Two Starts: Too Many?

Something of which you learn to be mindful quickly when beginning to play fantasy baseball is how scheduling can impact how you set your lineup/rotation and even how you change the composition of your roster. As far as batters are concerned, for those slots in your lineup which are not fixed resting spots for your top-tier players, a popular strategy is to try to select short-term fill-ins who will maximize some sort of opportunity by virtue of sheer volume. Maybe you pick up a batter who has, by a scheduling quirk, no days off in a given week. Or maybe your left-handed hitter stands to face mostly right-handed pitchers in the coming games. Or his team is in the midst of a homestand in a particularly favorable venue for offense. Or perhaps the alignment of the planets is such that all players with the surname “Cabrera” are to find good fortune in the near future.

There are any number of justifications for trying to improve your scoring in this manner, but any way you slice it, the concept is the same: orchestrating your roster so that you have more mathematical chances for position players to gain you positive numbers. Of course, should your selection not perform to his potential, in theory, he stands to do more harm than good, especially in leagues where strikeouts count against your score. In this scenario, rolling with the Chris Carters of the world may be tantamount to playing with fire.

With starting pitchers, unless their team employs some annoying six-man rotation, each will take the mound once every five games. Given seven days in a week, obviously the math doesn’t come out even, such that from week to week, different pitchers will start on different days because of the nature of a rotation. Accordingly, often when a pitcher makes a Monday or Tuesday start, he will have a chance to make another start within the same week on Saturday or Sunday. He is a two-start pitcher for that week, and because of that fact, especially in leagues in which teams are pitted against one another each week based on statistical categories or points, he has significantly more value owing to his potential for more scoring opportunities. In fact, numerous sites and their fantasy “experts” will devote special attention to two-start pitchers (I, though I certainly am no expert, do this as well), because it is such a common and possibly fruitful bit of strategy.

As batters come with some degree of risk attached, notably if they are prone to striking out, so to do two-start pitchers, and this risk is magnified by a starter’s greater capacity to cost his owner points. Granted, frequently, though a pitcher doesn’t have his best stuff, his poor outing might not be that costly, and notably in points leagues, he might just contribute to a net gain to your total score. Even if he doesn’t directly lower your team stats or your score, however, there is still a hidden cost to be had with the notion that by using up an available start against a proscribed starts limit, there are now fewer opportunities to generate positive numbers. This may initially seem like a minor concern, but these shortfalls can add up quickly, especially when your opponent enjoys favorable pitching outcomes throughout the period of the competition. Or your pitcher can get absolutely shelled, and then you’ll really be in a pickle. In this scenario, a two-starter could theoretically work to mitigate his own bad outing, but once again, there’s that hidden cost of which I just spoke, not to mention he could suffer consecutive poor starts, and then where is your fantasy team on that week?

Too often, I feel, we can get seduced into choosing two-start pitchers merely because they are two-start pitchers, when other cues might tell us these roster adds are riskier plays. Now, in fairness, even our best starters can have their off games. Just last week, Hyun-Jin Ryu, who should be owned in all leagues across formats, had himself two starts. Going into the week, you probably would unequivocally say yes to a pitcher of his caliber slated to make two appearances. And while the second start was dominant stuff—against the likes of the San Diego Padres, but still—the first was an outright disaster. In facing the Detroit Tigers, Ryu only lasted 2.1 innings, and en route to an early dismissal, he surrendered 10 hits, two bases on balls, and seven earned runs, failing to take advantage of the 5-0 lead he was spotted against the underwhelming Justin Verlander. As good as the Tigers are offensively, I don’t imagine many of us saw this coming.

That was Hyun-Jin Ryu, though. Were we as thunderstruck when we witnessed either of the Cubs’ two-starters in Week 15 (Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson) suffer through subpar outings? How about someone more readily owned in fantasy baseball leagues? Were we gobsmacked when Drew Smyly met with mediocre returns in both his starts? Even if a starting pitcher rebounds from a lackluster appearance to have one good and one not-so-good start on record, the net result may not have been worth the effort. Maybe in a shallower league you took a flier on Milwaukee’s Wily Peralta. Sure, he was excellent against the Cardinals in his second effort of the week, but in his first against a seemingly less talented Philadelphia Phillies squad? Awful. Peralta failed to make five innings on the night, surrendering nine earned runs all told and like Ryu, blowing a five-run lead. Or possibly you decided to roll with Koehl in Week 15, putting your fantasy destiny in the hands of Miami’s Tom Koehler to start things off, only to see the 28-year-old lay an egg against the Diamondbacks, going for a mere three innings, to the tune of eight hits and seven earned runs. While he rebounded for a quality start against the Mets (big shock there), Koehler’s line across his two starts looked like this: 9.1 IP, 10 H, 10 ER, 6 BB, 6 K. That’s not going to get the job done.

Concerning more marginal members of your fantasy rotation, deliberation should be taken, I feel, to properly assess whether or not a particular two-start target warrants selection. First of all, if a player has struggled recently, if not all season, it might behoove you to stop and think before you make haste to usher him into a starting slot. Even before he was placed on the 15-day DL, Justin Masterson’s performance in 2014 prior to his scheduled start against the New York Yankees last week should have made you hesitant to get him involved. Looking past his career-high 14 wins just last season, Masterson has been horrific this year, walking batters left and right, and after his pre-DL debacle on July 7, his ERA rose even higher to a cringe-inducing 5.51 ERA. Perhaps not so much in Week 15, but in other seven-day spans too, the inclination to start a familiar option on a wing and a prayer could easily have led you astray. A.J. Burnett, R.A. Dickey, Hiroki Kuroda, Francisco Liriano, Jake Peavy and Chris Tillman are among those pitchers who have been, in spite of past success, terribly inconsistent in 2014. And this idea of inconsistency transcends mere considerations of stardom. Whether a pitcher is an unpleasant surprise or was never expected to achieve highly, start-to-start unpredictability and/or frequent control issues are enough to raise red flags over such an individual.

