SweetSpot: Mark Simon

Pirates' Harrison has proven he’s legit

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Josh HarrisonAP Photo/Keith SrakocicJosh Harrison has made a lot of folks happy this season and his reward is an All-Star appearance.

You may think that Pittsburgh Pirates infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison is on the All-Star team simply because of his versatility in the field.

But there's a pretty good case to be made that Harrison belongs on merit regardless of where he plays. As Dejan Kovacevic wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week, Harrison is the kind of player that everyone can like, and that's particularly true if you're into advanced statistics.

Harrison is going to play more this season than any other season in his career, and that's because both the numbers and the eye test show that he can do just about everything well. He has been worth 2.2 Wins Above Replacement this season. The Pirates are 30-21 when he starts and 17-23 when he doesn't.

He can hit
"Every at-bat is different, because of the count, the number of outs and the pitcher, but nothing really changes for you," Harrison said by phone on Wednesday. "Your objective is to have a good at-bat."

And what's a good at-bat for Harrison?

"Hard contact," he said.

Harrison has had a lot of that this season. ESPN uses a service that reviews video of every at-bat and rates balls as hard-hit, medium-hit and soft-hit based on velocity, distance and sweet-spot contact.

Harrison ranks 15th in the major leagues in the percentage of at-bats that have ended with hard-hit contact (22.5 percent). That's ahead of players like Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton and not far behind teammate Andrew McCutchen.

It's not the first time Harrison has put up good hard-hit numbers. His hard-hit rate was 22 percent two seasons ago in a year when good results didn't come with the hard-hit balls (a .233 batting average).

"Maybe some of the people [who chart that] are surprised, because they hadn't seen me hit before," Harrison said. "But this is what I've been doing all my life. I've always had a pretty good idea of what I want to hit."

Harrison is hitting .391 (18-for-46) with runners in scoring position, and has gotten his share of clutch hits (including a recent walk-off double against the New York Mets). He's also hitting .382 the second and third times he faces a starting pitcher (34-for-89), perhaps indicative that he's winning the battle of adjustments.

"The more familiar you are with a guy, the more you see his arm angle and see his pitches, the higher the probability of hitting the ball harder," he said.

Harrison doesn't profess to have a thinking-intensive approach, but it's clear he knows what he’s doing. The image below shows he covers both halves of the plate well:

Josh Harrison heat mapESPN Stats & Information

"He trusts himself, he trusts his ability and he stays committed to his plan," said Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson.

He can field
That Harrison ranks among the top 20 players in Defensive Runs Saved is amazing, considering he hasn't made more than 24 starts at any one position.

But he's been good everywhere he's played, combining for nine Defensive Runs Saved.

"I feel like I've always been able to play defense," Harrison said. "It's just a matter of getting the opportunity. I feel comfortable everywhere except pitcher and catcher." (When reminded that he did pitch once in a mop-up role, he added, "I don't know if 72 miles per hour is gonna cut it.")

The Pirates are an active team as far as defensive positioning is concerned. But they give their players leeway to adjust.

"At the end of the day, our job is to get to the ball," Harrison said. "They say if you see a guy doing something, feel free to move a step or two. I do that a lot. I wouldn’t say it's thinking. It's trusting my instincts."

He can run
The play you most likely know Harrison for is him eluding a rundown with what he calls his "stop, drop and roll" move.

"I have two older brothers who I was always trying to escape from, growing up," Harrison said with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure at one point [when I was little], I tried to blackmail them with 'I'm gonna tell mom and dad that you wouldn't let me play.' They'd chase me and I'd try to escape."

That aside, Harrison gets the job done on the basepaths. He's 9-for-12 on steal attempts and has scored from first base five times in six opportunities in which he was on base when a double was hit.

The package
A scout who has followed Harrison’s entire pro career (which started as a sixth-round pick by the Cubs out of the University of Cincinnati) offered this take: "Josh has some punch in his bat, good plate coverage for a smaller guy and is a good bad-ball hitter, which is very tough to achieve at the major league level. He has the athleticism to play all over. But a lot of guys possess those physical skills. He's got the plus makeup, where it doesn't faze him where he's playing in the field, and whether he's coming off the bench or starting. He brings the same great energy regardless."

Sounds All-Star worthy to me.

Jason Heyward June's top defender

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
AP Photo/Todd Kirkland
Jason Heyward has provided many moments of frustration for opposing hitters.

Perhaps you saw it not long ago on "Sunday Night Baseball," one defensive whiz robbing another, with Jason Heyward coming in to make one impressive catch against Mike Trout and then racing back to make another such play.

Heyward may not have quite the flash of Trout, but he’s racked up great defensive numbers consistently all season.

He won our June voting for the Defensive Player of the Month, beating out Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, who finished second, third and fourth, respectively. He joined Troy Tulowitzki (April) and Yoenis Cespedes (May) as winners this season.

