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July 24, 2015

Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner

Week 17

by Wilson Karaman

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There are a whole lot of options this week and very few surefire ones, which always makes for a muddled and messy period to plan for. Just four of our 45 options are of auto-start quality, though the NL has a relatively deep bench of nice options to run from the tier just below the elites. The AL continues what feels like a season-long trend of featuring mediocre options around its soft middle. A full 13 AL starters lump into the “consider” barrel for reasons ranging from poor matchups to poor talent, and the Red Sox’ mystery Monday night starter may just add to the confusion. We remain short the Rockies’ second option as well, and with two non-Coors starts, there’s the faintest of reasons for intrigue about who will get the call.

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

Clayton Kershaw

OAK, LAA

Jose Fernandez

WAS, SDG

Notes:

I know he’s only four starts into the post-Tommy John era, but I’m perfectly content tossing Jose Fernandez back into this bucket and calling it a day. The velocity’s there, the movement’s there—he’s fine to run every time out until further notice.

START

James Shields

@NYM, @MIA

Lance Lynn

CIN, COL

John Lackey

CIN, COL

Julio Teheran

@BAL, @PHI

Jason Hammel

COL, @MIL

Jordan Zimmermann

@MIA, @NYM

Mike Leake

@STL, PIT

Notes:

James Shields’ weird year has continued lately, as he’s now apparently forgotten how to pitch efficiently. He’s averaged over 19.5 pitches-per-inning over his past three starts, walking 11 in 15 1/3 and failing to make it through six innings in any of them. He’s been a solid fantasy pitcher this year to be sure, returning top-50 value to date, but that’s not quite what managers paid for. He’s been particularly (and unexpectedly) valuable as a strikeout pitcher, but he’s been a WHIP and ERA liability despite the awesome home park. He’ll have a nice set of matchups this week to help him restore some trade value heading into the deadline.

Jason Hammel appeared healthy in his last start, and honestly that’s the only thing holding him back these days. He’s consistently been a top-15 pitcher by cFIP for the better part of a couple of months now, and his fantasy value has held steady as that of a top-20 starter in standard formats for most of the year as well. These are not gimme matchups by any means, though the Rockies on the road are obviously much less daunting than at Coors. Milwaukee’s offense has been extremely potent for a while now, peaking as a top-three unit over the past month. But Hammel’s earned the right to roll unless he faces the most unwieldy of schedules, and this week’s slate doesn’t quite qualify.

Mike Leake’s inclusion here assumes he isn’t dealt in the middle of the work week, which may (should) be an aggressive assumption. But he’s earned some discussion, as he’s working on quite the run of eight quality starts in his last 10 turns with just one meltdown against the Twins staining his recently stellar résumé. He’s managed to find an extra 1.5 mph with his four-seamer this year, and he’s working it away with much greater consistency. The result? A downright terrific 20 percent whiff rate with the pitch and less hard contact across the board. He’s not doing anything revolutionary, but he’s a veteran pitcher who’s found a way to become that much more effective at getting major-league hitters out. He’s held his own against the Cardinals in meetings past, and Pittsburgh’s gutted offense looks increasingly vulnerable of late. I like him to eat a bunch of innings this week with solid-average ratio support.

CONSIDER

Kyle Hendricks

COL, @MIL

Alex Wood

@BAL, @PHI

Chris Heston

MIL, @TEX

Robbie Ray

@SEA, @HOU

Noah Syndergaard

SDG, WAS

Mike Fiers

@SFG, CHC

Charlie Morton

@MIN, @CIN

Jorge De La Rosa

@CHC, @STL

Notes:

As good as his rotation-mate Hammel has been, Kyle Hendricks hadn’t been far behind, at least until his last start. He’s managed to carry over his strong walk rate from last year’s debut while adding more than five percentage points to his whiff rate despite inducing less swinging strikes this year and getting ahead less often. It’s been a witch’s brew, built on better control of a good sinker and better results with his changeup. I remain less convinced of his elite prowess than of Hammel’s, though all indicators point to a solidly above-average starting pitcher here. As noted, the matchups aren’t great, but outside of shallow mixed leagues, they’re probably not disqualifying either.

Alex Wood’s release-point data looks like it was created with a random number generator, and the stuff has regressed notably in bat-missing terms as the league has become more familiar with him. There’s still more than enough deception in his motion to give him above-average potential on any given day when the command is there, and a week like this provides a modestly favorable schedule. The Orioles have developed gradually into a mediocre offense, especially against southpaws, while nobody will mistake the Phillies for the ’27 Yankees. If you can spare the WHIP liability if he’s off his game, he makes for a nice play in most formats this week.

