Stats & Info: B.J. Upton

Top stats to know: Dodgers vs. Braves

October, 3, 2013

AP PhotosKris Medlan and Clayton Kershaw will get the starting nods for the Braves and Dodgers in Game 1.
Game 1 of the National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves begins tonight from Turner Field (8:37 ET/ESPN Radio).

The only other postseason meeting between these clubs was in the 1996 NLDS, which the Braves won 3-0.

Here are a few storylines to watch.

1. The Braves won the season series 5-2 and come into postseason play having won three of their last four overall. Atlanta has won 25 of its last 35 home games, but has not fared so well at Turner Field in the postseason lately.

Atlanta has lost three straight and 16 of its last 21 postseason games played in front of its home crowd, dating back to 1999.

The Dodgers clinched a playoff berth on Sept. 19. That might explain why they went 4-9 to finish the season (including losses in four of their last five games).

Los Angeles was the first team to win a division title after being at least 12 games under .500 at any point in the season since the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays.

In the playoffs, the Dodgers have lost three straight and 26 of their last 36 road games.

2. Braves starter Kris Medlen enters the postseason on a roll, going 5-0 with a 0.84 ERA in his last six starts.

He made two excellent starts against the Dodgers early in the season, allowing one run and seven hits in 13⅔ innings pitched.

3. One of the leading candidates for the National League Cy Young Award, left-hander Clayton Kershaw, will pitch for the Dodgers.

The Braves went an NL-best 25-16 in games in which the opposing starter was left-handed.

Kershaw has not recorded a decision in four career starts vs. the Braves, but does have a 2.45 ERA (he has not faced them since Sept. 4, 2011).

For the season, Kershaw sported a league-low 1.83 ERA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first postseason start by the ERA champion has not been stellar recently.

There have been 13 ERA-title winners to start a postseason game since 1999, going a combined 2-8 with a 4.29 ERA in those starts. The only two with a win were Johan Santana in 2004 for the Minnesota Twins and Jason Schmidt in 2003 for the San Francisco Giants.

4. Matchups to watch in this game include these two:

Hanley Ramirez vs.Kris Medlen: Ramirez is the only player on the Dodgers roster who has homered against Medlen. He’s 5-for-9 against him, though the two haven’t faced each other since the 2010 season.

Justin Upton vs. Clayton Kershaw: Upton and Kershaw did not face each other during the 2013 season, but they have plenty of matchup experience from Upton’s time with the Diamondbacks.

Upton is 3-for-29 with nine strikeouts against Kershaw, though he does have a single, double and triple in his last 11 at-bats against him.

5. Misc Notes
* According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Braves’ Justin and B.J. Upton will be the first set of brothers to play in a postseason game as teammates since the Molinas (Jose and Bengie) did so for the Angels in 2005.

The only pair of brothers to play in a playoff game for the Braves was Tommie and Hank Aaron in 1969. Both played in the second game of a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Mets in the NLCS.

* Yasiel Puig went 8-for-16 with two home runs and five RBIs in four games against the Braves this season.

* Puig’s teammate, Adrian Gonzalez, however, didn’t have as much luck, hitting only .130 (3-for-23) in seven games against Atlanta in 2013.

The Giants learned Saturday where B.J. Upton's hot zone is.

Five stats you’ll likely hear quite a bit more about on the matchup between the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN/WatchESPN):

1-- Braves pitchers have a 2.40 ERA at home this season, which ranks best in the National League and if maintained through the full season would be the team’s lowest since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.

Braves starter Julio Teheran has a 2.97 ERA at home, much better than his 4.12 ERA on the road. The biggest difference for him in his home/road splits is his home run rate (three homers allowed in 33 1/3 innings at home, 7 in 43 2/3 innings on the road).

2-- Giants starter Tim Lincecum turned 29 on Saturday.

Lincecum is part of a group of Giants starting pitchers having significant issues on the road. Lincecum has a 5.40 ERA away from AT&T Park this season. Giants starters have a 5.62 road ERA and are allowing opponents to hit .350 on the road with runners in scoring position.

Elias also noted that Lincecum has the second-most strikeouts of any Giants pitcher prior to turning 29 (1,395), trailing only Christy Mathewson’s 1,738.
Lincecum beat the Braves on Mother’s Day, and now tries to do it on Father’s Day. Only one starting pitcher over the last 50 years beat the same team on Mother's Day and Father's Day in the same year: the Braves’ John Burkett beat the Phillies on May 14 and June 18, 2000.

3-- Maybe Saturday will be what B.J. Upton needs to come out of his season-long slump. Upton hit a pair of home runs in the Braves’ win. Each homer came on a pitch in his sweet spot- knee-high on the inside corner.

