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September 19, 2014

Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner

Week 26

by Wilson Karaman

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Welcome to your final Weekly Pitching Planner of the 2014 season.

It’s been real writing this column for you this year, and I hope it’s been as informative for you to read as it has been for me to write. The final week of the season is notoriously difficult to predict for pitching matchups, as both teams that are out of the hunt as well as those with nothing left to clinch in the regular season will often shut guys down before their final starts and otherwise shuffle up their rotations on the fly. So the best I can offer you at this juncture is a snapshot of who’s currently lined up for two starts with the caveat that you should make sure to double check how things look about an hour or so before your rosters lock for the week and go with your gut.

Below, I’ve tried to point out particular scenarios in which I wouldn’t be surprised to see a pitcher not make one or both starts for the week, but it certainly wasn’t an exhaustive point of emphasis given the up-in-the-air nature of things. As of right now four teams—the Red Sox and Astros in the AL, the Cubs and Rockies in the NL—are scheduled to rock six-man rotations and be without a two-start option, while the Dodgers still haven’t announced who will take Hyun-jin Ryu’s would-be two-start slot. Lots to like for AL-only managers, while the senior circuit is a bit tighter with options. As always, I’m happy to expound upon any of these recommendations in the comments section.

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 matchup 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 26 pitching planner.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Johnny Cueto

MIL, PIT

Cole Hamels

@MIA, ATL

Madison Bumgarner

@LAD, SDG

Alex Wood

PIT, @PHI

Notes:

Man, has Alex Wood been great lately. Great enough, in fact, to enter the pantheon of auto-start pitchers for this, the final week of the season. On Wednesday night against Washington, he logged his 10th consecutive quality start going back to the end of July, and during this run of excellence, he’s pitched to a 1.84 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while whiffing just north of a batter an inning for good measure. That is a straight-up fantasy ace, and not even the scorching Pittsburgh offense appearing on the docket should be enough to dissuade owners from running him this week. On the back end, the Phillies have been one of the worst offenses in baseball lately, and as such, they more than balance out the risk of Wood’s Pittsburgh start. It doesn’t much matter, though. He’s been the man, and there’s no need to stop trusting him for the season’s final scoring period.

START

Mike Fiers

@CIN, CHC

Francisco Liriano

@ATL, @CIN

Gerrit Cole

@ATL, @CIN

Jake Peavy

@LAD, SDG

Lance Lynn

@CHC, @ARI

Gio Gonzalez

NYM, MIA

Notes:

Mike Fiers, doing Mike Fiers things down the stretch again. He gets a couple weak-hitting lineups to close out his season and, very probably, some fantasy championships for his various owners.

Francisco Liriano was far from his best in his last start against the Red Sox, showing plenty of his downside en route to a five-walk performance. And yet he allowed just a run on three hits over six innings to accompany the ugly bout of wildness, and therein lies the rub. Good Liriano has reigned supreme far more often than bad Liriano in the season’s second half, as he’s put together a run of 10 quality starts in 11 opportunities since the middle of July. That includes 72 strikeouts over his last 66 innings to go along with a 2.45 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. I’ve been burned so many times by Liriano in the past that it’s hard for me to trust him over two starts, but the reality is he’s earned that trust, especially against two poor offenses.

Speaking of begrudging starts, you pretty much have to start Jake Peavy with a neutral schedule right now, don’t you? He’s been the third-best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball over the past month, turning back the clock on a career that looked to be staggering toward the finish line in Boston earlier this season. He’s been throwing from a notably tighter release point since arriving in San Francisco, and he’s working much more off his fastball and cutter of late. The aggressiveness has paid off big time, and with a slate of one tough and one favorable matchup balancing each other out, he’s really a guy who should be started in all formats.

CONSIDER

Josh Collmenter

@MIN, STL

Henderson Alvarez

PHI, @WAS

Ian Kennedy

COL, @SFG

Bartolo Colon

@WAS, HOU

Aaron Harang

PIT, @PHI

Eric Stults

COL, @SFG

Notes:

Josh Collmenter has been pitching excellent baseball lately, including back-to-back stellar performances against what was at the time a red-hot Giants lineup. Over his last five turns—notably all against the NL West—he’s allowed just four runs on 21 hits over 34 2/3 innings with a 20-to-4 K:BB ratio. This set of matchups is a bit trickier than what he’s seen during that stretch, however, as the Twins have continued their stealthy campaign as one of baseball’s better second-half lineups over the past couple of weeks, while the Cardinals seem to have finally stabilized as a marginally better-than-league-average squad. The combination is enough treacherous enough to preclude a straight “start” recommendation, but he’s on enough of a roll that particularly if you’re in need of back-end production for innings, he makes for a strong option.