Heyward tied for the major league lead with eight Defensive Runs Saved in June. He was credited with six “Good Fielding Plays” (think Web-Gem nominees), all for terrific catches, and went the entire month without a Defensive Misplay or error.

Heyward ended June with 24 Defensive Runs Saved for the season. That has been compiled largely based on his ability to catch balls hit to the deepest part of right field (in fact, that makes up almost the entirety of those 24 Runs Saved).

Heyward caught 53 of 55 balls hit to spots at speeds for which the expected play rate was greater than 50 percent, according to data provided by Baseball Info Solutions (in other words, he made just about all the plays he should make).

He also made seven catches on balls with an expected out rate of 50 percent or less, one shy of the most by an outfielder for the month.

He closed out the month with a fantastic diving catch against Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in a game the Braves rallied to win.

“Jason Heyward? He does everything,” Mets manager Terry Collins said on Tuesday. “He can run. He’s got great range in the outfield. Since I’ve watched him play, he’s made plays that beat us. How about the diving catch he made last year -- the diving catch on Justin Turner against [Craig] Kimbrel? Tremendous play. Saved the game.

“Then he makes the play last night in foul territory down the line. I mean, he can throw, he can run. I’ve always liked the way he plays. He plays the game right. I wish he’d have a day off once in a while.”

Heyward’s own manager isn't planning to give him more than the occasional breather, and for good reason.

“Jason is a real game-changer in the outfield,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “With the things he can do to beat you, he can change a game just by his pure presence in the field. There are not too many outfielders in our league who have that type of impact on the game.”

Notes on D: Peralta's good numbers

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
Jhonny PeraltaJeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta has been very steady at shortstop in 2014.

The current major league leader in Defensive Runs Saved among shortstops is not Andrelton Simmons or Troy Tulowitzki. It's not Brandon Crawford or Zack Cozart or Elvis Andrus.

It's St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

Peralta is an interesting one to analyze in that the two primary advanced defensive metrics -- Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) have disagreed on Peralta's value relative to his peers. Peralta has never ranked in the top 15 among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved, but has ranked in the top three in UZR in 2011 and 2012 before dropping to 14th in 2013.

This year, both metrics agree that he rates very well. He's first among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved with 14 and a hair behind Simmons for the top spot in UZR.

This struck me as odd, so I took a closer look, with the help of a few of our tools.

It's not about flash
Peralta ranks 10th among shortstops in innings played but just 29th in what the video-tracking service we use refers to as "Good Fielding Plays" (think plays that are Web Gem-like in nature).

He has only 10 in 641 2/3 innings (including a nice one last night versus Justin Morneau), or one more than Mets shortstop Omar Quintanilla had ... in 71 innings.

There are 20 shortstops who have at least 20 Good Fielding Plays (Alcides Escobar has the most, with 44).

Converting the “tough” outs
Though Peralta doesn't nececessary make the flashy play, he's rating well in one regard. Baseball Info Solutions (which devised the Defensive Runs Saved stat) provided us with some noteworthy data on Peralta.

Peralta enters Wednesday with 14 successful plays (in other words, gotten an out) on 53 batted balls hit to areas on the field in which outs are converted less than half the time (his 26 percent conversion ranks sixth in the majors).

Last season, he had a total of 16 such plays on 78 opportunities (20.5 percent).

Minimizing miscues
To his credit, Peralta has minimized mistakes. He's been charged with eight errors, but has only two plays that BIS graded as "Defensive Misplays" (one for an errant throw and one for a bobble, both resulting in a negative consequence without an error being charged).

That’s a low total given how much Peralta has played. There are 14 shortstops with 20 or more Misplays and Errors.

Peralta is averaging one misplay and error every 64 innings. In 2013, he averaged one every 43 innings.

So what's the secret to his success?
We went to two people whom we felt would be knowledgeable on this subject -- "Baseball Tonight" analysts Alex Cora and Manny Acta. They both came up with the answer that would totally make sense.

"They don't shift as often as other teams, but they put him in the right spot," Cora said. "Jose Oquendo is one of the best infield coaches in the majors. That pitching staff helps too. They don't miss their spots."

And this is an important thing to keep in mind with the advanced defensive metrics. Just because someone rates really well or really poorly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the blame fully lies with them.

In this case, the Cardinals seem to have found the best way to maximize Peralta's skill-set. And they're reaping the benefits of it in a big way. They lead the majors by a wide margin with 60 Defensive Runs Saved.

Defensive Player of the Month: May

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3

Getty ImagesYoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson excelled on defense for the Athletics in May.

The Oakland Athletics had the best ERA in the American League in May, and one reason for that was that they had the outfielder with the most Defensive Runs Saved and the infielder with the most Defensive Runs Saved of anyone all month.

Those two players -- Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson -- finished one-two in our voting for Defensive Player of the Month.

The award is given each month after balloting by ESPN.com writers, members of ESPN Stats & Information and video scouts for Baseball Info Solutions (BIS), which tracks defensive data. Cespedes got five first-place votes and finished with 31 points (we vote with a 5-3-1 system for first through third place), one more first-place and two more points than Donaldson. Troy Tulowitzki won the award for April.

