Matchups: They often make or break a pitcher.
Nevertheless, that "one-third" estimate represents a significant evaluation factor, and today, as we did in the June 23 edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches," we'll take a look at teams' remaining schedules to highlight any possible pitching advantages.
As in "Hit Parade" on Tuesday, my schedule analysis considers four important factors: First, "projected runs allowed" takes the average number of runs scored per game by each remaining opponent and totals them (naturally, this is going to benefit the teams with the most games remaining); this is designed to roughly estimate what an average pitching staff should be expected to allow facing the team's schedule (again, this also assumes that opponents continue to perform at their year-to-date levels). The other three factors are average runs scored per game by all remaining opponents, opponents' OPS, and finally, ballpark factors, averaged for all remaining games on the team's schedule.
The caveat, of course: If matchups truly weigh one-third in the decision-making process, these numbers hardly should make the calls for you. For instance, you'll notice that American League East teams, in general, rate poorly, while AL Central squads generally rate in the upper half. But by no means should that lead you to believe, for instance, that Francisco Liriano will be a better fantasy pitcher than CC Sabathia the rest of the way. All it means is that Liriano has the greater opportunity to finish on a higher note; but that's not especially likely to make up the gap between them in terms of raw talent.
My chart, as always, can be found at column's end.
Remaining schedule (today through season's end)
Best schedule: New York Mets. Sure, they're only 11-19 since the All-Star break. Sure, they're now 8½ games out of a playoff spot (the wild card), putting their chances of a postseason appearance at slim to none. And sure, they just lost Francisco Rodriguez for the season, meaning there's a patchwork bullpen back there desperately trying, often failing, to preserve leads. But that doesn't mean owners of Mets starters should be leaping off ledges, especially not with the knowledge that their remaining schedule is strong. The Mets play more home (23) than road (20) games the rest of the way, and face teams that rank in the bottom half of the National League in runs 26 times in 43 contests (or more than 60 percent of the time). Heck, the toughest matchups they have remaining are six against the rival Philadelphia Phillies, a team that has a .657 OPS against the Mets this year, and four against the Milwaukee Brewers, all of them at Citi Field. Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Jonathon Niese might yet stave off disaster.
Wow, the Red Sox really have that strong a remaining schedule for pitchers? But they play in the AL East, where three of the five teams rank among the top four in baseball in team OPS! Believe it. The Red Sox are tied for the AL East's most intradivision games already in the books (48, same as the Baltimore Orioles), leaving 24 to go, and look at their remaining interdivision contests: LAA-2, SEA-3, CHW-3, @OAK-3, @SEA-3, @CHW-4. The only one of those teams that ranks among the top seven in the AL in runs scored is the Chicago White Sox, and they're seventh. Don't stick a fork in these Red Sox yet, especially not with their stout rotation.
Worst schedule: Toronto Blue Jays. In truth, the Orioles have at least as poor a remaining schedule and probably worse, but the levels of fantasy appeal with Blue Jays pitchers is significantly higher than with Orioles pitchers. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero are top-40 starters on our Player Rater, while Brett Cecil ranks 62nd and Brandon Morrow 71st. For the Orioles, Jeremy Guthrie is the only starter who cracks the top 150; he's 66th. The Blue Jays' problem is the opposite of that of the Red Sox; they've played the AL East's second-fewest intradivision games (45, one more than the New York Yankees), leaving 27, but 15 of those are road affairs, including all six against the Red Sox. The Blue Jays also have four apiece versus the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins, and beginning on Friday, check out how treacherous their next two weeks are: @BOS-3, NYY-3, DET-4, @TB-3, @NYY-3. Check these Blue Jays starters' ERAs versus the three teams higher than them in the AL East standings: Marcum 6.19 (6 starts), Romero 6.17 (6), Morrow 4.70 (8).
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.
Facts and figures
A few other interesting schedule-related tidbits to pass on:
• The Washington Nationals' schedule is the most favorable from Sept. 1 forward, as they rank first in the game in projected runs allowed (124.13) and opponents' OPS (.712). It's a shame Stephen Strasburg's innings cap might keep him on the sidelines for most of that, but perhaps NL-only owners can pluck a matchup or two to stream, not to mention rehabbing Jordan Zimmermann gets helped out.
