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July 20, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (52-46) at Reds (48-51), 1:15 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Pelfrey (108 2/3 IP, 3.81 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Edinson Volquez (117 2/3, 2.91, 1.24, 126)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 52-46 (474 RS, 441 RA); Cincinnati, 45-54 (436 RS, 482 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Cincinnati, #22
Prospectus: During the broadcast of Saturday night's game, the Mets' announcing team began to discuss the fact that Adam Dunn was leading National League left fielders in putouts. Though Dunn is actually second in the NL as of this writing (behind Milwaukee's recently-converted corner outfielder Ryan Braun) it still may take a second for that thought to sink in, thanks to the image of him we all carry around in our minds. The Reds left fielder is a big, plodding guy, both in the outfield and on the base paths, and he's been accused of being incapable of properly fielding left in the past thanks to poor conditioning. This season appears to be different though-not only is Dunn second in the NL in putouts (and fourth in the majors) but he's also fifth in the majors in John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating. Out of the qualifiers, Matt Holliday leads the league with a .925 RZR, Carlos Quentin is in last at .826, and Adam Dunn is comfortably above the average at .903, and even has 25 plays made outside of his zone. Looking at our own FRAA tells the same story as Dunn is at +6-a result of both this and his .314 EqA (second best of his career)-and is on pace to have the best year on his resume right before hitting free agency.

Teams interested in signing Dunn should take note of his defensive play in order to see if he's truly progressed, or if this is a short, half-season blip on the statistical radar. Is Dunn taking better routes to the ball to make up for his lack of speed? Has he improved his conditioning to the point where he can get from Point A to Point B quickly without the use of a bullpen car? If he's even an average outfielder defensively, he's one of the more productive players in the league thanks to a bat that ranks with the best (even when he hits .230) and if he's able to replicate this year's success in the long run, he's going to be worth at least a full win with the glove on the year, something I didn't expect to be typing in my lifetime.

Matchup: Padres (37-61) at Cardinals (56-43), 1:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cha Seung Baek (72 IP, 5.25 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 47 K) vs. Jaime Garcia (2, 0.00, 1.00, 2)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 39-59 (365 RS, 462 RA); St. Louis, 52-47 (469 RS, 440 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: Though this isn't Jaime Garcia's major league debut, it is the young left-hander's first career start for the Cardinals. Garcia was a 22nd-round pick in the 2005 amateur entry draft, and, as Kevin Goldstein noted, the fifth-best prospect in the Cards' organization has been considered by some to be "the steal of the 2005 draft," thanks to his ground-ball tendencies and a plus curveball. It's tough to get a read on how major league-ready Garcia might be right now though, as he was successful for Double-A Springfield in the Texas League, but has pitched rather poorly in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League. The PCL has jumped his home-run rate up to 0.8 per nine, somewhat lofty for a guy who makes his living off the groundball, but understandable given the league context. MiLB.com has his G/F ratio at 2.1 for the season-good news for Garcia in St. Louis whenever Aaron Miles isn't manning second base-and he has more than twice as many strikeouts as walks at both levels of the minors this season.

He has struggled lately though, making the timing of this move seem odd. Over his last 10 starts, Garcia has thrown 55 2/3 innings with 45 Ks against 24 walks, posting a 5.50 ERA. Goldstein noted that Garcia often struggles against patient hitters who wait for a favorable count, and that hasn't changed in 2008: in the 21 2/3 innings pitched where he's been behind in the count, the opposition is hitting .330 against him, and his G/F ratio drops to 1.4. More importantly, he has 25 walks when he's behind in the count, and just six strikeouts, meaning he struggles to escape hitter's counts. He's a completely different pitcher if he's controlling the at-bat, with 31 strikeouts when he's stayed ahead in the count, and a 2.5 G/F ratio. This is something advance scouts and hitters are sure to pick up on in the majors, so Garcia is going to need to fix this issue if he plans on staying long.

Matchup: Brewers (54-43) at Giants (40-57), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (100 IP, 4.14 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Tim Lincecum (129 2/3, 2.85, 1.25, 135)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 51-46 (457 RS, 433 RA); San Francisco, 41-56 (388 RS, 457 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #13; San Francisco, #25
Prospectus: July has been a rough month for the Giants' offense, as the team is hitting a combined .215/.282/.313 since the calendar switched, and if this holds, it will be one of the worst offensive months of the decade for any team. It will also be the fifth worst team OPS for a month since 2000:

Rk Team    MM/YY   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  OPS
1. Tigers  04/03  .184/.258/.262  520
2. Expos   04/04  .210/.260/.292  552
3. Mets    09/03  .217/.281/.298  579
4. Tigers  09/02  .220/.260/.319  579
5. Giants  07/08  .215/.282/.313  595

Detroit was kind enough to carry their awful end to the 2002 season over into the beginning of 2003, setting a trend for the year that would enable them to lose an impressive 119 games. The 2003 Mets were not a notably bad team, just a club in a down year losing 95 games, but doing it with that extra bit of losing spirit to close out the season. It pains me to bring a zombified Expos team back from the dead just so I can kick them around, but the beginning of their final year of existence was not a kind parting gift for their remaining fans. The last April in Montreal had the club go 5-19 for the month, and things didn't improve that much with the rest of the schedule; the lone plus was that they managed to avoid losing 100 games, finishing up with 95 losses despite their ridiculously poor start to the campaign.

