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July 27, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Angels (64-39) at Orioles (48-55), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (136 1/3 IP, 3.57 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 130 K) vs. Garrett Olson (84, 6.21, 1.64, 53)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 56-47 (465 RS, 425 RA); Baltimore, 49-54 (492 RS, 516 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #10; Baltimore, #20
Prospectus: Santana's problem in the past was always his pitching on the road. He's been a talented starter who was more than capable in Angel Stadium with 6.4 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, and a 3.49 RA in 281 home innings from 2005-2007, but he was unable to become one of the better pitchers in the league due to his issues on the road. These weren't slight differences either; Santana came out of every road start looking like he had just pitched at Coors Field. During that same 2005-2007 span, Santana's strikeout rate ticked up to 7.2 on the road, but his walk rate (3.8 per nine) jumped as well, and his home run rate rocketed up to 1.8 per. Over 208 1/3 innings, his RA was 7.53, more than twice his home rate, and he allowed opponents to hit .299/.372/.546 against him; that's like facing off against Hanley Ramirez during every at-bat, a difficult task for any pitcher.

This year, things seem to have finally fallen into place for Santana on the road. He's also thrown more innings on the road this year, with 81 of his 136 1/3 coming away from Los Angeles, and has some excellent numbers: he's striking out a batter per inning, dropping his walks to 2.6 per nine, and has more than cut his homer rate in half, coming in at 0.8. He's also held opponents to a .239/.290/.366 line on the road, which instead of HanRam is more like facing this year's edition of Jay Payton every time out. His RA is understandably better this time around at 3.55, thanks to the increase in strikeouts and the drop in all negative aspects of his game.

Matchup: Braves (49-54) at Phillies (55-49), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jorge Campillo (92 1/3 IP, 3.22 RA, 1.05 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Joe Blanton (133, 5.35, 1.44, 63)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 55-48 (466 RS, 432 RA); Philadelphia, 59-45 (516 RS, 449 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #14; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: Today is Blanton's first home start for the Phillies, and both parties hope that it goes better than his debut, in which Blanton threw six innings but gave up five runs, eight hits, and a pair of homers, while striking out just one against three walks; worse, this came against the Mets, who are now ahead of the Phillies for the division lead by one game. Things won't necessarily be better at home though, as Blanton, like teammate Kyle Kendrick, doesn't miss many bats. He's struck out 4.3 hitters per nine, not far above Kendrick's 4.0, although neither pitcher walks many hitters either, with 2.6 and 2.7 BB/9 respectively. They're both somewhat ground ball-oriented, though not extremely so, with Blanton sporting a 1.3 G/F ratio with 46 percent grounders and Kendrick sitting at 1.6 and 46, but they have had different results on their fly balls. Kendrick's given up 1.3 home runs per nine and 13.7 percent of his fly balls have gone for homers, while Blanton is at 1.0 and 8.7 percent. That's a difference of nearly seven homers over 200 innings pitched, but you have to remember that Blanton's rate is lower thanks to pitching in expansive McAfee Coliseum, one of the more friendly pitcher parks around. There's a good chance that the Phillies traded for an older, more expensive version of a pitcher they already had in Kyle Kendrick.

That's not to say that Blanton isn't an upgrade over Adam Eaton-he had some poor luck in Oakland that pushed his ERA higher than it should be, as his 4.36 FIP shows-though part of his problem this year has been walking hitters from the stretch. His Isolated Patience against with runners on is .064, against his .034 mark with the bases empty, and it's contributed to his below-average 65.7 percent strand rate. That's something that a new pitching coach may be able to help work on though, and even without that Blanton is still useful. It's just that more is expected out of him, as he's something of a name pitcher thanks to his successful run in Oakland, even if that was based mostly on his home park context.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (52-51) at Giants (43-60), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (105 IP, 5.57 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 99 K) vs. Barry Zito (103 2/3, 6.34, 1.78, 67)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 53-50 (467 RS, 449 RA); San Francisco, 44-59 (410 RS, 486 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; San Francisco, #26
Prospectus: Zito has been a much better pitcher lately than he was at the beginning of the year, but he's still offering up a mixed bag of performances thanks to terrible walk rates:


Month    IP    ERA   K/9  BB/9  HR/9
April   28.2  7.53   3.5   4.7   1.3
May     28.1  3.49   6.7   5.1   1.0
June    28.2  6.91   5.7   6.9   0.6
July    18.0  3.50   8.5   5.0   0.5

