Play the matchups.
It's a piece of advice you'll often read on these pages, and in no other aspect do we say it more frequently than when referring to individual starting pitching assignments. Exploiting matchups is critical to fantasy baseball success; there is more volatility at the position than at most others, not to mention more choices with which to exploit matchups.
Do the math: At any given time, there are approximately 150 starting pitchers on active major league rotations. Of those, about 25 qualify as "must-start" -- or "Above the Wandy Line," if you prefer that description -- options, and another 25-40 are rostered in the majority of leagues, many slotted in and out of active lineups as matchups and streaks dictate. (To be precise, 64 starting pitchers are owned in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues.) That still leaves 90 starters who, at any given time, can be scooped up off waivers and started, and those who have been successful with this "streaming" strategy will happily sing you its praises.
But what, exactly, constitutes a good matchup, and who has the most remaining? That is the grand question, as we're headed into these concluding weeks, the stage of the year where championships are won.
A "good matchup" is somewhat subjective; statistics can give us a sense, but often it's a matter of opinion. Looking at the state of teams' offenses following the trade deadline, here's how I rank all 30, from strongest to weakest:
Now, with approximately 48 games -- slightly less than 30 percent of the season -- left on each team's schedule, let's look at who stacks up as the best and worst, matchups-wise, the rest of the year. These are determined in two ways: by using the above offensive rankings, as well as by using year-to-date statistics of opposing offenses, including such measures as runs per game and team OPS. You can see the full charts detailing my schedule analysis at column's end, but for now, let's take a quick-hitting look at the most and least favorable schedules.
Before we begin, the standard caveat: Strength of schedule is just one factor to consider when making future plans. Just because the Rockies have a favorable schedule and the Red Sox unfavorable doesn't mean you should trade Jon Lester straight up for Jhoulys Chacin, because elite starters like Lester tend to rise above the matchups. What these lists are meant to do is help make the tougher decisions -- what I like to call "breaking ties" -- when making roster moves.
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 remaining schedules
1. Texas Rangers: That's right, it's an American League team that tops the list, despite the fact that AL pitchers as a whole have a higher ERA (3.94) than their National League (3.86) brethren, while AL hitters have an OPS 12 points higher (.721). Let that underscore the strength of the Rangers' matchups; they also rank this high despite having to play seven more games against the Red Sox. How is that possible? Simple: Look at their schedule from Labor Day (Sept. 5) until season's end. The Rangers don't play a single team with more than a .709 OPS or 4.27 runs per game in their final 21 games, including six apiece against the Athletics and Mariners. If the Angels can keep the AL West race close -- and they should -- the Rangers will trot out their best starters on turn right into most head-to-head championship matchups. Something to consider: Rangers starters are a perfect 10-for-10 in quality starts with a 1.45 ERA against the Mariners, have a 3.19 ERA in 10 starts against the Athletics and have a 3.14 ERA in nine starts against the Angels.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks: Jason Marquis and Joe Saunders owners rejoice! The NL West is a good place for a pitcher to be this season; three of the six worst teams in terms of OPS hail from that division. But it's the non-division games that puts the Diamondbacks' schedule over the top: four against the Astros, four against the Nationals and three against the Pirates. Marquis has a 3.30 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 55 career games (50 starts) against the Diamondbacks' four NL West foes, while Saunders has a 3.81 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 23 starts against those four teams. They might very well be standout September streaming specialists.
3. Detroit Tigers: This one's more of a personal opinion than a year-to-date statistics pick, as using my offense rankings above, the Tigers have the third-most favorable remaining schedule in the majors. It's not hard to tell why: The two most productive teams they'll face the remainder of the year are the Orioles and Royals, and they have a 2.78 ERA and 1.18 WHIP as a team against the latter. The Tigers play 33 of their final 48 games within the AL Central, and as a team, they have 25 wins, 17 saves, a 3.34 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in their 39 intradivision games. There's only one potential fault with the Tigers looking forward: If they further extend their four-game lead over the Indians, they might be resting starters and lining up for the postseason during their final-week homestand (Sept. 22-28).