• The Orioles' schedule during that same time span is most treacherous, as they don't play a single team ranked lower than ninth in the AL in runs after Sept. 1, and have to play 17 of their 30 contests against the AL's top three in the category. Abandon all hope, owners of Orioles pitchers (the few of you there are).
• You can at least pick and choose from the Padres' unfavorable remaining schedule, because it runs hot and cold. From Aug. 24 to Sept. 12, for instance, all but three of their 19 games will be played at Petco Park, while their Sept. 13-26 schedule is the most treacherous: @COL-3, @STL-4, @LAD-3, CIN-3.
• The Houston Astros have to make stops at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park (Aug. 23-26), Arizona's Chase Field (Sept. 3-5) and Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park (Sept. 28-30), not to mention their offense rarely ever backs their starters.
• Two teams still have games at each of Baltimore's Camden Yards, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, New York's Yankee Stadium and Texas' Rangers Ballpark, widely regarded as the four most hitting-friendly venues in the AL. The Yankees and Detroit Tigers, who finish their series at Yankee Stadium on Thursday.
Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: With Tuesday's seven shutout innings, giving him wins in each of his past three starts, Buchholz has five consecutive quality starts, during which time he has a 1.21 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. Those represent starts Nos. 2 through 6 since his activation from the disabled list, a sure sign that his hamstring isn't a lingering issue. Plus, don't worry about Buchholz's meager strikeout production during those five turns -- he has 23 in 37 1/3 innings -- as he also has generated double-digit ground balls in each outing. He's 15th among qualified starters in terms of ground-ball percentage (.523), which helps ease worries he ranks among the bottom third in K's per nine (6.13).
Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves: The adjustment period appears to be over, as while he's struggling to fill the wins column, Hanson has pitched well enough to win each of his four starts in August, registering a 0.95 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and .152 batting average allowed. In fact, in nine turns since July 1, he has a 1.71 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .210 BAA, but only one win to show for it. Hanson also has a 3.92 K-to-walk ratio during those nine turns, a noticeable improvement from his 2.71 number during his rocky May and June. Fantasy owners often invest too much stock in a pitcher's win total, and with Hanson being backed by only 34 Braves runs in those nine starts, it's possible he's being underrated right now.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays: How can the Rays possibly demote this red-hot rookie from their rotation? Promoted from Triple-A Durham to step in for the injured Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, Hellickson has turned in quality starts in each of his first three appearances, posting a 1.35 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, .136 BAA and 6.00 K-per-walk ratio combined. That comes on the heels of his 12-3 record, 2.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 21 starts for Durham, during which he surrendered only five home runs total. Hellickson shouldn't be a workload worry, either; between the majors and minors this season, he has logged 137 2/3 frames, only slightly more than 2009's 114 and fewer than 2008's 152. If the Rays want to test him coming out of the bullpen with an eye on that being his postseason role, it's understandable, but why not first wait to see how long he can keep up this streak?
Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: It seems as though every time anyone argues that regression is coming, he bounces back with an even more impressive hot streak. Take his past two outings, each of them exactly eight shutout innings. Hudson has also won each of his past five starts with a 0.49 ERA. But let's credit Hudson for his season as much as his recent hot spell. Here's how incredible his season has been, in spite of his low strikeout numbers: His 2.13 ERA is the second-lowest since 1950 among pitchers who averaged 1.75 K's per walk or worse; only Allie Reynolds (1952 New York Yankees) had a better ERA (2.06). It might seem logical thinking that number will rise, but why hasn't it yet?
Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: He's coming off his worst outing of the season, a six-run, 10-hit nightmare in 3 2/3 innings of work this past Friday in Cincinnati, and following the outing, pitching coach Randy St. Claire told the Palm Beach Post he might have discovered a mechanical flaw in Johnson's delivery. What if it's not as simple a fix as that? After such a long streak of excellent starts, Johnson shouldn't be a panic-button pitcher, but his recent cold spell warrants attention.