Henderson Alvarez is a tough guy to get a read on for this week. Three starts ago he was forced out in the third inning by a strained oblique, and that followed two poor starts where his stuff lacked its standard crispness and finish, leading one to suspect the injury may have already cropped up. He subsequently missed a turn, and has since responded with two consecutive strong outings. Unfortunately those both came against two of the worst offenses in the National League, making a proper state of the state evaluation a bit more difficult. He gets the downtrodden Mets again to start this week, followed by a meeting with a Nats team that may or may not have anything to play for. It’s also worth noting that Alvarez is already about 40 innings clear of his 2013 total, and coupled with the September injury issue it’s enough to speculate that he may not make this second start assuming the Marlins have been knocked out of the wild card picture. I’d angle toward starting him in the hopes you get to enjoy the fruits of that tasty Mets matchup at the least, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything more.

SIT

None

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AUTO-START

David Price

CHW, MIN

Felix Hernandez

@TOR, LAA

Notes:

It’s certainly worth noting that King Felix is currently lined up to take the ball for his second start on the season’s final day, and if the Mariners have managed to clinch a Wild Card spot before that game they would presumably hold Hernandez back for the one-game playoff instead. Obviously that shouldn’t affect you starting him for the week, but it’s a consideration to account for in planning your innings calculus for the week.

STARTS

Carlos Carrasco

KCR, TAM

Michael Pineda

BAL, @BOS

Brandon McCarthy

BAL, @BOS

Jeff Samardzija

LAA, @TEX

James Paxton

@TOR, LAA

Derek Holland

HOU, OAK

Notes:

Carlos Carrasco finally ran into a bit of trouble against the Tigers two starts ago, but boy did he ever rebound against a weaker Houston lineup on Wednesday. Including thattwo-hit masterpiece of a shutout he’s now made eight starts since joining the rotation, and all he’s done is log a 1.14 ERA, 0.76 WHIP with a pretty staggering 59-to-8 K:BB ratio in 54 innings. This week he’ll close out his campaign with two of the weaker lineups in baseball knocking on his door, and he makes for a strong play in all formats. His emergence down the stretch makes him an awfully interesting guy in keeper formats, and if he’s somehow still on your waiver wire after his latest gem the time to pounce is yesterday.

It sounds like the Yankees really are going to go through with their plan to bring Tanaka back to pitch on Sunday for some reason, so Michael Pineda’s scheduled two-start week will roll over to next week. He and Brandon McCarthy will both make for nice options in the season’s final week. Baltimore’s already clinched, and especially if they don’t make up any ground on the Angels for the AL’s best record this weekend there won’t be a ton of incentive for them to trot out an “A” lineup for this game. Boston’s offense has been better lately, but still rates as a bottom-half unit even with the improvement. I’d still run Pineda if I had him, and McCarthy’s rebounded nicely from a couple shaky starts in a row at the end of August.

I’d like to write about Jeff Samardzija here, but as a fan of baseball I can’t bring myself to talk about the beauty and the tragedy of his last start just yet. Suffice to say, he’s shown he’ll show up. Trust him.

James Paxton has been very impressive over the past six weeks, and if it weren’t for a sloppy, tired final frame in his last start he’d still be on a run of not allowing more than two earned runs in any of his nine starts since returning to the rotation at the beginning of August. The peripherals aren’t overwhelming, but the stuff sure has been. It’s not an ideal slate of match-ups to trust a rookie with, but the Angels aren’t likely to have anything left to play for by next weekend and the Blue Jays don’t hit southpaws particularly well. I like what I’ve seen from Paxton enough that I’m willing to run him with my season on the line, and that’s high praise.

A perennial favorite of mine, Derek Holland has come back from the disabled list guns blazin’. In four starts, he’s overcome slightly diminished velocity to dominate everything in his path. He’s allowed just three runs over 27 1/3 innings, striking out 22 and walking just three. With a strikeout-prone Astros lineup and a struggling-doesn’t-quite-capture-it Oakland squad on tap for the season’s final game, the matchups are right, though some caution is perhaps warranted given that the Oakland start may just have a playoff berth on the line. Still, given what we’ve seen from that offense of late, it’s not enough to scare me off.

