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MLB DFS Tournament Strategy: Leverage, Home Runs, Optimal Picks | Today, 9/23/21

Terry McBride

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Thursday features a five-game slate on DraftKings with a 6:40 p.m. ET start and a four-game affair on FanDuel, with underwhelming contests on both sites. The baseball slate has several compelling pitching options, with some additional quality available for DraftKings contests. The slate features two or three good starters and a number of uncomfortable options on the mound. Getting to a variety of the secondary and lesser arms in combination with the more obvious names is a good approach to diversifying lineups for MLB DFS tournaments. The Top Pitchers Tool provides a major advantage in parsing the probability of positively leveraged pitching success.

MLB DFS Tournament Strategy: Top HR Options

Home runs are the holy grail when making MLB DFS picks. Finding the right combination of sluggers who will knock one, or better two, out of the park to drive in the teammates you stack with them is critical to winning GPPs. Identifying the likely home run hitters is trickier than just looking at the big names. Using a model of my design, based on a blend of several predictive statistics for the batter-pitcher matchup, I will give each team one of the top choices. However, it will not always be the absolute top-ranked player, particularly when there is an obvious star in that spot every day.

Home Run Ratings

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Scale: 5-10 Average; 10-20 Good; 20-25 Very Good; 25+ Great

Baltimore Orioles: Cedric Mullins — 9.08

Cincinnati Reds: Nick Castellanos — 11.47

Houston Astros: Kyle Tucker — 5.53

Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani — 7.59

Minnesota Twins: Max Kepler — 13.28

Philadelphia Phillies: Bryce Harper — 14.41

Pittsburgh Pirates: Bryan Reynolds — 7.30

Texas Rangers: Nate Lowe — 11.12

Toronto Blue Jays: Teoscar Hernandez — 8.14

Washington Nationals: Lane Thomas — 4.56

Power Index

This is intended to capture the full range of home run upside for each team. It is not meant as a stack ranking and does not account for pricing or popularity — only home run potential. The first column is the average rating for the full projected lineup (pitcher bats not included in non-DH games), and the second is for the top six hitters in the projected lineup.

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MLB DFS Picks: Pitchers, Optimal Stacks & Leverage Plays

This section will feature a few standout MLB DFS spots and teams to look at for potential plays on DraftKings and FanDuel. Ensure to check out the Awesemo Ownership Projections for critical updates and monitor the top stacks tool throughout the day for changes.

On the Hill

Thursday’s pitching slate is different from site to site, with DraftKings’ early start doing a favor for gamers by adding Luis Castillo in a matchup against the Nationals to the slate. Castillo will face Patrick Corbin who would be a major dice roll against the quality Reds bats, getting to the hitting side of that equation seems far more viable for DraftKings play. The options that appear on both sites are led by Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola, who is in an excellent situation with the lousy Pirates lineup in town. The other high-end starter is Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. who draws a start against the Angels and should be in a strong position to deliver MLB DFS scoring. The slate is rounded off by either rookies or veteran arms who are solidly mediocre but could put up necessary scores at their pricing. Spreading shares between Alex Cobb, Steven Matz, and Michael Pineda may not be comfortable, but it makes sense on a small anything goes type of slate.

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Having Castillo available is a gigantic benefit for DraftKings players. He has made 31 starts and thrown 176.1 innings this season, pitching to a quality 3.61 xFIP with a 24% strikeout rate. He has put too many men on base through the season, coming into tonight with a bumpy 9.2% walk rate and a 1.35 WHIP, but he is excellent at inducing swing-and-miss, with a 13.1% swinging-strike rate and he has been terrific at limiting quality contact. Castillo has allowed just a 4.6% barrel rate and a 36.9% hard-hit percentage on the season, all coming at an average launch angle of four degrees. He is difficult to hit for significant power and home run upside. The Nationals active roster has a 3.11% home run rate and a .146 ISO against right-handed pitching, though they do have an above-average 22.4% strikeout rate in the split. Washington creates runs 9% worse than league average by collective WRC+ against righties, they should not present a major challenge to Castillo, who should arguably be more popular than his negatively leveraged 39.2% for $8,900 on this slate.

