SweetSpot: Drew Stubbs

NL's defensive winter moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takes a Tribe to grind down Verlander

May, 12, 2013
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Say you’re the Cleveland Indians. You’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams, but you’re in Detroit against the defending pennant winners, you got routed in the first game of the series, and you’re facing Justin Verlander, who’s still on top of most people’s lists for best pitcher on the planet.

How to beat all of those seemingly insuperable challenges and pull off a win? Easy: It takes the whole Tribe.

Consistent with what has worked for the Indians so far this season, that’s how they pulled off an upset 7-6 victory Saturday in the Motor City to make it clear that the American League Central is a race that has months to run. Put on the spot, Cleveland's offense did the best things possible against Verlander: The Indians scored early and often, but most of all, they used him up to get to the Tigers bullpen early. The Tribe had already pushed Verlander to 90 pitches through the first four innings. Even allowing for Jim Leyland’s understandable willingness to let his ace achieve feats of strength racking up big pitch counts, that’s not what long nights from your best pitcher are made of.

Getting four runs off Verlander through five innings was big, but getting the next three runs with nine baserunners against the Tigers’ bullpen over the following three innings was the decisive reward, an opportunity created by a top-to-bottom lineup that, even as some hitters have struggled, is doing a good job of creating shark attack-like feeding frenzies in-game.

That might sound easy enough, because the Indians rank second in the league to the Tigers in runs per game, and they’re first in OPS for the time being. Those numbers create an illusion of strength this lineup has not yet made good on, though: As my old Baseball Prospectus compadre Joe Sheehan noted last week in his excellent newsletter, the Tribe has been far from consistent in terms of scoring -- plating two runs or less in 12 of their first 34 games -- but thanks to 13-0, 19-6 and 14-2 wins in the early going, they project as a statistical powerhouse only in the aggregate.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNick Swisher helped the Indians wear down Justin Verlander, working two walks off the Tigers ace.
However, look at that info, and it would be easy to overstate their failings, because Cleveland's offense has qualities most teams would kill for. The Indians are grinding down opposing pitchers, they’re exploiting the flexibility and depth they built up over the winter, and what problems they do have are ones that can be fixed.

Consider their grinding approach on offense. The Indians are next-to-last in the league in swinging strikes, and fourth in the league in pitches per plate appearance. Which is not to say they’re enjoying perfect success; their walk rate of 8.0 percent is below league average. But walks aren’t the sole goal of getting deep into counts -- they’re just one of the positive outcomes, but getting your pitch and simultaneously using up the opposing starter are the others. The Indians extend their at-bats and make opponents work, but it’s interesting to note that they’re not collectively watching strike three go by: Unlike the sabermetrically-beloved Rays and their league-leading 30 percent clip for being called out by those oh-so-human umps on their whiffs, the Indians are down around league average at 25 percent.

One of the other cool features of the Indians’ assemblage is that theirs is a lineup stocked with moving parts. Nick Swisher rotating from first to right field to designated hitter from night to night is no surprise, but he’s not the only roving corner in Terry Francona’s playing-time scheme. Mark Reynolds has split his time among first, DH and third. (To some of us among the chatterati, Reynolds might have initially seemed like a free agent signed too soon for too much, but with a league-leading homer tally and that value at multiple lineup slots, the Indians may well get the last laugh.) Carlos Santana is doing his variation on a Buster Posey theme by moving to first or DH when he isn’t catching. Mike Aviles provides considerably more power than your average utility infielder, which is why he starts more regularly than one.

That flexibility could come even more into play as we get deeper into the season. Now that Michael Bourn is back from the disabled list, you might wonder how much Francona will still be able to keep all of his hitters active and sharp with an everyday player back in the mix. But the silver lining of losing Bourn for a couple weeks to injury might just be getting to (over)expose Drew Stubbs for what he is, now that he’s 28 and been doing this for years: A fine defender and baserunner, but not a regular at a corner.

That isn’t the Indians’ only lineup issue: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall’s early-season struggles force the question of whether he’s going to turn the corner and stick as an everyday player. He came into Saturday with a career .288 OBP in 466 PAs; if he fielded like Brooks Robinson or slugged like Rob Deer, that’s a survivable blemish, but he doesn’t do those things. He’ll need to improve, or risk losing at-bats to some combination of Aviles and Reynolds.

If players like Stubbs and Chisenhall come around, that’s great. But if not, the Indians already have the depth on hand to make some hard choices. If Francona wants to keep putting pressure on opposing pitchers, that will continue to mean expanded playing time for his duo of handy platoon bats from the bench -- lefty thumper Jason Giambi at DH and lefty-masher Ryan Raburn -- thanks to the position flexibility his other starters and semi-regulars possess. And if the Indians still don’t have a happy answer by the end of July, renting a free agent-to-be at the trade deadline wouldn’t cost much in talent or treasure.

