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*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – September’s Drive To Survive: Starting Pitchers

22 Sep
*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – September’s Drive To Survive: Starting Pitchers

After spending a great portion of both the Spring and Summer without a functioning personal computer, I am finally back at school, and capable of writing up baseball posts again while I try and solve my laptop issue. I hope to keep you all informed on the comings and goings of the fantasy universe throughout the rest of the season, which hopefully includes a review of most, if not all, of the big names and sleepers of the 2015 campaign. 

You’d be amazed how quickly perspectives could change in September. Division leads could evaporate into heated dogfights between rivals jostling for position, supposed “aces” of staffs could collapse and fall victim to the fatigue of the stretch run, and everyday players’ groin strains or hamstring ailments, usually requiring brief 5-15 day stints on the bench or in Minor League rehab, could shelve them for the rest of the year. These unfortunate occurrences have the potential to be death to a Major League squad, and surprisingly enough they’ve become a natural part of the game. Anything could happen, and anything does happen quite a lot in baseball during those final 30-35 days of the season.

The worst part is realizing that these circumstances play a substantial role in the complexion of your fantasy team. All the hard work you may have put in to your pitching staff in order to get your foot in the door of the postseason could be vanished by terms as haunting as “innings limit” or “skipped starts.” Teams who fall apart and lose their ways could damage the confidence of their star players, thus leading to individual cold stretches that just so happen to have spurred right when your matchups began to count more than ever. Moreover, these developments, as I’ve already hinted, usually never reach a solution at this point of the baseball season. Half of your entire roster can consist of players who carried your team all year long, and are having as difficult a time staying on the field as they are producing to their expected level of output. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact September call-ups could lay in the aftermath of all this.

If you’re not in the playoffs for your current fantasy baseball league, this probably isn’t the article for you. Quite a few no-names are expected to pop up throughout this post, with the focus falling squarely on helping competing owners get a competitive edge in any feasible way possible. Those who are out of it are either scoping out players they can’t wait to draft next season, or deciding who their flex is going to be this Sunday in fantasy football. If you believe that you fall into said categories, very little here will interest you. As for the rest, I am prepared to drop the insight you’ll need to bring the fantasy title home.

Today’s post covers pitchers, mostly starters, who are available in a wide variety of ESPN leagues (no more than 40% owned,) and carrying the upside necessary to make a positive difference in your roster. Be mindful of the fact that I will be referring to general peripherals more often than I usually feel comfortable with (like ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts, instead of batted ball and plate discipline data,) considering that there are only two weeks left in the baseball season, and individual performance can swing greatly on a day-to-day basis.

Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays (39.9%)

Take a moment to imagine what getting six months and 200 innings out of Drew Smyly could do for your fantasy team. Acquired from the Tigers last season in the then-blockbuster David Price trade, the 26-year old left-hander has rode the Rays’ insistence to consistently pitch up in the strikezone to the tune of a 2.74 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and +9 K/9 in over 100 innings pitched for the Rays. If I so happened to extrapolate his 2015 numbers into a full, injury-free campaign, he’d rank just past the top-15 for qualified starting pitchers! To sum it all up – Smyly has absolutely dazzled since moving to Tampa, and the adjustments he’s made to his pitch sequencing and location has paid off across the board, resulting in the makings of a dark horse ace both in real life and fantasy baseball. Even with his complete inability to keep the ball on the ground (32.9% FB rate would rank 4th lowest among all starting pitchers if he qualified) and even more alarming inability to keep the ball in the yard (16.2% HR/FB and 1.82 HR/9 rates,) Smyly has put together a solid 3.64 ERA and 1.18 WHIP to go along with an elite 10.27 K/9 and 21.3% K-BB rate this season. It’s amazing how incredibly under owned he still is (though a lot of that has to do with his returning from a shoulder tear that almost cost him the entire campaign,) but such unfortunate mishaps have allowed him to quietly emerge as the perfect lighting-in-a-bottle waiver wire add while the getting’s still good. Just remember that his flyball tendencies leave the door wide open for a potential 4-inning, 7-earned run shellacking.

Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres (34.9%)

No other starting pitcher in baseball this season has been more polarizing in overall performance than Ian Kennedy. He ranks 20th in the Majors in K/9 with a 9.04 clip, but has matched that with the second-worst HR/9 rate among qualified starting pitchers (1.66.) The result of such remarkably different statistical outliers is an ugly 4.29 ERA, a decidedly average 1.27 WHIP, and a meager win total of 8, cementing his 2015 campaign as a near-massive disappointment to owners who paid too much to acquire him on draft day in the first place. However, if you ever take a moment to look deeper into Kennedy’s exploits you’ll notice that he’s turned a bit of a corner since the All-Star Break. His 3.58 second-half ERA (3.58 xFIP) and 1.21 WHIP has resembled that of a top-30 starting pitcher, especially when you consider his +10 K/9 in that span. However, the homers and walks have been a problem for him all season long, and his last three starts (coming right after a stretch where he racked up 60 K’s and allowed more than three earned runs just once in his previous eight starts) have been collectively putrid. These are all factors you must consider if you’re willing to take a leap of faith on Kennedy the rest of the year, as his batted ball profile and propensity to strikeout a whole lot of hitters suggest that, even with the improved second-half numbers, he’s a roll of the dice every time out. Can he continue to pitch like the 3.58 xFIP starting pitcher he’s been for the final two weeks of the season? Or will the home runs and walks eat him up and spit him alive? Those in NL-Only leagues have no excuse not to add him for his upside, but in deeper mixed leagues Kennedy could very well be the difference between a championship or a waste of a six-month investment.

Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles (37.7%)

The last thing Wei-Yin Chen will compel you to do is awe in astonishment when he’s on the mound. He’s as boring a fantasy starter as they come, but in many ways that’s a great thing. In 20 of his 29 starts this season, Chen has gone at least six innings, with 12 of those involving seven or more frames of work. An even more impressive stat than those follows: 23 of Chen’s 29 starts have seen him pitch at least five innings without allowing more than three earned runs, and in 18 of them he didn’t give up any more than two. Of course, this consistency has been the only net positive to his performance (hence the low ownership rate,) as his league-average 19.3 K percentage and sky-high 1.40 HR/9 rate have helped labeled him as no more than a streaming option in most leagues. If you’re pitching-desperate, however, you can’t afford to let those deficiencies scare you into taking a flier. With only two more weeks left in the season, Chen is a safe bet to continue being as steady as they come.

Kris Medlen, Kansas City Royals (29.9%)

Don’t pick up Kris Medlen expecting him to go all 2012 second-half on the American League, as the Royals are very much content on limiting his pitch count start-to-start, and Medlen doesn’t strike out nearly as many batters now as he did back then. I’m suggesting you do so for his steady, no-nonsense approach to a ballgame; the kind that harkens back to the good ol’ days where 6+ K/9 guys can have plenty success in the Majors just for trusting their defense and forbidding walks. A 53.4% groundball rate and a mid-2 BB/9 add coal to the fire, while helping accentuate Medlen’s appeal as a “reach for the stars” grab, especially in knee-deep mixed leagues. Again, I can’t stress enough how anemic his strikeout totals will be, and like practically every other starter I’ve mentioned so far, home runs appear to be a bugaboo you’ll have to live with, as his 0.92 HR/9 indicates. Still, I like Medlen’s approach a whole lot; he understands the importance of cutting his fastball inside and out to both righties and lefties and enforces that into his pitching style (which is, again, inviting a wealth of contact) as a means to work efficiently and to his pitch limit. Another thing I like about him is his rock solid 25.3% Hard-hit percentage, suggesting that his stuff plays everywhere when his two-seam fastball is REALLY sinking.

Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox (26.3%)

One of the primary culprits for Rick Porcello‘s god-awful performance this season was his pitch sequencing, in which he convinced himself to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone while focusing less on his patented sinker. The results of such are all over his surface stats, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do at this point of the season to pull this campaign anything close to fantasy-relevant. But since returning from a triceps injury late last month, Rick Porcello has strung together four quality starts, all of which resulted in him throwing no fewer than seven innings and allowing no more than three earned runs. With a 34/8 K-BB ratio and 3.06 ERA in his five starts following his exodus from the Disabled List, you’d have no other choice but to believe he’s scrapped his newfound pitching habits. Ask any sabermetrician about such and they’ll confirm it, as Porcello’s sinker usage rate has skyrocketed to its highest clip in years. The groundballs are back in steady form, and the strikeouts have come for him without his ERA taking a hit. Porcello has recently looked like every bit the starting pitcher Boston pursued in the offseason, and although he can’t possibly carry your pitching staff on his own, he definitely deserves to be on it right now.

Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins (21.6%)

The last of the starting pitchers I’m going to discuss ad nauseam, Tyler Duffey has surprised with his emergence into fantasy radars. Since his callup last month, Duffey has gone at least six innings in five starts, racking up seven or more strikeouts in all of them. Despite walking a whole lot of guys already (18 free passes in only 45.2 innings,) he’s managed to only allow three homers while maintaining a mid-8 K/9. Those on the fence about gambling with Duffey should also be aware of the fact that he’s only gotten better over the last couple of weeks; the right-hander has allowed only three earned runs with a 22/4 K-BB ratio in that span. The Twins’ high-powered offense could definitely provide Duffey with a couple more wins as the season winds down, and so long as he keeps up this forward momentum he’ll also help win a championship in a vast majority of deep and AL-Only leagues.

Other starting pitchers worth considering:

Jake Peavy, San Francisco Giants (22.3%,) Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins (21.5%,) Cody Anderson, Cleveland Indians (17.2%,) Jerad Eickhoff, Philadelphia Phillies (8.9%,) Jhoulys Chacin, Arizona Diamondbacks (5.6%)  

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