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May 29, 2015

Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner

Week Nine

by Wilson Karaman

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Oh, to be young and the owner of a National League ace this week. Chances are, if you’ve got one, he’s going twice in Week Nine. Between the true aces and the near ones, NL-only leaguers will have a full nine glorious, “safe” options at their disposal, while junior circuit riders will once again be left weighing options from a lengthy “consider” column.

Uncertainty persists as of press time in Oakland, where Scott Kazmir’s MRI yesterday will likely reveal a delayed next turn at the least and put the Oakland rotation slot @DET and @BOS into someone else’s hands. That’s not a great lineup, and with neither Gray nor Hahn—the two other guys in Oakland’s rotation I’d consider running here—anywhere near on turn, it’s unlikely this slot will yield much interest even in AL-only formats. It’s also unclear who will take the injury-ravaged Marlins’ two-start slot. I’m not sure that one much matters either, however, as we’re down to about the eighth or ninth guy on the Miami depth chart at this point, and a trip to Coors Field looms for whoever ends up stepping into the fire.

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!

NATIONAL LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Jon Lester

@MIA, @WAS

Clayton Kershaw

@COL, STL

Zack Greinke

@COL, STL

Gerrit Cole

@SFG, @ATL

Max Scherzer

TOR, CHC

Jordan Zimmermann

TOR, CHC

START

Jacob deGrom

@SDG, @ARI

Andrew Cashner

NYM, @CIN

Lance Lynn

MIL, @LAD

Notes:

Lance Lynn continues to survive and thrive despite continuing to be down a tick of velocity this year. His four-seam command has improved, particularly up in the zone, and after living almost exclusively down and away with his cutter over the years, he’s started working that pitch in through the front door. Lynn’s always been a man of significant splits, and while he hasn’t shown any substantial progress against left-handers in the box this year, he’s evolved into one of the most lethal starters in baseball against same-handed hitters. He’s currently rocking a tasty 80 cFIP that’s tied for 12th-best among starters, and he’ll get a nice schedule this week.

CONSIDER

Mike Fiers

@STL, @MIN

Kyle Hendricks

@MIA, @WAS

Ryan Vogelsong

PIT, @PHI

Jaime Garcia

MIL, @LAD

Alex Wood

@ARI, PIT

Archie Bradley

ATL, NYM

Notes:

Mike Fiers continues to be a cFIP darling thanks to a spectacular strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he also continues to struggle mightily at getting deep into games. Some instances haven’t been his fault, such as his last turn when he was pinch-hit for in a bases-loaded situation after going just five innings. But his 18.2 pitches-per-inning is tied for the least efficient rate among all starters, and coupled with the 29th-ranked offense by TAv “supporting” him, he’s a genuinely poor play in win-based leagues. He’s also given up more than his fair share of hits, and opposing hitters have earned their bases by making the hardest contact they’ve made against any starting pitcher in baseball thus far. It’s been enough to offset a walk rate that has whittled away to next-to-nothing over his past few starts, but he’s a WHIP liability as well. He’ll get two starts this week that on balance grade out to a moderately advantageous schedule, so the strikeout potential makes him useful in deeper and –only leagues where you can roll the WHIP dice. I wouldn’t go crazy in shallower leagues, though.

Don’t look now, but Ryan Vogelsong has actually kinda sorta been pitching pretty good ball lately. Over his last five starts, he’s posted four quality efforts and a fifth that missed by one out. During that run he’s rocking a 1.14 ERA and 0.95 WHIP across just shy of 32 frames, so it’s been an impressive stretch to say the least. He’s moved decidedly away from his sinker and change in favor of a four-seam/curveball/cutter arsenal, and it’s helped him produce significantly weaker contact with a nice jump in across-the-board whiff rates to complement it. Pittsburgh’s offense will pose a test, though it’s worth noting that they hit significantly worse away from PNC, and Philadelphia has been the worst offense in baseball against right-handed pitching. He’s an interesting little option as a streamer in NL-only and deeper mixed leagues.

