DFS Pitching Preview: July 27, 2021

Our MLB DFS lineups don’t start and end with pitching. I’m not saying to punt pitcher every night or even every now and then. I’m just stressing that each and every slate does not rest upon our pitching. That said, the pitcher position is so vital because it’s the slot where we can get the most accurate projection in an extremely volatile wing of DFS.

Our pitching isn’t just a source of fantasy points. The price tags on pitchers make it so they shape they dictate the freedoms and restrictions of building our lineups. Before reading this article, it’s highly suggested that you read my article, “DFS Pitching Primer,” so the concepts discussed here make more sense.

That we’re not selecting the best players. We’re constructing the lineups which carry the most leverage without sacrificing many projected fantasy points.

Tonight, there are two or three clear names at the top and then everyone else: Kenta Maeda, Lance McCullers Jr., and maybe Charlie Morton. Morton is more of a pivot off of the other two, if his ownership can stay tempered. We’ll look at them and a couple of pivot options, but after those three, there are about five interchangeable names we can play the same way.

TIER ONE: CHALK — Maeda, McCullers

Maeda and McCullers face two of the three teams with Vegas-implied run totals under 4.00 and each can go seven innings.

Maeda has been rough this year to the point where there has been speculation that he’s still hurt. Seeing him go seven innings in his last start for the first time this season should give us feelings of optimism that he’s healthy. And healthy Maeda is elite.

In 2020, Maeda had a 2.92 SIERA, 10.80 K/9, 1.35 BB/9, and allowed only 1.22 HR/9. In limited innings this season, a struggling Maeda has still been really good with a 3.94 SIERA, 9.60 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, and 1.36 HR/9. In his last four starts, he’s only walked four batters in 23 innings, while striking out 31. I’m comfortable saying that he’s back.

Sure, those four starts were against the Royals, the Tigers twice, and the Angels. Maybe, he’s just a bumslayer now, but he draws the Tigers again tonight, so we have some bums to slay.

The Tigers’ projected lineup has a 24.7% strikeout rate and only a .154 ISO against right-handed pitching, so Maeda is in an excellent situation. And he’s pitching excellently

If we’re uncomfortable with Maeda because of the high-owned volatility, McCullers has been on fire this season with 10.51 K/9. Sure, he’s giving up 4.42 BB/9 — and that sucks — but, like Shohei Ohtani, the walks are the price we pay for high strikeouts and elite power prevention, as McCullers is allowing only 0.59 HR/9 on a 5.7% barrel rate.

And he gets to face the Mariners, whose projected lineup has a 25.8% strikeout rate against right-handed pitching.

Take McCullers’ baked-in strikeouts with the Mariners’ issues with putting the bat on the ball and McCullers’ ability to go six or seven innings, and he projects for a huge game with Maeda.

The salaries of the two make it extremely simple to play them together, but this could be a mistake, as everyone will be doing this exact thing.

TIER TWO: PIVOTS — Morton, McClanahan

Morton projects similarly to Maeda and McCullers, despite a tougher matchup, but we’re talking ~20% ownership instead of 30-to-40%. Dating back to 2020 for the larger sample, Morton’s 10.39 K/9 is slightly more than Maeda and McCullers. His SIERA and BB/9 are lower than McCullers. The downside, of course, is that the Mets are actually pretty good and pretty tough to strike out.

The Mets’ projected lineup has a 21.5% strikeout rate against right-handed pitching, with a .344 wOBA and a .166 ISO.

It’s a tougher spot for Morton, but as a game piece, the lower ownership makes him a similar play.

Shane McClanahan is currently projected in the same range of ownership as Morton and I’m not believing he stays up there. If we’re gonna chase more strikeouts (10.80 K/9) in a tougher matchup than Maeda and McCullers, why not go for even more K/9 than Morton in a matchup with more baked-in strikeouts?

McClanahan faces the Yankees, who are scary, especially against left-handed pitching, but they have a 24.8% strikeout rate against left-handed pitching and only a surprising .139 ISO with a .310 wOBA. This is a very beatable matchup for McClanahan who ranks on the slate (excluding Seth Lugo):

2nd in SIERA (3.56)
2nd in K/9 (10.80)
2nd in K-BB% (20.5%)

Tracking ownership and general buzz, I’m gonna pick either Morton or McClanahan to play with either Maeda or McCullers in single-entry. In MME, I’ll be setting a player group to force that I play these four without allowing Maeda and McCullers together. That isn’t to say you can’t play Maeda-McCullers lineups. Just that where we do so, we need to put in the work to not have them in lineups with chalky stacks. And, frankly, that’s too much unnecessary work for me. Especially when there’s a wild-assed wild card to add in for leverage.


In 2021, Robbie Ray leads all pitchers on this slate with his 3.18 SIERA because his BB/9 is down to 2.24, making his 1.84 HR/9 somewhat tolerable.

This doesn’t feel tolerable against the Red Sox, but Ray is pretty matchup-proof because the 11.38 K/9 is baked-in. It’s a matter of whether or not the Red Sox can have runners on base for the inevitable homer or two they hit. If they don’t, Ray can (can) dominate and break the slate at mid-single-digit ownership.

We shouldn’t forget that great pitching can make really good hitting look really silly more often than any other pitching. And this is baseball, where any offense can crap the bed at any given time. We don’t need Ray to succeed half the time in this spot at such low ownership. We can play him at 10%, be overweight on the field, and just catch him succeeding 15-to-20% of the time for him to be an asset to our lineups.

And the lineup is important here. If we can find a strong cheap stack and value to fill in our hitter slots — which we should on a 15-game slate — then, Ray-McCullers is so unique that we can play whoever we want. With Ray-Maeda, we can definitely play whoever we want, considering that Maeda is free.

The field doesn’t want to spend up to Ray in a tough spot. That might not be a mistake on their field, but it’s a mistake on our part to not exploit that fear.

Stats cited are since 2020 unless otherwise noted. Ownership projections via Rotoginders at 11:00a.m.

Alex Sonty is a professional DFS and poker player, while contributing to RotoGrinders and FanGraphs, as well as serving as a part-time political science professor in Chicago, IL. He’s been playing fantasy sports since 1996 and entered the DFS realm in 2014, currently playing high-stakes MLB and NFL cash games and GPPs. He is a Chicago Tribune and SB Nation alum, while holding a J.D./M.A. and L.L.M. from DePaul University.

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