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August 17, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cubs (75-48) at Marlins (64-60), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ryan Dempster (157 1/3 IP, 3.32 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 139 K) vs. Chris Volstad (38 2/3, 3.26, 1.37, 26)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 77-46 (663 RS, 504 RA); Florida, 60-64 (577 RS, 601 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Florida, #18
Prospectus: Dempster faces his original team for the second time this season; the first time around he received a no-decision on July 25 in a game that Chicago lost 3-2. The Marlins mustered just one run against Dempster in six innings, but the right-hander walked a season-high six batters and struck out six. While most peripheral statistics can be expected to degrade when a pitcher moves from relief to a starting role, a study done on the effects of the transition by Keith Woolner and Nate Silver in 2005 found that walks actually decrease in the switch, and Dempster's numbers have held true to that trend, for he has dropped his walk rate from 4.0 BB/9 out of the pen last year to 3.5 BB/9 so far in '08. Dempster has reversed the other trends that hold true in the vast majority of relief-to-starter conversions, dropping his hit and homer rates while bumping up his strikeouts. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Dempster's Cy Young-caliber season is that drop in hit rate, down to 6.9 H/9, the lowest of all National League ERA qualifiers. In the last 50 years, there have been just four Cubs pitchers to finish a qualifying season with less than seven hits allowed per nine: Carlos Zambrano turned in two such campaigns from 2005-06, Kerry Wood did so three times in '98, '01, and '03, while Greg Maddux accomplished it in '92 and Dick Ellsworth as well in '63. Dempster's BABIP is down at .258, the third-lowest mark in the NL, and it's hard to think that figure doesn't have at least something to do with the deception that the veteran right-hander added to his delivery in spring training. Dempster began utilizing an odd-looking flip-flop motion with his glove prior to delivering his pitches to keep from tipping his splitter, a quirk which may also serve to throw off the hitter's ability to pick up his release point, as Joe Morgan pointed out on a recent Sunday Night Baseball telecast.

Matchup: Royals (55-68) at Yankees (65-58), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Bannister (139 1/3 IP, 5.75 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Mike Mussina (147 1/3, 3.91, 1.21, 101)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 51-72 (504 RS, 604 RA); New York, 65-58 (586 RS, 548 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; New York, #8
Prospectus: Both of these teams have started rookie center fielders in the first two games of this series-Mitch Maier for the Royals, and Brett Gardner for the Yankees. Gardner was called up from Triple-A Scranton on Friday to replace the demoted Melky Cabrera, and he came through with the game-winning single in the bottom of the 13th yesterday afternoon, his second hit this season to win a game in extra-innings (on July 6 his single up the middle beat the Red Sox and Jonathan Papelbon in the 10th). Gardner didn't hit much at all in his first stint with the Yankees this year, picking up eight singles and a double in 59 at-bats, but the 24-year-old outfielder has shown outstanding on-base skills in the minors. He walked 70 times against 76 strikeouts to post a .414 OBP and a .294 EqA, the seventh-best EqA in the International League. Gardner's primary asset is his speed, which according to Kevin Goldstein rates as an 80, tops on the scouting scale. Gardner plays an outstanding outfield and has stolen 45 bases between Triple-A and the majors while getting caught nine times, an 82 percent success rate.

Maier was a first-round draft pick back in 2003, the 30th overall selection, and rated as the 10th-best prospect in the Royals organization prior to this season. The good news is that, with three more hits in yesterday's game, Maier is batting .352 (19-for-54) in his first extended major league action since getting called up from Triple-A Omaha at the end of July. In Baseball Prospectus 2008, it was written that "How Maier hits in his next 50 major league plate appearances could determine whether he winds up with a ten-year career as a fourth outfielder, or spends the next decade busing around the minors. No pressure, kid." In terms of average, Maier has made that critical good first impression, but the bad news is that it has been a superficially strong impression; Maier has yet to record an extra-base hit with Kansas City between this year and last, a span of 73 plate appearances. Maier slugged .470 with a .154 ISO at Omaha this season, however, so some power should undoubtedly come before too long.

Matchup: Mets (67-56) at Pirates (55-68), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (168 IP, 3.32 RA, 1.17 WHIP, 141 K) vs. Jeff Karstens (22, 1.64, 0.96, 8) Pythagorean Record: New York, 67-56 (604 RS, 546 RA); Pittsburgh, 54-69 (578 RS, 665 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Pittsburgh, #28
Prospectus: The Mets bullpen has continued to disintegrate, giving up three runs in the ninth yesterday on the same day that the team got the news that closer Billy Wagner will not be ready to come off of the DL when eligible tomorrow. New York keeps on winning, however, picking up its fifth straight victory yesterday to move two games ahead of Philadelphia, which has lost five of six. The Mets have capitalized upon the weakest segment of their 2008 schedule, which began on Monday with the first of eight consecutive games against the Nationals (the worst-hitting team in the NL) and the Pirates (who have the worst pitching in the NL; Pittsburgh's 5.09 team ERA would be the worst mark for the franchise since 1953).

