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May 27, 2016

Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner

Week Nine

by Greg Wellemeyer

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Welcome to the starting pitcher planner, where every Friday I’ll be taking a look at the pitchers slated for two turns in the upcoming week. The hope is that the planner can help guide lineup and FAAB decisions that need to be made over the weekend. Of course, my information isn’t perfect and I don’t have a crystal ball. Rain, injuries, and teams reshuffling between when I write and Monday’s first pitch will definitely happen. If new information comes to light after we publish, I’ll try to tackle it in the comments. Feel free to beat me to it if you have any info, and I’ll be glad to offer my opinion there if you want it.

Let’s get some ground rules out the way before getting started. The pitchers will be split by league and then by category. Here are some general thoughts about the categories:

Auto-Starts: You paid a big price 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 pitch their way on to or fall off of this list as the season evolves. There won’t be many notes associated with this group, unless a player has just moved up or is in imminent danger of moving down.

Starts: These are the pitchers I’m recommending you give the ball to this week. Some will be obvious, though not quite auto-start excellent. Others will be lesser talents who find themselves with a pair of favorable outings that you can take advantage of.

Considers: These guys will be on the fence and your league settings and position in the standings will play a big role in your decision. A pitcher in this category can be an SP2 or SP3 with a tough week of matchups. Conversely, he could be a team’s number five who happens to be lined up against a couple basement dwellers. Your particular league context carries the day 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.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Jake Arrieta

LAD, ARI

Gerrit Cole

@MIA, LAA

Jose Fernandez

PIT, NYM

Aaron Nola

WAS, MIL

START

Jason Hammel

LAD, ARI

Jeremy Hellickson

WAS, MIL

Tanner Roark

@PHI, @CIN

Jeff Samardzija

@ATL, @STL

James Shields

@SEA, COL

Hammel is a good reminder that we shouldn’t subconsciously discount a player when it’s obvious that some run prevention regression is coming. Sure, his HR/FB rate, BABIP, and strand rate—all of which are currently career bests—are going to worsen. However, besides a spike in ground-ball rate, Hammel is essentially the guy we thought he was two months ago, which is to say that he’s a solid option who can provide adequate stats across the board with an above-average likelihood of picking up wins.

The Brewers are a potentially scary opponent for Hellickson, who hasn’t stopped giving up big flies even as the rest of his game has improved. On the other hand, the Brew Crew strikes out a league-leading 27.6 percent of the time against righties. Both they and the Nationals like to draw walks, but Hellickson has been stingy in that regard, walking more than one batter only twice in ten starts. His renaissance is being led by an improved changeup that was formerly a mediocre pitch, but has been one of the best of its kind in 2016, producing weak contact and a substantial increase in whiffs per swing.

I still don’t really buy Roark’s performance to date, despite the fact that he’s generating more soft contact than any pitcher in the league. Roark is four percentage points higher than Arrieta, who has the second highest mark among qualifiers. That’s a huge departure from Roark’s historical norm, a shift I can’t reconcile with a quick study of the data. Matchups against the Phillies and Reds are two good reasons to suspend my disbelief for a week.

Shark is having an excellent bounce-back year. He’s throwing hard stuff nearly 80 percent of the time, and the distribution of his fastball usage continues to shift away from a standard four-seamer. Samardzija has relied heavily on his cutter in 2016 and he’s throwing his sinker more often than he did last season too. The result, as you might expect, has been a surge in his ground-ball rate. Between that, the new home park, and his typically low walk rate, Samardzija’s ratios have been stellar and there’s not much reason to suspect they’ll deteriorate significantly.

A week in which Shields will face two top-10 offenses is probably the exact wrong time for me to back off the claim that his season is about to turn for the worse. With a dearth of other obvious options in the senior circuit this week, I’m okay advising the volume play here in case Shields continues to outperform his peripherals, which he’s managed to do for… well… five years.

CONSIDER

Chad Bettis

CIN, @SD

Patrick Corbin

HOU, @CHC

Rubby De La Rosa

HOU, @CHC

Mike Foltynewicz

SF, @LAD

Junior Guerra

STL, @PHI

Matt Harvey

CHW, @MIA

Jon Gray

CIN, @SD

Scott Kazmir

@CHC, ATL

Carlos Martinez

@MIL, SF

Dan Straily

@COL, WSH

Matt Wisler

SF, @LAD

Alex Wood

@CHC, ATL

It’s a very crowded group in the Consider section this week, with several good pitchers going through a rough patch and/or facing difficult competition, and a few lesser starters drawing an easy slate.

