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August 19, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Braves (56-69) at Mets (68-57), 7:10 p.m. ED
Probable Starters: Jo-Jo Reyes (82 2/3 IP, 5.66 RA, 1.57 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Oliver Perez (142 2/3, 4.35, 1.35, 131)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 63-62 (566 RS, 566 RA); New York, 68-57 (610 RS, 551 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #16; New York, #7
Prospectus: Things were not looking good for the Mets as they entered the second half of the season; on July 1 they were 41-42, 3 games back of first place, and with a run differential that suited their record. Things would start to change for the club on the fifth of the month, in the second game of a four-game set against the then first-place Phillies. The Mets would win the last three games of that series, and go on to win another seven in a row to vault themselves back into contention. They're just 1½ games up on those same Phillies, but their play has improved dramatically over the course of the past six weeks. They've gone 21-15 since the beginning of July, with 224 runs scored against 161 allowed, jumping their run differential from a disappointing -4 to a solid +59. Improvements to the rotation since the axing of the former coaching staff have done wonders to keep this New York club in the race, as Pedro Martinez has managed to put together a few solid outings-though with far too many homers, despite the improvements elsewhere-while tonight's starter, Perez, has dropped his ERA in six of his previous eight starts, down from 4.98 (with a peak of 5.29 during this stretch) to his current 3.91 mark. Whether this resurgence is due to the influence of the new pitching coach, or to the talent inherent in the rotation, the Mets and their fans will take what they can get after a depressing start to the year following last September's disaster. If they can't maintain their turnaround and secure the divisional crown, they'll have to contend with Milwaukee and St. Louis for the wild card, and whether they have the horses to keep up with the Brat Pack (now with more bratwurst, and less Emilio Estevez) has been questionable ever since the Brewers added CC Sabathia to the fold.

Matchup: Tigers (61-64) at Rangers (62-64), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Armando Galarraga (133 1/3 IP, 3.71 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Vicente Padilla (137 1/3, 5.44, 1.48, 93)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 63-62 (632 RS, 622 RA); Texas, 58-68 (702 RS, 765 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #15; Texas, #22
Prospectus: Detroit's rotation has been full of disappointments this year, with Jeremy Bonderman's awful showing finishing with a season-ending DL visit, Justin Verlander's inability to pitch well with any consistency, Kenny Rogers showing his age, and Nate Robertson's perpetual problem of being the luckless Nate Robertson. It's easy to see why Detroit has failed to keep up in the AL Central race-especially when their rotation isn't even the weakest aspect of this one-dimensional team-but at least they've had Armando Galarraga to cheer them up every fifth day. He has been their most productive pitcher via SNLVAR, coming in nearly a win ahead of their second-best starter, Justin Verlander. He'll take on his former organization-another pitching-starved one, at that-in tonight's contest.

Galarraga is an average pitcher where his ground-ball/fly-ball distribution is concerned, and his success has been based on a solid strikeout rate mixed with decent walk totals and just one homer per nine on the year. His ERA is a bit ahead of where it should be given his average across-the-board peripherals, and his 4.26 FIP confirms this, at over a full run ahead of his current 3.11 ERA. That ERA is a product of his .249 BABIP, a well-below average figure that has allowed Galarraga to give up a meager opponent line of .217/.285/.372. This showing is a surprise, as the Tigers .701 Defensive Efficiency is run of the mill. Given all of this, it would not be a surprise for Galarraga to regress during the last month and a half of 2008, and it can be expected for 2009. Not that the aging Tigers need more to worry about in their future, but Galarraga's not being able to hold opponents to his current Johan Santana-esque opponent line in the future.

