September 5, 2014
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
Welcome to the Weekly Pitching Planner!
By now most head-to-head leagues are squarely into playoff territory, and that’s an unfortunate thing pitching-wise, because the pickin’s are slim this week for quality two-start options. Just three auto-starts and six straight “start” recommendations between both leagues, and the NL is particularly buried in difficult options. Even owners in shallower league are going to be forced to make tough choices this week, which will inject some unwanted indecision into the playoff picture. As far as standard abnormalities go, the White Sox have not announced a starter for Monday or Tuesday at this point, and both will be lined up for two-start status, albeit with tough draws at U.S. Cellular against the A’s and Twins. The Giants have also yet to announce who will take the slot most recently occupied by the MLB record-holder for most consecutive batters retired, and it is that slot that will line up for two starts next week. Whether it remains Yusmeiro Petit or defaults back to Tim Lincecum, it’ll be a start worth considering, as it’ll be a home-and-home set involving the hapless Diamondbacks. And finally, the Cubs will be switching to a six-man rotation down the stretch, as they work some of their young arms into September looks and play it safe with the workloads of others. It’s a strategy I wouldn’t be to see more from out-of-contention teams given that two-fold benefit.
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 cakewalk 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 no. 2 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 of 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 24 pitching planner.
But for one misplaced 96-mph fastball that Adrian Gonzalez hit 400 feet with a couple of men on base, we’d be talking about de Grom’s magical run of nine consecutive quality starts right now. As is, he’s still been pretty terrific now going back to the beginning of July. Since then all he’s done is post six wins, a 2.27 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and more than a strikeout per inning. He’s a guy you want toeing the rubber for you at this time of year.
Yes, it’s risky to run a pitcher coming back from 2 1/2 months on the shelf with a bum shoulder. In an ideal world it’d be great to see Michael Wacha make a start or two before lining up for a two-start week, but we as fantasy players unfortunately don’t have the luxury to set rotations that way. The match-ups for Wacha are just too inviting to pass up here. I’d keep expectations in check, particularly regarding the WHIP he may produce if his control’s a little wobbly, but otherwise no guts, no glory, right?
I can’t quite believe that I’ve got Shelby Miller at the top of the consider pile, and I was this close to pulling the trigger and recommending him as a start. It’s just…well, he’s been terrible this year. For the overwhelming majority of the season, he’s been a maddeningly inconsistent dumpster fire. And yet here we are at playoff time, and he’s pitched well in his last three starts leading into a week in which he has one of the best schedules in the league. The Rockies have been a very poor offense away from Coors in the second half, while the Reds have been the single worst offense in baseball. All signs point to go here, which I suppose just means it’ll be that much more infuriating when he gets lit up.
After what can charitably be described as a hugely disappointing season Mike Minor has pitched much better ball over his last five starts, finally looking something like the pitcher he was for much of last year’s breakout. He’s run of five consecutive quality starts, going at least 6 2/3 innings in each, and compiling a 2.52 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 29 strikeouts over 35 2/3 innings. Still, this is a tough slate of starts for Minor. Washington has boasted one of baseball’s best offenses over the second half, and current Nats have hit a combined .305/.370/.506 against Minor over 176 plate appearances. Add in a Rangers offense that, for all its flaws, has consistently handled left-handed pitching pretty well this season, and Minor has all the makings of a true toss-up.
Creepy player card mug shot notwithstanding, Tom Koehler has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Marlins and streamer-happy fantasy managers alike. His last five starts have been a pretty representative sample of good Tom Koehler, as he’s balanced strong strikeout numbers (32 in 31 innings) with a mediocre ERA (3.48) and WHIP liability (1.39). You’d be hard-pressed to find a more thoroughly neutral slate of match-ups for Koehler this week, though it is certainly worth noting that he’s pitched to a FIP about a run and a quarter better at home than he has on the road, where he’ll make both of these starts. So basically, this one comes down to team context: if you need strikeouts and have some flexibility elsewhere, run him. If you have WHIP vulnerability that trumps all other pitching concerns, then he’s probably best left on your bench.
Josh Collmenter continues to be a difficult player to predict, as his deployment of a cutter as both his only fastball and overwhelmingly most common pitch he’s an anomalous pitcher. He’s also been hemorrhaging velocity since May, to where he’s now down two miles an hour off his early-season velocity. It hasn’t seemed to affect his ability to produce results, however. His production has remained constant in the second half, but under the hood he’s actually pitched much better. Hitters are managed an OPS 60 points lower in the second half, while he’s made significant gains in both his strikeout and walk rates. An improved change-up has been at the center of those gains, as his whiff rate on the pitch has improved dramatically. On the match-up front after looking like an entirely different offense for the first month after the break the Padres have reverted to their old ways of late, while the Giants have been tearing the cover off the ball and make for an exceedingly difficult opponent at the moment. I like what Collmenter’s done of late, but the match-ups tilt slightly against him and the Diamondbacks poor offense makes Collmenter a tougher consider for the week.
After a stretch over whcih it looked like Father Time may finally be starting to catch up with him, Hiroki Kuroda has resumed his role of quietly, methodically churning out quality start after quality start for fantasy teams near and far. Even with some regression to his top-line and peripheral numbers this season he’s still proven quite adept at avoiding meltdowns, as he’s allowed more than four runs in a game just once in his 27 starts while averaging six and a half innings a turn. Those are important if oft-overlooked numbers when looking at two-start candidates, as the consistency provides managers with a solid high-floor option to round out their rotations. He’ll face two familiar foes this week, each of whom he’s faced three times already this season. In those six starts he’s put together a 2.95 ERA and 1.01 WHIP over 39 2/3 innings. Ho-hum.