Cespedes turned a good month into a great month with a flourish in the final game of May, when he threw two runners out at the plate, propelling him to a tie for the Runs Saved lead with Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, with 10 apiece.

Even without that final game, this was one of Cespedes’ best defensive months in his career. Baseball Info Solutions charted him with eight “Good Fielding Plays” (think Web Gem nominees) and only one Defensive Misplay & Error.

In his first two seasons, Cespedes had 30 Good Plays and 41 Misplays. But May pushed his totals for 2014 to 11 and 6. After catching 28 of 35 balls hit into his zone (the areas in which most left fielders turn batted balls into outs) in April, Cespedes snagged 30 of 32 in May, and had 10 “Out of Zone” catches (up from seven in April). He’s also already matched his 2013 total for “baserunner kills” (the term for throwing out a runner without needing a cutoff man) with five.

His infield teammate, Donaldson, already has a pretty stellar rep for his defensive play and solidified that with eight defensive runs saved at the hot corner last month. His 12 Defensive Runs Saved this season lead major league third basemen and already match his total from 2013, when he finished fourth-best in the majors at third base.

Donaldson tied Jean Segura for the lead in Good Fielding Plays with 18 and had only five misplays and errors. He’s greatly improved his ratio of good plays to misplays, from 63 and 53 in 2013 to 28 and 14 in 2014. Like Cespedes, Donaldson improved on his Revised Zone Rating, going from turning 56 of 73 balls hit into his zone into outs in April to 57 of 67 in May.

Donaldson’s presence makes the Athletics' left side of the infield very formidable. The Athletics turned 81 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second-base bag into outs in May, easily the highest rate of any team (the Pirates finished second at 78 percent).

A few weeks ago, when we asked Eduardo Perez for a list of defenders who had impressed him in 2014, he put Donaldson at the top of his list. “I like him a lot,” Perez said. “He expects every ball to be hit to him, and he’s really good from side to side."

Donaldson excels most at handling balls hit closest to the third-base line, whether it's due to his positioning or quickness. Our internal batted-ball tracker had the Athletics giving up hits on only 19 percent of ground balls hit closest to the third-base line in May, well below the average of 35 percent.

Donaldson didn’t just have a great defensive May. He had a great offensive one as well, with eight home runs, a .417 on-base percentage and a .990 OPS. Combine his defense and his offensive and you get a Wins Above Replacement total of 2.6, which even outpaced homer-slugging Edwin Encarnacion for best in the AL for the month.

Mark Simon helps oversee the ESPN Stats & Information blog and regularly tweets defensive stats on Twitter at @msimonespn

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."

NL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we would take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our National League look:

NL East
Braves: The big change for Atlanta will be dealing with the departure of Brian McCann, whose strike-stealing skills will be hard to replace. Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will try. Gattis may be better than you think (3 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013). By our tally (and that of StatCorner’s publicly available data), he ranked among the best in the majors at getting pitches in the strike zone to be called strikes.

Marlins: The Miami infield rated as average last season, but it has a new -- and potentially worse -- look in 2014, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria as the lone holdover. The Marlins will try Garrett Jones (and his negative-22 career Runs Saved) at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base (last played there for two innings in 2004) and Casey McGehee at third (bad numbers there in 2009 and 2010, but average in 2011). They’ll also have Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching; he typically rates bottom of the pack when it comes to defensive metrics.

Mets: The big story for the Mets will likely be how three center fielders coalesce in the outfield. If it works, the Mets could have the best ground-covering combo in the league. The likely alignment will be Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, though Young could shift to center (with Granderson moving to right and Eric Young to left) if Lagares’ offense isn’t to the Mets liking.

Nationals: Washington hasn't done anything to tinker with its primary starting unit. Arguably the biggest worry will be making sure Bryce Harper doesn’t overhustle his way into any walls as he did last season. The other thing that will be intriguing will be how new acquisition Doug Fister fares with a better infield defense behind him than he had in Detroit the past couple of seasons. Some think that could bode really well.

Phillies: Many scoffed at the Marlon Byrd contract, but he represents a huge defensive upgrade for the Phillies in right field. The transition from John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young, Darin Ruf and Laynce Nix to Byrd represents a swing of 31 Runs Saved (the four combined for negative-19 Runs Saved; Byrd rated among the best with 12).

The Phillies still have a lot of defensive issues, though. First baseman Ryan Howard has minimal range. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins may still pass the eye test but has rated poorly three years running (negative-30 Runs Saved in that span). Their third-base combo rated almost as badly as right field. And primary center fielder Ben Revere had all sorts of issues with balls hit over his head last season. There is a lot of potential trouble brewing for 2014.

