Streaming starters to fill the gaps on your pitching staff might be one proven method of securing a fantasy baseball championship, but at this time of the year, be careful not to mistake a start-every-time pitcher for a true streamer.
After all, many pitchers begin their productive fantasy runs as streaming candidates only to develop into something more; either they earn our trust with an extended period of success or they show some sort of skill change that persuades us to hop on board. This season, we've already seen several pitchers "graduate" from this class: Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards, Tyson Ross, Tanner Roark, Jake Arrieta and Danny Duffy are just six such examples from 2014.
What's more -- and obviously the case with Richards -- is some of these types end up lengthy-stretch, every-start types, the kinds you'll have in your active lineup for as many as two to three months consistently, even if they don't fill a need for all six calendar months of the baseball season. Such names frequently turn over; Jake Odorizzi is one such example of the pitcher who has shifted from one group to another multiple times.
Looking forward, six pitchers made substantial jumps in this week's rankings, on the idea that all of them are now trustworthy every-start options, probably through season's end. Let's take a closer look at why, and what each has ahead on the schedule:
Mike Fiers: He's the No. 2 pitcher on our Player Rater's "Last 30" split, and it's thanks to a dominating stretch of four consecutive quality starts during which time he has struck out exactly one-third (33.3 percent) of the batters he has faced. Fiers has taken many by surprise -- this columnist included -- because of that whiff rate, which belies the assumption that soft-tossers don't strike hitters out; only 124 of his 412 pitches thrown in August were clocked at even 90 mph, and none reached 93 mph. Fiers does it with movement, his 10.8-inch vertical break on his fastball during that time is sixth-greatest -- this is the proverbial "rising fastball" -- and his minus-11.0 inch vertical break on his curveball most during that span. But, perhaps even more importantly, Fiers' command has improved by leaps and bounds: He averaged a whopping 7.59 K's per walk in his 17 starts for Triple-A Nashville, the third-highest rate of any minor leaguer with at least as many as his 102 1/3 innings, and he has struck out 5.29 batters per walk for the Milwaukee Brewers this season, a rate that would place him ninth in the majors if he had the requisite innings requirement. There's far too much evidence here to deny that Fiers' performance is legit.
Projected schedule: @SF (Aug. 30), STL (Sept. 4), MIA (Sept. 9), CIN (Sept. 14), @PIT (Sept. 20), CHC (Sept. 26). The primary questions are whether the Brewers go with a six-man rotation once Matt Garza heals, affecting Fiers' schedule, whether they'd want to shift him to relief to line him up for such a playoff role, or whether they'd want to skip any of his starts to keep him fresh if he's a playoff starter. Every one of those six remaining starts, however, is a clear go.
Mike Minor: He's higher-ranked than Fiers because of a more extensive reputation at this level, although he didn't move upward as significantly. That is partly because there isn't as obvious a reason for his recent uptick in performance -- he's the No. 23 starting pitcher on our Player Rater's "Last 15" split -- although PitchF/X data hints that it's related to his two-seam fastball. In his past three starts, Minor has thrown a two-seamer exactly one-third of the time (33.3 percent) with the pitch being worth 3.8 runs above average. That would provide an obvious explanation for his 45.5 percent ground-ball rate during that three-start stretch, and it'd be a substantial advance for this pitcher who sports a 37.8 percent ground-ball rate in his major league career. After all, Minor had been serving up an absurd number of line drives (27.4 percent this season) and a distressing rate of hard contact (.197 from May-July, seventh-highest among qualifiers) before that. If he has truly made this apparent adjustment, he might be ranked too low below; remember that he was a top-25 starter on draft day.
Projected schedule: @NYM (Aug. 28), PHI (Sept. 2), @WSH (Sept. 8), @TEX (Sept. 14), NYM (Sept. 20), PIT (Sept. 25). Two New York Mets games are what make this schedule, and even if the Atlanta Braves shuffle their order, their Washington Nationals games (Sept. 8-10 road, Sept. 15-17 home) are the only remotely "scary" ones.
