August 14, 2015
Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner
It’s certainly a tale of two leagues this week, and I’m honestly not sure which one I prefer. The NL is shallow, with both the Mets and Dodgers drawing short schedules, and the Phillies and Marlins dragging their feet on naming starters. That leaves just 15 confirmed options, with only four definite starts. On the flipside of the coin, the AL’s cup runneth over with a full 24 options. Unfortunately it’s a pretty terrible landscape dominated by good starters with terrible schedules and up-and-down rookie pitchers who offer an awful lot of volatility.
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!
I’ve been perhaps overly bearish on Michael Wacha this year, as he’s pretty much been a wire-to-wire top-20 fantasy starter. The underlying metrics haven’t quite supported the performance at any turn, but they’re good enough and the performance sustained long enough to suggest that what we’re seeing is what Wacha is capable of. He’ll draw a pair of favorable matchups this week and should be started without reservations.
Chris Heston has been an interesting guy to watch develop at the MLB level this year. No-hitters are fun, to be sure, but I’ve always been impressed with young pitchers who can come in and sustain success with movement. Heston’s sinker has fringy velocity, but he generates substantial movement with it—and both his breaking balls as well—to feed one of the better ground-ball rates in the league. He’s struggled to harness the movement at times, so the control isn’t ideal, and with his limited velocity he doesn’t get a ton of whiffs either. But the baseline skillset appears sustainable, and there’s nothing wrong with a steady groundballer rounding out your rotation. The matchups aren’t the greatest, either in general or for his particular skills, so it’s not an ideal week to run him. He’s been good enough to warrant serious consideration in spite of the schedule, though.
Raisel Iglesias has put together an interesting debut campaign thus far for the Reds, whiffing a batter an inning on the strength of solid secondary whiff rates, but giving up ample hard contact on those secondary offerings when he misses location (which he is prone to do). He’s shown above-average control thus far, working in-zone more frequently than your average hurler, but looser in-zone command has caused him some trouble. The matchups this week are fairly middle-of-the-road, so he rates as a true toss-up depending on league depth and category context for you.
I’ll defer to J.J. Jansons for all the Colin Rea analysis you’ll need, and second his conclusion about Rea’s fantasy prospects. He’ll be home-and-home this week, which immediately makes him a viable play in NL-only leagues. I’m weary generally of his rookie status and weary in particular of his date with the Cardinals, and I’d caution to keep immediate expectations in check here. But a Padres pitcher with two home starts is a Padres pitcher with two home starts
Matt Wisler’s scouting reports have proven pretty accurate in his first tour through the big leagues, as he’s shown above-average control in the zone but his stuff has produced well-below-average swinging-strike rates and he’s lacked a put-away pitch. He’s also gotten “lucky” with his home run rate, insofar as he’s posted a better-than-expected home-run rate despite extreme fly-ball tendencies. He’ll draw a nice slate of matchups for NL-only purposes, with a trip to Petco and a meeting with the are-they-getting-hot-yet? Cubs at Wrigley. If you’re a gamblin’ type in deeper formats he’s on the table, but I wouldn’t feel great about it.
Jeremy Hellickson has produced some marginally better topline results over the past couple of months, but it’s been the result more of smoke and mirrors than substance. He’s altered his fastball mix to favor more two-seamers, presumably in an effort to limit long-ball damage, but he’s been just as susceptible as ever. He’s also been the worst kind of inconsistent, where he’s thrown well against tougher offenses like Texas and Colorado while struggling against San Diego and banged up Washington. The match-ups great out as more difficult, and I’d just as soon avoid him outside of NL-onlies where you need innings.
Jorge De La Rosa has bucked his career trend this year by finally succumbing to his environment and pitching terribly at Coors, and while the Mets don’t inspire much in the way of fear the Nats have been killing the ball for the last month and have hit well all season against southpaws. I might desperately consider him in deep NL-onlies, but I’d rather not find myself in that position.
I like Adam Conley, as I like all left-handers with solid changeups. He’s a former second-rounder with some pedigree, and he’d appeared to take some interesting steps forward last year before running into requisite young pitcher elbow troubles. He pitched well again at Triple-A this year before getting the call. He’s not, unfortunately, someone who profiles as an under-the-radar emergent fantasy play. The whiff rate isn’t a draw and the control wobbles enough to where he projects as something of a WHIP liability even in the best of outcomes. It’s not a terrible draw this week, and desperate managers in NL-only leagues could probably do worse. But I’m generally not in the business of endorsing a lower tier rookie for two, and I wouldn’t recommend it here.
Danny Salazar is currently 23rd in DRA- and 13th in cFIP on the year, with a good bit of the damage done to his former figure in the pre-Urshela/Lindor era of Cleveland defense. He’s consistently graded out as a top-20 starter in baseball by our advanced metrics all year and should be treated as such in fantasy leagues far and wide.
His last clunker of a start against Seattle notwithstanding, Chris Tillman has really, finally, mercifully appeared to turn a corner over the last month-and-a-half. He’s scaled back his four-seam usage pretty dramatically in favor of more sinkers and cutters, and the switch has helped him rein in the wandering command that undid most of his first half. I don’t entirely trust him for a two-start commitment, but at the same time he’ll draw two of the worst offenses in baseball over the past month, and if you’re not going to start him for a week like this he probably doesn’t belong on your roster.
