May 8, 2015
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
Maybe it’s just how the schedule has shaken out in the early going, but it sure feels like the American League has been a real wasteland of instability on the mound thus far. Once again junior circuit -only managers will be faced with a host of difficult decisions, high (low?)lighted by several starters who’ve pitched significantly above their peripherals to date. Only the Angels will take the field just five times this week, everyone else will have at least one two-start option. Keep an eye on the Dodgers and Rockies, however, as the weather in Denver this weekend portends the Apocalypse, and its entirely possible if not probable that one of both of Kershaw and Greinke end up seeing their two-start status bump to next week. The Nationals also still list Stephen Strasburg as being in line to take his next scheduled turn, and early word from his chiropractic session indeed indicates that he just might.
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 the Starting Pitcher Planner!
Jake Arrieta’s not quite into auto-start territory, but he’s not far off either, despite a bumpy turn in his last time out. Lest anyone think last year was a fluke, he’s picked right back up where he left off with a devastating combination of secondaries to augment his plus fastball. He gets a nice schedule for this two-start week and makes for a strong play across the board.
Shelby Miller has been very good thus far, and I don’t like it—mostly because I made a so-far ill-fated trade of him in one of my leagues this offseason. He has built upon his stretch-run introduction of a two-seamer so far, working off that fastball almost as often as his four-seamer out of the gate while dramatically increasing his cutter usage as his go-to secondary. The latter pitch has been extremely important, as it’s been a primary driver of his newfound ability to induce chases out of the zone, and that has in turn led to a bunch of weaker contact and an important uptick in his whiff rate. His 93 cFIP doesn’t paint quite as rosy a picture as his topline performance has suggested thus far, but it’s still an above-average, borderline top-40 projection. Cincinnati and Miami have both been swinging well of late, but even a matchup schedule stacked slightly against Miller shouldn’t be enough to dissuade managers from running him at this point in time.
After a downright scary start to the year in which his velocity and location were both off by not-insignificant amounts, Wily Peralta appears to have turned things around in his last three starts. He’s been back up to 95-96 with his fastball. His numbers are still downright ugly: a 5.54 DRA that ranks 125th among starters and a 120 cFIP that justifies that ranking at 121. He’s also still not missing a ton of bats, which is concerning (not to mention limited for fantasy value purposes). He’s worth strong consideration this week on account of a very favorable schedule and the demonstrated recent progress in his stuff, but I’m still skeptical enough of the profile he’s demonstrated to resist recommending him outright.
Someday… maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but someday the gods of regression will come a-callin’ for Mike Leake. His 3.42 DRA ranks 29th among starters thus far, but his performance has been driven by pretty much nothing more than the outstanding luck of a .185 BABIP. His stuff has played down a tick thus far in the swing-and-miss department, and he’ll run into two of the stingier offenses around for swings-and-misses this week. The Reds’ second-best-in-baseball defensive efficiency has sparkled brighter behind no one, though, and it’s a perfectly legitimate decision to ride the hot hand and see how long the good vibes last.
After a rock-solid start to the season Chris Heston has wavered in two of his past three starts, as his trademark control as wobbled and he’s been knocked around by quality offenses. cFIP likes him to the degree that it sees the components of a slightly above-average starter going forward, but this week will be a test of his fantasy mettle. The Astros have been one of the most dangerous squads in the league to tangle with, while the Reds’ offense has come alive over the past week. Judging by recent performance against quality opposition I’m bearish, particularly given the road-road schedule.
A run of bad weather in Colorado spared Josh Collmenter from an ugly two-start schedule last week and flipped him instead to a two-timer this week. I cautioned in last week’s column that his visit to Coors would make for a nice test of his early season luck with the longball, and lo and behold he yielded three dingers in his offense-aided Win. Despite that correction a visit from the surprisingly mediocre Nationals’ offense next week followed by a visit with the third-worst offense in baseball by TAv makes him a nice streaming option in NL-only and deeper mixed formats.
Tom Koehler is pretty much the definition of a streamer in medium-depth leagues, and he’s not a particularly attractive back-end guy in deeper formats. The non-Bryce Harper population of major-league hitters hasn’t produced outsized results against him over his last three starts, but lacks an impact element to his arsenal that can carry him through a start and his whiff rate has tanked in the early going. The Braves have fielded a surprisingly frisky offense thus far, and the Dodgers lead baseball in team TAv, so there’s no real reason to test the fates here this week.
Despite some up-and-down topline numbers, Carlos Carrasco checks in fifth in baseball with a 72 cFIP, and he draws a decent slate of matchups this week. There’s some risk of mediocre return here, but we all face that threat every day of our lives and it’s something to embrace, not fear.
Credit where it’s due, despite elements of a more “traditional” performance in his last turn Edison Volquez has not only been able to sustain most of his improvements of a year ago, but he’s managed to build off them in the early going. He’s worked in his change-up more often so far to outstanding results, generating a whiff rate seven percentage points north of his effort a year ago. Nothing’s really changed with the pitch’s velocity or shape, but a big reason for his newfound success with the pitch lies in his deployment of it in advantageous circumstances more often. He’s been working from ahead in a full two-thirds of at-bats all season, and he’s held batters to a .507 OPS against when he gets strike one. The matchups are relatively neutral on balance, and he’s worth riding while the riding’s good.
