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Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Best, worst schedules for hitters

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It's fantasy baseball advice you've heard many times before: If all else is equal, take the American League hitter and the National League pitcher.

Hit Parade

It's as true this season as ever. The AL's wOBA (weighted on-base average) is 10 points higher than the NL's, AL teams have averaged 0.33 runs per game more than NL squads and AL teams have hit 269 more home runs than NL squads, an average of nearly 0.15 additional homers per game.

Naturally, this means that AL offenses have an advantage over NL offenses during the remainder of the season, just as they have at any time since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973. But this is why that's significant: Interleague play isn't so prevalent in the waning weeks of the season; there are only 48 interleague games in the remaining 47 days, there is never more than one interleague contest on any day after Aug. 26, and six of the final 35 days have no interleague games at all.

In short, AL teams face mostly AL teams in the season's final five weeks -- there are six-and-a-half remaining total -- and that means a maximum of at-bats for them.

Continuing Tuesday's theme of most- and least-favorable rest-of-season schedules, understand then that AL teams, statistically speaking, occupy the majority of the top spots. In fact, if you were to take all 30 teams' remaining schedules, assume that their opponents afford their season-to-date average of runs per game in each contest, then total said averages, AL squads would comprise the top nine spots.

Now let's take a closer look at three teams that stand out on either side, making sure to select representation from either league.

Most favorable hitting schedules

New York Yankees: Remaining schedule LAA-2, @BOS-3, (off day), TOR-4, @TB-3, @TOR-3, (off day), BAL-3, CWS-3, BOS-4, @BAL-4, @BOS-3, (off day), @TOR-3, SF-3, (off day), TB-3, @HOU-3.

Though the Yankees play exactly the same number of games at home (22), in their bandbox ballpark, as on the road (22), be aware that 12 of those road games come at Toronto and Houston, against the two teams with the highest ERAs in baseball. With a combined .327 opponents' wOBA, the Yankees have by far the best schedule in that category, and their opponents' homers-per-game averages sum to 50.2, also tops. That amounts to plenty of power potential, for a lineup that might yet be at its best once Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are healthy simultaneously.

The Yankees' season-long offensive struggles have led to oddly low ESPN ownership percentages for many of their players, but that means some off-the-wire value: Ichiro Suzuki (owned in 60.8 percent of ESPN leagues) has .330/.363/.465 triple-slash rates, nine home runs and 18 stolen bases in 89 games at Yankee Stadium since his trade to the Yankees. Rodriguez (30.4 percent) has modest .259/.333/.407 rates that might only improve as he gets further removed from hip surgery, and Lyle Overbay (1.5) is a widely available player with a .275/.329/.473 triple-slash against right-handers who warrants your attention in weeks heavy on righty opponents.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Remaining schedule NYM-1, (off day), @PHI-3, @MIA-4, BOS-3, CHC-3, (off day), SD-3, @COL-3, (off day), @CIN-3, ARI-3, SF-4, @ARI-4, @SD-3, (off day), @SF-3, COL-3.

The Dodgers might play only 20 of their final 43 games at Dodger Stadium, but that schedule shows how favorable their road schedule is: They make trips to Colorado's Coors Field, Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and Arizona's Chase Field. In short, nine of their final 23 road games are at hitter-friendly parks.

Though five Dodgers hitters -- Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez -- are owned in every ESPN league, that their schedule rates among the most favorable in the National League lends credence to the thought that this team can maintain its .278/.334/.415 triple-slash rates, .323 wOBA and 4.52 runs-per-game average since June 1, the latter two ranking the team second in the NL. Remarkably, this team places only one player among the top 50 hitters on our Player Rater (Gonzalez), so this serves as an important reminder.

Besides, the Dodgers stars' performance facing such a soft set of matchups might prop up the supporting cast's stats. Those players include: Andre Ethier (77.1 percent owned), who has continued his dominance of right-handed pitching this season, batting .287/.388/.423 against them, perhaps enough to convince the Dodgers to lean on him more heavily as a matchups candidate even after Kemp's return; Mark Ellis (18.8), who has made 56 of his 74 starts in either the No. 1 or 2 lineup spots, and whose .282/.326 batting average/on-base percentage is good enough -- even if non-elite -- to result in a healthy runs total; and A.J. Ellis (2.9), a much better on-base specialist than people give him credit for (11.8 percent career walk rate), also could experience a healthy boost in runs.

Tampa Bay Rays: Remaining schedule SEA-2, TOR-3, @BAL-3, (off day), NYY-3, @KC-1, LAA-3, @OAK-3, @LAA-4, @SEA-3, (off day), BOS-3, @MIN-3, TEX-4, BAL-4, @NYY-3, @TOR-3.

Volume is one advantage for the Rays; their 45 remaining games ties them with the Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and New York Mets for the most left. But there are two key differences between the Rays and those other three: They're a much more potent -- and arguably underrated -- offensive team, and they have a considerably more favorable schedule down the stretch.

