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August 20, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mariners (46-79) at White Sox (72-53), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: R.A. Dickey (97 IP, 4.92 RA, 1.59 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Gavin Floyd (146 1/3, 4.86, 1.26, 103)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 52-73 (521 RS, 628 RA); Chicago, 73-52 (644 RS, 539 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #26; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: It's somewhat surprising that Gavin Floyd has not been smacked around by regression yet this season, but here we are on August 20, and his overall numbers still look impressive despite peripherals that suggest they should be otherwise. Floyd is striking out 6.3 hitters per nine, only slightly above average for a starter in the AL (average is 6.1 K/9), and he's walking 3.3 per nine (unintentionally), a good deal worse than average (2.9 BB/9); he's also giving up 1.4 homers per nine. His QERA is 4.94, 1.84 runs higher than his actual ERA, and QERA does not take home runs into account, so his expected ERA should be a bit higher still. His FIP is 5.00, confirming that he is indeed well above expectations, thanks to a .291 BABIP that is 47 points below expectations given his 17.8 percent liner rate.

This is not something that should have happened either, as Chicago is converting 70.1 percent of balls in play into outs, yet for Floyd, they have converted 74.9 percent, a significant difference, especially when the top-ranked team via Defensive Efficiency is at 71.8 percent. Since Floyd is allowing the opposition to slug .418 against him (on a .230 batting average against), the last thing he needs is for 47 points of BABIP to show up and ruin his day; that would put his line much closer to .260/.350/.454. Whatever lucky charm or incantation he has used has been effective during the first five months of the season, but at some point, the White Sox are in danger of finding out that Floyd is not the pitcher he appears to be.

Matchup: Royals (55-70) at Indians (57-67), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Gil Meche (159 IP, 4.25 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 129 K) vs. Zach Jackson (8 2/3, 5.19, 1.85, 2)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 51-74 (514 RS, 628 RA); Cleveland, 63-61 (586 RS, 576 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: Meche struggled early in the season, posting a 7.22 ERA over his first six starts thanks to four walks and 1.6 homers per nine, and an opponents' line of .314/.377/.526. Considering his success in 2007 was somewhat unexpected-Meche and the Royals were both ridiculed for his free-agent contract prior to that season by many analysts-many felt that his April was the true Meche, despite the limited sample. Since that time, however, we have seen Gilgameche return to claim his spot near the top of the Royals rotation: he's allowed a line of just .235/.299/.354 since May 1, with a 3.30 ERA, 7.6 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine, and just 0.6 homers per over his last 125 1/3 innings pitched. His FIP is now a low 3.73 as well, meaning he should have an ERA a half-run lower than what he has. His .303 BABIP is a tad below expectations, given his 21.8 percent liner rate, but that rate is also above what we normally see from Meche, and if he were playing in front of someone besides the Royals' statuesque defensive unit, we wouldn't be surprised to have him outperform those expectations. Meche leans towards being a fly-ball pitcher, as he has a 1.0 for G/F ratio, a tick below average; despite all the fly balls, he doesn't allow very many popups or homers, but has been seeing the balls go shallow enough that even the Royals defense can snag them. Opponents are hitting .404 on balls to center and .394 on balls to right; those numbers seem high, but as far as batting averages on liners and fly balls go, they aren't all that impressive, and are enough to help him keep his BABIP around the average in spite of the defense behind him.

Matchup: Yankees (66-59) at Blue Jays (65-60), 7:07 p.m. EDT
Probable Starters: Andy Pettitte (163 1/3 IP, 4.68 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 126 K) vs. David Purcey (30 1/3, 5.93, 1.45, 23)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 67-58 (602 RS, 556 RA); Toronto, 68-57 (539 RS, 488 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #8; Toronto, #11
Prospectus: A Jays win today could even up these two clubs in the standings, a surprising turn of events given the late day of the season and the expectations both had coming in. The Yankees have had to deal with injury after injury, but they have also spent plenty of time harvesting the farm and shopping around in order to fill those holes; whether they have lost 11 games' worth of production from these injuries-that's the distance they sit back from the first-place Rays-is something that will have to be analyzed once the season is complete and the injury/replacement value is tallied, but regardless, here they are fighting with a division rival to hold on to their third-place standing.

