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September 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rockies (67-79) at Braves (64-82), 7:00 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (173 2/3 IP, 4.61 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 143 K) vs. Jair Jurrjens (170 1/3, 4.07, 1.36, 126)
Pythagorean Record: Colorado, 67-79 (677 RS, 743 RA); Atlanta, 70-76 (677 RS, 703 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #19; Atlanta, #20
Prospectus: Colorado's pitching has not been of the same quality as that of their World Series-attending 2007 club, and it's the main reason they are not in the race out west. Last season, the Rox finished 10th in the NL in SNLVAR with 17 wins above replacement-not an impressive finish, but better than this season's 15th-place showing. Factor in the difference of seven wins worth of SNLVAR from last year to this year, and you've got a team that's sitting right behind the division-leading Dodgers, rather than in third place with less than a one percent chance of playing into October. Granted, the lack of production from the rotation isn't the only thing missing-the defense and lineup have done their share of drifting away from last year's quality as well-but thanks to the lackluster competition in the NL West, simply having an improved rotation would have been enough to stay in this thing.

Jimenez is one pitcher who has seen his numbers improve for Colorado, but looking at his ERA doesn't tell the whole story; Jimenez has only seen a shift from last year's 4.28 to 4.20. Looking deeper allows you to see how he's adjusted. His FIP is 3.88, almost a full run better than last year's 4.74 mark, partially due to his ability to induce ground balls while stifling homers. While his G/F ratio last year was 1.3, he's at 2.0 this season, with 55 percent of balls in play on the ground. This has helped him drop his home-run rate from 1.1 to 0.5, and though he's seen his walk rate rise (from 3.6 to 4.4 per nine), his BABIP has leveled out to give us a better idea of what he's realistically capable of. Last year's .269 BABIP was lucky, as he should have been around the league average or higher given his 17 percent liner rate and the BABIP-inflating altitude of Coors, but this season sees him at .312, a tick above expectations. Jimenez has also been a better pitcher since April ended-he walked 6.8 batters per nine and had a 5.90 ERA over his first six starts, but has posted a 3.86 ERA and allowed 4.1 BB/9 since. He's the perfect pitcher for Coors with his combination of strikeouts and grounders, so if he can avoid a few more of those nights where his control leaves him, he's capable of becoming one of the top pitchers in the league.

Matchup: Brewers (83-63) at Phillies (79-67), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (188 IP, 3.06 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 151 K) vs. Jamie Moyer (173, 3.85, 1.34, 107)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 80-66 (684 RS, 616 RA); Philadelphia, 82-64 (707 RS, 616 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee #4; Philadelphia, #10
Prospectus: For Milwaukee, the playoffs might as well start this weekend, as they have a four-game set against the Phillies, who are currently four games behind them in the wild-card race, and then six more games against the Cubs before the regular season ends, the team they are 4 games behind in the NL Central. This is one reason why, despite a four-game lead with just a few weeks to go, the Brewers' playoff odds are that much longer than the AL's leading wild-card contender. With that in mind, this series is arguably the one to watch all weekend (despite the absence of CC Sabathia, who started last night's contest). A Phillies sweep of the faltering Brew Crew-Milwaukee is just 3-7 on the month, and has been outscored 49-28-could lead to some people's using the dreaded "C" word just because of one week's performance, and a poor showing this weekend from the Brewers against a competing contender could get the ball rolling in that regard.

The Phillies have the better club via expected records, though part of that has to do with the last 10 games the Brewers have played, because of that -21 run differential they just added to their tallies. With Brett Myers seemingly returning to form and Cole Hamels being himself, the Phillies have been able to plug a hole in their most visible weakness, the rotation, just in time for the stretch. The lineups are evenly matched, with the Phillies posting a .265 EqA and the Brewers right behind them at .264, but the Phillies' bullpen, despite ranking first in the NL in WXRL, is not as productive as it was earlier in the season-they have given up an opponents' line of .268/.347/.405 since July 1, close to the Brewers' .259/.336/.401. We'll have a much better idea of the NL's playoff landscape once this four-game set concludes, as it is Philadelphia's last chance to control their destiny directly against Milwaukee.

Matchup: Blue Jays (78-67) at White Sox (81-64), 7:11 p.m. CDT
Probable Starters: Shaun Marcum (142 IP, 3.61 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 116 K) vs. Gavin Floyd (174, 4.66, 1.24, 123)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 83-62 (647 RS, 552 RA); Chicago, 81-64 (728 RS, 640 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #7; Chicago, #6
Prospectus: One thing that continues to pop up all over the internet (and here at Baseball Prospectus via chats and reader e-mails) is the viability of Alexei Ramirez as the Rookie of the Year recipient. There are a few problems with having Ramirez take home the Jackie Robinson Award despite his production this year, thanks to stiff competition and an assortment of holes you can poke in Ramirez' candidacy. Ramirez has hit .298/.318/.475, which is solid in the power department but reflects a lack of patience. His .316 BABIP is a smidge above expectations, but if you were to adjust for that, Ramirez would be hitting closer to .281/.301/.458; it's just a few missing hits, but just those few shows you how close Ramirez' line is to losing a good bit of sparkle. That's not a strong enough argument by itself to dismiss him, especially since awards are based on what players have done rather than what they should have done, but there is more to the argument as well. Ramirez has accumulated 18.3 VORP on the year in 437 plate appearances, placing him third in the AL rookie class behind Mike Aviles and Evan Longoria. Though this shouldn't factor into a race determined by counting stats, he has, on a rate basis, been the fourth most productive rookie offensively per game in the AL (via VORPr), behind the aforementioned pair and the Twins' Denard Span. In just 357 plate appearances, Aviles has been more productive offensively than Longoria by .01 per game, though the defensive difference between them more than makes up for that.