The heat map above shows that to be Upton’s one “hot zone” this season. Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, he has a .439 batting average on pitches to that “square” within the strike zone. That’s about 140 points above the major-league average.

4--Hunter Pence is in the middle of a hot streak for the Giants. He’s 12-for-30 with two homers and eight RBI in his last seven games, pushing his season slashline to .298/.343/.517.

The early jump for Pence’s numbers this season is attributable to something that Pence had success with in 2011—hitting the outside pitch.

The chart on the right shows Pence’s numbers in at-bats that ended with a pitch on the outer-half of the plate or off the outside corner, with the key difference being an increase in extra-base hits.

Should the Braves need a late-game weapon, they can hope for Evan Gattis to get a shot at getting a tying or winning hit. Gattis entered Saturday night tied for the major-league lead in home runs in the seventh inning or later with six. Each of the three players he was tied with has at least 20 more at-bats in those situations than Gattis does.

Mark Simon also contributed to this post

Kernels: Favorite quirks from Opening Week

April, 8, 2013
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsThe Upton brothers did something that none had ever done before.
Astros open AL play in style
The Astros picked up their first American League victory -- and their first March win in franchise history. Justin Maxwell helped the cause with a pair of triples, becoming just the second player in the past 60 years to have a multi-triple game on Opening Day. The other was the Royals' Tony Pena (son of the catcher) in 2007.

By the way, if it felt strange to see the Astros playing in the first game of the season, it was. At most, it was the second time in their history they had done that.

On April 8, 1976, they were the guests at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati while the Yankees opened in Milwaukee. Both games were scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET, so there's no way to know for sure which one started first.

A lot has been made of Astros strikeouts this week. They whiffed 60 times in their first five games, including 13-plus in each of their first four. That's the longest streak of 13-whiff games by any team in at least 90 years.

Five teams didn't have four 13-strikeout games all of last season.

Adding 14 strikeouts on Sunday brought their six-game total to 74, putting them on pace for 2,000 for the season.

Unusual walk-off for Brewers
The Brewers broke a string of four Opening Day losses Monday with a 10-inning "walk-off" sacrifice fly from Jonathan Lucroy.

It was the first game-ending sacrifice fly on Opening Day in 11 years, and there's a "Baseball Tonight" connection to the previous one.

On April 1, 2002, in Cincinnati, Aaron Boone hit one against the Braves, scoring Barry Larkin.

Milwaukee was the only team this season to win its opener via walk-off.

Did "U" Know?
In Monday's opener in Atlanta, Chase Utley of the Phillies went deep. Dan Uggla and Justin Upton of the Braves both went deep. It's the first time in major league history that three U-named players have homered in the same game.

B.J. Upton got in on the act later in the week, hitting a tying homer in the ninth inning on Saturday, two batters before Justin hit a walk-off.

According to Elias, they were just the third set of brothers to homer in the same game (Hank and Tommie Aaron; Cal and Billy Ripken) but the first ever to hit an equalizer and a walk-off.

Star of the Week: Chris Davis homers in first four games
Chris Davis of the Orioles mashed home runs in each of Baltimore's first four games, culminating in a grand slam Friday afternoon.

Only Nelson Cruz (2011), Mark McGwire (1998) and Willie Mays (1971) had homered in each of his team’s first four games, and Davis' 16 RBIs through four games were easily the most in major league history.

Davis also joined Mike Devereaux (1994), Brooks Robinson (1966) and Jack Graham (1949) as the only players in franchise history with at least one RBI in each of the team's first five games.

Game of the Week: Diamondbacks win a marathon
Arizona's walk-off victory on Wednesday capped a five-hour, 32-minute game -- the longest in Chase Field history -- which didn't end until 12:12 a.m. MST.

There hasn't been a walk-off hit after the 16th inning in MLB since Mark Teixeira singled off Tim Byrdak on July 6, 2008, to win a game for the Braves in the bottom of the 17th.

Top stats to know: Atlanta Braves

March, 7, 2013

Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWhat will Braves closer Craig Kimbrel do for an encore to his historic 2012 season?
B.J. Upton may have cost the Atlanta Braves more money to acquire than his younger brother Justin, but it was the deal for Justin that was arguably the transaction of the offseason in the National League East.

Justin Upton struggled with injury and inconsistency for much of last season, but in September he started to show his 2011 version. Through August, Upton was hitting .273, then hit .304 the rest of the way with six home runs and lowered his strikeout rate from 20.8 to 13.4 percent.

While the additions of the Upton brothers made headlines, let’s not forget that the (likely) best player in Atlanta’s outfield was already in place, Jason Heyward. After a brutal sophomore season in 2011, Heyward’s combination of above-average bat and outstanding right field defense has made him one of the most dynamic outfielders in the game.

