SweetSpot: ESPN Stats & Info

First-month defensive star: Troy Tulowitzki

May, 2, 2014
May 2
AP Photo/Barry GutierrezTroy Tulowitzki's month was filled with great play after great play.
Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had a heck of a month, hitting .364 with seven home runs and a 1.205 OPS.

But you don’t get to 3.0 Wins Above Replacement for a month without being a great defensive player, too.

Tulowitzki was.

He won our balloting for Defensive Player of the Month for April, edging out the major league leader in Defensive Runs Saved, Braves outfielder Jason Heyward.

Balloting consisted of ESPN.com writers, members of ESPN Stats & Information and Baseball Info Solutions, and Baseball Tonight analyst Doug Glanville, each of whom ranked their top three defenders on a 5-3-1 point scale.

Tulowitzki was named first on seven of the 16 ballots and finished with 57 points, seven more than Heyward, who got six first-place votes. Tulowitzki’s teammate Nolan Arenado placed third, capturing the remaining three first-place votes and 22 points.

Tulowitzki finished the month with 10 Defensive Runs Saved. No other shortstop had more than six. His three Web Gems were second-most of any shortstop (Alcides Escobar had five).

Perhaps most impressive about Tulowitzki was the video review work done by Baseball Info Solutions, which categorizes plays into about 30 categories of Good Fielding Plays and about 60 categories of Defensive Misplays & Errors.

Tulowitzki finished April with 16 Good Fielding Plays and only one Defensive Misplay & Error. That was a better ratio than even flawless Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who had 12 Good Plays and one Misplay & Error.

Our favorite Tulowitzki stat is one we cited a few weeks ago (and also pays tribute to Arenado): Rockies opponents have reached on only 21 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second-base bag. That rated best in the majors.

The Tulowitzki highlight reel for April was pretty impressive. You can get a look at a few of his best plays here and here.

The latter immensely impressed Rockies first-base coach Eric Young, who is back with the team after previously coaching for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Tulo’s range is unbelievable, but more importantly, he has a knack for positioning himself very well,” Young said Thursday. “As for him making the Derek Jeter acrobatic throw, Tulo is, by far, the only shortstop in the game to imitate [that] consistently. “Making throws on the run in any direction sets him apart from the rest. Watching him play defense is just as much a joy as watching him hit every day.”

Write it up: Collin McHugh's success story

May, 2, 2014
May 2
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesCollin McHugh has been in some kind of zone in his first two starts of 2014.
Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh is one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, and not just because he’s 2-0 with an 0.59 ERA in two starts for a team that has dropped 100 games in each of the last three seasons.

McHugh has kept a blog throughout his pro career, called "A Day Older, A Day Wiser," and the entries are well-thought-out and very articulate. He noted some things in his posts this past offseason that seemed to foreshadow his 2014 success.

One post noted that the signing with the Astros came on his wife’s birthday, which proved to be a good omen.

Another touched on watching Russell Wilson’s “Why Not Us?” comments during the Super Bowl and relating that to his own experience trying to stick in the major leagues despite failures in his previous experiences.

"I’ve looked at my career five years down the road and said 'Why not me?'" McHugh said. "Why couldn’t I get to stick with someone and put down some roots? It’s refreshing to see someone like Russell Wilson get a chance and do something with it. I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends, my family, from the three organizations that gave me a chance. You just hope it breaks [right] eventually."

Another addressed the value of hearing the words “You belong” from Astros manager Bo Porter at their first meeting in spring training.

That took a little while to fully sink in, as McHugh allowed nine runs and 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings in the spring, which is why he started the season in Triple-A rather than the majors. But he is taking advantage of the opportunity created when the Astros' best starter, Scott Feldman, went on the disabled list.

A fan has taken those two words and plugged them into the sponsor’s section on McHugh’s page on Baseball-Reference.com. He proved he belonged in these first two dominant starts with his third team (the Mets and Rockies were the other two) in three seasons.

“I don’t know if I could have pictured how it would go,” McHugh said of this start to the season. “But if I did, it would have gone like this. This time around, it's different [than when he debuted with seven scoreless innings for the 2012 Mets]. I'm more comfortable and a little bit more prepared.”

