Matchup: Tigers (6-11) at Blue Jays (8-9), 1:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeremy Bonderman (17.2 IP, 21 H, 13 R, 8/8 K/BB) vs. Dustin McGowan (17 IP, 21 H, 7 R, 16/7 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st AL Central); Toronto, 78-84 (4thAL East)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #28; Toronto, #14
Prospectus: Jeremy Bonderman and Dustin McGowan face off as the Tigers attempt to make up for ground lost in the early going thanks to their 0-7 start, while the Jays do their best to stay near the top of the division and out of their PECOTA-forecasted fourth-place fate. The Tigers have gone 6-4 since their awful start, and it’s early enough in the season where they can make some headway towards a division lead; taking two straight from the Jays is a step in the right direction. Whether Toronto is a legitimate contender or not is a more difficult question to answer than it should be, and the answer changes depending on who you ask.
Bonderman has not looked like a frontline starter out of the gate this year, with an equal number strikeouts and walks allowed along with 1.0 HR/9 in the early goings. Bonderman has seen his stock drop further from “potential ace” down towards “capable #2” thanks to a rough 2007 campaign where he saw his strikeout rate drop by a full K to 7.5, his HR/9 jump to 1.2 from 0.8, and his ERA balloon to 5.01. He’s made up for the drop in strikeouts this year–Bonderman is punching out just 4.1 batters per nine, well below his career rate of 7.4–by increasing his G/F ratio, which is now up to 2.0, with 54 percent of his batted balls coming on the ground. It remains to be seen if this helps to make up for Bonderman’s other faults in the long run, but early on it has not made him a more successful pitcher.
McGowan’s stock is heading in the other direction, as he is in the rotation and pitching very effectively for the lone Canadian club. Last year saw McGowan post solid numbers in his first full campaign as a starter in the majors, with 7.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9 and an ERA of 4.08. His 2007 QuikERA, which predicts future ERA more effectively than actual ERA, was also 4.08, so McGowan’s production was legitimate. He has continued his effective start in 2008, with an uptick in his strikeouts helping to offset his H/9 of 11.1. That is a result of his .385 BABIP, which you can blame the Bluebirds defense for: their .697 Defensive Efficiency rating puts them at #21 in the league. Regardless, look for McGowan to finish the season as one of the better pitchers in the Junior Circuit, even if his home park and defense knock his stats back a bit.
Matchup: Brewers (10-6) at Reds (7-10), 1:10 ET
Probable Starters: Jeff Suppan (17.1 IP, 21 H, 9 R, 5/6 K/BB) vs. Johnny Cueto (19.1 IP, 11 H, 8 R, 24/1 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd NL Central); Cincinnati, 75-87 (4th NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #15; Cincinnati, #16
Prospectus: These teams have played evenly so far in 2008, as evidenced by their consecutive Hit List rankings in the middle of the pack. The Brewers are the better club if they are healthy and the offense is clicking, but Johnny Cueto has done his best to make the Reds the best team on the field whenever he takes the mound.
Cueto has dominated the National League in three starts, with 24 strikeouts in 19.1 innings pitched. Those 24 K are good for sixth-best in the National League, and his 11.2 K/9 puts him in even better company amongst starters. Home runs have been an issue, and that is something that could continue today against a Brew Crew lineup known for its power. The 22-year old never had much of an issue with the long ball in the minors, so chances are good that this is a blip on his debut record; if not, pitching coach Dick Pole will have to tweak Cueto’s approach to major-league hitters. Last time Cueto faced the Brewers, he went 6.1 innings with eight strikeouts while allowing a single homer. His start against the Pirates last Sunday was the problem start, with two dingers allowed in six innings. If Cueto can fix that issue and adjust accordingly during the season, the Reds find themselves with three very good starters without having Homer Bailey around.
Suppan has taken over where he left off last year, with a 4.67 ERA similar to 2007’s 4.62 mark. He’s still giving up more hits than innings pitched, though that could change with the Brewers playing better defense so far this year than last (.703 Defensive Efficiency vs. last year’s .684). Suppan has managed to whiff just five hitters over his three starts, and though you would normally accept six walks spread out over 17 innings as acceptable, when combined with the lack of strikeouts and the below-average defense of the Brewers, it gives you just another reason to cringe every time he takes the mound. His 5.97 QERA makes you wonder if he should be the one pulled from the rotation when Yovani Gallardo is ready to come back, but sadly, his contract needs to pitch some innings, so David Bush (5.24 QERA, which looks worse than it probably is due to a walk rate more than three walks per nine higher than his career rate) will unfairly get the boot. With the Cubs stacked like they are, the Brewers can’t afford to make mistakes like that.