Other favorable schedules: Giants, Reds, Rockies, Cardinals
Worst remaining schedules
1. Tampa Bay Rays: Unsurprisingly, it's the AL East teams that face the most treacherous schedules the remainder of the year; that division claims the bottom three spots on the chart at column's end, and places no individual team higher than 24th (Yankees). That's what you get when you hail from a division that boasts the two most productive offenses in the game (Red Sox and Yankees), teams whose OPSes are more than 10 percent higher than the major league average, as well as two others with OPSes higher than said average (Blue Jays and Orioles). There is scarcely a breather on the Rays' schedule: They play a pair of three-game road series in New York and Boston from Aug. 12-17, the Red Sox series including a doubleheader; they play the Rangers six times and Red Sox three during a 12-game stretch from Aug. 30-Sept. 11; and finish the season with four games against the Red Sox, three against the Yankees, three against the Blue Jays and three against the Yankees, that stretch perhaps after their potential point of playoff elimination. It's fair to point out that the Rays are 21-19 within their division with a 3.34 ERA and 1.19 WHIP as a team; much of that has been James Shields' (1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP in 9 starts) doing. It's not like you're going to sit Shields or David Price, but Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann aren't their equals in terms of talent, and the team might choose to ease off Jeremy Hellickson if and when it falls out of the race.
2. Oakland Athletics: They're on the list partly because of the nine remaining games against the Rangers, but also because their interdivision games are especially challenging. Out of those 27 remaining contests, seven are against the Blue Jays and three apiece are against the Red Sox and Yankees, not to mention the four against the Tigers. The Athletics' pitching, once their strength, has cooled considerably; their 4.99 ERA since the All-Star break is third-worst in the majors. In particular, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, once rock-solid weekly fantasy plays, are a combined 2-6 with a 7.07 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in nine starts during that span. Couple that with their increasingly difficult matchups looking forward and this might be an entire staff of mere matchup plays (at best).
3. Pittsburgh Pirates: You had to know regression was coming to this once surprisingly stout staff, and their remaining schedule dictates that more is in order. This squad has 10 more games apiece against the Brewers and Cardinals, the NL's two best offenses, and six against the Reds out of their 49 remaining contests. Combined, Pirates starters have eight wins and nine quality starts in 20 games against those three teams, their ERA a so-so 3.96 and WHIP 1.36; take out Charlie Morton's 4-for-5 in quality starts (1.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP) and the team's ratios rise to 4.97 and 1.54. Morton, incidentally, is 3-for-11 in quality starts with a 4.78 ERA and 1.66 WHIP since June 1, a mixed bag whose 2011 numbers against those division foes can therefore hardly be trusted. This might be an ugly end for the Pirates.
Other unfavorable schedules: Orioles, Red Sox, Mariners, Phillies
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: Though he has hardly been lights-out since his return from the disabled list on July 20, registering a 3.20 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in four starts, consider the context. Danks hopped back into a rotation for a team that, since his return date, has battled the Nos. 12, 14, 10, 1, 2, 22 and 16 offenses in terms of runs per game, and has struggled offensively so much that it has averaged 3.76 runs per contest during that span. These are the more important takeaways from Danks' recent output: He has lasted six-plus innings each time, has 5.60 K's per walk and a 49.3 percent ground ball rate, even higher than the 45.7 and 45.6 he managed in 2009 and 2010. You'll see below that the White Sox have the game's eighth-most favorable schedule looking forward, so that means plenty of matchups to exploit, if you can stomach Danks' so-so win potential. Frankly, he might warrant every-start status, being that the toughest matchups he could face the rest of the season are during the Aug. 19-21 series versus the Rangers, or the season-ending, Sept. 26-28 series versus the Blue Jays.