I expressed some cheeky cynicism about Ubaldo Jimenez’s hot start in this column two weeks ago, and all he’s done since is continue to roll with his new-look sinker stylings. He’s a top-15 pitcher in baseball right now by both DRA and cFIP, but as J.P. noted in glorious detail earlier this week, he’s historically been an extremely volatile pitcher over time. Managers would therefore be wise to continue rolling him out in hopes of accumulating value now in case he becomes a pumpkin again sooner than later.
It feels pretty weird to be throwing laurels at Colby Lewis, but he’s pitched legitimately well thus far, and even more importantly the success has appeared sustainable to our computers. Funny thing is, nothing’s really changed in terms of the caliber of his stuff or how he deploys it (at least percentage-wise). But for the first time in recorded history he’s been better than average at limiting homeruns instead of among the most prolific in the sport at yielding them. Given the lengthy track record of the latter he seems a delightful bet to regress in a decisive and negative way when reality catches back up with him, and this week’s two tough starts may just be when the other shoe starts dropping.
Rotation-mate Nick Martinez has put together what appears to our metrics to be an even more impressive smoke and mirrors act in the early going. No starter in the top 30 of DRA has exhibited a greater degree of variance from his cFIP, the latter of which paints a picture of a decidedly below-average starter who’s been the beneficiary of spectacular luck thus far. Yet he’s for all intents and purposes behaving as a totally different pitcher in 2015, showing a much different look than he showed in previous poor incarnations by working primarily off a two-seamer and slider combination. The two-seamer was fifth out of five in terms of popularity within his arsenal last year, and the slider usage is up 10 percentage points in 2015. His ground-ball rate has subsequently exploded, with a special emphasis on rolled-over grounders. His stuff doesn’t rate highly enough to suggest sustainability once the league figures out how to attack New Nick Martinez, but the early returns on his sinker certainly warrant some respect. It’s a tough schedule this week, so I could see why managers might not want to tempt fate.
Similarly, I don’t necessarily want to recommend Kyle Gibson. He has the single worst strikeout rate of any Major League starting pitcher thus far, and his cFIP also checks in dead last of the 139 pitchers with at least 20 innings under their belt. He’s also fresh off three consecutive excellent starts, most recently shutting out an Oakland unit ranked fifth in team TAv for eight innings. The @DET draw is scarier on paper than it has been in reality so far, while Tampa at home makes for a decent draw. I can’t get past the underlying metrics here to bite the bullet, but performance is performance, and I can see the flier if you’re feeling randy.
Alfredo Simon’s a borderline start recommendation for the week. Despite struggling with his control a bit in his last turn he’s really established himself as a solid mid-rotation option over an extended period of time now. His 3.44 DRA is 34th among starters, and cFIP approves of the effort to the tune of a 91 mark that slots him 35th. He’s really doubled down on the success he found last year with his splitter, and the pitch has continued to produce well for him as he’s featured it more heavily in the rotation. Minnesota’s a sneaky tough match-up, as they’ve been knocking the stitching off the ball of late. But St. Louis is a lineup full of familiar foes from Simon’s time in the NL Central last year, and he’s pitched well against the vast majority of those hitters over at least some kind of sample size in the recent past. It’s a reasonable context in which to run him if you got him.
Rick Porcello has certainly been less than consistent on the young year, but he’s also in the middle of an interesting evolution that has seen both his stuff and his deployment thereof take new and exciting twists. He’s generating a whole bunch of additional movement with both his four-seamer and his curveball so far this season, and he’s generated significantly higher whiff rates with both pitches in the early going. They’re the primary drivers of a nice boost in his overall swinging strike rate, though it should be noted that those gains have come with the tradeoff of a lighter groundball rate and spike in longballs allowed. Basically, it’s clear that Porcello’s made some changes in 2015, and it’s clear that the changes are producing some different outcomes. What remains less clear is whether those changes are going to result in a net positive over the longer term or not. cFIP is cautiously optimistic that Porcello will produce as an above-average starter going forward, but given the volatility of his early season performance, it’s perfectly reasonable to exercise some caution with him in a week he’ll take to the visiting rubber twice against decent offenses.
Justin Masterson has managed to hold it together reasonably well thus far, all things considered. At least in the real world, anyway, where his 3.43 DRA checks in 32nd among starters. The main thing to consider, however, is that his velocity has taken a severe nosedive that hasn’t really shown signs of abating. His once-potent 92.7 mile-an-hour sinker is down to 87.5, while the velocity and length of break to his slider have correspondingly gone in the bad kind of opposite directions. He’s generating just a 6.1 percent swinging-strike rate on the young season, which is knocking on the door of a bottom-ten figure. Both Oakland and Seattle have been swinging hotter bats lately, and Masterson’s just not the kind of pitcher you want to be trusting in a two-start week when there’s any question whatsoever about oppositional quality.
I may be unjustly bearish on Duffy, but I tend towards skepticism with inconsistent guys who are WHIP killers, and that’s Duffy to a tee. His topline numbers obviously look that much worse right now than they did before his awful start Wednesday, but the threat of that kind of start is enough for me. He’s been leaning more heavily on his slider this year, but the pitch looks to have taken a step in the wrong direction movement-wise, and he’s not generating as many fishing expeditions. I want to be able to trust him for a relatively moderate two-start week like this, but the consistency isn’t there.
Our advanced metrics actually paint a much rosier picture of Sabathia’s potential going forward than a glance at his topline numbers would suggest he deserves. But those topline numbers are ugly, and you didn’t draft him to be a guy you run out there with impunity. Don’t do what don’t need doin’.