September pitching preview

Which youngsters are facing innings limits? Who has the best matchups?

Updated: August 27, 2013, 4:43 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It is an irresistible urge.

"I'm toast."

60 Feet 6 Inches

In the wake of devastating news -- in this case Monday's mid-afternoon report that the New York Mets' Matt Harvey is done for the season with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and might be destined for Tommy John surgery -- fantasy owners often embrace such negative, immediate feelings.

This is the No. 14 overall player, and No. 4 starting pitcher, on our Player Rater, and a player who outperformed his preseason ADP (average draft position) by 149 spots overall, 39 at his position alone. Harvey was the linchpin to many fantasy teams' championship hopes, so his loss understandably shifts emotions.

[+] EnlargeMatt Harvey
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMatt Harvey is done for the season, but it was very possible that innings limits would've curtailed his production in September.

To illustrate Harvey's impact on his teams' performance, Mike Polikoff, who oversees our league manager product, reports that 47.9 percent of Harvey's owners in ESPN head-to-head leagues currently reside in a playoff spot -- that's a top-four spot in the standings -- while 40.5 percent of his owners in ESPN Rotisserie leagues rank in the top three of the standings.

Feel free to first take a few minutes to wallow in your sorrow, but the true fantasy champions are the ones who most quickly recapture their confidence and fill the resulting void. Besides, any Harvey owner should've been at least somewhat prepared for his potential late-season absence -- especially his owners in head-to-head formats -- considering that he is a 24-year-old, second-year player on pace for 224 innings pitched whose seasonal workload was subject of debate.

Owners of Miami Marlins 21-year-old Jose Fernandez, the No. 26 overall and No. 7 starting pitcher on our Player Rater, can also attest. With six days to go followed by four weeks of playoffs in ESPN's standard head-to-head leagues, and 34 days to go in ESPN's standard Rotisserie leagues, we enter the stretch run of 2013 with 20 percent of fantasy's top 10 pitchers effectively unavailable to help. Fernandez faces a widely reported 170-inning cap, giving him another 17 1/3 innings, or approximately two to three starts, remaining in his season.

Potentially radical strategic alterations are therefore required, perhaps more so than in any past season, so the timing seems right for a "playoff primer" of sorts. Today, let's revisit some of the long-term planning tools of this column's 2013 past; refreshing the data should help you prepare for these final weeks.

Innings caps and the grand workload debate

Fernandez is the most prominent remaining member of the "innings cap club," a group of pitchers who face a prescribed number of innings pitched -- whether publicly announced or a private team decision -- to their seasons. Just as Mat Latos in 2010, Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 and Stephen Strasburg in 2012, Fernandez has had his workload subjected to much scrutiny. Harvey might have as well; many reports had him facing a cap of 210-215 frames. This was a topic that came up in the June 18 edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches."

Teams address these concerns in myriad ways: They'll sometimes cut such pitchers' individual outings short, add extra days' rest between their outings, or sometimes simply end the pitcher's season prematurely. None of these things is a positive for fantasy owners.

To be clear, I do not agree with this innings-cap philosophy; it is my belief that pitches and/or stressful pitches should be the ones counted instead. That said, it's my duty to report teams' strategies and the impact upon their individual players, and it has become commonplace for major league teams to prevent their young starters from enduring an increase of 30 or more innings pitched from one season to the next.

The following chart identifies 25 starting pitchers age 25 or younger who are on a pace to accumulate at least 20 more innings pitched than they did in 2012. (Note: Harvey, who was on track for a 54 2/3-inning increase, is excluded.)

Duffy, Skaggs, Alvarez and Odorizzi are included as candidates to make spot starts for their teams in September; but their inclusion might lessen your interest in them as stretch-run fill-ins. Duffy's numbers, however, are somewhat misleading. He was limited to just 27 2/3 innings last season before succumbing to Tommy John surgery on June 13, 2012, and a pace of 98 innings pitched shouldn't be a substantial worry for a pitcher who threw 147 1/3 innings as recently as two years ago. The Kansas City Royals are considering him as a potential September fill-in; he might be the lone exception to the innings-cap rule the other 24 face.

Take particular note of Minor, Miller, Teheran, Tillman, Griffin, Archer, Cole, Gray and Salazar, all of whom pitch for teams with a realistic chance at the postseason, and all of whom might make compelling cases for inclusion in their respective teams' playoff starting four. The Strasburg-in-2012 example illustrates teams' tendencies to count playoff innings against the cap; this means that Minor, Miller and Tillman, none of whom is on pace for as much as a 30-inning increase, could easily reach that threshold once postseason frames are included.

If you own any of the pitchers above, don't panic, but don't sit back and ignore your need for a contingency plan.

Most and least favorable schedules

This was a topic that came up two weeks ago in this space: Which teams have the most and least favorable overall matchups the rest of the year?

It's a relevant question most any week, but with the head-to-head playoffs upon us, and fantasy owners seeking rest-of-season replacements for guys like Harvey and Fernandez, a refresh of the data might prove helpful. Here's how this works: I take the remaining schedules of all 30 teams, assign each day's opponent its seasonal average of runs, baserunners and home runs, as well as its wOBA (weighted on-base average), then total those numbers. For example, the Baltimore Orioles play the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Tuesday night, and the Red Sox in home games this season have averaged 5.03 runs per game; I presume for this game that the Red Sox will score -- you guessed it -- 5.03 runs.

The following chart, which is sortable by category, ranks these teams. Remember that these numbers assume that every team performs at a league-average level, while its opponent performs at its seasonal-average pace; it is merely a way to show which teams face an unusually large number of either good or bad opponents the rest of the way.