NL Central
Brewers: Ryan Braun will not just be returning from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He’ll also be playing a new position, right field, as the Brewers announced their intention to shift him from left field. Braun has 23 Runs Saved over the past four seasons, but the deterrent value of his throwing arm, which is minimal to below average, will now be a bigger factor. He’ll have to be pretty good all-around to match what the team got from Norichika Aoki & Co. (combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved).

Cardinals: St. Louis ranked second to last in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved last season and had only one position that rated above the major league average. That shouldn’t happen again.

The Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter from second to his natural spot at third, where he should be an upgrade over David Freese. Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who, if his hamstrings are healthy, could be a 20-plus run improvement over Jon Jay in center field. Another great glove in Mark Ellis signed to share second base with Kolten Wong, which will be an improvement over Carpenter. And Jhonny Peralta probably is no worse than on par defensively with the man he’ll replace at short, Pete Kozma. In sum, the Cardinals could be the most-improved defensive team from last season to this season.

Cubs: The Cubs aren’t vastly different from what they were at the end of last season, at least not yet. Their outfield defense needed an upgrade, and the one thing they’ve done to that end is obtain Justin Ruggiano. He has fared both well and poorly in center field in the past. Ruggiano may get a full-time shot to see what he can do in 2014.

Pirates: Pittsburgh liked Russell Martin so much it brought in a defensive standout to back him up in Chris Stewart. Stewart excels in all areas and could invert what the team got in 2013 from its backup catchers (negative-6 Runs Saved). The Pirates were also smart about keeping Clint Barmes around on a low-salary deal. He’s no Andrelton Simmons, but he rates among the best defensive shortstops in the league.

Reds: Cincinnati will give Billy Hamilton every chance to be the every-day center fielder in 2014. He rates as “fine,” which will be a major upgrade from the struggles of Shin-Soo Choo, who was forced to play out of position last season. The Reds will also fully take the training wheels off Devin Mesoraco with outstanding defender Ryan Hanigan having been traded to the Rays. Keep an eye on that one. The security of having Hanigan could be a big loss on the defensive side.

NL West
Diamondbacks: Mark Trumbo shifted back and forth between first base and the outfield with the Angels, but he should be the full-time left fielder in 2014 for a team that had four players with 25 or more starts at the position last season. Trumbo showed he could handle left in a stint there with the Halos two seasons ago (a better fit there than in right). My guess is the Diamondbacks will play him deep and concede some singles to limit the number of times he’ll have to retreat to chase a potential extra-base hit.

Dodgers: Yasiel Puig posted a terrific defensive rating in his initial stint in the big leagues (10 Runs Saved), but one concern the Dodgers will have was visible in the NL Championship Series -- how Puig does at limiting his mistakes.

Puig ranked 20th in innings played in right field last season but had the seventh-most Defensive Misplays & Errors (22) based on Baseball Info Solutions’ video review. Over 162 games, that might not affect his overall rating, but that sort of thing could play a large role in swinging a couple of important games one way or the other.

The loss of Mark Ellis could also be big, though the jury is out until we see how Alexander Guerrero handles second base.

Giants: San Francisco cast its lot with a pair of outfielders who will look a bit awkward in the corners, with Mike Morse in left and Hunter Pence in right. This could be a problem if the pitching staff is fly ball inclined. Pence is at negative-16 Runs Saved over the past two seasons. Morse fits best as a DH, and his value will be in whether he can drive in more runs than he lets in. Whoever the Giants' center fielder is this season will have his work cut out for him.

Padres: San Diego will look to run Seth Smith, whom it got from the Athletics for Luke Gregerson, in right field. This could be a little dicey. Smith has negative-13 Runs Saved in the equivalent of about a season’s worth of games there. Expect Chris Denorfia (21 career Runs Saved in right) to remain as a valuable fourth outfielder, late-game replacement.

Rockies: The big defensive-themed news for the Rockies this offseason was their decision to commit to Gold Glove left fielder Carlos Gonzalez as a full-timer in center after trading Dexter Fowler. So long as he’s not the Gonzalez of 2012, who looked a little heavy and finished with negative-13 Runs Saved, that should work out all right.

Colorado does have a lot of flexibility in its outfield with Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs coming off the bench for now. Either could come in as a late-game replacement for Michael Cuddyer if needed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if either got some significant playing time in left field too.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

Defensive Player of August: Paul Janish

September, 2, 2012
US Presswire/Daniel ShireyOne of the many ways Paul Janish frustrated opposing hitters in the month of August.

If you were watching the fifth inning of the Braves-Padres game last Wednesday night, you saw a baseball rarity—a Paul Janish mistake.

In this video replay, Janish and Chipper Jones collided on an infield popup and Janish was given a pair of Defensive Misplays by Baseball Info Solutions team of video reviewers—one for the collision and one for being slow to recover, allowing an extra base to be taken on the play.

We point this out, because it’s the only thing that Janish did wrong on the defensive side in 28 games this month. In fact, in the other 388 innings that Janish has played this season he’s been credited with NO OTHER Defensive Misplays (BIS has 50+ categories to choose from) and has just one error.