Jered Weaver is very decidedly diminished from his peak fantasy form of a couple years ago, but he’s proven to be a perfectly usable pitcher in all formats this year. He checks in 34th among starting pitchers, largely on the strength of his win totals and won’t-kill-you ERA and WHIP numbers. Despite somehow only having made three career starts against the Astros he’s owned them to the tune of a .506 OPSA, and while arch-nemesis Carlos Santana will cause him problems against Cleveland it shouldn’t be enough to derail what shapes up as a nice two-start value week for the middle of your rotation.
Sonny Gray sure has the look of a guy who’s hit a wall of late. After carrying a 2.59 ERA into August, he’s given up 24 earned runs over his last six starts (33 innings), including a shellacking in his last turn by the very same Mariners he’ll see again this week. His release point has been drifting taller and thinner, which could reflect over-compensation for a tired arm. The lack of extension seems to be affecting his curveball in particular, as the pitch has lost a good chunk of its swing-and-miss bite over the past month. During the rough stretch his fantasy value has plunged to the depths of guys like Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez – not exactly the company his owners want to see him keeping for the homestretch. It’s tough to recommend sitting him given how much his owners have likely come to count on him. But given the performance trends he’s just not someone to be trusted blindly right now either.
Danny Salazar put on quite a show in his last start, notching his first career shutout and, perhaps most importantly for fantasy owners, showing he could actually go deep into a game. He’s been a revelation for Cleveland (and fantasy owners) since re-joining the rotation last month, posting a 2.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a strikeout per inning. His velocity’s back where it was last year, and while his four-seamer and splitter aren’t moving as much as they were last season he’s producing an even better whiff rate with the latter. The trip to Detroit makes this a tougher call than his recent performance merits, however, as the Tigers have regained their offensive mojo in a big way over the past couple weeks. Still, I’d lean towards starting him in most formats.
Heading into his last start Miguel Gonzalez had very quietly settled in as one of the most steady back-end options around over the past two months. Then he went out and threw down a four-hit shutout of the terrible Reds, and it may just be that his secret’s out now. He’s now in the midst of a nine start run in which he’s put together a 2.00 ERA and 1.14 WHIP since the calendar flipped to July. He’s significantly adjusted his approach, evolving rapidly into a four-seam/slider pitcher while dramatically curtailing his curveball and splitter usage. The results have been a bit mixed, as his below-average command has left particularly his slider vulnerable to finding the fat part of the plate. But for the time being the strategy shift has kept him one step ahead of hitters, and with two mediocre offenses on his ledger this week he makes for a nice option in most AL-only and deeper mixed leagues.
As discussed probably too many times already in this space I had high hopes for Brad Peacock entering the season, and he proceeded to crush my dreams with an impressive disregard. Well, there may just be a glimmer of light at the end of the deep, dark tunnel that has been his season, as he’s finally put together a three game stretch of pitching not-half-bad baseball. He’s given up just four earned runs over those starts while striking out 15 in 16 1/3 innings. Now, before we go shaking hands and proclaiming him cured of what’s ailed him he still hasn’t been working particularly deep into games, and this recent burst hasn’t exactly come against offenses rivaling the ‘27 Yankees. But hey, it’s something, and it’s enough of something to at least put him on streaming radars for his two trips to face uninspiring offenses this week.
Justin Verlander is pretty much a shell of himself at this point. Bracketing the off-field sideshow, he’s seemingly losing another tick off his fastball with every start he makes. He rebounded slightly in his last start after sitting at 91 his previous time out for probably the first time in his career, but all it did was help him get knocked around by Cleveland for seven runs on nine hits. If you want to squint and find some positives his long-lost strikeouts have returned over his last three starts, and if that’s a category you need to make up some ground in he’s at least a consider for that scenario.
I find it curious that the Red Sox have continued to ride out the Allen Webster Project in a starting role this long. There’s never been much question about the raw stuff, but he has failed to show any ability to harness it consistently enough to warrant much enthusiasm. Given the organizational depth behind him it’s entirely possible these will be his last hurrah if he can’t straighten things out immediately, and given the track record you shouldn’t have much reason to think he will.
I don’t think I can imagine a less exciting pair of two-start pitchers from one team than Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas. Both are perfectly capable back-end starters in real life and, particularly in Vargas’ case, AL-only fantasy life. But neither is a particularly appealing draw this week regardless of format. The Tigers (.306/.350/.483 in 266 plate appearances) and Red Sox (.310/.373/.528 over 158) have both crushed Guthrie in his career, while Vargas hasn’t fared much better. The middle of Boston’s order of Dustin Pedroia, Yoenis Cespedes, and Mike Napoli has combined to hit .305/.383/.694 against him with eight home runs in 82 plate appearances. Pass on these two in all but the deepest of formats where innings pitched trumps the quality of those prospective innings.
Trevor May has actually flashed some decent stuff since his arrival, highlighted by an impressive swing-and-miss changeup that’s helped him compile 18 strikeouts over his last three starts (15 innings). The overall execution has been raw, however, as he’s given up 36 hits over his first 24 big-league innings. There have been flashes, but not nearly enough to warrant entrusting him with two consecutive crunch-time starts.