The Atlanta Braves -- owners of a 16-3 record in the month of August, a 14-game lead in the National League East, and a magic number to clinch a playoff berth of 31 -- might be ready to ease back on their efforts and rest up for October.
But for fantasy purposes, they might only get better.
This topic came up during Monday's Fantasy Focus podcast, and it was that discussion between me and Nate Ravitz that had me thinking: Who does have the most favorable remaining schedule for fantasy? After that show, I returned to my spreadsheet to determine the answer.
Sure enough, it's the Braves. Podcast listeners know this already, but in case you haven't yet heard, this is Atlanta's remaining schedule: PHI-2, off day, WSH-3, off day, @NYM-2, @STL-4, off day, CLE-3, MIA-3, NYM-3, off day, @PHI-3, @MIA-4, SD-3, @WSH-3, off day, @CHC-3, MIL-3, PHI-4.
Of those nine different opponents, only the St. Louis Cardinals (4.91) and New York Mets (4.07) have averaged more than four runs per game this season, and only the Cardinals (.323) have a wOBA (weighted on-base average) better than the major league average of .310. Those Cardinals games, incidentally, conclude on Aug. 25, or 12 days from now, meaning the Braves' final 32 games, which encompass the final 34 days of the 2013 schedule, come only against mediocre offensive teams.
This is the reason fantasy owners shouldn't entirely fear premature shutdowns of the Braves' starters, whether they're the result of innings caps (such as with Julio Teheran) or of strategically resting pitchers for the playoffs. Yes, the Braves might ease off some of their starters -- the 22-year-old Teheran, who has never pitched more than 164 1/3 innings in a professional season, is on pace for 195 -- but the point is that what their starters will give you until such decisions are made will be well worth any risk taken by sticking with them.
Incidentally, four Braves starters -- candidates for starts, that is -- remain available in a large percentage of ESPN leagues: Kris Medlen (owned in 87.3 percent), Brandon Beachy (52.8 percent), Alex Wood (32.0) and Paul Maholm (23.0). Armed with this knowledge, you might be able to piece together a late-season strategy simply by rotating Braves. After all, the Braves face divisional foes in 27 of their final 43 contests, and this quartet has a combined 3.15 ERA and 1.15 WHIP within the division this season.
Beachy is perhaps the most intriguing, highest-ceiling candidate of the bunch. Having made 12 starts of 58 total innings thus far between the majors and minors after recovering from Tommy John surgery, he might have the freshest arm of the team's current starting five. Also bear in mind that he threw 81 innings pre-surgery in 2012, so he's unlikely to significantly exceed that number. In his three big league starts this season, Beachy has boosted his Bill James Game Score from 21 to 51 to 81, and his fastball has improved by leaps and bounds in the process (.549 wOBA on 52 thrown in his first start, .289 on 51 in his second, .220 on 64 in his third).
Besides the Braves, who else faces an "easy" schedule in the final quarter?
Most favorable pitching schedules
Chicago Cubs: Remaining schedule -- CIN-2, off day, STL-3, WSH-4, @SD-3, @LAD-3, off day, PHI-3, MIA-3, off day, MIL-3, @CIN-3, @PIT-4, @MIL-4, ATL-3, PIT-3, off day, @STL-3
Here's another team rife with opportunity, as not one single pitcher on the Cubs is owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues; closer Kevin Gregg leads the way with 98.4 percent ownership. And here's the scary part: Among the Cubs' most important pitchers, Gregg might stand the most to lose in terms of value.
Jeff Samardzija (owned in 85.6 percent of ESPN leagues) has had only three quality starts in seven games since July 1, but he also faced a much more challenging portion of the Cubs' schedule than the one that lies ahead. If the Cubs maintain a straight five-man rotation without any postponements, these would be Samardzija's final nine starts: CIN, WSH, @SD, PHI, MIA, @CIN, @PIT, ATL, PIT. It's those Cincinnati Reds matchups that warrant the most hesitation, but keep in mind that he has a 3.52 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 9.10 strikeouts per nine innings ratio in five starts against the Reds since the beginning of last season.