Heyward’s 2011 season was ruined by a shoulder injury and swing mechanics that reportedly did not allow him to turn on inside pitches. Last season, Heyward dramatically improved in that specific area slugging .436 on pitches on the inner half (up from .327 in 2011) with 11 home runs, eight more than he hit in 2011.

The Upton brothers and Heyward do strike out a lot -- a combined 23 percent of the time in 2012. That’s 5 percent higher than the league average. And last season, B.J. Upton swung and missed 379 times (third most behind Josh Hamilton and Danny Espinosa), 107 more than the player he will replace in center field, Michael Bourn.

Mound Men
The Braves have two of the better young pitchers in the game in starter Kris Medlen and closer Craig Kimbrel.

Medlen made his first start of 2012 on July 31, allowing one earned run in five innings. A case can be made that Medlen was the best starting pitcher from that point forward. His ERA from July 31 till the end of the season was the lowest among qualified starters at 0.97. (Clayton Kershaw was a distant second at 1.72.)

No pitcher has more saves since the start of 2011 than Kimbrel’s 88, and in 2012 he put together a season for the ages. Among all pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in a season, Kimbrel’s 2012 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) -- which primarily takes into account strikeouts, walks and HR allowed – was 0.78, the best in modern baseball history.

Kimbrel and Eric Gagne (0.86 in 2003) are the only pitchers since 1900 to post a FIP under one.

Upton power numbers in elite company

January, 24, 2013

Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesUpton has a career .293 average at Turner Field, his 2nd highest at any park minimum 10 games.
The Atlanta Braves added a key piece to their outfield Thursday by acquiring Justin Upton as part of a seven-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The move unites Upton with brother B.J. Upton, and Elias says the two could become only the fourth pair of brothers to play at least 100 games each in the outfield for the same team in the same season. The most recent? Tony and Billy Conigliaro for the Boston Red Sox in 1970.

A career .293 batter at Turner Field, Upton certainly brings power. Since his first full season in 2008, Upton has an .842 OPS. That ranks seventh among NL outfielders with at least 500 games played over that stretch (Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier).

2012 Struggles

Upton had a down season in 2012 compared to his 2011 campaign, however. While his averages were often similar, his power was down, as he battled a thumb injury for much of the year. His average only took a slight dip from .289 to .280, but his OPS dove from .898 to just .785.

While he batted .300 against the fastball, he had an average of just .245 against offspeed stuff. The MLB average last season was .242 among qualified players, so there is certainly room for improvement.

Power Upgrade

Nevertheless, the pairing of Justin with his brother in Atlanta will certainly be something to watch. The brothers provide a power upgrade over the men they replace in the Atlanta outfield, Martin Prado and Michael Bourn. The Uptons smashed 45 homers last season, while Prado and Bourn combined for 19. What they do not provide, however, is a better batting average. Prado and Bourn combined for a .288 average in 2012, compared to just .263 by the Uptons.

What's more, Upton has 48 homers over the past two seasons, and what makes an Upton homer special is the distance it travels. In that two-year span, the average Upton homer has traveled 420 feet. That average distance leads the majors (among those who have at least 15 homers).

For Arizona, Prado ranked 10th in the NL in WAR last season (5.4), providing more than twice Upton's value (2.1). Prado has also accumulated 12.1 wins above replacement since 2010. In that span, Upton has 9.2 wins above replacement.

Dollars, home runs aplenty in Upton deal

November, 28, 2012

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesB.J. Upton tied for the MLB high with 19 home runs in the final two months of the 2012 season.
After spending the first eight seasons of his career with the Tampa Bay Rays, outfielder B.J. Upton has reportedly signed a five-year deal with the Atlanta Braves. Sources say the deal is worth upwards of $75 million and would be the largest free agent contract signed in Braves history.

The $75-million deal is unprecedented for the Braves organization. Not only is it the largest free-agent contract ever given out by the team, but the deal alone represents the second-most dollars the team has ever spent in free agency in a single offseason ($90.3M in 2008).

In the previous three offseasons combined (2009-11) the Braves spent approximately $16.7 million, the least of any team in baseball over that span.

The $75-million deal would make Upton the third outfielder aged 28 or younger on opening day to sign a free agent deal of at least $75 million, joining Manny Ramirez in 2000 (8-yrs, $160M) and Carlos Beltran in 2004 (7-yds, $117M).

Upton finished the 2012 season hitting .246 with his fewest stolen bases since 2004 (31), but his play down the stretch is what may have made him so appealing to the Braves.

Upton tied for the MLB high with 19 home runs in the final two months of the season after hitting only nine homers from April through July. Upton also saw jumps in runs batted in (40 vs 38) and OPS (.864 vs .677) in August and September compared to the first four months of the season and did it in 139 fewer plate appearances.

