Fantasy Baseball: Pitchers To Start/Sit Down The Stretch
Wait, what; it’s almost time for the playoffs to take place in fantasy baseball leagues? I guess time flies when you’re having fun. Well, hopefully, this has been a fun season for you! If it has been, and you’ve had a successful enough regular season, it is time to look ahead to the postseason. Which players can you rely on to help you win the championship? Which might be “fools gold” based on their ability to contribute to you reaching your ultimate aspirations? That’s what we’ll break down today.
In a year where pitching has been so unpredictable coming off of a 2020 season due to injuries and breakouts/regression, fantasy baseball managers have had to work the waiver wire to patch together their pitching staff. In that search, all six of these pitchers likely were, or currently are pitchers that have offered some appeal as additions to boost your pitching categories. Remember, many pitchers are starting to see their workloads monitored, making it imperative that you act fast to compensate for that. That being said, not all pitchers are created equal. As you look to make a championship push, here are three pitchers to start, in addition to three pitchers to sit, down the stretch!
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Pitchers To Start/Sit
Start: Brad Keller, Kansas City Royals
A pitcher with a 5.43 ERA? Why would you want any part of that. Should you utilize this surface-level analysis with Brad Keller, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. We’re not worried about what a pitcher has done in the past, but what they’ll do moving forward, and few pitchers are represented in a more inaccurate fashion by their season-long stats than Keller.
Through June, the 26-year-old posted a 6.67 ERA, 5.18 FIP, and just a 17.2% strikeout rate with a 10.8% walk rate. Since then? A 3.35 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 24.8% strikeout rate, and just an 8.9% walk rate. This aligns closely with the pitcher we expected to see coming into the year, though the strikeout rate is a pleasant surprise. Will it continue? I believe so.
See, Keller didn’t just become a better pitcher by executing better; he also changed his process. Through June, he was throwing a fastball 63.3% of the time, and his slider at just a 31.2% rate. From that point, the slider usage has increased to 42.7%, all at the expense of his fastballs. Considering his slider had never allowed a wOBA over .233 coming into the year and really is his only above-average offering, this is a major development. Really, it’s as simple as that. Throw your best pitches more, and your worse pitches less. Why don’t more pitchers try this?
Keller suffers from playing behind a defense that ranks in the bottom-ten in defensive runs saved, yet he also benefits from a ballpark (Kauffman Stadium) that surprises home runs. In the final month of the year, he’s slated to face Cleveland multiple times, in addition to the Mariners, Tigers, and Orioles. He’s not only become the best version of himself, but is in line to benefit massively from that schedule. He’s rostered in just 9% of ESPN leagues, but it’s safe to say that number should be significantly higher. Add him while you have the chance.
Sit: Drew Smyly, Atlanta Braves
Many were surprised when the Braves gave Drew Smyly an $11 million contract this offseason, but it was clear they were betting on his 2020 success. In 26.1 innings pitched, the 32-year-old posted a 37.8% strikeout rate and 2.86 SIERA, which intrigued many. Unfortunately, this hasn’t continued into this year.
To be fair, expecting Smyly to see that success translate over was always unlikely. Not only was that a small sample size, but he was able to benefit from a higher average fastball velocity thanks to pitching in shorter stints, which was a key driver in his overall success. As expected, his fastball velocity has dropped a full MPH this season, leading to a whiff rate that is 9% lower (14.1%) than the season prior (23.1%). End of story? Not quite!
Since July, Smyly has actually featured his curveball as his main pitch, even over his fastball. Considering the curveball (.280 wOBA, 39.7% whiff) has had much more success than his fastball (.385 wOBA) and cutter (.344 wOBA), this made a lot of sense. Heck, it got me to buy into him as a potential strong second-half performer. With a 25.1% strikeout rate and 13.7% swinging-strike rate, that decision was a wise one.
Wait, so why would I be suggesting sitting him down the stretch? Well, there’s this:
Smyly’s fastball velocity is starting to decline, which makes sense. His 111 innings pitched this season nearly matched the 114 innings he threw in 2019, while he didn’t pitch in 2018 and 2017- fatigue was to be expected. Regression hasn’t happened, but let’s also look at who he’s faced:
- The Baltimore Orioles, who scored three runs off of him in five innings and have been a below-average offense this season
- The Washington Nationals, not exactly the same offense they were earlier in the year
- The Reds, who are third-worst in weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) vs lefties
Before that, Smyly was unable to take advantage of favorable pitching matchups in St.Louis and New York (Mets). Meanwhile, he’s only gotten to five innings in two of his past seven starts. If that’s the case, it’ll be difficult for him to help you with volume statistics and accumulate pitching wins, making him less appealing.