Matchup: Mets (9-6) at Phillies (8-9), 3:55 ET
Probable Starters: Oliver Perez (16 IP, 16 H, 6 R, 14/7 K/BB) vs. Jamie Moyer (14.2 IP, 22 H, 12 R, 6/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st NL East); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2ndNL East)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: On paper, the Mets are the superior team in the NL East, but with the rash of injuries they have suffered they need every win they can get against a Phillies team that could be breathing down their necks come September. Oliver Perez pitched well in his first two starts, but Bad Ollie popped up against the Brewers last time out, giving up six runs in 4.1 innings with just four strikeouts against three free passes. That’s two appearances in a row with more walks than strikeouts after a stellar April 2 start against Florida. Given how volatile his track record is, Mets fans hope that Good Ollie comes back in time to beat their division rivals for a series win. One thing Perez has not been doing is allowing opponents to hit homers; his early-season 0.6 HR/9 is the first entry on his major league record under 1.0, and his career rate is 1.4. We will need to see him in action more before we can say he’s solved the homer issue or if this is something that is going to come back to bite him in future starts, but it’s something to watch for in the early goings and against a powerful Phils’ lineup.
Jamie Moyer saw his strikeout rate jump during his first full year on the Phillies in 2007, and now finds himself whiffing fewer batters than at any point in his career. His 3.7 K/9 is well below the league average, and doesn’t bode well for his future performance given that half of his starts are coming in the homer-happy Citizens Bank Park. He has been inducing ground balls, with 52 percent of all batted-balls coming on the ground, but without the strikeouts that isn’t enough to make him effective. The one positive is that 23 percent of his hits allowed have been of the infield variety; chances are good that won’t last, unless the Philly infield plans on epically failing behind him all season long. The crafty lefty has seemingly done his part to adjust for the lack of strikeouts, so if he is going to be of any use to the Phillies they need to fight their half of the battle for him effectively.
Matchup: Royals (9-8) at Athletics (10-8), 1:05 PT
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (24 IP, 17 H, 2 R, 9/5 K/BB) vs. Greg Smith (13 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 9/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Kansas City, 73-89 (5th AL Central); Oakland, 80-82 (2nd AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #12; Oakland, #18
Prospectus: Zack Greinke is doing his best to set Royals fans’ hearts aflutter each time on the mound, and the comparisons to Greg Maddux have started to creep back into discussions of his ability. The low strikeout rate is disconcerting, but it’s early, and Greinke has the stuff to bump that back to where it needs be. Greinke has been able to avoid any problems with a significant increase to his groundball rate (32 percent in ’07, 47 percent so far this year) as well as a drop in his HR/9 from 0.9 to 0.4. If he can keep that up while bringing his strikeout rate back up to around 7.8 like it was last year, then the Royals just may have a pair of aces every time through the rotation, along with being treated to passages from the Epic of Gilgameche every five days.
Greg Smith came over from the D’backs this offseason, and though his first start came for the Athletics’ Triple-A team, he has done all right for himself in two appearances in the majors thus far. His first start against the Jays was iffy, with five walks and five strikeouts, though he allowed just three runs over six innings. His last start against the White Sox was more promising: 7 IP, 4 K, 1 BB, and only one run allowed. Pitching in Oakland will allow him to get away with the lofty flyball rate he has posted so far, but he will be a more effective starter if he can work some groundball outs into his strategy. Kevin Goldstein ranked Smith #13 on his Top 11 Redux for the A’s. Oakland had a slew of Three-Star prospects at the back end, so he could turn out to be a useful piece for a rebuilding A’s team, even if he isn’t a big-name prospect. Today’s start against the Royals is a good place to get an early look at him, especially with Greinke facing off against him.
Matchup: Mariners (9-9) at Angels (11-7), 6:05 PT
Probable Starters: Jarrod Washburn (18.0 IP, 18 H, 7 R, 12/2 K/BB) vs. Ervin Santana (19 IP, 17 H, 7 R, 14/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Seattle, 75-97 (3rd AL West); Los Angeles 85-77 (1stAL West)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #17; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: The Mariners and Angels square off for an April series, with Jarrod Washburn taking the mound against his former club against Ervin Santana, who has seemingly been ready to turn a corner since 2005. The Angels took the first game of the series, with the help of some defensive problems behind the plate by the Mariners and a nifty grab by Torii Hunter to stop the M’s late comeback.
Washburn has done well so far in the early going, with 12 strikeouts against a pair of walks, but he has also managed to give up three homers already. That 1.5 HR/9 is fine when you aren’t allowing baserunners via walk, but chances are good we will see that jump back up closer to his career rate of 2.7; add in that he’s stranded a well above-average 84 percent of baserunners so far, and you can see how Washburn is probably going to end up back where PECOTA envisioned him over the offseason, as an average at best starter. The Mariners will need him to be more than that if they want to keep up with the Angels all year long, or, more realistically, will need the King to arrive for real.
Speaking of pitchers who have not fulfilled their promise yet, Ervin Santana comes into the game with plenty to prove about his own abilities. Santana is best known for his problems outside of Los Angeles–7.14 ERA, 1.8 HR/9, 1.9 K/BB and a .299/.372/.546 opponent line in 206.2 road innings from 2005-2007–but so far this year he has battled those demons effectively with two good-looking starts: 13 innings, only one homer, nine strikeouts, three walks and a .234 opponent batting average. In order to be the kind of pitcher his stuff says he can be, he will need to succeed on the road on a consistent basis, or, at the least, avoid falling apart completely and just be average. Either or would be a major coup for an Angels team that is sans Kelvim Escobar and banking on quality starts from Jon Garland in order to guarantee themselves the division.