SweetSpot: Chipper Jones


Which of these three birthday boys should go into the Hall of Fame?


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Happy birthday to Chipper Jones, Omar Vizquel and the still-active Carlos Beltran.

Today's question: How many of those three should make the Hall of Fame?

OK, Chipper is an obvious Hall of Famer, Vizquel and Beltran less so.

Some quick numbers for Vizquel: Most games ever at shortstop; 2,877 career hits; 1,445 runs; .272 average; 11 Gold Gloves; three-time All-Star; career WAR of 45.3.

Beltran: 363 home runs; 1,340 RBIs; 1,356 runs; three Gold Gloves; eight-time All-Star; 308 stolen bases; .333, 16 HR in 51 postseason games; 68.3 career WAR.
You probably saw that Chipper Jones rescued Freddie Freeman after Freeman was stuck on a gridlocked interstate for five hours when a snowstorm hit the Atlanta area. Dressed in camouflage hunting gear, Jones escorted Freeman back to his house on a four-wheeler. More proof that Jones is one of the greatest teammates ever. Although I'm pretty sure Braves management had a collective heart attack after seeing the photos. Umm, no, Freddie, don't ride on Chipper's four-wheeler. Not really a good idea. Sit tight. Don't get out of the car. It could be a little slick out there.

Anyway, Joe Posnanski has been writing terrific articles throughout the winter on his top 100 baseball players of all time. He just wrote on his No. 56 player: Chipper Jones. His No. 57 player was Derek Jeter.


Whom would you rather have had for your team?


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So my question: Which player would you have wanted for your team?

Do you want the power-hitting, switch-hitting third baseman with great on-base skills and OK defense? Do you want the shortstop with great durability and terrific offensive production for his position but subpar range? (If you're not a believer in the whole "Jeter's defense wasn't good" argument, check out this piece from August by Ben Lindbergh on Grantland.)

By one metric, the clear edge goes to Jones. By Baseball Reference's WAR analysis, Jones finished his career at 85.1 WAR. Jeter is at 71.6 WAR and not likely to get much higher.

At the plate, Jones was better, and it's not that close; he produced about 557 runs above an average hitter while Jeter is at 366. When you factor in positions, Jeter actually has the advantage in offensive WAR -- 94.1 to 87.5 (including baserunning, where he has a 52-run advantage).

Jeter, however, gives all that away on defense. Baseball Reference grades him as 234 runs below an average shortstop over his career. There are many who won't buy that. Hey, Jeter won five Gold Gloves after all; we know Gold Glove voting can be a joke, but it's not like they've been handing them out to Delmon Young and Adam Dunn.

The one advantage Jeter has is durability; he has played 150 games in 13 seasons, plus two more with 148 and 149. Jones was durable early in his career, but after he reached 32, he topped out at 143 games and six times was below 130.

But has that durability been that much of an advantage? From age 32 to 40 (his final season), Jones posted 36.7 WAR while Jeter has posted 23.2 WAR from 32 to 39. Jeter, of course, has nearly one entire vacant season on his ledger after playing just 17 games last year. Overall, Jeter has played 103 more games in his career, with one season in hand.

I'd go with Jones, and I say it knowing that it's probably more difficult to find a good shortstop than a good third baseman. Makes for a fun what-if, though: If you're starting a team in 1995, whom do you take?

Best seasons by third basemen since 1980, at least according to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement formula:

1. Adrian Beltre, 2004 Dodgers: 9.6
2. Alex Rodriguez, 2007 Yankees: 9.4
3. Rodriguez, 2005 Yankees: 9.4
4. George Brett, 1980 Royals: 9.4
5. Scott Rolen, 2004 Cardinals: 9.1
6. Wade Boggs, 1985 Red Sox: 9.0
7. Mike Schmidt, 1980 Phillies: 8.8
8. Miguel Cabrera, 2013 Tigers: 8.8 (projected)
9. Wade Boggs, 1989 Red Sox: 8.4
10. David Wright, 2007 Mets: 8.3

Cabrera is certainly having a historic season with the bat. If we look strictly just at hitting by third basemen, the list looks like this in terms of runs produced compared to an average hitter from that season:

1. Cabrera, 2013: 79 (projected)
2. Rodriguez, 2007: 65
3. Rodriguez, 2005: 64
4. Brett, 1980: 61 (in just 117 games!)
5. Jim Thome, 1996 Indians: 60
6. Chipper Jones, 1999 Braves: 59
7. Chipper Jones, 2007 Braves: 58
8. Boggs, 1988 Red Sox: 57
9. Ken Caminiti, 1996 Padres: 56
10. Boggs, 1987 Red Sox: 56

Eric Karabell argues that the first list gives too much credit to defense; he may be right -- Rolen is credited with 3.3 WAR on defense alone in 2004, for example, although he doesn't top 2.0 in any other season. And it's true that none of the players on the first list were bad defensive players in those seasons, except Cabrera, who is credited with minus-1.1 WAR on defense so far. Boggs didn't have a great defensive reputation early in his career, although he later won two Gold Gloves with the Yankees, and Baseball-Reference credits him as a plus defender for most of his career (although not in the class of Rolen or Beltre).

Does Cabrera's offensive output make up for his subpar range at third base? In the video, we discuss Schmidt's 1980 season, when he hit .286/.380/.624. Schmidt posted a 1.004 OPS that year; the only other National Leaguers to reach even .900 were Keith Hernandez at .902 and Jack Clark at .900. Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, both playing in the Launching Pad in Atlanta, were the only other National Leaguers to reach 30 home runs.


Which third baseman had the best all-around season since 1980:


Discuss (Total votes: 4,911)

As impressive as Schmidt was compared to his peers, Baseball-Reference still credits him with "just" 47 runs produced above average, compared to Cabrera's projected total of 79. As Karabell says in the video, .286 is not the same as .359. But do Schmidt's defense and baserunning advantages make up for Cabrera's edge at the plate? I think it's close. Schmidt was still a very good third baseman in 1980 and B-R credits him with plus-11 runs, compared to Cabrera's minus-15 so far. B-R actually gives Cabrera the minor edge in baserunning, plus-1 to minus-1, although Schmidt did steal 12 bases that year.

Anyway, measuring defense remains imperfect. But in measuring the complete package of a player, it must be considered. Cabrera is having an all-time great offensive season, but it's a good debate whether it's the best all-around season by a third baseman of the past 35 years or so. (And to be fair, WAR isn't going to factor in that Cabrera is hitting an insane .422 with runners in scoring position.)