Chris Heston is quickly developing into a candidate for the annually coveted title of best non-drafted free agent in standard leagues. He’s reeled off five consecutive quality starts now, but before everybody gets too excited about that, it’s certainly worth noting that four of those starts came against bottom-six TAv offenses. Our advanced-metrics robots still don’t quite buy in, as his below-average 105 cFIP is just 83rd among starters. It’s a moderately difficult schedule for Heston this week, though the Giants’ best-in-baseball road offense will support him for the trickier of the two draws. I’d cautiously lean toward a start in most formats, but he’s a higher-risk option than his present run of topline success might suggest.

Robbie Ray has been an interesting little pitcher this year. After a stint in the bullpen last season, his velocity ticked up, and he’s held those gains this year after migrating back into Arizona’s rotation. He’s lowered his arm slot and added a sinker, ostensibly to try to mitigate some of his extreme tendencies, and yet he’s still giving up a ton of aerial contact. The good news is he’s kept almost all of it in the yard so far, and seeing as how Major League hitters are rocking a collective .146 average on fly balls that’s a hearty combination for a suppressed BABIP (which he has) and limited damage. Then again, giving up a ton of hard contact is not generally the way to the BABIP gods’ hearts, and Ray’s done plenty of that this year. Our metrics buy the profile to a degree, as his 67 DRA- is supported by the 31st best cFIP among pitchers with at least 50 innings. He gets a down-the-middle slate this week with one slightly tougher matchup (HOU) balanced by one slightly more favorable (SEA). In NL-onlies and deeper mixed leagues he’s probably a go while his mojo remains strong, in shallowed formats you might hedge a bit more if you’ve got some rotation depth.

Mike Fiers’ cFIP has continued to wander north for a while now as his strikeout and walk rates have regressed toward more normal levels, and he’s continued to give up hard contact all over the yard. The schedule is a mixed bag this week to where he’s probably worth the risk in NL-onlies and mid-depth mixed formats where you’re chasing strikeouts, as both the Giants and Cubs have been top-seven teams to run up on for whiffs over the past month.

SIT

Raisel Iglesias

@STL, PIT

Kyle Lohse

@SFG, CHC

Adam Morgan

@TOR, ATL

Notes:

Raisel Iglesias remains far too much of an enigma and a start-to-start liability to recommend for a two-start week, but he’s somebody for the stretch-run radar right now. Earlier in the year he’d shown a significant enough departure in his arm angle between his fastball and everything else to qualify as a tip, but he’s cleaned up the discrepancy notably this month. And for his inconsistent command he’s still struck out a batter an inning thus far in his big league career. Especially with some of the other Reds’ starters figuring to be on the trade block Iglesias figures to get an extended look in the second half, and he’s someone to keep on your radar for his strikeout potential if he can hold his own over his next couple of starts.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AUTO-START

David Price*

@TAM, @BAL

Sonny Gray

@LAD, CLE

Notes:

*Subject to change (of uniform)

STARTS

Masahiro Tanaka

@TEX, @CHW

Anibal Sanchez

@BAL, @TAM

Wade Miley

CHW, TAM

Notes:

I really don’t entirely trust Anibal Sanchez, but the fact of the matter is he’s on a very nice streak of working deep into games. And for the little it’s worth that habit has resulted in seven wins out of his last eight turns with good enough ratios supporting it. He’ll get two lower-half offenses this week, so it makes for a good chance to continue that streak, and the kind of bulk accumulation of strikeouts he can pile up against two of the five most whiff-prone squads in baseball makes him a nice play.

As Ryan Morrison kindly pointed out in greater detail than I was prepared to go into, Wade Miley has pitched better than you think. The moral of that story: He’s made some notable changes in attack and execution, has improved his baseline performance from last year, and has run into some awful luck at times. That latter point is a key one, as Miley not counting last night’s start Miley had imploded for five or more earned runs five times out of his 19 starts to date, but he’s also drawn one of the toughest schedules to date: 11 of those 19 have come against top-10 teams in TAv, with another three against top-15 opponents. He’ll finally get a breather this week with two awful offenses rolling into town, and I like him pretty well across the board this week.

