April 10, 2015
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
And it begins. Welcome back to the Weekly Pitching Planner! For the uninitiated, every Friday of the season I’ll use this space to take you through the schedule of two-start pitchers for the coming week with a goal of helping identify streamers and inform those difficult decisions about which multi-start options to start and sit. Outside of the elites, two-start pitchers are often as much or more trouble than they’re worth, so we’ll aim to tread carefully through this potential minefield.
It’s a potential minefield, of course, because 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, as they might have one good matchup but a second tough one. And similarly, less-talented hurlers might just meander their way into “start” territory from time to time on account of a plum schedule.
As far as the nuts and bolts guidelines for what lies within, 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 or MLB talent. 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.
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 Boston and Colorado. Or conversely if the Cincinnati Reds’ fifth starter is slated to face the Braves at home followed by a stop-over in Philadelphia, 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 smaller than 16 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.
At the season’s outset the majority of these recommendations will come to pass as a combination of ADP/auction price and PECOTA projections for opponent strength. As the season rolls on and we get some more concrete data points for how both the pitchers themselves and their opponents are actually performing, the formula will gradually evolve into a performance-based projection.
As a general frame of reference, when I talk about “deep” leagues I’m talking very broadly about mixed leagues with at least 16 teams and –only leagues with at least 10. “Medium-depth” leagues refer to mixed 12- and 14-teams and –onlies with eight or nine. “Shallow leagues” will refer to mixed 10-teamers and –only leagues with less than eight teams.
As always the standard disclaimer applies to these match-up previews that all start schedules are subject to unfortunately frequent change on account of rainouts, injuries, managers arbitrarily shuffling their rotations, etc. And of course, if you have questions about any of the starters I don’t expand upon in the body of the article feel free to inquire in the comments.
With that, on to our inaugural Starting Pitcher Planner for 2015!
Week Two is usually a difficult test right off the bat for managers in weekly leagues to execute pitching strategy. In addition to the lack of any data on the new season to help inform decisions, Week One invariably sees all of the aces take the ball twice, and that in turn leaves a bunch of SP2s and SP3s to toe the rubber twice in the season’s second scoring period. Not so in the NL at least this year. Due to the absurd Washington rotation, some curious rotation alignment decisions by the Mets, and a rainout affecting the Cubs and Cardinals NL-only leaguers will have ample depth to comb through. AL-only managers? Yeah, not so much.
That right there is a full third of the top 18 starters in fantasy baseball by ADP, and that is a rare sight indeed at this time of year. Harvey enjoys the best draw schedule-wise, but all six should be started in weekly leagues without a second thought.
Outside of the part where Adrian Gonzalez just wouldn’t stop taking him deep, Andrew Cashner didn’t pitch that poorly in a tough matchup against the rival Dodgers in his first time out. He’ll have a couple less intimidating draws this week, particularly with the Diamondbacks coming to Petco for his first start of the week. I went in hard against investing in Cashner at his draft-day pricetag given his propensity for shelf-sitting, but if you’ve got him and he’s healthy, he’s a guy you run out there in all but the toughest of starts.
Tom Koehler is a nice opening argument for the streaming set, as he’ll bring his perfectly fringy command of slightly above-average stuff into an appealing set of road starts this week. The road component of his schedule is worth mentioning, as he fashioned a fairly extreme negative road split last year. His 4.63 ERA and 4.34 FIP away from Marlins Park last season were both significantly worse than his efforts with home cooking in his belly. Still, he’s produced well against both opponents, and his work against current Mets hitters has been downright ace-caliber: he’s held them to a collective .179/.260/.288 line over 176 career plate appearances. He makes for a tantalizing streaming option in most NL-only and medium-depth mixed leagues.
The Arizona starters both exemplify the conundrum facing managers this week. On the one hand, neither pitcher has particularly good in recent history, and we don’t have much in the way of conclusive evidence yet this year that they’ve gotten discernably better. On the other, this is a pretty favorable schedule according to the numbers. Both guys will be on the road in two of the most favorable pitching parks in baseball, and—even despite the massive Padre overhaul this winter—PECOTA projects both offenses to be bottom-third for the year. I can’t give a full endorsement to starting either guy because of the whole “neither pitcher has been particularly good” thing. But in NL-onlies and deeper leagues they’re firmly on the radar as potential sources of innings and counting stats.
Mike Leake is another guy that doesn’t quite make the cut for me this week despite being a mid-rotation guy who’ll be towards the top of the “Consider” pile more weeks than he’s not this season. He handled both the Cards and Cubs (albeit in a one-start sample) well last year, and that was a particularly encouraging development because the former foe has had his number frequently in the past. The match-ups play as a slight net-negative given their on-the-road nature, but Leake is decent enough to where I can see the argument for starting him in certain volume-heavy formats. I’d lean against in standard leagues, though.
Shelby Miller is exactly the kind of low-grade mid-tier guy that I tend to take a more conservative approach with at the outset of a season. There’s a mixed slate of games on his schedule, as Miami at home looks like a solid draw, while a trip on the road to Toronto is never what you want to see next to a starter’s name. Miller comes into the season with a lot of question marks, particularly regarding start-to-start consistency, and his ADP came in just shy of the top 60 starters. His debit start was impressive, but I’d like to see a little bit more out of him season—has his curveball tightened up? Is the two-seamer he started to work into his mix in the second half last year becoming a consistent and positive part of his arsenal?—before I commit a to him for the innings in a mixed bag two-start week.