There could also be some matchups opportunities for lesser-heralded Cubs starters such as Travis Wood (owned in 65.5 percent), Edwin Jackson (20.6), Carlos Villanueva (3.3) and Chris Rusin (0.7). Wood, like Samardzija, is slated to make starts at San Diego's Petco Park and versus the Miami Marlins. In addition, if the team decides to get a look at its potential future closers, Pedro Strop (0.7 percent) has a 2.65 ERA and 10.59 K's per nine since joining the Cubs.
Detroit Tigers: Remaining schedule -- @CWS-2, KC-5, off day, MIN-3, @NYM-3, OAK-4, CLE-3, @BOS-3, off day, @KC-3, @CWS-3, off day, KC-3, SEA-4, CWS-3, @MIN-3, off day, @MIA-3
Four of the Tigers' five starters and their closer are claimed in every ESPN league, but that doesn't mean this team is lacking in opportunity. Fifth starter Rick Porcello, available in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues (18.3 percent owned), has posted six quality starts in his past seven games. He has also made a key skills improvement from a full-season perspective: He has increased his K-to-walk ratio for the fourth straight year, as his 3.48 ratio is a significant step forward from the 2.43 he posted in 2012.
The Tigers' remaining schedule should also instill a greater sense of confidence in the fantasy owners of both Joaquin Benoit and Anibal Sanchez. Since July 1, Benoit has converted all nine of his save chances and recorded a 0.66 ERA in 15 appearances, while Sanchez has five quality starts and a 2.25 ERA in seven starts since returning from the disabled list, and both might yet keep up those torrid paces.
Least favorable pitching schedules
It wouldn't be complete analysis without the bad matchups, right?
Baltimore Orioles: Remaining schedule -- @ARI-2, off day, COL-3, TB-3, off day, OAK-3, off day, @BOS-3, @NYY-3, @CLE-3, CWS-4, NYY-4, @TOR-3, off day, @BOS-3, @TB-4, TOR-3, BOS-3
What's most unattractive about the Orioles' remaining schedule is the portion that begins on Tuesday, Aug. 27. That's their first game of a nine-game road trip to Boston, New York and Cleveland, and it begins a 34-day stretch during which the Orioles have only one off day (Sept. 16). With the exception of the Chicago White Sox series (Sept. 5-8), there isn't an "easy" game during that 34-day span.
That's bad news for a rotation effectively populated only by matchups considerations, though Chris Tillman (owned in 91.0 percent) is a possible exception. Fantasy owners might not be able to extract nearly as many useful matchups from pitchers like Bud Norris (41.4 percent), Wei-Yin Chen (29.0), Scott Feldman (20.5) or Miguel Gonzalez (14.7). Keeping this schedule in mind, you shouldn't be afraid to cut any of the four anytime you need a roster spot for other streamers.
New York Yankees: Remaining schedule -- LAA-3, @BOS-3, off day, TOR-4, @TB-3, @TOR-3, off day, BAL-3, CWS-3, BOS-4, @BAL-4, @BOS-3, off day, @TOR-3, SF-3, off day, TB-3, @HOU-3
That is a lot of Boston Red Sox, isn't it? Don't forget that the Red Sox have scored the majors' most runs (605) and have the second-best wOBA (.340), and they are prominently featured as 26 of the Yankees' final 45 games come against the five best teams in baseball in terms of wOBA. Heck, the Yankees don't have an "easy" game until the final 10 days, when they host the San Francisco Giants before heading to Houston to conclude the season.
If you wish, talk up CC Sabathia's second-half history -- he hasn't had an ERA higher than 3.44 after the All-Star break since 2005 -- but his diminished velocity coupled with this treacherous schedule makes him more likely to disappoint than rebound the remainder of this year. In fact, keeping the schedule in mind, there's only one Yankees pitcher who can be deemed trustworthy: Hiroki Kuroda (nine quality starts and a 1.79 ERA in his past 11 starts).
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.