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It's the first Spring Training game of the year! We don't have any corporate sponsors at Chop-n-Change, so we try to avoid the shameless corporate shills, but it might not be such a terrible idea if you ponied up $14.95 for mlb.com's audio package. You can listen to every baseball game this year, spring training, regular season, and postseason. I did it this morning.

We'll be facing the Tigers today. Former Tiger (thanks, John Schuerholz!) Jair Jurrjens will be the "starting" pitcher, going two innings, and he's scheduled to be followed by Jo-Jo Reyes, Manny Acosta, Stephen Marek and Eric O'Flaherty. Jurrjens will be opposed by Justin Verlander, whose awful 2008 mirrored the Tigers' own. Jo-Jo Reyes is particularly worth watching this spring. 2009 could be his last serious shot at sticking in the Braves rotation. If he can command his pitches and pound the strike zone, he has the stuff to be a very solid starting pitcher. But if his command problems -- and seeming fear of throwing strikes -- continue, the Braves may be forced to jettison him.

Verlander is worth watching too. He was one of the best young pitchers in baseball in 2006 and 2007, winning 35 games with ERAs of 3.63 and 3.66. But last year his ERA ballooned more than a full run to 4.84, and he went 11-17. His components weren't as good as they had been -- his BB/9 increased by 1 and K/9 fell by 1 -- but even that wasn't totally enough to explain the collapse, as his FIP was almost unchanged from 2007 to 2008, 4.09 to 4.16. (FIP, Fielding Independent ERA, is a Hardball Times metric that attempts to measure how well a pitcher pitched, independent of the guys fielding behind him. If it's much lower than ERA, as it was in 2007, then the pitcher is probably getting "lucky" and will do worse in the future; if it's much higher than ERA, as it was in 2008, then the pitcher is probably getting "unlucky" and will do better in the future.)

Verlander's 2007 BABIP was .280; in 2008 it was .298. (BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play, should be around .300 for nearly all pitchers. If it's above .300, then the pitcher's getting "unlucky" and we can expect him to do better in the future; if it's below .300 then he's getting "lucky" and we can expect him to do worse in the future.) He was a worse pitcher last year than he had been in 2007, but he wasn't as bad as he pitched. Still, the Tigers can't survive without him at the top of their rotation, so they need him to get back to his former level in a hurry. It'll be interesting to see how he does today.

Jurrjens, on the other hand, didn't have K/9 or BB/9 numbers as impressive as Verlander's -- more people put the ball in play off him -- but his HR/9 was much lower, his BABIP was actually .307, and his FIP was 3.52, lower than his ERA of 3.68, which suggests that last year he really was as good as he pitched. We'll see how good he is this year. With Hudson down, he's the veteran of the staff and the de facto ace.

Oh -- and here's the disclaimer. Spring stats don't matter. Mechanics matter, command matters, fixing holes in swings and getting the kinks out matters. The stats don't matter. When a guy hits a homer off a pitcher who's too stiff to throw his curveball, that stat doesn't matter. We just need to get all our guys healthy and on the field.

Are you ready for some baseball?

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