What do you think?
1965: Reds draft Johnny Bench
Back in the first draft, it was still possible to dig up a relatively unknown kid from rural Oklahoma. Bench wasn't selected until the second round -- the 36th player overall -- and seven other catchers went ahead of him. Jim McLaughlin, the Reds' farm director in 1965, in Kevin Kerrane's classic book on scouting, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle":
A friend of mine with another club said, "You better send someone down to Binger, Oklahoma, to look at this kid Bench. We're not gonna draft him because the general manager's seen another he likes up in New England." ... They took that New England catcher on the first round, and the kid never got above Double A. And we took Bench on the second round. It was kind of a poker game. Nobody else knew much about him; his team hadn't played many games, and our scout was usually the only one there, so we could wait. After the draft Bill DeWitt, my boss, said, "I've never heard of him." I said, "I know you haven't, but you will. And that's why you hired me -- to hear about kids like this one."

Does McLaughlin's story check out? Sort of. There was no catcher from New England drafted in the first round, but the Orioles did take a catcher from Dartmouth in the second round -- one pick ahead of Bench. As to the claim that nobody else knew about Bench, at least one other team saw him: the Dodgers drafted a high school teammate of Bench's in the seventh round, but passed twice on selecting Bench.

1966: Reggie Jackson falls into A's lap
In one of the more famous draft blunders, the Mets' had the No. 1 pick and passed on Arizona State outfielder Jackson to select a high school catcher named Steve Chilcott, who would battle injuries and never reach the majors. "It was a position pick," said Joe McDonald, a Mets executive at the time. "We did not feel we had an adequate catching prospect in the organization."

1966: Braves draft Tom Seaver
The Braves? Yep. Atlanta selected Seaver in the now non-existent January secondary phase of the draft (for players who had previously been drafted). Seaver, pitching at USC, had been drafted the previous June by the Dodgers, but didn't sign after the Dodgers turned down his $70,000 asking price. The Braves took him with the 20th pick of the January phase, setting off a weird chain of events. The Braves signed Seaver for $40,000, but commissioner Spike Eckert ruled Seaver was ineligible to sign because USC had already played two exhibition games (Seaver didn't pitch). But the NCAA then declared Seaver ineligible, because he had signed a pro contract. So Eckert ruled that any team willing to match the Braves' offer would enter a lottery. The Mets, Phillies and Indians matched, and the Mets won the lottery.

1971: George Brett and Mike Schmidt drafted back-to-back
Pretty cool that arguably the two greatest third basemen in history were drafted the same year with consecutive picks. The catch: They went in the second round, Brett and then Schmidt. The Royals' first-round pick was a pitcher named Roy Branch, who briefly reached the majors but never won a game; the Phillies' pick was Roy Thomas, who had a marginal eight-year career as a reliever, although never pitched in the majors for the Phillies.

1976: Trammell and Morris ... and Ozzie (sort of)
In 1976, the Tigers had one of the great drafts ever, selecting Steve Kemp in the January phase and then Alan Trammell (second round), Dan Petry (fourth round), and Jack Morris (fifth round). Trammell and Morris aren't in the Hall of Fame yet, but both could get there someday. No team has ever drafted (and signed) two future Hall of Famers in the same draft. The kicker: They also drafted Ozzie Smith in the seventh round, but he didn't sign, and the Padres selected him the following year.

1987: Mariners draft Ken Griffey Jr.
The Mariners owned the first overall pick, and penurious Mariners owner George Argyros wanted the club to draft college pitcher Mike Harkey, because he would be easier to sign and presumably quicker to reach the majors. Scouting director Roger Jongewaard won out in the end. (Harkey went fourth overall, to the Cubs.)

1988: Dodgers draft Mike Piazza ... in 62nd round
Maybe the most famous late-round pick, Piazza was the Dodgers' final pick that year -- the 1,390th pick overall out of 1,395.

1990: Braves land Chipper Jones
Hard-throwing high school right-hander Todd Van Poppel was the consensus top talent in the 1990 draft -- "the best pitching prospect ever" label had been slapped on him -- but his declaration that he didn't want to sign and instead attend the University of Texas scared teams off him. So the Braves took Jones, which worked out pretty well for them.

2000: Cardinals draft Yadier Molina
The 2000 draft as one of the worst ever -- after top pick Adrian Gonzalez (by the Marlins), the rest of the top 15 were Adam Johnson, Luis Montanez, Mike Stodolka, Justin Wayne, Rocco Baldelli, Matt Harrington, Matt Wheatland, Mark Phillips, Joe Torres, Dave Krynzel, Joe Borchard, Shaun Boyd, Beau Hale and Chase Utley (OK, finally one that panned out). Keep that list in mind when you get excited about your team's first-round pick this year. The only other first-round of note that year was Adam Wainwright (by the Braves). He would eventually get traded to St. Louis, where he would team with a young catcher from Puerto Rico also drafted in 2000.

2009: Nationals draft Stephen Strasburg
The story here is how the Mariners kicked away the No. 1 overall selection. The Nationals headed into the final weekend with a record of 59-99, having gone 3-11 over their previous 14 games. The Mariners were 58-101 and had lost 14 of 15. This was tanking at its best. All the Mariners had to do was lose one game to lock up the first pick. One loss. Easy, right? Instead the Mariners sweep the A's. The Nationals lose all three. Josh Outman's throwing error sets up Yuniesky Betancourt's two-run go-ahead in triple in the fifth inning of the season finale. In other words, if Outman doesn't throw the ball away, Strasburg might be in a Mariners uniform instead of a Nationals one. (With the second pick, the Mariners selected Dustin Ackley.)

Dear Chipper: Tulo not moving from short

May, 18, 2013
Troy TulowitzkiJohn Leyba/Getty ImagesDefining a great all-around shortstop can be rather subjective -- just ask Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki.

ST. LOUIS -- Troy Tulowitzki belongs on the baseball field. Whether a product of self-determination or God-given talent or a little of both, he was made to play shortstop. Where other shortstops simply take their position on the field, Tulowitzki becomes one with his.

As the Rockies go on to the field, Tulowitzki kicks the dirt with his cleats, backward and forward, making a path on the infield. It's ready. Then he spits in his glove, wipes it with his throwing hand and punches the inside. Now his glove is ready, too. He is standing where he has wanted to be since he was a kid: at shortstop, a man with his glove and the infield dirt.

"I think I just enjoy being out there," he said.

