When it comes to the stretch run, every Rotisserie point -- meaning, therefore, every run, hit or RBI -- makes a difference.
Certainly you want a roster populated by the best players; it's obvious that the team with the most talent on paper has the greatest chance of winning a league. But as they always say, baseball isn't played on paper, and there are other factors that have an impact on a team's championship prospects. Besides, it's not often that one team in a given league is going to be fully loaded with elite talent.
One of those important factors: matchups, or more specifically, a player's (and therefore his team's) remaining schedule.
If you're utilizing a "scraping-to-make-ends-meet" strategy, attempting to patch a few holes in a mostly sound roster or simply looking to gain an edge with what's a fairly ironclad starting lineup, this column is for you. Today, as we did back on June 22, we examine teams' remaining schedules to determine who has the edge.
As always, let's first remind you that in no way should this data be the driving force behind your decision-making. For example: Simply because the Toronto Blue Jays have a less-impressive remaining schedule than the Oakland Athletics doesn't mean you should race to drop Vernon Wells, a .176 hitter without a home run in his past 10 games, for Conor Jackson, who hit a home run in his first game for his new team on Monday. The vast majority of fantasy owners probably realize this, but it always helps to provide a reminder to be safe. No rash decisions, folks!
My schedule analysis takes into account a few key factors. One I call "projected total runs," which takes the average number of runs allowed by each opponent for each remaining game on the schedule and totals them. That provides a rough estimate as to what an average offensive team should be expected to score the remainder of the year (it assumes, of course, that its opponents perform at their year-to-date levels). Next is average runs allowed per game by all remaining opponents. Third is opponents' OPS allowed, and finally, ballpark factors, averaged over all remaining games on the team's schedule.
You can find the full chart of my schedule analysis at column's end.
Remaining schedule (today through season's end)
Best schedule: Cincinnati Reds. No, they're not first in projected runs, finishing slightly more than two behind their division rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, but they did top the list in opponents' average runs per game allowed (4.77) and OPS allowed (.753), both of those numbers significantly better than those of the Cardinals. In addition, the Reds' schedule, partly thanks to their hitter-friendly home ballpark, rates highly in terms of ballpark factors looking forward, ranking third in both home runs (1.119) and runs scored (1.044). To the latter point, take a look at some of the Reds' remaining road matchups: three at Arizona's Chase Field (Aug. 17-19), four at Colorado's Coors Field (Sept. 6-9) and three at Houston's Minute Maid Park (Sept. 17-19). The Cardinals, by comparison, play at a pitching-friendly home venue and play only three apiece at Minute Maid (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) and Chicago's Wrigley Field (Sept. 24-26).
Generally speaking, hitters in the American League Central have favorable remaining schedules, partly because three members of the division rank among the bottom seven in baseball in team ERA. All five AL Central squads rank in the top 15 offensively in terms of projected runs.
Worst schedule: Arizona Diamondbacks. They rank dead last across the board: in projected runs (179.38), opponents' average runs per game allowed (4.17) and OPS allowed (.714). The only saving grace to their schedule, in fact, is that they'll make a three-game stop at Colorado's Coors Field (Sept. 10-12) followed by a four-game visit to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park (Sept. 13-16). A damning strike against the Diamondbacks: They have .224/.306/.370 (AVG/OBP/SLG) team hitting rates within the division, compared with .268/.342/.447 numbers against everyone else, and will play 30 of their remaining 43 games versus division foes.
The Orioles' presence on this list shouldn't surprise anyone, but the Cubs and Brewers might, being that the rest of their division -- Astros included -- has such promising remaining matchups. With the Cubs, the primary reason is that 22 of their remaining 43 games will be played against teams that rank among the top seven in baseball in terms of team ERA. With the Brewers, the primary reason is that they scarcely face bad pitching staffs; only nine of their remaining 43 games will be played against teams that rank lower than 16th in terms of team ERA.
