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Opening Week Plays: Exploiting the Matchups

Weekly at Fantrax, I’ll be tracking player trends and upcoming favorable matchups. I’ll hit on players to start in weekly leagues. In the early going, of course, there’s no in-season performance trends to monitor. Thus, the opening look at Week 1 of baseball is entirely based on favorable matchups.

Houston Hitting

Owners are playing Houston’s top hitters. Alex Bregman, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are must-starts, no matter the matchup. Houston’s lesser-profile guys are strong targets next week, too. The Astros kick off next week with a three-game set in Arlington, where the Rangers have Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, and Mike Minor lined up. That’s an uninspiring set of arms for Texas, so Houston looks poised to tee off. Especially interesting is Tyler White, who has destroyed left-handed pitching in a limited big-league sample. He figures to get the start against southpaws Smyly and Minor in one of the more hitter-friendly environments in baseball.

Bronx Bombers

The Yankees’ soft early-season schedule has been a frequent topic of conversation. Most notably, their early-season slate of cupcakes probably played some role in their willingness to forego a Dallas Keuchel pursuit in the wake of injuries to Luis Severino and C.C. Sabathia. Who needs Keuchel when you’re facing the Orioles? Domingo German can hold down the fort for a few innings before turning things over to the bullpen with a 15-run lead.

That schedule also inflates the value of Yankee hitters in fantasy this April. Unfortunately, most of their lineup is so good that there’s little for fantasy owners to capitalize on. If you’ve got Aaron Judge, you’re playing him no matter who the team’s facing. Still, everyone in the Yankee lineup is worth considering this week. The Bombers host the Tigers (Tyson Ross, Jordan Zimmermann and Matt Boyd, most likely) before heading to Camden Yards for three more. Zimmermann and Boyd are at least serviceable big-league starters, but Detroit’s bullpen is weak, and Baltimore’s entire pitching staff is…well, let’s not even go there.

It’s not crazy to think New York will score over forty runs in those six games. If that happens, everyone in the lineup will have their fair share of run and RBI opportunities. It’s not clear what kind of seasons Greg Bird and Troy Tulowitzki have in store after injury-plagued 2018 campaigns, but they’re in line to put up some gaudy numbers early thanks to these matchups.

Yusei Kikuchi

Early-season pitching matchups are tough to forecast because teams have so many off days, but Kikuchi’s a good bet to start one of Seattle’s three games next weekend against the White Sox. That’s a great matchup. Here are the 2018 team strikeout rate leaders against left-handed pitching:

White Sox, 27.8%
Mets, 24.7%
Padres, 24.0%
Phillies, 23.6%
Rays, 23.5%

That 3.1-point gap between the White Sox at #1 and the Mets at #2 might not feel like much at first glance. It’s larger, though, than the gap between the Mets and the 21st-ranked Nationals (22.0%)! The White Sox were unbelievably bad against southpaws in 2018. Sure, they have a huge right-handed power threat in Eloy Jimenez in the middle of their order now. Daniel Palka, Yoan Moncada and Leury Garcia are all back, though. Kikuchi probably isn’t available on waivers, but he’s a must-play in weekly leagues and a potential steal in daily fantasy whenever he does line up against the Pale Hose.

Ketel Marte/Adam Jones/Paul DeJong/Harrison Bader

The Padres have zigged while the rest of baseball zags with regards to its minor-league system. They ignored service time implications with Fernando Tatis, Jr., then shocked the industry by injecting Chris Paddack (and even more surprisingly) Nick Margevicius into their season-opening starting rotation. Thus, the Padres’ front five runs as follows: Eric Lauer (LHP), Joey Lucchesi (LHP), Paddack (RHP), Margevicius (LHP), Matt Strahm (LHP). All five of those arms have less than a year of MLB service; Paddack and Margevicius have literally yet to pitch in a meaningful MLB game. While there’s unquestionably talent there, only Lucchesi is established as an MLB-caliber starter. Fantasy owners should roll with opposing hitters against the Padres’ young arms, since some growing pains are to be expected. That means Diamondbacks’ and Cardinals’ hitters should be a go next week.

So why Marte, Jones, DeJong, and Bader? They’re right-handed (or switch-hitting, in Marte’s case) bats with power. Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are obvious must-plays, regardless of matchup. It’s the complementary righty bats who stand to benefit most from facing that San Diego rotation. Four-fifths of their arms, as noted, are southpaws. The fifth, Paddack, might be a true talent reverse-platoon arm. He’s a fastball-changeup artist with an average-at-best breaking ball. Changeups tend to be more effective against opposite-handed hitters. There’s no reliable splits data on Paddack, but it’s possible right-handed hitters could give him more trouble than lefty bats as he acclimates to the big leagues.

So, that’s five young arms, four of whom are lefties, while the lone righty might be better against left-handed hitters. That’s a recipe for some under-the-radar right-handed power hitters to have success. Marte and DeJong are my personal favorites of that quartet, but Jones and Bader are adequate plays in decent-sized leagues.

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