Man, I want nothing to do with Mat Latos right now, and this recommendation in a two-start week against offenses this poor is proof in the pudding. Setting aside the results of his disastrous first start against the same weak-hitting Atlanta bats, the process in achieving those results was exactly the opposite of what already-jittery Latos owners wanted to see. The right-hander’s raw stuff has been in steady decline for a couple years now, and the couple ticks he lost off his fastball in between injuries last year haven’t found their way back. Given his age and injury history it’s an open question as to whether they ever will. And after losing about two and a half percent off his whiff rate last season en route to posting a below-league-average mark he generated all of one swing-and-miss in his 38-pitch debacle to start the season. Small sample size disclaimers and all, he’s not a guy I’m willing to trust against just about anybody without a few more data points to work off of.
As his 2014 manager can attest, Matt Garza took a couple concerning steps in the wrong direction last season, most notably in terms of his zone and overall contact rates. He struggled consistently to work his sinker into the zone and put hitters away, in turn allowing more and harder contact than he had in recent vintage. The Cardinals have been a particularly consistent thorn in Garza’s side over the years as well, with five hitters likely to be in their starting lineup next week logging at least a .375 career OBP against him. Even a slightly diminished version of Garza is still a perfectly useful back-end starter in standard mixed leagues and even shallower NL-onlies. But part of his value comes in deploying him correctly—knowing when to hold him and when to fold him, as it were. With an eye towards greener future pastures I’d fold him this week.
One of the toasts of “breakout” articles near and far this winter, Carlos Carrasco ended up going off the board on average as the 28th pitcher in NFBC drafts this spring. He certainly looked the part of a rotation anchor in his first start of the season, and he’ll draw two unimposing division rivals this week, including what should be a fairly poor Twins offense in cool, damp Minneapolis. An SP2 pricetag, a two-start week of solid match-ups… let him go do the job you’re (fake) paying him to do.
Michael Pineda dominated the Orioles and Rays last season with a 2.19 ERA and 19:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio across four starts last season, and after going 31st overall among starting pitchers his draft day price demands that managers follow through on their aggressiveness by starting him this week.
Jose Quintana is one of my favorite mid-tier guys heading into the season, and he falls just outside the range of guys I’d reflexively lean towards starting in a neutral week. This is not a neutral week, either, as he draws to tough road starts against divisional opponents with good offenses. Quintana has a big Michael Brantley problem (.500/.542/.800 in 24 PA’s), but otherwise he’s handled the Cleveland offense pretty well in his career. The Tigers? Not quite as much; they’ve knocked him around to the tune of an .840 OPS to date. I’d trust him in deeper mixed and mid-size AL-only formats, but shallower than that and the risk starts to get a little too rich for my early-season blood.
Both Toronto starters draw a very nice slate of home starts against weak offenses, though they’d be all the tastier if they weren’t in Toronto. I’m a big fan of Norris’ potential this season. The Toronto staff has quietly done a very nice job integrating young starters into the big leagues recently, and Norris may have the best raw stuff of the bunch. Committing to two starts from any rookie is always a harrowing experience, however, and those in shallower leagues may want to lean more conservatively. As for R.A. Dickey, there really isn’t much point in having a starter like him on your roster if you’re not going to run him in a week like this.
The match-ups play to just about neutral this week for Boston’s newest $80-plus million man, and with two starts of the Red Sox lineup backing up Rick Porcello in Boston he’s worth strongly considering for his Win potential.
I’m not quite sure how to value Duffy this season. His topline performance last year, coupled with relative youth and previously-assumed upside, led to something of a draft day inflation this spring. But he’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher who didn’t give up nearly as many dingers as you’d expect last season, and the whiff and walk rates just aren’t anything special. Neither of his match-ups this week is terrifying from a ballpark context. The A’s project to be a very good offense, however, and at the end of the day I’m basically just skeptical of Duffy’s profile until proven otherwise. For this week the match-ups average out to be more or less neutral, so depending on context he can be a viable option – just not one I’d seek out in shallower or medium-depth leagues.
I really shouldn’t be quite as skeptical of Matt Shoemaker as I am. He showed an outstanding command and control profile for several years in the high minors before seeing the skillset translate in full to his big-league debut. The whiff rate came a bit out of nowhere, but then again he possesses two secondaries that logged plus whiff rates and he showed himself capable of working consistently ahead in counts. It may be that I’m just biased against his lack of a prospect pedigree, but I don’t think that’s it either. I like late-bloomers! I like underdogs! Intuition aside, Shoemaker’s velocity has been down a couple miles an hour this spring, and he runs into a pair of tough draws on the road this week. His pricetag makes him a tempting start on principle, but caution is warranted.
Until proven otherwise I’m treating @BOS and @TOR starts just about the same as @COL starts this season. Both lineups are stacked, both ballparks are favorable to the hitters who stack those lineups, and unless I’m dealing with an SP1, I’m leaning hard on avoiding the situation altogether. Odorizzi has the misfortune of heading to the latter house this week before a second turn against a Yankee team that has absolutely jacked him up in four starts last year to the tune of a collective 1.119 OPS with five homers. I like Odorizzi’s strikeout potential and ballpark/defense combo in deeper leagues. But the division is a problem, and this week is Exhibit A.
Speaking of @BOS starts, the Baltimore starters are both in a similar spot to the Braves’ Shelby Miller, where they each have one nominally advantageous start and one terrible start on the docket. And neither of these guys has the intrigue or upside of Miller. In a different circumstance further into the season maybe you consider one of these guys, but I wouldn’t bother with the risk at this stage of the game.
You really shouldn’t have Ricky Nolasco on your roster at this point in the season. Yes, I’m even talking to you, Guy In A 15-Team AL-Only Full Sim League.