Late strength-of-schedule impact

How best to take advantage of matchups for stretch run of fantasy baseball season

Updated: August 12, 2014, 5:18 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Alex GordonRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsThe red-hot Royals look to be a good source of offense for the stretch run.

Matchups, often, make the difference.

That's not to say that matchups drive fantasy championships; far from it, in fact. But in tight races, it's the matchups that can be the decider.

On Friday, the 2014 fantasy baseball season reaches its three-quarter point -- that time arrives, barring postponements between now and then, once 10 games are in the books that day -- and with that comes the proverbial "stretch run" of our seasons. In ESPN standard head-to-head leagues, it means two weeks and two days remaining in the regular season, followed by a pair of two-week playoff matchups to determine league titles. In Rotisserie leagues, it means finagling your categories to best maximize your points upside.

One way to address this, particularly if your team's playoff fate is already decided, is to begin aligning your roster for those critical September matchups. Today, let's use strength of remaining schedule to provide you one tool with which to do so.

To do this, let's take all 30 teams' remaining schedules, totaling their opponents' per-game averages in a few key statistical categories to give a sense of what an average team might do granted that schedule: We'll use runs and home runs for hitters, runs and strikeouts for pitchers. Again, this is a study determining what an average team would do with the listed team's schedule; each team's relative talent naturally will have an influence. Let's also examine only September schedules, as, after all, the ESPN standard playoffs encompass that month.

You can see each of these charts -- both using year-to-date and second-half statistics -- at column's end. Here are quick-click links to jump to them:
Strength of remaining schedules: Hitters
Strength of remaining schedules: Pitchers
Strength of September schedules: Hitters
Strength of September schedules: Pitchers

Here are two teams, one apiece from the American and National League, that stand out with favorable paths ahead for hitters:

Kansas City Royals: No team in baseball has hit fewer home runs, has a lower home run rate or isolated power, or a worse home run/fly ball percentage than the Royals, which is why their remaining schedule -- both the entire final quarter and the month of September -- stands out, because it easily presents the best path in terms of home run production. It's why Monday's Josh Willingham acquisition was most intriguing, it's why Billy Butler's second-half success (.287/.321/.525 slash rates and a 5.0 percent homer rate) warrants your attention and it's why decent-pop hitters like Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Raul Ibanez also deserve consideration. Royals hitters matter because of how widely available they are -- only four are owned in as many as 80 percent of ESPN leagues (Alex Gordon, Perez, Alcides Escobar and Butler) -- meaning anyone mixing and matching from their roster should fare well plugging holes. Schedule highlights: @COL (Aug. 19-20), @TEX (Aug. 22-24) in Week 20; TEX (Sept. 1-3), @NYY (Sept. 5-7) in Week 22; @CWS (Sept. 25-28) in Week 25.

San Diego Padres: Again, the appeal here is how widely available Padres players are -- no Padres hitter is owned in more than 67.2 percent of ESPN leagues (that's Yangervis Solarte), and all but three are available in more than 70 percent -- and let's not overlook that the Padres have scored the majors' seventh most runs since the All-Star break. This is a team not to be forgotten, one with rising-stock hitters like Yonder Alonso, Seth Smith, Jedd Gyorko and Will Venable, as well as an appealing rookie in Rymer Liriano. This team has made major strides improving against lefties -- they have .321/.374/.455 slash rates against them since the All-Star break, after slashing .124/.211/.213 against them in June -- and they'll face plenty of them going forward, with eight more against the lefty-packed Colorado Rockies rotation and 10 and nine apiece against Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers rotations that each feature two lefties. Schedule highlights: @ARI-3 (Aug. 22-24) in Week 20; ARI-4 (Sept. 1-4), @COL-3 (Sept. 5-7) in Week 22; PHI-4 (Sept. 15-18) in Week 24; COL-3 (Sept. 22-24) in Week 25.

Now, two teams with favorable schedules on the pitching side:

Washington Nationals: As you'll see in the chart below, National League teams enjoy a substantial advantage on the pitching side, and one could pick the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets for this honor, as well. The reason the Nationals garner the advantage: They're in the midst of a playoff quest, meaning no reason for them to strategically ease up on their pitchers, they as a staff rank among the most productive pitching staffs of 2014 and they've been extraordinarily productive in their home games (second-ranked 2.76 ERA). The Nationals play 30 of their final 46 games against National League East foes, including each of their final 24 contests, a critical factor considering their competition ranks 21st (Miami Marlins, .302), 23rd (Atlanta Braves, .297), 28th (New York Mets, .293) and 29th (Philadelphia Phillies, .290) in team weighted on-base average (wOBA) for the season. Still care to bet against a Gio Gonzalez rebound this year? Schedule highlights: @NYM-3 (Aug. 12-14) in Week 19; ARI-4 (Aug. 18-21) in Week 20; @PHI-3 (Aug. 25-27), @SEA-3 (Aug. 29-31) in Week 21; PHI-3 (Sept. 5-7) in Week 22; ATL-3 (Sept. 8-10), @NYM-4 (Sept. 11-14) in Week 23; @ATL-3 (Sept. 15-17), @MIA-4 (Sept. 18-21) in Week 24; NYM-3 (Sept. 23-25), MIA-4 (Sept. 26-28) in Week 25.

