One thing that's simultaneously fun yet aggravating about this game is that there's no perfectly accurate measure for predicting future performance.
Let's put that into cut-and-dry terms: If anyone ever found a way to predict, with 100-percent accuracy, the outcomes and statistics of every future major league game, the game would suddenly become no fun at all. Sure, that owner might enjoy consistent, undeniable victories in his leagues, but before long, all of his competitors would drop out and find other leagues, saying, "It's no fun; you always win."
Fortunately for us, a multitude of factors must be considered when making our trades, add/drops and weekly lineup moves. Every one of them is important, but no single factor is the clear decider. Last week, for instance, we discussed players with historical trends of improved performance after the All-Star break. But first- and second-half trends aren't the "be all and end all" of your player evaluations; there are other factors to consider when preparing for the stretch run.
Such as today's topic: Evaluating matchups.
Ask fantasy owners in daily leagues all about matchups; in no other league format do individual matchups matter more. But they're relevant to a degree in every fantasy league, for every player and even in the game played on the field. After all, what point would there be for color commentators to say things such as, "Boy, we've got a really tough schedule coming up the next two weeks," if the schedule didn't matter at all?
Let's face it, the schedule-makers make it easier on some teams than they do on others, and difficult stretches can come at any time of the year. What division your player's team is in also matters. Did you know that four of the 10 worst teams in terms of ERA play in the National League Central? Albert Pujols owners, rejoice!
So with slightly less than 60 percent of the season still to be played, let's analyze each team's remaining schedule to determine who holds the advantages. You can see full charts detailing my schedule analysis at the end of this column but, for now, let's take a quick-hitting look at whose are most and least favorable, both in the near future and for the entire remainder of the year.
Before we begin, though, here's a caveat: To repeat, strength of schedule is just one factor to consider when making your future preparations. Simply because the Los Angeles Dodgers have the worst second-half schedule and second-worst remaining schedule, as you'll see below, doesn't necessarily mean you should trade Andre Ethier straight up for Ryan Ludwick, who plays for the team with the best remaining schedule (the St. Louis Cardinals). Remember, elite sluggers tend to rise above their matchups. The lists below are designed to help make tougher decisions -- the proverbial "breaking ties," as I like to call it -- when considering roster moves.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Remaining schedule (today through season's end)
Best schedule: Cardinals. One of the measures I used when calculating quality of remaining matchups is what I called "projected total runs," which took the average number of runs per game allowed by each remaining opponent for each individual matchup, and then totaled them. That provided a rough estimate as to what an average offensive team should be expected to score in the rest of the season (assuming you trust the year-to-date statistics, of course). The Cardinals finished first in that category (433.4), as well as first in terms of average runs allowed per game by all remaining opponents (4.66) and opponents' OPS allowed (.749). Residing in the pitching-starved NL Central does play in the Cardinals' favor, and keep in mind that's an especially generous ranking for a team that calls a pitching-friendly venue (Busch Stadium) its home.
Worst schedule: Arizona Diamondbacks. All of those measures in which the Cardinals finished first, the Diamondbacks, in comparison, finished dead last. Their 378.3 projected runs, 4.16 average runs allowed per game by remaining opponents and .714 opponents' OPS allowed were all easily worst in the majors, mostly because three of their division rivals (San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies) rank among the top five in baseball in terms of team ERA. It doesn't help that the Diamondbacks easily rate as the game's most strikeout-prone offense -- they have a major league-high 655, 100 more than anyone else -- while three of their division rivals (Padres, Dodgers, Giants) rate 1-2-3 in terms of K's by pitchers. Adam LaRoche and Stephen Drew might historically be good second-half players, while Justin Upton's otherworldly talent should keep his numbers sound, but the rest of this squad might be due for a cooling-off period.
Second-half schedule (only games after the All-Star break)
Best schedule: Detroit Tigers. Their remaining first-half schedule is a bit tricky -- at Mets (3 games), at Braves (3), at Twins (3), versus Seattle Mariners (3), versus Baltimore Orioles (3), versus Twins (3) -- with the exception of those Mariners and Orioles matchups, but if you wait a week you might be able to scoop up some Tigers at a discount rate. In fact, from Aug. 20 through the season's end, the Tigers' schedule is extraordinary, including nine games against the Kansas City Royals, seven against the Orioles and six against the Indians. Miguel Cabrera has a history of strong finishes, but perhaps the light schedule might allow rookies Brennan Boesch and Austin Jackson to retain a fair share of long-term fantasy value as well.
Best of the rest: Reds, Houston Astros, Twins, Mets, Cardinals.
