SweetSpot: Jason Heyward

Here are the National League leaders in Wins Above Replacement, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Clayton Kershaw: 7.3
Jason Heyward: 6.3
Giancarlo Stanton: 6.1
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.7
Troy Tulowitzki: 5.5

And here the NL leaders in WAR via FanGraphs:

Clayton Kershaw: 5.9
Jonathan Lucroy: 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton: 5.5
Hunter Pence: 5.4
Jason Heyward: 5.2
Andrew McCutchen: 5.2

Kershaw leads both sites in WAR so the statistical consensus is that he's been the best player in the National League, even though he missed a month of action back in April. He's 16-3 with a 1.73 ERA, so while he may not get to 200 innings he's been so dominant that he still has the highest WAR.

But ... no National League pitcher has won the MVP Award since Bob Gibson in 1968, so Kershaw still has to overcome that bias against pitchers. Plus, he could slump in September and lose a couple games (unlikely, I know, since he's allowed more than three runs in a game just once, but I guess it could happen). Stanton's Marlins aren't going to make the playoffs, and MVPs usually come from playoff teams (see Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout). Lucroy has certainly been terrific, although lacks the big power and RBI numbers MVP voters usually favor, plus the Brewers aren't a lock to make the playoffs.

Enter Heyward, under-the-radar MVP candidate. Based on WAR, he's been one of the best all-around players in the league. Not that he's gotten recognition as such.

Of course, he has no chance of winning; in fact, I'd be surprised if he even finishes in the top-10 in the voting. He's hitting .272/.354/.391 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs and right fielders slugging under .400 don't get MVP support. Heyward's value comes with his defense. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved for its defensive component of WAR and Heyward leads the majors with 33 runs saved above average. Only Juan Lagares of the Mets is at +30, and only four other players are at +20 or higher. FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating for its defensive component and Heyward leads all fielders there as well, at +26.4 (only Alex Gordon and Lagares are at +20 in UZR).

So those defensive metrics agree that Heyward has been the best defensive player in baseball and that he's saved a lot of runs. Those runs saved are worth about three wins -- so more than half of Heyward's value has come with his glove.

Yes, it's easy to dismiss one-year defensive numbers. Or perhaps wise to use them with caution. Last year, Carlos Gomez had 38 DRS and Gerardo Parra 36, and this year those players rate at 0 and +1, respectively.

But Heyward has always rated as a top defender -- not quite at his 2014 level, but he's averaged +21 DRS per 1,200 innings in his caree, compared to his rate of +34/1,200 innings in 2014. There's no reason to write off the metrics as a one-year anomaly.

What makes him so good? He doesn't have Roberto Clemente's arm (although he does have nine assists), but he has great instincts and range. Let's use an old-school fielding stat: Range Factor, which is simply putouts + assists per nine innings. Heyward has averaged 2.55 plays per nine innings compared to the league average of 2.06 for right fielders. Based on this simple math, he's made one extra out every two games compared to an average right fielder -- 0.49 per nine innings. He's played 1,157 innings so far in right field (128.5 games worth), so that's about 64 extra outs he's made above an average right fielder, let alone a subpar one.

Imagine if we added 64 hits to Heyward's résumé: He'd be hitting .399.

Now, evaluating Heyward's defense isn't quite that simple. Maybe the Braves throw a lot of fly balls (not really; they're 12th in fly ball percentage) or have an unusual number of starts made by right-handed pitchers, thus facing more lefties who hit the ball to right field (not really; the Braves are 20th in games started by right-handers). So there doesn't appear to be any team quirk that has allowed Heyward to make a high number of plays. He just makes a high number of plays.

In digging deeper into the DRS numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, we see Heyward also makes few mistakes. He has just one error and his total of 15 Good Fielding Plays - Defensive Miscues & Errors is +15, second only to Nick Markakis' +16 among right fielders. Heyward's arm has saved two runs -- nothing special there, although not a liability. It's all about running down fly balls.

Should we believe the numbers? The metrics agree on Heyward's performance on defense in 2014. Maybe you don't think one Heyward has been one of the most valuable players in the National League but I'm inclined to believe he has been.

(Although Kershaw would get my vote right now.)

Braves need their lineup stars to step up

August, 9, 2014
Aug 9
Maybe it’s a matter of sympathy for a team that lost much of its rotation to the surgeon before a pitch had been thrown. Maybe it’s because we all love prospects, and indulge them their shortcomings while anticipating their glorious futures. But with the Atlanta Braves, as we move into the season’s final third, it’s time to acknowledge that this isn’t much of a contender as teams go. If anything, it’s a team that should consider itself fortunate to be .500. The Braves are three games over now, with an expected record a game or two worse than that.

That might be enough to win the increasingly feeble NL East, but the question is where you might reasonably expect the Braves to improve, because it’s a club with a lot of areas for improvement -- especially in the lineup. Despite the presence of star slugger Justin Upton, the much-ballyhooed breakthrough of Evan Gattis, and the continuing development of young stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, the Braves rank 13th in the league in runs scored and -- adjusting for a pitcher-friendly home park -- 11th in OPS+. The only other contender trying to do as much with as little offense is Cincinnati, in fourth place in the NL Central but a direct threat to Atlanta’s chances should the Braves fail to win the NL East.

A big problem has been the team’s power outage: The Braves are tied for 10th in the National League in isolated power. The Cardinals’ slugging shortage has been a season-long talking point, but through Friday night’s action they had more extra-base hits than the Braves (293 to 290).

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
AP Photo/David GoldmanChris Johnson's impatience at the plate has hurt the Braves' offense this season.
Even swapping in Tommy La Stella for Dan Uggla (and Ramiro Pena, and Tyler Pastornicky) hasn’t been enough to compensate for the multiple empty slots in the Atlanta lineup. The teamwide OPS before that move was .681, but it’s .680 since La Stella got called up. That isn’t on La Stella but rather on the stack of guys not named Uggla who still aren’t contributing on offense.