Earlier this month I discussed how the Giants' rotation made it possible for the team to avoid being "historically bad," as many analysts expected them to be prior to the season's start. With the lineup hitting as poorly as they have lately though, even Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez can't help but come away losing-San Francisco has gone 3-9 since that piece went up, and are now on pace to lose 95 games.

Many thanks to Jason Pare for his database spelunking.

Matchup: Dodgers (47-50) at Diamondbacks (48-49), 1:10 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Derek Lowe (124, 4.43 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 88 K) vs. Brandon Webb (131 IP, 3.85, 1.16, 112)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 50-47 (400 RS, 390 RA); Arizona, 49-48 (430 RS, 426 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #17; Arizona, #16
Prospectus: The most important divisional race the rest of the way, at least as far and plot and intrigue goes, is not out in the East where most of the fans are looking, but rather in the NL West, which stands out thanks to the battle between two teams who are both under .500. As noted in last week's effort for the New York Sun, only two clubs have ever been both under .500 and in first place as of July 16, and one of them is this year's edition of the D'backs. The other, of course, was the 1994 Texas Rangers, a team who had their quest to ride a wave to the top on the crowd's cheers of "Default!" (the two sweetest words in the English language) cut tragically short by the work stoppage.

At least with today's contest, there's something to look forward to-besides the sadistic desire to see someone win a division by accident-as Webb & Lowe Productions Present The Battle of the Ground-ball Machines. Webb's issues with his defense have been documented in this space as recently as last weekend, but the Dodgers are not to be outdone by 'Zona's infield ineptitude. They're ranked 19th in Defensive Efficiency as a team, and have made Lowe's life that much harder on grounders. James Loney is ranked fourth-worst among qualifying first basemen via RZR, Blake DeWitt has been no better than average at the hot corner, and Nomar Garciaparra is now manning shortstop, a situation with innumerable red flags surrounding it. Jeff Kent is the only infielder to make positive contributions with the leather, which makes him at least useful in one of the two important categories. Sadly for Kent and the Dodgers, he's been more like Tony Pena Jr. than the Jeff Kent of old at the plate this season, as he's at .250/.305/.411 for the season; even if the team loses a little defensively by playing Andy LaRoche at second more often, getting his bat in the lineup to replace Kent's could be a difference-maker in this closely-fought NL West struggle.

Matchup: Indians (42-54) at Mariners (38-59), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (124 2/3, 2.45 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 106 K) vs. Carlos Silva (118 2/3 IP, 5.61, 1.46, 52)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 49-47 (437 RS, 432 RA); Seattle, 42-55 (388 RS, 448 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #21; Seattle, #27
Prospectus: This Indians team is a confusing one to sort out; they are currently at 42-54, well under .500 and in last place in the American League Central, but their Pythagorean record is over .500 and would have them in third place, within shouting distance of the division leading White Sox. Jay Jaffe's Hit List begs to differ, and places them back in the bottom-third of the clubs in the majors. Which number are we to believe, when trying to sort out the true ability of this club? If you take a deeper look at how they have won their games, you start to see which version of events rings with the loudest truth:

Indians W-L by Run Differential

This table and graph shows how the Indians have done in the Win/Loss columns for various run differences. You want to read this chart as "The Indians have six wins and 11 losses in games decided by one run," which means that they are a total of 32-49 in the combined columns of games decided by five runs or less. You can bump their record up some by adding in the six-run games, putting them at 38-50, and that takes care of the reasonable run differentials. After that, you see the differences that the Indians (and most teams) do not encounter very often. When games are decided by at least seven runs, the Indians are 5-5, but they've been more successful on the higher end of that scale, and they have won those games by a difference of 22 runs (57 to 35), whereas the difference is -25 in the six-and-under contests.

This isn't exactly a perfect way of looking at things, but it helps you to see why the Indians run differential is positive despite having a .252 team EqA, a defense converting 69.7 percent of balls in play into outs (21st in the majors) and far and away the worst bullpen in baseball. The Washington Nationals have the second-worst bullpen in the majors with a WXRL of 1.909. The Indians, the only team behind the Nationals, have a -3.327 team WXRL. The only reliever on the roster with a positive WXRL is Rafael Perez, and he isn't even worth a full win over replacement. When you consider the information in the above chart regarding their record in more of the "normal" contests, along with the knowledge that their lineup and defense are below average and their bullpen is the worst since the travesty that was the 1999 Royals, it's easy to go with the methods that place the Indians towards the bottom end of the league, rather than as one of the clubs in the middle suffering from a few bad breaks.

Related Content:  The Who,  Jaime Garcia,  Fourth Of July

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