That’s because the Indians shouldn’t have to indulge Chisenhall or Stubbs their struggles all season, not as a contender. Because that’s what these Indians should be: Contenders. Maybe just for the AL Central title, and maybe because the Tigers fail to run away with it. But contenders just the same.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.

Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.

The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.

The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.

The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.

If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.

For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.

But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.

1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.

2. Athletics: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Coco Crisp, RF Josh Reddick
The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.

SportsNation

Which team has the best defensive outfield?

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3. Indians: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs
Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?

4. Brewers: LF Ryan Braun, CF Carlos Gomez, RF Norichika Aoki
The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.

5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.

Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.

Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.

Sleeper: Tigers (Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter). Jackson is terrific in center, and Hunter continues to age gracefully.

The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.
While discussing the value of defense in Tuesday's chat, I pointed out the defensive metrics suggest the best fielders are worth about 20-plus runs over an average defender at their position. Somebody asked what the worst hitters -- like Mark Belanger, the Gold Glove shortstop for the Orioles in the 1970s -- are then worth. In Belanger's worst season, he was 24 runs below an average hitter, according to Baseball-Reference.com; he actually had some not-awful seasons at the plate, mainly because he drew some walks and had respectable on-base percentages in his best years.

I said I'd look up the worst hitters of 2012. So here goes:
  • Using the Batting Runs category from Baseball-Reference, Drew Stubbs was the worst at -26 runs, followed by Kurt Suzuki, Alexei Ramirez and Clint Barmes, all at -21.
  • FanGraphs has a similar stat, wRAA (weighted Runs Above Average) and they have Brendan Ryan at -24, Dustin Ackley and Barmes at -22 and Stubbs at -19 (this stat isn't park-adjusted).
  • Those were all guys who played a lot. If you prefer rate stats, Stubbs comes in the worst on FanGraphs' wOBA at 64 for regulars, but among those with 300 plate appearances, Dee Gordon trails the field, followed by Josh Thole, Robert Andino and Ryan.

Overall, I give the honor of least valuable hitter of 2012 to Stubbs. He hit .213/.277/.333 in a good hitter's park -- and that doesn't even factor in that he got to play a large percentage of his games against the Astros and Cubs.

By the way, the Reds gave a lot of playing time last year to Stubbs and Wilson Valdez. Baseball-Reference has Valdez at -18 runs in just over 200 PAs. One reason to like the Reds again in 2013: No Stubbs and no Valdez chewing up outs in the lineup.

How much does Choo upgrade the Reds?

December, 12, 2012
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ChooJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesShin-Soo Choo, who has a career .381 on-base percentage, gives the Reds a legit leadoff hitter.

1. The Reds needed a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They got their leadoff guy in Shin-Soo Choo, who posted a .373 OBP with the Indians in 2012 and owns a career mark of .381. But did they get their center fielder? Choo has played eight innings in center field since joining the Indians in 2006, and his defensive metrics in right field -- once respectable -- were terrible in 2012, as he had minus-12 defensive runs saved (DRS).

Before we get to defense, let's compare Choo and Drew Stubbs, whom the Indians acquired in the trade, offensively. In 2012, Choo created about 104 runs in 686 plate appearances, Stubbs about 50 in 544 PAs. Prorating each to 600 PAs, Choo is at 91 runs created and Stubbs is at 55 -- a 36-run difference (and that's not accounting for ballpark effects). Defensively, Stubbs graded out at plus-2 in DRS -- which falls in line with his career numbers. If we believe that Choo will be a disaster in center field -- say, minus-20 runs (which would be a lot, as only two players rated that poorly in 2012, Rickie Weeks and Chris Nelson) -- the aggregate still favors the Reds to the tune of plus-16 runs. So we're talking about a two-win improvement, if you factor in ballpark and the idea that Choo will be more awful than completely incompetent.

2. Reds manager Dusty Baker can minimize some of that potential defensive problem, however, by playing Chris Heisey at times in center field. Choo hit just .199/.318/.216 against left-handers in 2012 (.249/.338/.358 in his career), so you could argue a platoon is in order. Or maybe Heisey plays center in the bigger National League parks on the road -- San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado and so on -- with Choo sliding over to left to give Ryan Ludwick some days off. Or maybe Heisey plays center when Bronson Arroyo, the most extreme fly ball member on the Reds' rotation, starts. Heisey isn't Stubbs out there, but he projects as a better fielder than Choo. With a little creativity, Choo ends up starting maybe 100 games in center and 30 or 40 in left, and the Reds don't take as big a hit in the field.

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Which team is now the team to beat in the National League?