Tulowitzki, now in his eighth season in the majors, is off to a great start, batting .319 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs, and hitting .389 with two outs and runners in scoring position. "Usually in my career I struggled early in the season, so it's been nice to get off to a good start and not have an uphill battle," he said.

It wasn't Tulowitzki's bat that generated an interesting tweet this season, however, but his defense. Chipper Jones recently provided his thoughts on the best shortstop in the game:

Then later, after what we can assume were many responses from fans saying Tulowitzki is the best shortstop:

Tulowitzki was aware of what Jones tweeted.

"I don’t know why he tweeted that. Maybe he's a little bit bored or something, just watching the games," Tulowitzki said jokingly. "But Chipper is a great guy, someone who I have a lot of respect for."

Most consider Tulowitzki the best all-around shortstop in the game, and he won Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011. But although offense is easy to measure, fielding is more difficult. Between fielding percentage, range factor, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, there are many ways to evaluate a player's defense.

Jones' tweet is a great example of the difficulty in using the eye test to evaluate a fielder. Everyone sees things differently. Even the statistics disagree. Simmons leads in defensive runs saved (plus-11; Tulowitzki is second among shortstops at plus-7) and in UZR, where Tulowitzki ranks 10th.

"We are never going to be able to replace or not utilize true eye scouting," said Justin Hollander, director of baseball operations for the Angels. "I think what the defensive metrics will do is allow us to either verify the eye test or make us question the eye test and have some sort of comparison between the two. I don't think it's a replacement. It's just what we have now we can do better on the data that we have, and I think we will."

Suppose a ball comes off a bat toward Tulowitzki at 104 mph and he gets to it. Then suppose the next inning the ball comes off the bat toward Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma at 94 and he gets to it, as well. It might look as if both fielded their positions well, but there's a difference in the range and reaction time needed to make each play.

"It's not good enough to say the ball was hit in this spot and the fielder didn't get to it so therefore he either does or does not have the range of someone else," Hollander says. "Well, where did he start? Where was he lined up? How quick was his reaction? What was the velocity off the bat?"

What will it take to have the perfect fielding statistic?

"We all are sort of sitting here anxiously awaiting FIELDf/x to roll out," Hollander said. "I think what we are really missing, and one thing that we would love to see, is more precision with the whole game tied together.

"So, where the fielder was exactly the moment the pitch was released, what the exit speed of the ball was off the bat, what angle the ball came off the bat, how fast the fielder reacted once the ball came off the bat or even before the ball came off the bat. And then, what line or what route [the fielder] took to the ball. And you know then you can measure arm strength, you can measure release time from getting the ball from your glove or if you barehanded it out of your hand, so I think those are things that would tie the whole game together."

At a recent game in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter hit a line drive over Tulowitzki's head. Tulowitzki almost caught it. He jumped and just missed it. Should he have caught the ball? Right now, we don’t know.

That scenario represents one of the most important missing elements from fielding statistics.

"There's an episode of 'Seinfeld' where Jerry says, 'Oh, little Jerry Seinfeld just ran from my place to Newman's place in 30 seconds.' And they smile and somebody says 'Is that good?' And everybody says, 'I don’t know.'

"So we need to develop a baseline for what is a good [fielder] and what is great; what is average and what is below average. If we start getting all of that information, which we will have with FIELDf/x over the course of seasons, not months or half seasons, we can start to develop baselines for what is normal and what is extraordinary."

Range factor is, simply, assists + putouts per nine innings. It's plays made. Tulowitzki led the NL in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 and ranks second this season. How many shortstops would have caught Carpenter's line drive? Maybe none. Tulo came close.

"I've got Fielding Bible awards, stuff that I don't understand," Tulowitzki said. "These zone ratings and things like that, there's so many different numbers you can look at. I think the one thing you can't tell is the anticipation, where the [shortstops] are setting up, just the smartness of it. It's not even on defense. You can really help by going and telling a pitcher to calm down. I've been there before. That's the stuff that is not going to come up on the stats sheet at all."

Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Francis said Tulowitzki is always thinking on the field, always trying to find that edge.

"He's one of the best shortstops in baseball, so knowing that he's behind you certainly gives you a lot of confidence to let the hitters hit it, knowing that he's going to make most of the plays behind you," Francis said. "Not only that, when he makes trips to the mound at certain times, you can tell he knows what's going on in the game, when he's just giving you a rest ... things like that."

For Tulowitzki, the model shortstop is Derek Jeter.

"Obviously I idolize him," Tulowitzki said. "He's someone that's a leader, a clutch player, just very smart. There's a reason why he plays short at the age he is; it's just because he's very headsy."

Tulowitzki, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is built like Jeter. Watch Tulowitzki take ground balls before the game and you'll notice he has similar movements and a fluid motion like Jeter does when he’s fielding. Jeter and Tulowitzki seem to have the same sense of timing. (Of course, the defensive metrics have long suggested Jeter's range is subpar.) Is there something he can see as the ball comes off the bat?

"I think anticipation is the best word to describe it. Anticipating where the ball would be, knowing what the hitters in this league like to do. I can position myself better than some guys. I'm a bigger guy than a lot of those guys. ... The athletic ability does help, but then the downside of it is being so big, I think it's taken its toll on me with some injuries, but it's the only position I know. I feel like I'm the most valuable there."

Although 38-year-old Jeter has cemented himself as one of the best shortstops of all time, Tulowitzki is 10 years younger and has had some injuries in the past few years. This is why Jones' tweet about Tulowitzki moving to third raises an interesting point.

Tulowitzki said that if there is ever a point in his career when it would benefit the team more for him to play third base, "I'll be all for it."

"But now I'm more valuable at shortstop than I am anywhere else," he said. "We have a great young third baseman (in Nolan Arenado). I'm still one of the better [shortstops], so I don't think there's a reason to make the switch. The other thing is, my injuries haven't happened on defense. They've been more running the basepaths. Things like that. So I feel like I should stay there."

As a shortstop, Tulowitzki said, you are in control of so much on the field, and he enjoys that. He says great shortstops are leaders on defense, and, during the games, he's constantly talking on the field, putting guys in certain spots.

"He's a very unique player," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think there was a trend there several years ago where there were some offensive shortstops. People thought that was going to be the new wave; I disagree. I think the position is far too demanding to expect guys to contribute that type of offense. Tulo is a very unique player. He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the entire game, and he hits in the middle of the lineup."