In part, the Braves reap what they sow because they decided to rely on some fairly extreme hitters, extreme in that they’re guys who contribute entirely in some departments but not others: Andrelton Simmons, Gattis and Chris Johnson don’t walk and never have, and La Stella has no power and shouldn’t be expected to provide much. Although you can accept excuses for Simmons and Gattis because they’re at up-the-middle positions and -- at least in Simmons’ case -- provide “best in baseball”-grade defense, if you rely on too many extremes like that, you wind up with reasons why a lineup doesn’t function as a whole. Among every-day players, Upton and Simmons are in the bottom 10 in OPS among batting-title qualifiers; Johnson is just 11 points from sharing this “distinction.” The Braves are last in the league in WAR at third base and center field.

With this year’s disaster piled on top of his first season in Atlanta, B.J. Upton might represent the biggest disappointment in the history of Braves outfielders since Claudell Washington or Brad Komminsk. There is no reason for optimism. Upton’s strikeout rate is still north of 30 percent, and his walk rate is down from his career norms. Add in his mediocrity afield and he’s one of the least valuable players in the game before you even get into what the Braves are paying for the privilege of employing him. The decision to bat him leadoff most of the time in the past 40 games has helped undermine much of the value they received from adding La Stella, while giving the most at-bats to a guy who would be the worst starting player in most big league lineups.

If their worst player isn’t Upton, it’s Johnson. That might surprise you because last year he threatened to win a batting title. And when he’s hitting .320 and slugging .450, he’s an asset. But Johnson has been especially impatient at the plate this year, seeing his strikeout and swinging strike rates rise to their highest level since his rookie season while his pitches per plate appearance clip has dropped to its lowest since then, and his power production is at an all-time low (.109 ISO). This year, an even more aggressive approach has reduced a hitter whose signal virtue was that aggressiveness and plate coverage into the epitome of an empty batting average.

To make matters worse, the Braves’ bench has contributed next to nothing at the plate, and that’s as much a matter of design as accident considering the players Atlanta has. Losing Gattis for the better part of a month exposed career bench jockey Gerald Laird and an unready Christian Bethancourt behind the plate; Uggla’s implosion put Pena and Pastornicky on the spot. Ryan Doumit has struggled badly as the primary pinch hitter. This shortage of alternatives inspired the acquisition of Emilio Bonifacio from the Cubs. He doesn’t walk or bop, but he might nevertheless be a sporadic upgrade on B.J. Upton or Johnson.

Beyond their problems with their worst players, the Braves’ additional problem on offense is that most of their good players are generally just that -- good, but not great enough to compensate for some of the worst regulars in the game. Freeman and Heyward have to be called out for what they’ve been: solid regulars with plenty of upside. But despite years of hype, they’re not yet dominant players at their positions. Freeman’s WAR (2.2) lodges him among guys such as Matt Adams and Adam LaRoche, and well behind Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo in terms of value at first base in the NL. Heyward gets rated highly in overall WAR because of his value on defense, but rank him for his offensive production (oWAR) at an offense-first position like right and he’s just sixth among NL right fielders. He ranks that high only because Ryan Braun has spent time on the DL.

It’s reasonable to hope Freeman and Heyward will break out, in the same way you want to bank on them in the long term. But although Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider projected an OPS of .839 for Freeman in the second half at the All-Star break, Freeman has been at .708. More happily, Heyward’s been cranking at a 1.024 clip since the break (projected for .757); now, just imagine if that were back at the top of the order instead of B.J. Upton. Coming back from injury, Gattis has struggled (.620 OPS, projected for .808).

Barring a waiver-trade pickup or two, the Braves have little choice but to let it ride. What hope they should really harbor for a big stretch-run improvement on offense rests with Gattis, Freeman and Heyward finally cementing themselves as top players at their positions. As Szymborski projects, you can hope that’s the case, but there’s no time like the present.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Defensive Player of the Month: May

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on D: Examining Puig, Heyward

May, 21, 2014
May 21
After making a catch against the New York Mets on Tuesday night, Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig fired a strike to the infield. A moment later, he realized that his catch ended the inning -- a harmless mistake, but perhaps indicative that Puig is still working on his focus in the field.

Puig has reached base in 21 straight games and is hitting .333 with nine home runs and 36 RBIs. As for his defense, that’s still a work in progress.

Puig has 13 defensive misplays & errors, one shy of the major league lead among outfielders. Last season, Puig had 22 misplays & errors, but he offset that with 27 good fielding plays (a stat tracked by Baseball Info Solutions). This season, his ratio of good to bad is 6-to-13.

Puig’s most common misplay in 2014 has been balls bouncing off his glove while he attempts to make a play. It’s happened five times, including back-to-back days over the weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had four such mishaps in 2013. The nine times combined is tied for the most in baseball since the start of last season.

Puig also rates below average at catching balls hit to the deepest part of the outfield. That’s a little odd, given that he rated extremely well at that last season, though it isn't unusual given how defensive stats can fluctuate based on a small number of plays in the early part of the season.

Though Puig’s mistake rate is high, his overall defensive rating still holds up as league-average for 2014. That’s thanks in large part to his incredible throwing arm. He has already thrown out four baserunners trying to take an extra base, matching his total from 2013.

He ranks first among right fielders in the stat of defensive runs saved, which measures the ability to deter baserunner advancement, with throws such as this one to nail Miguel Montero at second base.

There’s good stuff on the Stats & Info blog today about Puig’s development as a hitter. He has reduced his rate of chasing pitches out of the strike zone in each month of his career.

If he can do something similar with regards to his defensive lapses, we’ll be looking at a likely MVP candidate for years to come.

Spotlight: Heyward at the head of the class
Jason Heyward leads all major leaguers in defensive runs saved (15) and UZR (13.0), yet he hasn’t shown up regularly on Web Gems. How has he racked up such impressive defensive numbers?

Heyward usually rates as the best outfielder at catching balls to the deepest part of the ballpark. He’s a runaway leader in that stat this season, with catches like this one against David Wright of the Mets.