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3. The Reds gave up shortstop Didi Gregorius to Arizona in the three-way deal. Arizona GM Kevin Towers compared the 22-year-old to -- ahem -- Derek Jeter in this story, saying, "When I saw him he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter. I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan and he's got that type of range. He's got speed. He's more of a line drive-type hitter, but I think he's got the type of approach at the plate where I think there's going to be power there as well." Now, I'm pretty sure that Towers doesn't really think Gregorius is going to turn into Derek Jeter, since it's pretty obvious he won't. At age 22, Jeter hit .314 in the American League; at age 22, Gregorius hit .265 between Double-A and Triple-A.

4. As Buster Olney put it: "The question for Arizona is this: Is the upgrade of Gregorius over [Cliff] Pennington worth Trevor Bauer?"

5. Chad Dotson of Redleg Nation has a podcast discussing the deal, and suddenly this lineup and pitching staff looks pretty good.

6. Indians fans seem pretty happy to be getting Bauer. "Well, we needed pitching, we got pitching," writes Susan Petrone at It's Pronounced "Lajaway." "Well done, gentlemen."

7. Does this mean Justin Upton now remains in Arizona? Towers got his young shortstop; he's already signed Brandon McCarthy for rotation depth behind Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin; and the GM signed Eric Chavez to platoon at third base with Chris Johnson. While many have opined the Diamondbacks need to trade Upton since their relationship has been damaged, now I'm not so sure. The Arizona roster is basically set now, and Towers did say that it's "highly unlikely" Upton would be traded.

8. Interesting that the Mariners drafted Danny Hultzen and the Diamondbacks took Bauer ahead of Dylan Bundy in the 2011 draft. While Bundy has ascended to the consensus No. 2 prospect in baseball behind Jurickson Profar, Bauer has now been traded and Hultzen has to regain his control (supposedly his strong suit coming out of Virginia) after walking 43 batters in 48 innings in Triple-A.

9. The Reds are already good and I think the Diamondbacks could be very good. I wouldn't be surprised to see the NL West develop into a three-team race. Arizona now has depth all over the diamond -- multiple options at third, two shortstops (Pennington and Gregorius, plus Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald), four solid players in the outfield (Upton, Jason Kubel, Gerardo Parra and Adam Eaton), depth in the rotation and in the bullpen, especially if Heath Bell bounces back. They lack the Clayton Kershaw/Matt Cain rotation anchor, although Kennedy was at that level in 2011. The Diamondbacks finished 13 games behind the Giants in the standings in 2012, but only 23 runs behind in run differential. Arizona has improved; the Giants haven't.

10. Three-way trades are fun.

We haven't had too many controversial lineup decisions yet this postseason, but here's a big one: Bruce Bochy will sit Brandon Belt in Game 4, move Buster Posey to first base and play Hector Sanchez at catcher. Chris Quick of Bay City Ball does not like the move.

Some other links to check out:

Relentlessly consistent Reds clinch Central

September, 23, 2012
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The Reds came away with the National League Central title, a triumph of consistency that we could have anticipated for weeks. But that shouldn’t take anything away from their triumph -- indeed, the absence of drama in a feat built over 5½ months might represent a relief for a team that’s just going back to where it was in 2010, putting away a division it had the talent to win. Again.

There’s an easy mistake to make on the subject of consistency: You might recall that Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the hobgoblin of little minds, but you might have forgotten that it was "foolish consistency." There’s nothing foolish about the Reds’ brand of consistency, which is why they’re hoisting a tri-pennant as NL Central champs this weekend.

The Reds haven’t suffered a losing month all season. So far, they’ve won or split their season series with every opponent in the division, notably clobbering the Cubs and Astros for a combined 22 wins in 29 games. It would be hard to say anyone’s got their number, because they’ve been winding with the grinding reliability of death and taxes. If unaligned actuaries wanted to pick a ballclub, they ought to root for the Reds.

Consider their strengths, the stuff victories are made of, now as ever, forever. After Mat Latos’ Saturday gem and a 6-0 victory, the Reds are neck-and-neck in the race for league lead in quality starts from their rotation with 93, one back of the NL-leading Phillies and Mets totals (94), while the Giants are a few steps behind with 89.

Now sure, it’s easy to pick on the quality start as a standard for starting pitching, especially if you’re old enough to be hung up on standards set in the low-scoring 1970s or the high-mound ’60s, with the expectations that starters pitched deeper into games, and before the hyper-specialization and expansion of bullpen responsibilities. My advice? Get over it. Fundamentally, if you’ve gotten six innings or more and three runs allowed or fewer from your starting pitcher, that’s a game your team can win, anywhere, against anybody.

The Reds’ tally is all the more remarkable because of some of the challenges they have to deal with, perceived and real. Perceived, in that Dusty Baker was the skipper who went to the whip down the stretch with the starting pitchers on his 2003 Cubs, a decision that didn’t work out so well then, or shortly thereafter for Mark Prior or Kerry Wood. But give Dusty his props: He isn’t the same manager when it comes to running a rotation, and as a result starters with troubling injury histories like Latos and Johnny Cueto have had excellent seasons with the Reds, just the way general manager Walt Jocketty expected when he was drawing up this season on a chalkboard.