We got 11 votes for August’s Defensive Player of the Month and eight of the 11 (who include ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark and former major leaguer Doug Glanville) felt that Janish was the best of the best.

Janish beat Michael Bourn out in the voting, making him the second Braves shortstop to win the award. The other is Andrelton Simmons, whom the Braves replaced with Janish when Simmons broke his finger after 33 games, a week following his naming as June’s top defender.

Bourn has gotten his fair share of attention for the fine season he’s had. Janish may get overlooked because of his lack of offensive contributions.

We won’t overlook him here.

Janish was credited with nine Good Fielding Plays (GFPs) by that same video-review crew that charged him with the misplays, including two that were No. 1 Web Gems on Baseball Tonight.

That 4.5-to-1 Good Play/Misplay ratio is excellent by any standards. The typical shortstop, when judged by video review, usually has about one Misplay/Error for every Good Fielding Play he makes.

Janish started off the month with an award-caliber play on Jose Reyes pop into shallow left field. He sprinted full speed and made a diving catch right near the line.

The diving stop, or sliding stop is Janish’s trademark, like it was in the image atop this article, or here on Sunday Night Baseball, which resulted in the Braves getting the Giants lead runner out at third base in a key spot.

Janish’s statistical strength throughout his career has been getting to balls hit up the middle. He’s had plays in which he’s had to do that, such as this one on August 3 to thwart a potential hit by Jordan Schafer of the Astros.

Janish and his mates on the left side of the Braves infield had a particularly good month. They combined to turn 77 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second base bag into outs. The major-league average was 72 percent. In raw numbers, the Braves' left side was about 11 plays better than expected on those balls for the month.

The key to that was Janish, as evidenced by this: At month’s end, Baseball Info Solutions credited him with eight Defensive Runs Saved, the most by any player at that position in August.

Why Justin Upton is down, not up

July, 16, 2012
Upton Spray ChartESPN.comWhat a difference a year makes for Justin Upton at the plate.
Justin Upton figures to be the best hitter available on the trade market, if the Arizona Diamondbacks decide that he’s worth dealing. Upton turns 25 in August and is signed through the end of the 2015 season (the next three years pay him $38.5 million), so this would not be your typical July 31 rental deal.

But the question that some teams will have to consider is: Which Upton are you getting? The one from 2011? Or the one from 2012?

The Upton of 2011 was an MVP-caliber hitter, with a .289/.369/.529 triple-slash line, plus 31 home runs and 21 stolen bases. The Upton of 2012 has shriveled into an average offensive player, one with a .264/.347/.388 slash line and just seven home runs in 299 at-bats. He was 0-for-10 as the team scored three runs over the weekend while getting swept by the Cubs.

Upton has completely gotten away from what made him the hitter he was in 2011. He looks like a different player altogether. This has manifested itself in three areas.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJustin Upton can't help but wonder where his power went.
First, it shows up in his strikeouts, specifically his strikeouts looking, something that has been documented in the blogosphere over the past month. Upton has struck out looking an MLB-leading 34 times this season, one shy of his total from all of 2011.

This is not a case of the umpires being more unfavorable to him. Of his 34 called strikeouts this season, 25 were deemed by the Pitch F/X system to be in the strike zone. That’s five more than were in 2011. Upton has stared at strike three on seven pitches that were over the middle third of the plate, width-wise. He only did that twice in 2011.

The second issue is that Upton has gone from hitting the ball in the air 63 percent of the time last season to 54 percent of the time this season. Over a full season, that’s probably 40 to 45 fewer balls in the air.

That gets us to our biggest, third point: What happens when Upton does hit the ball in the air? Upton has stopped pulling the ball in the way that made him one of the game’s favorite home-run hitters to watch.

The images above show Upton’s line drives and fly balls over the past two seasons. The 2011 chart is actually incomplete. It’s missing three home runs that went so far that they went entirely off the page.

The 2012 spray chart is lacking those kinds of prodigious blasts. And in case you can’t tell, there’s a noticeable difference in Upton’s ability to pull the ball in the air.

We’re able to estimate balls hit by defined areas of the field. The chart on the right breaks down Upton’s balls in the air over the past two seasons.

Upton has gone from being a pull hitter with major power to one who hits a lot of cans of corn to right field. Last season, Upton had 20 home runs of at least 400 feet to left field or left-center field. This season, he has four.

Inside Edge, which provides video-scouting services to major league teams, estimates the distances of balls hit in the air. They’ve charted Upton’s average ball in the air to left/left-center as traveling 278 feet this season. That’s 15 feet shorter than 2011.

Inside Edge also has Upton hitting the ball about 20 feet further to right field and right-center than he previously did.

But that’s not going to produce results. Over the past two seasons, Upton has gotten hits on 58 percent of the balls he’s hit in the air (flies or line drives) to left or left-center, and a 30 percent chance of getting a hit on a ball in the air to right center.