Oakland Athletics: It takes a bit of scrolling before you'd get to the higher-ranked American League teams in the charts below -- keep that in mind if you're in a mixed league and don't need league-specific targets -- but the Athletics' schedule is head and shoulders ahead of those in the Junior Circuit. That's worth noting for an important reason: They play the ninth fewest remaining home games and play only five of them in the remainder of August, a big deal considering this team plays in one of the most pitching-friendly home environments in baseball. For this team to rank so favorably regardless is good news for what has effectively been a remade rotation in the past month. If you've considered writing off either Jeff Samardzija or Jason Hammel recently, don't. Schedule highlights: @KC-3 (Aug. 12-14), @ATL-3 (Aug. 15-17) in Week 19; NYM-2 (Aug. 19-20) in Week 20; SEA-3 (Sept. 1-3), HOU-3 (Sept. 5-7) in Week 22; @SEA-3 (Sept. 12-14) in Week 23; TEX-3 (Sept. 16-18), PHI-3 (Sept. 19-21) in Week 24; @TEX-4 (Sept. 25-28) in Week 25.

With the good must inevitably come the bad, so now let's take a look at teams with challenging schedules the remainder of the way. First, the hitters:

Philadelphia Phillies: Considering the name brands on this team's roster, it might be easy to assume this team will have fantasy production yet to offer. Looking at the schedule -- especially that September -- Marlon Byrd's owners specifically have to be unhappy he was reportedly claimed off waivers recently, preventing any chance at an August trade. The Phillies play 15 of their final 26 games against National League East rivals, teams that combined have a 3.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 60.1 quality start percentage, and now look at their out-of-division series: PIT-4 (Sept. 8-11), @SD-4 (Sept. 15-18), @OAK-3 (Sept. 19-21). Most challenging week ahead: By far it's that Week 24, with trips to San Diego's Petco Park and Oakland's O.co Coliseum. Plan ahead, as that's the opening week of ESPN's two-week championship matchups.

Toronto Blue Jays: It doesn't help that, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Blue Jays have played a major league-high 120 games; both these squads have just 42 games on the schedule, two fewer than the league average. The Blue Jays, in fact, play just 16 times in the next 21 days. But the kicker is that the Blue Jays play their final 17 games of 2014 against teams with playoff aspirations, teams that have over-performed on the pitching side. This team might rank third in both runs scored and team wOBA since the All-Star break, but if it can't get reinforcements back soon -- namely Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie -- the roster itself might suffer in terms of runs and RBIs in the coming weeks. Most challenging week ahead: If it's not this one, then it might be Week 24 (@BAL-3, @NYY-4).

Finally, the toughest schedules on the pitching side:

Chicago White Sox: You might typically think of the American League Central as a lighter-hitting division, but it's not the case. The five AL Central squads combined have .262/.320/.391 slash rates and a .310 wOBA since the All-Star break, noticeably better than the major leagues' .250/.312/.380 and .302 averages. What's more, the White Sox's schedule is particularly disconcerting as strikeouts are concerned: Twenty-four of their final 43 games come against teams with the five lowest K rates in baseball; 10 of them will be played outside their division. To be clear, this does not mean Chris Sale's fantasy owners need to run for the hills. It means that they shouldn't aim for his most optimistic projection -- an ERA closer to three than two is smart, and he might whiff closer to a batter an inning than 10 per nine -- while owners of Jose Quintana or Jake Petricka might want to temper expectations, as well. Most challenging week ahead: Tough call, but probably Week 25 (@DET-3, KC-4), when the White Sox will presumably be eliminated from playoff contention yet playing two teams with October aspirations.

San Francisco Giants: They play 13 of their final 43 games at hitter-friendly environments in Chicago (Wrigley Field), Colorado, Detroit and Arizona, have six more against the Dodgers and three more against the Milwaukee Brewers. I've made the case many times this season that Tim Lincecum, to pick one Giants pitcher in particular, at this stage of his career is a matchups pitcher. Look at those remaining matchups; there's plenty of reason to be concerned with him going forward. Most challenging week ahead: @COL-4 (Sept. 1-3), @DET-3 (Sept. 5-7) in Week 22. That includes a Labor Day doubleheader at the conclusion of a 17-games-in-16-days stretch, so fatigue could also be a factor.

Strength of remaining schedules: Hitters

Each column in the chart below is sortable. All "total" statistics account for the team's individual opponents' per-game averages using home/road splits in the category, totaling those numbers. So, for example, the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday host the New York Yankees, who have averaged 4.40 runs per game on the road this season; then on Wednesday they host the Yankees again, so another 4.40 is added to the total, for 8.80; and so on. Both seasonal ("Year") and second-half ("2H") statistics are used.

Strength of remaining schedules: Pitchers

Each column in the chart below is sortable. All "total" statistics account for the team's individual opponents' per-game averages using home/road splits in the category, totaling those numbers. So, for example, the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday host the New York Yankees, who have allowed an average of 4.40 runs per game on the road this season; then on Wednesday they host the Yankees again, so another 4.40 is added to the total, for 8.80; and so on. Both seasonal ("Year") and second-half ("2H") statistics are used.

Strength of September schedules: Hitters

Each column in the chart below is sortable. All "total" statistics account for the team's individual opponents' per-game averages using home/road splits in the category, totaling those numbers. So, for example, the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday host the New York Yankees, who have averaged 4.40 runs per game on the road this season; then on Wednesday they host the Yankees again, so another 4.40 is added to the total, for 8.80; and so on. Both seasonal ("Year") and second-half ("2H") statistics are used.

Strength of September schedules: Pitchers

Each column in the chart below is sortable. All "total" statistics account for the team's individual opponents' per-game averages using home/road splits in the category, totaling those numbers. So, for example, the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday host the New York Yankees, who have allowed an average of 4.40 runs per game on the road this season; then on Wednesday they host the Yankees again, so another 4.40 is added to the total, for 8.80; and so on. Both seasonal ("Year") and second-half ("2H") statistics are used.

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