SweetSpot: Brian Dozier

Will Kendrys Morales power Twins' bid?

June, 7, 2014
Jun 7
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Kendrys Morales reportedly signed with the Minnesota Twins, which can lead to a few quick takeaways. First, of course, it’s just further proof that not everybody wants to put on pinstripes, and that’s a glorious thing. But why, after so many months, does a guy pick the Twins?

Keeping in mind that terms have not yet been disclosed, so we don’t know how long he’s signed to be a Twin -- four months, or for 2015, too? We’ll see, but the better question is why not the Twins? They may be just below .500, but they’re just 2.5 games out in the pack of ballclubs crowding the AL wild-card field. They’re also just five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, who are in the middle of a 7-13 tumble that puts the division title back in play. So yes, as midseason moves go, suffice to say the Twins are taking themselves seriously -- and they should.

And why not? Morales is almost exactly what the Twins need. This is a lineup that is already proving effective at creating baserunners, ranking third in the AL in walk rate (9.6 percent) and tied for third in the AL in walks drawn. That’s not all Joe Mauer, who you might have expected -- Mauer has walked 27 times before Saturday’s action, but burgeoning second-base star Brian Dozier led the team with 35 freebies before action started. Heck, even struggling part-time center fielder Aaron Hicks has at least walked 27 times. The Twins are walking despite their not having reliable walker Josh Willingham active for most of the early going; now that he’s back in action and back in left field, they could already anticipate those good team-wide numbers to get even better.

Getting Morales helps them that much more, though, because he helps address what has been a weak spot: Slugging, where the Twins rank just 10th in the league in Isolated Power (or ISO). The Twins were already plating a league-average 14 percent of their baserunners, but with Willingham as well as Oswaldo Arcia both back in action to provide corner outfielder-grade offense and Morales joining the party at the DH slot, that number should improve. Morales comes in with a career ISO of .200, as well as greater effectiveness against right-handed pitching (.286/.340/.499) as a switch-hitter, making him a superb fit for the middle of the order, where he can start cashing in all those Twins baserunners. At the very least, they can dispense with Jason Kubel’s slugless comeback.

The other thing this probably helps address is what Joe Mauer has not been this season, the franchise-grade force on offense the Twins signed him to be. Plating just 9 percent of baserunners while slugging 50 points below league average (.395), this is rapidly turning into the worst season of Mauer’s career. Maybe Morales helps with that, and maybe this lets Mauer just focus on contributing OBP from the second slot for the rest of the season.

So far, so good, but can the Twins really win, when this shored-up lineup still has to outscore a rotation struggling to generate quality starts whenever Phil Hughes isn’t on the mound? Hughes has thrown eight in his 12 turns, while the rest of the starters have combined for just 17 in 47 starts, a 36 percent clip that’s hard to sustain win streaks with if you’re going to keep up in the hunt for a playoff slot. As much as signing Kendrys Morales is a good thing, the shored-up Twins lineup is going to have to seriously crank to beat that sort of near-daily handicap. And there, there may not be a good answer, beyond the expectation that former first-rounder Kyle Gibson is supposed to get better, and that the same expectations that led to signing Ricky Nolasco and Kevin Correia as free agents should fuel the expectation they’ll be better in the second half. If they’re not, the Twins won’t go anywhere, even if they manage to hang around .500.