This isn’t an issue of his being pitched differently. Upton has actually seen a lower percentage of pitches over the outside part of the plate this season than he did in 2011. It’s also an issue at home and on the road (more so the latter, but there’s a drop-off at Chase Field).

Whatever the issue may be, it’s one the Diamondbacks or his new employer will need to figure out to impact not just the 2012 season, but many beyond that.

Dali, Dickey and the quest for perfection

June, 14, 2012
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- St. Petersburg is the home of a museum celebrating renowned artist Salvador Dali.

Dali is most known for some fascinating and highly unusual works with double meanings that required a comprehensive explanation from Sandra, the tour guide on our visit yesterday.

A check of the Internet shows that Dali once was quoted as saying, "Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it."

Matt Cain did achieve perfection in a baseball sense last night, and though R.A. Dickey's record indicates one more blemish and miscue than were featured in Cain’s perfecto, he probably couldn’t have been any better than he was at the Tropicana Dome, a couple miles from the Dali Museum.

I strolled the stands for much of Wednesday's Mets-Rays game and encountered a few people who would agree. They include the food services attendant in the elevator down from the press box who asked, "Does there have to be a run scored for a game to end?" (She admitted she doesn’t watch baseball.) Or the Rays blogger who predicted a dozen strikeouts for Dickey at the end of the second inning, or the New York radio personality who asked, "Who in the National League is better than R.A. Dickey right now?"

We have a specific manner by which we judge perfect games. The scorekeeping system we use is such that it is defined as being a 27-up, 27-down performance. There is no regard for how one gets his outs.

For that matter, there is no regard for how one allows his hits.

In Dickey’s case, he gave up one to B.J. Upton in the first inning on a ball that David Wright (one of baseball’s best barehand-play artists) couldn’t field cleanly. In the ninth inning, Wright made an errant throw on a softly hit groundball that pulled first baseman Ike Davis off the bag.

The Mets are appealing the official scorer’s decision, as baseball’s rules now say they can do. That play isn’t being overturned. The system doesn’t seem meant for it to overrule the scorer’s judgment on what was not even a 50-50 proposition for an out at best.

But for Dickey, is that really relevant?

We use a data provider, Inside Edge, that provides us a list of "hard-hit balls" in each game. Dickey had one -- a fly ball near the warning track in the ninth inning. There were 25 foul balls hit and a Tampa media member recalled only one, by Matt Joyce, that would have qualified as hard hit, if we kept track of those (which we don’t).

Dickey wowed his catcher, Mike Nickeas, who said he was running out of ways to describe how difficult it is to catch Dickey’s signature knuckler. He wowed his manager, and opposing manager Joe Maddon, who referred to Dickey as "exceptional."

Much of Dickey’s postgame press gathering was spent discussing the run of success that has made him one of baseball’s top pitchers at the moment. At one point, trying to explain the pitch, he drew laughs by saying, "I’m not going to pretend to be some sort of knuckleball Sherpa here."

Dickey talked about the most important thing for him is consistency -- being able to duplicate the sort of starts that have gone best for him. There is always something at which he thinks he can do better.

One of the last questions, Dickey was asked if there was anything he could have done better in this game. He pondered a few seconds, stalled a bit and eventually got around to answering: "No. It was a game where I didn’t have any regrets."

So if Dickey wants to think of his game is as perfect as Cain’s that’s perfectly fine with us.

Though Dali might disagree.

The most exciting pitcher in baseball

June, 4, 2012
Ernesto FrieriGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireSince joining the Angels, Ernesto Frieri has allowed one hit in 14.1 innings with 30 strikeouts.
Who is the most exciting pitcher to watch in baseball right now?

If we had to guess, we’re thinking most of you will say Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw or Stephen Strasburg. If we asked you to pick a reliever, you’d probably say Aroldis Chapman.


Who is the most exciting pitcher in baseball?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,592)

But how about new Angels closer Ernesto Frieri?

As we noted last week, the Angels' bullpen has been a key to their resurgence. Frieri’s emergence is at the heart of that.

Frieri set a major league record by not allowing a hit in his first 13 appearances with a new team. The Rangers finally broke that streak on Saturday, but by night’s end, they had succumbed as well, as Frieri picked up his fourth save. Opponents are now 1-for-43 with 30 strikeouts versus Frieri since he joined the Angels in a May 3 trade with the Padres.

Part of the fun of watching Frieri is that his pitches are all over the place. Since joining the Angels, he’s thrown only 38 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. His fastball tails away from a lefty and in to a righty with such movement that it’s very difficult to hit.

Here’s a chart that shows what Frieri has done since joining the Angels and how that compares to the average major league pitcher:

FrieriESPN Stats & InformationNo matter where the ball goes, hitters have had a hard time hitting Frieri.

Leaderboard of week: Bare hands and flips

May, 7, 2012
Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Willie Bloomquist had the longest-reigning Web Gem of the season so far, a from-his-stomach flip to second base to get a force play on a ground ball up the middle on April 28 against the Marlins.

