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April 4, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Staying Ahead of the Curve With Pitchers

by Bret Sayre

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We, myself included, as a fantasy community are obviously focused on stats, and for good reason. We can look at Zack Greinke’s FIP and think that he's going to improve his raw stats in 2013. We can look at Jon Lester's declining swinging-strike rate and wonder whether we've already seen his best production. The problem is that we're only looking at part of the equation. As helpful as some of these advanced stats are, the game is not played in a vacuum, and we are not allergic to small sample sizes. If you're an active owner, you can take advantage of pitchers’ schedules in order to get the most value out of your team. And I'm not just talking about streaming starters with good matchups.

The idea is simple. Projecting a pitcher’s medium-term schedule, anywhere from four to six starts out, can give you an advantage that other owners are not using. These pitchers are occasionally waiver-wire fodder, making them easy to obtain, but more often they can be other teams' starters—ones that are either about to hit a particularly easy/difficult stretch, or just came out of one.

The process includes three major factors, which help in different ways: opponent quality (wins), opponent contact rate (strikeouts), and park factor (ratios). If you have C.J. Wilson and his next four starts are against Oakland, Seattle, Minnesota, and Houston, then we're in business. If you have Jonathon Niese and his next four starts are at PETCO, at Marlins Park, and twice at Citi Field, we're also in business. And finally, it’s important to check contact rates, as they don’t always line up with quality of opponent. For example, in 2012, the Rays, Nationals, and Athletics all had top-10 park-adjusted offenses—but they also were three of the six worst offenders in the strikeout department.

So, with all of that in mind, I’m going to take a look at which pitchers have advantageous schedules out of the gate, and a couple that have particularly painful ones. Since it’s the beginning of a new season and I’m feeling generally optimistic, let’s start with the potential outperformers over the next month or so:

Max Scherzer: NYY, @OAK, @SEA, KC, MIN, @HOU

Scherzer has had a difficult time getting going over the course of his career, as evidenced by his career ERAs of 4.55 and 5.03 in April and May, respectively. But if there was ever a schedule built for him to reverse that trend, it’s this one. If you drafted Scherzer and he blazes his way through this group of starts, you could have quite an asset on your hands come the second week of May.

Zack Greinke: PIT, @SD, SD, @NYM, MLW, @SF, MIA

The elbow issue certainly scared many owners off during draft season, but the worst appears to be behind Greinke (fingers crossed). Fortunately for him, what’s waiting once he gets on the mound is essentially a glorified rehab stint. In fact, Greinke won’t throw a single pitch in a hitter-friendly park until the second half of May.

Brad Peacock: OAK, @SEA, @OAK, SEA

After throwing Scherzer and Greinke out there, you’re probably thinking, “that’s great, what about guys who might actually be available in leagues deeper than two-team mixed?” Well, here you go. Brad Peacock got a lot of buzz back in 2011 when he was Dan Straily before Dan Straily was Dan Straily. He lost his mojo last year, as he got knocked around in the Pacific Coast League, but he will get an opportunity in Houston—and this friendly start to the season may buy him a little more rope.

C.J. Wilson: OAK, HOU, DET, @SEA, @OAK, BAL

Wilson was a tale of two halves last season, and his draft stock fell due to his 5.54 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 91 second-half innings. And if you were one of the hesitant Wilson buyers on draft day, you may get a chance to cash in on him early. For those of you counting at home, this makes six starts in a row to begin the season where Wilson will be pitching in pitchers’ parks, including four in his own, or facing poor offenses.

Jordan Zimmermann: MIA, CHW, @MIA, @NYM

Any time a pitcher gets to face the Marlins twice in a month, you can feel pretty confident that it’s going to be a good month. Zimmermann continues to be one of the more underrated pitchers in baseball, but if he starts out 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA, maybe more people will start to pay attention.

And in case you thought I was going to be overly positive during this post, here are two guys who you probably weren’t running to pick up anyway—but after seeing their schedules, you’re likely to run away even faster.

Luis Mendoza: @PHI, TOR, @BOS, @DET
Jonathan Sanchez: @LAD, @ARZ, STL, ATL, @STL

You could not pay me to grab either Mendoza or Sanchez even in a deep single-league format. Well, maybe if you paid me to pick them up and keep them firmly planted on my bench. The upshot to Sanchez having such a brutal schedule is that the faster he’s pushed out of the rotation, the closer we are to seeing Gerrit Cole at the major-league level

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

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