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August 18, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (71-53) at Orioles (60-63), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (160 2/3 IP, 3.42 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 109 K) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (170, 3.44, 1.15, 106)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 73-51 (637 RS, 523 RA); Baltimore, 62-61 (634 RS, 628 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Baltimore, #20
Prospectus: The Orioles may have one of the worst rotations in the majors this year—with a SNLVAR mark of 8.3 as a club, they rank 28th in the majors and 13th in the AL. Today's starter is more the exception than part of the problem, as Guthrie has 4.9 SNLVAR, which not only tops the O's but also puts him fourth in the American League, and he's over 2 wins better than the next most-productive Oriole, Daniel Cabrera. This is not to say his season doesn't have its own issues, as Guthrie has outperformed expectations thanks to a lower than normal BABIP. His FIP is 4.10, over a half-run better than his RA and almost a full run over his actual ERA; given his BABIP is a below-average .263—well below the expectations set by his 18.4 percent line-drive rate—his FIP is a solid estimate of where he should be.

Baltimore's defense sits around the middle of the league with 70.2 percent of balls in play converted into outs—one of this club's stronger points—and it's responsible for Guthrie's little extra boost of productivity. Specifically, he's had his success on ground balls, with 24.1 percent of all balls grounded into play to the left side of the infield (.215 AVG) and 20.9 percent to the right side (.159). Adam Jones was doing his part in center, as he leads the league in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) and has held opponents to a .348 batting average in center when Guthrie starts. That latter fact is especially impressive given that's the spot Guthrie induces his largest number of balls in play, and batting averages to the outfield are higher than their infield cousins. Guthrie's more of an average G/F pitcher now (1.2), so having someone of Jones' defensive caliber behind him has been a boon, but in Jones' absence, creates concern.

Matchup: Angels (76-56) at Rays (75-48), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jon Garland (152 IP, 4.68 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (147, 4.71, 1.31, 92)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 67-55 (576 RS, 514 RA); Tampa Bay, 69-54 (564 RS, 491 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #5; Tampa Bay, #3
Prospectus: Via Hit List, this is the one game to watch today if you have just three hours to spare, as it's the matchup featuring two teams from the top five taking each other on. The Rays' Sonnanstine has been criticized for not being as productive as his record, though that's a bit misleading when you take a deeper look into the numbers. Yes, his 4.35 ERA seems a bit high for a pitcher leading the team in wins, but if Sonnanstine's ERA was where it is supposed to be, no one would be questioning his performance. The young righty's expected ERA is 3.50, an impressive figure resulting from two things: first, Sonnanstine's BABIP is .323, well above his expected figure of .298 (derived from his 17.8 percent liner rate). That's surprising, given the quality of the defense in Tampa Bay this year, but Sonnanstine has received the short end of the defensive stick as far as the team's starters goes. Second, he has stranded just 66.4 percent of his runners on base, a well below average mark. This may partially be his own doing, and not just the defense, as he's given up a .300/.326/.447 line with runners on and a .277/.302/.445 line with none on base, but if the Rays' fielders were getting to more of the balls in play, there wouldn't be a discussion to have in the first place. Either way, Sonnanstine has been a better pitcher than his ERA indicates if for no other reason than the BABIP disparity, and if the Rays' defense played as well behind him as it did for their other pitchers, we would see a significant change in his ERA and opponent lines.

Matchup: Astros (63-61) at Brewers (71-54), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Randy Wolf (142 IP, 5.01 RA, 1.45 WHIP, 124 K) vs. CC Sabathia (186 1/3, 3.24, 1.14, 183)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 59-65 (565 RS, 599 RA); Milwaukee, 67-58 (584 RS, 538 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #21; Milwaukee, #6
Prospectus: April 16 seems like a long time ago when you look at how Sabathia has pitched since, doesn't it? On April 16, many analysts were wondering what was wrong with the Tribe's ace, as he had an ERA of 13.50, as many walks as strikeouts, and was giving up 2.5 homers per nine. He was also just coming off of a shellacking at the hands of the Tigers, when he walked five and gave up nine runs and two homers in just four innings. That would be the end of the imposing lefty's struggles, as he has struck out 9.4 batters per nine, with 1.7 walks and 0.7 homers per nine, and an ERA of 2.16 during his remaining 104 1/3 innings with the Indians. A move to the National League hasn't changed a thing for CC, who finds himself with a 7-0 record since the swap thanks to 8.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9, and a minuscule ERA of 1.55. His ERA is over 10 runs lower than it was four months ago, which isn't that hard to believe looking at his brilliant numbers for both of his clubs since then.