That lasted six days as the "Best of the Best" Web Gem and was named the Sports Science Play of the Week. It also inspired us to look up something that we’ve asked to have video-tracked this season. There are many different ways to get an out in baseball. We’ve arranged with Baseball Info Solutions to track players who make three different types of plays. They are:

1. The barehand -- in which a fielder does not use his glove, but manages to get an out.

2. The glove flip -- in which a fielder flips the ball to a teammate using his glove, rather than his ungloved hand.

3. The throw-from-knees -- which we actually made sure covered any throw in which the fielder was not upright, a la Bloomquist.

Let’s take a snapshot look at the leaders for each, all entering Sunday's games.
  • Marlins catcher John Buck leads the majors in successful barehand plays with 10. Most of the players atop this leaderboard are catchers, who are apt to grab bunts in front of the plate without their glove.
  • The leader in barehands among non-catchers is Braves third baseman Chipper Jones with seven. No one else in baseball had more than four.
  • There had been 20 glove flips in the majors in 2012. Four players were successful multiple times, led by Alexi Casilla and Alex Gonzalez with three each.
  • Lastly, the player with the most throws from his knees, stomach, or any other part of the body, is Phillies rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis with four.

April's top defender: Jerry Hairston Jr.

May, 2, 2012
Benny Sieu/US PresswireJerry Hairston Jr. didn't mind getting a little dirt on his uniform to make good defensive plays in April.

Major League Baseball rewards its best offensive players and its top pitchers with Player of the Month Awards. But it does not salute a Defensive Player of the Month with the same level of reverence.

We’re here to fill that void, with the help of the folks from Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). BIS has a team of video trackers who watch every play of every game, charting where balls are hit, which ones are turned into outs and which are not, and categorizing plays into approximately 30 groups of Good Fielding Plays and 50 groups of Defensive Misplays.

BIS data is also used in the computation of a stat called Defensive Runs Saved, which measures value relative to others at the same position. How Runs Saved are calculated is explained in the chart on the right.

We came up with a list of nominees using this data and our Web Gem tracking (which allows us to measure "Great Fielding Plays"), then had a 10-person panel cast their votes. The panel came from our Stats & Information crew, writers Dave Schoenfield and Jayson Stark and ESPN baseball analyst Chris Singleton.

Our winner for April is an unlikely selection in that he’s not the first person that comes to mind when you think of defensive standouts -- Los Angeles Dodgers utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr.

Hairston was able to make the good play and the great play. He finished April tied with Ryan Zimmerman for the major league lead with four Web Gems (including the No. 1 Gem on consecutive nights). He was credited with one Defensive Run Saved at second base, one at third base and two in left field.

Hairston finished April with a Good Play/Misplay tally of 11 to 1 in only 15 games in his first month with the Dodgers.

His highlight-reel play came on April 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers while playing third base, when he robbed Alex Gonzalez of the game-tying hit in the eighth inning with a diving stop and throw from his knees on a groundball down the line.

The next day, he missed on a similar diving attempt against Jose Altuve of the Astros, but then sprinted into foul territory and threw a strike to second base to nail Altuve's attempt at an extra-base hit.

Hairston got six of our 10 first-place votes, and even someone who voted him second-best was quite impressed. "No matter where you put him on the field, he posseses the ability to make a dynamic play," Singleton said. "His value as a utility player is as high as anyone on the defensive side."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly agreed, saying, "Jerry's been great from the standpoint of wherever we put him, he's made some unbelievable plays."

Alex Gordon, Royals
Though Gordon didn’t hit at the level he did in 2011, his advanced defensive stats were of Gold Glove caliber, and that earned him runner-up status for April.

Gordon had seven Defensive Runs Saved in left field for April, and finished with a 9 to 1 tally in Good Plays/Misplays, including a home run robbery on Danny Valencia.

Gordon’s rating was high partly because of the component that measures the deterrent value of one’s throwing arm. There were 18 situations in which Gordon fielded a ball, and a baserunner had a chance to advance an extra base (score on a sacrifice fly, go first to third on a single, etc). He only had one assist, but it was a nifty one, nailing Albert Pujols at the plate. But Gordon only allowed the runner to advance three times, thus netting a deterrent rate worth two runs.

"You can never truly appreciate with the naked eye just how well Gordon takes routes to the ball on base hits," Singleton said. "It gets overlooked, but it’s huge when you’re an outfielder and can shut the running game down like a catcher does."

Freddy Galvis, Phillies
If there was an award for Defensive Rookie of the Month, Galvis would edge out Kirk Nieuwenhuis of the Mets for top honors. He finished with a Good Play Misplay tally of 14 to 3 and tallied three Defensive Runs Saved. He won No. 1 Web Gem honors twice, good enough to finish third in our voting.

Jamey Carroll, Twins
Carroll finished with two Defensive Runs Saved, but was impressive in the way in which he made plays. His 16 Good Fielding Plays were the most among shortstops. He made only two Misplays all month, and his 8 to 1 ratio was among the best for infielders.