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: It's nice to see a young pitcher like Gallardo finally enjoying some success after the All-Star break; he turned in 4.56 and 5.77 ERAs during the season's second half in 2009 and 2010, but that number is a healthy 2.81 in his first five second-half turns this season. More importantly, it's encouraging after Gallardo posted both the highest first-half ERA (3.76) and WHIP (1.36) of his career this season. Polished command is the reason for the improvement. Consider that he averaged 4.56 walks per nine in his first qualified career season in 2009, that the fourth-worst number in the majors, but this season he's averaging 2.83, which ranks 64th out of 106. And in his past 12 starts, granted many of those against weaker foes, he has averaged 2.22 per nine; that number is also a sparkling 0.84 since the All-Star break. Maybe that long-advertised Gallardo breakout is finally here.
Vance Worley, Philadelphia Phillies: It's time to finally give Worley some credit as a strong matchups play who borders on regular use even in mixed leagues; he's now 6-0 with a 1.79 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in nine starts since joining the Phillies' rotation. He's not an overpowering type, yet has been surprisingly effective against both sides despite mostly relying on a low-90s fastball and slider; but that slider has limited opponents to .175/.212/.175 rates in 67 plate appearances that ended with one. Two other things stand out as pluses for Worley: One is that Citizens Bank Park, once hailed one of the most hitter-friendly venues in baseball, has actually leaned more toward being pitcher-friendly this season, per our Park Factor page; the other is that the addition of Hunter Pence has paid huge dividends for the Phillies' lineup, meaning increased run support. Be cautious of the untimely slump with Worley, but right now he needs to be active in all formats.
A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees: If the Yankees made their rotation decisions based solely upon recent performance, Burnett would clearly be the man who deserves to go. In six starts since July 1, he's 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and zero quality starts, and during that time he has not faced a single team that ranks higher than 14th in terms of runs per game. His Yankees history late in the season also isn't stellar; he's 8-15 with a 5.22 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 35 second-half starts in pinstripes, and in the month of August alone is 0-8 with a 7.28 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 12 career starts for them. The Yankees might have the AL East's most favorable schedule, per the chart below, but it's also a bottom-10 schedule among all major league teams. You'll need to be choosy with a pitcher like Burnett, and he might not even be worth your while in half of his remaining outings.
Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox: Is the magic gone? Humber has lost four consecutive starts with a 7.97 ERA and 1.72 WHIP, and while he can be forgiven against some of those offenses because of the treacherous schedule (Twins, Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees), there might very well now be a book on him. He's hardly a strikeout artist, his 5.81 K's per nine ranking 76th out of 106 qualified starters, and during that four-start slump he has been particularly tattooed: .271 well-hit average, up from .214 for the season; .129 isolated power, up from .110; 23.9 percent line drive rate, up from 17.7. Humber's skill set looks like that of a matchups specialist and clearly he's now slipping back into that status; pick carefully moving forward.
Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves: The Braves have remained faithful in Lowe, keeping him in their rotation despite his 6.18 ERA in his past 11 starts, only two of those quality-start efforts, but they'll face an interesting decision once Jair Jurrjens is healthy. This team has rotation depth; "sixth man" Mike Minor has had a couple of strong spot starts this season (albeit not his most recent), and "seventh man" Julio Teheran is one of the most promising pitching prospects in baseball. It's not unthinkable that, if Minor outpitches Lowe during Jurrjens' absence, the Braves might need to keep Minor in the rotation ahead of the veteran. Lowe's problem is that he's slipping into some of the same bad habits that troubled his owners during his disappointing 2009, his 56.6 percent ground ball rate even lower than the 58.6 number -- itself a low one by his standards -- he had in that season. He's primarily successful when he's generating a slew of grounders, typically 60 percent or more. Perhaps age truly is catching up to him.
Full schedule analysis
The following chart ranks teams' remaining schedules from Aug. 8 through season's end in order of most to least favorable using the average offense ranking -- per my rankings above -- of all remaining opponents (a higher number is better). "Projected runs allowed" totals each opponent's year-to-date runs scored per game for each remaining game on the schedule.
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.