Worst schedule: Dodgers. Not that their remaining first-half schedule is especially favorable, but the Dodgers drop to worst in the game in terms of projected total runs (303.0), runs allowed per game by remaining opponents (4.10) and opponents' OPS allowed (.713) once the All-Star break comes and goes. That hardly means you should race to sell the aforementioned Ethier or the slumping Matt Kemp at a discount rate, but if you're considering a close-call deal in which you're giving up a Dodgers hitter, you might want to go ahead and make that trade. One note: Manny Ramirez did finish last season remarkably poorly; he's a smart sell.
First-half schedule (remaining schedule until the All-Star break)
Best schedule: It belongs to the Rangers, thanks to the six meaty matchups at home versus the Pirates and Astros this week, as well as a 10-game homestand to conclude the half in which their opponents are the Chicago White Sox (3 games), Indians (3) and Orioles (4). Sixteen home games out of 19 total at one of the game's most hitter-friendly ballparks? Yes, please.
Best of the rest: Cubs, Phillies, Cardinals, Giants.
Worst schedule: Rockies. That 13 of their final 19 games before the All-Star break will be played at Coors Field is about the only thing you can say in their defense, because their remaining opponents have allowed just 3.87 runs per game and a .690 OPS, making the Rockies the only team that will face a schedule including teams with numbers under 4.00 and .700 in those categories during that time span. However, at least the Rockies have a mediocre ranking for the season's second half, so if you own any of their hitters, it probably would be wise to be patient.
Worst of the rest: Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Washington Nationals.
Schedules for home runs (accounts for Park Factors calculated since the 2004 season):
Best schedule: New York Yankees. This is not shocking considering that, in terms of Park Factors, new Yankee Stadium tops the list among all 30 major league venues.
Best schedule among teams that play in pitching-friendly venues (any ballpark that rates 16th or lower in Park Factor): Braves. Among their remaining road games are three at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, six at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, three at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, three at Chicago's Wrigley Field, three at Colorado's Coors Field and three at Houston's Minute Maid Park.
Worst schedule: Twins. Again not surprising because, so far their new venue, Target Field, has been poor for home run production. Keep in mind, however, that it's an extremely small sample size in comparison to the other 29 ballparks, so while the statistics so far put them here, that doesn't mean that the venue is locked in forever as the game's most cavernous park.
Worst schedule among teams that play in hitting-friendly venues (any ballpark that rates 15th or higher): Rangers. Among their remaining road games are six at Seattle's Safeco Field, seven at Oakland's Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, three at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium and three at Minnesota's Target Field.
Brennan Boesch, OF, Detroit Tigers: His rookie campaign thus far has been a series of ups and downs, but right now he's in an "up" period, with eight multi-hit performances in his past 16 games, during which time he has batted .371 (23-for-62) with six home runs and 14 RBIs. Boesch's year-to-date .380 BABIP and 17.9 home run/fly ball percentage do suggest that some good fortune has been at play thus far, especially since his line-drive rate is a mere 15.8 percent. The kid did, however, perform well in the upper levels of the minors early this season and last season, not to mention he has shown no discernable platoon split so far, with .432/.462/.838 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates versus lefties. That's a good sign.
Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF, San Francisco Giants: Apparently AT&T Park agrees with him, because he has shown no signs of slowing down lately, and looks quite a bit like the .300-30-100 candidate that he was as recently as 2008, as well as back with the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003. Huff has hit nine of his 12 home runs at AT&T, and has .313/.397/.626 rates in his home games, which are impressive statistics considering how spacious that venue is in right field. He's also hitting .350 (21-for-60) with six homers and 14 RBIs in 17 games in June.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Texas Rangers: It's about time he started hitting, right? While other rookies such as Mike Stanton and Pedro Alvarez are following the Smoak pattern of kicking off their big league careers in funks, Smoak, who is a few weeks deeper into his rookie campaign, finally seems to be getting adapted. He has hit .318 (21-for-66) with four homers and 20 RBIs in 19 games this month, but perhaps more importantly, he has 11 walks, maintaining his track record of good plate discipline. As mentioned above, the Rangers have quite the favorable remaining schedule, both in the short and long term, and if Smoak has indeed "arrived," he might make a sneaky run at Rookie of the Year honors.
Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees: One of the most prominent names mentioned as a buy-low candidate in last week's Hit Parade, Teixeira is quietly closing the window of opportunity. He has hit safely in 11 of his past 13 games, and batted .292 (14-for-48) overall during that 13-game span with four homers and 10 RBIs, including a grand slam off Mets ace Johan Santana during the recent "Subway Series." Consider this your final chance to hop on the Tex bandwagon.
