No matter how important you think matchups are in fantasy baseball, one thing is obvious: At no position do they matter more than with starting pitchers.
Just ask those who stream their starters: Who could make that a successful, championship-caliber strategy if dissecting daily matchups didn't provide you with some tangible benefit? Argue all you want that streaming is simply a matter of quantity over quality, and to a degree that's true, but even a stockpile of five-inning, six-run, 10-hit outings won't make much of a dent in a weekly matchup. Picking quality matchups is still very much the key to successful streaming.
For those of you in weekly-transaction leagues, if you put little stock in individual matchups, then surely you are not one of the multitude of fantasy owners who ask the infamous chat question: Would you start so-and-so-really-good-fantasy-ace-you'd-typically-never-sit at Coors Field?
Well, of course I would, silly. Who's going to sit Ubaldo Jimenez, a Colorado Rockies pitcher, in the 15-plus starts he's sure to get at Coors? Talent does tend to rise above even the trickiest matchups. That said, surely we can all agree we'd love it more if all 15-plus home starts of Jimenez's were at Petco Park instead of Coors. As for non-Rockies aces, I'm sure we can all agree, too, that a Roy Halladay road start at Coors won't be regarded nearly equally to one at Petco, even if Halladay's owners would absolutely start him at either venue.
Right there we've identified one (albeit obvious) matchup advantage, and there are plenty more. For those of you formulating your midseason trades, careful examination of the remaining schedules might reveal a helpful nugget for you. As we did in Tuesday's Hit Parade, let's crunch the numbers for remaining schedules for pitchers. You can see full charts detailing my schedule analysis at the end of this column, but below we'll cover some of the highlights.
Before we get started, I do want re-emphasize the point above about talent rising above matchups. For instance, simply because the Seattle Mariners have one of the worst remaining schedules for pitchers doesn't mean you should trade Felix Hernandez straight-up for Randy Wolf, whose team has the best remaining schedule. But if you're stuck with a close call between two comparably valued starters, the nuggets below should help your decision-making.
(Note: In order to keep things equal between hitters and pitchers, my schedule analysis for both was for the games of June 22 and forward, despite the games of June 22 now having been played. So if you're concerned about any change in the numbers, they'd be minimal; the San Francisco Giants have one fewer cozy matchup now after playing the Houston Astros, and the Arizona Diamondbacks have one fewer brutal matchup after playing the New York Yankees. That's about it. Nothing huge.)
Remaining schedule (today through season's end)
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Best schedule: Brewers. Now more than ever you want National League pitchers over American League pitchers if you can help it. That's partly because the AL's collective OPS is 11 points higher than the NL's, but also because the game's truly elite offenses reside in the AL. To that point, the only two teams in the majors with an .800-plus OPS are AL East squads (Boston Red Sox and Yankees), and eight of the top 13 teams in the category hail from the AL. The NL Central is especially well off for pitchers from this point forward, particularly the Brewers. Why them over their division brethren? Because they've already played most of their games against the rival Chicago Cubs (6 games left to play) and St. Louis Cardinals (9), leaving double-digit contests against the Cincinnati Reds, Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates. Overall, the Brewers play only 11 more games all season against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in OPS. So if you're worried that Yovani Gallardo might be due for another sluggish second half, don't sweat it.
Best of the rest: Cubs, Reds, Cardinals. See a theme there? Again, it's a good time to be a pitcher in the NL Central. You can thank the light-hitting Astros and Pirates -- each conveniently not in this group -- for contributing to that.
Worst schedule: Baltimore Orioles, but in no way should that surprise anybody. How would you like to pitch in a division where your four rivals -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays -- all rank among the top 12 teams in terms of OPS? The Orioles find themselves on pace for a whopping 118 losses, they have the AL's worst team ERA (5.03) and they'll play 39 of their remaining 93 games within the division. You couldn't ask for a more challenging environment for young pitchers such as Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman to get adapted to the big league level.
Worst of the rest: Cleveland Indians, Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays. Again, avoid the AL, especially the East, if you can help it.
Second-half schedule (only games after the All-Star break
Best schedule: Cubs. Their second-half opponents have a combined .718 OPS so far this season, which represents the lowest number in that category of any team. Perhaps this offsets the team's Park Factor; Wrigley Field is one of the more hitting-friendly environments in baseball. This Cubs team has been somewhat of a disappointment, currently sitting eight games under .500, but three of their starters have ERAs under 4.00. Perhaps Carlos Silva's hot start won't completely subside? Better yet, maybe Carlos Zambrano might yet have elite-caliber numbers to offer accounting for the schedule? I'm not banking on it, but the case could be made he has a hot streak in his future.
Best of the rest: Reds, Brewers, Cardinals.
Worst schedule: Orioles again. Of their 74 post-break games, 36 will be played against their division rivals, or 48.6 percent. Oh, during that time they also have seven more games against the Detroit Tigers, and four apiece against the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers. All of those teams rank in the top 10 in OPS.