Then, there are other circumstances. His next two starts are against the Giants and at the Rockies, which could go very poorly. Even as the schedule softens later in the season, it’s very difficult to predict how he’ll fare with a larger workload than he’s had since 2016, in addition to decreased fastball velocity. Atlanta is a tough place to pitch in terms of giving up home runs, and with Smyly’s margin for error shrinking, a blow up could happen out any time.
With the Braves getting Ian Anderson back in the rotation and other competition (Touki Touissant, Kyle Muller) present, there’s a chance Smyly could be out of a rotation spot altogether if those next two starts go by poorly. There’s too much volatility without enough pay-off to trust him in the fantasy playoffs. The recent hot stretch was fun, but move un before it’s too late.
Start: Bailey Ober, Minnesota Twins
Some pitchers are normally framed, and then there’s Bailey Ober. Standing in at 6’9″ and 260 pounds, the 25-year-old looks more like an NBA power forward than an MLB pitcher. We talk all the time about finding pitchers who can create unique approach angles, and that’s exactly what he does. As he continues to use this to his advantage, expect a strong performance down the stretch.
Poor execution and command hurt Ober early, but he’s clearly started to adjust to the MLB level. Over his past six starts, he’s posted a 2.35 ERA and 3.33 FIP, in addition to a 25.4% strikeout rate and 4.1% walk rate. Furthermore, his 12.6% swinging strike rate demonstrates his ability to miss bats, while the walk rate shows the combination of stuff and command that leads to a low WHIP. The results have certainly been there as of late.
Will it continue, though? For Ober, the key to his success has been his fastball. The 92.3 average fastball velocity doesn’t stand out, but consider the 7.3 feet of extension he gets thanks to his tall frame. That creates a lot of late ride on the pitch, allowing it to miss bats (24.6% whiff) and be his most effective pitch. As long as hitters continue to struggle to pick it up, there’s no reason to expect his success not to continue.
Consider that Ober has faced the Red Sox, Astros, and White Sox during his recent hot stretch. Really, because of how difficult he is to read, he’s the perfect suppressor to strong offensive teams. He continues to showcase strong command by peppering his fastball up in the zone (3.28 ft average pitch height in August), while his off-speed pitches are all starting to perform better. Will there be a time where his heavy usage (59.6%) of his fastball comes back to bite him? Probably. Will it be this year? I doubt it.
Ober, by virtue of playing in the AL Central, will benefit from a soft schedule down the stretch; he is in line to face the Cubs, Cleveland, Royals, and Tigers in September. Those are matchups you should definitely be looking to start him in, and it’s hard to understand why he’s owned in just 4% of ESPN and 4% of Yahoo leagues. He might not blow you away, but his approach angle is allowing him to do just that to opposing hitters. There’s a method behind his current madness, so it’s up to you to just trust the numbers!
Sit: Cole Irvin, Oakland Athletics
I alluded earlier to the fact that waiver-wire pickups have been critical considering how difficult of a year it has been to roster pitchers. In that regard, Cole Irvin certainly applies. Although he didn’t start the year with a locked rotation spot and wasn’t someone being drafted in fantasy leagues, he’s well over 50% of owned in any league, regardless of hosting site. With a 3.68 ERA over 144.1 innings, it’s clear he’s been a gem for fantasy baseball managers this year. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to continue when it matters most.
Let’s take a look at Irvin’s strikeout and walk numbers in his last four starts:
- 0% K, 11.8% BB
- 3.6% K, 14.3% BB
- 8% K, 4% BB
- 14.8% K, 7.4% BB
Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, to say the least. How Irvin managed to come out of those four starts with just a 4.71 ERA is a mystery in it of itself, but I wouldn’t expect that luck to continue. Yes, he’s managed to post a low ERA despite a 15.9% strikeout rate, but a lot of that is due to a paltry 6.6% home run/fly ball rate. Even in Oakland, I wouldn’t expect that to continue.
Then, there’s this:
The worst part? There’s a reason behind this. Irvin has re-introduced his curveball, throwing it 9.2% of the time in August, while decreasing his slider usage and throwing more sinkers. The problem? The curveball hasn’t proved to be effective and doesn’t rate out well at all in terms of movement. If it had proven to be successful in a small sample, that’s one thing, yet the more he continues to lean on the curve at expense of the slider, in addition to more sinkers, the worse his performance is likely to be.
Irvin’s upcoming schedule isn’t awful, and he obviously benefits from playing in Oakland. That said, the combination of regression and becoming a worse pitcher is concerning. He’s not going to help you out at all when it comes to strikeouts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the luck he’s experienced reverses quickly. Most projections see him closer to a mid 4.00 ERA pitcher, and with how low the strikeouts are, is that someone you’re comfortable consistently starting? In my opinion, the answer is “no”. Irvin helped you get to where you are right now, but don’t let that get in the way of potentially hurting your championship push.