Which brings us to why signing with the Twins might especially make sense for Morales, without knowing about how much money was in play. Say the Twins fall entirely out of the race -- if that happens, they’re an obvious seller at the deadline, and Morales could look forward to being dealt to a team in a stronger position in the standings. Rather than pick a contender and hope for the best, signing with the longshot team provides him with a chance there, and potentially a chance to be dealt to an even better opportunity to return to the postseason in two months. Considering Morales hasn’t played any October baseball since 2009, it’s not the worst gambit for a guy who has already lost so much of this season to taking a bad risk on his value on the open market as a free agent.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk disagreed with my take on instant replay after the Giants-Pirates game on Tuesday. Fair enough. I can admit I may have missed the boat (the ocean?) on that one. Certainly, if there's any reason to apply instant replay, that would be the occasion, along with all other plays at home plate or when a run scores.
  • You may have heard that Troy Tulowitzki is hitting the baseball very hard these days. Grantland's Jonah Keri looks into Tulo's hot start. One interesting note: "Seeking a second opinion, I turned to a longtime scout for an NL team. While the scout largely agreed that not much has changed, he did notice one small thing: Tulowitzki is closing his stance a bit more than in the past, and is also now spreading his legs slightly farther apart."
  • The Hardball Times has had an excellent series of "10 things I learned" articles on sabermetrics-related themes. The pieces: ESPN Insider contributor Dan Szymborski on creating a projection system, Dave Studeman on Win Probability Added, Mitchel Lichtman on defensive statistics, Dave Cameron on baseball economics and Matt Hunter on creating a baseball simulator. Good stuff.
  • Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus with an early report on catcher framing. Through Monday, Mike Zunino leads the majors with 5.1 framing runs added, according to the BP measurement.
  • Brian Dozier of the Twins is quietly developing into a star-level second baseman. He has power (eight home runs, although just one double), draws walks (third in the AL with 24), is 11 for 12 stealing bases, leads the AL with 31 runs and seems to show up every other night with a diving play on defense. Grantland's Michael Baumann appreciates this unsung player.
  • The Orioles swing a lot and chase a lot of pitches out the strike zone, which means they don't walk much. Which means they rely on home runs. Matt Kreminitzer of Camden Depot takes a look.
  • Alex Skillin of Fire Brand of the AL says rotation depth is what could eventually separate the Red Sox from the rest of the AL East.
  • Jason Collette of The Process Report takes a closer look at David Price, who has off to an odd start with diminishing velocity but more strikeouts -- and more hits.
  • Can Derek Jeter no longer hit the fastball?
  • Will the Mets be gone from New York in 10 years?
  • Joe Aiello asks: Which Cubs prospect are you most confident in? Sounds like this may be related to Javier Baez's awful start at Triple-A.
  • Curt Hogg of Disciples of Uecker looks into Jean Segura's improved play at shortstop.
  • Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal aren't fooling batters as much this season.
  • Without Jurickson Profar, Brandon Land reports that the Rangers are having problems from offense at second base.
  • The Justin Upton trade keeps looking worse, writes Ryan Morrison of Inside the 'Zona.
  • More from Craig Calcaterra: A bunch of baseball-related podcasts were pulled from iTunes. An MLB Advanced Media spokesperson said it was for "infringing uses of trademarks of Major League Baseball and certain Clubs." I understand MLB's desire to protect its trademarks but what a way to anger your most passionate fans. Unfortunately, it's not the first time MLB has done this (see: blackout policy).
  • Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs with a piece titled "At the Ballpark: Race, Community and MLB."
  • Richard Griffin writes about Brandon Morrow, who may or may not be done for the year and who may or may not be done as a Blue Jay (the club has a $10 million club option for next season). Morrow was the guy the Mariners drafted ahead of local kid Tim Lincecum back in 2006 (also two spots ahead of a high school kid named Clayton Kershaw). It didn't work out in Seattle and despite flashes of brilliance in Toronto, Morrow was never able to stay healthy. Griffin suggests Morrow's diabetes may be a cause for his injury issues, at least a related problem (fatigue, etc.). Anyway, in the end it's hard to say whether injuries or command issues or lack of consistency ultimately undermined Morrow from reaching his potential.

Notes on D: Do NL teams play better D?

May, 7, 2014
May 7
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Take a look at the list on the right and a pattern emerges.

Of the top 11 teams in Defensive Runs Saved this season, 10 are from the National League.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are the only AL team in the bunch. The next-highest AL team is the Kansas City Royals, with 1 Defensive Run Saved. Twelve of the 15 AL teams rate negatively in that stat (the Athletics are at zero).

Granted, it’s early in the season and defensive numbers fluctuate plenty over the course of a calendar year. In each of the last three seasons, at least seven AL teams posted a positive Runs Saved total, so this probably will change in the near future.