It's too early to get too worked up over his recent improvements in terms of homers allowed and strikeouts, but the stretch of good pitching is a little longer than that table suggests, with Zito's numbers improving beginning with his start on June 25, giving him a five-start run of 29 2/3 innings with 8.2 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, and 0.6 HR/9. He's giving up a line of .233/.326/.388 during this stretch, a vast improvement over the ridiculous .325/.411/.483 he was allowing opponents before. His velocity, while still poor given his past, is better than it was earlier in the year as well. He's now averaging 84.5 mph on his fastball velocity, which matches last year's output, a good sign. Considering that the Giants have Zito under contract until 2013-and for another $94.5 million during that stretch-every quality start can stave off the jokes about the contract; as long as some sort of performance is there, there isn't much to poke fun at. Whether Zito can keep this up is another question entirely though, and something that only more innings pitched can tell us. With the Diamondbacks striking out 808 times on the season (the third-highest tally in the majors), Zito could boost his K rates and improve his overall line still further.

Matchup: Rangers (54-50) at Athletics (52-51), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Eric Hurley (22 2/3 IP, 3.57 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 12 K) vs. Dana Eveland (118 1/3, 3.72, 1.44, 78)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 50-54 (580 RS, 610 RA); Oakland, 57-46 (436 RS, 390 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Oakland, #9
Prospectus: With the Angels starting to run away with the division, it's looking more and more like the Rangers and A's will be fighting for second place this season. Given last year's 75-87 last-place record for the Rangers, they'll certainly take second, and with the Athletics in a rebuilding year since the trade of Dan Haren, that would also look pretty good to them right about now. Based on their performance thus far, the A's are the favored team to finish in second. They have the better expected record and higher ranking in Hit List, and the Rangers are playing a few games over their heads. The A's rank 12th in WXRL as a team, but the Rangers are right behind them at 15th, trailing by just 0.4 WXRL. That's the only thing these two clubs have in common, though, as they are nearly polar opposites in the other aspects of the game.

Before their recent trades, the Athletics had the best rotation in the league. Their 15.7 SNLVAR is tied with the Cubs for tops in the majors, though with Chicago as the owners of Rich Harden going forward, that will probably change. Part of the reason for the A's success on the mound is due to their defense, which is also tops in the majors. They have converted 72.2 percent of balls in play into outs, which has helped out a rotation that ranks in the middle in both total strikeouts and walks allowed; the only of the three true outcomes that the rotation excels at is in avoiding allowing homers, and part of that success is due to pitching half of their games at McAfee. The Rangers would kill to have these kinds of problems, as they rank dead last in SNLVAR with just 1.6 accumulated on the year, well behind the team at 29, Pittsburgh (4.2 SNLVAR). Texas also ranks 28th in Defensive Efficiency, is second to last in strikeouts, has given up the second most walks in the league, and the eighth-most homers. The only thing the Rangers have going for them as they fight for second is their offense, which is the best in the league via EqA, and 30 points better than the A's below-average .249 mark. It's brought them this far though, and the A's are weaker than they were a few weeks ago, so the chance that the Rangers have the better finish does exist.

Matchup: Yankees (58-45) at Red Sox (60-45), 8:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Sidney Ponson (78 1/3 IP, 5.40 RA, 1.61 WHIP, 36 K) vs. Jon Lester (132 1/3, 3.40, 1.31, 88)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 57-46 (485 RS, 427 RA); Boston, 61-44 (520 RS, 432 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #5; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Rays are in first place in the AL East, the Red Sox in second, and the Yankees in third, with the Red Sox holding the lead in the wild-card race by a single game over the Bombers. These three clubs are evenly matched to boot (the Rays rank the third in Hit List), and the Yankees did just improve in the short term by adding Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady while only giving up minor league talent, which is going to make this an interesting race the rest of the way. New York hasn't lost since coming back from the All-Star break, and are 14-6 on the month, propelling themselves into the middle of what has been a see-saw fight between the Rays and Sox atop the division. The Yankees have done this almost entirely on the strength of their pitching, with the offense putting up a tepid .267/.349/.391 showing while the pitching holds the opposition to .238/.302/.330. By hitting .307/.397/.461 since the break, though, the lineup has been excelling during the winning streak.

It's hard to believe that Sidney Ponson has been a solid pitcher this year, but sure enough, his performance has been all smoke and mirrors. Ponson's QERA with the Rangers was 4.97, over a full run higher than his actual performance-that's reflected in his replacement-level 0.1 SNLVAR with the club during this year-and his start with the Yankees has been no different, with a 5.67 QERA that is 1.8 runs worse than his actual ERA. Pitching in front of the New York defense and outside of Arlington should help his homer numbers and his BABIP, but he'll need to put some distance between his strikeouts and walks if he wants to be more than a burden for a Yankees.

Related Content:  Kyle Kendrick,  Stretch Run

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