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For even more statistics and advice to help you set your Baseball Challenge lineup, check out Tristan's Week 22 Fantasy Forecaster!
While compiling the numbers for my weekly pitching-staff choices, I made a startling realization: Boy, is the National League a pitching-oriented league.
OK, OK, I know, that's not news to anyone. The NL has long been the one with the lower ERA of the two. It's the one in which the pitcher bats, which means one more "automatic out" than in the American League. But what I think people have failed to realize this season is how wide the gap has become.
This season, National League hitters as a whole have a .741 OPS, and NL teams have averaged 4.5 runs per game. American League hitters, by comparison, are at .766 and 4.8 in those categories. Going by OPS, that represents a 25-point split between the leagues, the largest of this decade. While the NL's composite OPS has actually gone down since 2008's .744, the AL's has increased from .755.
Another startling fact: Of the 12 worst teams in terms of OPS, only three (Kansas City, Oakland and Seattle) reside in the American League.
While compiling the Forecaster and BBC columns, I actually use a somewhat simplistic formula to generate my initial list of pitching-friendly weekly matchup choices. As the season has progressed, it seems more and more NL squads have been the ones spit out by the formula which might be OK, except that when I'm using the data for the Forecaster, listing nothing but National League teams does little to assist those people who play in AL-only fantasy leagues.
Fortunately for us in the Baseball Challenge, we need not worry about such things as AL- or NL-only leagues; we can pick any staff we want from the major league universe. And as such, while I'm not opposed to picking an AL staff when the matchups call, having noticed how steep the league differential has become in 2009 has me thinking one thing: I might be going NL-only the rest of the way.
Let's get right to this week's pitching selections, naturally, all from the NL:
1. Philadelphia Phillies (SF-3, @HOU-3 -- two-start pitcher Cole Hamels), 5.9 price tag: For the second consecutive week, the Phillies top my list, partly due to their dirt-cheap price tag (13th in terms of price) but mostly due to the fact that since Cliff Lee's debut on July 31, they have 15 wins in 25 games, plus a 3.10 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. In terms of BBC points, Philadelphia's staff has been worth 411 during that time, an average of 16.4 per game. With the possible exception of one other team on this week's list, there isn't a hotter rotation in baseball than this one of Lee, Hamels, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ and Pedro Martinez. Martinez isn't even this staff's weak link right now, as the Phillies have won all three of his starts; that honor goes to Cole Hamels, and his 3.83 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 41 K's in 49 1/3 innings since the All-Star break aren't all that bad numbers.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (ARI-4, SD-3 -- two-start pitchers Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla), 7.2: The seven home games alone make this a standout set of matchups, but throw in that three of them are cakewalk games against the Padres, and one of the team's two-start pitchers is the team's hottest arm, Randy Wolf, 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his past four starts. Here's how well the Dodgers have performed against the Padres: They have averaged 18.8 BBC points per game in their 13 meetings this season. Padilla's two-start presence might scare you, but it shouldn't; he's actually 8-4 with a 4.07 ERA in his past 14 starts.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (MIL-3, @PIT-3 -- two-start pitcher Joel Pineiro), 6.1: They're the other rotation I think is a candidate for the label "hottest in baseball," but what differs between the Phillies and Cardinals is that I trust Pedro Martinez in the fifth-starter role a lot more than I trust Mitchell Boggs. Fortunately, Boggs will pitch during the series at Pittsburgh, against a Pirates team that has averaged 3.8 runs per game with a .695 OPS since the All-Star break. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright do give the Cardinals a more formidable one-two, though, as the right-handers have combined to go 16-2 with a 1.60 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 22 starts since July 1, all but one of those appearances quality starts.
4. Colorado Rockies (NYM-3, ARI-3 -- two-start pitcher Josh Fogg), 6.0: Two things cause me to rank the Rockies fourth on my list. One is that Fogg is the team's (probable) two-start pitcher. The other is that in the month of September, Coors Field tends to be as hitting-friendly as at any point all year. From 2006 to 2008, the Rockies and their opponents averaged 11.7 runs, 20.5 hits and 2.4 home runs per game at Coors after Sept. 1, meaning Rockies pitchers won't have it all that easy the rest of this season. Colorado as a team is finding a way to continue winning ballgames, though, which means that juicy five-point BBC bonus for each, and neither of these opposing offenses is particularly scary.
Monday, Aug. 31 -- Here's one out of left field: I'm going with the Yankees and Andy Pettitte at Camden Yards. The left-hander is 15-4 in 22 career games (21 starts) there, he won both of his starts there in 2008, both of them quality starts, and he's 6-2 with a 3.58 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 12 road starts this year. I can't see how he's losing this game. Brett Cecil has compiled a 7.71 ERA in the month of August, and now he has to contend with the sweltering heat of Texas, not to mention the Rangers' loaded offense. With a healthy Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' lineup is deeper and more threatening than it was around the All-Star break.