Jose Bautista, 3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Simply because the Blue Jays designated third baseman Edwin Encarnacion for assignment on Monday doesn't mean that Bautista is guaranteed anything. He's going to have to pick up the pace offensively if he's going to avoid being benched (or cut). Though he did manage a multi-hit performance on Sunday, Bautista is still batting just .089 (4-for-45) with one extra-base hit (a double), one RBI and 14 strikeouts in his past 13 games. As mentioned in last week's column, he has a career second-half OPS beneath .700, which can't encourage his fantasy owners. The Blue Jays do have other options at the hot corner, such as Jarrett Hoffpauir and Mike McCoy, so don't expect them to stroll Bautista out there indefinitely if he doesn't improve soon.
Lance Berkman, 1B, Houston Astros: At this stage of the season, it's fair to question whether Berkman's sluggish start is less of a fluke than it is a sign that he's reaching the waning years of his career. He is 34 years old, after all, with a somewhat checkered injury history, and all of those bumps and bruises he has attempted to play through over the years might have taken their toll. Though it seemed during the first week of June that he might be heating up, Berkman followed that one-week hot spell with two weeks of cold performances. He's hitting just .136 (6-for-44) with two extra-base hits (both doubles), two RBIs and 13 strikeouts in his past 12 games. Things should get at least a little better for Berkman, but Astros don't have one of the better offenses in the game, meaning that his runs/RBI totals will rebound only to a degree even if he does recapture his peak form.
Chase Headley, 3B/OF, San Diego Padres: To think there was a point, just more than a month ago (May 7, to be exact), when Headley was sporting a .330 batting average and on pace for 45 stolen bases. He was looking like one of the top breakout candidates of 2010, a red-hot pickup even in shallow mixed leagues, and a popular fantasy option because of his rare third base/outfield eligibility. Unfortunately, Headley has slipped into a deep funk since that date, batting .208 with just one steal and as many hits as strikeouts (33 apiece) in 39 games, and in his past 23 at-bats he's hitless with seven whiffs. Anyone could've seen that his stolen-base pace was unrealistic, but the drop-off in batting average is somewhat surprising. He's better than a .259 hitter, but he obviously needs some adjustments.
Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: Thanks to a red-hot start, Kemp really hadn't raised any questions with his fantasy owners before now, but his sluggish performance in the month of June has been difficult to ignore. Though he did hit a home run on June 1, he has been held homerless in 17 games since, during which time he has hit .179 (12-for-67) with 22 strikeouts. Kemp seems to be slipping into some bad habits; while his contact rate has never been great, a 67.2-percent mark during his past 17 contests is low by even his standards (his career number in the category is 74.8). That Kemp has also been caught stealing in exactly half of his 20 attempts is also disconcerting.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates.
Drop: Gordon Beckham, 2B/3B, Chicago White Sox.
Beckham's inclusion in this section shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone; ask any of his owners how it has felt to own him thus far. In fact, the only thing shocking about him being listed here is that you'd think he's an obvious drop, but get this: He's still owned in 36.4 percent of ESPN leagues. OK, if you're in a keeper league or a deep AL-only league with plenty of bench spots, stashing Beckham in the hopes that maybe he turns things around makes sense. But in a shallow mixed league, why wait? Roster spots are precious.
Not that Alvarez has shown us anything to prove he'll be more productive than Beckham from this point forward, but are you really prepared to make a judgment on a rookie prospect with Alvarez's skills based upon only five-games worth of big-league production (or in this case, lack thereof)? To criticize Beckham for his 62-games worth of poor performance is fair, but Alvarez deserves more patience than that. He was, after all, the second overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, then proceeded to tally .284/.373/.535 numbers in 192 minor league games. His .251 number in terms of isolated power is also impressive.
Alvarez does have his weaknesses. His OPS versus left-handers was 156 points lower than versus right-handers during his minor league career, which has led some to question whether he's better served as a platoon partner initially. That he has only .100/.231/.200 rates with five strikeouts in 10 at-bats in his first 13 big-league plate appearances against southpaws will only feed into that. Still, like with the aforementioned Smoak, Alvarez might merely be the kind of youngster who needs a couple of weeks to get fully acclimated to this level of competition before taking off the second half of the season.
Yes, two weeks ago I pointed out in this space that fellow rookie Mike Stanton would probably need time -- perhaps the entire 2010 season -- to get fully adjusted. The same could be true for Alvarez. But one thing that might have been missed in that column was that prospects with Stanton's -- or Alvarez's -- upside are well worth speculative pickups, even if it's because they might figure it out quickly. I'll repeat the lesson of that Stanton column: Speculative pickups are OK but fantasy owners who make them must remember to be patient through these adjustment periods.
New position qualifiers
Five games: Rusty Ryal (OF).
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," which as mentioned above totals each opponents' runs per game allowed for each remaining game on the schedule. The category should provide a rough estimate of what an average major league team might score 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."
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."
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.