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July 29, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (57-49) at Marlins (56-50), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (117 IP, 4.69 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 107 K) vs. Scott Olsen (130 1/3, 4.83, 1.31, 67)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 57-49 (523 RS, 478 RA); Florida, 50-56 (506 RS, 536 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Florida, #18
Prospectus: Over his last five starts Perez has allowed six runs in 33 2/3 innings, a 1.60 RA, with 21 hits allowed and a 39/12 K/BB ratio. The mercurial left-hander's outstanding run has come since the firing of manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson on June 17, which may well be a coincidence, but may also have something to do with Perez's tutelage under new pitching coach Dan Warthen. Prior to Perez's start against the Yankees on June 29, when he began his recent quality stretch, he "made a significant mechanical change with the new pitching coach," according to the New York Times game story. MetsBlog.com reported that this change consisted of "letting Perez pitch from the center of the rubber, which is something Rick Peterson would not allow." Perez also altered the beginning of his motion: "instead of stepping to the side and returning to center, now he's stepping directly back and coming forward, which he said gives him more power." That night against the Yankees, Perez had his best start of the year, allowing three hits and one run over seven innings, while striking out eight and not walking a batter for the first time since last September. Perez has of course been notoriously flaky throughout his career, so it's unclear just how much credit for a successful month's worth of work should be credited to the mechanical alteration. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging development for the Mets, whose surge to the top of the NL East has coincided with Ollie's rebirth, and it also leads to renewed faith in the performance-enhancing capacities of major league coaches.

Tonight's starter for the Marlins has passed Perez heading in the opposite direction. Olsen had a 2.40 RA after his first seven starts of the season, thanks primarily to a .187 batting average against, but in his 14 starts since, Olsen's RA is 6.28, as opponents have hit .282 against him over 81 2/3 innings. As Joe Sheehan pointed out at the time, Olsen's BABIP was an unsustainable .187 during the balance of April; since then, it hasrisen to .251, which is still the second-lowest mark on the team. Olsen is simply allowing too many balls in play this season to be a front-of-the-rotation starter, especially since he pitches in front of a sub-par Marlins defense: his 4.6 K/9 is the fifth-lowest amongst NL qualifiers.

Matchup: Cardinals (59-49) at Braves (49-56), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (116 IP, 4.34 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 79 K) vs. Jorge Campillo (94, 3.16, 1.05, 65) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 56-52 (512 RS, 489 RA); Atlanta, 55-50 (479 RS, 456 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #13; Atlanta, #14
Prospectus: Yesterday, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan announced that the Cardinals would return Jason Isringhausen to the closer's role. Fill-in closer Ryan Franklin started off well, converting his first seven opportunities following Isringhausen's demotion, but since June 5 he has blown four of 11 chances, posted a 6.75 RA, and allowed seven homers in 22 2/3 innings. St. Louis now has 25 blown saves this year, five more than Washington and San Diego, the teams tied for second. The Cardinals played their 108th game last night, putting them exactly two-thirds of the way through the season, so they're on a pace to finish with 38 blown saves, which would be the second-highest total in the past 50 years-the top spot belonging to Colorado in 1996, with 39. To get the chance to reach that thin air, the Cardinals will have to keep generating save opportunities at the prodigious rate they have thus far: there have been 53 shots for St. Louis relievers this season, the second-largest total in the majors, and tied with the Angels, a fine illustration of just how many more wins St. Louis might have with a shutdown closer. Not surprisingly, St. Louis is at the bottom of the WXRL rankings; its 2.8 wins added is the third-worst figure in the NL. If St. Louis plans to push for a playoff spot down the stretch, the piece that general manager John Mozeliak might be best served adding is a solid arm for the pen.

While St. Louis might be buying at the deadline, it is now clear that Atlanta has its wares for sale after last weekend's disappointment of two straight blown leads to Philadelphia. Things couldn't be going much worse for Atlanta, which had catcher Brian McCann knocked out with a mild concussion on Sunday, then placed both Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones on the DL yesterday. One positive for the club, however, is that it now has its two big bullpen guns in position and firing. Lefty Mike Gonzalez returned on June 18, and has cashed in all four of his save chances while posting a 17/0 K/BB ratio in 13 1/3 innings, while righty Rafael Soriano joined him last week, showing off his health with four strikeouts in two perfect frames.

