One of the most important early-season fantasy baseball tips is to look for changes that could improve or diminish the outlook of a player compared to his production last season.
Today's notes feature at least two possibly productive examples: one a formerly hyped NL East prospect who has altered his swing, and to lead off this article, a pitcher who is tinkering with his offerings and might have already found something that clicks.
Pitchers to stream
Nick Pivetta (R), rostered in 6.7 percent of ESPN leagues, Philadelphia Phillies vs. Cincinnati Reds: The 6-foot-5 righty's breaking stuff was dancing during his opening outing of 5 2/3 scoreless innings Thursday against the Marlins, making this writer look pretty good for recommending him. Well, I'm doubling down. In that start, he trusted his curveball more while easing up on using his fastball. An extreme positive regression candidate after his bloated 6.02 ERA last year, Pivetta could turn his lofty strikeout upside into a breakthrough year, especially if he keeps that tweak going. The Reds will take cuts without Eugenio Suarez (thumb) and Scott Schebler (elbow), two of their biggest offensive weapons, which makes this an easier draw despite the tough environment.
Zack Wheeler (R), 1.9 percent, New York Mets at Miami Marlins: The righty spun a five-inning gem at Triple-A Las Vegas and will finally give the Mets their longtime dream rotation -- at least while Jason Vargas (hand) is sidelined. Wheeler's chances at the rotation may be tied to that injury, but in the meantime, he could make a case for a larger role by taming a club that's sputtered to a .274 wOBA, the majors' third lowest through Monday, over the first week-plus. Fun fact: Wheeler has 113 strikeouts in his last 112 innings.
Adam Wainwright (R), 7.4 percent, St. Louis Cardinals vs. Milwaukee Brewers: Waino hardly has displayed skills that call back to his elite seasons, but the Brewers' lineup is more vulnerable without Christian Yelich (oblique), and Wainwright, for all his flaws, sported a 3.08 ERA and a .246 opponents' batting average at home in 2017.
Pitcher to avoid
Jon Lester (L), 95.2 percent, Chicago Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates: Lester rebounded from his rough debut but faces a Pirates club packed with capable righty sticks that has pounded out a .195 ISO against lefties so far. It's probably going to be difficult to bench him in many formats, but the upside isn't as sunny as his last effort might've hinted.
Alex Colome blew each of his first two save chances of 2018 but converted his third Monday, which marked his second straight day of work. He then picked up yet another save Tuesday, his third straight game on the hill. The Rays will likely rest him Wednesday and instead use one of their bullpen cavalcade depending on the situation. Thanks to shaky skills, outlined by his single whiff in four innings so far in 2018 and a tepid 7.83 K/9 last year (and the possibility the rebuilding Rays trade him later this summer), Colome remains one of the biggest season-long bust risks for saves.
Projected game scores
GS is the projected game score for the pitcher. The "*" symbol means the pitcher lacks requisite career major league data to produce an accurate rating; these are the author's ratings.
Austin Hedges (R), 15.9 percent, San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies (RHP German Marquez): Marquez tied for the eighth-highest wOBA (.355) allowed to righty bats and was saddled with a 4.59 home ERA in 2017. Hedges has scuttled to a .179 start to the season but boasts power against both righties and lefties. Getting the chance to display it -- along with his new swing -- at Coors Field should at least appeal to catcher streamers and open eyes to his season-long potential.
Wilmer Flores (R), 2 percent, New York Mets at Miami Marlins (LHP Jarlin Garcia): Flores typically blooms as an obvious fantasy start when facing a southpaw, considering his career .348 wOBA in those spots, and this friendly matchup will be no different.
Ben Zobrist (B), 21.3 percent, Chicago Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (LHP Steven Brault): In this small opening-season sample size, the versatile vet is pushing Ian Happ out of playing time with his locked-in work at the dish. Zobrist hasn't shown it lately but has delivered stronger results off lefty hurlers in his career (.351 wOBA, compared to .339 in the other split). Brault's 1.13 ERA through two appearances hides typically shaky skills, and he's yielded a career .359 wOBA to right-handed opponents.
Drew Robinson (L), 1.7 percent, Texas Rangers vs. Los Angeles Angels (RHP Jaime Barria): Robinson has been subbing in center field for Delino DeShields (hand) but qualifies at third base -- a handy workaround for our purposes today. Barria was summoned from Triple-A Salt Lake for the Wednesday assignment and carries an underwhelming history of strikeouts, so he might let up a lot of contact.
Dansby Swanson (R), 37.9 percent, Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals (RHP A.J. Cole): This public service announcement to add the 2017 bust comes from early success, which stems from adjustments he has made on his hand position while holding the bat. Swanson has rattled off five multihit games in his first nine. He didn't have his first in 2017 until April 29, Game 22. If fantasy players should pick on any Nationals pitcher, it's Cole, who's allowed a mere 17.6 percent soft-contact rate for his career, per Fangraphs.
David Freese (R), 0.5 percent, Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs (LHP Jon Lester): As noted previously, using right-handers against the southpaws in the Cubs-Pirates tilt seems like a good idea. On the occasions Freese subs for Colin Moran at third base, his .365 wOBA and /301/.379/.462 lifetime MLB numbers against left-handers will again come in handy as a rental.
Yolmer Sanchez (B), 14.8 percent, Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays (RHP Yonny Chirinos): Sanchez's defense at the hot corner preserves his playing time and deep-league relevance, which is bolstered by his dual-positional qualifications. He's posted a swift 9-for-31 (.290) start to the season, and 11 of his 12 big flies last year came against righties. The Rays' bullpen game is expected to begin with one in Chirinos.
Tyler Naquin (L), 0.4 percent, Cleveland Indians vs. Detroit Tigers (RHP Jordan Zimmermann): Just as Naquin was sent down to Triple-A Columbus, Cleveland brought him back after Lonnie Chisenhall's placement on the DL. Naquin typically enters fantasy discussions when facing a righty -- he holds a .289/.358/.497 slash and .361 wOBA for his career with the platoon advantage. Despite striking out more batters early in 2018, Zimmermann looks like the same version of his 2017 self that coughed up a .376 wOBA and 15 homers in 80 1/3 innings to left-handed bats.
Mallex Smith (L), 6 percent, Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox (RHP James Shields): Smith's .307 wOBA against righty pitchers from last season wasn't impressive but stood 55 points higher than the opposite split. Despite questions over his efficiency as a base stealer, opponents have converted 28 of 32 attempts against the 6-foot-3 Shields since the start of the 2016 season.
Gerardo Parra (L), 4.9 percent, Colorado Rockies vs. San Diego Padres (RHP Luis Perdomo): Perdomo's ground ball/strikeout profile hasn't been enough to cure his early problems finding the strike zone. That'll play well for the home club at Coors Field, giving Parra, typically a stronger option when facing a righty (.163 ISO split last year), an opportunity to cure his slow start (.182 in 33 at-bats).
Hitter matchup ratings
Hitter ratings account for the opposing starting pitcher's history (three years' worth), as well as ballpark factors. "LH" and "RH" ratings account only for left- and right-handed batters, respectively.
Weighted on-base average (wOBA) is the primary statistic used in the calculation. Ratings range from 1 to 10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst. For example, a 10 is a must-start rating, while a 1 should be avoided (if possible); a 1-2 is poor, 3-4 is fair, 5-6 is average, 7-8 is very good and 9-10 is excellent.