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July 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (55-38) at Indians (40-53), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (77 IP, 2.92 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Jeremy Sowers (40 1/3, 8.26, 1.86, 18)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 52-41 (431 RS, 382 RA); Cleveland, 47-46 (421 RS, 416 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #2; Cleveland, #21
Prospectus: How quickly things change, as just Thursday the Indians had themselves a 10-game losing streak. Now the Tribe has won three straight against the Rays, who have their own six-game losing streak cutting into their AL East lead, which now sits at half a game. Today's contest presents the perfect opportunity to reverse the recent trends of both clubs though, with the Rays' best pitcher taking the mound against Sowers, who has given up 12 more runs than Kazmir in nearly 36 2/3 fewer innings pitched. The Rays lead the AL with 36 home wins, but have not performed as well on the road (19-24). The main difference in the Rays' home and road records from the offensive side of things is a difference in batting average: they've hit .271/.353/.410 at home and .252/.320/.414 on the road. While the team's ISO is a bit higher outside of Tropicana, the significant difference is in their home/road BABIP: it's above average at the Trop at .319, and below average away at .284.

The pitching staff has the opposite problem, holding opponents to a .218/.285/.334 line at home, while giving up their fair share of hits and walks on the road, allowing .273/.338/.443. The main problem, taking a look at the splits, is with specific teams and venues. For example, Rays' hitters are held in check by the Red Sox (.229/.300/.361 in Fenway), while their pitchers are beat around by their lineups (.330/.426/.508). This is also the case with sveral other teams the Rays have faced often, like the Yankees (.200/.265/.320; .262/.307/.406), the Blue Jays (.230/.264/.372; .296/.352/.461), and the Athletics (.191/.270/.336; .239/.312/.504). The Jake has proven to be another of these problematic locales, with the Rays' hitters cobbling together a .210/.275/.270 showing while their pitchers are getting pasted for an almost indescribably poor .352/.412/.639 opponents' line.

Matchup: Yankees (50-44) at Blue Jays (46-48), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Andy Pettitte (119 IP, 4.31 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 85 K) vs. A.J. Burnett (118 2/3, 5.61, 1.51, 118)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 50-44 (435 RS, 408 RA); Toronto, 49-45 (395 RS, 375 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Toronto, #11
Prospectus: With CC Sabathia and Rich Harden packed up and moved before the halfway point in July, the focus turns to the Plan B's of the major leagues, a group which includes today's starter for the Blue Jays. A.J. Burnett may like it in Canada more than he lets on, as he's pitched about as poorly as possible lately in an effort to make himself a less attractive acquisition for the rest of the majors. Even with the assistance of Toronto's defense, which ranks eighth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, he has a .343 BABIP on the season thanks to his 22.3 percent liner rate. The homer trouble from last year has disappeared, with his HR/9 dropping from 1.3 to 0.8 per nine (that's 17 homers over 200 innings instead of 28) and his HR/FB falling to a more manageable 9.3 against last year's career high of 17.7 percent. His walks have risen, but he still has twice as many strikeouts as free passes; the problem for Burnett has been his poor pitching with men on base.

With the bases empty, he's been vintage Burnett, giving up a .239/.319/.326 line to opponents. Put a man on though, and Burnett falls apart: he's allowed the opposition a .302/.371/.513 line with runners on, which is the equivalent of turning every hitter into David Wright and giving him baserunners to drive in to boot. This has been reflected in his left on base percentage, as Burnett's stranded just 64.3 percent of runners, well below the average of around 75 percent. This is the sort of thing that is most likely mechanical, meaning that a team acquiring Burnett may be able to sort out the issue and get themselves one of the better (healthy) starters in the major leagues for two months. Given his poor performance this year and track record in regards to health, it's a gamble to acquire him, but at the right price, Burnett is a lottery ticket that could win you your money back or the jackpot, depending on if the coaching staff can identify and solve his issues from the stretch.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (47-47) at Phillies (51-44), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brandon Webb (124 IP, 3.92 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 106 K) vs. Cole Hamels (135 2/3, 3.32, 0.99, 118)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 48-46 (417 RS, 410 RA); Philadelphia, 55-40 (475 RS, 400 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: The Diamondbacks pitching was strong to begin the year, but it has been their downfall lately, even Webb. The team's run differential is now just +7, and they can't seem to stay over the .500 hump for very long since falling beneath it in the first place. Since June 6, Webb has a 4.46 ERA in 40 1/3 innings, with 7.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9, which certainly isn't bad, but it isn't the dominating performance we're used to from the Arizona ace. Too many of the groundballs he induces have been going through for hits lately, thanks to 'Zona's average defensive play: opponents have hit .280/.347/.420 against Webb since June 6, which includes two home starts where he was lit up (.429/.510/.857, 12 runs over 9 1/3 IP). Given his track record and everything else he's done this year, this little scuffle is a drop in the bucket, and has more to do with the players behind Webb and his surroundings than the pitcher himself. He's been absolutely lights out outside of Arizona, allowing a .239/.295/.339 line to opponents while striking out nearly eight per nine and keeping homers down to 0.4 per nine-if he threw 200 innings on the road at that rate, he'd give up all of nine bombs. With the defense Webb has behind him in the infield, it's a wonder he's done as well as he has. Orlando Hudson is ranked 19th out of 21 qualifying second basemen in John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating, Mark Reynolds is 24th of 25 at third, Conor Jackson is 26th out of 27 qualifying first basemen, and shortstop Stephen Drew ranks 18th of 20. If Webb were somewhere like Oakland, Tampa, or Atlanta, where the infield defense is excellent, there probably wouldn't be much debate as to who was the Cy Young each year.

