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Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Tigers, Reds have hitter-friendly slates

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

For the most part, the successful fantasy owner is the one who, on any given day or in any given week, rolls out his or her best hitters.

But here's a valid reply: What, exactly, constitutes your "best?? As a whole, we're quick to toss that word around. For example, here's an infamous question, "Who's better, X or Y?" In truth, the appropriate reply is, "Better at what?" because anything resulting in a definitive probably meant the answer was too obvious.

When we reply, "Better at what?" the information sought is context: league type (shallow mixed … or 13-team NL-only?), existence of elaborate roster rules (no bench spots … maybe a stringent innings cap?), time period being measured (just today's games … or best keeper from now until 2015?). It's that last one that is typically most important for hitters; the narrower the time span, the greater the importance of exploiting streaks and matchups.

The matchups are always in the forefront of my mind when I receive the "Who's better" inquiry. It's the reason we field questions like, "Whom do you like better as a spot starter for tonight?" When it comes to starting pitchers, as discussed in Tuesday's "60 Feet, 6 Inches," matchup-seeking is imperative.

When it comes to hitters, however, generally on a one-day basis you're going to pick the best matchup and go with it, and failing the call being obvious, you'll go with the player you judge with greater skills/talent. Over the course of several days -- remember that there are approximately 180 days in any given season -- you're going to pick the player with greater skills/talent … but one of the ways you might judge that is the strength of his remaining matchups.

Today, let's examine those matchups, this column serving as a tool for fantasy owners to identify teams with the greatest (or least) volume of remaining quality hitting matchups. Don't underestimate the value of one extra homer, steal or RBI; sometimes it's only the slightest difference in matchup strength over the final 48 or so remaining games that can make the difference in your league.

First off, let's define what constitutes a "good matchup." Statistics alone can help, but personal opinion is also important. When I look at the current state of pitching staffs, this is how I'd rank all 30, from strongest to weakest, meaning the most favorable hitting matchups will come against the teams rounding out the list:

Now, let's highlight a few teams whose remaining schedules are most and least favorable for hitters below. These calls are made taking into account opponents' rankings above, runs per game allowed and OPS allowed. The full chart of schedule analysis can be seen at column's end.

As always, the standard caveat: In no way should the matchups completely drive your decision-making. For example, you'll see below that the Tigers' schedule is rated one of the best, while the Orioles' is easily the worst, but that hardly means you should drop Mark Reynolds for Wilson Betemit. What it does mean is that there could be a few additional times when Betemit is a smarter one-day matchup play than Reynolds looking forward. Or, to put it another way: Judging by their remaining schedules, perhaps the owner of Ian Kinsler (he's ranked 32nd this week) might want to consider trading him for Brandon Phillips (45th), knowing it's well within his/her right to ask for a juicy throw-in to "balance" the deal. Their schedules might narrow the margin between their rest-of-season value, and the throw-in acquired could be a difference-maker in your championship run.

Best remaining schedules

1. Detroit Tigers: Their schedule nicely lines them up to capture the American League Central crown, and although their division lead is now a healthy three games, the Tigers are worthy of this No. 1 spot because when we're talking about teams resting players for the postseason, the top position at which that happens is starting pitcher, not the offense. Sure, certain Tigers -- likely the veterans -- might get a day off or two late in the season, but look at that September schedule: Royals (1 game), White Sox (3), Indians (3), Twins (3), White Sox (3), Athletics (4), Royals (2), Orioles (4), Indians (3). With those caliber matchups, Tigers hitters could each sit once a week in the final month and they'd still be more valuable than players from lesser squads who play every single day. Of those 26 games, 10 are against teams that rank in the bottom five in baseball in ERA, and the Athletics (four more) have a 4.99 second-half ERA. Among specific Tigers hitters, Victor Martinez (.323/.398/.486 career rates in September) and Magglio Ordonez (.319/.374/.504) have outstanding September track records.

2. Cincinnati Reds: Their hitter-friendly ballpark  top five this season in both runs and homers per our Park Factor page -- already provides the Reds a boost, but their schedule also is stacked in their favor, especially to conclude the year. Beginning with the Labor Day weekend series at St. Louis, every one of the Reds' final seven series is against a team that has allowed at least 4.11 runs per game … and the Cubs (Sept. 5-7 and 12-15), Rockies (Sept. 9-11) and Astros (Sept. 19-21) have all surrendered 4.62 runs per game or more. Jay Bruce's owners have been the most vocal about their frustrations this season, but in addition to his favorable schedule, there's this: He's a .300/.394/.644 lifetime hitter with 18 home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games after Sept. 1.

