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July 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rockies (39-53) at Brewers (50-41), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jorge De La Rosa (53 1/3 IP, 7.26 RA, 1.54 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Dave Bush (98 2/3, 5.11, 1.22, 53)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 40-52 (417 RS, 484 RA); Milwaukee, 46-45 (419 RS, 410 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #23; Milwaukee, #13
Prospectus: Jokes were made before the season started that Prince Fielder's new diet would somehow make him less powerful, but eyebrows were raised once the Brewer's first baseman failed to hit a home run until April 17. Chances are good that his decision to cut meat from his diet has little to do with the change in his numbers, but something is amiss, at least relative to 2007's breakout campaign:


Year    BABIP   ISO   HR/FB   G/F
2006    .303   .213   15.8%   1.1
2007    .286   .330   23.9%   0.8
2008    .287   .211   15.3%   1.0

Not only did Fielder hit more homers per fly ball last year, but he hit more fly balls, helping him to finish the year at the half-century mark in bombs. He also had no trouble going the other way with a pitch and taking it deep-he had seven homers hit to left and left-center last year-but Fielder has yet to clear the stands to the opposite field this season. Considering he also had seven to the opposite field in 2006, one has to think that pitchers are adjusting to Fielder by taking away his opposite-field power and busting him inside. Fielder chases a ton of pitches inside, and he doesn't hit very well there either, favoring the middle and outer parts of the zone. The .120 batting average on grounders to the right side of the infield-a category that makes up 29 percent of his balls in play this year-is a testament to how much more he struggles with the inside part of the plate, despite being a hitter with tremendous pull power. Fielder will need to adjust to the league and stop chasing pitches that he can't turn on, forcing pitchers to go back outside to him, where he's more dangerous. Given that he's just 24 years old, there's plenty of time to work out the kinks and put up more seasons like 2007.

Thanks to Hit Tracker for the home run data.

Matchup: Mariners (36-55) at Athletics (49-42), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: R.A. Dickey (53 2/3 IP, 4.36 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 35 K) vs. Greg Smith (104 1/3, 3.88, 1.27, 72)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 38-52 (357 RS, 419 RA); Oakland, 52-38 (390 RS, 327 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #28; Oakland, #14
Prospectus: Let's just get this out of the way-I have a thing for knuckleball pitchers. Recently it's looked as though Tim Wakefield was the last remnant of a dying breed, as the 16-year veteran is pitching in his age-41 season and would have to retire eventually, like all knuckleballers. Then a few things started to happen: Red Sox farmhand Charlie Zink looks like he may have put things together in Triple-A-possibly finally justifying his spot as the #50 prospect back in 2004-walking just 2.7 hitters per nine (after some horrendous totals between 4.3 and 6.1 the past few years) and posting an ERA of 2.28 in 118 2/3 innings. Then we have today's starter for the Mariners, who also seems to have put things together thanks to the knuckler. R.A. Dickey is 33 years old, and has been working on succeeding with a knuckleball for a few seasons now.

Like Zink, improvement came when he began to control the pitch more effectively: he walked just 1.5 per nine in 49 2/3 innings at Triple-A this year, and is at 3.7 per nine for the M's this year. That's still a few too many, but it's pretty close to his career rate, and he has the benefit of dropping his HR/9 substantially as well. Whereas Dickey's given up 1.4 per nine for his career, he's down to 0.8 this year, roughly 14 fewer homers allowed over 200 innings. He's not a ground-ball pitcher by any means, but he's managed to keep the ball down there more often than not, with a 1.6 G/F and 49 percent of balls in play as grounders. It helps that he complements his 73 mph knuckler with a fastball that averages 84.5 mph, using the latter pitch 26.7 percent of the time; it's guaranteed to look a lot faster coming in when it follows that knuckleball. Dickey's season looks similar to his 90th percentile PECOTA forecast, so it's going to be interesting to see if his success will continue with more innings.

Matchup: Rays (55-35) at Indians (37-53), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (108 2/3 IP, 4.80 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 69 K) vs. Aaron Laffey (80, 3.83, 1.28, 36)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 52-38 (425 RS, 356 RA); Cleveland, 43-47 (395 RS, 410 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #1; Cleveland, #24
Prospectus: While their Pythagorean record says otherwise, the Indians are in trouble. Just because they should have more wins doesn't mean they'll have them gifted back to them to make climbing out of their cellar easier, and the trade of CC Sabathia to the Brewers won't do this year's iteration of the club any favors either. Last night saw them lose their tenth game in a row, leaving the team winless since June 27. The club's pitching is particularly responsible, as they've allowed the opposition a .300/.363/.537 line since June 28, and it's been a group effort from both the rotation and the pen. The lineup has struggled to plate runs all year, and has not been able to keep up, contributing a dismal .244/.299/.421 showing. This is especially disappointing for the Indians considering that their bats seemed to have finally woken up during June, as they hit .270/.338/.424 as a unit prior to the collapse.