Facts and figures
A few other interesting schedule-related tidbits to pass on:
• The Angels not only have the worst schedule from Sept. 1 forward, it's not a contest; they're dead last in projected runs, opponents' runs allowed per game and OPS from that date on. You'd think that playing in their division, where their rivals combined have a .482 combined winning percentage, the Angels' strength of schedule would be a positive, but those win-loss records are misleading. Remember, the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers are top-10 teams in baseball in terms of ERA, and the Seattle Mariners rank 11th. (I'll point out, of course, that Cliff Lee's tenure with the Mariners did help their ranking, and he's now gone.) There's also a three-game series at the Tampa Bay Rays (Sept. 17-19) sprinkled in.
• Speaking of the Rays, they have not only the AL East's strongest remaining matchups after Sept. 1, but after that date rank sixth in projected runs (138.26), and fourth in both opponents' average runs allowed per game (4.61) and OPS allowed (.746). If there's any knock on their schedule, it's that 17 of their 30 games after Sept. 1 are road contests, and they're typically a strong home team.
• Once the Orioles finish up their current series with the Mariners on Wednesday, only seven of their final 41 games will be played against teams with losing records, and all seven are against the Tigers, who are only two games under .500.
• Speaking of the Tigers, their schedule is sneaky-good beginning on Sept. 10 (a Friday). Here's what they have after that: three versus the Orioles, two at Texas' Rangers Ballpark, three at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, three versus the Royals, three versus the Twins (perhaps their toughest matchups of this group), three at Cleveland and four at Baltimore. It's a shame that, considering that final week, the Tigers might be eliminated from postseason contention by then and less motivated.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Chris Johnson, 3B, Houston Astros: Just how hot has he been since the All-Star break? Consider that he's the game's second-best hitter in terms of batting average (.427), fourth in OPS (1.145) and tied for third in RBIs (27). Johnson might not be hitting for a ton of power -- his six home runs in 52 games projects to 19 over a full 162-game season -- but his line-drive rate supports a surprisingly high batting average; his 24.1 percent number in the category ranks him 12th in the majors, among players with at least 190 plate appearances. Cry "fluke" all you want, but there's plenty of reason to think Johnson can help the remainder of the year.
Ryan Ludwick, OF, San Diego Padres: The move to Petco Park hasn't proved a negative for him thus far, as in a recent three-game series there versus the Pittsburgh Pirates from Aug. 10 to 12, he belted three home runs and went 4-for-11 (.364 BA). Sure, that's a small sample size, and the result of his fattening up against mediocre pitching, but keep in mind that since his trade to the Padres, he's a .273/.344/.491 hitter in 15 games, fueled partly by his having drawn seven walks. I said back on July 31, at the time of his trade, that the shift to Petco wouldn't adversely affect his fantasy value; I'm sticking by it.
Luke Scott, 1B/OF, Baltimore Orioles: He continues to tear the cover off the ball, with .340/.378/.703 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates since the All-Star break, but more importantly, Scott has started 27 of 28 Orioles games during that span. What's most appealing about Scott is that if you play in a league that affords daily transactions, you can maximize the probability of using his best outings. He routinely thrives at home, where he has .347/.404/.707 rates, and against right-handers, against whom he has .305/.375/.598 numbers. If you play in a weekly league, make sure you've got him in there when his number of those matchups is high.
Mike Stanton, OF, Florida Marlins: Though he initially required some time to get fully adapted at the big league level -- he had .231/.276/.435 rates in 28 games before the All-Star break -- Stanton appears to have settled in nicely at a rather swift pace. He's a .323/.422/.707 hitter in 29 games since, and in his past seven games he has 15 hits and four home runs. A sign he has arrived: He has walked in 14.5 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in 28.3 percent of his at-bats since the All-Star break, after managing 11.8/31.0 numbers in those departments during his minor league career.
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox: He's back on the disabled list, again due to complications with his ribs, and this time his season might be finished. It's his third trip to the DL, and the Boston Herald reports that he has swelling in the same area where he broke five ribs in April; he also has a faint line at the point of the initial break. Ellsbury's season couldn't be any more frustrating. While the silver lining regarding his keeper appeal is that his injury isn't to his legs, which might threaten his speed, his greatest asset, it's difficult to trust him with full confidence heading into 2011. He'll be a key player to monitor next spring.