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chipper JonesDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAtlanta's Chipper Jones, in his final season, has a career .304 average with 468 home runs.
Jayson Stark has a great story on Chipper Jones, who will be returning to the postseason for the first time since 2005 (he was injured when the Braves made it in 2010), here in his final season. What defines a player, a future Hall of Famer like Chipper? Sure, there's the stat line, but ultimately it's the memories and the moments. I'm not a Braves fan, so don't have the wealth of memories of those who live and die with the club, so I hope this short list does some justice.

5. The years in left field.

Remember those two seasons Chipper played left field so the Braves could play Vinny Castilla at third base? Me neither. Let's move on and pretend this never happened.

4. Chasing .400.

The Braves' dynasty of the Chipper-Glavine-Smoltz-Maddux era finally ended with that memorable 18-inning playoff loss to the Astros in 2005. Chipper kept hitting, but with the Braves out of the playoff races, we kind of forgot about him. Then in 2008 he had that amazing start and was hitting .400 as late as June 18. Suddenly, those outside Atlanta remembered how great he was and realized he'd be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Michael Bamberger in Sports Illustrated that June:
    It helps that he has some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, reading the crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, "You can read that?" Jones thought, You can't? He can remember hundreds, maybe thousands of at bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a game in which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two or three of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like a detective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing a curve, Jones knows it.

Jones would finish at .364, winning his only batting title.

3. Two home runs in his first playoff game.

Here's the kind of confidence Bobby Cox had in his rookie third baseman back in 1995: Chipper was hitting third in the Braves' lineup. In that first game against the Rockies, Chipper hit a home run to right field off Kevin Ritz leading off the sixth inning, cutting Colorado's lead to 3-2. In the ninth, with the game now tied 4-4, he belted a two-out home run off Curtis Leskanic to give the Braves a 5-4 lead, raising both arms above his head when the ball cleared the fence.

"I don't even think I realized what I had done," Chipper said at the time. "It was like I was running with my feet two feet off the ground."

But those home runs weren't all. In the eighth inning, Andres Galarraga smashed a ball off pitcher Greg McMichael that Jones made a terrific bare-handed play on, getting a force play at second. The Rockies would score once that inning, but Jones' play helped prevent an even bigger rally.

"He saved the ballgame with that play," Cox said then. "Play of the night."

The Braves went on to win the World Series. He's still searching for a second ring.

2. Home runs to beat the Phillies, 2012.

OK, I'm cheating. These are two moments, both from 2012. The first one came on May 2, ending one of the craziest games of the year, a 15-13 Braves win in 11 innings. (The Braves had scored five runs in the eighth to take the lead, only to see the Phillies score one in the ninth to tie it.)

"I wish everyone could experience that feeling right there," Jones said on a postgame on-field TV interview, trying to catch his breath after enduring the mosh pit at home plate. "That game, without a doubt, takes the cake as far as my career goes."

Then on Sept. 2, came maybe the biggest win of the Braves' season. Trailing 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth, a Phillies error with two outs kept the inning going, bringing up Chipper with the score 7-5, two on, and Jonathan Papelbon on the hill. David Lee writes for the Capital Avenue Club blog. Here's what he sent me:
    I've been fortunate enough to watch his at-bats every day for nearly my entire life, and I've reached the point where I know his history against certain pitchers, what worked/didn't work against them, what pitches he's looking for in certain situations, identifying when he's looking for a certain pitch, etc. I've called countless Chipper hits and home runs over the past few years because of this. A perfect example is the Phillies home run. He got his fastball off Papelbon and just missed it, fouling it back. I knew if he got that pitch again, he wouldn't miss it. He got it one pitch later. My hands were in the air before he finished his swing.

David compiled a list of Chipper's "biggest" games via Win Probability Added. That game ranks No. 1 in his career.

Here's the video of the Sept. 2 home run and here's the one from May along with the interview after that game.

1. September heroics in 1999 against the Mets.

In late September, the Braves and Mets were battling for the NL East title when they met for a three-game series in Atlanta. The Braves entered 1 game up. In the first game, Chipper hit solo home runs off Rick Reed in the first and Dennis Cook in the eighth. Braves win 2-1. The next night, the Braves win 5-2 as Chipper hits a two-run shot off Orel Hershiser in the first. In the third game, his three-run homer off Al Leiter gave the Braves a 4-2 lead.

Mark Bradley in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the third game:

Tom Glavine
      thought. Not this time. "You see him come up in that situation," Glavine said, "and you figure he can't do it again today."

Yes, Greg Maddux thought. "I figured he was. You grow up in Vegas, you learn to play the streaks."

Nobody expected it. Everybody expected it. Such is the majesty of Chipper Jones that he leaves you awaiting, having already done so much. ... Baseball is billed as a sport of failure. Chipper Jones has failed so seldom of late that he has ceased being a good player on a streak. He has become a great one at a pressurized time when greatness rises to the level of the legendary.

It was a series sweep, the division title wrapped up, the MVP Award eventually won. When the two clubs met again in the NLCS, needless to say Chipper didn't get a lot of pitches to hit. He walked nine times and the Braves won in six.

Which is why, as Chipper walks away in a few days or a few weeks, there is one group happy to see him head off into retirement: Mets fans.

A night in baseball: What we learned

September, 25, 2012

One year ago -- 368 days to be exact -- Freddie Freeman batted in the bottom of the 13th inning with one out and grounded a 3-2 pitch from the Phillies' David Herndon to first base. John Mayberry Jr. started a 3-6-3 double play and the Braves' season was over in a 4-3 defeat, the final gut-punch in a horrific final month that saw Atlanta go 9-18 in September and lose its final five games to miss the playoffs by one win.

So maybe it was fitting that Freeman was the player who launched the Braves into the 2012 postseason, hitting a dramatic game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday night, an arching blast over the 400-foot sign in dead center that gave Atlanta a 4-3 win over Miami.

Maybe it was fitting that Craig Kimbrel, the closer who blew a ninth-inning lead in that 162nd game a year ago, pitched a scoreless ninth to pick up the win.

It certainly was fitting that Chipper Jones, who went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the 2011 finale, started the rally with a leadoff double. Old man Chipper, still stinging line drives all over the place.

And needless to say, it was no surprise that Kris Medlen, the Braves' good-luck charm, started the game. He didn't get the decision and even proved human -- allowing three runs! -- but the Braves have now won 22 consecutive games he's started, going back to 2010, tying the all-time mark with Whitey Ford's Yankees and Carl Hubbell's Giants.

"We are shooting for the stars," Jones said after the game. "It makes it all worth it. I'm happier for these guys because they worked hard."