Nola is the clear class of the slate. He is facing a Pirates team that has a 23.3% strikeout rate against righties this season, a league-average mark that is their best asset. The team has just a .130 ISO and a 2.53% home run rate in the split, and they create runs 18% worse than average when facing right-handed pitchers. Nola has made 30 starts this season, covering 168.2 innings while pitching to a 30.3% strikeout rate and a 3.29 xFIP. He has a 1.11 WHIP, walks just 5.2% of hitters, and has a 12.8% swinging-strike rate. He has yielded a 7.3% barrel rate and a 37% hard-hit rate and should be expected to post a significant score in this matchup. Nola is slated for nearly 75% ownership on DraftKings and will be in more than half of FanDuel lineups. He deserves the popularity with so few other options on the slate, but slight undercuts to grab additional shares for other options is probably advisable.

McCullers brings a 27.5% strikeout rate and a 3.66 xFIP to the mound this evening. He has an ugly 11.1% walk rate and a 1.25 WHIP, but he throws a significant amount of strikes as well, coming in at an 11.8% swinging-strike rate and a 31.7% CSW. McCullers has allowed a 5% barrel rate but a 39.5% hard-hit percentage, but he has a .309 expected slugging percentage that sits in the 91st percentile in baseball. He is a very safe option who has major upside against this lineup. The opposing Angels have an aggressive 25% strikeout rate against righties this season. They have a .168 ISO and a 3.55% home run rate while creating runs 2% behind the curve. McCullers is expensive on both sites, but his ownership is efficient and far closer to level with his probability of success than that of Nola, making him an appealing pivot.

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Matz is drawing positive leverage for his chances at putting up a top-two start on DraftKings. He has just a 22% strikeout rate over 140.2 innings this season. He has pitched to a 4.02 xFIP and has a 6.6% walk rate this season. Matz has a 1.32 WHIP, and with a 9.3% swinging-strike rate and a 27.7% CSW, he struggles to get out of trouble. He has yielded a 7.3% barrel rate and a 37.8% hard-hit percentage this season, his 1.09 HR/9 mark (2.81%) is the best he has been since 2016. Matz will face a Twins lineup that has a reputation for major right-handed power, but the team has just a .167 ISO and a 3.87% home run rate against lefties that both rank in the middle of the league. More to Matz’s advantage, the Twins active roster strikes out at a 24% clip and creates runs 9% worse than average against left-handed pitching. He is under-owned as the best of a bad bunch of options following the clear top starters. It is worth mentioning that Matz is also creating major home run upside for the Twins hitters, as can be seen in the power index above. This is a dice roll, no question.

Cincinnati Reds

DraftKings players will have the benefit of rostering Reds bats as well, though the team is in diminished form. The team ranks in the middle of the top stacks board and is drawing ownership that is roughly level with their probability of success. They will be facing the discarded exoskeleton of what was once Patrick Corbin. He has just an 18.2% strikeout rate and a 4.38 xFIP this season. He has allowed a 9.5% barrel rate and a 41.4% hard-hit percentage and is at just a 26.2% CSW, though he does induce swinging-strikes at a quality 10.9% rate. Corbin remains highly targetable for bats like these, though the numbers for the Reds active roster against lefties on the season are surprising. The team has a 3.26% home run rate and a .151 ISO with a 23.1% strikeout rate, and they have created runs 18% worse than average in the split. All of those marks are above average against right-handed pitching. The team clearly struggles on this side of splits, but they should still have a leg up on a pitcher like the current form of Corbin. Go-to Reds bats include Nick Castellanos, Joey Votto, and Eugenio Suarez, while quality bats that make decent correlation plays include Jonathan India, Kyle Farmer, Tucker Barnhart, and Jose Barrero.

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Houston Astros

On a short-slate day where ownership and leverage will be paramount, the excellent Astros lineup is once again going under-owned. The team has been featured in this space numerous times, but they are worth yet another look, given a second-place ranking in the probability of success but the largest positive leverage number across both sites. The Astros are facing Alex Cobb, a righty who has a 25.8% strikeout rate and a 3.16 xFIP on the season. Cobb walks too many at 8.1% and has a 1.23 WHIP, but he has been good with strikes, pitching to an 11.8% swinging-strike rate and a solid 30.3% CSW. He has yielded an excellent 3.6% barrel rate and a 38.7% hard-hit percentage this season, coming at an average launch angle of just 2.2 degrees. He is not a pushover of a starter, but the Astros lineup features an overwhelming amount of quality, they possess excellent hit tools as well as power and can score with sequential hitting if they are unable to hit the ball out of the park.