Thanks to that late push, Upton reached the 20-home run and 30-stolen base plateaus for the second consecutive season. Since the start of 2011, only Upton, Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins have at least 30 homers and 60 total stolen bases.

During his eight seasons in Tampa, Upton became one of the most accomplished hitters in team history.

He leaves town ranked among the top five in home runs (118), runs batted in (447), extra-base hits (340), and stolen bases (232). He also struck out a franchise-high 1,020 times as a member of the Rays.

Despite his offensive accolades, the Braves would be giving up a bit defensively should Upton become their regular centerfielder. Upton tied for 120th among 143 centerfielders in defensive runs saved last season (-4) while Michael Bourn, Atlanta’s centerfielder in 2012, ranked first (24).

Will the boost in power offset what the Braves give up on defense? Time will tell but it’s easy to see why Atlanta would be interested in someone like Upton. Since Andruw Jones left before the 2008 season, Braves centerfielders rank 28th in MLB with a total of 44 home runs. Only the Astros (30) and Twins (25) have hit fewer over that span.

2012 HR Awards: Stanton reigns supreme

November, 10, 2012
Without further ado, we present you with our end-of-season Home Run Tracker Awards.

*Please note: All information goes back to the 2006 season, the first year of the ESPN Home Run Tracker database. In addition, this excludes inside-the-park home runs unless otherwise indicated.

2012 Winner: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins (494 feet)

Giancarlo Stanton won the award for longest 2012 home run by hitting a 494-foot blast on August 17 off Josh Roenicke at Coors Field. It was the fifth-longest home run since ESPN HR Tracker began in 2006.

B.J. Upton
2012 Winner: B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays (323 feet)

B.J. Upton hit a 323-foot home run off Ervin Santana on April 24, the shortest home run of the season and the shortest home run at Tropicana Field since the beginning of ESPN HR Tracker in 2006.

2012 Winner: Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies (162 feet)

Todd Helton’s walk-off home run off J.J. Putz on April 14 had an apex of 162 feet, the ball hanging in the air for 6.92 seconds. It had the highest apex since 2009, when Alex Rodriguez hit a 390-foot home run with a 169-foot apex.

2012 Winner: Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles (43 feet)

Adam Jones’ 354-foot home run off Edwin Jackson on June 23 had an apex of 43 feet, the lowest by an Oriole player and the lowest at Camden Yards since the beginning of ESPN HR Tracker in 2006.

2012 Winner: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins (122.4 mph)

Giancarlo Stanton’s second award set a record, as his 462-foot home run off Jamie Moyer on May 21 had a speed off bat of 122.4 miles per hour -- the fastest since the beginning of ESPN HR Tracker in 2006.

2012 Winner: Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Ervin Santana gave up 39 home runs this season, the most in the majors. Jason Vargas and Phil Hughes tied for second with 35. Since 2006, only Bronson Arroyo has given up more home runs than Santana.

Nelson Cruz
2012 Winner: Nelson Cruz, Texas Rangers (418.6 feet)

Nelson Cruz averaged 418.6 feet per home run this season, beating out teammate Josh Hamilton by an average of 2.9 feet. Cruz’s 484-foot home run on June 3 was the fourth longest of the season, and he had home runs of 470 and 464 feet as well. Only six of his 22 home runs went less than 400 feet.

Alex Cobb's groundball dilemma

September, 12, 2012
(The Baltimore Orioles host the Tampa Bay Rays, Wednesday at 7ET on ESPN2.)

At 79-62, the Baltimore Orioles are three wins away from their first winning season since 1997, when they went 98-64 and lost to the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

Baltimore already has won 10 more games than it did last season, which was Buck Showalter’s first full season as the Orioles’ manager. In his previous three managerial stints (1992-95 Yankees, 1998-00 Arizona Diamondbacks, 2003-06 Texas Rangers) Showalter’s teams improved by at least 12 games from his first full season to his second.

Offensively, the Orioles have been riding the hot bat of Mark Reynolds. In September, Reynolds leads all of baseball in home runs (7) is second in slug percentage and third in OPS. B.J. Upton has been just as hot for the Rays. His slug percentage is first in baseball this month and his OPS ranks second.

Baltimore will be opposed by 24-year-old Alex Cobb. After going 8-13 in his first 21 career starts, the Rays are 7-0 in Cobb’s past 7 starts.

Cobb threw his first career shutout on August 23. Only four players younger than Cobb have thrown a shutout this season -- Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Cahill, Madison Bumgarner and Henderson Alvarez. He’s one of just 10 pitchers in Rays history to throw a shutout before the age of 25.