What did we learn on this evening? That maybe the Braves should start Medlen in the wild-card game ... and Game 1 of the Division Series ... and Game 2 ... and ... OK, we learned that Braves fan can finally breathe. No collapse this year. And we learned that Medlen is still the hottest pitcher in the game -- 7 innings, 5 hits, no walks, 8 strikeouts -- and continues to give Atlanta ace-level performance.

Here are a few other things we learned:

Anibal Sanchez puts the pressure on the White Sox
Sanchez delivered one of the dominant outings of the season with his fifth career shutout, a 10-strikeout, 3-hit, 105-pitch gem. His Game Score of 90 was just the fourth of 90-plus by a Tigers starter since 2010 (some guy named Verlander had the other three) and just the 17th such start in the majors in 2012. More importantly, it moved the Tigers into a first-place tie with the White Sox, who had lost earlier in the day, their sixth loss in seven games.

Is it panic time in Chicago? Robin Ventura announced that he'll start Hector Santiago on Wednesday, pushing Jake Peavy back to start the series opener against the Rays on Thursday. Peavy hasn't been the dominant pitcher in the second half (4.20 ERA) that he was the first three months, so maybe an extra day of rest is a smart move, especially since he got roughed up in his previous start. Still, the sinking Sox turn to a rookie making just his third major league start. Things are starting to look gloomy in ChiTown.

David Price might have locked up the Cy Young Award
Umm, remember the Tampa Bay Rays? The Little Team That Could before the Orioles and A's became the Little Teams That Could. They were declared dead after getting swept in Baltimore, losing two of three to the Yankees and then two to the Red Sox, but here are they are, winners of six in a row after Price struck out a season-high 13 in a 5-2 complete-game win over Boston. Price improved to 19-5 and leads the American League with his 2.56 ERA.

The Rays are hitting .346 over this six-game stretch and trimmed another game off their deficit to the wild-card-leading Orioles after they were blanked by the Blue Jays. Is this right time to remind Orioles fans that the Rays and O's finish the season with a three-game series in Tampa? Not that right time? I mean, the Orioles -- after all this, after finally earning respect -- they're not going to blow it, are they?

Johnny Cueto had an important outing for the Reds
You don't want to read too much into mini-slumps this time of year, but the Reds' ace had been a little shaky his past few outings. Cueto quelled concerns with seven terrific innings (7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 SO) to beat the Brewers for his 19th win -- the first Reds pitcher to win that many since Danny Jackson in 1988 and first right-hander since Jack Billingham in 1974. More good news for the Reds: Aroldis Chapman also pitched his second game since his 12-day layoff and threw 10 fastballs in a 1-2-3 inning -- 100, 100, 99, 98, 98, 98, 97, 97, 96 and 95.

Don't be alarmed by another Nationals loss
The Nationals are now 4-7 over their past 11 games. Davey Johnson has said he's more concerned with resting players than beating out the Reds for the top seed in the National League. Should Nationals fans be worried about this little slump? Not really. Late-season hot streaks or cold streaks are overrated. I looked at the World Series champs since 1996 and looked at how they played during the entire season, over the final month (September or September/October) and over the final 10 games.

Season: .586 winning percentage
Final month: .575 winning percentage
Final 10 games: .587 winning percentage

This is why you shouldn't pay much attention to what happens down the stretch. World Series winners haven't been any "hotter" down the stretch than they've played all season. Mixed in those World Series winners are the 2006 Cardinals (12-17 the final month, 3-7 in their final 10 games); the 2002 Angels (4-6 their final 10); the 2000 Yankees (13-18 and 2-8); and the 1997 Marlins (12-15 and 3-7). Yes, the past four World Series winners went a combined .667 the final month, but that doesn't tell which other "hot" teams didn't win the World Series. Plus, the Nationals are still 13-10 in September. They're fine.

Brandon Moss might have saved the A's season with a spectacular catch
The situation: bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two out, Sean Doolittle versus Elvis Andrus. Then Moss does this.

Jorge Coutares is Dominican, right?
No? What, he's Greek? His name is spelled George Kottaras? He just won a big game for the A's? Have they even invented sticks and balls in Greece yet?

Angels tie record with 20 strikeouts in nine-inning game
Zack Greinke fanned 13 in five innings against the Mariners but had to leave after throwing 110 pitches. Ernesto Frieri struck out John Jaso for the final out in a 5-4 victory. Amazingly, the Mariners tied only their own club record. The Angels remain just two games behind the A's. If Oakland goes 3-5 over its final eight games, the Angels have to go 6-2 to pass them. Good news for the A's: The Mariners send King Felix to the mound on Wednesday ... which means he won't start against the A's over the weekend, making his final start Monday against the Angels.

Anibal SanchezAP Photo/Paul SancyaJust ask Anibal Sanchez: 'Tis the season for more than a little rational exuberance.
From David O'Brien's story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend, Chipper Jones talks about the wild-card game:
"I think it’s stupid, to be honest with you. But Major Lague Baseball wants a bunch of teams in the playoffs. There’s nothing like cut-throat baseball for the fans. And people love that 163rd regular-season game. They’ve loved it in the past. I’m sure that’s probably what’s promoted a second wild-card team. I wish they would’ve done it a year earlier so we would have had a chance last year. But it is what it is."

"You say to yourself, we could possibly have the second- or third-best record in the National League when the season’s over and we have to play a one-game playoff just to get in. That doesn’t seem fair because anything can happen. Now if you were to say the two wild-card teams will play a best two-out-of-three, I’d be OK with that. We play three-game series all the time, and we concentrate on winning those series all the time. I think it’s more fair from a standpoint that anything can happen in one game -- a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office ... at least in a two-of-three-game series you have some sort of leeway."

I happen to agree with Jones. We're likely to see some scenarios this year that will possibly validate Jones' ideas and point out some flaws in this system. The Braves are currently 6 games up on the Cardinals in the wild-card race. That could easily be 7 or 8 by the end of the regular season. But all the Cards have to do is win one game and the Braves will go home.


Which playoff system do you prefer?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,203)

Over in the American League, the AL Central winner is likely to end up with the seventh-best record in the league, meaning two teams with better records will go home and two teams with better records will play in a one-game do-or-die effort. To make matters even less fair, the Tigers or White Sox will get to align their starting rotation, barring a one-game tiebreaker between the two clubs. Right now, both clubs have their aces, Justin Verlander and Chris Sale, lined up to pitch the first game of the Division Series. Meanwhile, due to the scheduling quirk in this year's postseason, the AL Central winner will get to open at home.