But it certainly is possible we have an imbalance here. With regards to individual players, there are 30 with at least four Defensive Runs Saved this season. Twenty are on National League teams.

Of the 33 players with -4 Runs Saved or worse, 21 are in the American League.

We wanted to get some type of answer on this, so we turned to former manager and current "Baseball Tonight" analyst Manny Acta.

"Overall, the middle infielders currently playing in the NL are younger and more athletic than those in the AL," Acta said. "Plus most of the best defensive center fielders are there too -- (Andrew) McCutchen, (Carlos) Gomez, (Juan) Lagares, (Peter) Bourjos. I also think that the weaker contact by the pitchers at bat can help that rating some."

Acta's point about the NL teams and their younger middle infields was right on. Of the 35 players (minimum 50 at-bats) whose primary position is middle infield and are in their age 28 or younger season, 21 of them are in the National League.

We’re not sure that this necessarily means anything. Perhaps it’s just a fluke. But it struck us another of those stats to keep an eye on as the season continues.

Who’s improving?
We asked a couple of members of the "Baseball Tonight" crew to give us a player whose defense has improved noticeably from last year.

Both Chris Singleton and Acta gave us the same name -- Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon, who has made the smooth transition from shortstop, where he often struggled.

"He seems to be learning the angles, making better throws to (Adrian) Gonzalez at first, and (using good) footwork around the second-base bag," Singleton said. "He told me the first weekend of the season that he had to forget about all of the technical things they were telling him about turning the double play, like using the bag for protection or taking the ball on one side or the other. He said he told himself to just be athletic around second base and once he started doing that, he really started to find his own rhythm."

Acta also cited Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.

"He looks more under control and his footwork is better," Acta said. "It also helps to have Perry Hill as the infield (coach)."

Spotlighting: Brian Dozier (and Kyle Gibson)
Last week, we gave Orioles outfielder David Lough props for his penchant for leaping catches.

This week, we wanted to offer a salute to Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier for his ability to make the diving play, with a little bit of help from his friends.

The most recent was one in the Twins' 1-0 win over the Indians on Monday, which required an equally good (and rather unusual) dive by pitcher Kyle Gibson to complete the putout. It currently ranks as "Baseball Tonight"'s "Best of the Best" for 2014.

[+] EnlargeBrian Dozier
AP Photo/Mark DuncanBrian Dozier can cover a lot of ground.
Dozier was rather modest about his contribution.

"Those are plays where you've gotta get rid of it quickly," Dozier said. "That's basically Kyle's play. He made a tremendous scoop and slide to the bag. I said to him in the dugout afterwards, heck of a scoop. He said, no, I caught it on the air. I saw it on ESPN and he definitely scooped it. I don't think even he knew where he was at at the moment (of the play). But a great play by him."

This was the second straight Gibson start in which he and Dozier combined on a special play. They also teamed for this one, an Adrian Gonzalez deflection off Joe Mauer's glove, on which Dozier flipped the ball with his glove to Gibson for the out.

Dozier makes this sort of play a lot.

To this point in the season, UZR likes Dozier a little bit more than Defensive Runs Saved. He rates first at second base in the former (with a value of 3.4 runs). His 14 out-of-zone plays (plays outside the area in which second baseman turn more than half of batted balls into outs) ranks first at that position.

Dozier is similar to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado in that there is a high-risk, high-reward component to his play. He leads second basemen in both Good Fielding Plays (think "Web Gem nominee") with 22 and Defensive Misplays & Errors with 11 this season.

"Great instincts," said one scout we talked to about Dozier. "He anticipates very well, plays from the ground up, and is trustworthy. And he continues to improve."

The season's underrated defensive stars

September, 13, 2013
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AP PhotoPedro Florimon and David Lough don't get a lot of press, but they have stellar defensive stats.


We've written frequently about the outstanding defense of Andrelton Simmons, Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gomez this season, but it should be noted that they;re not the only ones who have been terrific with the glove.

You may have read Buster Olney's blog today in which I made a statistical assessment of the clubhouse leaders for Gold Glove Awards. That hooks into something I've been wanting to do for awhile -- take a closer look at nine players having good defensive seasons that you may not have been aware. (Note that all data is entering Thursday).