In all, Heyward has 12 catches with an "expected play rating" of less than 50 percent, third-most among outfielders behind Giancarlo Stanton (16) and Leonys Martin (13). In other words, Heyward has frequently caught batted balls hit at speeds and to spots that most right fielders are not reaching (based on historical data tracking). The play on Wright was caught in a spot at which only 21 percent of batted balls are converted into outs by a right fielder, earning him 0.79 points toward his rating (his biggest gain on any play in 2014).

Heyward has also been helped early on by a lower rate of baserunner advancement against him than he usually has. He has thrown out three baserunners trying to advance an extra base, two more than he had last season. Heyward’s throwing arm has typically taken away anywhere from two to five runs from his total of defensive runs saved. This season, his arm has bumped that rating by a run.

I asked my Twitter followers for defensive-related questions ...

From Steven Taylor (@torch02): Who shifts the most effectively this season?
The teams leading in defensive runs saved due to shifting this season are the Astros (8), Blue Jays (7), Rangers (5), Brewers (5) and Giants (5). The Astros, Blue Jays and Brewers rate in the top five in number of shifts utilized, as well. The Giants and Rangers rate middle of the pack. They seem to be getting the most value out of their shifts.

The Yankees rate worst with minus-4 defensive runs saved due to shifts. This is due largely to a five-game stretch in which the Brewers and Mets hit a combined .349 against them in shifted at-bats, including .385 on grounders and short liners.

From Seth Samuelson (@sethsamuelson): Who has the most putouts made when they leave their feet (jumping/diving catches)?

We don’t track that, but we do track a few other leaderboards (thanks to the folks at Baseball info Solutions) that might be of interest:

Most barehand plays by infielders: Nolan Arenado (8), Martin Prado (5), Cody Asche (5), Alcides Escobar (4), David Wright (4), Brandon Phillips (4)

Most assists made while on knees, stomach or back: Daniel Murphy 6, Andrelton Simmons (4), Brandon Phillips (4), Mark Reynolds (4), Albert Pujols (4), Alexei Ramirez (4), Brandon Hicks (4)

Most glove-flip assists (a stat Chase Utley usually leads): Brian Dozier (3), D.J. LeMahieu (2), Dan Uggla (2)

From Marcus Cooper (@Supa_Cooper): How does Andrelton Simmons' fielding range compare, going left vs. going right?

One of the reasons Simmons broke records in defensive runs saved last season was because he rated so well at getting to the ball deep in the shortstop-third base hole (27 plays above average), so much so that he was actually a hair below average on balls hit up the middle (perhaps due to positioning).

Simmons has recorded only two defensive runs saved this season, partly because he’s only five plays above average going to his right so far in 2014.

For a thorough breakdown on Simmons’ defense, check out our recommended read of the week from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs.com.

If you have a defense-related question, tweet it at @msimonespn and I'll try to answer a few each week.

In the spring of 2009, while researching a column on MLB’s worst-hitting pitchers, I sought out Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn for his take on the subject. Say what you will about Dunn’s glove work or his penchant for striking out, but he’s a 400-homer man and one of the wryest baseball observers around.

The Big Donkey instantly warmed to the topic, dissecting the swings of Daniel Cabrera, Ben Sheets and others pitchers from the “bail and flail” school of hitting. He took particular relish in critiquing the handiwork of his former teammate, Aaron Harang, a workhorse starter who is also a walking endorsement for the designated hitter.

“He swings underwater,” Dunn said of Harang. “His bat speed is below Tim Wakefield’s knuckler speed.”

Harang wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to join Don Larsen, Don Drysdale and Dontrelle Willis on the list of offensive-minded pitchers to hit somewhere other than ninth on the lineup card. But desperate times call for offbeat batting orders.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsBraves manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't like what he's seeing as the losing streak deepens.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez created some buzz Monday night when he made out his lineup against St. Louis with multiple changes: Justin Upton moved up from cleanup to the No. 2 spot, with his brother B.J. Upton dropping from second to fifth. On a more eye-catching note, Harang was penciled in at eighth, with second baseman Ramiro Pena behind him in the ninth spot.

In part, Gonzalez made the move because Justin Upton hit .301 with a .922 OPS in 48 starts as Atlanta’s second-place hitter last season, and appears to have a comfort level in the No. 2 hole. Gonzalez also told reporters that he wanted to give Jason Heyward, Upton and Freddie Freeman more run-producing opportunities on their second, third and fourth times through the order.

“The offense is sputtering around, so why not do it?” Gonzalez said. That’s manager-speak for, “What do you want me to do -- pick the names out of a hat?”

For the record, Harang went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice bunt and the Braves showed some late signs of life in a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals. When measured against their recent standard, that’s a virtual onslaught.

Atlanta fans have gone from upbeat to restless to cranky awfully fast. On April 27, the Braves beat Cincinnati 1-0 in 10 innings to raise their record to 17-7 and open up a 3 ˝-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East. Since then, they’ve dropped seven straight to Miami, San Francisco and St. Louis by scores of 9-0, 9-3, 5-4, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 4-3.

With the exception of two blowout losses at Marlins Park -- when the Braves suggested something fishy was taking place and the Marlins might be stealing signs to get better hacks against the Atlanta pitching -- the focus has been almost exclusively on the offense, or lack thereof.

Should the Braves be taking more batting practice, or less? Can anybody lay off a high fastball? And they are simply too deficient at “manufacturing” runs and too reliant on the long ball to weather the inevitable down times? According to ESPN Stats & Information, 55 of Atlanta’s 102 runs this season (or 53.9 percent) have come via the home run. That’s the highest rate in the majors, ahead of San Francisco’s 48.1 percent.

The Braves have also scored one or fewer runs in a game a major league-high 12 times this season. That’s one more than St. Louis.

The Braves were OK when Freeman, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons got off to torrid starts, but the team’s mainstays have leveled off recently. Freeman is 10-for-his-past-57, and Upton has struck out 11 times in his past 15 at-bats. He came up with the tying run on second base in the ninth inning Monday but took a Trevor Rosenthal fastball for a called third strike to end it. The Braves are hitting .118 (6-for-51) with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak, and that’s only when you give them the courtesy of rounding up from .1176.