So imagine you're the Orioles and you edge out the Yankees to win the AL East. Your possible award: A trip to Detroit to face Verlander in Game 1 of the Division Series. Lose that you and you have to win three of four games to move on.

It's just a reminder that baseball's World Series trophy isn't so much about crowning the best team in baseball, but about crowning the team that survives the random nature of October baseball.

Anyway, what do you think of Chipper's comments? Which playoff system would you prefer?
Atlanta Braves fans, you can rest easy. Your team will make the playoffs. There will be no collapse like a season ago. In fact, I suddenly like the Braves' chances to come out of the National League.

The Braves' sweep of the Washington Nationals may not have been the most important result of the weekend, but it was the most impressive. On Friday, Kris Medlen delivered as dominant a performance as any pitcher this season, striking out 13 over seven innings (surrendering only a Bryce Harper home run). The Braves won that game in the bottom of the ninth. On Saturday, the Braves won 5-4 with a run in the bottom of the eighth as Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward homered earlier off Edwin Jackson. On Sunday, with rain coming down at times, Mike Minor outdueled Gio Gonzalez, who was seeking his 20th win, in a 5-1 victory.

For the Braves, it eases any big concerns about a 2011 repeat. They're now 7 ahead of the Cardinals for the first wild card and 8 ahead of the Dodgers. But sweeping the Nationals should add a little confidence about where this team is at right now. While they may not catch the Nationals for the NL East title -- they're 5.5 games back -- here are six reasons the Braves could be October's NL surprise.

1. Kris Medlen in the coin flip game.

Every team wants to avoid that one-game wild-card insanity -- or coin flip game, as Joe Sheehan termed it -- but at least the Braves can line up the hottest pitcher in the game to start. Since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen is 7-0 in nine starts with a 0.86 ERA and .490 OPS. The Braves have won all nine games as Medlen has allowed just eight runs. Remember, the postseason isn't about determining the best team in baseball; it's about determining the best team in baseball in October. Is there another starter you'd want out there right now?

2. Craig Kimbrel and the bullpen.

Is there another closer you'd want out there right now? After winning Friday's game (three punchouts) and saving Saturday's (three more punchouts), Kimbrel got a welcomed day off on Sunday. After tiring down the stretch as a rookie in 2011, Kimbrel has been handled very carefully by manager Fredi Gonzalez. He's on pace to throw just 61.1 innings, 16 fewer than a year ago. You can actually argue that he's been underutilized, but at least it means he's dominating down the stretch. Kimbrel's numbers are sick; he's like Danny Almonte playing against 12-year-olds. Batters are hitting .122 off him; he's struck out over half the batters he's faced. You know who's done that before? Nobody. Aroldis Chapman is No. 2 all time (50 innings pitched) and he's at 45.4 percent this year.

But it's not just Kimbrel. Jonny Venters struggled in the first half, allowing 12 extra-base hits and 5.25 ERA, but has a 2.20 ERA and no extra-base hits allowed in the second half. Throw in Eric O'Flaherty and Luis Avilan and the Braves have three solid lefties in front of Kimbrel. Sidearmer Cory Gearrin -- one home run over the past two seasons between Triple-A and the majors -- doesn't have many big league innings but could prove to be a key righty in October. It's a deep pen with baseball's best closer in a year in which a lot of the potential playoff teams are very shaky in the ninth inning.

3. Mike Minor is on a roll.

There were calls in the first half to send Minor back to the minors but the Braves stuck with him, as much due to Brandon Beachy's injury and Jair Jurrjens' terrible pitching as much as their belief in him. Homer-prone in the first half -- he had a four-homer game and two three-homer games -- Minor has a 2.28 ERA over his past 12 starts with six home runs allowed. Medlen, Tim Hudson, Minor and Paul Maholm or Tommy Hanson suddenly looks like a solid playoff rotation.

4. Andrelton Simmons is back.

The 22-year-old rookie returned last week. Before his broken pinky, Simmons had wowed with his glove and impressed with his bat. Paul Janish played a nice shortstop in his absence, but Simmons provides a spark at the bottom of the Braves' lineup. They'd been hitting seven guys without him; now they have an eight-man lineup again.

5. Jason Heyward.

The bat. The arm. The range. The grizzled 22-year-old veteran has been lost in the Mike Trout/Harper adulation, which means October may be his time to capture the spotlight.

6. Chipper Jones.

Jones can still play: .297/.382/.477, 14 home runs (although just one in his past 75 at-bats). Win one for the Chipper? I think Chipper may win one more for the Braves. Sentimental story lines don't usually end the right way, but this one is gaining steam as we head to the final chapter.

The second wild card is a goofy, ridiculous idea that goes against everything baseball history stands for: That the regular season is the ultimate test of a team's ability, strength and toughness. To get to the playoffs, you have to prove yourself over 162 games; and to get there, baseball requires a higher standard of excellence than other sports.

Which is one reason I didn't like the second wild card; it lowers that bar. And once you're there after playing 162 games, you get one game, do-or-die, to remain alive?

I still have my doubts, but in 2012, I'll admit: The second wild card has added an extra layer of fun.

I'm pretty sure the Milwaukee Brewers would agree. I'm not exactly sure when the Brewers hit their low point. Maybe it was when Rickie Weeks swung at this pitch, but more likely it was July 23, 24 and 25, when they lost three games in Philadelphia by identical 7-6 scores, all in the late innings. In the first game, Francisco Rodriguez allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, the Phillies scored six runs in the eighth inning. The day after that, the Brewers scored a run in the 10th but gave up two in the bottom of the inning. Two days later, Zack Greinke was traded.

And why not? The Brewers were 45-54, 10 games out of the second wild card, the magic of 2011's playoff run a distant memory.

Yet here we are, 44 games later, and the Brewers are three games behind the suddenly plummeting St. Louis Cardinals for that suddenly enticing second wild card. On Wednesday, the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves thanks to an eight-run explosion in the fifth inning, all the runs in Milwaukee's 8-2 victory. The Brewers are 18-5 over their past 23 games, hitting .289 with 36 home runs and 32 stolen bases while averaging 6.1 runs per game. The pitching has been impressive, of course, with a 3.33 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 208 innings.

