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First Week Starting Pitcher Targets

These three starting pitchers have great matchups to start the year.

I’m going to be honest with you; there was a time when I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be able to write this article in time. With the way the lockout was developing, it was difficult to imagine that the start of the MLB season would only be delayed by one week. Yet, I guess miracles do happen!

After drafting a fantasy baseball team, it’s fun to take screenshots of your team and share it with others and imagine the potential it could have. That being said, if you manage your roster properly, it’s likely that you’ll be churning through players consistently. Perhaps you don’t need to go to the levels of the Rays or Giants, but you should always be looking to play the matchups when you can!

This is particularly true for pitchers. The concept of “streaming pitchers” with favorable matchups is well known by now; heck, Michael Simione even has a website (spstreamer.com) dedicated to it! Usually, the last few spots in your pitching staff are used to cycle through pitchers so you can execute the strategy of “playing the matchups.” Whether you’re in a category league or points league, any edge you can gain in terms of the performance of your pitchers is a much-needed bonus!

We tend to think of this as something that can be done during the season, but what about the first week of the season? Particularly if you’re in a head-to-head league, every week counts the same, so you’ll want to do what it takes to start off fast out of the gate. If your final pitching spots are meant to be used to stream pitchers, why not utilize the draft to start this strategy?

What do I mean by this? Essentially, by targeting pitchers with favorable schedules to start the season at the end of your draft, you’re already putting yourself at an advantage. While your opponents simply target pitchers not focusing on schedules, you can have a serious edge when it comes to your week-one matchups, or simply when it comes to better statistics if you don’t play in a head-to-head league. After all, we always need to be thinking one step ahead to remain on top!

Today, we will be looking at three pitchers who are excellent targets at the end of your draft. Why? Their first few starts are setting up to be strong performances for them, simply based on who they are facing. These are the pitchers that are going to be hot topics when the day comes to actually stream them, but, luckily, they will already be on your roster. So, who is going to help you get out to a fast start? Let us dive right into it!

Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs

ADP via NFBC Main Events Drafts

 

Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals

 

  • 2021 Stats (171 IP): 4.16 ERA, 4.71 FIP, 17.2% K, 5.2% BB, 1.17 WHIP
  • ADP: 315.03 (P#122)

It’s crazy to think that Zack Greinke started pitching when I was two years old! As someone with nine 200+ inning seasons under his belt, two ERA titles, a Cy Young award, and six all-star appearances, it is safe to say that Greinke has had as accomplished of a career as you could hope for.

Heading into 2021, there weren’t many signs that Greinke was heading towards a notable decline. He was still striking batters out at a league-average rate (24.5% K in 2020), wasn’t walking anyone (3.3% BB in 2020), and his underlying numbers were all the same as they had been previously. Unfortunately, as you can see, that didn’t prevent the decline from taking place.

Greinke’s swinging-strike rate (9.2%) and whiff rate (21.8%) each fell, playing into the drop in the strikeout rate. Furthermore, after years of suppressing home runs, he got bit hard by the home run bug (1.58 HR/9); considering he had already such a low margin for error, the extra home runs certainly made matters much worse. All told, it looked like he was in the decline phase.

However, I wouldn’t write off Greinke just yet. For starters, as I dove into on Fantrax, his expected strikeout rate was much higher (19.6% K) than his actual 17.2% strikeout rate, which is definitely a positive; you wouldn’t expect such a drop-off in strikeout rate with a 1.4% decline in swinging-strike rate. As for the home run bug, that got boosted in a major way.

What do I mean by that? Well, Greinke is going back to where it all started; he signed a one-year deal to return to the Kansas City Royals. It’s certainly a terrific heartfelt story from a sentimental perspective., but also perfect from a pure baseball standpoint. See, playing in Houston was not a good fit for Greinke, a pitch-to-contact pitcher. Per Baseball Savant, he allowed three more home runs than expected, which can all be tied back to the home ballpark; it ranks tenth in home run park factor. Kansas City, meanwhile, ranks second-lowest. As you can see from the spray chart of the batted balls Greinke allowed, the move is very beneficial:

Suddenly, a lot of home runs that we no-doubters at Minute Maid Park may not have been home runs at all in Kauffman Stadium. Meanwhile, although not as strong a defense as the Astros, the Royals’ defense was certainly above-average with 23 defensive runs saved last season, which supports Greinke even further. Add in the innings he’ll provide as their “steady eddy workhorse” ahead of a long of younger arms, and this is a player with very underrated value this year.

However, what makes Greinke especially intriguing is his opening schedule. It will start with a home data against the Guardians on Opening Day, followed by an outing in St. Louis, and then back at home against the Tigers. Not only will he face three offenses that won’t “light the world on fire”, but he also is pitching in strong pitcher’s ballparks to help suppress the home runs he allows. Getting three productive starts from Greinke in the opening week is very pivotal in a head-to-head format, while he’ll help provide you with steady ratio numbers to start the year in roto leagues and quality innings pitched in points leagues. We all want to chase the high-upside young arm, but don’t discount the old vet here!

 

Eric Lauer, Milwaukee Brewers

 

  • 2021 Stats (118.2 IP): 3.19 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 23.9% K, 8.4% BB, 1.14 WHIP
  • ADP: 307.13 (P#120)

Prior to the 2020 season, the Brewers and Padres made a very fascinating trade, sending Trent Grisham and Zach Davies to San Diego in exchange for Luis Urías and Eric Lauer. As Grisham flourished, Davies was a productive asset, and the two Brewers struggled, it looked like a massive steal for the Padres following the 2020 season.

