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April 25, 2014

Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner

Week Five

by Wilson Karaman

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Welcome to the Weekly Pitching Planner! Every Friday this season, I’ll be taking you through all of the two-start options for the coming week to help you decide who to start and who to sit. Outside of the elites, two-start pitchers are often as much or more trouble than they’re worth, as rare is the week in which the stars align to offer your starters not just one but two consecutive tasty matchups. As a result, you’ll notice that sometimes the better starters will find themselves in the “Consider” category, because they might have one good matchup, but a second tough one. And similarly, less-talented hurlers might just meander their way into “Start” territory on account of a plum schedule. The pitchers will be split by league, and then by categories:

Auto-Starts – These are your surefire fantasy aces. You paid a handsome sum for these guys, either with an early draft pick or high dollar auction bid. These are the top 20 or so starters in baseball, so you’re starting them anywhere, anytime. Guys can emerge onto or fall off of this list as the season evolves. There won’t be many—if any—notes associated with these groupings each week, unless a player has just moved up or is in imminent danger of moving down.

Starts – These are the guys I’m recommending you put into your lineup this week. Some will be obvious, but not quite auto-start excellent, while others will be waiver-wire fodder who find themselves with a pair of favorable outings that you can take advantage of in your league. There will be accompanying notes supporting the decisions.

Considers – As mentioned earlier, these guys will be on the fence and your league settings and position in the standings will really be the decider here. A pitcher in this category can be your number two starter with a tough week of matchups in Cincinnati and Colorado. Or conversely if the Minnesota Twins fifth starter is slated to face the Astros at home followed by an interleague trip to San Diego, he will appear on this list because the matchups are great even though he might not be. Your particular league settings will have a lot to say here; if you are in a 10-team mixed league you probably don’t need to take the risk, but a 10-team AL-only leaguer might see it as a nice opportunity to log some quality innings from a freely available resource.

Sits – These are the guys I’m staying away from this week. They will range in talent from solid to poor. With mixed leagues larger than 10 teams my default position for all two-start pitchers who rank outside of the top 60 or so is to sit them unless the matchups dictate otherwise. Additionally, mid-rotation starters who face a couple tough draws will find themselves in this category more often than not.

As always the standard disclaimer applies to these match-up previews that all start schedules are subject to change on account of rainouts, injuries, managers arbitrarily shuffling their rotations, etc.

And now, on to your Week Five two-start options:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Zack Greinke

@MIN, @MIA

Madison Bumgarner

SDG, @ATL

Jose Fernandez

ATL, LAD

Michael Wacha

MIL, @CHC

START

Tyson Ross

@SFG, ARI

Alex Wood

@MIA, SFG

Tony Cingrani

CHC, MIL

Jeff Samardzija

@CIN, STL

Notes:

Ross got roughed up a bit in his last start, but has picked up this season largely where he left off last. And he gets a bottom-tier offense in a pitcher’s park on the road, followed by the flaming turd sandwich that is the 2014 Arizona Diamondbacks in the friendly home confines of Petco. Giddy up.

Wood has been outstanding in his first four starts and is coming off the first epic pitching duel of the season last week against these same Marlins and Jose Fernandez. Miami’s offense has been sneaky-frisky out of the gate, but he handled them just fine last time out and he’s a hot hand worth riding until he gives you reason not to.

Milwaukee’s offense has been solid. Chicago’s has been… not solid. Cingrani gets both at home, where he has a 2.66 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 61 career innings to date. He makes for a solid play this week.

Samardzija has looked great in his five starts thus far, including a pair of seven-inning, one-earned-run outings against each of these opponents. St. Louis’ offense has been surprisingly inconsistent thus far, while Cincinnati has been on the fringes of the top tier. He’s throwing his two-seamer a lot more often this season, and so far so good in that regard.

