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July 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (43-44) at Phillies (48-40), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (90 1/3 IP, 5.58 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 76 K) vs. Kyle Kendrick (92 1/3, 5.36, 1.44, 41)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 44-43 (415 RS, 406 RA); Philadelphia, 52-36 (446 RS, 366 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #15; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: The Mets' collection of top talent and poor producers has caused them to stick around the middle of everything, with a near-.500 record, a decisively mediocre 15th-place ranking on the Hit List, and a run differential of +9. One of the players doing his part to keep the team mired in mediocrity is Luis Castillo, who was re-signed this winter to a four-year, $25 million contract. This contract was a bad idea for a few reasons, including the fact that production from most second basemen drops precipitously as they age, and that Castillo had already started down that path while wearing a Mets uniform. Currently on the DL, he has hit .261/.364/.331 this year, which gives him a PMLV of -4.1-that's 0.061 runs fewer than an average second baseman per game.

By itself, that isn't a huge deal, as he's at least close to average at the plate. The real issue for Castillo has been with the glove. According to John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating, Luis Castillo is the worst qualifying second baseman in the league defensively. His .727 mark is further behind Ray Durham, the second-to-last player, than Durham is from the middle of the pack. Considering he was signed in part for his defensive chops, Castillo's contract is another source of disappointment for the oft-disappointed 2008 Mets. Though the pitching staff is primarily made up of fly-ball pitchers, having Carlos Delgado's questionable glove and range combined with a gimpy Castillo on the right side of the infield has kept the Mets from moving away from average on defense, and that despite having plenty of superior defenders like David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran around.

Matchup: Royals (39-49) at Rays (54-32), 1:40 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (84 1/3 IP, 5.44 RA, 1.51 WHIP, 50 K) vs. James Shields (109 1/3, 4.36, 1.14, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 38-50 (360 RS, 420 RA); Tampa Bay, 50-36 (411 RS, 340 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Royals, #20; Tampa Bay, #1
Prospectus: The Royals have issues defensively, as they rank #19 in the league in Defensive Efficiency. This hasn't stopped Hochevar from using the defense to his advantage, as his ground-ball tendencies have helped him pitch as well as he has despite a high walk rate. The infield has been Hochevar's friend, thanks to a 1.7 G/F ratio (far above the average of 1.1 or so) and getting nearly 54 percent of his balls in play as grounders. The opposition has hit just .192 on the left side of the infield (28.2 percent of balls in play) and .247 on the right (26.4 percent). If the Royals had a better defense going-one that didn't involve work from the stretched-as-a-shortstop Mike Aviles, or the occasional Billy Butler start at first-Hochevar might sport a better ERA. As is, he's doing a little worse than he should thanks to stranding just 66.5 percent of baserunners, well below the average, which is closer to 75 percent. That's not just the defense's fault though, as Hochevar doesn't punch out many hitters, meaning he relies on his defense that much more. He's still relying primarily on his low-90s heat and low- to mid-80s slider; he'll most likely need to refine either his curve or changeup to mix things up a bit if he wants to rack up higher strikeout totals and improve his numbers on his own.

Matchup: Pirates (40-46) at Brewers (48-39), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (102 IP, 4.32 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 39 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (98 1/3, 5.32, 1.58, 53)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 38-48 (414 RS, 471 RA); Milwaukee, 44-43 (395 RS, 389 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #22; Milwaukee, #13
Prospectus: Hochevar isn't the only starter succeeding despite pitching in front of a poor defense, and Duke's accomplishments may be even more impressive. The Pirates are last in the league in Defensive Efficiency, converting just 68.3 percent of balls in play into outs. Since they are also ranked #27 in strikeouts as a team, the defense is getting plenty of chances to convert (or fail to convert). Duke has contributed to the challenge on both fronts, with just 3.4 K/9 and grounders on 51 percent of his balls in play (1.7 G/F). Duke has forced the hitter to go to the left side of the infield 30.6 percent of the time (.248 average) and to the right side of the infield 19.4 percent of the time (.203 average). Since he also keeps the ball in the park (0.4 HR/9, 4.6 percent HR/FB on just 29.5 percent fly balls) he's able to survive a 1.50 WHIP that should be more detrimental to his success than it is.

