42-42) at Mariners (33-51), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Justin Verlander (108 IP, 4.92 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Carlos Silva (99 2/3, 5.87, 1.46, 39)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 42-42 (402 RS, 406 RA); Seattle, 36-48 (342 RS, 400 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Seattle, #29
Prospectus: Verlander keeps doing his best to erase his awful April, but it takes time for these things to disappear:


Month      IP    ERA  K/9  BB/9  HR/9
Mar/Apr   36.0  6.50  5.0   4.5   1.3
May       39.0  3.92  5.5   3.0   0.7
June      33.0  2.73  9.3   3.8   0.6

In May he allowed fewer walks and homers, though his strikeout rate didn't jump all that much. He's remembered how to put hitters away during his last five starts though, putting up a dominating 9.3 punchouts per nine. Verlander seems to have finally fixed his mechanical issues from earlier in the year-he was pitching with his front side flying open, which reduces command and control and can make it easier on a hitter to pick up on incoming pitches-as his velocity is back as well; whereas he started the year with an average fastball velocity in the low 90s and worked his way up to an average of 92.9 mph by May 25, we now see Verlander approaching 94 mph, at 93.6 average velocity. He's obviously been firing higher than that, or else the average would not be climbing, and that increase in velocity has helped him sit hitters down on his own once again.

Verlander's timing for a revival couldn't be better, with Jeremy Bonderman out for the duration and the Tigers trying to put some space between themselves and a .500 record. He opens up a series against the worst team in the American League tonight, giving us a chance to see his lively fastball and fixed mechanics in action while attempting to get his team over .500 for good.

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