Matchup: Padres (48-76) at Diamondbacks (64-60), 6:40 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Josh Banks (78 1/3 IP, 4.60 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 39 K) vs. Doug Davis (99 2/3, 5.24, 1.54, 82)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 51-73 (474 RS, 579 RA); Arizona, 66-58 (572 RS, 536 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; Arizona, #13
Prospectus: Immediately following the All-Star break, I wrote a piece for the New York Sun detailing how the Diamondbacks were on pace to become the first team to finish the season in first place in their division with a record under .500. Technically, the 1994 Rangers are the only club to ever do so, but without a divisional crown on their head, they don't truly fit the bill. Since that time, the D'backs have gone out and made a few trades to improve their team, most notably their addition of Adam Dunn's bat to an offense-starved lineup. Yes, they've lost Orlando Hudson to injury, which doesn't do Brandon Webb any favors, but this is a team that has played better since the second half began. Since the break, the D'backs have improved their run differential from +3 to +36, thanks to a stretch where they went 17-11 and outscored opponents 145 to 112. Sadly for the D'backs, their closest rival for the divisional crown in Los Angeles did some summer shopping of their own, and came away with a few new bats to distance themselves from their sub-.500 past as well. Despite their improved play and upgrades to the team, the Snakes are further from securing the divisional title than they were when they were semi-pathetic to watch. The Dodgers and D'backs are now tied for first place with identical records, so the season begins again today for these two new-look late bloomers.

Matchup: Rockies (57-69) at Dodgers (64-60), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (153 IP, 4.36 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 122 K) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (139, 4.34, 1.22, 86)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 57-69 (591 RS, 654 RA); Los Angeles, 66-58 (527 RS, 492 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #23; Los Angeles, #12
Prospectus: The most significant transactions that the Dodgers made were the ones that brought them third baseman Casey Blake from the Indians and left fielder Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox. Blake has hit .278/.300/.500 during his time in Dodger blue, which thanks to the low OBP does not look all that appealing, but when you consider that he was replacing Blake Dewitt and his .257/.324/.364 line-and .200/.263/.240 showing from June through July-then you see why his presence is a boon to the Dodgers' lineup. Yes, they could have just plugged Andy LaRoche in there, but since it was clear that he was not considered the answer by those who make that sort of decision, Casey Blake became The Man, and LaRoche is now a building block for the Pirates. As for Ramirez, though he has been there a shorter time than Blake, his influence has been far greater, and he has been the focal point of the offense in his two-plus weeks with the Dodgers. The formerly-disgruntled left fielder has been pleased with his new surroundings, and has thanked the Dodgers for saving him from the mean streets of Boston by putting up a line of .424/.514/.780 (it looks like those days off did wonders for his knees after all). Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his departure, Ramirez and Blake are keys to Los Angeles' push to overtake the Diamondbacks in the NL West. Considering that Arizona is not just rolling over and playing dead anymore, they're going to need both of them at their best from here on out.

Matchup: Marlins (64-61) at Giants (53-71), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (155 1/3 IP, 4.17 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 126 K) vs. Kevin Correia (82 2/3, 5.55, 1.56, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 60-65 (579 RS, 610 RA); San Francisco, 51-73 (475 RS, 579 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; San Francisco, #27
Prospectus: Nolasco must read Prospectus Preview, and he must also be a quick learner. On June 15, prior to his against the Rays, I wrote about how he'd been outperforming his peripherals thus far, and that you could expect to see regression in the future. Rather than regress, Nolasco has not only matched his peripherals to his performance, but he's far exceeded them, and has been one of the best pitchers in the league since. At that time, he was striking out 5.4 hitters per nine and walking 2.9, and had a QERA of 5.33. Since then, he's put together an impressive stretch: a 3.24 ERA, a punchout per inning, just one walk and one home run per nine over 83 1/3 innings pitched. This isn't to say that the new Ricky Nolasco is the only one we're going to see from now on, but even if he is "only" capable of matching his current season line-7.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 3.88 ERA, 4.06 FIP- he's going to be a fun pitcher to watch, and a mainstay in the Marlins rotation as they attempt to build a winning club from their young and talented nucleus. He's also held opponents to a paltry .239/.258/.379, a vast improvement on the sketchier .269/.335/.486 showing from before. One thing that could push Nolasco over the edge into permanent stardom is if he can manage to maintain his homer rate at the same level he has in his last 83 1/3. For the year, he's at 1.3, a number resulting from the 1.0 of his successful stretch combined with the awful 1.6 from his previous 72 innings. If he's able to keep that homer rate down, he won't need to strike out a hitter per inning or walk just the one batter per nine to be successful.

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