New York was carried offensively in yesterday's 7-4 win by Jose Reyes, who homered to lead off the game and added a run-scoring triple in the second. Reyes is having the best offensive season of his six-year career to this point, with new highs in OBP (.363) and slugging (.492), and is making up for 2007's second-half disappointment: he already has one more homer and two more triples than he hit all of last year. Reyes now has a major league-leading 14 three-baggers, two more than the entire Pirates team. The Bucs' total of 12 triples ranks last in the majors, and they also have stolen just 32 bases, eight fewer than Reyes has swiped on his own. With 66 career triples, Reyes already owns the Mets club record at the age of 25, busting past Mookie Wilson's total of 62 earlier this year. He also has a good chance of passing Wilson's franchise-leading total of 281 stolen bases before the year is done, needing just eight more thefts to do so. If New York's shortstop was playing defense like last year (when he ranked second among major league shortstops with 18.5 SFR), he would be a prime MVP candidate in the National League, but the numbers indicate that Reyes is having a down season with the glove-he ranks second-to-last in Range Factor among the 19 qualifying shortstops, and last in Zone Rating. Still, if he keeps hitting as he has and New York wins the NL East, Reyes could garner consideration for becoming the first Mets player to be named MVP, which would provide a fitting parallel to Jimmy Rollins having won the award last year.

Matchup: Mariners (46-76) at Twins (69-53), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ryan Feierabend (90 1/3 IP, 3.09 RA, 1.08 WHIP, 59 K--minors) vs. Glen Perkins (110 2/3, 4.23, 1.43, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 52-70 (508 RS, 599 RA); Minnesota, 65-57 (612 RS, 565 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #26; Minnesota, #14
Prospectus: Feierabend makes his 2008 debut tonight in search of the first quality start of his major league career. The left-hander first appeared in the majors two years ago at the age of 20, making four appearances and two starts, and then last year pitched in 13 games for the Mariners, including nine starts in which he gave up 43 runs in 37 2/3 innings. It appears that Feierabend may be ready to contribute for Seattle now, given his minor league returns this season. A mid-May elbow injury kept him out for about a month and a half and limited him to 13 starts for Triple-A Tacoma, but in those 13 starts he posted a 2.52 RA and 1.01 WHIP in 75 innings, a substantial improvement upon the 4.74 RA/1.50 WHIP he amassed in 108 1/3 innings with the Rainiers last season. Feierabend doesn't throw very hard and his pitches do not earn top grades-Dan Fox found in his Pitch f/x research that Feierabend had one of the lowest "Fish" ratings (a measurement of how often a pitcher gets the batter to swing at an offering outside the zone) of any major league pitcher last year, indicating a lack of deceptive stuff. However, Feierabend has shown this season that he clearly knows how to get hitters out. He is also a relatively extreme fly-ball pitcher (as 10 homers in 49 1/3 innings last year will attest to), a trait which should play well over the long run in the expanses of Safeco Field.

After winning three straight, the Twins remain deadlocked with Chicago atop the AL Central, with each team having 40 games remaining. The playoff odds report gives the Twins only a 34 percent chance in the head-to-head fight, due to Chicago's advantage in the third-order standings, which have the Twins as just a .500 team (571 AEqR, 571 AEqRA). In terms of the split remaining between home and away games, Minnesota is at a slight disadvantage, with 24 games on the road still to play, including a killer 14-game trip that begins Thursday, while Chicago has 20 each on the road and at home. The Twins do play 26 of their final 40 against losing teams-Chicago again has an even split in this department-and will end their season with a six-game homestand versus the White Sox and Kansas City.

Matchup: White Sox (69-53) at Athletics (56-66), 1:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (156 IP, 4.62 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 151 K) vs. Gio Gonzalez (123, 4.76, 1.36, 128-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 69-53 (613 RS, 533 RA); Oakland, 61-61 (487 RS, 483 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Oakland, #17
Prospectus: Gonzalez will oppose his former team in the rookie's third major league start, giving him the chance to beat the organization that traded him for the second time last offseason. The left-hander was shipped to Oakland along with Ryan Sweeney and Fautino De Los Santos in the deal for Nick Swisher, and has made two starts for the A's thus far, eking out his first major league victory on Tuesday by pitching five innings of one-run ball versus Tampa Bay.

Swisher, meanwhile, has had a down season in his first year with the Sox. He went 0-for-4 in yesterday afternoon's game, dropping his average down to .229. Coincidentally, six of the bottom seven in average among AL qualifiers will be participants in today's tilt:


Hitter        Team    PA   AVG
Daric Barton   OAK   381  .207
Jack Hannahan  OAK   404  .223
Gary Matthews  LAA   382  .224
Paul Konerko   CHW   391  .225
Nick Swisher   CHW   477  .229
Mark Ellis     OAK   488  .232
Jack Cust      OAK   452  .232

It's not for a lack of patience that these players haven't been able to pick up hits with any regularity: Swisher ranks first in the majors with 4.50 pitches seen per plate appearance, while Cust is second (4.32), Hannahan fifth in the AL (4.22), and Barton 19th in the AL (4.03). Despite that patience, the poor performance of Barton-his average would be the lowest by any qualifier since Scott Brosius hit .203 in 1997-has been one of the more inexplicable issues plaguing the A's offense this season. Barton hit .347 in a 72 at-bat September cup of coffee last year, and owns a .299 career average in 1,686 minor league at-bats, prompting PECOTA to forecast a .274 average for this season, with a low of .245. A late-August demotion to Triple-A did not help matters at all, as Barton collected just six hits in 31 at-bats for Sacramento, and has hit just .118 (6-for-51) in August after coming back up. At 22 years old, Barton is still one of the youngest position players in the American League, and unless his performance is masking an injury, he has too good of a minor league dossier not to start carving out a quality major league career next season.

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

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