No one has been more of a lightning rod of late than second baseman Dan Uggla, who’s being pilloried on social media. He ranks 84th among 88 qualifying National League hitters with a .528 OPS, and he’s not even drawing walks anymore. This comes on top of a dreadful 2013 season that ended with the ultimate indignity of his being dropped from the Braves’ Division Series roster. You have to wonder when the Atlanta brass will have a frank discussion that things aren’t likely to get better, and it’s best for all parties to bring this arrangement to an end and find Uggla a new home.

Now that the Braves have other options at second base, it’s getting progressively harder for them to justify keeping Uggla around for reasons other than the $23 million they still owe him. Pena slugged .443 in 97 at-bats last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and has a nice swing from both sides of the plate. Tyler Pastornicky was a .280 hitter in the minors, and Tommy La Stella, Atlanta’s No. 9 prospect, is plugging away with a .313 batting average for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Atlanta’s front-office people, who have seen the Braves go through fallow stretches like this in the past, think this group is eminently capable of turning it around and going on a tear. They point out that Heyward has picked up the pace of late, and B.J. Upton is having much better at-bats since he donned his new glasses.

But some talent evaluators are dubious. “They only have only reliable hitter -- and that’s Freeman,” said a National League scout. “He’s going to hit good pitching. When they face No. 1s and 2s, they’re not going to score any runs unless he’s involved.”

So the manager ponders hitting the pitcher in the ninth spot and says, “Why not?” According to research by J.G. Preston of SABR, Tony La Russa employed the tactic 432 times during his managerial career. Lou Boudreau is a distant second at 74, and Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Jack McKeon were among the other managers who gave it a shot here and there. Gonzalez has now done it nine times in his managerial career.

At the very least, Gonzalez’s offbeat strategy helped change the discussion from why the Braves aren’t hitting to what the manager is trying to do to prevent a bad week from turning into a free-fall. And the more people quizzed him about Harang batting eighth, the fewer people were asking him about Uggla getting the night off and what he plans to do moving forward at second base.

What will Gonzalez do when Gavin Floyd makes his 2014 debut Tuesday night against the Cardinals? Only he knows for sure. Unless he can figure out a way to squeeze a 1999-caliber Chipper Jones onto the lineup card, it might take the Braves a while to figure this thing out.

Defensive notes: Rockies, Heyward, Hunter

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
Perhaps you caught regular Insider contributor Mike Petriello’s article on the Indians defensive struggles on FanGraphs.

It's worth a read (and a watching of the videos within the piece) and it also served as inspiration for a look at some of the season's early defensive notes.

Many people say it's dangerous to make observations from a small sample of defensive data, but I think there are some things that can be gleaned already. Here are a few thoughts.

Tulo and Arenado look like best in the business
A healthy Troy Tulowitzki could have a big impact on the left side of the infield for the Rockies in tandem with one of the the most impressive rookie defenders from 2013, Nolan Arenado.

The Rockies are converting groundballs hit to the left of the second base bag into outs at the highest rate in baseball (78 percent). Tulowitzki has six Defensive Runs Saved already. He's had as many as 31 in a season and his presence could make a big difference for Rockies pitchers. (Eric Garcia McKinley has a piece on the Rockies' infield shifting -- or rather, the lack of it.)

Yankees/Twins have it right
In terms of right sides of infields, the ones doing best at converting groundballs hit to the right of second base into outs are the Yankees and Twins, both doing so at about an 83 percent rate.

The story here is that the Yankees haven't missed a beat with the departure of Robinson Cano and temporary absence of Mark Teixeira (and perhaps the increase in shifting has something to do with it), and Joe Mauer's move to first base hasn't yet set off any alarms for the Twins.

Heyward not taking his offensive struggles into the field
Jason Heyward isn't hitting yet (we've written about that already), but he's making up for it with defense.

Heyward already has 10 Defensive Runs Saved, the most among right fielders.

The Braves have the third-most outs recorded on balls hit to right and right center by our computing (76, using a pre-designed field grid), and have allowed the fewest fly ball/line drive doubles and triples (eight).

The Braves outfield defense is off to a great start this season, with a combined 19 Defensive Runs Saved.

Torii Hunter may be getting old
If you thought that Torii Hunter’s Defensive Runs Saved total from last season (he cost his team 10 runs) was a fluke, given that he'd ranked second and third in that stat the previous two years, you might reconsider.

Hunter is already a worst-in-baseball -7 Defensive Runs Saved in right field for the Tigers.

The Tigers have the fewest outs recorded on fly balls and line drives hit to right field and right-center (38), but are tied for eighth in most doubles and fly ball/line-drive triples allowed to that same area (18).

White Sox shift their stance
What team has most shifted positions with regards to the shift? How about the Chicago White Sox, who have already shifted more times this season (84 shifts on balls in play) than they did all of 2013 (73).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the White Sox lead the majors in "Out of Zone plays," a stat charted at FanGraphs.com that measures how often players are converting outs on balls outside of the areas in which they typically turn batted balls into outs.

Of course, given that the team's ERA is hovering around 5, we'll see how patient Robin Ventura and his pitching staff are with this new philosophy.

Is anyone worthy of a reverse shift?
Lastly, one thing I've been wondering about with the emphasis on shifting is whether any players would be worthy of a "reverse shift" -- in other words, a right-handed hitter for whom the defense tilts its infield to the right, rather than the left.

Derek Jeter took his opposite-field hitting to extremes earlier this season.

There was a hitter who was worthy of this for a bit, but he's since balanced things out a little.

Derek Jeter leads the majors in percentage of groundballs hit to the opposite field.

It's not quite as extreme now as it was in the image on the right (he's pulled five of 29 ground balls), which comes from the first two weeks of the season, but it's still notable.

Maybe Joe Maddon will have the guts to try something like a reverse shift on Jeter. Stay tuned.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.

Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.

Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.

Is Freddie Freeman ready for bigger things?

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2

Sure, one game is not supposed to mean more than one win or win loss, but does anyone else think that Freddie Freeman isn’t ready to explode? After he ripped a pair of home runs against the Brewers on Tuesday night, it’s worth remembering that he is only 24 and nearing the cusp of what are supposed to be his prime seasons in the 25-to-29 range.

