August 1, 2014
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
Welcome to a very special Trading Deadline edition of the Weekly Pitching Planner! Because this is going to press in the wake of a whole bunch of significant deadline deals our usual disclaimer regarding rotation plans being subject to change goes double this week. As of this writing the Cardinals, A’s, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Astros, and Marlins have all made deals that potentially shake up their starting rotation slotting heading into next week. While the moves in some cases shouldn’t affect scheduled starters for Monday/Tuesday, in some other cases they will. I made my best guesses based off the current information I had, but obviously if and when things move around to accommodate the new depth charts, you can feel free to inquire on two-start options below in the comments.
Right now, it looks like Lester will slot in for Oakland’s Monday-Saturday starts, which is unfortunate news for Jeff Samardzija owners, as Shark was set up for a strong two-start week. Lester’s an “auto-start” if this plan does indeed proceed as scheduled. It also appears as though John Lackey will jump right into a two-start schedule if he takes over Joe Kelly’s normal slot, and that would put him at the top of the “consider” pile in the NL with starts at home against his old squad followed by a trip to Baltimore. And for the Sox I’ll go all-in with a full “start” recommendation for Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s triumphant return to the bump. The Braves and Padres will each only play five this week, so no two-start options will be found in either rotation.
On to the nuts and bolts: outside of the elites, two-start pitchers are often as much or more trouble than they’re worth. 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, high dollar auction bid, or significant haul of prospects. 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 with that, on to our Week 19 pitching planner.
My start recommendation for Alfredo Simon is one of the most begrudging I’ve yet written—not because what he’s done this season isn’t worth marveling at and celebrating, but because it continues to defy peripheral logic and tempt fate. He’s been the 20th-most valuable pitcher in baseball despite outperforming his FIP by over two full runs now. He’s done this largely by combining a just-moves-enough fastball with a smoke-and-mirrors splitter as his primary combination off a five-pitch arsenal. And the result has been enough weak contact in front of an elite Cincinnati defense that his subsequently-depressed BABIP has carried him to great success all year. It’s a tenuous recipe at best, but it has been consistently effective all year and eventually there comes a point where recognition is due. His schedule this week is far from ideal—Cleveland has been one of the best offenses in baseball over the past few weeks—but he’s pretty well earned the benefit of the doubt until he gives us results-based cause for doubt.
Tanner Roark has enjoyed one of the quieter breakout seasons you’ll see, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. xFIP doesn’t value his breakout as highly on account of a relatively low homerun rate despite a relatively high flyball rate, but he checks the rest of the peripheral-supported breakout boxes. His four-pitch mix is one of the strongest in baseball this year in terms of each of his pitches helping the others to play out. All four of his offerings generate positive PITCHf/x values, and there’s really nothing in his data points to suggest it’s a fluke. The Braves have touched him up a bit, and the O’s offense has travelled well all year. So it’s not the easiest of two-start draws. But it speaks to the confidence Roark should have earned from his managers at this point that he’s a straight “start” recommendation here.
I almost put Garza into the “start” pile out of personal bias, but his date with the Dodgers and the still-fresh taste of blood from his debacle against the Nats a couple turns ago prohibited me from doing so in good conscience. Aside from that… unpleasantness… in Washington Garza’s been quite good for quite a while now, ranking 34th in standard leagues over the past month despite that one start.
Brad Hand has made a notable effort over his past few starts to trade in his four-seamer for a sinker, and he’s actually seen some very strong results. Most strikingly, the two-seamer has been wildly effective in generating grounders over 80% of the time it’s been put into play in the month of July. And the transition has helped his change play up to where he’s inducing a career-high 18 percent whiff rate with the pitch. I don’t love his match-up in Pittsburgh, but the Reds have been pretty terrible lately and Hand should match up reasonably well with that lineup, at least on paper. I wouldn’t run right out and add Hand across the board, but he has shown signs of interesting improvement to where he’s a legitimate streaming option for his two-start week this week in NL-only and deep mixed leagues.
I can’t help myself with Kendrick. You couldn’t draw up a much better two-start schedule for him, and I don’t care that he’s been unpleasant all year. This is a streaming option just begging to be plucked from the abyss and inserted into your NL-only starting lineup this week. He’s been throwing an awful lot of hard stuff of late, with significant spikes in both his two- and four-seam deployment to the point where he’s throwing fastball variants about three quarters of the time now. So far the combination’s been working well to depress hard contact, though one wonders how long it’ll be before hitters start sitting red more frequently. The home-and-home offers a nice boost to Garza’s value this week, as he has pitched discernibly better in Milwaukee this year. I’d run him in just about all circumstances, though in certain circumstances I can see him being a final cut for the week.