It doesn’t get any softer than this for the Rockies pair of Bettis and Gray. If you own either and don’t start him here, you might as well throw him back and grab somebody else.

Corbin’s changeup has always been his worst pitch and now he’s throwing it harder. With his fastball velocity simultaneously backing up, there’s just not enough velocity separation for the offspeed pitch to be effective. His teammate, De La Rosa, was shelled in first start in ten days. The Pirates do that to plenty of pitchers, though, and the signs before his layoff were very encouraging. With the Diamondbacks traveling to Wrigley, I’ll err on the side of caution with each next week.

I suspect many a fantasy player is outright ignoring the Braves, so the performance of Wisler and Folty may be going somewhat unnoticed. The former has been especially good, turning in four consecutive quality starts. Wisler has limited strikeout upside and his fly-ball tendency leaves his ERA susceptible to the vagaries of HR/FB rate. He’s been extraordinarily lucky in that regard so far, unlike his rotation mate, Foltynewicz. Then again, Folty’s never been afraid to give up bombs. Unless you’re chasing wins, I like both of these guys as cheap plays next week.

Four of Guerra’s five starts have come against the Angels, Reds, Padres, and Braves. He’ll always have that impressive eleven strikeout outing against the Cubs, but keep your expectations in check here given the background and excessively soft competition.

Nice try, universe. I’m not wading into the Harvey commentary game. He’s deserving of the bench (not a drop) in shallow formats, but before you compulsively make that move in deeper contexts, have a look at the names below. Are you sure that’s where Harvey belongs, even in the midst of his current struggle?

Kazmir and Wood have pitched better than their surface numbers suggest, each striking out more than a batter per inning. They make for fine trade targets, even if my recommendation this week is mild because of the early-week series against the Cubs. Note that Wood got bumped from his scheduled start today because of triceps soreness and the arrival of Julio Urias.

After a strong start to the season, Martinez has really struggled in May, posting a 6.84 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in 25 frames spread over five starts. His velocity is all the way back to where it was this time last year, so it’s not fair to tie his struggles to late-2015 shoulder woes. Martinez’s command just hasn’t been good enough, and he’s not getting batters to chase. I think a rebound is coming, but I want to see signs of it before I start him with any confidence.

Straily turned in seven dominant innings against the Dodgers on Wednesday, striking out 11 and allowing only four baserunners. Lady luck is still smiling on him, but the strikeouts will be there and he’s a decent deep-league gamble, even when the context is tough, as it is next week.

SIT

Andrew Cashner

@SEA, COL

Jeff Locke

@MIA, LAA

Justin Nicolino

PIT, NYM

Jake Peavy

@ATL, @STL

Wily Peralta

STL, @PHI

Daniel Wright

@COL, WSH

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AUTO-START

Corey Kluber

TEX, KC

Jose Quintana

@NYM, @DET

START

Kevin Gausman

BOS, NYY

Hisashi Iwakuma

@SD, @TEX

Nate Karns

@SD, @TEX

Lance McCullers

@ARI, OAK

Collin McHugh

@ARI, OAK

Drew Smyly

@KC, @MIN

Jordan Zimmermann

@LAA, CHW

A date with the Red Sox is damn near enough to disqualify a pitcher from Start status these days, but I’m bullish enough on Gausman that I’m willing to roll the dice. His fastball velocity is obviously premium, but his splitter will dictate whether he reaches the next level. Gausman has started throwing that offering more as of late, a good sign given its extreme horizontal plane and swing and whiff rates that compare favorably to Danny Salazar’s nasty version.

Iwakuma has taken a step back this season. His fastball is down a tick in his age-35 season, his command has wavered, he’s shedding groundballs across his repertoire, and his breaking pitches have been somewhere between ineffective (slider) and awful (curve). Those are all reasons to be concerned, yet Iwakuma has been roughly league average and draws the Padres in Petco.

Karns continues to use his curveball more than any pitcher this side of Rich Hill and he’ll do it in any situation—against righties or lefties, ahead, behind, first pitch, strikeout pitch. That can’t work for everyone, but Karns’ hard, biting deuce pairs nicely with his rising heater. Karns won’t take the next step until he trims his walk rate, but he’s a good strikeout play no matter the opponent and a decent ratio bet when the opponents are weak.