Otherwise, two-start status might sufficiently blind us to what our gut or the stats tell us are unfavorable match-ups. Tyler Skaggs, who has been a passable option as a streamer pick, especially considering he is just 23 years old, might have been a tempting play last week as a two-start pitcher on a winning team in the Los Angeles Angels. Even with the win with which he escaped this past Sunday, though, pitting him against Toronto and Texas in successive outings was asking for a fairly tall order considering how many talented batters there are between those two teams. Skaggs’ combined mark of 11.2 IP, 18 H, 9 ER, and only 5 K would accordingly seem to indicate as much.

Tyler Skaggs’ draw was a particularly difficult one, but even in instances in which a pitcher faces just one tough match-up in a given week, caution is urged. Though on paper a good pitcher making high-quality pitches should be able to find success against any lineup, there nonetheless exist a handful of offenses against which even the most consistently solid starters may find life more difficult while they’re on the mound. These trends can vary considerably just within the course of a season, I acknowledge, but off the top of my head, teams like Tyler’s own Angels, Cleveland, Colorado, Detroit, and Milwaukee tend to create match-up problems for opposing batters. As always, you are free to predict whatever outcome feels right to you in whether or not a pitcher will overcome his tough assignment(s), though a simple ranking of the top-scoring teams in baseball to this point would appear to function similarly by enumerating the most dangerous MLB lineups to this point.

So, if we’re being a bit more clinical, shall we say, in how we approach our pitcher selection vis-à-vis two-start starters, what might we do to increase our odds once we go to actually insert them in starting slots? In the event we can only set our lineups on a weekly basis, we have to be sure to pick those pitchers that have a better chance of succeeding in both starts. Here, I feel research is useful, as time-consuming as it may seem. Luckily, in our day and age, there is a wealth of information at our fingertips to help us prepare for the games ahead. One concept from which I’ve seen ESPN, for one, borrow more heavily of late is rating pitchers according to Game Score. I won’t go into the specifics of its calculations here, but this figure—a device attributed to sabermetric Founding Father Bill James—adds or subtracts points from a pitcher’s “score” based on positive (e.g. innings completed) or negative (e.g. runs allowed) events that occur within a given start. ESPN takes this a step further in its daily and weekly analysis, posting projected Game Scores for the probable pitchers on each date which take into account their recent history, their opponent for that day and the stadium in which that game will be played. In the absence of Game Score projections, you might also seek published rankings of two-start pitchers on sites and see where your prospective addition falls on the list.

Meanwhile, should daily setting of one’s lineup be possible and should there be no restrictions on the number of transactions over a given time period, while I still support doing your homework on two-start pitchers, especially as it regards their past few starts and year-to-date statistics, you might consider simply abandoning the idea in favor of choosing starters a game at a time. Potentially, depending on your league’s rules regarding roster adds and when rosters lock for the day (usually, start of play for all scheduled games), you can wait for a pickup’s start to begin, thereby allowing his stats to count, and drop him to make room for another free agent add before that initial start is even over. Obviously, the risk element is still there, as you could make a poor selection or a logically-chosen player could fail to live up to expectations (happens more than you might think).

On the positive side, however, only needing to stream a pitcher based on one individual start can leave you feeling less “locked in” to going with a more questionable option. Such that if Hyun-Jin Ryu’s schedule from Week 15 as mentioned above were applied to a lower-end starting pitcher, you might be keen to avoid having them face off against Detroit, but couldn’t get them into your rotation fast enough when facing San Diego. Certainly, the prospect of one-day loaner players requires significantly greater roster maintenance on your part. In a sport filled with players being optioned to the minors and called back up, as well as injuries being suffered from the severe to the relatively minor (I can think of at least two appendectomies being needed this first half of 2014 alone), though, fantasy baseball is all about roster maintenance, so if you aren’t used the obligations of this pastime by now, you may continue to have issues with it as we move along, such that, point-blank, it may not be the right game for you. That’s perfectly fine. Catch you later during fantasy football season, sir or madam.

With all of this thought spent on two-start pitchers and how to approach their adoption, if you will, perhaps the simplest advice I can offer is not to settle for less if you can avoid it, from a talent standpoint. After all, while even the lowliest pitchers can surprise us now and again, it could be maddening—and potentially injurious to your score—to be counting on them to get you through a week. Also, it seems trite to say, but regardless of what Game Scores and fantasy expert predictions say, don’t be afraid to trust your instinct when it tells you that you might be making a perilous decision. I don’t know how many times one site or another will recommend a player based on some supposedly advantageous match-up, a small sample size or some golden season in the past when that person was at the peak of his productivity. Especially if you’ve witnessed a pitcher’s mediocrity first-hand, you have insight that could be invaluable (invaluable = valuable here; sort of like flammable and inflammable) in steering you away from making the wrong move. That’s right! You might know actually know a thing about the sport of baseball!

Whatever and whomever you choose in the next full week, here’s hoping your two-start pitchers serve you well. And if they have to get through the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu in doing so, may the fantasy gods have mercy on their fantasy souls.