The team obviously needs more bats if they want to compete over the next few years. Adding Matt LaPorta is a start, but he's just one guy. Casey Blake has picked things up, and if not for his poor start would have more than 13.9 VORP on the season, but he's also 34 years old and not about to get any better. Grady Sizemore is one of the best players in the league, and leads the team with 39.8 VORP, but he's also the leadoff hitter and the sole player making consistent contributions on offense. Despite a .299 OBP, Jhonny Peralta's achieving the second-highest VORP on the team, which should convince anyone that the Indians need to make some personnel changes on the field. They have seven players with a negative VORP and at least 30 PA, including two nearly everyday players in Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez. With the entire roster struggling, it's nearly impossible to make additional trades that might inject talented youth into the organization without giving up more pitching. Casey Blake may be the only one from the offensive side, as his positional versatility and bat could be attractive to some teams on the bubble.

Matchup: Orioles (44-45) at Blue Jays (44-47), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Guthrie (122, 3.91 RA, 1.22 WHIP, 80 K) vs. John Parrish (6 IP, 1.50, 1.00, 4)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 44-45 (425 RS, 426 RA); Toronto, 48-43 (380 RS, 361 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #10; Toronto, #19
Prospectus: This season has been turning out better for the Orioles than many prognosticators thought, as the team deserves their record (in Pythagoras' eyes), and isn't sitting in the AL East basement, far below the other four clubs. Looking at the roster heading into the season, it was sensible to think that the team needed newly-acquired Adam Jones to have a huge year if they were to do anything but roll over and die in the crowded division, but Jones has mostly been disappointing during his first full campaign. He has finally brought his batting average up to a respectable level, thanks to a .359 BABIP and a drop in strikeouts from 29.7 in '06 and 32.3 in '07 to 24.6 percent this year, although his power has disappeared again. His ISO dipped from .154 to .126, and, more alarmingly, his HR/FB fell from nearly 12 percent to under six.

Jones is at 3.8 pitches per plate appearance, but that figure is sort of deceiving. It's not a particularly high mark, which makes sense when you consider that he's walking in around five percent of his plate appearances, but he's not taking the right pitches either. He swings 53 percent of the time, but only at 71 percent of pitches in the zone. When he does swing in the zone, he makes contact 83 percent of the time, though his overall contact is lower thanks to making contact about half the time on potential balls. This data suggests his patience is somewhat forced, and that his pitch recognition and discipline need work. He's going to have to change this problem to bring back his natural power at the major league level; given we're talking about a 22-year-old that both PECOTA and scouts adore, there's plenty of time to fix the situation. It's up to the O's and Jones to identify and tackle the problem though, not the analysts who think he can be better than this.

Matchup: Marlins (47-44) at Dodgers (45-46), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Josh Johnson (19 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 14 K at Triple-A) vs. Chan Ho Park (61, 2.51, 1.30, 48)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 43-48 (448 RS, 473 RA); Los Angeles, 46-44 (371 RS, 365 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #9; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: Florida is ranked 28th in the majors in team SNLVAR, so the addition of Josh Johnson should help them continue to fight for the NL East crown. Johnson hasn't seen significant time in the majors since 2006, when he threw 157 innings alongside some promising peripherals (7.6 K/9, 0.8 HR/9) before succumbing to injury following a much-publicized rain-delayed reappearance. He only made four starts in 2007 for a total of 15 2/3 innings, in which he lacked control (walking 6.9 per nine), and ended up back on the shelf by midseason with forearm issues. Following five starts at three levels in the minors, Johnson will be taking the mound today in Chavez Ravine, a good place to make his return given that the boys in blue are in the bottom third of the league in EqA, and have an Isolated Patience of .066; considering Johnson's control issues in the past, any help on that front is a positive for the Fish.

As per Pythagoras, the Marlins are playing over their heads, so they are going to need Johnson to succeed like he has in the past if they want to keep up with the Phillies and Mets; the Brewers' acquisition of Sabathia, and the Cubs' pick-up of Rich Harden makes playing for the Wild Card that much more difficult in the National League. The Mets and Phillies both need to acquire outside help if they want to improve their rotations, and Johnson has the ability to outpitch most of their possible acquisitions now that those two top-tier options are off the market-that is, if he's legitimately healthy and able to stick around for the rest of the season.

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