CONSIDER

Wade Miley

COL, @SDG

Kyle Lohse

@STL, @CIN

Alfredo Simon

CHC, MIL

Charlie Morton

@BAL, TOR

Jon Niese

@PHI, @COL

Tyler Chatwood

@ARI, NYM

Franklin Morales

@ARI, NYM

Notes:

Miley’s a borderline start, as he’s always handled Colorado well (7-0, 2.52 ERA, 1.15 WHIP in nine career starts and 64 1/3 innings), and the back-end trip to Petco is a dreamy twist of scheduling fate. But the Colorado offense is utterly terrifying right now, with a team OPS 75 points higher than the second-best crew in baseball. Still, he’s throwing a significantly higher percentage of sliders in 2014, and the change in approach has paid off to the tune of two additional strikeouts-per-nine thus far. In medium-depth leagues and beyond I’d be inclined to run him.

Lohse’s season has been a bit puzzling so far, as there’s not much of anything in his pitch selection or plate discipline numbers to help explain the sudden two-percentage-point swinging strike increase he’s enjoyed thus far. His change-up has played well up, which certainly bears watching. But beyond that he’s just Kyle Lohse, but awesomer than usual. For our purpose this week he runs into two difficult road match-ups, but as good as he’s been and as middle-of-the-road as these offenses have performed he makes for a strong consider and likely start.

It’s starting to get a little crowded on the Alfredo Simon bandwagon after an outstanding top-line start to the season. But while he’s pitched decently (3.82 FIP), he’s not going to strand 91% of runners all year, nor is he going to allow a sub-.200 BABIP. Regression will come, and indeed the shine dulled a bit in his previous start. He hosts a home-and-home set of starts this week, with a strong play against the Cubs giving way to a bigger challenge from Milwaukee. You picked him up off the wire for weeks like this, however, and he’s probably worth riding right now until he staggers. Just remember that it’s all gravy and don’t get too attached to him as an integral part of your rotation plans.

Morton entered the year as one of my favorite back-end targets, and he hasn’t done much of anything to abuse that distinction yet, despite a failure to crack the Win column. He’s been a bit unlucky with his homerun rate, and he’s not generating grounders at quite the elite level he has recently. He draws two AL East foes this week, including a dangerous visit to Camden, though it should be noted that neither offense has exactly exploded out of the gate. Morton’s a true toss-up depending on your wants and desires. I’d be inclined to roll with him in NL-only or deeper mixed leagues where the innings and Win potential have value, but there’s certainly value in playing it cool with him until he gets rolling a bit better than he has to date.

Niese has pitched solid ball in each of his turns this year, coming within one out in his first start of posting a Quality Start in each. But this is an ugly slate of match-ups for him. He has started 15 career games against the Phillies, and while his overall numbers against them are strong they’ve been buoyed significantly by home domination. At Citizens Bank, he’s been mediocre (2-4, 4.50 ERA, 1.44 WHIP in eight starts), and the Coors field trip at week’s end is a tragic situation for a pitcher like Niese, who depends on his curveball. I would angle to avoid him this week unless you’ve got the jones to do some gamblin’.

Chatwood and Morales both draw decent match-ups, but make for risky plays. Despite getting knocked around pretty good by the Giants in his last start, I actually like Chatwood’s ground-ball profile longterm. His early season spike in strikeouts is likely not sustainable given a pedestrian swinging strike rate that’s in line with his career mark. That career mark has yielded just 5.2 strikeouts-per-nine, so I’d advise some restraint in projecting him moving forward. Between the two I’d be more inclined to start him, but both are probably best left for NL-only leagues with higher or no innings caps.

SIT

None

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Max Scherzer

@CHW, @KCR

Yu Darvish

OAK, @LAA

STARTS

Sonny Gray

@TEX, @BOS

CC Sabathia

SEA, TAM

Notes:

Gray’s got himself a humdinger of a schedule for this week, and it make for an annoying conundrum for his owners. He’s been lights out through five starts, with quality starts in all five, and you sort of have to roll with him. But man, those are crappy matchups. Bite the bullet and ride him, but don’t smile when you set your lineup.

The Yanks will juggle their rotation to accommodate Pineda’s suspension, and Sabathia owners will be the biggest beneficiaries, as the big lefthander is now slated for two favorable match-ups next week. Sabathia’s ugly topline ERA owes a debt of gratitude to his 31 percent HR:FB ratio out of the gate. His peripherals suggest a pitcher who is doing a much better job so far this year of adapting to life without a top-shelf heater, and I’ll be comfortable running him out there for both of these tilts.