CONSIDER

Danny Duffy

@CLE, @CHW

Yordano Ventura

@CLE, @CHW

Bud Norris

@NYY, @TOR

Sonny Gray

LAA, @TEX

Wei-Yin Chen

@NYY, @TOR

J.A. Happ

SEA, BAL

R.A. Dickey

SEA, BAL

Rick Porcello

CHW, MIN

Jake Odorizzi

@BOS, @CLE

Ricky Nolasco

ARI, @DET

John Danks

@DET, KCR

C.J. Wilson

@OAK, @SEA

Nick Martinez

HOU, OAK

Notes:

I’m a bit torn about the Baltimore two-start pitchersers, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris, as they’ve both got a balanced case for and against starting them. Chen has pitched the more consistent baseball lately, with four Wins and a tasty 27-to-7 K:BB ratio over his last six starts. Still, he’s been cuffed around by both of these lineups this season, albeit in oddly limited appearances (just three total starts between both divisional rivals). And for his part Norris has been mixing and matching four-run starts and shutouts with dubious regularity over the past month. Unlike Chen, however, he’s owned both New York and Toronto this season, and done so over repeated viewings (1.90 ERA over eight starts and 47 1/3 combined innings). Given Norris’s match-up dominance I’ll state a clear if narrow preference for him this week, though both of these guys are interesting enough options that they should be strongly considered and likely run in medium-depth mixed leagues.

Rick Porcello is a tough guy to peg these days, as a combination of poor execution and poor defense has led to some ugly outings of late. He’s allowed six runs in three of his last seven starts, though only 12 of the 18 runs allowed in those outings were earned. Still, it’s enough to cause some concern moving forward. After introducing a new self-described “cutter-slider” hybrid pitch to his arsenal at the beginning of August he’s dramatically ramped up his usage of the new pitch, and he’s largely done so at the expense of what had been a tremendously hittable traditional slider. The results have been mixed thus far, as he’s still generating whiffs at a well below-league average rate with the pitch while allowing a 20 percent line-drive rate that’s only a marginal upgrade on the slider. The White Sox and Twins have combined to post some pretty strong numbers against Porcello this year, and I’m wary of him.

Jake Odorizzi is a tough guy to trust this week. His arm angle has gotten more and more vertical as the season has progressed, and as it has his whiff rate has fallen lower and lower, to the point where he’s struck out just eight batters in 17 2/3 September innings thus far. It’s an obvious small sample size, but without overpowering strikeout numbers Odorizzi’s just another borderline starter. His 3.98 ERA and 1.24 WHIP are not particularly inspiring numbers, and he pitches for a team not particularly inclined to produce win opportunities these days. He’s also been a much different (and frankly a dreadful) pitcher away from the Trop, with a matching 2.62 ERA and FIP at home yielding to an unsightly 6.06/5.24 combo on the road. Both of these starts, you’ll note, are on the road. We’ve had some fun times this year, but I’ll be passing this week where I can avoid him.

Hear me out for a second, because I know this is going to sound really, really unbelievable. But… well, Ricky Nolasco has kind of been pitching pretty well this month. It’s only been three starts, sure, but he’s given up just three runs over his last 20 innings against some not-terrible opponents. He’s been deploying his curveball more often and getting better two-plane break on the pitch during his recent run of success. That’s led to more swings-and-misses and generally weak contact against the pitch, and some actual, honest-to-goodness sustained success. Arizona’s lineup is a dumpster fire right now, and he’s actually held his own in a couple starts this season against the Tigers. I’m not suggesting you drop everything and run to your waiver wire or anything, but he’s at least a viable streaming option for AL-only and deep mixed leagues, and in daily formats, I’d stream him without hesitation against Arizona.

I don’t really want anything to do with C.J. Wilson at this point, though in the interest of full disclosure, he has been producing better results of late, culminating in seven shutout innings against Seattle last time out. Despite the most recent performance both the A’s (.304/.396/.435) and Mariners (.318/.360/.568) have managed sustained success against him this year, and Wilson’s walk rate makes him a tremendous threat to your WHIP every time you start him. Both offenses have struggled enough lately that Wilson’s probably worth considering, especially given the encouraging results against this same Seattle line-up. But I’m stubborn with guys in his position, and I’d just as soon lose him to the waiver wire and let him be someone else’s headache for the final week if you have better options.

SIT

Kyle Gibson

ARI, @DET

Notes:

Kyle Gibson has given up 15 earned runs over his last 16 innings with a 4-to-7 K:BB ratio, there is no reason I can think of to consider trusting him for a two-start week with a trip to Detroit on his schedule, especially given that the AL Central (and wild cards) may very well go down to the wire.

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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