Looking at the expected records, the Jays have been the better club, but not by much, with only one win and one loss separating the two. The Yankees have reached that record on the strength of their offense, scoring 4.8 runs per game while allowing an ugly 4.4, while the Jays have taken the opposite approach, scoring just 4.3 runs per game but holding opponents to a meager 3.9 per game, the lowest total in the American League and just a smidge ahead of the first-place Rays' 3.97 showing. Toronto has the third-most effective defense in the league, converting 71 percent of all balls in play into outs, and they rank second in the AL with 904 strikeouts as well. Since they are the fifth-stingiest club for free passes and have also given up the third-fewest homers, it's easy to see why the pitching has done as well as it has. Not only is the defense talented, but the rotation is easily one of the most productive units in the majors. They do lack the punch in their lineup to deal with the more well-rounded teams in the division, but if they were anywhere else in the league, they might have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, and that includes the AL West-remember, the Angels' expected record is 68-56, just one game in the loss column ahead of the Jays' expected record, and a solid showing during the rest of the week could plop them into the top ten in Hit List, an impressive feat for a team that's just fourth in its own division.

Matchup: Braves (56-70) at Mets (69-57), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (151 1/3 IP, 3.63 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 112 K) vs. Mike Pelfrey (145, 4.03, 1.44, 83)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 63-63 (569 RS, 573 RA); New York, 69-57 (617 RS, 554 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #16; New York, #7
Prospectus: Atlanta sits at a disappointing 56-70 despite an expected record that puts them at .500 and a Hit List position that belies their place in the standings. The team's statistical rankings alone tells us they should have a better view in the NL East than they do, as their rotation is ranked ninth in the NL, just four wins above replacement behind the leading Brewers, and with more than twice as much SNLVAR as the last-place Pirates. Their lineup is one of their strong points, ranked sixth in the NL with an above-average .263 team EqA-an impressive showing considering they have had to deal with Jeff Francoeur's .230/.287/.354 line from right field in 10.3 percent of their plate appearances. The defense is also a positive, as they have converted an above-average 70.5 percent of balls in play into outs, good for fifth in the NL.

What's the problem with this team, then, that makes the whole seem to be less than the sum of its parts? The bullpen is the main issue, as its performance has been savage, costing the Braves plenty of wins. They rank 24th in the majors in WXRL with 4.208, behind teams like Cincinnati, Colorado, and just ahead of the Giants. That's not a good way to build a contender considering that they do not excel in any one other area, unlike the Red Sox and Cardinals, two contending clubs that rank near them. Will Ohman has been their most productive reliever, with 1.793 WXRL; that may be impressive for a specialist, but for the leading pitcher on the club, that's a serious issue that takes the mystery out of the Braves' bad-luck situation. Granted, they had more productive possibilities on paper before the season, but Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano have dealt with (and continue to deal with, in Soriano's case) injuries that helped keep the pen from gelling into a reliable unit.

Matchup: Pirates (57-69) at Cardinals (70-58), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jason Davis (20 IP, 2.70 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 9 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (142 1/3, 3.92, 1.26, 95)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 55-71 (587 RS, 672 RA); St. Louis, 68-60 (608 RS, 566 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #28; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: The Cardinals are scoring 4.8 runs per game, and rank first in the National League with a .276 team EqA. Their offense is the reason they are still in this thing, and it's a fascinating unit to analyze. Their best hitter, Albert Pujols, leads the majors in VORP despite losing a few weeks to injury. Ryan Ludwick, of all people, is ranked eighth in the National League in VORP, and is nearly five wins above replacement with the bat, putting him above players like David Wright, Ryan Braun, and Prince Fielder in terms of 2008 production. Troy Glaus has managed to squeeze another solid campaign out of his injury-riddled career, and is currently hitting .276/.375/.489. Rick Ankiel rounds out the Cards' big four with his .277/.350/.528 showing, building upon his surprise 2007 campaign.

The club's second rank hasn't hurt them any either. Yadier Molina has turned in an impressive season, hitting .301/.345/.382; that's not too shabby for a catcher, especially coming from a Molina brother. Even Braden Looper has jumped into the action with 8.1 VORP at the plate and a .298/.353/.362 line, in addition to his pitching contributions. With a nod to Skip Schumaker's solid season as well, the Cardinals have thus been able to overcome the offensive deficiencies of Chris Duncan (.248/.346/.365), Adam Kennedy (.278/.320/.339), and Cesar Izturis (.252/.317/.307). Ranked sixth in the NL in SNLVAR, their rotation is just good enough that a hot streak by the offense could carry them into and through October, though they have to get ahead of the wild card-leading Brewers if we want to further that discussion.

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