Cobb has a groundball rate of 58.1 percent, which is the second-highest among American League starters. However, Cobb is 3-1 with a 2.17 ERA when his groundball rate is below 50 percent, and 6-7 with a 5.00 ERA in 14 starts when his groundball rate is 50 percent or higher.

Baltimore's bats better get to Cobb early, because he gets stronger as the game goes longer. Cobb has posted a 5.50 ERA in the first three innings of his starts. From the fourth inning on, Cobb’s ERA is 3.10.

Cobb is part of one of the best pitching staffs in baseball:
• Tampa Bay’s 3.25 team ERA would be the best by an American League team since the 1990 Oakland Athletics (3.18)

• 2.52 team ERA since the All-Star break would be the second-best by an AL team since the first All-Star game in 1933. (The lowest is 2.37 by the 1972 Los Angeles Angels.)

• The entire staff leads the league in strikeouts (1,176), ERA (3.25) and opponents’ batting average (.231). The only AL team to claim that triple crown in the past 25 years is the 1999 Boston Red Sox.

Upton's 'first' order of business: hit 3 HRs

September, 9, 2012

Charles Sonnenblick/Getty ImagesB.J. Upton is in the midst of a hot streak at a key time for the Rays.

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton came through early and often on Sunday.

Upton posted the 10th three-homer game this season, the first of his career, and the third in Rays franchise history. The other two were by Jonny Gomes (2005) and Evan Longoria (2008))

How he did it
Two of Sunday's three homers were on the first pitch, including the first pitch of the game. That gave him six first-pitch homers on the year and 15 since the start of 2011.

That trails only Aramis Ramirez (16) over the past two seasons.

Upton's first-pitch batting average over that same span is now .421, and his OPS is 1.169. Both of those are in the top 10 of the American League.
Upton's third homer, off Martin Perez's curveball, was his first this year on that pitch type and his second over the past two seasons.

Upton has seen a drop in production against curves over the past few seasons, offsetting gains that he has made against some other pitches (notably fastballs and changeups).

The difference can be seen in the chart on the right.

Of the 10 three-homer games this season, Upton's game ranked eighth in average distance, with his average homer going for "only" 397 feet on Sunday. The two that ranked lower were Curtis Granderson’s (366 feet), and Jason Kubel (395).

Hot Streak
Upton is hitting .375 with six home runs, nine RBIs and five stolen bases in his last 11 games, albeit with 12 strikeouts.

He has three home runs against pitches that were over the outer-third of the plate or farther this month, including his first-pitch homer on Sunday.

He entered September with three homers on outer-third (or further away) pitches all season.

Did you know?
Prior to Upton, the last nine three-homer games by leadoff hitters were by players from National League teams.

The last American League leadoff hitter with a three-homer game prior to Upton was Ernie Young for the 1996 Athletics.

There has now been a three-homer game from a leadoff hitter in each of the past seven seasons.

From 1999 to 2005, there were no such games.

Doug Kern contributed to this blog post

Why these hitters will headline the deadline

July, 24, 2012
The major league baseball trade deadline is just a week away (July 31 at 4 ET). Yesterday we looked at the available pitchers, and today we examine the hitters likely to be moved before the deadline.

Chase Headley
Why trade him?
Headley is relatively young (28), the San Diego Padres are in rebuilding mode, and he reportedly has many suitors around baseball. Though he’s affordable, the Padres may be interested in making room for prospects on the way up.

Why acquire him?
Headley is one of best regular third baseman in baseball and is not a free agent until after the 2014 season. He’s also been much more productive away Petco Park, hitting .307 with a .869 OPS on the road over the last two seasons compared to a .251 batting average and .692 OPS at home.

B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton
Why trade him?
B.J. Upton is a free agent at season’s end, and there’s some question as to whether the Tampa Bay Rays would re-sign him.

Why acquire him?
Upton is having one of the worst seasons of his career to this point, but his combination of moderate power and speed is rare. He is just one of three players to have at least 150 stolen bases and 90 homers combined since the start of 2007.

Justin Upton
Why trade him?
Upton finished fourth in the NL MVP vote last year but has yet to put together back-to-back star-level seasons. He’s owed $38.5 million from 2013-15, and the Arizona Diamondbacks could get multiple future/present contributors in a deal.

Why acquire him?
He has been regarded as a potential superstar since he was drafted, and his age (24) makes him appealing to contenders and rebuilders alike. However, he has struggled this year, and one issue has been his inability to turn on pitches on the inner half of the plate. After hitting 22 homers on those pitches in 2011, he has just two in 2012.

Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino
Why trade him?
Victorino is a free agent at the end of the 2012 season, and the Philadelphia Phillies are 14 games out of first place in the NL East and 11 back of the NL Wild Card.