Great start

McHugh has already made a memorable statistical impression.

In his first start against the Mariners (whom he'll face again Sunday), he became the first Astros pitcher with a 12-strikeout, no-walk, scoreless start since Randy Johnson in 1998. The full list is McHugh and a collection of former All-Stars: J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Pete Harnisch and Johnson.

In his second start against the Athletics last Sunday, McHugh went 8 2/3 innings and allowed only two hits. He was part of a record-setting day in which 10 starters went at least seven innings and allowed three hits or fewer.

“His performance speaks for itself,” Porter said after that game. “He’s earned the right to get the ball for his next turn.”

McHugh is one of three Astros pitchers to win his first two starts, allowing one run or fewer and three hits or fewer in each one. The other two are Roger Clemens and (coincidentally) Feldman.

In each of the two games, McHugh has pitched with determination, visible a few times in the locked-in look on his face when he came off the mound after dotting the outside corner for an inning-ending strikeout or inducing a weakly hit out.

"I feel confident now," McHugh said. "I feel if I can get a guy to two strikes, he's out in my mind. Strikeouts are accidental. But when you get a guy to make soft contact and hit the ball where the defense is playing, and when you feel you have guys eating out of your hand, you just want to ride that out as long as possible."

How he’s winning

What is McHugh doing differently on the mound?

He noted the tinkering to his pitching as minor, but we picked up a few things. Brooks Baseball charts him as having gone away from his two-seam fastball, using exclusively a four-seamer. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom told McHugh he had a “sneaky” fastball that could be put to better use. McHugh has abided.

He’s also changed his first-pitch approach, in a manner similar to what James Shields did with much success a few years ago.

McHugh's put-away pitches have been well-placed.
McHugh threw 65 percent first-pitch fastballs with the Mets and Rockies the last two seasons; but in each of his two starts in 2014, fewer than half of his first pitches have been fastballs.

McHugh is now ‘"pitching backwards," noted when I asked former major league pitcher Brian Bannister for his thoughts on Twitter. That means he’s using his off-speed pitches (curve, slider and changeup) to set up his fastball, rather than the other way around.

It’s made him more unpredictable.

McHugh went to his slider against lefties much more often these two starts than he did the previous two seasons, and for good reason.

Lefties were 34-for-84 with six home runs against him in 2012 and 2013. Both the Athletics and Mariners loaded their lineups with lefties against McHugh, but those hitters were 4-for-42 against him.

"Our catchers are doing a really good job at mixing things up and reading the lineup the second time through," McHugh said. "For me, it's about having the confidence that I can throw each of my pitches for a strike. [As for hitting the corners], some days it's there and some days it's not. It goes back to focus. We've been doing it long enough. Sometimes your body just needs that extra second for a little more focus."

The next chapter

McHugh hasn't written a blog entry since being recalled. He and his wife did feel good enough about his two starts to settle into an apartment rather than staying at the team hotel. But this is a story that still has a lot left to play out.

"I try to wait until I'm super-motivated to write," McHugh said. "I want to wait until I have some more perspective."

What's the best the Mets can be?

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
Both David Schoenfield and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA have projected the New York Mets to finish in about the same place they finished last season. They are attempting to be realistic in their assessments.

We’re going to try another approach -- attempting to be optimistic.

As spring training opens, it feels like a good time to ask: What’s the best-case scenario for the 2014 Mets?

Let’s work off the presumption that a lot goes right. If that’s the case, how good can the Mets be?

We’ve conjured one scenario in which the Mets take their 74-88 record and flip it around to 88-74. That would make them a borderline playoff contender, which in a division with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves seems like an ambitious outlook.

What needs to happen for the Mets to win 88 games? In the world of advanced statistics, that translates to their players combining for about 36 wins above replacement. (The reasoning on that can be found here.)

We devised a way by which the Mets get there and noted it in the chart below. Here are some of the highlights:

David Wright plays like an MVP ... and he stays healthy
The Mets are not going to be an offensive juggernaut. They’re going to strike out a lot. They’re going to hit for a low batting average. They’re probably going to be very frustrating.