That might seem easy to say after a big night, but Freeman provides a great reminder that some basic sabermetric concepts like regression don’t apply to everyone equally. If you think that batting average on balls in play exerts a force like gravity, you’d expect that Freeman was going to regress toward a more normal .300 after hitting for a .371 BABIP last year. But that’s the thing, Freeman’s so young despite three full seasons in the majors that his potential to develop into something more can’t be discounted, especially after the .339 BABIP he put up in his rookie season or the .359 he put up as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
[+] EnlargeFreddie Freeman
Jeffrey Phelps/Getty ImagesAfter Freddie Freeman's two-homer game, let's give the man a hand.

When you look at what leading projection models like Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS say about his likely 2014 production (.286/.365/.477), or Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA (.279/.350/.458), those seem fairly conservative for a guy who put up an .897 OPS last year. Indeed, PECOTA is so pessimistic about Freeman that it basically says there’s just a 10 percent chance he hits as well this year.

I guess I’m a little skeptical about the models in this instance. Freeman didn’t deliver unusual numbers in terms of homers per fly ball, although he did generate a tremendous number of line drives last season -- 30 percent, which is evidence of him executing his plan at the plate consistently, no easy thing to repeat against the best pitching on the planet, but a reflection of skill. I guess I look at the BABIP numbers and the confident assertions that there’s no way that Freeman can keep getting hits on 37 percent of his balls in play at 23 and figure people would have said much the same about Don Mattingly after he posted a .331 BABIP at 23 in 1984. And those predictions, based on the observable fact that most people regress to the mean, would have been completely wrong. Donnie Baseball didn’t regress; he was just getting started.

That’s because not every player is cut from the same mold, and not every hitter is going to wind up regressing to the same level when he doesn’t execute as well at the plate. Instead, hitters are going to perform within their ranges of possibility. And looking at Freeman, it’s easy to dream on why the orbit he travels in happens to be a bit higher than most, maybe a bit higher than the projections suggest, if maybe not quite as high as where he was hammering balls in Miller Park on Tuesday.

The question for the Braves will be how much they’ll need him to be that guy, because other than Jason Heyward, is there anyone in that lineup you expect to bust out and become something as good or better as he was last year? Maybe if Justin Upton has three hot months instead of two, or B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla return to the land of the living, sure, there’s help to be had. But as much as I’m willing to believe in Freeman (and Heyward), if he isn’t that guy right now, it’s going to be hard for the Braves to get to October and win a postseason series.
  • One of the things I’ve always loved about the Braves when you watch them talk about their own talent is who they soft-pedal versus who they play up -- and then seem willing to trade to get something they can contend with. Now sure, Alex Wood was by no means a sleeper -- going from their second-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2012 to top 10 prospect status in the organization last year to Tuesday night’s winning pitcher -- but going into that same 2012 season the Braves pitching prospects you heard the most about were guys like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado. Delgado was dealt to the D-backs and may not hold his job as the last man in their rotation, while Vizcaino was dealt and was last seen headed for High-A for the Cubs. Lefties with low-90s heat and an effective circle change and knuckle curve don’t grow on trees, and this ready already after less than two seasons in the minors? After Teheran’s effective Opening Day start, Wood provided an easy additional reminder about why it pays to scout their own neighborhood as well as the Braves do.

    Not that one game means much, but with Mike Minor on the mend coming off a breakthrough year in 2012, if veterans Ervin Santana and later Gavin Floyd simply provide innings, regular turns and quality starts more than half the time, maybe the Braves’ starting pitching won’t turn out to be so bad after all.
  • To give the Brewers some love, watching center fielder Carlos Gomez crush his first homer of the season provided another reminder about something cyberpunk writer William Gibson wrote in Wired back in the ’90s about how the mainstream is usually five years late to a subject. That’s hopefully less true today with the accelerated news cycle, but if you didn’t already notice that Gomez was one of the best players in baseball last year, you don’t want to be any later to this particular party. I know WAR is more suggestion and sorting tool than fact, but Gomez’s 8.9 WAR last season easily outpaced Andrew McCutchen’s 7.9 and Paul Goldschmidt’s 7.3 to lead the NL. While a huge part of that was the educated guesstimates of his value on defense, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a reach to suggest that for the next couple of years he and McCutchen might become the National League’s trophy frenemies equivalent to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the AL.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
All offseason, fans have wondered: What are the Atlanta Braves going to do about locking up Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, their two young stars, to long-term contracts? Heyward was going to be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, Freeman after 2016.

Those questions were answered on Tuesday as Heyward signed for two years and Freeman for a reported eight years, $125 million. Let's do Heyward real quick here since Freeman is the bigger deal. It certainly made sense for Heyward to wait and not commit to a below-market, long-term contract. He missed time last year after an appendectomy and was hitting under .200 in early June before rallying to finish at .254/.349/.427. Heyward needs to bet on himself to stay healthy and have that big season we all predicted would come after he played so well as a 20-year-old back in 2010.

So he signs through his arbitration years and will hit free agency for his age-26 season. Even if he doesn't get better, he'll be a very rich man. Compare Heyward to Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal that takes him from his age-31 through age-37 seasons. A seven-year deal for Heyward gets you his age-26 though age-32 seasons. Oh ... and Choo wasn't that much better than Heyward last season, even though Heyward played just 104 games. Baseball-Reference valued Choo at 4.2 WAR, Heyward at 3.6 WAR (he was 5.8 WAR in 2012). Choo got on base at a terrific clip, but Heyward is the better defensive player and produced in a tougher park for hitters. If Choo can get $130 million at his age, Heyward can easily expect to get $150 million or more.

The Braves did lock up Freeman, who at age 23 become the vocal leader of the club, the face of the franchise, and hit an impressive .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs to finish fifth in the National League MVP voting. It's a safe bet for the Braves. You get Freeman's age-24 through age-31 seasons, exactly the years you want for a first baseman who doesn't run well.