Jose Altuve has a 13.8% strikeout rate and a 10.2% walk rate, putting the ball in play and reaching base with regularity. He has 29 home runs and a .210 ISO on the season while slashing .279/.354/.488 and creating runs 31% ahead of league average. Altuve should be included in most Houston stacks, though his FanDuel popularity is trending into the 15% range.

Alex Bregman is slashing .287/.368/.436 with 10 home runs over his 361 plate appearances. Bregman has a .150 ISO and has created runs 23% better than average in his injury-shortened season. He has lacked his usual power upside, but he has major home run upside. Bregman has just a 14.1% strikeout rate and an excellent 11.1% walk rate this season, but his contact marks are down at just a 39.7% hard-hit and a 6% barrel rate. Rostering Bregman for a discount makes sense, but he will be one of the more popular Astros bats, landing in the mid-teens across both FanDuel and DraftKings in early Ownership Projections.

Carlos Correa is the third straight Astros hitter to strike out at less than a 20% clip, coming into the contest with an 18.2% rate while walking at a team-leading 11.8%. Correa has a 42.9% hard-hit percentage and a 9.9% barrel rate that have combined to translate to 24 home runs and a .204 ISO in his 610 plate appearances. He fills a premium position and is somehow priced at less than $5,000 on DraftKings. Correa is under 10% popular on both sites.

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Yordan Alvarez has 32 home runs in 563 plate appearances this season. He has a .260 ISO and has created runs 44% better than average. Alvarez has a 23.6% rate but makes up for it with his titanic 55% hard-hit percentage and 15.3% barrel rate. He is more easily playable on DraftKings at just 12% popularity for $5,400, but he will still be frequently utilized by the public.

Yuli Gurriel is always under-owned and underpriced for a hitter in the middle of this lineup. He is slashing .319/.385/.461 and creating runs 35% better than average this season. The .319 batting average is third in all of baseball, behind just Juan Soto and league-leader Vladimir Guerrero Jr., though no one would argue that Gurriel trends to quite those heights. Gurriel strikes out at just an 11.1% clip. He warrants far more consideration than he gets.

Kyle Tucker has 27 home runs and a .259 ISO over 528 plate appearances in 2021. He has a 47.9% hard-hit rate, 11.8% barrel rate, .295/.356/.555 slash and 145 WRC+. Tucker rounds out a run of six straight hitters in this lineup whose average WRC+ sits 36% above the league average.

Jake Meyers has five home runs in his 136 plate appearances but has an un-Astros-like 31.6% strikeout rate over his debut weeks. He has created runs 8% better than average over the term, however, which keeps him easily in play for the price. Meyers is cheap at $2,600 on DraftKings and $2,100 on FanDuel.

Chas McCormick has a 48.9% hard-hit percentage and a 10.8% barrel rate this year. He has 13 home runs in just 295 plate appearances and has a .194 ISO while creating runs 9% better than average. McCormick also strikes out at an aggressive rate, coming in at a team-worst 31.9%, but his under-owned and inexpensive power is worth it. McCormick costs the minimum on DraftKings and just $2,300 on FanDuel.

Catcher Martin Maldonado is the only Astros player in the projected lineup who is not at least 8% above average by WRC+. In fact, he has created runs at a pace 31% behind the average this season. He has 12 home runs in 408 plate appearances but just a .135 ISO. He is playable only where catchers are required.

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HR Call: Jorge Polanco — Minnesota Twins

To get even more action down on tonight’s MLB slate, check out the betting markets and Awesemo’s expert MLB betting picks for today.


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Terry used to do other things, now he writes words on the internet. He hopes his more than 20 years’ experience in season-long and daily fantasy sports and his custom models for MLB, NBA, and NFL don't steer you too wrong when he writes columns and makes picks on Awesemo.com. A lifetime of experience keeping odd hours make Terry ideal to cover KBO baseball overnight until the world returns to normal. Most of those late night hours have been spent on the couch watching sports, T.V., and movies; just try to shut him up about any of the above. You can find his pop-culture ramblings and more on Sideaction.

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