3. Chicago White Sox: They've sported one of the most disappointing offenses of 2011, with everyone from Gordon Beckham to Adam Dunn to Alex Rios a massive bust, but at least there's some hope for this squad down the stretch. This is one of two teams (Detroit) to rank among the top five regardless of which measure you use for schedules (my pitching-staff rankings, projected total runs, projected runs per game, team OPS). A juicy nugget to exploit: The White Sox have handled Royals pitching to the tune of .277/.334/.420 rates plus 29 home runs in 26 games since the beginning of last season, with A.J. Pierzynski (.350/.429/.500 during that span), Carlos Quentin (.315/.383/.658) and Rios (.284/.315/.441) especially productive in those contests.

Other favorable schedules: Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Giants

Worst remaining schedules

1. Texas Rangers: Their schedule was judged the most favorable set of remaining pitching matchups in Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches," but their hitting matchups take the cake as the worst on the hitting side. How odd is that for a team that calls Rangers Ballpark its home? In no way should this be interpreted as, "Run, run for the hills, ye Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young owners!" Instead, this should serve as caution not to expect Rangers hitters to necessarily carry you to the fantasy title, at least not the lesser/matchup-types on the team, like Endy Chavez, Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba. The Rangers play more road (25) than home (22) games, and have 24 more games against teams that have a better ERA than their 3.76, which is sixth-best in the AL. Something else you might want to consider: Elvis Andrus is a lifetime .219/.275/.264 hitter in September, while Young was a .262/.299/.336 hitter after Sept. 1 last season.

2. Colorado Rockies: Here's another team that calls a hitter-friendly ballpark its home, and the point of putting these two squads one-two is so that you won't get carried away assuming their venues will necessarily lead to tops-in-the-majors stats. The Rockies are a terrible road team -- .236/.306/.370 road rates that put their road OPS (.676) more than 100 points behind their home number (.801) -- and they'll play 25 of their final 47 games on the road. Among those include three apiece in St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, and among their home opponents are the Dodgers (three games) and Giants (four). Those Giants games are especially unattractive, and all of them are scheduled in the season's final two weeks, during head-to-head championship matchups; the Rockies have batted just .213/.290/.315 as a team against the Giants this season.

3. Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles might sport a sneaky offensive attack, ranking fourth in the majors in homers (131) and 15th in OPS (.720), but let's be clear: At this stage of the season, their role is merely as spoiler. The vast majority of their remaining foes have their sights set on the postseason: They play the Yankees eight more times, the Red Sox and Tigers seven times apiece and the Angels six more times. Those are staffs that will always be looking to patch pitching holes and not experiment, and teams that are constantly motivated. There shouldn't be many cakewalk matchups for the Orioles, especially in the final 17 games; they play the Rays (3), Angels (3), Red Sox (4), Tigers (4) and Red Sox (3). Mark Reynolds (.206/.312/.350) is a terrible career hitter in September; veteran Vladimir Guerrero might also be a candidate to struggle down the stetch.

Other unfavorable schedules: Mariners, Pirates, Marlins, Nationals

Three up

Jesus Guzman, San Diego Padres: He has been one of the Padres' most pleasant finds of 2011, a .345/.381/.588 hitter in 40 games who has the second-most RBIs (25) since the All-Star break, not to mention .385/.429/.641 rates in 24 contests. Guzman is a rookie by definition, but don't mistake him for another a young, up-and-coming prospect; he's actually 27 years old with more than 300 games' experience at each the Double-A and Triple-A levels. This is the first time he has truly received a big league opportunity, however, his path previously blocked at the corner infield spots with the San Francisco Giants. Guzman has raked most everywhere in the minors, a .319/.382/.506 career Triple-A hitter with 17.1 percent strikeout and 8.4 walk rates, both of those within respectable ranges, and 44 homers in 318 games that project to 22 in a full 162-game season. In other words, what he has been doing, for the most part, isn't fluky. His .383 BABIP, albeit backed by a .397 well-hit average and 21.2 percent line-drive rate, is bound to drop in the coming weeks, meaning Guzman's true value is closer to a .300 than .350 hitter, and Petco Park will rein in some of his power. But if he's, say, a .290 hitter with 6-homer, 25-RBI potential from this point forward, won't he remain useful, especially accounting for his shortstop eligibility? (Note: He is eligible at the position due to a data error; we don't remove position eligibility in standard leagues once it's assigned.)

Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays: Now he's that true rookie described in the Guzman blurb. Jennings possesses all of 34 games of big league experience as a mere 24-year-old. He's one of the most-anticipated call-ups of 2011, and hasn't disappointed yet: .328/.423/.582 rates, three homers, 11 apiece in RBIs and runs, and eight stolen bases in 17 games. Jennings has only one stretch of consecutive hitless games, and it was three in a row in a three-game set at Seattle's Safeco Field (July 29-31), which is forgivable. Outside of that, he has done everything for the Rays that he did well in the minors: Draw walks (10.0 percent for Rays, 10.8 in his minor league career), steal bases (8 in 17 games; had 188 in 509 in the minors) and try to leg out a slew of grounders (54.7 percent rate, 10 ground ball hits, 1 bunt hit). Jennings probably isn't a .300-plus hitter, having batted .294 during his minor league career and .283 in Triple-A, but there's no question he's 50-steal capable granted a full season. And even if he projects as that plus a .280 average from today forward, that's a high-impact fantasy outfielder.