Worst of the rest: Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Mariners, Blue Jays. The Yankees' inclusion in this group is, again, an AL East thing. Remember, CC Sabathia made last week's list of pitchers to target based upon his favorable second-half history, and he surely has the talent to overcome a rough schedule. However, Phil Hughes, whose workload will be closely watched in the second half, might be someone to sell, accounting for both that and his schedule.
First-half schedule (remaining schedule until the All-Star break)
Best schedule: Rangers. All but three of their 19 games between now and the break will be played at Rangers Ballpark, one of the most hitter-friendly venues in the game, but every single one of them will be played against offenses that rank among the bottom 10 in baseball in terms of team OPS. You might not think of names such as Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman, C.J. Wilson or even Tommy Hunter as short-term plug-ins -- or in Lewis' case, a long-term option -- but the schedule says you shouldn't at all dismiss these guys simply because of the ballpark factor.
Best of the rest: Kansas City, Royals, Brewers, Yankees, Athletics.
Worst schedule: Mariners. Seven of their 19 games to conclude the season's traditional first half will be played against the Yankees, and games against the Brewers (3) and Detroit Tigers (3), both ranked in the top 10 in team OPS, won't help matters. Neither does the fact that their closer, David Aardsma, hasn't been nearly as effective as he was during his breakout 2009, putting his starters' wins at greater risk. Unless they're named Cliff Lee or Hernandez, I'm skeptical about Mariners starters the next two and a half weeks.
Worst of the rest: Indians, Twins, Rays, Blue Jays.
Jason Hammel, Rockies: His past four starts have been night-and-day different from his first four starts of 2010 (after which he had a brief stay on the disabled list because of a groin injury). In his first four starts of the season, Hammel had a 9.16 ERA, 1.93 WHIP and .368 batting average allowed. In his past four starts, by comparison, he has a 0.31 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and .231 BAA, not to mention he's in the midst of a streak of 25 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, only 7 1/3 innings shy of the franchise record set by Jimenez less than a month ago. It's good timing for Hammel, considering fellow rotation mate Jorge de la Rosa is due back in a couple weeks, which will increase the level of competition among Rockies starters. If you're wondering about Hammel's chances of maintaining this pace, no, his recent performance isn't sustainable, but why can't he remain a committed starter with a decent amount of fantasy appeal in deeper mixed and NL-only formats? After all, what made Hammel successful last season was improved performance with his curveball, something he has maintained into this season. Inside Edge shows that he has limited opposing hitters to .119/.178/.190 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates with the hook this season, after having .088/.127/.106 rates with it during his breakout 2009.
Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: You'd have to go back to May 8 -- nine starts ago -- to find the last time Johnson allowed more than one run in any of his starts. He has pitched as well as anyone in baseball since that date, with a 0.63 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.1-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his past eight turns, though sketchy run support, unfortunately, has led to a mere 5-1 record during that span. Going back even further, he has 13 consecutive quality starts. We'll let his statistics speak for themselves.
Colby Lewis, Rangers: Though recent starts versus the Brewers and Astros were against two teams that were relatively unfamiliar with his arsenal, Lewis is no longer just a hot starting pitcher you could say is destined to fail in his proverbial "second trip around the league." After 14 Lewis starts now, it's time to brush that aside and believe that he did indeed reinvent himself during his stint in Japan, and that he now rates as one of the more trustworthy fantasy options and a quality strikeout pitcher. He's 3-1 in four starts in June, with a 2.37 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and more than a K per frame. And he's a Rangers pitcher. Again I say, it's time to believe.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: Just how good were his first three big league starts? How about record-setting good? The 32 strikeouts Strasburg amassed during his first three outings were the most all-time by any pitcher in his first three games. What's more, the only real blip on his radar screen was that shaky sixth inning during his second start at Cleveland, and that can be easily explained by his discomfort with the pitching mound, which was affecting his landing spot. Strasburg thus far has flashed talent that can rival that of any pitcher in baseball, and you could make the case he's a top-10 starting pitcher from this point forward. The only knock against him is that he has an innings cap, and that's about the only reason he's not in my top 10.
A.J. Burnett, Yankees: He made this list last week, and thanks to two miserable starts in between publishing dates, he's on the list again this week. Burnett surrendered 13 runs on 15 hits, five of them home runs, in 7 1/3 innings in starts against the Philadelphia Phillies and Diamondbacks in the past week, swelling his season ERA to 4.83. While his history of inconsistency was cited in last week's 60 Feet 6 Inches, one thing to point out about his ERA is that it's his second highest through 15 starts of any season in his career; his 5.42 ERA on this date in 2008 was the only one worse. In other words, even when Burnett has been "inconsistent" in seasons past, he rarely has strayed this far from his norms. A foot injury might be at least partially responsible for this. His pitches have been elevated, as evidenced by his nine homers allowed in four June starts, and that could support that argument. But wouldn't it be smart of the Yankees to skip him for a turn or two if he's truly not 100 percent? If there's any pro-Burnett argument to be made, it's that when he had that ugly 5.42 ERA on June 23, 2008, he rebounded to go 12-3 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in his final 19 starts. As I said, he's consistently inconsistent. Now let's just hope he's not pitching hurt.
Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays: Though at times throughout his young career Garza has looked quite the part of an ace-caliber, top-25 fantasy starting pitcher, it's cold spells like the one he has been in for the past month that continue to keep him just beneath that cutoff. The Marlins teed off on him during his last outing, scoring seven runs on seven hits in his 1 1/3 innings, and in Garza's past five starts his ERA is 9.00 and WHIP 2.13. Most frustrating are the 14 walks he has, compared to 19 strikeouts during that span, and sure enough, in the start versus the Marlins he walked three and whiffed only two. Garza's command is typically sharper than that when he's on, but right now he's not looking nearly as trustworthy as he did in the early months.
Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: Sure, he's a "down," as in "down to the minors." The Tigers finally tired of Porcello's sophomore slump, assigning him to Triple-A Toledo following a miserable four-start stretch during which time he had a 7.52 ERA and 1.67 WHIP. Opposing hitters were teeing off on him; he allowed a .319 batting average and five home runs during that span, and his 19.8 percent line-drive and 47.7 percent fly-ball rates were out of line with those during his most successful stretches of 2009. Perhaps working with Toledo pitching coach A.J. Sager, who helped turn around Armando Galarraga and, along with roving pitching specialist Jon Matlack, straightened out Max Scherzer, will benefit Porcello. After all, Galarraga and Scherzer have a 3.39 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 12 combined appearances since their recalls. In terms of raw talent, Porcello might be better than both of them, but the question is, how long does he need to get his career back on track?
Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: His past three outings have been somewhat disconcerting, not because three shaky starts is any reason to condemn a pitcher, but because the two worst ones came against the Athletics in a road start and versus the Brewers in a home start. Typically, Santana succeeds against weaker offenses on the road, and pitches well at home, so that he has a 6.88 ERA and .325 BAA during that span is troubling. After all, while he does have top-25-starter talent, he also has a history of elbow problems. Keep a close eye on him the next couple outings.
Upgrade your roster
Reports on Volquez's rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery have been nothing but positive, and at his current pace, we might yet see him back on a major league mound before the All-Star break. Not bad for a pitcher who went under the knife last Aug. 3, right? That puts his return at 11 months, quick by most standards, though not necessarily unheard of. It's also worth mentioning that Volquez has tossed eight shutout innings, with seven strikeouts compared to zero walks, in his first two rehabilitation starts for Class-A Lynchburg, so in addition to making a speedy recovery, he looks like he might even be fantasy-relevant again.
Remember, DL slots are precious in ESPN leagues, and when considering whom to stash there, upside and proximity of return date are two key factors. In Volquez's case, his upside is obvious, while Hochevar's is not. Volquez was a 17-game winner with a 3.21 ERA and 206 K's just two short seasons ago. As for return dates, both are seemingly on track to return the first week (or so) of July, so there's no reason to pick the Royals starter over the one from the Reds.
In no way does this mean Volquez is a safe fantasy play looking forward. It's a speculative pickup, and the history of Tommy John surgery returnees is checkered. Of pitchers coming off that operation, it's often said, "velocity returns first, command second." If that's true, Volquez by all rights might be a risky bet in his first few starts back, and would be better served on a fantasy bench for evaluation purposes. After all, he averaged 4.27 walks per nine innings in that standout 2008, and 4.62 for his career before the surgery. With a homer-friendly home stadium like Great American Ball Park working against him, that kind of walk rate might cause huge issues in terms of ERA.
Still, based upon his strikeout potential, as well as the glowing reports with his rehab, isn't Volquez at least worth a roll of the dice off the waiver wire?
Also consider adding
Madison Bumgarner, Giants:
The Giants continue to have problems filling their fifth-starter role. How much longer can they afford to wait before giving Bumgarner a shot? He has quality starts in seven of his past eight outings for Triple-A Fresno, and in his past 10 starts there, he's 6-0 with a 2.23 ERA, pitching in what is traditionally a hitting-rich league.
Tommy Hunter, Rangers: As alluded to above, Hunter looks like he can help a fantasy team, even if only on a short-term basis. In addition to the favorable matchups the Rangers have the next couple weeks, Hunter is 3-0 with a 2.31 ERA in four starts since joining their rotation.
This point forward: The following chart ranks teams' remaining schedules from June 22 through season's end in order of most to least favorable using "projected runs allowed," which totals each opponent's runs scored per game for each remaining game on the schedule. The category should provide a rough estimate of what an average major league team might allow facing the schedule in question, assuming, of course, that each team performs roughly the same as it has through this point of the season.
Second half: The following chart ranks teams' second-half schedules, or any game scheduled from the All-Star break through season's end, in order of most to least favorable using "projected runs allowed."
Remaining first half: The following chart ranks teams' remaining first-half schedules, or any game scheduled between June 22 and the All-Star break, in order of most to least favorable using "projected runs allowed."
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.