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Microtrends and Match-Ups For The Playoffs

It’s playoff time. Some leagues have been in playoff mode for a week or two, but with under a month left in real baseball’s regular season, the vast majority of head-to-head leagues have hit the final few matches. It’s this time of year that match-ups become exceedingly important when weighing waiver wire moves, especially in redraft leagues, where anyone and everyone is fair game to drop from here on out for the right addition. Note: This does not mean dropping Ian Kinsler (.182/.207/.327 with a single home run, five runs scored, and three RBI since August 26) is a winning strategy, but if he can’t right the ship against the Indians and Mariners, I don’t love his chances to figure it out in the Rangers’ remaining 13 games against the A’s and the Angels.

This illuminates a rather key point: Match-ups matter this time of year more than ever. For most of the season, it’s important not to get too bent out of shape over a small sample, but the next few weeks really are just a small sample error magnified to obscene importance. Sample sizes I’d normally eschew as being nothing more than statistical noise have become actionable, and while the trends can — and sometimes will — reverse rather suddenly, more often than not they’re relatively persistent. For example, the Nationals have scored 63 runs this month, the most of any team in baseball. Given that they have a home and home with the Phillies left on the schedule, any Phillie starter drops a peg in my book. I still love Kyle Kendrick, who has been the Phillies’ best starter since the All-Star break, going forward, but if the Nats are still rolling come September 25-27, he loses that “must-start” luster.

Streaming and otherwise using matchup-based factors to make personnel decisions requires an narrow view of the games ahead. The Astros are rotten, headed for another first overall pick in the draft and 100+ losses for sure, and the owners of the only run differential worse than -200. However, they have neither scored the fewest nor allowed the most runs so far this month. In fact, only nine teams have allowed fewer runs than Houston has this month, so while they’ve been a punching bag for much of the season, grabbing a second-class hitter for a shot at Edgar Gonzalez or Lucas Harrell isn’t actually a great idea.

In a similar vein, while the Twins’ offense hasn’t been the most consistent this season, they have been better than they’re being given credit for. Their rank in runs scored by month has gone: 20, 24, 16, 2, 21, and they’re currently back up in second place behind the aforementioned Nationals. The Tigers get the Twins for two of their last four series and while Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer still have to be started, I’d be extremely nervous about starting Rick Porcello and even Anibal Sanchez, albeit to a far lesser extent. Porcello’s struggles against lefties set him up for serious trouble against the meat of the Twins’ lineup in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Josh Willingham; Sanchez’s platoon splits mean he’ll be in jeopardy against the likes of Trevor Plouffe, which is no longer considered a real form of jeopardy.

On the other side of things, the Red Sox look ripe for the streaming. After boasting baseball’s most potent offense in April, and top 10 offense in May and June, the Sox have scored just 19 runs so far this month. For the Orioles and Yankees, both of whom see the Sox for six more games this season, this is good news. Wei-Yin Chen hasn’t been consistent over his last few starts, but looks to conclude his season with starts against the Mariners, Blue Jays, and Red Sox, all of whom have offenses among the league’s 10 worst. The Mariners and Red Sox have combined to score less than half the number of runs that the Nats have scored so far this month; they are a pitcher’s delight indeed.

With the loss of Matt Garza and now Jeff Samardzija, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Cubs are allowing the most runs so far this month, but the fact that the Cardinals and Pirates are one and two runs behind them respectively having played fewer games might be somewhat affronting. Targeting the Cubs’ pitching staff is a solid play as they aren’t likely to suddenly become miserly in allowing runs, but the only team that will get them twice from here on out is the Astros, who are playing one of the remaining two series right now. While that would seem to mean that by Wednesday any advantage to be gained by stocking up on Astros hitters would be gone, it’s worth noting that 12 of the Astros’ last 15 games will come against Chicago, St. Louis, or Pittsburgh. Grabbing Fernando Martinez isn’t anything resembling a safe play right now, but he’s hitting .273/.338/.500 since his recall on Aug. 10, and is more widely available than any of the Astros’ surer options.

For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, streaming against Pirate pitchers feels safer than streaming against Cardinal pitchers. Jaime Garcia is still struggling away from home, which is something that can be exploited as long as the Cardinals don’t get wise and switch up the rotation order to keep him pitching at home. Chris Carpenter seems hell bent on pitching this season, but it’s worth remembering that Adam Wainwright was doing the exact same thing this time last year. If Carpenter gets back, I’m staying away — from him, sure, but also from the hitters he’ll face — as there’s virtually no way to know what he’ll bring to the table. Still, I’m betting this is a non-issue and that he’ll next pitch again on next season’s opening day.

The moral of the story here is that cherry picking match-ups to stream against is a solid play for anyone who isn’t assured of their victory. And while knowing how teams have done this season is important, knowing how they’ve done in the very recent past may end up being more illustrative.