Why acquire him?
Though he has struggled this year, Victorino has been among the most productive center fielders in baseball since the start of 2007. His WAR of 20.1 during that span is behind only Curtis Granderson among center fielders.

On Monday, the Florida Marlins traded second baseman Omar Infante and right-handed pitcher Anibal Sanchez to the Detroit Tigers for right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner and two minor leaguers.

Omar Infante
Why did the Marlins trade him?
Infante was one of the few players on the Miami Marlins roster who was not a) a long-term piece or b) too expensive to move. He helped the Marlins add an asset or two for 2013 and beyond.

Why did the Tigers acquire him?
Infante is very affordable (owed $8 million for the rest of 2012 and 2013 combined) and has continued a multi-year trend of increasing his power output. His Isolated Power was just .084 in 2009 but has steadily risen to .155 in 2012, above the MLB average for second baseman (.126).

As you can see in the chart, the Tigers clearly needed offensive help at second base. Infante is a huge upgrade for a team with the worst OPS by second basemen this season at the time of the deal.

Shields changes it up in Rays win

May, 23, 2012
The Tampa Bay Rays inched closer to the top of the AL East standings with a dramatic 5-4, extra-inning walk-off win against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Rays victory coupled with the Orioles’ loss earlier means Tampa Bay is just a game back in the division after Wednesday’s games.

This was the Rays’ fourth walk-off win of the season, which is the most among AL teams. B.J. Upton delivered the game-winning hit with an RBI double in the bottom of the 11th inning.

It was his fifth career walk-off hit, and four of those have now come against the Blue Jays. The only other Rays player with a walk-off double in the 11th inning or later was Greg Vaughn against the A’s in 2002.

James Shields held Toronto to three runs in seven innings while striking out 10 batters for his second 10-strikeout game this season.

He was effective getting the Blue Jays to chase his pitches, recording 26 swings on 50 pitches out of the strike zone (52 percent), his highest chase rate since 2009.

All 10 of his strikeouts were swinging, and nine came in at-bats ending in a changeup, his most with that pitch over the last four seasons. The Blue Jays went 1-for-13 in at-bats ending in Shields’ changeup and missed on more than half of their swings at the pitch.

The Blue Jays probably wish they didn’t have to play the Rays 10 more times this season. Toronto is now 2-6 versus Tampa Bay and 22-15 versus all other teams this season.

Elsewhere Around The Majors
•  The offensive struggles continued for both the Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates this season. The two teams have been held to one run or fewer in 14 games, the most among all teams.

The last time the A’s had 14 games of one run or fewer in their first 45 games was 1979 (18), and the last time the Pirates had 14 games of one run or fewer in their first 44 games was 1918 (14).

• Jonathon Niese helped the New York Mets beat the Pirates, 3-1, allowing one run in 7⅔ innings. Niese threw 29 pitches on the inner-third of the plate, netting 11 outs and allowing just one hit in at-bats ending with a pitch in that location.

• Alex Liddi hit his first career grand slam in the Seattle Mariners’ 5-3 win over the Texas Rangers. It was the first grand slam at home by a Mariners player since July 2010. Liddi is the second Italian-born player to hit a grand slam, joining Reno Bertoia, who had one in 1958.

• The Milwaukee Brewers scored six runs in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants and held on for an 8-5 win. The six runs are the most in the first inning for any NL team this season and the most first-inning runs for the Brewers since a 10-run frame on April 18, 2010.

Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp is the fifth player in history to hit at least 12 home runs before May 1.

ESPN's Home Run Tracker analyzes video of each home run hit this season and as far back as 2006. Each month, the tracker will detail the best and worst home runs, as well as some other interesting statistics pertaining to the long ball. Below are the notable home runs for the month of April.

Power Surge: (Player with highest combined HR distance)
2011 Winner: Jose Bautista
March/April Winner: Matt Kemp
Kemp is off to a torrid start, with 12 home runs that have traveled a true distance of 4,802 feet. That’s a longer true distances than the Padres, who have hit 11 home runs, and the Cubs, who have hit the fewest HR (9) entering May. Kemp's 12 home runs are two shy of the record set by Albert Pujols in 2006 and Alex Rodriguez in 2007 for the most home runs by April 30.

No Doubter (Longest true distance)
2011 Winner: Prince Fielder (486 feet)
March/April Winner: Travis Hafner (481 feet)
On April 15, Cleveland’s DH hit a home run of the Royals Luis Mendoza, the longest HR of his career. Hafner’s previous long was 454 feet in 2006. The 481-foot shot is the longest HR by an Indian since the beginning of our database (2006).