Albert Pujols, Angels
Though Pujols struggled offensively, he didn’t let his power outage impact his defense.

Pujols tied with Adrian Gonzalez for the most Defensive Runs Saved among first basemen with three, and had a Good Play/Misplay ratio of 14 to 2. Pujols was rewarded both for his ability to handle difficult throws (for which he was credited with nine Good Fielding Plays), and his ability to turn batted balls into outs. One of the few bright spots for the Angels in April was that they allowed a .197 batting average on groundballs, fourth-best in the American League, behind the Indians, Athletics and Blue Jays.

Also considered: Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals 3B), Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks 1B), Josh Hamilton (Rangers OF), Aaron Hill (Diamondbacks 2B), and Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox 2B).

Greg Holland has pitches to be KC's closer

March, 20, 2012

The primary location of sliders thrown by Greg Holland in 2011.
His fastball/slider/splitter combo was among the most effective in baseball.
Click here to create your own Holland heat maps

With Joakim Soria going down with an elbow injury, it’s likely the Kansas City Royals will give the first opportunity at their closing role to former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, who was signed as a free agent.

But there is another candidate in the Kansas City bullpen worthy of consideration.

Righty Greg Holland may not get much attention outside of those who follow the American League Central closely, but in 2011 he was that division’s version of what David Robertson provided the Yankees.

Holland had a 1.80 ERA and an 0.93 WHIP in 60 innings for the Royals last season. Opponents had a .521 OPS against him, second-best in the AL to Robertson among those who threw at least 50 innings.

What made Holland comparable to some of baseball's best relievers was his ability to strike out left-handed hitters.

Holland struck out 38 of the 106 left-handed hitters he faced. The only AL right-handed reliever to have a higher percentage of strikeouts against lefties was Robertson. The average left-hander hit .185 against a right-handed pitcher in a two-strike count last season. Against Holland, they were 4-for-60 (.067).

How did he do it?

Holland’s effectiveness comes from the combination of his 95-mph fastball, a slider and a split-fingered fastball. His delivery is deliberate, but his pitches are nasty. Check out this string of highlights from mid-2011 when he struck out six Rays in three innings.

Holland threw 102 splitters in 2011 (about half coming with two strikes), spotting it most frequently just below the lowest part of the strike zone. As ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser said in Wednesday’s spring telecast, "The key for a pitcher is throwing a ball that looks like a strike." The splitter netted Holland 26 outs, with only two hits allowed.

The slider served as Holland’s strikeout pitch. He threw 108 of them with two strikes, which resulted in 38 strikeouts.

His 35 percent putaway rate with that pitch (strikeouts divided by two-strike pitches thrown) trailed only four other pitchers who threw at least 100 two-strike sliders –- Jonny Venters, Sergio Santos, Al Alburquerque and Craig Kimbrel.

Holland’s last outing of 2011, a final-week appearance against the White Sox, may have served as a foreshadowing of what was to come for 2012. After allowing a two-out double to Paul Konerko and issuing an intentional walk to A.J. Pierzynski, Holland struck out the final four hitters he faced to preserve a one-run lead. He blew away Adam Dunn with a 97 mph fastball and froze the other three hitters with nasty sliders.

It was one of four saves that Holland earned over the final two months of the season. He may get a few more chances in the near future.

What's next for B.J. Upton?

March, 5, 2012
A look at the difference in production for B.J. Upton over most of the season, and then his hot streak at season's end.
Click here to create your own Upton heat maps

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton is a free agent to be following the 2012 season, but he’s hit sub-.250 with at least 150 strikeouts each of the previous three seasons.

Upton is someone who has shown the potential to be great, such as in 2007 when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and the 2008 postseason when he slugged seven home runs over the first two rounds. But he hasn’t been able to fully live up to that potential since.

Upton closed 2011 strong and there was one aspect of what he did in the Rays' September stretch that could be key to future performance if he’s able to take some of that into 2012.

Through 2010 and almost all of 2011, Upton struggled against soft stuff (curves, sliders and changeups) away. It didn’t matter if it came from a righty or lefty. It was an issue.

In fact, over the month-long span from Aug. 3 to Sept. 2, Upton saw 84 curves, sliders, and changeups that were either on the outer-third of the plate or further away.

Upton swung 34 times. It netted him 14 outs and no base hits.

But either something started clicking on Sept. 3 against the Orioles or Upton started to get a little lucky. From that point, to the end of the season, he started hitting those pitches.

He missed much less often on his swings as he had in that awful streak. He had nearly as many line drives on soft stuff away as he had in the previous five months.

This time, the net results on his swings were: 10 outs and seven hits.

Granted none of the hits were game-changers of an Evan Longoria variety and he didn’t pad the total in the ALDS against the Rangers. But it was something to build on and perhaps learn from heading into 2012.

What’s next for Upton? You tell us. Share your thoughts in the comments section.