I guess the proper play if you own Jaime Garcia is to run him now while his arm is still functionally attached to his body, and the matchups by and large warrant that approach. The Dodgers and Brewers have both been pretty terrible against left-handed pitching, so I guess go forth and conquer in NL-only formats at the least.

Despite an impressive turn last time out against the suddenly hapless Dodgers offense, Alex Wood still isn’t quite right this year, and he makes for a tough evaluation in a week like this. His pitches have flattened out in the early going, as his arm angle has drifted to a pretty dramatically wider, lower release point. It’s the kind of progression that can suggest injury, but there has been nothing but assurances of health. The command is not healthy, however, and Wood is working deep into counts and failing to induce put-away swings and misses from hitters at a worrying clip. It’s not a great week of matchups for him, with a nasty Pirates offense and a trip to one of the more hostile environments in the NL on tap, I’d just as soon shelve him for the time being, though he’ll make some sense as a gamble in NL-only and deeper mixed formats.

Considering Archie Bradley for two starts at this stage of his season and career is probably a really poor strategy, and yet the matchups this week force the issue a bit. His control has been atrocious thus far, lowlighted by a near 1-to-1 ratio of strikeouts and walks through his first 30-plus innings. But he’ll garner two home starts against bottom-third offenses this week, so for NL-only purposes, he’s at least on the radar.

SIT

Michael Lorenzen

@PHI, SDG

Eddie Butler

LAD, MIA

Sean O'Sullivan

CIN, SFG

Notes:

Not to toot my own horn, but Michael Lorenzen’s pretty much been who I thought he’d be when he was initially called up. He hasn’t managed to translate his solid ground-ball skills to the majors thus far, his whiff and walk rates look uncomfortably similar, and lefties have eaten him alive. He doesn’t have a terrible schedule this week, so I can understand the knee-jerk temptation for an NL-only stream. But a rookie starter struggling to get whiffs or grounders, pitching in two nasty ballparks for left-handed power? Not for me, friend. Not for me.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Michael Pineda

@SEA, LAA

Felix Hernandez

NYY, TAM

Chris Archer

@LAA, @SEA

Notes:

Despite a couple of minor bumps in his past three turns, Michael Pineda’s earned his way into auto-start standing for the time being. His 76 cFIP checks in eighth-best among all starters, on account of strikeout-an-inning stuff that has yielded a whopping five walks in 64 1/3 innings to date. He’s working much more frequently and effectively down in the zone, and his ground-ball rate has exploded even while he’s managed to hold on to all of his above-average swing-and-miss clip. It’s a lethal combination, and it’s a sustainable one for success.

STARTS

Carlos Carrasco

@KCR, BAL

Garrett Richards

TAM, @NYY

Notes:

Carlos Carrasco is in the same place this week that his rotation-mate Danny Salazar was in last week. The peripherals are off the charts; he’s currently third among all starters in cFIP, he boasts a top-10strikeout rate, and his walk rate remains well above average. But the topline numbers haven’t quite been there yet, and Cleveland’s least-efficient-in-baseball defense hangs in the air like the stench of a 67-year championship drought. It’s not a great set of matchups for Carrasco, and there’s some ERA (and to a lesser extent WHIP) liability here, but I’d run him for the strikeout and win potential in a two-start week.

Garrett Richards’ command and crispness haven’t quite returned in full, but he’s getting closer. The velocity has ticked up over his last few starts, though after reeling off a string of five consecutive quality starts he’s gotten knocked around a bit in each of his last two turns. Still, his 3.35 DRA points to a pitcher who’s largely earned his production to date, and the matchups this week grade out as fairly neutral. The fastball command still isn’t there, and he’s catching far too much white with them. But his whiff rates with both the heater and slider are starting to normalize in range of his breakout 2014 effort, and the strikeout-happy Rays and scuffling Yankees make for a good run this week.