Wall-Scraper (Shortest true distance)
2011 Winner: Asdrubal Cabrera (320 feet)
March/April Winner: B.J. Upton (323 feet)
On April 24, Upton hit a home run off Ervin Santana that hit off the left-field foul pole. Chris Iannetta hit a 324-foot HR off Phil Hughes, the only other player this season to hit a home run less than 345 feet.

Moonshot: (Highest Apex - maximum vertical height a ball reaches)
2011 Winner: Mark Reynolds (161 feet)
March/April Winner: Todd Helton (162 feet)
On April 14, Helton hit a walk-off home run off J.J. Putz. The ball hung in the air for 6.92 seconds, the highest apex HR since Alex Rodriguez reached 169 feet on Sept 11, 2009.

Liner: (Lowest Apex)
2011 Winner: Carlos Peguero (39 feet, twice)
March/April Winners: Curtis Granderson/Luke Scott (49 feet)
Ervin Santana, who gave up the shortest HR of the month, also gave up the lowest apex. On April 13, Santana served up a 349-foot solo shot to Granderson that had an apex of 49 feet. Scott matched Granderson with a 387-foot laser off Mark Lowe, which also never got higher than 49 feet off the ground.

Mother Nature: (Most climate-impacted HR)
2011 Winner: Luke Scott
March/April Winner: Miguel Cabrera
Even the best need help from time to time. On April 26, Cabrera hit a 382-foot home run off Hector Noesi, but a 15 mph wind gust helped the ball carry an extra 62 feet. Without the wind, it would have been a routine fly out.

Server: (Pitcher who allowed the greatest cumulative distance)
2011 Winner: Bronson Arroyo
March/April Winner: Ervin Santana
In addition to giving up the shortest and the lowest apex home runs, Santana’s 10 home runs allowed traveled a total distance of 3,844 feet.

Launching Pad: (Greatest cumulative distance in one stadium)
2011 Winner: Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
March/April Winner: Rogers Centre
Thirty-eight HR have been hit in Rogers Centre thus far, with a total distance of 15,072 feet. Chase Field in Arizona finished second, totaling 12,803 feet. Conversely, only six HR were hit at AT&T Park in April.

Price changes speed to down Angels

April, 25, 2012
Kim Klement/US PresswireDavid Price tossed his second career shutout against the Angels on Tuesday.
David Price tossed his second career shutout as the Tampa Bay Rays downed the Los Angeles Angels 5-0 on Tuesday. It was his first complete game since July 2, 2010, a stretch of 52 starts without completing a game.

Facing an Angels’ lineup that did not feature a left-handed hitter, Price relied on his changeup. He recorded a career-high 10 outs on at-bats ending with the pitch. After throwing only 39 changeups among 296 pitches in his first three starts, 29 of his 119 pitches on Tuesday were changeups.

Success with the changeup also helped Price with his fastball. Angels’ hitters were 1-for-15 in at-bats ending with a fastball. In his first three starts this season, batters hit .225 with one home run against Price’s heat.

In his previous starts this season, Price had trouble retiring hitters after getting to two strike counts. Entering Tuesday’s game, opponents were 9-for-36 with two strikes against Price. On Tuesday, the Angels were 0-for-13 with two strikes.

Around the Diamond – Home Run Edition
• Chipper Jones turned 40 today, and hit a home run on his birthday for the fifth time in his career. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that ties Alex Rodriguez and Todd Helton for the most homers on a player’s birthday among active players.

• Two of the three shortest home runs of the season were hit Tuesday night. B.J. Upton hit the left-field foul pole for a round-tripper that traveled 323 feet. That’s the shortest ball to clear the fence so far this season. Matt Wieters hit a home run that shouldn’t even have cleared the fence – it flew 345 feet before bouncing off Eric Thames' glove and into the stands.

• One player who hasn’t been hitting home runs this season is Albert Pujols. Pujols went 0-for-4 for the Angels in their loss at the Rays. Dating back to last season, he has gone 23 games without a homer. That’s the second longest drought of his career, behind only a 26-game streak last season.

He has gone 69 at-bats this season without going deep, the fifth-longest run of at-bats without a home run in a single season in his career. Among players who changed teams after hitting 400 or more home runs with one team, only Willie McCovey went longer before hitting a homer for his new team.

Dan Braunstein contributed to this post.

Indians, Rays lead arbitration storylines

February, 4, 2012
While the Hot Stove season is largely dominated by free agency and trade talks, an overlooked aspect of every MLB offseason is the arbitration process. If a player is eligible, the team and the player submit figures for the upcoming season’s salary. If the two sides cannot agree on a compromise, they advance to a process that is resolved by an arbiter, who picks one of the two figures submitted.