The challenge with the Rays, as has been the case for a while now, is manager Joe Maddon's tendency to rely upon straight platoons: Sean Rodriguez and James Loney, Ryan Roberts and Kelly Johnson, combinations of the two, Luke Scott and miscellaneous right-handers … In other words, this is a frustrating team to manage in fantasy, because it means closely tracking lineups in daily leagues, or monitoring volume of right- or left-handed opponents in given weeks. Still, if you're willing to do the work, you might extract quite a bit of value from this team.

Loney (77.3 percent owned), Johnson (48.0), Matt Joyce (16.1), Yunel Escobar (8.9) and Scott (1.3) fit the bill, as matchups candidates are concerned. Loney (.302/.354/.447 triple-slash rates against righties), Johnson (.233/.303/.485), Joyce (.257/.358/.448) and Scott (.237/.340/.431) are especially attractive options thanks to there simply being a larger number of righties in the league.

Here's another tip: The Rays, as a team, have ranked among the top 10 in baseball in wOBA in the month of September in each of the past three years. Maddon tends to keep this team in tip-top shape all the way through season's end, so playoffs or not -- they're looking like a strong bet for it -- the Rays won't shut it down early.

Least favorable hitting schedules

Colorado Rockies: Remaining schedule SD-1, (off day), @BAL-3, @PHI-4, @MIA-3, SF-3, (off day), CIN-3, LAD-3, (off day), @SD-3, @SF-3, (off day), @ARI-3, STL-4, ARI-3, (off day), BOS-2, (off day), @LAD-3.

The Rockies have the fewest remaining games (41), and only three teams have more remaining home games (19), a critical point for a team that calls Coors Field its home. But that's not the only problem with their schedule: Excluding Wednesday's game, five of the Rockies' six remaining Coors opponents rank among the upper half in the majors in ERA, three of them in the top five (Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals). In other words, they play a lot of road baseball, and their Coors matchups aren't as good as they could be.

Take that to heart, if you're of the opinion that Troy Tulowitzki, who has a .304/.373/.564 triple-slash, 35-homers-in-144-games career September stat line, is due for an MVP-caliber finish. This isn't to say that he couldn't have another Tulowitzki-esque dominant spell, but this might be the most difficult September schedule he has ever faced. He's also a .220/.312/.390 hitter in 25 games since the All-Star break, meaning at least a hint of skepticism is warranted.

The Rockies have also been doing a fair share of mixing and matching at first base, second base and in the corner outfield spots, a strategy that diminishes those players' values facing a schedule like this. Given the choice, it's much smarter to pick your matchups from a team like the Rays rather than the Rockies, when you're selecting from lefty-righty platoons.

Milwaukee Brewers: Remaining schedule @TEX-1, CIN-4, STL-3, (off day), @CIN-3, (off day), @PIT-3, LAA-3, PIT-3, (off day), @CHC-3, (off day), @STL-3, CIN-3, CHC-4, STL-3, @ATL-3, @NYM-4.

This team isn't as bad as people tend to think it is, but it remains true that, in Ryan Braun's absence, it has morphed into Norichika Aoki, Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez and four automatic outs (at least against left-handers). Segura has also slumped lately, Gomez is a .253 hitter since the All-Star break and Ramirez is no guarantee to stay healthy the remainder of the year.

Here's the other problem: The Brewers should be mathematically eliminated or be close to it by the time they travel to St. Louis from Sept. 10-12, a series that kicks off a span of 20 consecutive days without a day off to conclude their season. There will be little-to-no motivation for this team during those final three weeks, during which time they'll face the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves, three outstanding teams with their sights on the playoffs.

It makes sense, therefore, if you're considering dealing a Segura, Lucroy or Gomez, in an ESPN custom league with a later trade deadline. This team might struggle to score runs, and could on many days be relatively quiet offensively.

Cleveland Indians: Remaining schedule @MIN-1, (off day), @OAK-3, @LAA-3, (off day), MIN-3, (off day), @ATL-3, @DET-3, BAL-3, (off day), NYM-3, KC-3, @CWS-4, @KC-3, HOU-4, (off day), CWS-2, @MIN-4.

With the possible exception of the Houston Astros, who lack much in the way of fantasy options, the Indians have by far the AL's worst remaining schedule. For one thing, they have just 19 games remaining at Progressive Field, tied with the Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals for the fewest remaining home games.

Between this Friday and the conclusion of their three-game series in Kansas City from Sept. 16-18, the Indians play 12 of their 31 games against the four best teams in the AL in terms of ERA and three more against the Atlanta Braves, whose 3.21 ERA is second best in the majors. Sure, their final week-and-a-half schedule is outstanding, but those fantasy owners in head-to-head leagues need to advance to their finals in order to exploit those matchups. It's also possible that the Indians might be mathematically eliminated from postseason contention by the time they even get to that 10-game final stretch.

Be aware that the Indians have five players owned in greater than 50 percent of ESPN leagues who have a wOBA beneath the major league average of .306 since the All-Star break: Michael Bourn (100.0 percent owned, .277 wOBA), Carlos Santana (100.0 and .283), Jason Kipnis (100.0 and .290), Asdrubal Cabrera (91.8 and .226) and Nick Swisher (57.6 and .290).