Matchup: Reds (46-49) at Brewers (51-43), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Homer Bailey (12 1/3, 10.98 RA, 2.11 WHIP, 3 K) vs. CC Sabathia (128 1/3 IP, 4.00, 1.25, 128)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 42-53 (414 RS, 465 RA); Milwaukee, 48-46 (437 RS, 425 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #23; Milwaukee, #10
Prospectus: Bailey made his last start in the majors on June 15, and was sent back down to Triple-A. Considering he wasn't ready when he was initially called up, it was a mercy demotion, but here he is again. His first start back in the minors was promising, with eight innings pitched, seven strikeouts against no walks, and three earned runs allowed. On July 7 he once again pitched well, with eight strikeouts against no walks, and in between those appearances he had 12 strikeouts versus seven walks. That's a 3.9 K/BB over that span, a vast improvement over the 0.3 mark he put up while with the Reds this year. Walks weren't the only issue for Bailey during his brief stay in the bigs this year, as he gave up nearly one home run every other inning, with 6 in 12 1/3. The long ball has not been an issue for Bailey in the minors this year, so it's tough to gauge how things will go down on that front now that he's back in the majors, but today's start against the Brewers should give us some indication as to where Homer's fortunes lay this year at the major league level.

If this latest answer to the question, "Is Homer a major league starter?" doesn't work out, the Reds should consider letting him stick in the minors until proves he's capable of handling more advanced hitters. It's a novel idea, I know, but one that's time-tested and could be just the trick for a pitcher who is in his age-22 season. The Reds aren't exactly lighting up the standings in 2008, so what's the rush with Bailey? He has the ability to make Triple-A hitters look silly, but he doesn't display that ability on a consistent basis, and the constant up and down can't be good for his confidence. Hopefully though, Bailey's figured out his troubles during his brief return, and he and the Reds can move on with the rest of his career starting with today.

Matchup: Rockies (39-56) at Mets (50-44), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Redman (42 IP, 7.50 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (100 2/3, 4.11, 1.53, 59)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 40-55 (419 RS, 500 RA); New York, 50-44 (453 RS, 421 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #25; New York, #8
Prospectus: The Mets have now won eight straight and vaulted themselves, both statistically and on an emotional level, right back into contention for the NL East with the Phillies and Marlins. The fan base has been understandably beaten down this year after the high hopes created by their offseason dealing, followed by the injuries and ineffectiveness of the team. Then there was the Willie Randolph saga and the mediocre play of a squad that housed talents destined for better things, but they have regrouped and gone 9-1 in their last 10, while the Phillies have scuffled to a 5-5 mark, in part due to the Mets taking three of four from them last weekend. Since then, they've rattled off three wins against the Giants and taken the first two of three against the Rockies, and they may very well end up in first place before the weekend is out, especially considering tonight's opponent.

Mike Pelfrey has improved as the year has gone on: since June 5, Pelfrey has a 2.62 ERA thanks to six strikeouts per nine against 3.6 walks, and not a single homer allowed. He's held opponents to a .248/.328/.321 line during this span, though he's still allowing the opposition to beat him up on the road (.289/.379/.386). Overall though, this recent performance is a huge boost over his earlier production. His 4.98 ERA could have been considered lucky, as he struck out just 4.7 per nine while walking 4.0, and he allowed opponents to hit .317/.393/.439 against him; that wasn't all the defense's fault either, as Pelfrey has given up liners on 22 percent of his balls in play this year, making his .322 BABIP about 20 points below where it should be. His ability to keep the ball in the park saved him during the first half, and, if he can keep his current K/BB ratios intact, it may be the kind of thing that makes him a little better than average. This is good news for a Mets team that can never seem to keep their rotation in one piece, as seen most recently in yesterday's game, when Pedro Martinez left early with a shoulder injury.

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