Funny these two are back to back, because McCullers resembles Karns in both pitch mix and movement. The young Astro has a little more gas, which gives him more ceiling, and thus more fantasy appeal. Like Karns, McCullers won’t reach that ceiling until he stops giving away baserunners. He is only two starts into his 2016 season, so I’ll give him some more time to shake the rust off before I pass a more definitive judgment, and I’m happy to indulge the upside in the meantime.

McHugh rebounded nicely from a dreadful start to the season, including 16 strikeouts against two walks in his last 12 1/3 innings of work. McHugh was a little hittable in his last start and didn’t make it out of the sixth, but the return of some semblance of strikeout stuff is a welcome sign for his fantasy owners, whose patience has surely been tested in 2016. There’s more correction coming, as his .382 BABIP will drop both because it’s simply an unsustainable number and because there’s nothing in McHugh’s performance that is substantially different than what he’s done over his career, during which he’s registered a .310 mark.

Every time I think I’m ready to promote Smyly to auto-start status, he does something that makes me walk back. He’s just been a little too inconsistent and doesn’t pitch deep enough into games to be an SP2, even if the underlying per-inning performance makes him frequently look like one.

Zimmermann is getting skipped this week because of a strained groin. The Tigers are saying he’ll be ready to go next time around, so for now he’s in line for a double-up next week. Zimmermann hasn’t been nearly as good as his 2.52 ERA suggests. His strikeout rate is a bottom-20 mark among qualifiers and I don’t think those whiffs are coming back. Assuming you agree that the ratios are going to worsen, he has limited appeal in weeks where he doesn’t get to face, say, the Angels.

CONSIDER

Matt Andriese

@KC, @MIN

Tyler Duffey

@OAK, TB

Danny Duffy

TB, @CLE

Marco Estrada

NYY, @BOS

Martin Perez

@CLE, SEA

Ervin Santana

@OAK, TB

Josh Tomlin

TEX, KC

Steven Wright

@BAL, TOR

Andriese has unexpectedly stuck in the Rays rotation, turning in three quality starts in four tries, including a complete game, two hit shutout of the A’s. The upside is capped, but he is a borderline Start this week.

Duffey has given up 11 earned runs in his last two starts, after a solid first four. That the 25-year-old began the year in Triple-A, despite pitching to a 3.10 ERA in 58 rookie innings for an organization not exactly flush with big league pitching talent probably tells you what you need to know.

Tyler’s cousin, Danny, will make his third and fourth starts of 2016 next week, as he continues to stretch out after beginning the year in the ‘pen. I’m interested to see where this goes, but content to see more before I give him the ball. I mean “more” quite literally, as it’s hard to give him the ball when he can’t go deep enough to qualify for a win.

I keep expecting Estrada to give back all the 2015 gains and he keeps holding them. Getting better, even. I’ll pass on a start in Fenway, though.

I generally try to avoid anyone with strikeout or walk rates like Perez’s, much less both, but he’s working on a nice string of starts and the Indians and Mariners aren’t nearly as tough on southpaws as they are on right-handers.

Ervin Santana: league-average starting pitcher. Again. You could argue for him in the Start section given the opponents.

Tomlin has given up at least one home run in all but one of his eight starts this season, poor luck that has perhaps balanced out the good juju on balls in play. I suspect he is still flying under the radar, despite a walk rate that is second only to Kershaw. Tomlin was especially dominant in his last two starts, in which he gave up four earned runs in 15.2 innings, struck out 13, and walked just a pair.

It would be a fair criticism to say I’ve been too slow to warm to Wright and that his placement here is an indication that I’m still irrationally pessimistic. The body of evidence is big enough now that I’m coming around, but a week with starts in Baltimore and against the Jays isn’t the time to jump him a group.

SIT

Clay Buchholz

@BAL, TOR

Jhoulys Chacin

DET, @PIT

Dillon Gee

TB, @CLE

Kendall Graveman

MIN, @HOU

Ivan Nova

@TOR, @BAL

CC Sabathia

@TOR, @BAL

Anibal Sanchez

@LAA, CHW

Tyler Wilson

BOS, NYY

I suspect the placement of these Yankees will raise some eyebrows, considering their success so far. I’m really pulling for Sabathia and hope this is real. Even though he just threw six shutout in Camden last week, rolling with him on the road against these two opponents just isn’t worth the risk.

Greg Wellemeyer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Greg's other articles. You can contact Greg by clicking here

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Tools of Ignorance: Th... (05/26)
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