Despite the solid work in the infield, Duke's BABIP is still as high as .324 thanks to the outfield defense behind him. From left to right, opponents are hitting .548 (8.1 percent of batted balls), .533 (24.1 percent), and .342 (9.9 percent) on balls to the outfield. Center fielder Nate McLouth ranks #17 out of 20 qualifying players in RZR, which jibes with Duke's lofty average noted above. With Jason Bay and Xavier Nady both settling around the middle in RZR at their respective outfield corners, it would be fair to say that Duke doesn't get much help whenever the ball is in the air. If he wants to overcome this, he's going to need to strike more hitters out, which is easier said than done given his lack of overpowering offerings. As is, Duke deserves some praise for doing as well as he has without striking out many hitters while pitching in front of a below-average defense.

Matchup: Indians (37-50) at Twins (49-38), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (111 2/3, 2.42 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 93 K) vs. Glen Perkins (64 2/3 IP, 4.59, 1.52, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 43-44 (384 RS, 389 RA); Minnesota, 46-41 (432 RS, 403 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #24; Minnesota, #11
Prospectus: Just like the Rays, who Nate Silver covered last week, the Twins had some addition by subtraction of their own to do coming into 2008. Last year, Minnesota had 11 hitters with a negative VORP (minimum 20 plate appearances). The biggest offenders were Luis Rodriguez (-7.7, 173 PA), Rondell White (-8.8, 119 PA), Alexi Casilla (-10.9, 204), and Nick Punto (-27.1, 536). Punto's VORP was not only the worst figure on the Twins, but the worst in the majors, and it wasn't even close. He was almost a full win worse than the next offender. The lack of production from this crew helped the Twins to a below-average .252 team EqA that ranked 26th in the majors.

This year, Rodriguez and White have been jettisoned, and the Casilla/Punto combination has performed much better. Casilla ranks third on the club in VORP, and though he's playing a bit over his head, his adjusted line is still an improvement over last year's disaster. Punto's not doing nearly as well, with just 5.0 VORP, but that's still a swing of +32.1 from last season, over three wins at the plate alone, and we're just at the midway point for the year. With Mike Lamb the major drag on the offense instead of a group of Twins, Minnesota has been able to post an above-average .264 team EqA, good for fourth in the American League and a key reason the Twins have been able to stay in contention in the Central.

Matchup: Red Sox (52-38) at Yankees (46-42), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tim Wakefield (109 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 73 K) vs. Joba Chamberlain (52 2/3, 2.56, 1.35, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 53-37 (449 RS, 372 RA); New York, 46-42 (412 RS, 390 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; New York, #7
Prospectus: Though it's a three-team race in the AL East right now-assuming the Yankees storm once again back into it-the Red Sox outclass New York in most of the major categories. Both teams have struggled to cope with injuries in their rotations, but a deep staff and major league-ready minor leaguers have made things easier on Boston; the Red Sox rank second in the AL behind the Athletics in team SNLVAR, while the Yankees (#8) are the top team in the second tier, over three wins worse than the team in front of them. Offensively, Boston comes out ahead again with a .276 team EqA, just two points behind league-leading Texas, while New York sits fifth in the AL at .262. Boston also holds the advantage defensively, as their .714 mark puts them fourth in the AL in Defensive Efficiency, while the Bombers lag behind at .692, good for 11th of 14.

The only place where the Yankees have a distinct advantage is in their bullpen, and even that is suspect, because today's starter is no longer in the pen to be the unit's key rally killer. The Yanks have accumulated 5.648 WXRL, while the Sox sit at a pitiable 1.661, but Chamberlain was responsible for 1.032 of that New York total (fourth on the team) during his 20 relief appearances, and his absence leaves the Yankees with just three quality relievers. As the Sox showed us in 2007, you can survive with a three-man pen, but as they have also shown us in 2008, the margin for error can be much more thin than you would like. Of course, another major difference is that the rest of the World Series-winning 2007 Sox team has much in common with the 2008 club, while the Yankees lack a spectacular advantage in any one area of their team. They'll need to hope their pen can keep things up to keep them in close games if they want to continue to fight for a playoff spot in spite of their injuries and struggling players.

Related Content:  Defense,  Luis Castillo

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