Sabathia has seven complete games along with four shutouts, and has quality starts in 18 of his 22 turns in the rotation since his mid-April reversal of fortune. He's rapidly approaching 200 innings with a month and a half to go, and the Brewers' reliance on getting more out of him down the stretch means that it will be interesting to see if he seems as worn out at season's end as he was last October, especially given that his inning total has not been reduced significantly after his 1980s-like workload last year.

Matchup: Tigers (60-64) at Rangers (62-63), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Kenny Rogers (149 IP, 5.38 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Scott Feldman (114 2/3, 6.20, 1.46, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 63-61 (624 RS, 615 RA); Texas, 58-67 (695 RS, 757 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Texas, #22
Prospectus: Scott Feldman returns to the mound tonight for the first time since giving up 12 runs to the Red Sox in 2 2/3 innings on August 12. Luckily for Feldman's ERA, only six of those runs were earned, but his Game Score was still a 1, and he still managed to throw a full game's worth of pitches (94, against 22 batters faced) despite failing to make it through three full frames. If nothing else, Feldman (and the Rangers' impressive offensive showing after Feldman was driven from the mound) helped to move the Texas club closer to becoming one of the few 900 runs scored, 900 runs allowed teams. That's what I was thinking of as I watched the fireworks, and hoped that the score wouldn't stop at just 19-17. After all, there are even fewer teams who have made it to the 950/950 realm, and it would give the otherwise forgettable 2008 Rangers a reason to become a footnote in statistical oddity history.

As for the Tigers, they seemingly can't crawl all that far from .500, and their run differential (+9) tells us that we probably won't see them escaping that realm going forward. They have 10 fewer wins than both the White Sox and Twins, and though their offense is potent enough—they rank third in the American League in EqA—the pitching staff is still not good enough. They are just shy of cracking 10 SNVLAR on the season, putting them in the bottom third of the majors as a club, and the bullpen continues to ruin any party the offense starts. The relief corps has a 1.975 WXRL total, which would be far more embarrassing if the Indians weren't working on a historically awful year of their own, and the once Putz-less Mariners had their guy at the back of their bullpen all year.

Matchup: Athletics (56-67) at Twins (70-53), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Justin Duchscherer (139 IP, 2.91 RA, 0.99 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Nick Blackburn (144 2/3, 4.42, 1.30, 76)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 61-62 (488 RS, 496 RA); Minnesota, 66-57 (623 RS, 573 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #17; Minnesota, #14
Prospectus: Remember when the Athletics were just a few games behind the first-place Angels, back at the beginning of July? That's a distant memory at this point, with Oakland disassembling their team in order to build for the future—not that this is a bad thing, given the surge the Angels went on at the same time that the Athletics were falling back. Since July 1, the A's have seen their record drop from a solid 45-38 to today's 56-67 mark. Their run differential has taken a hit during this time as well, going from +62 to -8 on the year, thanks to a stretch where they were outscored 199 to 122. Though the team's defense is still fantastic, leading the league in Defensive Efficiency, the bullpen is in the middle of the pack, and the rotation has struggled to stay atop the SNLVAR leaderboard, falling to eighth in the majors during this short stretch of time. That doesn't tell the whole story of course—Rich Harden and Joe Blanton's contributions are still included in those figures—but looking at the opposition's batting line during this stretch is telling: the rotation has given up a .266/.351/.444 showing since July 1. Considering the defensive abilities of the club and the offense-reducing tendencies of their home park, that's far too much for their weak offense to overcome. This is a team that is nowhere near as good as their expected record tells you they are, thanks to the cosmetic changes and the initial makeup of the lineup to begin with. With a .244 club EqA—the third-worst team mark in the majors, ahead of only the hapless Royals and Nationals—Oakland could not afford to lose anything on the pitching side of things if they wanted to finish the year with a respectable showing.

Related Content:  A's,  Jeremy Guthrie,  Fourth Of July,  Stretch Run

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