CONSIDER

Trevor Bauer

KCR, @OAK

Jeff Samardzija

@BOS, NYY

Collin McHugh

LAA, ARI

Hisashi Iwakuma

ARI, @MIN

Mike Montgomery

ARI, @MIN

Nathan Karns

DET, @BOS

Ubaldo Jimenez

ATL, DET

Kevin Gausman

ATL, DET

Matt Shoemaker

@HOU, @LAD

Chase Anderson

KCR, @OAK

Ivan Nova

@TEX, @CHW

Mike Pelfrey

PIT, SEA

John Danks

@BOS, NYY

Notes:

This is a really weird week of matchups to project for a guy like Trevor Bauer: Two of the four lowest team strikeout rates in the league, but also two of the three offenses least likely to walk. The story of a Trevor Bauer start often comes down to those two metrics, and this week he’ll face opponents who split right down the middle in terms of being unlikely to exploit his greatest weakness while being relatively immune to his strengths. In terms of aggregate strength of schedule this one’s pretty neutral too, with a slight tip of the scale in Bauer’s direction on account of just how bad the A’s have been lately. I’m inclined to roll with him where I have him, but it’ll be an uncomfortable sort of feeling setting that lineup.

Both Seattle options come with intrigue and question marks, all wrapped up in a fairly manageable schedule for the week. Iwakuma has the potential to provide a huge boost to teams who weathered his absence, as a healthy Hisashi has top-25-starter upside. His splitter still looks to be short a tick and some of its late life, and his slider hasn’t shown up yet either. He’s going to need both pitches to return in full, and his performance with those two offerings over his next couple starts should be watched closely. Mike Montgomery’s magic carpet ride has slowed over his past handful of starts, including an eight-run pummeling in his last turn. The peripherals never quite supported what he was doing out of the gate, and the current 32-point gap between his DRA- (76) and cFIP (108) is among the larger spreads of all starting pitchers. Depending on your league context either looks like a viable starter next week, but there’s plenty of cause to pause on both.

I wrote up Nathan Karns recently as a nice second-half trade target, but that sentiment was presented in a vacuum and certainly not on the brink of a two-start week that includes Detroit. The tire fire in Boston on the back end helps mitigate some of the risk here, but it’ll still require a leap of faith best reserved for AL-onlies to run him this week in spite my optimism.

The Orioles face a quintessential yes-no week, where the Freeman-less and eminently beatable Braves offense rolls into town followed by a Detroit offense that has remained excellent even in its Miggy-less form. The roughed up Ubaldo Jimenez the last time those two made each other’s acquaintance, and he remains one of the less-efficient starters you’ll find. Gausman’s been all over the map, both literally and, since his return to the rotation, figuratively as well. The former probably makes for the “safer” play of the two in AL-only formats, with appeal that drifts into deep mixed league territory, but neither makes for a particularly comfortable start.

Ivan Nova has pitched well since returning from Tommy John surgery, and one of the primary drivers of his success has been working the ball down in the zone more frequently. That hasn’t necessarily translated from command that’s all the way back just yet, however. He’s held on to a strong ground-ball rate, but he’s not generating as many whiffs as he had pre-injury and with a 48.5% first-pitch-strike rate, he’s pitching from behind far too often. Provided they haven’t all been traded, the Rangers will offer a stiff test on the road, and while the White Sox still aren’t a good offense they’ve at least performed like a mediocre one over the past month, and that’s a dramatic improvement. I’d tend towards bearishness with Nova.

Our Mike Pelfrey embargo… remains in effect.

There may be a touch of bias in this next statement, but I’d be pretty tempted to start a paper bag full of whiffle balls against the stupid Red Sox stupid offense these days, especially if the bag was left-handed. John Danks isn’t quite that bad an option, but he’s not a great one either. The Yankees have pummeled southpaws about as well as anyone this year, and that end of the draw is enough for me to avoid Danks in most AL-onlies. If you’re desperate I could see gambling on him surviving that one for the Win potential at Fenway, though.

SIT

Chris Young

@CLE, @TOR

Edinson Volquez

@CLE, @TOR

Matt Harrison

NYY, SFG

Martin Perez

NYY, SFG

Felix Doubront

PHI, KCR

Notes:

As has been the case for most of the year, an @TOR designation really is a week-killer for most pitchers in baseball, and the two Kansas City hurlers slated for a trip through the Rogers Centre are no exception. Chris Young against that lineup in that ballpark will be an interesting case study in execution, regression, and baseball in general. Cleveland’s offense hasn’t been particularly potent at all, but they’re a decent enough squad that when paired with a dagger of a two-start schedule partner I wouldn’t feel comfortable running out any league-average starter for the week. Young (108 cFIP) and Volquez (111) fit that bill in spades.

Matt Harrison and Martin Perez both make for good mixed league monitors over the next couple weeks as possible stretch-run spot starters, but in AL-onlies there’s a good chance one or both are already owned. Harrison put together one of the more impressive outings you’ll see at Coors last time out, but undergoing major back surgery on the heels of a second shoulder surgery is not a recipe for immediate trust upon return. Perez has the higher upside of the two, but his command has looked spotty against a couple good offenses out of the gate and there’s no need for him to rush him into your rotation just yet.

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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