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August 7, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Padres (44-70) at Mets (59-54), 12:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Banks (69 IP, 3.91 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Johan Santana (154, 3.33, 1.17, 128)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 45-69 (429 RS, 538 RA); New York, 60-53 (547 RS, 511 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; New York, #6
Prospectus: The Padres have not had many bright spots this year, but today's starter has been a solid surprise. Claimed off of waivers from the Blue Jays back in April, Banks has been plugged into the Padres' rotation, starting 10 games, making four quality starts, and posting a RA/9 under four. This is impressive when you take a look at his PECOTA forecasts, where only his 90th-percentile projection showed any optimism about his performance.

This isn't to say that there aren't any issues with his season. He's stranding 79 percent of his baserunners, not very much above average, but a large total for someone like Banks who doesn't punch out many hitters (4.4 K/9) and gives up his fair share of home runs (1.3 per nine). Because of the low strikeout totals, the high homer rate, and the out-of-place strand rate, his FIP is 4.79, which is in line with his 75th-percentile forecast. This is still good, but not as impressive as the sub-4.00 ERA he's currently sitting on. What he's giving up to the opposition make you wonder why he isn't pitching more poorly: he's allowing a .300/.349/.400 line at home-little power, as expected due to Petco's effects, but that average and on-base rate are higher than you'd like to see. On the road, he's giving up hits at a lesser rate (.262) but giving up far more in the power department (.452 slugging, .191 ISO). Most of the poor production came from his recent starts, with Banks getting hit for a .305/.357/.534 line everywhere since July 1. Pitching against the Mets' above-average lineup today is a good chance to show that July's poor showing was not the start of a trend for the 25-year-old, although if his road numbers are any indication of his current ability (or inability) to get major league hitters out, he might be in for a rough start.

Matchup: Marlins (60-54) at Phillies (62-51), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chris Volstad (27 2/3 IP, 3.57 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 21 K) vs. Cole Hamels (160 1/3, 3.82, 1.06, 140)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 55-59 (543 RS, 565 RA); Philadelphia, 64-49 (563 RS, 488 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: It's amazing that the Marlins are in the divisional and wild-card races considering how poor their rotation has been-they rank 15th in the NL, and 28th in the majors with 7.3 SNLVAR, but recent additions to the staff should help fix that problem. Josh Johnson (29 2/3, 7.0 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 4.05 FIP) and Anibal Sanchez (10 2/3, 5.1 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 5.13 FIP) returned from injury, and today's starter, Chris Volstad, was called up from Double-A to do his part. Volstad had pitched well during his second go-round at Double-A this season, with a 3.02 FIP in 91 innings pitched; despite 5.5 K/9, he didn't walk that many hitters (3.0), and didn't give up a single homer, and he has carried that success over to the majors during his first five appearances.

Volstad has been a ground-ball pitcher during his four starts, with a 2.2 G/F ratio and grounders on nearly 58 percent of his balls in play. The four-star prospect is 6'7", and uses his size to induce grounders-his fastball, one of three pitches he utilizes, has some sink to it, and his height means that his deliveries come in at a heavy downward plane for additional ground-ball goodness. As Kevin Goldstein noted during the preseason, Volstad lacks a true out pitch and has finesse-pitcher stuff, so he relies on these ground balls in order to succeed. That's a sketchy proposition for anyone pitching in front of the butchers' row the Marlins stock their infield with: Dan Uggla is ranked 14th of 20 second-base regulars in John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating, Hanley Ramirez is in the middle of the pack at shortstop (though that's a significant improvement over his past performances), Jorge Cantu is second-to-last among third basemen, and Mike Jacobs is dead last among first basemen. Whether or not Volstad can continue to succeed with that group behind him remains to be seen; he hasn't even cracked 30 major league innings yet, but this small sample may be a good sign, if nothing else.

Matchup: Dodgers (56-57) at Cardinals (64-52), 1:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Clayton Kershaw (53 2/3 IP, 4.02 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 43 K) vs. Kyle Lohse (144 2/3, 3.92, 1.28, 78)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 59-54 (474 RS, 453 RA); St. Louis, 61-55 (557 RS, 523 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #16; St. Louis, #14
Prospectus: Kershaw was sent back to the minors following his July 1 start, but the Dodgers recalled him after he gave up just a pair of runs over his next three starts for Double-A Jacksonville. The 20-year-old lefty struck out 12 while walking just four batters over 18 innings during that brief banishment, and though that sample is small, it's likely that the Dodgers just wanted to give Kershaw a chance to regain a bit of his confidence-he had been walking 5.6 hitters per nine and had been averaging under five innings per start (though part of that may also have been the Dodgers' caution with their young ace-in-waiting). He's improved his walk rate in the majors since his recall, though we're only talking about three starts and 15 innings. It's a good sign for Kershaw though, given that, at this age, most pitching prospects are in the low minors. If he's able to avoid handing out free passes at the alarming rate he did during his initial stint in the majors, he'll be a more valuable piece to the 2008 Dodgers. They're currently fighting for the divisional title in the NL West, and as a team employing Jason Johnson after the trade deadline, they need some help patching up the rotation. Today's start will be a challenge for the southpaw though, with the Cardinals trailing only Texas in team EqA this season.