Brandon McCarthy: He has been an absolute sensation since his trade to the New York Yankees, winning five of his nine starts and generating six quality starts behind a 2.47 ERA. Much of the credit belongs squarely in pitching coach Larry Rothschild's corner, or whoever in Yankees management was responsible for affording McCarthy the luxury of again leaning on his cutter. McCarthy has thrown that pitch 22 percent of the time for the team and recorded 40 of his 175 outs for the team with it; opponents have batted just .234/.276/.361 against it since the beginning of 2010. More freedom in his pitch selection is largely behind his keeping his home run/fly ball percentage in check -- 7.3 percent with the Yankees, after 20.8 percent with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- and it's the reason he's well worth trusting every time he pitches going forward. There are better schedules out there than McCarthy's, and he's as risky in the injury department as pitchers come, but there's also every reason to keep enjoying his production for as long as he can stay healthy.
Projected schedule: @TOR (Aug. 31), KC (Sept. 6), @BAL (Sept. 12), @TB (Sept. 17), BAL (Sept. 22), @BOS (Sept. 27). There are whispers that the Yankees are considering a six-man rotation for September, and such an arrangement would make sense considering they conclude the regular season with 22 games scheduled in the final 21 days. McCarthy's starts already fall on the tougher days of the two Yankees profiled in this column, though, so the primary risk for him might be that he'll squeeze only five more starts if it's a six-man rotation all month.
Michael Pineda: Speaking of Rothschild and the cutter, astute fantasy owners might have noticed in the PitchF/X data that Pineda has been relying considerably more upon the cutter since his Aug. 13 return from the DL. During his past three starts, he has thrown it 31.4 percent of the time and had it result in 1.8 runs above average, which serves an obvious explanation how left-handed batters have hit just .185 while making hard contact only three times (on 23 balls in play). But most importantly, Pineda's fastball velocity hasn't suffered at all since his return, averaging 93.2 mph, which is a lot closer to 2011's 94.5 than the 91.8 mph he averaged in 2014 before getting hurt. Like McCarthy, he's an injury risk and on a team considering adding a starter to ease the strain, but again like McCarthy, he's another obvious ride-this-out pitcher.
Projected schedule: @TOR (Aug. 30), KC (Sept. 5), TB (Sept. 11), @TB (Sept. 16), TOR (Sept. 21), @BOS (Sept. 26). If the Yankees do go with six starters for the month, Pineda is the one who might lose the most value, being that he'd lose a Tampa Bay Rays matchup for one against the Baltimore Orioles.
Tsuyoshi Wada: He has been quite a find for the Chicago Cubs, posting a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 22.5 percent strikeout rate in his first eight big league starts, his numbers looking awfully close to those for Triple-A Iowa to begin the season (2.77, 1.16, 25.9 percent). And while Wada, now 33, might not have much room for growth, he's a four-pitch pitcher -- four above-average-to-good pitches at that -- who offers enough variety to keep opposing hitters off balance for an extended period. He's especially tough against lefties, with .143/.172/.143 rates against them (mostly thanks to his slider), and that'll be especially important in coming matchups against the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays, who have totaled the 12th- and sixth-most plate appearances by left-handed hitters this season.
Projected schedule: @STL (Aug. 30), PIT (Sept. 5), @TOR (Sept. 10), CIN (Sept. 16), LAD (Sept. 21), @MIL (Sept. 27). The Cubs have in August already added a sixth starter to give their other pitchers some rest, and they could do it again in September, meaning Wada might have only five rather than six remaining starts.
Drew Smyly: He's 3-for-4 in quality starts with a 1.55 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in his first four starts for the Rays, and let's not overlook that those statistics have come against what wasn't the easiest of schedules (@OAK, @TEX, NYY, @TOR). Yes, Smyly faced those four teams at comparatively favorable times -- the three road starts came against teams that were slumping, for instance -- but that's still two treacherous ballparks in which to pitch and a fourth on the West Coast against a contending team within days of his being traded. Smyly the Ray hasn't been all that different from Smyly the Detroit Tiger, with only one thing standing out: somewhat greater reliance upon a two-seamer, which he has thrown 29 percent of the time (20 percent for the Tigers). That's a plus for this fly-baller, as it could help him boost his ground-ball rate into the 40-44 percent range going forward.
Projected schedule: @BAL (Aug. 27), BOS (Sept. 1), BAL (Sept. 6), @TOR (Sept. 12), NYY (Sept. 17), @BOS (Sept. 24). There is an outside chance that the Rays could use their September off days to maximize their pitching matchups, but being that they're currently in the midst of a 20-games-in-20-days stretch, plus don't have an obvious pitcher in need of being skipped, makes it unlikely Smyly would move.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 going-forward rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.