Start: Eric Lauer, Milwaukee Brewers
As a pitcher who is overachieving his peripherals and doesn’t go deep into games, shouldn’t Eric Lauer be the exact type of pitcher that should be avoided in the fantasy baseball playoffs? That might seem logical, yet, sometimes baseball doesn’t always follow common logic!
With a 23% strikeout rate, 8% walk rate, and 1.25 WHIP, Lauer has quietly been an important contributor for the Brewers this season. That’s especially true in the second half of the season, where he’s posted a 2.70 FIP, 25% strikeout rate, and 5.7% walk rate in four starts. Yes, the Royals, Pirates (3 times!), and Nationals aren’t the most potent opponents, but you have to be encouraged by those results; pitching tends to be more individualized than hitting, and thus less affected by strength of opponents anyways.
Would you expect anything less than a clear pitch-mix change? Of course not!
Fewer cutters, more sliders; this makes sense for Lauer. The slider is more effective when it comes to inducing ground balls, something he previously struggled with, allowing to induce fewer barrels as well. Meanwhile, he’s elevating his fastball more and throwing his cutter lower in the zone, leading to more separation/unpredictability regarding his pitch location. When you play behind a middle infield of Willy Adames and Kolten Wong, why wouldn’t you want to get more ground balls?
I’d expect Lauer to continue to reap the benefits from the best defense in the league in terms of defensive runs saved, improving the WHIP and ERA; you’d expect him to continue to overachieve his peripherals. Furthermore, even if he isn’t going deep into games, you’re only looking for five innings with how successful Milwaukee has been this year, and a strong bullpen will boost his left-on-base rate as well. Long story short; as the Brewers monitor the workload of their top starting pitchers, Lauer will continue to be a pitcher they count on down the stretch. There’s no reason to expect him to not continue to perform at the rate that he has this season, especially with soft matchups ahead in a very weak NL Central. In need of wins, ERA, or WHIP? Make sure the 26-year-old is in your lineups come playoff time.
Sit: Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers
Let’s start with the good news; Matthew Boyd is slated to return from the injured list and start on Sunday! This would be the lefty’s first start since June 14th, and many should be excited to see if he can continue to be a 3.44 ERA pitcher this season. Unfortunately, that curiosity doesn’t mean he needs to be a part of your lineup.
Let’s start with the obvious: pitchers coming back from injury are very risky to start! It likely will take Boyd multiple starts to ramp back up to a normal workload, and it’s unclear how he’ll perform immediately. Ok, so we’re done here, right? Nope; even before the injury, there was a lot to be concerned about with Boyd.
Heading into this season, Boyd was an intriguing late-round pitcher with strong strikeout to walk ratios, yet with a problem allowing home runs. With some home run luck, there was clear upside, though the K-BB ratio gave him a high enough floor. Well, he’s benefited from the home run luck this season, allowing a 6.8% home run/fly ball rate, and was also inducing fewer barrels (7.4%) than before. The issue? There’s no reason behind this. Boyd continues to be someone who doesn’t generate many ground balls (38.8%), nor should his batted-ball luck be in good shape behind the worst defense in baseball in terms of defensive runs saved. Yet, here we are.
The most concerning aspect? Boyd didn’t have the K-BB numbers that gave him a sold foundation to begin with. His strikeout rate was down to 18.8% this season, while his swinging strike rate (10.5%) suffered as well. While it seemed like a good idea to throw his changeup (42.5% whiff 2020) more often, more exposure to it has seemed to hurt its effectiveness (29.6%), while his slider has suffered as well. Believe it or not, but the problem isn’t what you’d imagine it to be:
It’s great to throw strikes, but it’s definitely possible to throw too many of them. Boyd’s 53.1% zone rate is significantly higher than normal; as someone with an ineffective fastball and has relied on his secondary offerings, this is a worrisome trend. Unfortunately, it’s also not one I’d expect to change anytime soon. Eventually, that’s going to lead to more line drives and barrels, which is a nightmare scenario if the strikeouts don’t improve. I certainly wouldn’t start him on Sunday against the Blue Jays, nor would I be inclined to trust him at such a key time. Boyd might be someone to target next year if he alters his strategy, yet don’t let that hope, or his current low ERA, affect your decision-making here.
Will next season be as chaotic when it comes to rostering pitchers in fantasy baseball? We’ll see. For this season, though, waiver-wire pickups have been critical, and these six pitchers are on the bubble between starting and sitting. When making these critical decisions, it is important to take into account what categories you need. Once that’s addressed, look for pitchers who are on the rise, rather than those whose season totals are boosted by a strong start to the season, yet aren’t producing now. This is all a complicated process with a lot of volatility, but all you can control is your decision-making. As we head down the stretch run of the season, I wish you the best of luck in boosting your pitching categories en route to a first-place finish!
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