Taijuan Walker’s season has been one of waves, with a terrible start, elite second act, three-start regression into the pits of awful, and most recently a return to elite production. That current run will be tested and tested fiercely next week, as he’ll draw two of the majors’ top three offenses from the past month next week. He’s come back to his four-seamer over his last handful of starts and all but junked the cutter, and for whatever it may or may not be worth in that small a sample the results have followed. If you believe in the stuff he’s guy you start regardless of matchup, but he’s been inconsistent enough that the extremely unfavorable nature of this week’s schedule should be enough to give even his most ardent backers pause.
Scott Kazmir has been very good all year, and has continued to be very good since joining Houston. By cFIP he shouldn’t be expected to continue producing top-20-starter value as he has for fantasy purposes thus far, but owners shouldn’t expect a fall off the nearest cliff either. This is an unmistakably tough two-start draw, however. The Rays and Dodgers have both been hitting of late, and they’re two of the best teams in baseball against left-handed starters. Kazmir will have the benefit of trying to wrangle both at home, though it should also be noted that both opponents are top-10 squads on the road. I’d lean towards running Kazmir anyway on the strength of his own merits, but it’s a less-uncomfortable play than you’d like to see for your SP2 to be sure.
Edinson Volquez was very close to being able to boast about six consecutive quality starts heading into this two-start week, but he gave it up in the eighth inning of his last start against Detroit. He’s been pitching well of late though, and he’s done it in an interesting way. He’s all but shelved his four-seamer at this point, and he’s been leaning much more consistently on his change-up, which induces a below-average amount of whiffs but a very strong groundball rate. It’s not exactly the awesomest news for fantasy managers hunting strikeouts, but it’s kept Volquez relevant. His schedule this week’s a favorable one, enough to where he’s a probable for AL-onlies and a strong consider in mixed formats.
Kevin Gausman will run into the same extremely favorable schedule as rotation-mate Chris Tillman, but he’ll do so without quite the same pedigree of success and demonstrated adjustment at the Major League level. I’m still riding confidently aboard the Gausman train as a valuable asset in keeper and dynasty formats, but it’s awfully tough to trust a young pitcher so singularly dependent on his fastball to succeed against multiple major-league lineups with consistency. The schedule is so good this week that he makes for a decent gamble in most formats, but it’s important to remember that he does still represent a bigger gamble than most.
Speaking of inconsistent young starters, Carlos Rodon has been nothing if not that. Despite some ugly topline numbers and a 134 DRA- that ranks 138th out of 152 starters, his aggregate indicators suggest more of a marginally below-average starter going forward than a terrible one. And while he remains raw in his ability to consistently harness it, his stuff has been good as advertised. He’ll draw a nice schedule this week, with an Angels team that has continued to produce offensively at one of the least efficient clips in baseball and a Mariners squad that hasn’t been much better. Both have been bottom-third units against southpaws and have strikeout tendencies, making Rodon about as good a play this week as he’s likely to be for the rest of the season. I’ll take him and his strikeout stuff comfortably over rotation-mate John Danks, who will still be a streaming option in deeper mixed and –only formats on account of the same favorable matchup landscape.
Trevor Bauer continues to have one of the more fascinating profiles of any starting pitcher, and by fascinating I mean incredibly difficult to predict. His arsenal is deep, his raw stuff is very good, and his command and control are both sub-par. When you mix it all into the blender together you get a guy who whiffs a batter an inning and generates significantly more poor contact than your average starter, while simultaneously giving up significantly more hard contact, a bunch of home runs, and walking one out of every 10 guys he sees. The Red Sox offense is terrible and for the first time I can remember doesn’t take walks anymore, while that Yankees offense in Yankee Stadium seems like an absolute worst case scenario on paper for Bauer’s skillset. He’s a true toss-up this week depending on your risk tolerance.
Similar to Walker above, both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney this week will have the misfortune of running into the two best offenses in baseball over the past thirty days. Heaney’s the stronger play of the two, as the White Sox have struggled mightily against southpaws for most of the year (though less so of late), but the silver linings are few and far between here. Both are quality pitchers, but the likelihood of either working his way through both of these starts without some ratio damage is pretty significant.
CC Sabathia was one of the guys I highlighted as a potentially cheap back-end target, and cFIP still projects him out as a league-average starter. But he’s successfully defied that possibility for two months and counting now, failing to get into any kind of discernable groove for more than a start or two at a time. If he’s still on your roster he’s there because of his name, and that’s not a good enough reason to trust him for two starts in any format even in spite of a decent enough schedule.
Acquired in the Zobrist deal, Aaron Brooks is a semi-interesting name to keep tabs on in Oakland. He’s a command guy with modest stuff, meaning his WHIP stays around average with minimal walks offset by above-average contact. He’s not a guy who’s going to wow you, but there’s some AL-only intrigue here if he shows he can stay off enough barrels to be effective.
Eduardo Rodriguez has shown more than enough flashes of potential to justify some rare excitement for the future from Red Sox fans, but he’s been maddeningly inconsistent from start to start, and when he doesn’t have it he does not have it. He’s now given up six-plus earned runs in four of his fourteen starts to date, and those are the kind of outings that can destroy your line for an entire week. The opposition is tough enough here where it’s just not a good idea to bank on him escaping both without another blow-up on his tab. Extreme volatility is never something you want to be toying with.