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August 3, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (53-56) at Red Sox (63-48), 1:35 p.m. EDT
Probable Starters: Dallas Braden 26 2/3 IP, 4.39 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (100 2/3, 3.31, 1.38, 86)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 58-51 (452 RS, 422 RA); Boston, 65-46 (522 RS, 459 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #12; Boston, #2
Prospectus: Dice-K continues to post impressive surface numbers, with a low line-against on the year (.214/.327/.329) and a 3.04 ERA and 7.7 K/9. There are some issues with his performance that make his current record and ERA look like the results of a good amount of luck, though. Matsuzaka has a 5.5 BB/9 on the season, and this is something that hasn't improved since he returned from injury; since June 21 when he came off of the disabled list, Dice-K has walked 5.9 hitters per nine, yet posted an ERA of 3.93. Part of the reason for this is the lack of hits that have come against him, especially hits for extra bases. His BABIP is a well below-average .261; given his line drive rate of 18.4 percent, Matsuzaka should have a BABIP of .304. He can thank Boston's defense, one that's catching 71 percent of all balls in play (and that was with Manny Ramirez patrolling left field). As for the balls-in-play scatteration, 17 percent have been grounders to the left side for a .196 batting average, 20 percent have been grounders to the right side for a .218 batting average, 13 percent have been infield popups, and Matsuzaka has yet to allow a home run to left field on the year. All of this has contributed to that low BABIP, and despite Boston's defensive excellence, that number should see some regression as the year moves forward.

One other thing to note with Matsuzaka's performance is that he's been a much better pitcher earlier in his pitch count:


Pitches    AVG/ OBP/ SLG
01-15     .186/.333/.372
16-30     .269/.400/.365
31-45     .140/.265/.158
46-60     .137/.274/.176
61-75     .188/.316/.250
76-90     .250/.361/.404
91-105    .286/.312/.612
106-120   .267/.389/.267

Dice-K has only faced 18 hitters from pitches 106-120, so that sample is not as important as the others. Matsuzaka dominates during the earlier portions of the game, but once he's about three-fourths of the way through, the wheels start to come off. His performance suffers with fatigue, and much of that fatigue is self-inflicted, given his P/PA (4.0) and his tendency to waste pitches. Via Inside Edge, we can see that some of Matsuzaka's favorite places to throw the ball are outside the strike zone:

The Red Sox need to work with Matsuzaka to stop wasting so many pitches over the course of an at-bat, because it racks up his pitch count and taxes the bullpen. If Matsuzaka were able to spread his more effective early offerings over more plate appearances, he'd be able to go deeper into games and would more than likely drop his walk rate, the only severe negative in an otherwise quality line.

Matchup: Indians (48-61) at Twins (61-49), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Matt Ginter (15 IP, 4.20 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 9 K) vs. Francisco Liriano (10 1/3, 11.32, 2.71, 7)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 55-54 (509 RS, 503 RA); Minnesota, 58-52 (541 RS, 512 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #20; Minnesota, #15
Prospectus: Liriano has finally been freed from Triple-A, and he's here to help the Twins win the AL Central divisional crown. His three April starts were dreadful-his fastball velocity was down from 95 to 90 mph, and his slider had lost bite and velocity as well, coming in below 80 mph instead of the mid- to high-80s slider he had previously. However, Liriano did his time in the minors and looks as ready as can be to face major league hittersm at least more so than Livan Hernandez had been this year. The lefty threw 118 innings for Rochester, with 113 strikeouts against 31 walks and 0.6 HR/9, and was outright ridiculous during his last 10 starts: 73 K in 64 2/3 innings, nine walks, and just a 2.51 ERA. All the White Sox did to help themselves at the trade deadline was to acquire Ken Griffey Jr., although it seems odd to say "that's it?" in regards to a future Hall of Famer. However, Griffey etched his name into history long before 2008, and the call-up of Liriano means plenty to a Twins team that needs whatever help it can get, especially since they avoided upgrading through trade themselves.

Liriano is going to take on an Indians lineup that has seen better days: Cleveland has a .256 EqA, but that includes the work of the departed Casey Blake, owner of a .284 EqA that was second-highest among regulars while with the Tribe. Liriano is going to need to hope that his strikeout stuff is available despite the Indians punchless approach, as the Twins defense (21nd in Defensive Efficiency this year, with 69.4 percent of balls in play converted into outs) isn't doing its pitchers any favors. During his healthier days Liriano was the kind of guy whose performance could transcend a poor defense; we'll see if he's ready for that kind of dominance this afternoon.