Infielders
Mike Napoli, Red Sox 1B
Napoli was the most surprising name among the Defensive Runs Saved and UZR leaders. His 10 Runs Saved are most among AL first basemen.

What is he doing that those stats are rewarding?

It's fairly simple. Napoli doesn't go beyond the basic area he covers to make plays (his rate of out of zone plays per inning ranks in the bottom third among first basemen), but what he can get to, particularly on balls hit near the first-base line, he turns into outs.

Napoli entered Thursday with the best Revised Zone Rating among AL first basemen, though remember that group doesn't include Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez or a healthy Albert Pujols.

Brian Dozier, Twins 2B
Pedro Florimon, Twins SS

Dozier has handled the move from shortstop to second base with aplomb, netting 11 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, second-most in the AL (Dustin Pedroia leads with 16).

He leads AL second basemen in range factor (plays per game) and is one of those players who passes the eye test too.

Dozier's 83 Good Fielding Plays (think: Web Gem nominees) are only two fewer than the leader at the position, Pedroia (in 177 fewer innings). What's separating Dozier from being as good as Pedroia are the defensive misplays and errors. He has 31, 10 more than Pedroia.

Florimon has shown himself to be adept, particularly at getting to balls in the shortstop-third base hole (which helps, because Dozier covers a lot of ground up the middle). His 14 Defensive Runs Saved rank second-best among shortstops this season, dwarfed by Simmons’ major-league leading 39.

Juan Uribe, Dodgers 3B
Like Napoli, this one may merit an eye roll, but the numbers show that Uribe has been good. His 11 Defensive Runs Saved are second-most in the NL and the same as Evan Longoria (in nearly 450 fewer innings). Like Napoli, Uribe gets to balls and doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

Let me show you what I mean:


The two images show approximate batted ball locations for ground balls hit to a swath of the field that I think we can all agree are balls that are fielded (or missed) mostly by third basemen.

The image on the left shows how a team that ranks among the best in the majors in out conversion -- the Dodgers -- has fared against those balls. The image on the right shows how a team that ranks among the worst -- the Marlins -- fares against balls hit to that same swath.

The two players making most of those plays for the Dodgers are Uribe and Nick Punto, who has five Runs Saved in limited time at the position.

Uribe's performance is the bigger surprise. The last time he had a season with at least a dozen Defensive Runs Saved was 2004.

Outfielders
David Lough, Royals OF
The inspiration to include Lough came from seeing him crash into the right-field fence to make a catch for his third No. 1 Web Gem in Tuesday's win over the Indians. Lough has 17 Defensive Runs Saved in 666 innings and has done his best work getting to balls hit to the deepest parts of the park. His runs saved per inning rate ranks fifth-best among outfielders with at least 500 innings played.

Lough has a near 2-to-1 rate of good fielding plays to defensive misplays and errors in right field based on video review by Baseball Info Solutions. His rate ranks fifth-best among the 21 right fielders with at least 15 good plays this season.

Shane Victorino, Red Sox RF
Victorino has the most Runs Saved of anyone who hasn't been nominated for Defensive Player of the Month this year with 22, the best year of any in his 10-year career.

Victorino has had a good year with his arm (see the chart), but even at age 32, he's shown that he can go into the gap and get the ball. The Red Sox defense has improved considerably from a statistical perspective at getting to balls in the deepest parts of right-center. Victorino has been a key to that.

As we did for Uribe, we cut the field into a swath, one meant to show the charting (by hand and eye) of balls hit to the deepest parts of right-center that stayed in play at Fenway Park, and looked at the data.

In 2012, the Red Sox turned 16 of those 25 into outs. In 2013, they've turned 22 of 25 into outs. Six would-be doubles and triples (just at Fenway) may not sound like a lot, but it's the sort of thing that can help enhance the defensive value of someone like Victorino.

Chris Denorfia, Padres OF
Denorfia has played three outfield positions and played them solidly, combining for 15 Defensive Runs Saved. He has five Defensive Runs Saved at each of the three outfield positions.