As was true two weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs are one of the standouts on the "favorable schedules" side, a plus if you consider that no Cubs pitcher is owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, including closer Kevin Gregg (97.9 percent owned). Should you choose to go the mix-and-match route, players such as Travis Wood (55.3 percent), Edwin Jackson (18.5) and Chris Rusin (1.0) could prove especially attractive. And if the team trades or removes Gregg from the closer role, a Pedro Strop (0.7 percent) or Blake Parker (0.2) would warrant an instant pickup.

The following five pitchers might be sneaky-good every-start options:

[+] EnlargeDan Haren
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDan Haren has finally come around after struggling for much of the season.

Dan Haren: His Washington Nationals face the most favorable schedule in terms of wOBA and runs scored, and keep in mind that he's 5-for-6 in quality starts with a 1.98 ERA and 0.83 WHIP since July 27.

Roy Halladay: I know, I've said I'm skeptical how much he can help, especially with his velocity lingering closer to the high 80s rather than in the low 90s as it was a couple of years back. That said, Halladay's Philadelphia Phillies face weak competition -- with the exception of six games against the all-but-clinched Atlanta Braves -- the remainder of the year. If there's any schedule that could prop him back up to even top-40 starter status, it's this one.

Paul Maholm: He's one of the few Braves with motivation -- he's trying to carve out a significant postseason role -- and one advantage for him will be that his team has 10 remaining games against lineups that are significantly weaker against left-handers, the Philadelphia Phillies (seven) and Washington Nationals (three), not to mention seven more against the light-hitting Miami Marlins.

Jonathon Niese: He has back-to-back quality starts during which his velocity was a bit closer to where it was pre-shoulder injury, and it helps that 18 of the New York Mets' final 33 games will be played at Citi Field.

Ricky Nolasco: He has five wins, a 2.53 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in nine starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and as an impending free agent, could be the pitcher the team leans on more to keep from overtaxing 1-2 playoff starters Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

Most and least favorable individual matchups

The streaming strategy -- this is where a fantasy owner routinely adds the day's scheduled starting pitchers, only to drop them afterward for the next day's -- is a legitimate one, even during the fantasy playoffs. (That's regardless of your opinion of it; it's completely allowed by the rules.)

Such an angle can get you through the fantasy playoffs, or the waning weeks of Rotisserie leagues, so long as you're mindful enough of the individual matchups. In the absence of a clear-cut, every-week pickup, it might be worth going the streamer's route. Heck, even with your proven starters, it's probably worth at least avoiding the more challenging matchups in these critical weeks.

The following chart ranks teams' lineups in both home (@BOS, for example, to show the average result of an "at Boston" matchup) and road (BOS, for example, to show the average result of a "hosting Boston" matchup) games, showing their seasonal per-game averages in runs, baserunners and home runs, as well as wOBA. Categories are sortable.

Bearing in mind that these are year-to-date numbers, and that lineups do change over the course of the season, the following two matchups might be sneaky-good going forward, if you consider recent returns:

CLE (home versus Cleveland Indians): This could effectively be either home or road, but given the choice, always pick your pitcher's home games first. The Indians might have been one of the game's most potent offenses for the season's first four months -- they had the fourth-best wOBA (.327) and fifth-most runs scored (490) through July 26 -- but were shut down by Yu Darvish on July 27 and have the eighth-worst wOBA (.295) and ninth-fewest runs scored (105) from that date forward. It's not a matter of roster changes, either -- Mark Reynolds is the only significant early-season name gone -- but rather a somewhat strikeout-prone offense merely regressing to the mean.

@PHI (at Philadelphia Phillies in Citizens Bank Park): You might still think of Citizens Bank as a hitter-friendly venue, and this year's returns could be your supporting argument. That said, flip through any of the previous three seasons' returns and you'll see that it's not the bandbox it once was. With Ryan Howard and Ben Revere effectively out for the season, this team is weaker than the one we saw in the season's first two months, having posted .213/.259/.322 triple-slash rates with a .255 wOBA at home since the All-Star break.

Injury updates, or the road to recovery

Finally, let's take a quick-hitting look at some of the pitchers working their way back from injuries. It's possible that any of these arms remains available on your league's waiver wire, and I see every one being potentially helpful in September.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaMatt Moore has not pitched since the end of July because of an elbow injury.

Matt Moore (elbow): He is scheduled for a rehabilitation start Thursday, with a tentative return date of Tuesday, Sept. 3, more than likely bumping Roberto Hernandez from the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation upon his return.

Jason Grilli (forearm): He will pitch a simulated game sometime this week, a significant step in his recovery. It's possible that he could be back closing games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in as little as a week.

Matt Cain (forearm): He is expected to resume throwing later this week, and might be ready to return on or near his eligible activation date of Friday, Sept. 6.

Clay Buchholz (shoulder): He made his first rehabilitation start for short-season Lowell on Sunday, and should make his second and possibly final start in either Double-A or Triple-A on Friday. Buchholz might threaten Ryan Dempster for his spot in the Boston Red Sox's rotation by the end of next week.

Johnny Cueto (back): He has resumed throwing, but remains a ways off a return to the Cincinnati Reds. It's unclear whether he'll return as a starter or reliever, but he might be in a race for activation with …

Tony Cingrani (back), who might be ready to return as early as he is eligible, on Thursday, Sept. 5.

Bartolo Colon (groin): He threw a 38-pitch bullpen session Monday, and is expected to rejoin the Oakland Athletics' rotation Thursday.

Brett Anderson (foot): He's also on the comeback trail, though with Colon also on track for activation this week, the Athletics might bring Anderson back as a reliever rather than starter. Colon presumably will replace Tommy Milone in the rotation, but could Anderson soon threaten Dan Straily?

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