Which player would you most want long-term?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,459)

The question is more a baseball one: How good is Freeman? Was 2013 a true breakout season or one fueled by a high .371 average on balls in play (fifth highest in the majors)? Answer: It could be both. Considering his age, it could be real improvement. According to ESPN data, he had a 25.8 percent line-drive rate in 2013, up from 21.7 percent the year before. (Other sites have different percentages, complicating the analysis a bit.) One thing I like to check is how a batter does against fastballs. The best hitters kill fastballs, and that's what Freeman did in 2013, hitting .367 with 15 of his 23 home runs, up from .291 and 13 the year before.

So I'm inclined to think Freeman did mature as a hitter, even if his walk and strikeout totals were essentially identical to 2012. Maybe he won't hit .319 again, but it wouldn't surprise me since he also became so adept at going the other way. His hit chart shows a fair number of doubles in the left-center gap, and he hit five home runs to left-center or left.

In the past, I believe I've compared him to John Olerud. Physically, the comparison makes sense: A tall first baseman who is more of a 20-25 homer guy than 30-35. Olerud had a monster season in 1993 at age 24 when he hit .363 and another one in 1998 when he hit .354, but he was generally right around .300 with 90 to 100 walks and a .400 OBP. Freeman was worth 5.4 WAR last year; Olerud had those two seasons worth more than 7 WAR and three others above 5. If Freeman is the new John Olerud (minus 30 walks a year), that's still a heck of a player. And in today's market, $125 million for three pre-arbitration years and five years of free agency for that kind of player looks like a good deal for the Braves ... even if Heyward does prove to be the slighty more valuable player in the long run.

A final note: Some may end up comparing this to the Pirates in the early '90s, when they signed Andy Van Slyke and allowed Barry Bonds to leave as a free agent. You know, sign the popular white guy and let the black player leave. First off, Heyward isn't going anywhere yet. Second, the Pirates didn't just "let" Bonds leave. He signed a big deal with the Giants, a contract the Pirates probably couldn't afford, to return to the area where he grew up and to play for the team his dad played for. I wouldn't compare this to that; each situation is different, and we don't know what kind of offer Heyward may have turned down.
ATLANTA -- Put this game in your back pocket. Or, more specifically, put the seventh inning in your back pocket. Because if the Atlanta Braves go on to win this series, and then go on to do something magical in the next series and then the big one after that, this will be a game to remember, the game Dodgers manager Don Mattingly elected to pitch to Jason Heyward with the bases loaded instead of somebody named Jose Constanza.

True story.

"Play the matchups. Play the matchups. That's what the postseason is about," Heyward said about his crucial at-bat against Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. "You go lefty-lefty there."

Heyward singled in two runs, turning a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead, the eventual winning runs in the Braves' 4-3 victory over the Dodgers that tied up their Division Series.

But the story is how we got to that matchup, in an inning with enough strategy to make a sabermetrician's head explode and fans sweat profusely through their Freddie Freeman replica jerseys. Watching Mattingly and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez match wits may not exactly have been Earl Weaver versus Billy Martin, but it made for entertaining opportunities for the pundits and fans to debate.

[+] EnlargeJason Heyward
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJason Heyward said his two-run single off Paco Rodriguez was the best moment of his career.
In that one crucial decision, however, Gonzalez may have masterfully duped Mattingly.

The Braves led 2-1, Zack Greinke having been removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh after just 83 pitches (even though he did he hit .328 this season). Right-hander Chris Withrow came on in relief and walked Brian McCann before Chris Johnson lined a soft, broken-bat single to left. Gonzalez had Andrelton Simmons sacrifice in front of the weaker-hitting Elliot Johnson, a questionable move in itself that looked even more questionable after Withrow stuck out Johnson looking on a nasty 0-2 curveball.

So two outs, runners at second and third, pitcher Luis Avilan due up. Gonzalez sent up the left-handed Constanza to pinch-hit, a guy with just 31 plate appearances all season in the major leagues and just eight hits, all singles. He's on the roster primarily as a pinch-running or defensive option in the outfield.

Withrow is a rookie reliever with an upper 90s fastball who came on strong late in the year, and while he had just 34.2 innings, he struck out 43 batters and allowed just 20 hits. Left-handers hit just .217 off him -- limited sample size caveat -- with just one extra-base hit allowed. In other words, he's good. Good enough to face Constanza.

One problem with having so many relievers on the roster is you may overthink it and actually feel inclined to use them. Mattingly brought in the lefty Rodriguez, but of course Gonzalez wasn't going to let Constanza face Rodriguez; he sent up Reed Johnson. Mattingly elected to walk Johnson to face Heyward.

"Just really at that point trusting Paco to do what he had to do. ... Paco has been that guy all year long," Mattingly said.

Simmons, watching from the Braves’ dugout, admitted he "was a little surprised" Mattingly elected to load the bases. Simmons said the players aren't necessarily analyzing each move like the managers and coaching staff do, but they trust the manager to put the best players in the right spot. So when a player says he's surprised by a move, you have to wonder.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDon Mattingly decided to pitch to Jason Heyward instead of Jose Constanza, and the Dodgers paid for it.
Mattingly got his lefty-lefty matchup, but Heyward was much improved against left-handed pitchers this season after his early-season struggles and appendectomy. Since June 1 he'd had a .402 on-base percentage against lefties. Yes, Rodriguez had held lefties to a .131 average, so it wasn't the worst matchup for the Dodgers. But Rodriguez was also in a situation where he had to throw strikes, and Heyward has excellent plate discipline.

Chris Withrow versus Jose Constanza? Or Paco Rodriguez versus Jason Heyward with the bases loaded?

* * * *

It's funny how players will view a game differently. Chris Johnson said, "I don't think it's a must-win game until you lose and go home." He's right, of course, it wasn't a must-win game for the Braves. On the other hand, you don't want to head to Los Angeles down 2-0. "We felt like our backs were against the wall," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We took it like it was an elimination game." He's right as well. In a short series, you have to play with a certain urgency. You can't let any situation slip away, and you have to take advantage of mistakes your opponents give you.