Matchup: White Sox (61-48) at Royals (51-60), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Clayton Richard (8 2/3 IP, 10.34 RA, 1.96 WHIP, 10 K) vs. Zack Greinke (140 1/3, 4.04, 1.33, 125)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 62-47 (550 RS, 474 RA); Kansas City, 48-63 (465 RS, 539 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Kansas City, #23
Prospectus: Via SNLVAR, Greinke has been the 17th most valuable starter in the American League this year, impressive for a young pitcher working in front of a defense in the bottom third of the league in Defensive Efficiency. Even more impressive is that Greinke has given up just one unearned run this season, despite the Royals' ineptitude with the leather. If they get to the ball they're doing well at making the play, and not forcing opportunities for unearned runs to score. They've made 58 errors on the year, tied for the sixth least in the majors, and their fielding percentage is .986, seventh in the majors. If Fielding Percentage and Errors were the way to gauge a team's defense, then the Royals would be a fine fielding club. Indeed, since Defensive Efficiency is more accurate at portraying a team's fielding prowess-including the balls a team should succeed on is one of those things that makes so much sense, it's a shame it wasn't implemented sooner-it's easy to see why, despite only giving up one unearned run, Greinke is still adversely affected by the fielders behind him. His BABIP of .319 isn't bad, but it's well ahead of where he should be given his liner rate of 17.3 percent. As a result, his BABIP should be closer to .293, a 26-point difference that any pitcher would love to lop off. For Greinke, this adjustment would give him an opponent line of .245/.296/.401, rather than his actual .266/.319/.427. That's the kind of change that could make Greinke a top-10 instead of a top-20 starter over a full season, as a sub-.300 OBP can take you a long way, especially when you're a pitcher who doesn't rely on his defense to succeed.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (57-53) at Dodgers (55-55), 1:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Doug Davis (88 2/3 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Jason Johnson (13, 1.38, 0.92, 5)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 58-52 (495 RS, 468 RA); Los Angeles, 57-53 (455 RS, 435 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #9; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: Acquiring Manny Ramirez was a start towards making a serious run at both the NL West and October baseball, but the Dodgers may have forgotten to acquire another useful starter during their shopping spree. Today they send Jason Johnson to the mound as a starter for the second time this season, thanks to Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt both spending time on the DL. Last time out, in his first start in the majors since 2006, Johnson went six innings with three strikeouts, no walks, no runs allowed, 11 ground balls, and three fly balls over 76 pitches, while scattering five hits. Of course, this was against the hapless Giants, who finished the month of July with a team line of .230/.280/.321-that's an OPS of 601, not much of an improvement over their earlier noteworthy performance-but today's opponent hasn't been that much better over the course of the season, with a .251 team EqA that's just three points better than the Giants. They went in opposite directions in July though, with the D'backs picking up the pace for a .272/.335/.421 month; that's the kind of thing that could give Jason Johnson his first real challenge during his return to the major leagues.

Johnson was successful at Triple-A before returning to the majors, but the significance of that is unclear. There are plenty of pitchers who can't cut it in the majors, but who cut minor league lineups to ribbons on a weekly basis, and considering the 34-year-old Johnson's performance prior to his renaissance at Triple-A for the Dodgers this year, he was a low-strikeout guy who depended on his defense to get by. The Dodgers are ranked 18th in Defensive Efficiency, and that's a number that should go backward before it moves forward, given their rotating non-shortstops at shortstop and the addition of Manny Ramirez' glove to the fold in left, so expecting help from that corner may be a bit much. Johnson's going to have to go it alone; we'll find out today against a solid D'backs lineup if he's up to the task.

Matchup: Phillies (60-50) at Cardinals (62-51), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Brett Myers (113 2/3 IP, 5.86 RA, 1.51 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (122, 4.28, 1.31, 84)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 62-48 (551 RS, 476 RA); St. Louis, 59-54 (538 RS, 508 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #8; St. Louis, #14
Prospectus: It may be tough to believe given the way the press raves about Philadelphia, but the Cardinals have had the better offense this year, with a .276 team EqA a few points ahead of the Phillies' mark of .271. Tonight showcases the first- and third-best offenses in the National League by EqA, and the second- and fourth-best offenses as measured by runs scored. Given the rotations of both clubs, they have needed the offenses to perform in order to keep the run differentials and records they have. The Cards hitters have a line of .275/.348/.426, but their pitchers have allowed .273/.337/.437 from opponents, keeping their offense from leading the team to an easy divisional win. The Phillies have the same problem, with the team hitting .257/.333/.444 and the pitching staff giving up a line of .260/.331/.419. Most of that damage has come from the rotation in Philadelphia, one that has given up a .267/.331/.446 line; that's a far cry from the excellence of the bullpen (.245/.330/.362). The Phillies are lucky to have such a solid pen, because if it were just up to the rotation and the lineup, the team would be treading closer to .500 and wouldn't be as much of a factor in the tight NL East and wild-card races this year.

As for what this means in tonight's contest, we have two evenly-matched offenses and pitching staffs squaring off in a game with playoff significance. The Phillies are currently in first place in the NL East, but have a worse winning percentage (by .004) than tonight's opponent, and hold just a 1 1/2-game lead over the restocked Marlins, and a two-game lead over the Mets. If the season ended today, the Cards would be out of the playoffs, sitting one game back of the Brewers for the wild card, while the Phillies would be in, but given how close the races are and how much has changed during the past month-plus-the Mets with their new coaching staff, the NL Central teams with their new aces, the Marlins with their restocked rotation-neither team can afford to give up any ground with just one-third of the season left to play.

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