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April 15, 2015

Fantasy Freestyle

Streaming Two-Start Pitchers

by J.P. Breen

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Confession: Outside of points leagues, I don’t understand the overwhelming tendency in fantasy baseball to stream starting pitchers from week-to-week.

On one hand, constantly shuffling pitchers opens the doorway to second-guessing myself or playing the “what if” game, and I’d rather listen to a 24-hour loop of Puddle of Mudd than beat myself up over choosing Pitcher X over Pitcher Y each week. More importantly, it’s imperative that one trusts one’s performance evaluation early in the season, rather than picking up or dropping players haphazardly based on short-sample performance.

I’m just a cog in the greater fantasy baseball machine, though. Many readers are searching for potential two-start pitchers for Week 3 (April 20-26), and I’m not about to abdicate my duty. I’m better than that. Here is a quartet of starters who are poised for two starts next week and are owned in less than 10 percent of ESPN leagues:

RHP Anthony DeSclafani, Reds (2.0% ESPN ownership)

Probable Schedule: @ MIL, vs. CHC

Let’s be clear on something. DeSclafani had a two-percent ownership rate as of Tuesday evening, but after his impressive performance against the Chicago Cubs, in which he threw seven scoreless innings and struck out five, this number has the potential to increase in a hurry.

He’s primarily a fastball-slider pitcher who has much more success against righties than lefties. Fortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers will feature a righty-heavy lineup with only Adam Lind and Scooter Gennett to bat from the left side. The Cubs have a bit more pop from lefties, but it’s hard to argue against a guy who thoroughly shut that very same lineup down on Tuesday evening.

I have significant question marks surrounding his future ability to avoid a heavy platoon split, but fantasy owners aren’t necessarily looking for a long-term option when streaming pitchers from week to week. DeSclafini is throwing the baseball very well at the moment. The 24-year-old hurler had a sparkling 1.38 ERA in spring training and has carried over that success to the regular season. He’s only given up two earned runs in 13 innings, striking out 7.62 batters per nine and only walking 2.08 per nine. That’s not a bad option whatsoever for a two-start streamer who is only owned in two percent of ESPN leagues.

RHP Alfredo Simon, Tigers (3.5% ESPN ownership)

Probable Schedule: vs. NYY, vs. CLE

It’s interesting that so few fantasy owners drafted Simon, given his 15-win campaign a year ago with a 3.44 ERA. Part of the reason surely stems from his offseason trade to Detroit, where he’s the number-five starter once Verlander returns from the disabled list. The reason he fell through the cracks this spring, though, likely is due to his low strikeout rate. Fantasy owners are enamored with K-rates and often forget that three other categories exist for starters: ERA, WHIP, and wins.

This is where Simon can help, in a pinch. He’s backed by a potent offense in Detroit, which had scored the second-most runs (51) in baseball as of Tuesday. That only increases the possibility of logging a win in either or both start. He’s a ground-ball pitcher who relies on location and his defense behind him. He’s experienced and will pitch at home in both starts. Neither the Yankees nor the Indians have behemoth offensive attacks. All of that measures up to a solid bet.

It should be noted, however, that Simon has shown significant velocity loss thus far in 2015. In his first start, he only averaged 92.61 mph with his sinker—which is down more than two miles per hour from his 94.95 mph average a year ago. That’s not a harbinger for good things to come, and to make things worse, the last time his velocity dipped this low was 2009. He ultimately needed Tommy John surgery that year.

That’s not to scare fantasy owners away from Simon in Week 3. It is, however, an acknowledgement that Simon doesn’t make an attractive long-term play at the moment. He’s 33 years old, his velocity is down, and his overarching fantasy profile is limited due to the lack of strikeouts. For a single week with a couple of home games, though? He could make fo a nice plug-and-play option.

LHP Jason Vargas, Royals (0.8% ESPN ownership)

Probable Schedule: vs. MIN, @ CHW

Vargas is another low-strikeout pitcher who is slated for a pair of starts in Week 3. Unlike Simon, though, there are a few more things to like about the veteran southpaw. First, he begins against a weak Minnesota Twins lineup. As of Tuesday, they were only hitting .201/.255/.275 and had scored the fewest runs in the league. That’s an attractive matchup for Vargas at home, especially since being left-handed will largely neutralize Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, and (to a lesser extent) Joe Mauer. The Twins don’t have much else in that lineup.

Secondly, Vargas has picked up nearly a mile-per-hour on his fastball this spring. His 88.98 mph average fastball in his first start was the highest mark of his career, so that’s a potential development that could make him more effective. Anything that can help him muster a couple more strikeouts is important.

Thirdly, the lefty benefits from one of the best defenses in baseball—with Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and company. It’s a big advantage for pitchers and was perhaps a large reason why he posted the best ERA of his career in 2014.

Vargas is another steady veteran who can put together solid outings, and in the right circumstances, he can twirl a gem. I like his prospects against the Twins early in the week. The White Sox will offer more of a test, but they’re overall lineup depth is limited. He’s coming off a quality start against the Los Angeles Angels on the road and should be a nice back-end option for fantasy owners who are struggling for starters in deep leagues.

LHP Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies (0.1% ESPN ownership)

Probable Schedule: vs. SD, vs. SF

This is a gamble on my end because de la Rosa is currently on the disabled list, but he tossed five innings for Triple-A Albuquerque in what should be his final rehab start on Tuesday. He’s eligible to return against the Padres early in the week and would be slated for a pair of starts against NL West rivals.

First of all, I recognize the starts are both at Coors which will assuredly scare off many owners; however, de la Rosa had a 3.08 ERA at home last year for the Rockies, compared to a 5.09 ERA on the road. That was similarly true in 2013, when he posted a 2.76 ERA at home and a 4.19 ERA on the road. The southpaw is perhaps the only Rockies pitcher I’d prefer to start at Coors, as opposed to any away venue.

It’s never clear what a pitcher will bring post-injury, but because it’s only a groin issue, fantasy owners shouldn’t be too worried. He finally returned to his pre-2012 velocity a year ago and even started throwing a cutter more often. That resulted in the highest ground-ball rate of his career (51.6 percent), and he actually was a Holy Trinity pitcher in the second half—meaning he posted above-average strikeout, walk, and ground-ball numbers.

Everyone forgot about De La Rosa because he pitches in Coors and began the year on the disabled list. If you’re searching for a streaming option that could eventually transform into something more permanent, de la Rosa is a wonderful option in deeper leagues. He has a chance to provide sneaky value for those who are willing to brave the waters of Coors Field.

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

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Prospectus Feature: Ho... (04/14)
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