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September 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Blue Jays (79-68) at Red Sox (86-60), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (200 1/3 IP, 4.63 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 208 K) vs. Paul Byrd (164, 4.61, 1.27, 73)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 83-64 (653 RS, 563 RA); Boston, 88-58 (773 RS, 611 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #4; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Blue Jays have a 0.68129 percent chance of finishing up the season as the wild-card winners, slightly down from yesterday after losing to Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox. Calling those chances slim would be an understatement, but they do have three games left against the Sox in this series, including a pair today against two of the weaker links in the rotation; first up is Paul Byrd, and for the nightcap, the Sox are throwing Bartolo Colon up on the hill. With the Jays countering the soft underbelly of the Sox rotation with two of their best, now is as good a time as any to make up some of the distance between the two. The Blue Jays began the year with the Frank Thomas drop fiasco, fired manager John Gibbons in June, and were unable to decide what to do with Adam Lind besides torture him. The offense was nowhere to be found, and they were brushed aside this year by many, despite the merits of their defense and pitching staff; this is a team that ranks third in their own division but fourth in the majors on Jay Jaffe's Hit List, which says plenty about the state of the AL East, as well as just how good the Jays actually are.

If they had stuck with Lind in left field earlier in the year, they might have a better showing than their combined .256/.322/.381 line at the position. Dropping Thomas wasn't a huge issue for the club, considering he's hit all of .240/.349/.374, but dropping him for the reasons they did and without a backup capable of taking over and handling the position was a problem, and it shows in Toronto's poor DH output this year: the club has managed all of .244/.331/.409 out of the spot. Things may look better for the team next year though, as Lind finally hit himself into a permanent job, and Travis Snider has earned himself a call-up and playing time (.313/.353/.469 in his first 32 big-league at-bats), two things that should give this team at least an average offense to complement their stronger components and put them in the running in the league's strongest division. This year isn't over yet, at least mathematically, but another loss this weekend against the very team they are chasing will quickly dash those hopes.

Matchup: Royals (62-84) at Indians (72-74), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (182 1/3 IP, 4.15 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 167 K) vs. Fausto Carmona (107, 5.47, 1.60, 50)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 59-87 (594 RS, 737 RA); Cleveland, 78-68 (715 RS, 667 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; Cleveland, #14
Prospectus: It's been 107 innings, and Fausto Carmona's peripherals have yet to right themselves. Like last season, he's not giving up home runs thanks to his ground-ball tendencies, but he has other problems-Carmona is walking 5.6 per nine, and since he strikes out a below-average number of hitters, his ERA is deservedly above five. His FIP is around his ERA, but part of the reason for that is his low strand rate-Carmona has allowed 34 percent of his base runners to score, which is higher than the average pitcher's rate. That's Carmona's own fault; he puts far too many men on base, and since he relies on his defense to get a significant majority of outs for him, the opportunities for his runners to score present themselves often, even without Carmona giving up the long ball.

His 5.93 QERA tells a better story as to what his components (K, BB, and GB percentages) should earn him, and reflect his awfulness since returning from the disabled list. Carmona has posted a 6.91 ERA over his past nine starts, with 5.0 Ks and 5.1 BB/9, and his G/F ratio has been down, hovering around 2.1 since returning from injury, whereas he's around 3.1 for the season. He's striking out more hitters, but not enough to cover for the walks or the decline in grounders. He's also given up more home runs since returning (0.7 per nine, versus 0.2 prior to hitting the DL), which is problematic when you're skating on ice as thin as Carmona was to begin with. Fangraphs tells us that Carmona brought his changeup back into the mix this year, and has thrown his fastball more often at the expense of his splitter and slider; maybe for 2009, Carmona should revert back to his 2007 form by cutting out the fourth pitch and utilizing his heavy sinker less often in order to rack up more strikeouts. It certainly can't make things any worse for the Indian's hurler.

Matchup: Rays (87-57) at Yankees (77-69), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: James Shields (192 1/3 IP, 4.02 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 143 K) vs. Mike Mussina (178 1/3, 3.99, 1.23, 130)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 81-63 (667 RS, 582 RA); New York, 76-70 (704 RS, 670 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; New York, #10
Prospectus: Even though the Red Sox are tossing out two of their weaker pieces to face the Jays, the Rays can't afford to rest on their first-place laurels. The first matchup for the Rays and Yanks is potentially the better one, as Shields faces off against Mussina, who is three wins shy of his first-ever 20-win campaign. He's a Hall of Famer in my mind regardless of whether or not he hits the nice, shiny round number, but there are those who need to see this sort of thing to be satisfied.

