It's a label we toss around often, a casual description we give a pitcher we refuse to trust on an every-start basis, a pitcher we deem beneath the "Wandy Line." It is often overused, the true "matchups candidates" being the ones whose favorable outings are easiest to identify; there's a certain comfort in knowing which are the pitchers you can most successfully stream from a start-to-start basis.
Who are these pitchers?
With the season winding down and head-to-head leagues nearing their playoff matchups, accurate streaming becomes all the more critical. Today, let's take a look at seven pitchers who seem the safest matchups options, by "safest" we mean the pitchers for whom the matchups are easiest to declare a "yay" or "nay."
For instance, this isn't a column in which you'll find a Brandon Morrow, because while you might point out that his ERA is 5.08 against teams with a .500 or better record, per Baseball-Reference.com, I'll point out that he has struck out 89 batters in 78 innings in 13 such starts, those 6.85 K's per outing still valuable.
Ubaldo Jimenez is another pitcher you won't find here, because his struggles aren't a sign of slippage into matchups land. After all, he has a 4.40 ERA in his eight starts this season against losing teams, an ugly, ugly number indeed.
For some pitchers in today's list, their inclusion is a positive. It's unearthing value, however small, where zero might have otherwise been expected. For others, it's damning, a sign fantasy owners are still clinging too tightly or expecting too much from them on a start-to-start basis.
Let's get started
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners: This is what I was referring to by saying it's bad for certain pitchers to make this list, as Pineda is the No. 29 starting pitcher on our Player Rater, a top contender for American League Rookie of the Year honors and a pitcher owned in 89.9 percent of ESPN leagues. But past stats now mean nothing, beyond their meaning in formulating future projections. With the Mariners now being more cautious about managing his innings, Pineda's value over the team's final 36 games -- meaning only about 7-8 more starts for the right-hander, at most -- has slipped into the "matchups bracket." His five worst starts of 2011, by game score, have come against the Nos. 2, 20, 7, 6 and 6 offenses in terms of runs per game. He also has a 1.04 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in eight starts against sub-.500 teams, per Baseball-Reference.com, compared to 5.21/1.25 numbers in 16 starts against .500 teams or better. And he has a 2.86 ERA and 1.08 WHIP at Safeco, compared to 4.39 and 1.13 on the road. At the bare minimum, beware those Sept. 12-14 games versus the New York Yankees and Sept. 16-18 and Sept. 23-25 games against the Texas Rangers.
Joe Saunders, Arizona Diamondbacks: annnd it's good for other pitchers to make the list, like Saunders, the quintessential "matchups guy." Primarily due to his low strikeout rate -- 5.09 per nine in his career -- Saunders is the kind of pitcher for whom you need to be particularly choosy, feeling free to add and drop him on a daily basis even in deeper-mixed leagues. He has a 3.92 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 18 starts against sub-.500 teams but 4.11/1.41 numbers in eight starts against .500 or better squads. Look what the Diamondbacks have left: 10 against the San Diego Padres; six apiece against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants; and three apiece against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals. There isn't a bad matchup on their schedule after Sept. 8.
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: He feels as if he has so much more talent than a mere matchups type, but the way his season has progressed, that's exactly how he should be classified. He has made 13 starts apiece against sub-.500 and .500-plus teams, and against the former group he has seven wins, a 2.95 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Against the latter? Make it four wins, a 6.14 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Holland also has a 5.32 ERA at Rangers Ballpark, compared to 3.76 on the road.
Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox: Call his a hot streak if you wish -- he's 4-1 with a 2.34 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in six starts since the All-Star break -- but I still choose to classify the veteran left-hander as a matchups candidate through and through. His lifetime K rate is even lower than Saunders, 5.08, which is the fifth-lowest ratio since 2000 among pitchers with 1,500 innings. Now look closer at Buehrle's 2010: He has seven wins, a 2.39 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in his 15 starts against sub-.500 teams, and three wins, a 4.50 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in nine starts against teams with a .500 record or better.
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.
Edwin Jackson, St. Louis Cardinals: I was hopeful he'd develop into more than a mere matchups candidate under Dave Duncan's tutelage, but alas, things haven't worked out quite that way. Jackson was pummeled by the Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 3, his second start for the Cardinals, and has surrendered a home run in each of his past three turns. Busch Stadium improves his chances from a matchups perspective. Plus, there's this: He has a 2.97 ERA and 1.26 WHIP against sub-.500 teams; he has 4.78/1.57 numbers in 14 starts against .500-plus squads.
Josh Tomlin, Cleveland Indians: His command will keep him a factor in AL-only leagues right through year's end, but in standard-ESPN/shallow-mixed formats, being picky is smart with the right-hander. He's 9-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 0.92 WHIP In 13 starts against sub-.500 teams, and he has a 4.06 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in six starts against the 10 weakest offenses in terms of runs per game. Go back and look at his poorest outings since June 1: Aug. 1 at Boston (6 IP, 10 H, 5 ER); July 15 at Baltimore (5 IP, 6 H, 5 ER); June 12 at New York (5 IP, 12 H, 6 ER); June 6 versus Minnesota Twins (6 IP, 9 H, 6 ER); June 1 at Toronto (6 IP, 8 H, 6 ER). The common bond? Except for the Twins, every one of those is a tough matchup.
Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals: Incredibly, 18 of his 24 starts have come against sub-.500 teams, and in those he has 10 wins, a 2.95 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Busch Stadium has also always treated him best; he has a 3.67 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 53 career starts there, but 4.89/1.45 lifetime numbers in 263 appearances (239 starts) everywhere else. The book on Lohse in fantasy is long, and always reads the same: He's a start-at-home, and occasionally-on-the-road-against-the-league's-worst-offenses pitcher, plain and simple.
Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel might have a stronghold on National League Rookie of the Year honors, but Beachy continues to sneak up in that race, thanks to one of the most unexpectedly good rookie campaigns in years. Consider this: His 9.97 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio is 11th-best all-time among rookies who threw 100-plus innings, per FanGraphs, and since he'll probably make 6-7 starts, meaning another 35-40 innings (for 143 1/3-148 1/3 total), he's pacing fifth-best all-time among those with 140-plus frames, behind only Kerry Wood (1998), Dwight Gooden (1984), Hideo Nomo (1995) and Rick Ankiel (2000). That's some exclusive company; remember that Ankiel was awfully good before developing "the yips." What's more, it's completely legit; Beachy's miss percentage on all swings is 28.2, tops in the majors. He doesn't face an innings cap, thanks to his time off while on the disabled list with an oblique injury in May-June, and look at his projected remaining starts, assuming he throws every fifth Braves game: @CHC (Aug. 25), WAS (Aug. 31), @PHI (Sept. 5), @STL (Sept. 11), NYM (Sept. 17), @WAS (Sept. 23), PHI (Sept. 28). Only the Phillies and Cardinals matchups are scary, but each of his past starts against those opponents was a quality start.
Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: Yes, Colby Lewis' 2010 was a true representation of his talent. The only disconcerting differences in his peripherals are that his strikeout rate has dropped, from 8.78 per nine to 7.61, and his fly-ball rate has increased slightly, from 42.8 to 49.0 percent, but in defense of the former, his K's-per-walk ratio has remained a stable 3.00 (3.02 in 2010), while most of the fly-ball issues come in road starts (52.3 percent, compared to 45.5 at home). Lewis has held his own against most everyone except the Tigers (15.95 ERA in two starts), and once the Rangers get through this Red Sox portion of their schedule -- nine games in the next 13 days -- Lewis' matchups become super-soft.
Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies: So far, so good, since his return from a back injury. Oswalt now has three consecutive quality starts since his activation on Aug. 7, and while his competition was light -- Giants once, Nationals twice -- it's his restoration of his strikeouts that is most encouraging. His most frequent criticism before landing on the disabled list was that his K rate had dropped; it was 5.30 in those 13 starts, but it's 7.71 -- better than his 7.37 career number -- since. The samples aren't even, obviously, but here's another piece of evidence to back it up: His miss percentage was 16.0 before his DL stint, 22.5 percent after it. There's every reason to believe the old Oswalt has returned for the stretch run.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians: As referred to above, Jimenez has slipped in status to the point where he's ranked in the "matchups bracket," but in truth he's hardly a "matchups type"; he's ranked based more upon his skills, in the hopes that he can turn around this must-bench-him-everywhere funk. With the exception of the Aug. 10 game against the Tigers (8 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 0 ER), Jimenez has been awful for the Indians, and while it's fair to point out that two of his turns came against the Tigers and one at Texas, the fact remains that his reputation entering the year was that of a fantasy ace. His velocity has plummeted this season, from 95.9 mph on average in 2010 to 93.2 this year, and with the Indians that number is a mere 93.1. Jimenez seemed to build momentum midseason, during a string of productive June-July starts, then seemingly had it broken by trade rumors and his subsequent trade. At this point, it's far to ask whether he might not recapture it until he gets the winter's rest.
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: What a horrendous most recent outing at Coors -- 11 runs on 11 hits in three innings on Aug. 17 -- and while you might forgive him the matchup, remember that five starts prior to that, he was rocked by the Padres -- the Padres! Nolasco has been extremely good in five starts this season, all of those resulting in a game score of 68 or greater, but abysmal in four others, during which his game scores were 14 or worse. Nolasco might have a 65.4 quality start percentage, but he can be maddeningly unpredictable. And at this time of year, that's a frustrating pitcher to own.
Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco Giants: His season just seems to go from bad to worse. Sanchez, who struggled through his first two starts back from a biceps injury, left his most recent start with a sprained ankle, which by many reports has him a candidate for the disabled list. Walks have been a persistent problem; he has averaged 5.86 per nine this season and 5.40 per nine in his three starts since being activated. Sanchez's quality-start percentage is also 36.8, the eighth-worst number among qualified starters. Even if he dodges the DL, he's going to need to prove his worth before being remotely considered in fantasy leagues.
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.