Hideki Matsui, Oakland Athletics: He has developed into a notoriously streaky hitter during these latter stages of his career, between this and last season managing a sub-.700 OPS in four of 10 full months (also a .716 in another) and a .900-plus OPS in three (also a .889 in another), but recently he has switched the streak lever back to "hot." A .209/.290/.327 hitter before the All-Star break, Matsui has batted .430/.474/.686 since it, his batting average second-best among hitters with at least 75 plate appearances. Although it's somewhat awkward to suggest that a player of Matsui's age (37) and experience would suddenly develop into a second-half player, it's awfully curious that he began to heat up at a similar time a year ago, exiting the All-Star break white hot and managing .309/.402/.553 second-half numbers. That track record should serve more as a reminder of what peak-level Matsui can do, meaning he's well worth the add and start so long as this keeps up. Just don't consider him a guarantee through October; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum isn't the most suitable venue for his skill set.

Three down

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: There has been plenty said about Heyward's sophomore slump, and the most valid point to be made centers upon his ground-ball rate, now 56.1 percent after 55.6 as a rookie in 2010. He pounds practically every non-fastball into the ground; on every pitch other than a fastball he has a 66.0 percent ground-ball rate, the highest of any player with at least 250 PAs that have ended with one, higher than Derek Jeter's, Ichiro Suzuki's and Elvis Andrus', three hitters notorious for their ground-ball ways. There's a key difference between them: Those three have the leg speed to beat out infield grounders, so it's not quite as bothersome with them as it is with Heyward, who typically averages about 10 steals per year as a pro. I'm not saying anything I haven't said for the past year or anything that hasn't been said since by countless analysts; the upshot is that it's fair to act if you must (in a redraft league). He is off my top 125 rankings -- again, stress redraft -- for a simple reason: The Braves are now benching him, having held him from the starting lineup in five of their past seven games. Without at-bats, he has little hope of a quick turnaround.

Jose Reyes, New York Mets: Obviously his value dropped due to his disabled list stint, but what's most frustrating about his DL status is that there isn't any firm indication as to when he might return. There's little doubt Reyes is motivated to make a speedy recovery; he's a free agent after the season. Still, this is his second such DL stint due to a hamstring injury this season, and hamstring issues aren't a positive for players who generate a significant chunk of their fantasy value with their legs. Reyes did miss the minimum last time -- he was out 12 games in early July -- but the Mets will surely be cautious with him now. He could be out until the September roster expansion, meaning his No. 36 ranking might actually be high. But if he misses the minimum stay again, there's little doubt that he deserves to still be treated as a top-25 player. The bottom line: Reyes' level of risk for the remainder of 2011 has soared simply because of this news.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners: The magic had to end at some point, didn't it? Ichiro, noted for his ability to slap the ball on the ground for infield hits, not to mention effectively direct the ball for a healthy number of outfield hits (a most remarkable skill of his), hasn't experienced nearly the success this season as he has in his first 10 years in the States. There are two stats that perfectly encapsulate his struggles: He's on pace for 37 infield hits, per FanGraphs, significantly beneath his 50 and 53 of the past two seasons and the third-worst single-season total of his career; and his BABIP, which is a stunning .353 -- sixth-best in history among those with 5,000-plus PAs -- for his career, is a career-low .292. In short, Ichiro is not Ichiro, and it's fair to argue that his age has caught up with him, meaning little hope of a significant rebound. Pitches on the edges of the plate -- inside and outside -- are becoming increasingly problematic; his OPS on those particular pitches have gone from .770 in 2009, to .694 in 2010, to .554 this season, and that .554 was accrued in a healthy 370 PAs. It seems that Ichiro, now more than ever, needs pitchers to groove pitches down the middle (1.018-.892-.806 are his trends on those), which means an increasing amount of his success is coming on "mistake" pitches. Those can hardly be counted on regularly.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Miguel Cairo (2B), Craig Counsell (2B), Blake DeWitt (3B), Nick Evans (1B), Todd Frazier (3B), Joe Mauer (1B), Jorge Posada (1B), Angel Sanchez (3B), Eric Young Jr. (OF)

Full schedule analysis

The following chart ranks teams' remaining schedules from Aug. 8 through season's end in order of most to least favorable using the average pitching ranking -- per my rankings above -- of all remaining opponents (a higher number is better). "Projected runs scored" totals each opponent's year-to-date runs allowed per game for each remaining game on the schedule.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for 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.