To be a contender, the Mets are going to have to get maximum production out of their best hitter, and that means David Wright is going to have to contend for the MVP Award.

Let’s remember that Wright is 31 and is near the end of his prime. But in a best-case scenario, he has at least one more year of greatness in him. If Wright can replicate what he did in 2012 and 2013, and stay as healthy as he did in 2012, he can be a 7-WAR player.

For the Mets to even be a .500 team this season, they’re going to need some players who haven’t been good in recent seasons to return to some form of respectability.

In a best-case scenario, that means that at least three players from this group -- Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada, Curtis Granderson and Chris Young -- turn back the clock a couple of years.

Tejada was a 2-WAR player in 2012. It seems reasonable, if we’re in hopeful mode, to give him 1.5 WAR in a bounce-back year.

Granderson averaged 4.3 WAR from 2005 to 2012. Let’s be optimistic and put him at 3 WAR. Young was a 5-WAR player in 2010 and 2011 because of a nice combo of power and defense. If he’s worth half that in 2014, the Mets made out all right with him.

You can change those around a bit if you like. Maybe you think Davis or Duda has some value and Young doesn’t. The idea is the same. If the Mets can get about 7-WAR from this quintet (and the other things on this list break right), they’ve done pretty well.

Zack Wheeler finds his groove
One of the things the Mets have going for them is that their starting rotation could be pretty good, even without Matt Harvey.

Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee closed the year strong. Bartolo Colon’s history is good, even if his age and girth are not. There are a couple of promising youngsters waiting their turns. In other words, there’s hope.

The biggest hope from that is the pitcher Buster Olney labeled the Mets’ linchpin, Zack Wheeler.

A rosy view of Wheeler’s 2013 season is that his lack of strike-zone command at times was the result of the jitters that come the first time through the major leagues.

We’ve seen four projection systems (Bill James, PECOTA, Steamer and Oliver) that give Wheeler a 2014 ERA between 3.50 and 4.12. But we remember similar sentiments on Harvey at this time a year ago.

We get that Wheeler’s not Harvey, but 80 percent of Harvey would be pretty good. Let’s give him that for 2014 -- 4 WAR.

Rafael Montero is a Rookie of the Year candidate
It sounds like the Mets are going to give Rafael Montero a shot to be in their starting rotation, whether it be at the start of the season or not long thereafter.

Montero had a 2.51 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 5-to-1, and a homer allowed every 22 innings in 64 career minor-league appearances. He’ll likely be capped at 190 innings, given the Mets' shutdown history, but let’s work off the idea that he pitches 150 really good innings in the major leagues. When we say really good, we’re thinking 12 wins and a 3.00 ERA. Best-case, that would make him a 3-WAR pitcher.

The bullpen comes together well
Terry Collins spoke of having a bullpen in which he could unleash multiple hard throwers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings with the likes of Gonzalez Germen, Vic Black and Bobby Parnell, a la the 2013 Cardinals.

In fairness, there are no Carlos Martinez’s or Trevor Rosenthal’s in this mix. (Perhaps that would change if the Mets were willing to plug Noah Syndergaard into the role of eighth-inning guy, but that’s another subject for another time.) But let’s work off the idea that the Mets' bullpen fares well, or at least considerably better than the one that ranked 15th, 15th and 12th in the NL in ERA over the past three seasons.


How many games can the Mets hope to win this season?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,148)

In a best-case scenario, Parnell is fully healthy and Black progresses to the point of being a poor man’s David Robertson. Kyle Farnsworth channels the success that LaTroy Hawkins had in 2013, Carlos Torres picks up where he left off, and Scott Rice and Josh Edgin learn from their mistakes to become competent specialists.

The rest of the bullpen, with fill-ins such as Jeff Walters and Jeurys Familia, contribute a little here and a little there without causing too much damage. The entirety of the relief corps nets 4-WAR.

What are the chances? You tell us
One of the great things about spring training is the optimism that comes with the belief that this could be a good year for your team.

But we haven’t found that many believers heading into 2014.

Do you buy into our best-case scenario? Share your thoughts in the comments.