That's what Mattingly did. He opened the door and paid the price when Heyward singled up the middle on a 2-1 slider. Heyward said it was the best moment of his career. "I mean, the top," he said. "For right now, the top. This is this moment. ... We want to be in those situations to come through big for your team."

Heyward split the difference between Johnson and Laird when told Gonzalez said the game was probably a must-win, saying, "I know a manager has got a different mindset sometimes than the players, but I know we all agree on one thing: Every night in the postseason is a must-win game for us. You don't want to ever think it's OK to lose."

A baseball game is made up of hundreds of little decisions, starting with each pitch and what to throw. Avilan had a big decision himself in the top of that fateful seventh. With runners at the corners and one out, Carl Crawford hit a hard grounder back to him, with the runner on third breaking for home.

"As soon as I caught it, my first thought was second base," he said. "I knew we had a good shortstop with a strong arm.

"I saw the runner at third base running to home plate but thought I had a good chance at the double play."

Avilan and Simmons turned the double play, 1-6-3. Inning over. In the blink of a moment, Avilan made the right decision.

In his moment, Don Mattingly didn't, and the Braves are back in the series.

Maybe in 17 years or so, Jason Heyward will step up for his final at-bat in an Atlanta Braves uniform and his longtime teammate Freddie Freeman will come out of the dugout and call for a pinch hitter. Freeman will give Heyward one of his famous hugs, Heyward will tear up a little bit and Braves fans will give him a standing ovation.

OK, OK … that's a bit far into the future. But Heyward did receive a great ovation on Thursday after perhaps his best game in the majors, going 5-for-5 with a home run and three doubles -- the first five-hit game of his career. In doing so, Heyward became just the fifth player this season with four extra-base hits in a game.

Heyward broke his jaw a month ago when he was hit by a Jonathon Niese fastball, and returned just a week ago, wearing a face guard to protect the injury (the face guard has come a long way since Dave Parker). He was 2-for-15 in five games, so the five-hit game has to have helped his confidence as the postseason approaches.

"It is good to get hits," said Heyward. "Good to get on base and get the game going early. We are still playing for something."

It's not exactly fair to say one player is the key to a team's postseason success, but Heyward is probably that guy for the Braves, at least among the position players. Read into this stat what you will, but the Braves are 64-30 when Heyward starts and 30-35 when he doesn't. Besides the month he missed with the broken jaw, he also missed a month early in the season after having an appendectomy. Maybe it's a coincidence that the Braves struggled both times Heyward was out, but it's hard to deny his importance in their lineup, not to mention his defense in the outfield.

The Braves had struggled all season to find a proper leadoff hitter -- you know, one who gets on base -- until Fredi Gonzalez moved Heyward there in late July. Heyward had already recovered from a slow start; after hitting below .200 through June 8, he has hit .296/.374/.508 since. That's great production from your cleanup hitter, let alone your leadoff guy.

Since returning, Heyward has also played five of his six games in center field, a sign that he'll be there in the playoffs, with B.J. Upton and his sub-.200 average relegated to the bench. Heyward will also be seeking some postseason redemption. As a rookie in 2010, he went 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts in a four-game loss to the Giants in the Division Series. (He went 1-for-5 with a double in last year's wild-card game, a loss to the Cardinals.)

Heyward's big game came on a night catcher Brian McCann had to leave after two innings with a strained groin. He's listed as day-to-day, so keep an eye on that.

The Braves are just 11-13 in September after Thursday's win, and while they once looked like a lock for the best record in the NL, they are now tied with the Cardinals at 94-65. It's not an insignificant race; the Braves are 54-24 at home and 40-41 on the road, the largest home/road split of any playoff team. They'd clearly love to get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the NLCS.

But home field isn't the only incentive for the final three games: The No. 1 seed gets the Pirates/Reds winner instead of the Dodgers … and avoids Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. No offense to A.J. Burnett and Homer Bailey or whoever ends up starting Game 1 of the Division Series for the Pirates or Reds, but those guys aren't Clayton Kershaw, and you do not want to potentially face Kershaw twice in a five-game series.

(Atlanta does own the tiebreaker over St. Louis due to winning the season series, 4 to 3.)

Heyward has slipped under the radar this season, with most of the national attention surrounding the Braves devoted to Freeman's 100 RBIs, or Andrelton Simmons and his amazing defense, or rookie Evan Gattis' inspiring story, or Justin Upton's hot April, or Craig Kimbrel's dominance as closer, or Upton's struggles.

Heyward has been in the background all summer long. I have a feeling October may be his time to steal the spotlight.

The worst sound I ever heard on a baseball field was back in April 1987, when Kirby Puckett hit a line drive off the cheekbone of Mariners pitcher Steve Shields. Sitting in the first row of the second deck behind home plate at the Kingdome, I couldn't hear Puckett yell, "Watch out!" but I could hear the sickening sound of that thud that seemed to echo throughout the stadium.

Baseball doesn't entail the violence of football or even hockey, but there are two plays that can result in terrifying incidents: a line drive to the mound, and a pitch to the face. Careers have been tragically ruined by such episodes.

Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward suffered two jaw fractures Wednesday when hit by Jonathon Niese's 90 mph fastball. He'll undergo surgery Thursday, and while the injury shouldn't be career threatening in any way, he will miss an estimated four to six weeks. That almost sounds like a positive scenario after watching Heyward down on the ground for three scary minutes before he finally walked off the field.

[+] EnlargeJason Heyward
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesLosing Jason Heyward for more than a month could put a dent in the Braves' fortunes.
Assuming the surgery goes well, that timetable doesn't leave much cushion for Heyward to get ready for the playoffs, considering there are five and a half weeks remaining in the regular season. If he heals quickly, he might get in a week's worth of games; if he heals slowly, he could miss the first round of the postseason.

The timing is particularly frustrating for Heyward, considering how well he'd been playing of late. After a slow start in April and then a stint on the disabled list after an appendectomy, he was hitting less than .200 in early June. Since June 9, however, he's hit .291/.373/.495 (BA/OBP/SLG). Over his past 22 games, he'd been even hotter, hitting .357/.426/.607 and looking like the dominating force we once envisioned from Heyward when he played so well as a rookie in 2010 at age 20.