We shouldn't be too surprised that Mussina has succeeded this season, though he's gone far beyond what was expected of him. Last year's campaign was full of poor luck, Mussina's ERA of 5.15 was much higher than his FIP of 4.01 thanks to an uncharacteristically low strand rate-his QERA was 4.57 thanks to his solid peripherals. This year his QERA is 3.57 because he effectively hasn't walked anyone (just 1.3 BB/9 on the year) and he's turned into more of a ground-ball hurler. It helps that he's added this new trick at the same time that he decided walks were a no-go, because it's allowed him extra wiggle room with his hit rate-despite an opponent batting average of .278, they have reached base against him just 31.1 percent of the time, a significant step up from the league average.

Matchup: Brewers (83-64) at Phillies (80-67), 3:55 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (158 2/3 IP, 4.59 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 138 K) vs. Cole Hamels (208, 3.55, 1.06, 180)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 80-67 (687 RS, 622 RA); Philadelphia, 83-64 (713 RS, 619 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #7; Philadelphia, #9
Prospectus: The Phillies have just a 12.7 percent chance of taking the division away from the Mets, and a 10.4 percent chance of securing the wild card; that difference in percentage, despite being three games back of both spots, is due in part to the Phils having to contend for the wild card not just with the Brewers, but with the hot-as-can-be Astros as well. Though the Astros had both yesterday's and today's contests against the Cubs hurricaned out, they have the same record as the Phillies now, and they've seen their playoff chances jump from one half of one percent to nearly 10 percent in a week's time thanks to six straight victories. Philadelphia is still the favorite, though by just a few percentage points, something that could change very quickly with another loss or two to the Brewers. It won't be easy going today, as Hamels, their ace, is coming off of a poor start against the Mets, and now he has to go up against Parra, who's enjoying an underrated campaign.

Parra has walked his share of hitters (4.1 per nine), but he doesn't give up many home runs (0.8 per nine, with 11.2 percent of his fly balls winding up as homers), and he strikes out more than enough hitters (7.8 K/9). His FIP is an impressive 3.91 as well, meaning his performance has been for real. The only blemish in his peripherals is his 1.50 WHIP, partially the result of a .329 BABIP that he deserves due to his liner rate as well as his walk rate. With the Brewers possibly losing both CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency after this year, the emergence of Parra in a year without Yovani Gallardo around has been huge; a win today to put the Phils back where they were before last night's game with two fewer games to make up the distance would be huge for a Brewers team that has had its own share of struggles lately.

Matchup: Nationals (56-91) at Marlins (75-72), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Tim Redding (170 1/3 IP, 4.97 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 109 K) vs. Josh Johnson (70 1/3, 3.33, 1.34, 61)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 58-69 (583 RS, 739 RA); Florida, 71-76 (685 RS, 713 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; Florida, #18
Prospectus: The Nationals have taken all of the fun out of watching them lose since they began hitting. Previously, here at Prospectus Preview we were on the lookout for a Nats offense that was slated to be one of the worst of the decade-the 1999 Minnesota Twins were probably the second-most inept club of recent times-before the Nats began to drive the ball. Their current .243 EqA is not only well above the replacement-level production they were flirting with during the first half, but is no longer even last in the league, with both the Athletics and Royals now trailing them. Since the All-Star break, the Nats have hit .267/.333/.404, pretty close to average and a huge boost over their first half (.240/.315/.359). The real Ryan Zimmerman seems to have returned, at least over a 174 at-bat sample, and he's hit .316/.381/.466 since the break. Ronnie Belliard's performance has been stellar, and Cristian Guzman continues to be a source of production, though he'll probably never hit well enough to make up for his "so bad it's noteworthy" 2005 season. Willie Harris leads the team in home runs since the All-Star break with eight, and he's hitting .274/.347/.474 during that 190 at-bat span. The most important thing, along with Zimmerman's supposed return to form, is that Lastings Milledge has improved immensely on his awful first half, helping to put fears about his future to rest. A .278/.346/.456 second half is solid, as detailed earlier this week. Sadly, the Nats have not been able to improve their standings much with this new-found offense, because the pitching that "carried" them (in the sense that it wasn't as awful as the offense) during the first half of the year has not improved, giving up a .262/.343/.441 line in the second half. Regardless, they did manage to slip out of last place in Hit List this past week, ceding that honor to the Pirates.

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