The fifth inning came from nowhere. Paul Maholm, who has been so solid for Atlanta since coming over from the Cubs, was sailing along with just three hits allowed through four innings. The inning began with a Chipper Jones fielding error, Yovani Gallardo's sacrifice and Norichika Aoki's infield single that Jones made a diving stop on but couldn't make a throw. Up stepped Weeks, the 2011 All-Star whose averaged had sunk to .158 on June 10 and remained under .200 through July 24. Since then, however, he's hit .308, slugged over .500 and he hit a 2-1 fastball from Maholm into the bullpen in right-center for his sixth home run of September.

The Brewers weren't done. Ryan Braun -- can we finally start talking about him as an MVP candidate? -- singled. Aramis Ramirez reached on another infield single that Jones couldn't handle, Jonathan Lucroy singled just past a diving Paul Janish at shortstop, Logan Schafer walked and Travis Ishikawa cleared the bases with a double over the head of Jason Heyward on a pretty good low-and-away slider from Maholm. That brought in Cristhian Martinez and Gallardo finished off the inning with an RBI double.

Hey, it was one of those innings -- two infield hits, a single just past Janish, a double just out of Heyward's reach. It's one of those innings that when they happen in September you start believing in things like luck, karma and chasing down the Cardinals.

Gallardo, in the absence of Greinke, has stepped up since that trade. Other than one bad seven-run outing against the Pirates, he's been terrific over nine starts, giving up two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and three in the eighth. The Brewers have won all nine of those games. And here's a stat that may surprise: Gallardo leads the majors with 24 quality starts, one more than R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw. Does that make him a Cy Young candidate? No, but he's provided that one consistent presence from an Opening Day rotation that saw Chris Narveson go down after two starts, Randy Wolf pitch his way out of town with a 5.69 ERA, Shaun Marcum miss time and Greinke get traded. The Brewers even had their own less-publicized Operation Shutdown when rookie Mark Rogers, who went 3-1 with a 3.92 in seven starts after his recall from the minors, was shut down after his Aug. 31 start.

* * * *

OK, maybe this is where I admit I picked the Brewers to reach the World Series. It was an admittedly left-field prediction, but going out on a limb with at least one pick is part of the fun of spring-training prognosticating. But one reason I believed in them was I did think their offense would be fine, even minus Prince Fielder. Indeed, the Brewers have scored the most runs in the National League and one big reason has been Ramirez, who essentially replaced Fielder in the lineup. Compare their numbers:

Fielder, 2011: .299/.415/.566, 38 home runs, 36 doubles
Ramirez, 2012: .296/.361/.529, 23 home runs, 44 doubles

Pretty close, and considering Ramirez plays third base, you can actually argue that Ramirez has been more valuable than Fielder (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement: Fielder 4.3 in 2011, Ramirez 4.7 so far.)

What I didn't account for was Wolf pitching so poorly and the bullpen duo of Rodriguez and John Axford developing severe cases of pyromania. The Brewers have blown 10 games they led entering the ninth inning. That's terrible beyond words: Entering Wednesday's games, all 30 MLB teams were a collective 1842-91 when leading after nine innings. That's an average of three such losses per team; the Brewers had 10 percent of those defeats all by themselves.

So the Brewers can score. They have an ace. Axford has shaved off his 1890s 'stache, reclaimed his closer role and allowed one hit over his past nine appearances that resulted in eight saves and a win.

Are the Brewers a great team? No, they're 72-71. But this goofy race for the second wild card makes them playoff contenders. Their next six games are against the Mets and slumping Pirates.

Like I said: I dislike the second wild card. And yet I love it.

Now, about those Phillies ...

Nori AokiBenny Sieu/US PresswireNori Aoki's legging out an infield hit is the Brewers' case in point: They're not out yet.

Is the stretch Freese's time of year?

September, 2, 2012

Every season has its bright lights, new and old alike. Take the question of whose star burns brightest at the hot corner in the National League, right now. David Wright might be the obvious answer for best ballplayer at third base, but playing for the Mets, he might as well be shining down on the rest of us from the galaxy Irrelevant, light years away from a pennant race. Chipper Jones would probably be the next-best answer, but he’s a month and change from going nova and calling it quits, a superstar so bright he’ll be putting people in the shade from Cooperstown for decades to come.

Instead, right now, as the shadows of the season grow long, the question might be whether it’s that time of year again, that time when it will be David Freese’s star that burns brightest. That’s because the hero of last October’s action for the Cardinals could not have chosen a better time to reignite than on Saturday, because now, as then, the Cardinals absolutely need him.

Against the Nationals, Freese ripped a second-inning two-run homer that helped run Jordan Zimmermann out of the game early, then plated the deciding score in the ninth off Nationals set-up man Drew Storen in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory. It was a nice time for Freese to step up for all sorts of reasons: He helped end a four-game losing streak, he fueled an offense that had been limited to a lone run in those games, and he broke with his own recent bad run, as he’s struggled with a .650 OPS over the previous four weeks.

Last year might have represented Freese’s coming-out party, when he starred in October for the eventual champs by plating 21 October runs while clouting five homers, coming right on the heels of a nice September run (.844 OPS). Well-timed, sure, and maybe just that. But nice to have if he's on your team.

But coming-out or not, Freese's arrival has been something of a slow-moving development because of a career frequently interrupted by injury: He lost the second half of 2009 to surgery on his left foot, more than half of 2010 to ankle surgery on his right foot, and almost a third of the 2011 season to surgery to repair a broken hamate. As a result, Freese is already in his age-29 season, so there is no better time for him to blaze away than right now.

His recent slump aside, he’s nevertheless in the front rank of third basemen in this or any league. Despite the injuries he’s been remarkably strong year-to-year in his three full-ish seasons in the majors, never delivering a BABIP below .356 -- no, everybody does not inevitably “regress” to .300 -- while putting up career-best power (.172 Isolated Power) and a career-best walk rate (over 9 percent) in 2012. Hitting as many line drives as he strikes out -- 22 percent of the time for both -- puts Freese in rare company with younger sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals haven’t had a long-term answer at third base since they traded away Scott Rolen, and one of Freese’s many tests is whether he’ll be more like Rolen and less like another injury-prone temporary fix like Troy Glaus was for the Cardinals, briefly -- good to rent, but not reliably available. If he stays healthy, Freese could be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s, because you marry his past consistency with regular availability, and it's easy to anticipate good things.