If that holds to the end of the season, he'd be the first player in the 11-season history of Defensive Runs Saved to have at least that many Runs Saved in all three of those spots.

Catchers
Welington Castillo, Cubs C
Castillo's season doesn't look great on paper, particularly the 10 errors, but he ranks second in the National League in runners caught stealing with 26 and has five pickoffs.

Castillo's stats also have gotten a spike from one area that BIS charts that might be hard to recognize -- the ability of a catcher to block pitches in the dirt.

Castillo entered Thursday having blocked 613 pitches in the dirt (without a baserunner advancing) this season, second-most in the majors to Salvador Perez's 622.

That's helped him accumulate a major-league high 17 Defensive Runs Saved at catcher.

Russell Martin, Pirates C
Martin has done more than his share of good things behind the plate for the Pirates. His 15 Defensive Runs Saved are his best total since he netted 18 in 2007.

The two reasons for that are:

(A) The Pirates' ERA is about half-a-run better when he's behind the plate compared to when he isn't.

(B) He's thrown out 28 of 75 of would-be basestealers, compared to only three of 35 by the rest of the team's backstops.

Martin probably won't win a Gold Glove, with Yadier Molina in his way, but his value has been as noteworthy as Molina's on the defensive side this season.

Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions contributed research to this article.

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
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We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.

Defensive player of month: Juan Lagares

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
11:12
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AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Juan Lagares has made tough catches look routine since being recalled by the Mets.


New York Mets rookie outfielder Juan Lagares had to beat out the best of the best to win the Defensive Player of the Month award for August.

Lagares topped two-time 2013 winner Andrelton Simmons and impressive Colorado Rockies rookie Nolan Arenado to take the award this month.

It was well-earned. Lagares led the majors with 12 defensive runs saved in August (one more than Simmons, three more than Arenado). That value came both from his ability to range far outside his position to catch balls and from a throwing arm that has ranked among the best in the sport since his arrival.

Lagares was credited with 22 "Out of Zone" putouts by Baseball Info Solutions in August, with an Out of Zone catch defined as one made in an area in which center fielders turn batted balls into outs less than 50 percent of the time.

Lagares had 67 Out of Zone plays in 663 2/3 innings in center field through the end of August. His rate of one Out of Zone catch for every 9.9 innings (basically one per game) played ranks best in the majors at that position.

Good examples of his glove work include these two plays, one in which he came in to rob Jedd Gyorko of the San Diego Padres and this one in which he went all the way back to the fence to steal a hit from Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Lagares, a converted infielder, didn't even figure to be the team's top defender coming through their farm system. That honor belonged to recent call-up Matt den Dekker, who made ESPN's Top 10 plays a couple of times before even making the majors. But when den Dekker got hurt this spring, and the Mets needed a lift from their outfield reserves after Collin Cowgill fizzled in an initial tryout, Lagares took advantage of his opportunity.

"His confidence is sky high as far as going to get balls," Mets outfield coach Tom Goodwin told ESPNNewYork.com's Adam Rubin prior to Sunday night's game against the Washington Nationals. "You lose that instant excitement when you first get here, and the jitters, and he doesn't have that anymore. He just goes out there and plays the game. That's the biggest compliment I can give him. He's really matured beyond his years."

Lagares leads the National League and ranks second in the majors in outfield assists with 12, trailing only Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon. He's become a deterrent to baserunners both due to his positioning (he likes to play shallow) and his instincts (he gets to balls quickly).

"You'll see him get to some balls where they're line drives and he's getting to them on the first hop, instead of two or three hops later," Goodwin said. "His routes are outstanding. His reads are outstanding. And when he comes in, he makes good, strong, accurate throws."

Simmons had what has become a typical Simmons month with his 11 defensive runs saved. He has 39 defensive runs saved and will break the record for most defensive runs saved in a season, which was set by New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner with 35 in 2010. Arenado (30 defensive runs saved) and Manny Machado (31) are neck-and-neck for the lead for third basemen.

Also impressive this month were Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who led the majors with 25 "good fielding plays" (think plays that would be Web Gem nominees), and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who despite the struggles we noted last week had seven defensive runs saved.

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