The 2011-12 arbitration season has brought with it two statistical and historical storylines - the potential end of the Cleveland Indians’ streak of avoiding arbitration and the unbeaten run of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Indians & Arbitration: Like Oil & Water

While it looked like it might be snapped any number of times, the Indians have not gone to arbitration with a player since 1991. Thanks to Maury Brown's Business of Baseball website, we can tell you that is the longest such streak in the Major Leagues. The last time the Indians went to arbitration was 1991, when the team did so with Greg Swindell and Jerry Browne.

Why is this relevant? The Indians currently have one arbitration-eligible player unsigned – SS Asdrubal Cabrera. The Indians and Cabrera are continuing discussions on a long-term contract, but without a resolution on that front, the team and player will likely head to arbitration. Cabrera's camp has requested a 2012 salary of $5.2 million, while the Indians have countered with an offer of $3.75 million.

For additional context, the landscape of Major League Baseball was noticeably different in 1991 than it is in 2012. The Indians played their home games in Cleveland Stadium and resided in the AL East. The team's Opening Day payroll was $18,270,000, roughly one-third of what it projects to be in 2012.

The last time the Indians went to arbitration, the highest Opening Day payroll in baseball was held by the Oakland Athletics - $33,632,500. The Athletics have a projected Opening Day payroll for 2012 of $38,765,500.

The last time the Indians went to arbitration, the Opening Day payroll of the New York Yankees was $27,815,835. That represents just 13.7 percent of the $202,689,028 payroll the team had for 2011.

Rays: Great on the Field, Better off it

While the Rays track record on the field has been impressive enough under the Andrew Friedman regime, no team can match the success of Friedman and the rest of the front office at the arbitration table.

The team’s arbitration win over starting pitcher Jeff Niemann earlier this week improved the Rays franchise to 6-0 all-time in arbitration, the best win percentage in MLB.

The Rays have as many arbitration wins in six all-time cases (6) as the Detroit Tigers have in 20 all-time cases (6-14). In all, the Rays have defeated Niemann (2012), B.J. Upton (2010), Dioner Navarro (2009), Josh Paul (2006, 2007) and Esteban Yan (2002).

Rays attendance leading to financial issues

October, 6, 2011

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Despite making the playoffs 3 of the last 4 years and advancing to the World Series in 2008, Tampa Bay's attendance has been at or near the bottom in the majors.

Shortly after the team’s loss to the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series -- which saw only 28,299 fans show -- Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg launched into the troubling financial situation of his franchise:

"The rubber has got to hit the road at some point. We're four years into winning. We're getting to the point where we don't control our own destiny. This is untenable as a model…When I came in here in '05 and '06, I saw the stars, and I was confident that we could put a winning product on the field -- and I was told by you guys and others that all we needed was a winning team. Well, we won. We won. We won. And we won. And it didn't do it."

Sternberg acquired control of the franchise in 2005. Since that point, the Rays have arguably developed into the model organization in the sport, allowing them to compete year after year over the last four years despite a limited payroll.

The team’s success has not translated to sufficient attendance. One would have expected at least a noticeable uptick in attendance with the team routinely winning 30 more games per season than it used to, but that has simply not been the case.

It appears the preseason warnings of a down season and the huge departures via free agency may have kept the fans away.

The Rays have two AL East titles, a World Series appearance and three postseason appearances in four seasons, but have averaged exactly 1,748 more fans per game than they did in 2007, when they lost 96 games.

Unfortunately, the lack of attendance has a direct effect on the Rays’ ability to spend money. After attendance issues last year both in the regular season and postseason, the Rays slashed payroll by around $30 million.

While at first glance it might appear as though the Rays’ 2011 spending situation is actually a non-trivial improvement over the spending from 2005-07, it is actually just a case of context. The team ranked 29th in 2011 and ranked 30th, 29th, 30th, 29th from 2005-08. Payrolls across baseball have risen since 2005 as a whole, so in reality the Rays are still spending at the same fractional amount of competitors. For example, in 2005 the Rays payroll accounted for 24 percent of the Boston Red Sox payroll. In 2011, the Rays payroll increased 38 percent over its 2005 payroll -- was barely more than 25 percent of the Red Sox 2011 payroll, essentially no difference from 2005.

Over the years the team has lost Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Scott Kazmir, Rafael Soriano, either due to unmatchable free agent offers or trades made necessary by salary obligations. It’s entirely possible that the team could once again leak talent this offseason, with James Shields getting more expensive and B.J. Upton due a raise from the nearly $5 million he made in 2011 in the arbitration process.

An organization can only churn out Matt Moores and Jeremy Hellicksons and Desmond Jennings for so long in an effort to paper over holes created from departures. At some point, perhaps the Rays can find themselves a better situation, allowing their on-field success to overshadow their off-field issues.