Matchup: Nationals (42-71) at Rockies (52-63), 1:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Jason Bergmann (99 2/3 IP, 5.24 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 71 K) vs. Jeff Francis (100, 5.85, 1.55, 67)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 44-69 (428 RS, 595 RA); Colorado, 52-63 (535 RS, 589 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; Colorado, #22
Prospectus: The Nationals have finally improved beyond fielding a replacement-level lineup in terms of its performance, though only by a hair: they are currently at a .241 team EqA, worst in the majors, but are at least within hailing distance of second-worst San Francisco and their .244 mark. This is an improvement over their EqA as of June 22 when they were at .237, and that's just a notch above where they were back in May. At this rate, the Nationals will have an above-average lineup sometime during the 2012 season. The slight jump in team offense is due to a successful first week of August when they've hit .323/.394/.485; that 187 at-bat sample is in such stark contrast to their previous body of work (.241/.315/.360) that their EqA couldn't help but go up. Considering that this is one week's worth of games that is literally a blip on the stat sheet, and almost entirely the work of Austin Kearns (.474/.545/.474) and Lastings Milledge (.333/.455/.778) having ridiculous weeks, those hoping to see the Nationals fall back towards the level of "worst offensive club of the decade" have little to fear, as they will surely be back to their Deadball Era-style offense sooner than management would like. With the way the Giants have been "hitting" as of late, there's a chance we're going to see an epic showdown between two of the worst-hitting clubs in recent memory that will go down to the wire, as both teams try to avoid being the worst lineup assembled since the 1999 Minnesota Twins. Considering the clubs' respective Hit List ranks and actual spots in the standings, I guess any kind of competition is a good thing.

Matchup: Yankees (62-52) at Texas (60-55), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Mike Mussina (133 1/3 IP, 4.12 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 90 K) vs. Scott Feldman (105, 5.49, 1.38, 50)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 62-52 (554 RS, 503 RA); Texas, 55-60 (651 RS, 678 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Texas, #19
Prospectus: It's somewhat shocking to take a look at the standings today and see that the Rangers are all of 21/2 games behind the Yankees in the wild-card standings, and just six back of the leading Red Sox with under two months to play. Granted, they're playing over their heads, as their expected record is the reverse of their actual one, but there's no denying that this team's incredible offense has kept them interesting and above .500. They are now on pace to score over 900 runs (917) while allowing over 900 (955), making an early June observation more reality than statistical pipe dream. It's going to be tough for the Texas club to stay in this race, considering that their rotation is in a shambles, with Kevin Millwood, Jason Jennings, Kason Gabbard, and Eric Hurley all on the disabled list with various ills. Granted, Millwood had accounted for all of 0.7 SNLVAR over 20 starts, Gabbard was at 0.5 for his dozen outings, Hurley wasn't exactly lighting the league up during his transition to the majors, and Jason Jennings was still Jason Jennings, but losing four arms is a problem when you clearly have trouble finding any useful ones to begin with.

Calling Scott Feldman a bright spot may be a bit of a stretch, but you take what you can get when your entire team's SNLVAR is 1.5 over 100 starts, and tied with Zack Duke and Joel Pineiro's seasons. Along with Vicente Padilla, Feldman is one of two Rangers starters to earn a full win above replacement on the mound this season. It's somewhat surprising that he's succeeded this year, considering his G/F ratio dropped from the 2.8, 3.1, and 2.3 marks he's posted in limited playing time over the past three seasons, down to a very average 1.2 this year. He's unsurprisingly given up more homers, with 1.3 per nine and 11.9 homers per fly ball. He's been unlucky with stranding baserunners, only keeping 67 percent of them from scoring, but that's more than balanced by his .261 BABIP. Considering that he pitches half of his games in Arlington and has a liner rate of 18.7 percent (giving him an expected BABIP of .307), things may get worse before they get better unless he can regain his former ground-ball tendencies.

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