July 31, 2015
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
For the first time in what feels like a very, very long time the upper hand is on the American League’s foot this week. Despite 22 options to the junior circuit’s 19, the picture is far murkier for NL-only managers this week, as a full 16 of those options are at-best guys to consider. By contract more than half of the AL pool is either a straight “start” recommendation or very close to it. This schedule still remains very much subject to change depending on what trades may or may not happen over the rest of the day. It’s worth noting that none of the most prominently discussed potential trade pieces are lined up next week, though any of these two-start options could end up as collateral damage if a rotation gets shuffled to accommodate a deal.
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!
How good do you think Francisco Liriano has been? Nope, you’re underselling him. Ah, ah, yeah, no, still not there, he’s been better than that. Mmhmm, better than that too. I’m not kidding, no, keep going. Liriano currently sits ninth in cFIP, 13th in DRA-, and 16th in DRA-based WARP. He’s… he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2015.
This isn’t the best schedule in the world for Shelby Miller—beware the road Giants!—but it’s certainly not the worst either, and Miller’s been dynamite at home all year. It’s worth at least monitoring that he’s been gradually moving away from his sinker in favor of more cutters lately, and the latter pitch has played up with the increased usage. He’s also seen an oddly massive spike in his four-seam whiff rate this month that makes for a curious development. He generally maintains an above-average rate with the pitch to begin with, but he’s been reserving it almost exclusively for deployment to the northern portions of the zone and above this month with great results.
Your first intuition may be to look at John Lackey’s recent performance and schedule this week and think all systems are a go, but not quite so fast. The Brewers have quietly produced as one of the top offenses in baseball for a couple months running now after a sluggish start to the season, and the Reds have knocked Lackey around a bit in the past (though he worked ‘em over right proper in his last start). Still, it’s important not to get too carried away with matchup data for a guy like Lackey, who has been tremendous pretty much from the jump this season in St. Louis. Interestingly, our advanced metrics don’t love him; he’s barely above-board in DRA- and cFIP projects a below-league-average pitcher going forward. Yet he’s allowed more than three runs exactly once in 17 starts since April now, and that kind of consistency carries a tremendous amount of fantasy value. There might be enough here in the matchups to raise an eyebrow or two if your ratios are in a tenuous spot in an innings-capped league, but Lackey should be a go in pretty much all formats.
Patrick Corbin’s stuff has looked very good since his return to the rotation. He’s shown life on the fastball, generating significantly more whiffs in and out of zone with the pitch, and both his slider and change have shown significantly more bat-missing ability than average. The matchups square in his favor, and he has the potential to be one of the better under-the-radar guys in the second half for NL-only and medium-depth mixed managers who stashed him on the DL all season. I’d lean toward a start in most formats while he’s fresh and healthy.
Andrew Cashner has had an odd season in terms of run support and consistency, and he’s one of the tougher nuts to crack for determining second-half value. On the one hand his whiffs are up and he hasn’t suffered a catastrophic arm injury (yet) for the first time since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. On the other, his velocity’s been ever-so-slightly creeping south over the past month-and-a-half, and he’s not generating groundballs with quite the vim and vigor to which we had become accustomed. It’s a mixed bag of starts this week, with a tough trip to Milwaukee balanced out by a tasty visit from the terrible Phillies. I’d lean towards running him in most formats, but it’s a really tough call that should be context-dependent on the state of your pitching staff.
As exciting as the Cubs’ young nucleus of premium offensive talent is, it’s important to remember that young hitters are exploitable hitters, and over the past month the lineup on the north side has learned that the hard way. The Cubs rank as a bottom-three unit over the past thirty days, while the Freeman-les Braves have not been much better. I don’t particularly trust either of the San Francisco hurlers line up for two, but as NL-only matchup plays you could certainly do worse than either Matt Cain or Jake Peavy.
The Nationals knocked Tom Koehler around in his last start, and that broke up a nice little string of six consecutive quality starts in which he’d won four and put up a 1.62 ERA and 0.92 WHIP across 39 innings. His slider is working with slightly more movement and a full two mph more separation off his fastball than it did earlier in the season, and he’s getting better results with the present version. There’s nothing particularly exciting about him as a pitcher, but he’s been a remarkably stable back-end piece for NL-only managers this year and he gets a nice draw of matchups this week. He makes for a nice play in –onlies and even deeper mixed formats.
Zack Godley’s an interesting arm, and he’s acquitted himself decently in his first two big-league starts, albeit against less-than-stellar opposition. He sat mid-90s with heavy sink on his fastball when I saw him with Visalia earlier in the year. His cutter and curveball both showed enough depth and movement to aid in the quest for groundballs, and it made for an intriguing combination. The command of the arsenal was a work in progress, and you saw some of that inconsistency in his last turn against Seattle, with more balls elevated and promptly thwacked around the yard. He’ll draw a set of matchups that play to his strengths this week, however, with two teams in the Nats and Reds that put the ball on the ground more than most. I wouldn’t dabble in anything shallower than a 12-team –only or 18-plus mixed, but he’s a guy to keep on the radar in shallower formats too.
Out of 147 pitchers who have thrown at least 55 innings this year, the Phillies have two of the eight worst, according to cFIP, in their rotation. Jerome Williams is one of those two. This is a tasty little matchup week for an NL-only play, but not for a dude like Williams. Don’t let temptation get the better of you; he shouldn’t be on your roster.