Matchup: Cubs (62-44) at Brewers (60-46), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (133 2/3 IP, 3.10 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 87 K) vs. Ben Sheets (135, 3.13, 1.13, 115)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 64-42 (555 RS, 443 RA); Milwaukee, 56-50 (498 RS, 470 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Milwaukee, #6
Prospectus: Both teams are sending their aces to the hill in a rematch of Opening Day in this series' second game. Zambrano threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings in that May 31st tilt at Wrigley Field, while Sheets threw 6 1/3, but neither pitcher was around for a decision in the 4-3 Brewers win. These two power right-handers each made their major league debuts in 2001, and tonight will be the sixth time their careers have crossed paths, with Zambrano having won three of his four meetings with Sheets prior to this season. Sheets and Zambrano have thrown almost the same number of innings at this point in their careers-1,365 versus 1,327, respectively-and their strikeout rates are nearly identical, at 7.67 K/9 for Sheets to 7.66 K/9 for Zambrano. Oddly, Zambrano's strikeout rate is down below six per nine this season, a career low, but his walk rate has also dropped below three per nine, a half walk per nine below his previous career best. Sheets is walking just 2.1 BB/9, and sports a 3.7 K/BB ratio, the second-best mark amongst NL qualifers this season, behind only Dan Haren. Such a lofty perch is customary for Milwaukee's ace, who for his career owns a 3.9 K/BB ratio, the third-best of all pitchers who have thrown 1,000 or more innings since the turn of the century, next to only Curt Schilling (4.4) and Pedro Martinez (4.2). Remarkably, six of the pitchers in the top 10 are still active, and five are currently plying their trade in the National League.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (53-52) at Padres (42-65), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Doug Davis (81 IP, 4.67 RA, 1.48 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Chris Young (54, 4.67, 1.48, 51)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 55-50 (479 RS, 459 RA); San Diego, 43-64 (411 RS, 514 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; San Diego, #29
Prospectus: Tonight, Young is making his first start since May 21, when he was struck in the face by an Albert Pujols line drive. That blast fractured Young's nose and face, leading to a deviated septum, and knocking out his ability to taste and smell (which he's still not fully recovered). It also caused a small fracture of his skull which had to be given time to heal to prevent a brain infection. Young underwent surgery to repair his nose on June 30, and after recovering began a rehab assignment on July 17, during which he made two starts for Lake Elsinore of the California League, allowing three runs in 8 2/3 innings. The Padres also got Young's batterymate, catcher Josh Bard, back over the weekend following his recovery from a high-ankle sprain. Bard suffered his injury in the same inning as Young did his, and it was also due to the force of Pujols, who sent the catcher to the shelf in a home-plate collision. The time off seems to have done Bard's bat some good, however-he was hitting .200 with a 540 OPS at the time he went down, but has collected two hits in each of his first two games back. Padres catchers are the worst-hitting lot in the majors this season, so if Bard can get back to last year's level, when he hit .285/.364/.404, it would be a huge help for the moribund Padres attack.

In last night's 8-5 win, Padres reliever Mike Adams threw a clean inning of relief, his 10th consecutive scoreless outing. Over his last 15 appearances, Adams has given up only one run in 17 2/3 innings. It seems that every season an unknown reliever steps up to have a fantastic season in his first year with San Diego-Scott Linebrink in '03, Akinori Otsuka in '04, Clay Hensley in '05, Cla Meredith in '06, Heath Bell last season-and Adams appears to be the man in '08. Adams threw all of 2 1/3 major league innings from 2006-07, a period in which he bounced between four organizations and underwent three microfracture knee surgeries, which knocked him out for all of last season. Now he is back, leading the Padres in ARP after settling into the seventh-inning role, and serving as another example of how savvy the Padres are in their ability to patch together a strong pen with freely-available talent.

Matchup: Giants (44-61) at Dodgers (52-53), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Matt Cain (141 1/3 IP, 4.01 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 130 K) vs. Jason Johnson (113, 4.38, 1.39, 95-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 44-61 (419 RS, 499 RA); Los Angeles, 54-51 (443 RS, 429 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #26; Los Angeles, #17
Prospectus: Johnson's last major league start came in 2006, when he bounced from Cleveland to Boston to Cincinnati. A journeyman right-hander, Johnson is perhaps best known for being the first major league player granted permission to use an insulin pump on the diamond (to combat his diabetes), which he wears on his belt. Rather than try to catch on with another major league club last season, Johnson took a $3 million one-year deal to pitch in Japan for the Seibu Lions. He returned stateside this season on a minor league contract with Los Angeles, and upon pitching well at hitter-friendly Las Vegas was promoted to the Dodgers bullpen, then advanced into the rotation due to Joe Torre's desire to have Chan Ho Park in a late relief role following Takashi Saito's injury.

Johnson will be pitching in front of a new infield defense, as Casey Blake has taken over at third base from Blake DeWitt and Andy LaRoche. Blake's bat is definitely an upgrade on DeWitt's (whether it's also better than LaRoche's is a different story), but Los Angeles will take a hit in its defense at the hot corner. While DeWitt was slumping badly at the plate lately, by most metrics he has played at a near-Gold Glove level this season. Amongst the 24 qualifying third basemen, DeWitt is first in Range Factor and seventh in Zone Rating; the 34-year-old Blake is 15th and 16th, respectively, and has made 12 errors in 653 innings to DeWitt's eight in 690. After a decent season in his first full year at the position in 2003 (3.8 SFR), Blake rated as the second-worst third baseman in baseball the next year (-11.5 SFR), prompting the Indians to move him to the outfield for the '05 and '06 campaigns. Blake was back at third last year and was again adequate, with a 1.8 SFR. While Blake might deliver a similar performance with Los Angeles, the Dodgers were not a strong defensive team before his arrival, ranking 20th in the majors in efficiency, and given the age and mediocrity of the team's key infield defenders-34-year-old shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is already hurt after two weeks at the position, and 40-year-old second baseman Jeff Kent has seen his range decline substantially in the last two seasons-it is worth wondering whether the Dodgers are letting too many ground balls get through. At least when sinkerballer Derek Lowe takes the mound, Los Angeles should consider using DeWitt at third base.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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