And real challenges? Well, remember, the Reds have to call the Gap, one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball, home. Nevertheless, as a staff they’re allowing just 3.8 runs per game there, against 3.6 on the road. That adds up to a good-sized stack of winnable games over the 152 they’ve played.

Another thing the Reds do exceptionally well is field, and like having starting pitching in depth, that’s a gift that keeps giving, game after game, week after week. Whether you want to use a metric as simple as Defensive Efficiency -- how many balls in play they turn into outs -- or Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, with the Reds you’re talking about one of the better fielding crews in the league, thanks in large part to premium defenders like second baseman Brandon Phillips, center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Zack Cozart.

Pair their contributions in the field with the serious boppers that the Reds carry in the corners, and you’ve got a lineup that lacks many black holes, keeping things simple on the offensive side of the equation. Thanks in part to their home park, they’re one of the three best teams in the league in Isolated Power and in scoring runs on homers, which they’re also third in the league in. That’s because even their most glovely defenders, guys like Stubbs and Cozart, can exploit that ballpark. That’s no faint praise -- not every team in baseball has a shortstop and a center fielder with some power. When you win as consistently as the Reds have, credit the design, because it works.

If there’s one cause for complaint about the Reds, it’s the absence of a high-OBP leadoff man. That problem’s big enough that Dusty has been giving Phillips a whirl atop the order since Joey Votto came back from the disabled list, but Phillips’ .328 OBP still leaves plenty to be desired there.

But will that matter in October? To take it back to the starting pitching, maybe not, because if Cueto and Latos and the defenses behind them keep opposing hitters in check, it only takes a mistake or two to put a win in the ledger -- the same as has worked for the Reds for more than five months, consistently and relentlessly on the road to October.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Bronson ArroyoAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Reds' Bronson Arroyo can't help thinking, how sweet it is!
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
It's a good dilemma: Too many players, not enough starting positions.

With Joey Votto activated, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker will have to decide what to do about his lineup. With Votto out since July 16 following knee surgery, Baker has been able to use Todd Frazier as his primary first baseman with Scott Rolen playing third. Rolen, who looked done the first two months of the season, has responded with an excellent second half, hitting .320/.420/.513 in the second half. Rolen, of course, is a veteran and we all know Baker loves his veterans. But the rookie Frazier is slugging .539 and hasn't been exposed with regular playing time since the All-Star break, hitting .306/.352/.522.

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What should Dusty Baker do about the Reds' lineup?

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Discuss (Total votes: 766)

In my chat session today, a reader threw out the possibility of playing Frazier in right field with Jay Bruce moving to center in place of Drew Stubbs (.219/.285/.356). Frazier has made five starts in the outfield this year, but all came in left field. Bruce, meanwhile, hasn't played center field since his rookie season in 2008. The trouble with that alignment -- or playing Frazier in left and Ryan Ludwick in center -- is that you weaken yourself at two positions, center field and right/left field. Neither Bruce or Ludwick should be considered a center fielder and it seems unlikely that Baker would play around with his defensive alignment this late in the season, even if it means getting Stubbs' bat out of the lineup.

Another reader pointed out that Tony La Russa played Skip Schumaker in center field last postseason, even though he hadn't played there in the regular season. Indeed, Schumaker had played just 13 innings all season in center field but started there four games in the postseason, including three World Series games. Schumaker had come up as an outfielder and started 59 games in center in 2008 before moving to second base, but it was still a risky move by La Russa.

Maybe Baker thinks Bruce can handle center. Bruce has basically rated as an average right fielder the past two seasons (minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved), so probably wouldn't be a disaster in center. Maybe when Bronson Arroyo -- the most extreme flyball pitcher in the rotation -- starts, Baker plays Stubbs. In the end, I'd predict Stubbs remains in center, with Rolen starting the most of the playoff games at third and Frazier serving as a pinch-hitter deluxe/occasional starter.

What would you do?

Cueto putting it all together this year

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
2:08
AM ET
For a St. Louis Cardinals fan, saying something nice about Johnny Cueto, who in a 2010 brawl literally kicked Jason LaRue out of baseball, is possibly more difficult than complimenting Don Denkinger. (At least Denkinger never meant to hurt anyone.) Still, with Cueto helping the Cincinnati Reds to a National League Central-leading 76-50 record, I'll say it: Cueto is one of the best pitchers in the league this year and should be considered for the Cy Young.

That's less a personal opinion than a fact. Though he didn't pitch quite as well Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies -- allowing two runs in five innings, while issuing three walks in a game the Reds would lose 4-3 in 11 innings -- as he has for most of the year, Cueto entered the game with a 2.44 ERA, the best in the National League. Not bad for a guy who starts half his games in one of the majors' homer-happiest parks.