Miguel Olivo, C, Colorado Rockies: One of the hotter-out-of-the-gate catchers, Olivo rattled off .325/.377/.548 offensive rates the first half of the season, for a long time maintaining a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot at his position on our Player Rater. Since the All-Star break, however, Olivo's bat has cooled; he's a .134/.171/.254 hitter in 18 games since. It's a chicken-versus-egg argument, but one could suggest Chris Iannetta's bump in playing time is adversely impacting Olivo's rhythm, or perhaps it's that Olivo's slump is resulting in more at-bats for Iannetta. Whatever the reason, the troublesome development is that Iannetta has been thieving a lot of the at-bats versus lefties, which was typically an Olivo strength; his lifetime OPS against that side is 156 points higher than versus right-handers. This might be a swoon from which Olivo cannot recover.
David Wright, 3B, New York Mets: That's the problem with strikeout-prone sluggers; they're prone to extremes in terms of their streaks. After whiffing in 26.2 percent of his at-bats in 2009, Wright has whiffed 29.4 percent of the time this season, which makes it easier to understand why he's only 8-for-51 (.167 AVG) without an RBI in 13 games in the month of August. Wright is far too talented to struggle this significantly for long, but with his Mets mired in another of their typical second-half swoons, it's possible their sluggish performance might rub off. Expect better, but nothing to the level of his .404/.447/.683, six-homer, 29-RBI June.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Tampa Bay Rays: Though Monday represented his first multihit effort since the All-Star break, Zobrist's recent performance still has been a frustration to countless fantasy owners. Even with that game, he's a .135 hitter (5-for-37) during the month of August, .165 (14-for-85) since the All-Star break. What's more, he has only one home run, nine RBIs and eight runs scored in 24 second-half contests, so any talk that a back injury that cost him six games around the trade deadline is to blame seems unfounded. Zobrist's performance all year has left a bit to be desired, and while his .188 second-half BABIP hints bad luck is partly to blame for the problems in terms of batting average, his power has clearly regressed.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians.
Drop: Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia Phillies.
Though he wasn't immediately summoned at the time, Brantley's most recent chance at regular at-bats in the Cleveland outfield officially arrived when the Indians traded Austin Kearns. Promoted on Aug. 6, Brantley has started each of the Indians' nine games since that date, and put forth .333/.400/.556 (AVG/OBP/SLG) offensive rates. But it's not his offense you're targeting; it's his speed. He has averaged 28 stolen bases in his six professional seasons, swiped 50 bags between the majors and minors last year and 13 with Triple-A Columbus this season.
Don't paint Brantley as your one-category performer though; he was a .303 career minor league hitter and batted .313 in a 28-game stint with the Indians last summer. Chances are he'll be of greater use in AL-only or deep mixed leagues, but the way he's playing so far, he might remain helpful across the board.
Brown, meanwhile, is destined for the minors following the recent activation of Shane Victorino; many reports have him being the player who will be farmed when Chase Utley rejoins the active roster. But it's not simply Brown's pending minor league status that has him a cut candidate. After all, he's a top prospect with a bright future. (Note to his keeper-league owners: Certainly you do not want to cut him.) It's that Brown showed during his brief big league tenure that he's not quite ready for this level of competition. He has batted .225 in 14 games, but more importantly, he struck out 13 times and walked once in 40 at-bats.
Also consider adding
Jose Guillen, OF, San Francisco Giants: He'll receive the bulk of the at-bats in right field with the Giants, with Aubrey Huff returning to first base, and it's possible he'll be motivated to show the Kansas City Royals their mistake in cutting him. Guillen has enough power to warrant NL-only consideration.
Felix Pie, OF, Baltimore Orioles: Just like down the stretch last season, the Orioles are giving him a chance at regular at-bats, and just like down the stretch last season, Pie is making good use of them. He's a .328 hitter (19-for-58) in 15 games in August, the primary knock against him that he hasn't walked once. Enjoy it while it lasts, AL-only and deep mixed league owners.
New position qualifiers
One game: Darwin Barney (2B), Emilio Bonifacio (2B), Allen Craig (3B), Greg Dobbs (1B), Ryan Doumit (OF), Andy LaRoche (1B), Jed Lowrie (3B), Mitch Moreland (OF), Nick Stavinoha (1B) and Chris Woodward (SS).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.