CONSIDER

Tyler Skaggs

CLE, TEX

John Lackey

TAM, OAK

Jason Vargas

TOR, DET

Jose Quintana

DET, @CLE

Justin Masterson

@LAA, CHW

Notes:

Skaggs has been excellent thus far, with mechanical changes helping his fastball velocity jump back up into the low 90s. He’s getting excellent extension on his two-seamer as well, generating groundball after groundball in his starts thus far. The revolution has to date come at the expense of his strikeouts, but given a strong portfolio of secondaries I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some rebound in those numbers in short order. He gets two starts at home this week, including one against a Texas team that has struggled handily in its miniscule sample of away games to date. He’s a strong consider and a borderline straight-up start recommendation. I opted for the latter designation as I appreciate that some owners in shallower leagues may want to see a bit more before trusting him implicitly.

Lackey put together an outstanding 2013, but his efforts against the Rays were not among the reasons why. He was tattooed in two starts down St. Pete, though for this meeting he’ll have the upper hand in the comfy confines of Fenway where he’s pitched about two runs better than he has on the road since the start of last year. Oakland’s been one of the best offenses of 2014, though, and although Lackey was outstanding in his last start against the Yankees he’d given up six earned runs each in his two previous outings. He makes for a tough recommendation, especially since the struggling Sox aren’t doing much to enhance their pitchers’ win potential these days.

Vargas has been a fun guy to watch so far. His strand rate sits at 91% percent and his ERA at 1.54 through five starts despite the sixth-worst strikeout rate among major-league starters. He’s also managed to post a BABIP in the .220 range despite a top-25 line-drive rate. All of this is to say that he’s pitching some amazing Houdini ball right now, and it’s not likely to continue. He pitched outstanding ball against the Tigers in his first shot at them, and it’s been one groovy turn after another so far, but I still have a hard time pulling the trigger on a recommendation for anything outside of deep mixed and at least medium-depth AL-only leagues.

Quintana’s done pretty much what you expected him to do when you drafted him, posting usable back-end numbers thus far through five starts. He’s probably more of an AL-only play as a two-start option, but he may be worth a shot in mixed leagues depending on your league settings and team needs.

Masterson looked better in his last start, and continues to get groundballs at an elite pace as usual. Still, his velocity is way, way down so far this year—nigh on a full three miles an hour. He’s been walking more guys than usual, and when opponents have managed to put the ball in the air against him they’ve been abnormally successful at depositing them over the wall. A couple. The White Sox and Angels currently sit two-three in baseball in team OPS, and I’d lean toward caution with Masterson at this juncture despite the positive step last time out.

SIT

Erasmo Ramirez

@NYY, @HOU

Mike Pelfrey

LAD, BAL

Erik Bedard

@BOS, @NYY

Dustin McGowan

@KCR, @PIT

Notes:

Ramirez has been pretty atrocious through five starts any way you care to slice it. He’s been a bit unlucky with the homerun ball, but other than that his misfortune has been largely the product of a few too many walks and a whole bunch of hard-hit balls finding the holes you’d expect them to find. There’s already some grumbling that he may be on the verge of another expulsion from the rotation, and his appearance in the Bronx is certainly not an ideal setting for a potentially do-or-die start. If he makes it through the pinstriped gauntlet he gets Houston on the back-end, but I’m not running him out here until he throws together a couple solid outings at this point.

What happens when a groundball pitcher who doesn’t strike anyone out stops getting groundballs, strikes out even less batters, and starts giving up homer uns at double his career rate? Well, a FIP north of 8.00, for one. He should be on your bench, or more appropriately your league’s waiver wire, until he shows some signs of life.

Poor Erik Bedard. How I loved him in the heady days of aught-seven…

McGowan’s comeback story is impressive, but he’s been knocked around in his four starts to the tune of a 6.88 ERA (5.66 FIP). Two road starts, even against offenses that have yet to put it together, make for a commitment that’s too rich for my blood at this stage of the season. Pass.

Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here

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