However, a lot can change in a year. At this point, Milwaukee cannot control how productive the players they gave away are, though both struggled mightily last season. What they can do, though, is get the most of the players on their team, and that’s exactly what happened. A majority of the attention will go to Urias, who solidified himself as a piece in their lineup that can be a part of their future plans. However, don’t lose sight of what Lauer was able to accomplish.

The ERA came with some help, such as a low .249 batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP), while he left runners on base (79.4%) at a very high rate. That being said, even if regression comes, it may not be as strong as you may think. According to Baseball Savant, batted balls classified as “under” (mainly pop-ups) have produced a batting average of .069 in the Statcast era. Lauer allowed a 30.4% under rate last year and has morphed into a pop-up inducer over time. Plus, the Brewers, who ranked sixth in defensive runs saved last year, likely will continue to field one of the best defenses in the league, as well as a bullpen that can help keep Lauer’s left-on-base rate high enough. The ERA may be closer to what his FIP was last year, but don’t be surprised if he ends up with sub 4.00 ERA again.

I also want to note the changes Lauer made to improve his profile further. Since being traded to the Brewers, Lauer started throwing a new cutter, but it wasn’t effective with a 10.5% barrel rate allowed. At the same time, his slider allowed just a 4.5% barrel rate, inducing more whiffs as well. As the season went on, his pitch usage shifted in the right territory:

Fewer cutters, more breaking balls, and an overall diverse pitch usage – this is the way for Lauer to succeed. In the second half of the season last year, he posted a 25.5% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate, as well as a 3.97 skill interactive ERA; all of his underlying data was strong. Considering this correlates perfectly with the changes in approach, there is no reason to see this as a “blip in the road”. Rather, Lauer is someone that should be counted as one of the Brewers’ clear best-five starting options this season.

Plus, Lauer is going to have a lot of favorable matchups playing in the NL Central. That starts off immediately; if he is the #4 starter, he’ll face the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates. Even if he’s the #5 starter, he’ll face Baltimore rather than Chicago, which is a much easier matchup now that the fences have been moved back. That’s a perfect way to start the season. Heck, if he was the #5 starter, he’d even draw the Pirates again after that! There’s a chance you can rely on at least a month of Lauer having softer matchups, which certainly makes him an optimal draft target. Good defense, ascending skills, and a nice opening schedule; what else could you want from Lauer at the back-end of drafts?

 

Kyle Gibson, Philadelphia Phillies

 

  • 2021 Stats (182 IP): 3.71 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 20.6% K, 8.5% BB, 1.22 WHIP
  • ADP: 373.02 (P#132)

A pitcher who posted a 3.71 ERA and is projected for 190 innings, how could he be going so late in drafts? Well, there is a reason we don’t take just last year’s ERA and project a pitcher for the next year. Projections are much more complicated than that, and, in this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kyle Gibson saw his ERA spike by a full run this year.

There are so many factors that went Gibson’s way last season. His .276 BABIP allowed was a career-low, while his 0.84 HR/9 was extremely low. Honestly, to post such a low ERA with middling K-BB numbers is impressive, and speaks to circumstances working in his favor.

No, I’m not talking about Philadelphia. Rather, it was Gibson’s time with the Rangers that skew his statistics tremendously. Texas ranked first in defensive runs saved last season, and also plays in one of the more pitcher-friendly stadiums in all of baseball. With them, he posted a 2.87 ERA, a .267 BABIP allowed, and a 0.72 HR/9, which all stood out like a sore thumb.

It would have been interesting to see if Gibson was going to take advantage of his situation as well as he did for the full season. However, at the trade deadline, he was traded to the Phillies, where his ERA spiked to 5.09 despite posting similar underlying numbers. Why? Well, he went to the team that not only ranked dead-last in defensive runs saved, but also has the sixth-highest home run park factor. With the additions of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, the team is only doubling down on poor defense further. In other words, Gibson may be in the worst situation possible for him.

Now, onto the bright side. Gibson isn’t going to blow you away, but he does have a five-pitch mix that keeps hitters off-balance, which may explain the reduced barrel rate allowed (4.9%) last season. I do expect the barrel rate to come up, though perhaps the addition of his cutter is what he needed to complete his arsenal, and he does induce ground balls over half the time. He’s a pitcher who can probably succeed against inferior opponents.

Well, luckily for Gibson, he opens up the season with the perfect schedule. First, he’ll take on the Oakland A’s, who, per Fangraphs’ roster resource, will send out a lineup that looks like this:

Outside of Murphy, who is more of a defensive catcher, I’m not sure any of these players are starters for other teams. This could easily be the team that scores the least amount of runs, and that’s who Gibson faces first. Honestly, regardless of the pitcher, it’s hard not to start them against Oakland this season. Plus, Gibson then travels to Miami, a great ballpark for pitchers, to face a Marlins lineup that is improved but still has its warts. That’s a nice two-start run to help you win your first league, particularly if you’re in a points league, where he likely will be able to go deep into the games. As we addressed, Gibson isn’t someone that you ought to hold onto for the whole season. However, if we’re playing the matchups properly, don’t think twice before drafting him for that two-start stretch.

(Photo by Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)

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