King Felix… @COL… King Felix… @COL… mmmm, King Felix. One of about a half-dozen dudes who wins that coin flip.
Corey Kluber’s velocity is down about two ticks since May, and he’s been worked to heavy pitch counts during that stretch. His effectiveness hasn’t been compromised yet, but it’s at least something worth noting, especially as he heads out to the west coast to take on baseball’s best offense over the past month.
Jake Odorizzi with the hammer of a schedule this week. The White Sox offense has been better of late, but it’s still not good, and the Mets are… anyway, he’s a good pitcher with a great schedule. No further analysis required here, he’s an across-the-board start.
Both newly-minted Astro Scott Kazmir and his rotation-mate Lance McCullers will bring nice recent resumes into a strong schedule week next period. Over his last eight starts Kazmir is sporting a 1.17 ERA and 0.76 WHIP, and he certainly didn’t miss a beat in firing off seven shutout innings in his first turn with an Astros jersey on his back. He’s a borderline auto-start right now, and the matchups do nothing to jeopardize that. Meanwhile, McCullers has been outstanding in his own right. His 88 cFIP suggests a top-30 pitcher, and that’s right in line with his per-inning accrued value in standard 5x5 formats. This is a difficult combination of opponents for strikeout purposes, but everything else looks mighty nice on paper for both starters.
This might be my least enthusiastic “start” recommendation of all time, but Colby Lewis makes for a nice play this week. His fly ball tendencies jive well with an Astros team that is hitting more of them than any other team in baseball, while Seattle is a nice destination for a pitcher with a batted ball profile so inclined. Outside of a 10-run disaster against the Angels at the beginning of the month, Lewis has been solid in the other nine of his previous 10 starts. He’s built up more than enough surplus value at this point that you might as well keep milking that cow until it tastes sour.
I went back and forth about Jose Quintana for a while. He’s really been exactly what you should’ve expected him to be when you drafted him. He’s posted quality starts in ten of his eleven starts since the beginning of June, and he posted an awesome 40 strikeouts to two walks in 42 July innings. Both the Rays and Royals hit lefties reasonably well, and there are enough guys in Kansas City’s lineup who have had some success against Quintana that maybe you think about sitting him in the shallowest of leagues. But on whole he’s been a very good starter this year and very likely belongs in your active rotation next week.
You know who’s pitching pretty well of late? R.A. Dickey. After locking down the terrible Philadelphia offense in his last turn he’s now given up just five earned over his last four starts (33 1/3 innings), delivering a quality start each turn. I don’t generally put too much stock in previous batter-versus-pitcher stats in making out these rankings, but in Dickey’s case there are eight Yankee regulars with at least 20 career plate appearances, and only one of them—Jacoby Ellsbury—has managed an .800 OPS against him. All told Yankee hitters are a collective .224/.272/.342 against Dickey historically, and that’s over a not-small 246 plate appearance sample. Between that and a mediocre Twins lineup at home on the front end Dickey makes for a nice stream in most mixed leagues and a solid AL-only play.
The good news for Justin Verlander managers is that he hasn’t lost any more velocity this year, as his 93.3 mph average mirrors exactly his tally from a year ago. His back-to-back eight-inning gems have been fun to see, though it’s worth noting he faced two struggling offenses. His eight starts have been consistently inconsistent, with five starts of two runs or less on one side of the coin and three starts of six-plus on the other. It’s a relatively even-up schedule, all things considered, meaning I get to punt this one to you for league context. In deeper leagues, he makes sense; in shallower ones, he’s probably a gamble you don’t need to take.
As much as I like his rotation-mate Dickey as a play this week, I’m that skeptical of Marco Estrada. The Yankees in the Bronx are just about one of the worst possible on-paper match-ups for Estrada. Estrada gives up a ton of fly-ball contact, the Yankees hit a ton of flyballs, and of the flyballs they hit, a well-above-average percentage end up over a fence. Estrada actually owns a reverse split thanks to a very good changeup, though he’s been rapidly getting away from the pitch lately and his whiff rate has declined markedly with it when he has thrown it. He’s been walking a tightrope with a homerun rate currently sitting about four percentage points south of his career average this season, and if you wanted to pitch a match-up to project regression to the norm this one would be as good as any.
Chris Bassitt has actually been pretty solid since moving into the Oakland rotation, but I don’t think I’m quite at the point where trusting him in a two-start week. He doesn’t miss quite enough bats to pique the interests of the mixed-league population at large, and the contact profile suggests his .248 BABIP is more smoke than substance. Houston’s an offense you can poke with a stick if you’ve got a couple bat-missers in your arsenal, but a fly ball pitcher without a put-away is a much dicier proposition. He’s a guy to monitor now with Kazmir out of the picture, but not quite someone I’d stream at this stage.
I was really feeling what Ervin Santana had done in his first few starts since his suspension ended, but then he went out and laid an egg against a beatable Pirate lineup in his last turn, and now I’m right back to casting a weary eye his way. His slider’s shown an extra little jump of bite to it, leading to a higher whiff rate with the pitch and a helpful bump to the four-seamer’s effectiveness as well. If this were a normal schedule in a two-start week I may be more willing to waive the results in his last start in AL-only leagues, but with a dreaded @TOR matchup on the docket there’s just too much risk there. He’s a guy who’s probably worth a claim wherever he’s available, and I’ll be watching these two starts like a hawk, but I won’t run him while I do.