Danny Duffy has gotten some excellent results of late despite control that has wobbled at times. His 10 walks over his last three starts are a concern, but luckily for him (and his owners) he draws a Diamondbacks team that is dead last at taking free passes, along with a Giant squad that’s not great at accepting charity either. Duffy continues to see a slight erosion in his velocity and movement, and given he’s already exceeded his innings total from last season that’s something that bears watching closely over the next few weeks. But he shouldn’t be quite at wall-hitting time just yet, and given the recent performance and tasty match-ups I’ll recommend making a play with him this week while he’s still going strong.
Dallas Keuchel appears to have shaken off the rust of a mediocre stretch from the middle of June into July during which he surrendered 17 earned runs in 24 innings over four starts. His last three turns have gone much better, culminating with a complete game against Oakland his last time out. He had become progressively more reliant on his two-seam fastball during the stretch where he struggled, and I’m willing to bet on causation rather than correlation with regard to his two-seamer usage declining markedly as his performance has improved more recently. Hitters began sitting on the pitch, and that caused his groundball rate to suffer while his whiff rate tumbled. I think there’s enough in his last couple starts to suggest he’s back to being the borderline top-40 guy he was through most of the first three months of the season, and given that and a relatively favorable slate of match-ups I’ll take the chance on starting him in just about all formats this week.
Alex Cobb this week is a perfect example of how one bad match-up can wreak havoc on your ability to evaluate a pitcher for a two-start assignment. Cobb’s been a top-10 pitcher over the past month, and most recently has given up one run on eight hits over 15 innings in his last two starts. He’s whiffed 22 in those two starts, and deserves a borderline auto-start recommendation. The composite is enough to warrant trust despite a less-than-ideal schedule. Oakland’s offense—particularly in Oakland—continues to be one of the elite in Major League Baseball. I’ll still run him nine times out of ten this week, but that meeting with the A’s is a hold-your-breath start from first pitch.
I had long pieces written about Drew Smyly (scheduled for two starts when he was still in a Tiger uniform) and Tyler Skaggs (pulled from a no-hit bid with elbow tenderness, status now up in the air), but since they’re likely out of the picture I’ll use the opportunity to again discuss Phil Hughes. Hughes runs into the same scheduling conundrum as Alex Cobb above, as his two-start week is marred by a trip to Oakland. It’s almost a case where Old Phil Hughes would have been better equipped to handle such an excursion, however, as his extreme fly ball tendencies would’ve played up that much more. Hughes is in the midst of a pretty nasty market correction after his absurd run through the middle of June, as his last eight starts now have yielded a 6.08 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. The only thing that’s kept him afloat has been his almost non-existent walk rate. The San Diego start makes his week worth strong consideration, but his second start at O.Co almost entirely offsets that.
The White Sox offer two highly intriguing AL-only streaming options this week, as John Danks and Hector Noesi both draw match-ups against the Rangers and Mariners. Both ballclubs have struggled mightily to produce runs of late, with the Mariners in particular producing bottom-five numbers as a unit. Neither Danks nor Noesi makes for a particularly attractive target in a vacuum, but given the schedule slant either makes for a reasonable option in deeper and –only formats.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Kevin Gausman’s rest-of-season value for this year. Long-term he’s still one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but as a present option the standard warning flags for a rookie pitcher are waving in a crisp breeze. He’s been essentially operating with a closer’s arsenal of late, throwing his four-seamer over 70 percent of the time in July. He’s been pairing the pitch with his change about 18% of the time, and while that pitch has still managed to generate an impressive amount of swing-and-miss it’s also getting knocked around a bit to the tune of a .455 slugging percentage as batters have begun adjusting to a life in which they don’t have to worry much about any other secondary pitch. Despite the high octane stuff neither pitch is registering the kind of value it would typically need to in order to sustain big league success with such a thin arsenal. He draws a nasty Nationals lineup in a make-up start, followed by a Cardinal lineup that continues to underperform. It’s a mixed bag, and while I’ll be very tempted in AL-only leagues I’ll be just as tempted to avoid in mixed leagues. He’s going to provide a ton of fantasy value for a long, long time, but I think I need to see him establish a bit more of a foothold with his slider before I turn over the keys to a two-start week.
Rubby De La Rosa continues to flash serious stuff intermingled with inconsistency, and it’s likely going to be that way for a while longer still. His stuff is electric, but his command is not. His 52.5 percent first-pitch strike rate would easily be the worst among Major League starters if he qualified, and the plague of having to consistently fight his way back into counts is significantly limiting his ability to work deep into games. It’s also limiting his strikeout potential, and with that his fantasy value. He gets two very difficult assignments away from Fenway this week, with a trip to Anaheim providing more than enough of a reason to stash him on your bench this week.