CONSIDER

Jeff Samardzija

@TEX, DET

Phil Hughes

@BOS, MIL

Mike Pelfrey

@BOS, MIL

James Paxton

NYY, TAM

Ubaldo Jimenez

@HOU, @CLE

Alfredo Simon

OAK, @CHW

Collin McHugh

BAL, @TOR

Mike Wright

@HOU, @CLE

Rick Porcello

MIN, OAK

Alex Colome

@LAA, @SEA

Notes:

Jeff Samardzija’s performance thus far hasn’t been that of an automatic, every-start guy, though he’s shown some signs of encouraging life in his past three starts. By cFIP he projects as merely a league-average starter for the rest of the season, however, and he’ll face a couple ugly match-ups this week. Texas has been one of the best offenses in baseball over the past couple weeks and now checks in fifth in overall team TAv, while Detroit’s been right there with ‘em recently. I’d lean towards giving Shark the benefit of the doubt if your standing allows it, but if your pitching is in a sensitive place, it’s okay to toss him on your bench this week to make sure he’s back before trusting him in full again.

The two Twins starters both draw fairly plum schedules against two bottom-third present offenses this week, so despite my lack of faith in either as sustainable fantasy assets, they jump towards the top of the heap for consideration, particularly in AL-only formats. Between the two, Hughes is the more attractive candidate by standard projection metrics. It was certainly a longshot heading into the season that Hughes would be able to duplicate last year’s historic effort, but with six walks in 64 2/3 innings, he’s not far off at least that part of the pace. He’s lost his swing-and-miss stuff, however, particularly with his fastball-curveball combination. The latter pitch is generating a sub-three percent whiff rate this year. Without the whiffs, he’s a back-end starter at best, and given the Twins’ relatively poor defense behind him, his .290 AVG-against isn’t an out-of-left-field surprise. Mike Pelfrey, meanwhile, has been pounding the zone with an ever-two-seam-reliant arsenal and generating groundballs at a career-best clip. His 56 percent rate is seventh-best among starters, and he’s been unusually successful at inducing batters to chase his two-seam on the margins of the zone so far. I don’t like trusting guys who punch out less than five guys-per-nine, but he does seem to be among the better bets right now if you’re inclined to throw strikeouts to the wind.

I’ve reached the point of tacit acceptance that Alfredo Simon is just one of those dudes who’s likely to pitch better than I think he probably should. He’s been consistently about a full run better in the ERA department than his FIP suggests for about three years now, and despite poor whiff and groundball rates, he’s managed to thrive in two different rotations now over the past two years. He has literally doubled-down on his splitter so far this year, dramatically increasing his deployment of the pitch from a 16 to a 32 percenter. His overreliance has had a detrimental effect on his whiff rate, but he just keeps getting outs. The White Sox remain one of the worst offenses in baseball, while the A’s balance things out at least a little. In a vacuum I’d lean towards starting him, though it needs to be mentioned that he missed his last start on the bereavement list attending to his dying father, and that presents a difficult variable to account for.

After two impressive starts behind a flaming four-seamer I’d imagine Mike Wright will be a popular streaming target in AL-only and deep mixed leagues this week. There’s a limited track record here, though, and caution is warranted. Despite the big velocity Wright’s fastball is relatively straight, and his secondaries have produced below-average swinging strike rates thus far, albeit in just the tiny two-game sample. He’ll run into two offenses on the road that have each been performing as top-seven units over the past couple weeks, including the top homerun-hitting team in baseball. It’s a tricky gauntlet, and I’d just as soon let him attempt to run it on my bench.

SIT

Colby Lewis

CHW, @KCR

Steven Wright

MIN, OAK

Scott Feldman

BAL, @TOR

Danny Duffy

CLE, TEX

R.A. Dickey

@WAS, HOU

Notes:

When last we met up with Colby Lewis on the precipice of a two-start week I discussed his puzzling early-season success, noting that nothing of substance had really changed in his approach or execution in the early going. He’d just been really good at keeping the ball in the ballpark, which was a skill that had previously eluded him for the entirety of his career. Well, he’s given up 19 earned runs over his last 14 1/3 innings, and while his HR:FB rate remains roughly half his well-above-average career mark, it’s starting to creep back in the direction you’d expect. It’s not the worst set of match-ups in the world, especially his front-end start against the White Sox at home. But investing two guaranteed starts in Lewis is too rich for my blood regardless of format.

Steven Wright will probably reel off 14 scoreless innings this week, because up is down, blue is green, and the Red Sox don’t make any sense.

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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