Somehow, he's keeping the ball on the ground, as his uncannily low 6.2 percent home run/fly ball ratio attests. But his third consecutive year with a single-digit homer-to-fly rate just might be due to something in his control, such as inducing weak contact. That's in no small part because of an increased reliance on his changeup, which he's featuring twice as often as he did in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Eric Hartline/US PresswireJohnny Cueto and his NL-leading 2.47 ERA have been a constant for the injury-plagued Reds.
His non-traditional stats -- career bests in strikeout/walk (3.65), fielding independent pitching (3.04) and xFIP (3.62) -- are strong, but not as knockout-impressive as other Cy Young candidates such as Stephen Strasburg (11.33 K/9), Gio Gonzalez (2.80 FIP), Clayton Kershaw (2.84 FIP), Cliff Lee (6.04 K/BB) or Adam Wainwright (2.99 xFIP). Still, it's not like Cueto is a one-hit wonder: He would've won the NL ERA title last year with a 2.31 ERA had season-starting and -ending stints on the disabled list not prevented him from pitching a measly six more innings to qualify.

He has been healthy the entire 2012 season and therefore has been a constant for the Reds, who have at various times been without the services of key players such as Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Madson. Just how important has the righty been to the Reds? Despite Votto's ethereal .465 OBP, Cueto nearly matches him in WAR (wins above replacement), 4.3 to 4.8. So Cueto may more appropriately qualify as an MVP candidate than for the Cy Young.

As the surging Cardinals head into Cincinnati for a weekend series, Cueto will miss the action (he's next scheduled to pitch Tuesday). In addition to the built-in rivalry between the two contending teams -- including former Cardinals Rolen, Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Cairo, all of whom don a different red-and-white uniform now -- the matchup is a reminder of the ongoing bad blood between the Reds' ace and the defending world champs. The weekend tilt isn't the only meeting with Cardinals players that Cueto has missed this season. Though he was expected to join Yadier Molina (later replaced by Matt Holliday), Carlos Beltran, Lance Lynn, David Freese and Rafael Furcal on the NL All-Star team, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa passed over Cueto, upsetting both the player and his manager, Dusty Baker. For his part, La Russa denied any vendetta, insisting that he omitted Cueto because he was scheduled to start two days before the game. La Russa also snubbed Zack Greinke, having a better year than Cueto, and of course is no stranger to head-scratcher lineup choices. But even so, the episode wasn't exactly an act of rapprochement.

Cueto made himself persona non grata with the Cardinals two years ago for his cheap shots in the fight. But there's nothing cheap about his 2012 campaign, which he's establishing with his arm. And that's what continues to make his presence on the field an unwelcome sight, not only for the Cardinals but the rest of the National League this year.

Matt Philip tweets at @fungoes and posts everything that doesn't fit at fungoes.net.
If you're a fan of one of these teams, you know of what I speak. For all the hype and attention given to the trade deadline, the biggest area of improvement for playoff contenders usually needs to come from players already on the roster. Here are 10 who need to step it up:

Ervin Santana, Angels (4-10, 6.00 ERA)
At this point, I'm not sure why the Angels are still running Santana out there. Simply replacing him with any decent fourth or fifth starter would be a huge improvement, and you wouldn't have to pay the hefty price to acquire, say, Zack Greinke. (Although adding Greinke would certainly bolster the playoff rotation.) After a terrible April in which he surrendered 10 home runs, Santana pitched a little better in May and June, but has been trending downward lately. In his past four starts he has a total of four strikeouts.

Santana's numbers are down across the board -- higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, way too many home runs -- but it appears his primary problem has been too many hanging sliders. In 2011, batters hit .161 with seven home runs off his slider; this year they're hitting .199 but with 12 home runs already. Overall, he's allowed 23 home runs, despite pitching in a good pitcher's park.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ethier
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Dodgers need Andre Ethier to find his early season form.
Andre Ethier, Dodgers (.289/.362/.481)
I mentioned Ethier in Wednesday' blog about the Dodgers. While his overall numbers are solid, since May 22 he's hitting .259/.346/.377 with just two home runs in 45 games. The Dodgers need more production from their cleanup hitter.

Jemile Weeks, A's (.216/.302/.300)
While the A's might look to boost their offense by adding a shortstop or third baseman (good luck with those positions), they'll likely ride with Weeks at second. So promising as a rookie in 2011 when he hit .303 with 26 doubles and eight triples in 406 at-bats, Weeks has actually doubled his walk rate while striking out less, but a .248 average on balls in play has hurt him. That's not all bad luck -- he's hitting fewer line drives and more groundballs than last season, and clearly he isn't driving the ball much. But the talent is there to have a strong final 60 games.

