Sunday, April 19, 2009

Scouting Report: Marlins at Nationals (4/19)

The Scats try to avoid getting swept away for the third time in their first four series. Rumor has it that Daniel Cabrera is volunteering at a homeless shelter this morning, so there's some possibility that he'll get his outright release before the start. If he can avoid the wrath of Rizz, he'll face off against Chris Volstad.

Check out my preview of the series here for breakdowns on the Florida hitters and bullpen. Here's my look at the Marlins' starter for the series finale and prediction.

On the Mound
Chris Volstad: The 6'7" 22-year-old is off to an excellent start. He faced the Nationals in the season-opening series and allowed 2 runs in the first inning. Since then, he's allowed 1 run in 11 innings against the Scats and the Braves and is coming in with a 1.50 ERA.

As he did last year, however, he's benefited from some really good luck. He's stranded 83.3% of runners (70% is typical), and profited from a .149 BABIP (groundball pitchers like Volstad usually are in the .310-.320 range).

Despite his size, he's known as a finesse/command guy, but so far this year he's putting up numbers more like the power pitcher you'd expect him to be. He's struck out 11 of the 45 batters he's faced, a dominating 24.4%, and all his pitches are up about one mph, with the fastball now sitting at 91.6 on average, occasionally hitting 93-94.

He's a fastball, curveball, change-up groundball pitcher. Like fellow groundballer Josh Johnson yesterday, he'll be vulnerable to an unusually high number of seeing-eye grounders, as Cantu, Uggla, Ramirez, and Bonfacio are all below par fielders. He's shown a slight reverse platoon split in the very small sample size of 410 batters faced going back to last year.

Daniel Cabrera: I haven't been previewing Nationals pitchers, but I feel I've neglected the Cabrera situation, so here's a bonus "on the mound" special.

Like Scott Olsen, Cabrera has seen his velocity and strikeout rates plummet over the last three seasons. Three years ago, he was at 94.3 mph on his fastball while K-ing 9.55 per 9. Since then both of those numbers have dropped steadily and in his first two starts of the year he's down to 90.6 and 4.91 per 9. What that means, is that D-Cab is now a finesse pitcher who needs to get by on command and poise, a dubious proposition indeed. The problem isn't just his well documented command problems, but also the fact that he's always been pretty much a strict fastball-slider pitcher, and to be effective with that kind of repertoire as a right-handed pitcher you need some gas.

There have been reports that the decline in velocity is related to some mechanical tweaks that he and St. Claire are making, but to believe that you have to ignore the long-term trend. I do give Cabrera credit that in fact his command has been a better--he's walked just four of 51 batters faced, a rate that is far better than anything he's done before, and he's managed a fielding independent ERA of 4.74, though his advanced billing as an innings-eater hasn't come to fruition, as he's gone just 11 innings total in his two starts. The already overworked Nationals bullpen could really use 7 innings or more from someone. Seems very unlikely that it'll be Cabrera though.

If Cabrera is successful today, he'll need strong fielding behind him, and in addition to everything else that's gone wrong, the Nationals' fielding problems have continued to spread. When Adam Dunn let a catchable ball fall at his feet in the first inning yesterday, you at least know that's what you paid for. When all of a sudden slick-fielding Alberto Gonzalez is air-mailing throws to first and Nick Johnson is dropping infield flies, you start to think there's something in the water. Zimmerman, Gonzalez, Hernandez, and Johnson have to do their part.

Still, the bottom line is that any reasonably informed review of Cabrera's peripherals would tell you that he's in steep decline, and the only real mystery here is why the Nationals front office seems unable to figure it out. I mean, it's not like we didn't have other options available.

Fearless Prediction
Season record: 8-2
Manny likes to plug in new call-ups right away, so that means we'll probably see Justin Maxwell in centerfield today, the second game in a row in which despite the outfield logjam he finds PT for a guy who isn't even in the top 7 in the organizational depth chart.

Depressing as it sounds, I think Cabrera's actually over-performed and is due for some regression. The best thing he has going for him is that the Marlins are such a righty-heavy lineup. John Baker's a tough out, Emmylou Bonifacio's better left-handed, and we know all too well what a hot start Jeremy Hermida's off to. After those guys, the only bench options are Royals cast-off Ross Gload and Alfredo Amezega, who, despite his remarkable success against the Nationals, is not actually good.

Anyway, despite all that, it just seems like it's time for things to even out a bit. The Fish aren't a 10-1 team. The Nationals are bad, but even a team of totally replacement-level grunts would manage a winning percentage over .100. (Though that replacement-level grunt squad would have better pitching than the Scats, so there's that...). Anyway, I'm going to go out on a limb and for the second time this year predict a Nationals win, 6-4.

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