Tuesday, Sept. 1 -- Both the Yankees (A.J. Burnett) and White Sox (John Danks) appeal, but I can't bet against the Braves and Javier Vazquez going against a strikeout-prone Marlins team. He has already faced them three times this season and whiffed 28 in 20 innings' work. Nick Blackburn has been in such a funk lately, he's not even trustworthy in home games anymore. Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez and Jim Thome each has a career OPS greater than 1.000 against him.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 -- It's practically impossible to consider using anyone but the Cardinals and Chris Carpenter, especially if you remember that the last time he battled the Brewers this season, he shut them out over eight innings' work, allowing two hits and striking out 10 on May 25. At Carpenter's current rate of progress, he might walk away with the National League Cy Young award. The Phillies always bring out the lumber in their home games, especially against inexperienced right-handers like Joe Martinez. They have an .812 team OPS and 90 home runs in 61 games at Citizens Bank Park this season.
Thursday, Sept. 3 -- Though Coors Field does scare me a little more down the stretch than it did earlier in the year, I'll still take the Rockies and Ubaldo Jimenez against the injury-riddled Mets. He has nine consecutive quality starts, during which time he has six wins, a 2.51 ERA and 61 K's in 64 2/3 innings. The Cardinals, with the amount of right-handed lumber they now boast, should present problems for the erratic Manny Parra. Mark DeRosa, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick and Albert Pujols have standout matchups versus the left-hander.
Friday, Sept. 4 -- Everything about Clayton Kershaw's matchup versus the Padres makes the Dodgers look like a standout pick. He has a 2.63 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 143 K's in 137 innings in 25 career home starts, and a 3.31 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in six career starts versus the Padres. Once again I'll advise loading up on Phillies hitters, even though Friday's is a road game at Minute Maid Park. The Astros will be starting Bud Norris, who has an 11.57 ERA in his past three starts.
Saturday, Sept. 5 -- Again, the Cardinals are difficult to resist on days when either Carpenter or Adam Wainwright pitches, and it's the latter's turn on Saturday. He has a streak of 11 consecutive quality starts, during which time his ERA is 1.21; the light-hitting Pirates probably won't even touch him. Like Norris, Brian Matusz is a rookie pitcher experiencing a good share of growing pains at the big-league level, which tips the scales toward the Rangers. Remember, Camden Yards is a hitting-friendly environment, so the Rangers should feel right at home.
Sunday, Sept. 6 -- I'll return to the Braves and Javier Vazquez, because it's not like the Reds pose much of a threat to an opposing pitcher these days. Cincinnati ranks dead last in baseball in team batting average (.224) and OPS (.652) since the All-Star break. Clayton Richard hasn't panned out nearly as well for the Padres as they had hoped since acquiring him in the Jake Peavy trade, and it's not a good thing for him that he'll be facing the Dodgers, who sport the game's seventh-best team OPS versus left-handers (.798). Load up on hitters from L.A.
Total Segment 2 points: 1,920.
Percentage: 93.2. Overall rank: 1,844th.
Ranking in Fantasy Editorial Group: 112th. Total points for 2009 season: 5,885.
Percentage: 98.1. Overall rank: 1,104th.
C -- Joe Mauer, Twins (CHW-3, @CLE-3), locked at 4.9 price tag, market price 5.8: Boy am I glad I locked him in cheap at the start of Segment 2.
1B -- Albert Pujols, Cardinals (MIL-3, @PIT-3), market 5.5: The top scorer in the BBC, and the Cardinals face two shoddy pitching staffs.
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies (SF-3, @HOU-3), locked at 4.6, market 4.9: Can't let him go during his hot streak; he's hitting .373 with a 1.170 OPS in his past 14 games.
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (@BAL-3, @TOR-4), 4.8: Nice to see him playing fairly regularly; he has started each of the Yankees' past 11 games.
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (ATL-4, @WAS-3), locked at 4.9, market 5.5: The steals are a welcome sight, and these matchups play so nicely into his strengths in that particular department.
LF -- Matt Holliday, Cardinals (MIL-3, @PIT-3), locked at 4.4, market 5.6: Keeping up the running tally, he has 147 BBC points in 31 games as a Cardinal. That's a staggering 4.7 per-game average.
CF -- Matt Kemp, Dodgers (ARI-4, SD-3), 5.1: It's a full slate of home games and during the Padres series the Dodgers will be facing three starters who weren't even in the San Diego rotation as recently as the All-Star break.
RF -- Justin Upton, Diamondbacks (@LAD-4, @COL-3), 4.7: It's time to get him back into your lineup, right in time for a Coors series.
DH -- David Ortiz, Red Sox (@TB-3, @CHW-3), 4.7: Since the time of his first homer on May 20, Ortiz has 22 homers and 63 RBIs in 83 games.
Pitching staff -- Phillies (SF-3, @HOU-3), 5.9
Total Segment 2 points: 2,396.
Percentage: 99.6. Overall rank: 266th.
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.