Reds leadoff hitters (.200/.247/.304)
That's mostly courtesy of rookie shortstop Zack Cozart with Drew Stubbs appearing there a few times of late. But that means Dusty Baker usually just moves Cozart down to the No. 2 hole. So, yes, Baker apparently believes it's a good idea to start your lineup with two sub-.300 OBP guys hitting first and second. He just doesn't get it, and why the front office hasn't told him to stop that nonsense is beyond me. The Reds would be better off with Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce hitting 1-2. At least that way your better hitters are getting more plate appearances.

Michael Young, Rangers (.270/.299/.346)
For all the talk about the Rangers seeking another starting pitcher with Colby Lewis out for the season and Roy Oswalt struggling, Young is the one guy in the lineup who's been a big, fat zero. As a designated hitter with an empty .270 batting average despite playing in the best hitter's park in the American League, Young has been one of the least valuable hitters in the league. In fact, based on Baseball-Reference offensive WAR, only Ryan Raburn and Justin Smoak rank worse than Young. And he's getting worse; he hit .326 in April, but has a .270 OBP in July and hasn't homered since May 7.

Tim Lincecum, Giants (4-11, 5.88 ERA)
This one goes without saying. After two good starts (against the Triple-A Astros and Phillies), Lincecum was roughed up again on Wednesday, allowing 11 runners and two home runs to the Padres in less than five innings. I don't want to hear about his FIP or xFIP -- Lincecum has been terrible, can't locate his fastball, and when he does throw strikes he gets lit. The potential is there for improvement, of course, but it's starting to look more and more like a lost season. The Giants will undoubtedly look to upgrade the offense -- amazingly, Bruce Bochy hit Brandon Crawford fifth on Wednesday -- but Lincecum could provide a bigger left than any hitter they might acquire.

Philip Humber, White Sox (4-5, 6.25 ERA)
Was that this year that Humber threw his perfect game? The White Sox are still hoping that John Danks can return at some point, but considering he just threw 20 pitches off a mound on Tuesday in testing his left shoulder, he's still a long ways away. Humber has been burned by the long ball (16 home runs in 76.1 innings).

Tommy Hanson, Braves (11-5, 4.39)
Hanson's win-loss record is nice thanks to great run support when he's started, but he's hardly pitching like an ace right now, with a 5.54 ERA over his past 11 starts while averaging less than six innings per start. Maybe that hasn't resulted in losses, but it has taxed the bullpen. Injuries have cut into Hanson's once-promising potential, and the truth is his stuff doesn't grade out as high as it once did. His average fastball velocity is down 3 mph from where it was two seasons ago, and he now sits around 90. He's allowed 19 home runs this season -- 15 off his fastball.

Cardinals bullpen (10-15, 4.17 ERA)
This story sounds familiar: It took the Cardinals four-plus months last season to figure out their bullpen. The Cardinals rank 10th in the NL in bullpen ERA, and all the teams below them have losing records. Cardinals relievers have allowed 34 home runs, third-worst in the league; only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more. The arms and ability are here, as we saw last October.

Jon Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA) and Josh Beckett (5-9, 4.57 ERA), Red Sox
You can take apart the Red Sox a thousand different ways -- injuries, clubhouse issues, Bobby Valentine and so on -- but consider this: Despite the multitude of injuries, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored. If these two were instead 8-5 and 9-5, they'd be 56-43 and 3.5 games behind the Yankees instead of 4.5 out of the wild-card standings.

Reds getting production from all over

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
11:55
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The Reds received a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning to take a 5-2 lead against the Braves on Thursday night, leading to their sixth consecutive victory and their first sweep of the Braves since 1980. It wasn’t superstar Joey Votto who provided the knockout punch, nor was it mainstays Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce. The home run came off the bat of one of the Reds’ many unheralded young players: 23-year-old rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco.

The blast also marked Cincinnati’s 10th home run of the series, leading to 14 of its 16 runs in the series. Winning with home runs is nothing new for this Reds squad, not at Great American Ball Park and certainly not in the Joey Votto era. But Votto didn’t hit a single homer in the series. Neither did Bruce. Phillips hit two. Instead of the three stalwarts on this Reds squad, it was the supporting cast leading the way: Mesoraco (1), Drew Stubbs (3), Zack Cozart (2), Todd Frazier (1) and Mike Leake (1).

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Reds
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDevin Mesoraco's grand slam in the sixth inning on Thursday put the Reds ahead for good.
Leake’s homer backed up a quality start on Monday, and the other home runs backed up quality starts from Mat Latos (Tuesday), Bronson Arroyo (Wednesday) and Homer Bailey (Thursday). The Reds saw scoreless outings from five different relievers and saves converted by three. To accomplish this in any series is excellent; to do so against the second-highest-scoring team in the league in one of the best hitters’ parks in all of baseball is another.