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants: There's not a lot to advise Lincecum's fantasy owners right now other than "keep your fingers crossed"; his value is at an all-time low, especially in keeper formats, and the trade deadline has passed in ESPN standard leagues besides. Still, his recent performance has to cast doubts upon his future, both immediate and long-term. He has been pounded in back-to-back outings, both of those at home, during which time he has a 12.91 ERA and .421 BAA. In addition, Lincecum's strikeout rate in his past seven starts is 8.02 per nine, significantly beneath his 10.03 career number. His fastball velocity is down (91.3 average mph, down from 93.1 for his career) and his line-drive rate is up (21.5 percent of all balls in play, up from 19.4 career), and that's not a good sign.
Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: Though each of his past two outings and four of his past six have been quality starts, it's Porcello's diminished strikeout rate during the month of August that's frustrating in fantasy. He has only eight whiffs in 17 1/3 innings in three starts and has averaged 5.12 K's per nine in six turns since being recalled, the latter only a marginal improvement upon his 4.69 rookie-year number. Porcello has also generated swings and misses on only 6.2 percent of his pitches this season, down from 7.0 as a rookie and neither of those represents a better-than-league-average number.
Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees: When a pitcher's velocity readings drop off the table -- to 88.8 mph with his fastball, the first season since Pitch Fx data became available that it dipped beneath 90 -- it tends to raise an eyebrow in fantasy. But when that same pitcher subsequently makes public comments such as, "I don't have any life on the fastball," "I've got a lot of innings on my arm maybe it's catching up to me," and, "I hope it comes back," his owners can't help but panic. The Newark Star-Ledger, in fact, reports that Vazquez's radar-gun readings are continually declining, going from 89.2 in June to 88.9 in July to 87.8 in August. He also has only 39 K's in 57 innings in his past 10 starts and, historically speaking, his fantasy owners tend to rely on him most for that category.
Upgrade your roster
Hudson, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Edwin Jackson deadline deal, is off to quite the hot start with his new team, winning three of his four starts with a 2.12 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. In short, he's doing all the things with the Diamondbacks that Jackson's owners came to expect, or, at least, were hoping to expect, when he moved to the National League last winter.
Perhaps people doubt Hudson's upside because he fetched only Jackson -- widely regarded a No. 3/4 big league starter -- in trade, but make no mistake, this was a smart, calculated pickup by the Diamondbacks. Hudson was 30-13 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 57 career minor league starts, averaging 10.56 K's per nine, and for the future, he profiles as at least what Jackson is these days. The Diamondbacks should use him as a regular starter the rest of the year, and his team ranks among the top 10 in terms of its remaining schedule.
Leake is officially out of the Reds' rotation, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, not taking a turn this week while both Homer Bailey (Friday) and Travis Wood (Thursday) get assignments. While it's unclear whether the role change is permanent, the paper speculates that Leake's innings cap might be around 170, giving him fewer than 35 remaining (he has pitched 135 2/3). The chances he'll make more than 3-4 starts the rest of the year aren't good.
Also consider adding
Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies: He returned to the Rockies' rotation on Tuesday, and tossed four shutout innings before running into trouble in the fifth. The five walks in five innings are troubling, but keep in mind he had a 1.26 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in three starts during his brief demotion to Triple-A.
Brian Duensing, Minnesota Twins: He's in the midst of a four-quality start streak, and has a 2.43 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in five starts since moving into the Twins' rotation shortly after the All-Star break. Duensing still has occasional troubles with right-handers -- they have .268/.331/.389 (AVG/OBP/SLG) career rates against him -- but those still aren't terribly disconcerting numbers.
Bud Norris, Houston Astros: His seven-inning, 14-strikeout effort versus the Pittsburgh Pirates this past Friday cements his status as a sleeper performer in the K's category, as it improved his K's per 9 for the season to 9.75. Norris won't win often on the Astros, but if he keeps missing bats, he might yet help in three categories down the stretch.
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.