As for Ramirez' glove, it's never going to help him win any awards, as he ranks last among qualifying second basemen in John Dewan's Revised Zone Rating, and has just 13 plays outside of his zone as well, which should give you an idea of how little range he's displayed (the next-lowest total is Jeff Kent's 20). Aviles, if he qualified, would be in the top third among shortstops via RZR (which may be overstating his value due to a small sample, but it sure beats ranking last, like Ramirez), and Longoria is one of the best at his position. So, after adding defense to the equation, it's silly to include Ramirez in the discussion, especially since this is just considering the position players. Pitchers can take home the award as well, and there are 10 of them who have produced more than Ramirez this year in VORP, with four or five of those guys as deserving of the prize as either Aviles or Longoria.

Matchup: Pirates (60-85) at Astros (79-67), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (168 1/3 IP, 5.29 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 82 K) vs. Roy Oswalt (181 2/3, 4.06, 1.23, 144)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 59-86 (658 RS, 804 RA); Houston, 72-74 (659 RS, 672 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #29; Houston, #17
Prospectus: Houston's fortunes have improved lately, with the team vaulting into third place in the NL Central ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, and part of the reason for this has been the resurgence of Roy Oswalt. At the end of May, Oswalt was given the spotlight in this column due to his struggles with the long ball, a loss of velocity, and a dip in the percentage of fastballs he threw. At the time, Oswalt had a 5.61 ERA and was averaging 2.0 homers per nine innings pitched through his first 11 starts. Since that day-Oswalt went seven innings on 5/29, giving up three runs and just one homer-he's been more like the Oswalt of old, with a 2.56 ERA, 7.3 punchouts per nine, two walks per nine, and a significant decrease in homers, all the way down to 0.5 per nine over 17 starts and 112 2/3 innings pitched.

Taking a look at his velocity shows that he's back to where we're used to seeing him, averaging 92.5 mph on his fastball, a difference of just 0.2 from the last two seasons. He's also throwing fastballs 65.6 percent of the time, the same rate as last year, instead of fewer than that, as he had during his initial struggles this season. He's still mixing in more breaking balls overall, but he's doing so now at the expense of his changeup rather than his primary pitch. The stretch he has been on since tweaking his approach and doing away with the home run problem is as good as anything he's done in the past, which is great news for those who were afraid a loss of velocity spelt doom for Oswalt's future production. In fact, despite his initial problems this year, Oswalt has matched his weighted mean PECOTA forecast, though his more recent work is better than even his 90th percentile forecast.

Matchup: Cubs (87-58) at Cardinals (78-67), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (131 IP, 2.20 RA, 1.05 WHIP, 167 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (168 1/3, 3.90, 1.22, 116)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 89-56 (776 RS, 600 RA); St. Louis, 78-67 (692 RS, 640 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; St. Louis, #11
Prospectus: Though Cubs fans looking forward to a shot at the World Series would disagree, it's a shame that Rich Harden has split his time between two leagues, as he won't have enough production in either to merit award consideration. Combining his production from the A's and Cubs gives him some pretty impressive full-season numbers, with 131 innings pitched (the second-highest total of his career, and the most since 2004), 11.5 strikeouts per nine, and an excellent 3.4 K/BB ratio. He has stranded nearly 87 percent of the runners he's allowed on base, and even after adjusting for that ridiculous total, Harden's FIP is a still-stunning 2.84. His season is even more impressive when you see how he has reinvented his stuff this year, moving from a fastball/splitter pitcher who used a changeup as his third pitch, to becoming an almost exclusively a low-90s fastball/changeup guy, who sneaks in a rare slider or the splitter he previously relied on so heavily.

He accumulated 3.5 SNLVAR with the Athletics, and has picked up another 2.6 with the Cubs, giving him roughly six wins above replacement on the season in just 133 innings; for a sense of how excellent that is, Harden's teammate Ryan Dempster has roughly the same SNLVAR, but it took him 190 2/3 innings to get there; Dempster ranks sixth in the NL in SNLVAR. Harden is in excellent company on a rate basis in SNLVAR, with just CC Sabathia's time with the Brewers (.365 per start) and Cliff Lee (.277) the competition for Harden's time with either the A's (.270) or Cubs (.290). Given this, it's also a shame that Harden could not rack up 200 innings for the first time in his career, as he has clearly been brilliant all around. Despite throwing 58 2/3 fewer innings than in 2004, he has matched his career-high strikeout total of 167, and he has an outside shot at 200 on the season, though if the Cubs decide to limit his innings to rest him for the playoffs, it will put an end to that chase.

Related Content:  A's,  Rookie Of The Year,  The Who,  Prospectus

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