Depth and pitching have set this year’s Reds squad apart from last year’s version, a preseason favorite for the National League Central crown that was eventually lapped by both the Brewers and Cardinals. The 2011 season saw a 156 OPS+ from Votto and 119 OPS+ marks from both Phillips and Bruce. No other full-time starters came close; only part-time players Chris Heisey (113), Ramon Hernandez (113) and Miguel Cairo (101) even mustered an above average mark.

This season has seen the likes of Paul Janish, Edgar Renteria and Jonny Gomes excised in favor of Cozart (.727 OPS) and Frazier (.887). It has seen Stubbs come to life after three horrible series to open the year -- he owns a .266/.324/.430 line since April 17 to go with his typical fantastic defense. It’s seen Ryan Hanigan pick up his game as well, with a .794 OPS in 27 games as the starting catcher.

Johnny Cueto owns a phenomenal 2.22 ERA over 33 starts dating back to May 2011, but it was the other four Cincinnati starters who held down the Braves this week. Latos started out cold, but has a 2.35 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings in May. Arroyo has a 121 ERA+ after allowing a near-record 46 home runs last season, owning an absurd 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 58.2 innings. Bailey and Leake have had their rough spots, but they fit well in the back of the Reds’ rotation -- a tough job with half of their starts coming in the bandbox in Cincinnati.

The bullpen has established itself as one of the league’s best. Regardless of what one thinks Aroldis Chapman’s role should be, it is undeniable that he is the league’s best reliever. In the four-game sweep of the Braves, he pitched two more scoreless innings. Chapman fronts a bullpen full of talented pitchers: Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon all own ERA+ marks of 137 or higher. Sean Marshall shouldn’t be counted out either despite a rough start -- he was one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons.

The Reds currently sit atop the NL Central, with a half-game lead over the Cardinals. As usual, Votto, Phillips, Cueto and Bruce lead the way. But if the Reds maintain their current success and carry it through to a playoff run, it will be because this year they didn’t have to do it all themselves.
For a few brief moments on Monday night, it appeared the Cincinnati Reds would slide past the St. Louis Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. The Reds had defeated the Braves 4-1 behind a brilliant effort from Mike Leake and four solo home runs. The Padres were leading the Cardinals late in their game, until Tyler Greene's two-run homer in the eighth lifted the Cards to a 4-3 victory.

Still ... half a game. Half a game. Cardinals fans have to be wondering how this happened.

Considering the hot starts many of the Cardinals jumped out to -- Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay, Carlos Beltran and three-fifths of the rotation in Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook -- the Cardinals can only look back and wonder why they're not five or six games in front of the Reds. After all, St. Louis' run differential is +58; Cincinnati's is only +3.

I'd call it an opportunity squandered, because now the Reds are breathing down their necks and they're probably here to stay. Hey, there has to be at least two good teams in the NL Central, right?

With all the talk about who should be closing in Cincinnati, the biggest issue with the pitching staff has been Leake. He entered winless in seven starts -- at 0-5, he joined Chris Volstad and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers without a win and at least five decisions -- but wasn't just reeling from a lack of run support. He'd allowed at least three runs each start, had a 6.21 ERA, a .309 batting average allowed and just 21 strikeouts in 37.2 innings.

Leake walked Martin Prado with one out in the first but struck out Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla. In the second, Juan Francisco homered, but Leake then retired 14 in a row before Uggla doubled in the seventh. He finished with eight innings, just those two hits and six K's. For Leake, his biggest issue before Monday night had been an ineffective changeup, usually a good pitch for him. In 2010-2011, opponents hit .252 off his changeup but they were hitting .529 in at-bats ending with a changeup in 2012.

He appeared to compensate by throwing more cutters against the Braves -- 28 out of 98, the second-most he's thrown in a start this season. Of course, it helped that he was ahead of hitters much of the night, throwing just two pitches on three-ball counts; in his previous three starts, he'd thrown 31 pitches with three balls. Pitching is easier when you don't have to groove a pitch to avoid a walk.

Leake also sparked the Cincinnati offense in the fourth inning, when he homered off his friend Mike Minor (Minor was the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, Leake the eighth, and the two were teammates on Team USA). Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs followed with home runs to give the Reds back-to-back-to-back blasts. While it was Leake's first career blast, he's a legitimate threat at the plate with a .271 career average.

The four solo shots do highlight a big problem with the Reds' offense, however. Outside of Joey Votto this lineup is completely hacktastic -- working the count is not exactly a disease that has spread from Votto to everyone else. Even with Votto's MLB-leading 40 walks, the Reds rank just 11th in the NL in free passes, and despite playing in a hitter-friendly home park, their .697 team OPS is tied for 10th in the league. After Votto, Jay Bruce is second on the team with 12 walks -- quadruple that total and you have a guy on pace for 48. Home run boys Cozart and Stubbs can flip the occasional long ball, but they've combined for just 22 walks and 86 strikeouts. Brandon Phillips has just eight walks. Votto gets walked a lot because he often comes up with nobody on base. (Memo to Dusty Baker: Try moving Bruce in front of Votto. Just consider it, please.)