In the meantime, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at repeating last year’s 18-8 September run to get to October, they need Freese to heat up. Sure, they need Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to deliver as well -- but both have struggled badly to get on base, putting up OBPs in the .260s in the last month. But a strong offense fires on more than one piston, or two. The ill-timed loss of Rafael Furcal to a torn-up elbow is a bad break, but even then, the Cardinals’ lineup has plenty of potential heroes. Allen Craig could fend off his own lengthy injury history and star down the stretch again. The Cards can hope that Lance Berkman’s comeback from an injured knee isn’t limited to sporadic spot starts and a whole lot of pinch-hitting. They’ll need Yadier Molina to bounce back from his most recent home-plate collision and continue crank out his own brand of MVP-level production from behind the plate.

But if now is the time that Freese fires his star back up again, it’ll make one cold August a quickly and easily forgotten memory. As much as the sabermetric community has happily helped kill off notions like clutch hitting as some innate, separate skill from being able to just flat-out hit, you can’t blame a guy like Freese for becoming famous if, now as then, he’s ready to run for the stretch, and perhaps blaze as brightly as any other star.

Bryce HarperBrad Mills/US PresswireJust what the Cardinals need, more home-plate mayhem for Yadier Molina his first night back.

Let's be selfish about Chipper Jones

August, 17, 2012
Chipper Jones said he was calling it quits after this campaign months ago. He’s supposed to be trying to say goodbye. There might be a small problem: He’s too good for the rest of us to let him quit.

On the latest Chipper Jones bobblehead night, he stepped in against the Padres and clouted a pair of home runs, getting him to 12 for the season. He was already tied with Pablo Sandoval for the second-best OPS+ among NL third basemen, trailing only David Wright of the Mets. Among all third basemen, he’s in the MLB top 10 in slugging, OBP and average. He’s driving in more than 17 percent of his baserunners, between Ryan Braun and Joey Votto in baseball’s top 50.

He is at the top of the game, if not the top of his game, only because of the extraordinary standard he’s set for 19 seasons. And yet this may well be it for Chipper Jones not because he can’t play, but because he might be reaching the point when he simply decides he’s played enough. Even after having hammered career shots Nos. 465 and 466, would sticking around long enough to hit one numbered 500 really change what he’s been to baseball for two decades?

Storybook careers don’t make themselves, and Jones has made his cause for immense pride despite too many interruptions. His rookie season was supposed to be 1994, when he was slotted to move from shortstop to left field to replace Ron Gant. But tearing up his left knee in spring training ended what was supposed to be his first full season before it even began.

Not unlike Mickey Mantle, Jones’ lone rival for the title of greatest switch-hitter, injuries would be synonymous with his career. The Mick famously tore up his knee as a teenager in the 1951 World Series.

But thanks to better treatment options, as well as a stronger commitment to his career than the hard-partying Mantle, Jones has been able to play longer than the Mick did. Mantle quit at 36 in 1968, four years beyond his last truly great season in 1964. At 36, Jones won his first batting title, and he’s cranked out a .276/.374/453 line in the four seasons since (not including Thursday night’s action).

But he’s also had to make five trips to the DL -- two of them for that same left knee that shelved him back in 1994 -- losing 93 games to that dead time spent recovering and rehabbing. Those are above and beyond ballgames lost to the day-to-day assorted aches, pains and injuries he plays through just because he’s Chipper Jones.

We don’t know and we can’t know if a guy is simply tired of trying to do the same thing for a 20th season, no matter what the results are when he plays. Jones has talked about retiring before, particularly in 2010, when he would have potentially added himself as fuel to the pyre in Bobby Cox’s final season as the Braves’ manager before making his own slow journey to baseball Valhalla in Cooperstown. Then Jones tore up that left knee again and nipped retirement talk in the bud on Aug. 13, 2010, when he stated, “I don’t want the fans’ final image of me to be one of me hurt on the field.” Fast-forward 12 months, and on Aug. 19, 2011, Jones squelched talk that maybe that would be his last year by saying he would play in 2012, the “last year” on his contract.

So now it’s August again, and after so much teasing, people have to wonder if this is really it or not. We’ve been here before, and this time around Jones is hitting as well as he ever has in the past four years. As Viking funerals go, this is truly a blaze of glory to go out on.

The Braves also have a $7 million option on him for 2013, an amount that would have been guaranteed for much more than that if he’d been healthy enough to trigger any of its increases. At this point, though, it probably isn’t about the money; perhaps even the bean counters at Liberty Media who hold the purse strings would give him whatever he wanted if he was willing to step back into the traces one more time.

The Braves have the third-best record in the league, while trailing the Nationals in the NL East, and unlike the Nats, their rotation drama is of the happy variety -- having one starter too many instead of the incipient issue of an ace too few. We haven’t seen Chipper Jones in a postseason series since 2005. If Jones was looking for a high note to go out on, this might be the year that 2011 so clearly was not.

But however you frame it -- up, down, in or out -- the big-picture question is whether or not any of us really want a Chipper-free future sooner rather than later. As good as he’s been and as good as he is, I don’t. But I’m selfish that way, and you probably are, too. Even if we don’t really know the price Jones pays to put himself out there, we want to see the greats. The way Jones is hitting, there should be no mistaking him for anything less.

Chipper JonesScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThursday was special, but Chipper Jones has made a career of bringing people to their feet.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
During Tuesday's chat session, Stephen Strasburg's name kept coming up ... and so did Ross Detwiler's. Is Detwiler that much of a drop from Strasburg as a potential playoff starter? We discuss that, Buster Posey's underrated season, the best 3-4-5 combos and make some World Series pick. Check it out in Tuesday's chat wrap.
OK, so Mark Simon and I got just a bit ridiculous at times on Friday’s Baseball Today podcast , but there was much information and entertainment and hey, isn’t that a good thing? Here are some of the topics discussed:

1. Edinson Volquez nearly tossed the first Padres no-hitter ever, and the only blemish was a play that many pitchers could have made. Also, how bad are the Astros?

2. We discussed the breaking news as the Astros and Jays exchanged many players in a trade that probably won’t make much noise. Or will it?

3. Chipper Jones is aging nicely, and as Mark points out, his defense has become a strength. Also, Brett Lawrie gets evaluated a bit differently now.

4. Our emailers sent us down a ridiculous path, but we like that! Among the issues today were the haul Mark Teixeira brought back, home runs to runs and RBI ratios and of course, the All-Sitcom team. We kid you not.

5. It’s a big weekend not only for the Rangers and Angels, but the top American League Central teams and top National League East teams meet. The pitching matchups are rather interesting.

So download and listen to Friday’s Baseball Today podcast and have a little fun, because as Crash Davis said in Bull Durham, “This game’s fun, OK?” Oh, and hold the ball like an egg.