Somewhere, Joe Morgan cringes.

When the Reds won the NL Central in 2010, they led the NL in runs scored. That team led the NL with 188 home runs and a .272 average while ranking ninth in walks. This offense doesn't show signs of matching the firepower of that lineup, not with Votto, Bruce and catcher Ryan Hanigan the only three sporting an OBP over .300.

That means the Reds are going to be in a lot of low-scoring games, which means the bullpen will prove key, especially since Leake's outing was only the 12th in 41 games where the Reds' starter has gone at least seven innings.

Which, inevitably, gets us back to Baker and how he handles the relief crew. It's certainly interesting that in the two days since Aroldis Chapman was "named" the team's closer that exiled closer Sean Marshall picked up the two most important outs.

On Sunday, with the Reds leading the Yankees 3-2 and a runner on with no outs in the eighth, Marshall retired Robinson Cano. Chapman came on for the easy save and faced the bottom of the Yankees lineup after the Reds had extended their lead to 5-2.

On Monday, with Chapman unavailable after pitching four times in five days, Marshall again delivered after Jose Arredondo walked Uggla and Brian McCann with two outs in the ninth. Brought on to face Jason Heyward, Marshall fell behind with a slider, threw two of his big-breaking curveballs for a called strike and a swinging strike, saw Heyward foul off another curve, threw a fastball down low, and then got Heyward to fly to right on another curve.

For all the consternation over who gets the capital C designation, it shouldn't really matter. Marshall is a very good reliever. Chapman has been a great one. Arredondo and Logan Ondrusek are solid right-handers and rookie J.J. Hoover has looked impressive. What Baker should avoid doing is getting trapped into saving Chapman for the ninth inning only -- which means fewer innings and fewer moments with the game on the line. Chapman is the guy you want in there when you need a big strikeout with runners on base in the eighth inning. Marshall, Arrendodo and Ondrusek can close out the three-run leads. Use Chapman and his bullpen mates wisely, and the Reds can stay in this race even with a mediocre offense.

As for the Cardinals, that hot start is a thing of the past. The injuries are mounting and that run differential has gone to waste. We're a quarter of the way into the season and we have a race.

Considering these two teams have some strong dislike for each other going back a couple years, it should be a fun summer in Central Land.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Neil WalkerJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSometimes things just pass you by... like Neil Walker leaving Mike Nickeas in the dust.

Leaderboard of week: Groundball average

May, 14, 2012
5/14/12
2:10
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With all that defenses are doing to stop hitters these days by way of shifts and smart positioning, who are the hitters that are still finding ways to get hits?

Jackson
Jackson
Not surprisingly, the player atop the list relies heavily on his speed. Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson has the highest batting average on groundballs at .436 (17-for-39). Since 2010, Jackson is a .320 hitter when hitting a groundball. That’s the second-best batting average in baseball in that span, trailing only Drew Stubbs (.325).

A typical major leaguer gets hits on about 23 percent of his groundballs, meaning that on 39 groundballs, they would net a total of nine hits. Jackson has nearly doubled that. Though Jackson is typically someone who gets a decent number of infield hits (he’s had 46 non-bunt infield hits -- tied for 12th-most in MLB), he’s found holes in the defense in the first month of the season. He has 10 hits on 19 grounders in May, with three apiece against the Royals, White Sox and Mariners. Of Jackson’s 17 groundball hits this season, 15 have reached the outfield. He had 11 bunt hits in the past two seasons, but has none yet in 2012.

Below is a spray chart showing the grounders that Jackson has hit this season.

This is a key component in steering Jackson’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) to well-above average levels. Jackson has a .370 career batting average on balls in play (all balls in play -- not just groundballs). The major league average BABIP typically hovers between .290 and .300

In the end, a team’s best defense against Jackson is to strike him out. Jackson’s 378 strikeouts since 2010 are the fourth-most in the majors.
Let's get back to throwing out some good links from around the SweetSpot network ...
Mark Simon, Steve Berthiaume and Doug Kern of the ESPN Stats & Info department talk baseball. Hey, it is the Baseball Today podcast.

1. Matt Moore strikes out 11 Yankees in just five innings. Do the Rays need to run the table to get in?

2. Killer loss by the Cardinals. Was is it the worst loss of the season?

3. What happened to the Reds? Well, Drew Stubbs' 200 strikeouts didn't help.

4. Doug is a big minor-league fan and has been to over 100 minor-league stadiums.

5. Mount Rushmores for the Blue Jays, Rockies, Tigers, A’s, Twins, Brewers, D-backs and Rays.

Plus: Previewing the weekend, new logos for the Blue Jays and Astros and much more, all on Friday's Baseball Today podcast!

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