This recent stretch coincided with manager Fredi Gonzalez moving Heyward to the leadoff spot. While he's certainly an unconventional leadoff hitter in terms of his size -- he stands 6-foot-5 -- Heyward is clearly the best option the Braves have for the position. They have power throughout the lineup but nobody with Heyward's combination of on-base ability and speed. After cycling through Andrelton Simmons and B.J. Upton and Jordan Schafer and Jose Constanza for four games and back to Simmons, Gonzalez finally wised up and turned to Heyward. It's hardly the only reason, but Heyward's production has been a huge reason the team has gone 19-4 since he moved into the leadoff spot.

That leaves Gonzalez with two spots to fill: right field and leadoff hitter. He can try to force Simmons back to the leadoff spot or try Upton there once again. Neither seems like a good option, considering both have sub-.300 on-base percentages. Schafer is back after his own injury problems and presumably will be given a chance, but he's also started only against right-handed pitchers. National League batting leader Chris Johnson would be the out-of-the-box choice, but Gonzalez might not want to mess with what's working, and that's Johnson hitting fifth in the order of late.

Schafer can move into right field, or the Braves could slide Justin Upton back to his old position, with Schafer, Evan Gattis and Joey Terdoslavich taking over left (although Upton sat out Wednesday's game with a back strain). As ESPN Stats & Information writes, no matter the alignment, the Braves' defense is going to take a hit. Heyward won the Gold Glove last year, and deservedly so; he's one of the best right fielders in the game, with outstanding range and a strong arm. Neither Upton brother has graded out as a plus defender this year, and Gattis would be a left fielder in name only.

It's that defense that has made Heyward a much more valuable player than many have credited him as being. After his big rookie season at age 20 in 2010, many projected him as a future MVP. A shoulder injury affected him as a sophomore, and he hit just .227. He rebounded last year to hit .269 with 27 home runs, although without the walk rate he had as a rookie that had stats geeks making comparisons to the best young hitters ever. Still, he earned 5.8 WAR in 2012 and was at 3.0 this season. The injuries this year leave you wondering whether he's going to be a guy who is snakebit, although I would argue no; the appendectomy and Wednesday's beaning were freak things.

The big picture for the Braves is getting Heyward healthy for the division series. It's really pretty simple analysis: They're not as good without him.

This is how you win 13 games in a row. You're tied 3-3 in the eighth inning. With two outs, Andrelton Simmons doubles. A guy named Joey Terdoslavich walks. Jason Heyward singles in one run, Justin Upton doubles in two and then the league's best bullpen does its job the final two innings. Heyward and Upton get the glory stats with the RBIs, but the key at-bat of the inning in the Braves' 6-3 win over the Nationals was Terdoslavich walking on a 3-2 pitch.

1. Thirteen in a row is pretty awesome. How often does it happen? Since 1990, here are the streaks of of 13 games or longer:

2002 A's: 20 (second-longest in history)
2001 Mariners: 15
2000 Braves: 15
1991 Twins: 15
1999 Padres: 14
1994 Royals: 14
1991 Rangers: 14
1999 Orioles: 13
1992 Braves: 13
1991 Phillies: 13

And now the 2013 Braves. That's 11 streaks in 24 seasons, so it happens on average about once every two seasons or so. Pretty impressive.

2. Kris Medlen looked pretty good on Wednesday. He's only 9-10, however. What's going on there?

Medlen, of course, had that unhittable stretch as a starter last season, going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He's been much more hittable this season, without the same fastball command and precise location on his change. Opponents are slugging .450 off his fastball as opposed to .355 last year. But it was the changeup that was absolutely devastating a season ago: Batters hit .087 (10-for-115) with one home run; it was arguably the best pitch in the game. In 2013, they're hitting .210, although with just two home runs, so he's still keeping it down in the zone. Maybe he's not the ace some projected at the start of the season, but he's pretty solid.

3. But they don't need him to be an ace, do they?

Not with the way Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are pitching. Minor is finally starting to get some publicity, but it's the rookie Teheran who has been the big surprise. Since giving up 13 runs and five home runs in his first three starts, he's posted a 2.38 ERA and has allowed zero runs or one run 10 times in 19 starts. He's legit.

4. How about Jason Heyward hitting leadoff?

I love it. Simmons is not a leadoff guy with his sub-.300 OBP. Heyward may have the body of a cleanup hitter but he's the best leadoff option for the Braves right now, so it was a smart move by Fredi Gonzalez to move him there in late July. The Braves are 12-0 since that move, which is mostly coincidence, but partly getting a lineup into a more efficient order.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton, Brian McCann
AP Photo/Nick Wass Is Justin Upton the Braves' key ingredient?

5. Justin Upton appears to the straw that stirs the drink, no?

He does. I can't explain what happened during that two-month funk when he hit .224 with two home runs in 54 games. After going 3-for-4 against the Nationals, Upton now has a 12-game hitting streak during which he's batting .440 with five home runs -- those Upton home runs that have that special sound. Remember when Upton started the season red-hot and carried the Braves to a 12-1 start? So two hot Upton stretches, two hot Braves stretches.

6. Is Freddie Freeman the new Chipper Jones?

He kind of is, in that he seems like the heart and soul of this team, so to speak. He's famous for hugs and he's getting famous for his bat. He's hitting .311 with 79 RBIs and some people feel he's been the team MVP. He's also starting to enter the periphery of the NL MVP discussion as well.

7. OK, the bullpen. How awesome is it? There's that word again.

Pretty hard to say it isn't the best. It has the lowest ERA in the majors (2.40), the lowest batting average allowed (.212), the lowest OPS (.589), the best winning percentage (22-8) and the fewest home runs allowed (16). Craig Kimbrel had a little blip earlier when he blew three saves but he's now converted 26 in a row and has allowed one run his past 32 innings. Considering the Braves lost Jonny Venters in spring training and Eric O'Flaherty early in the year, kudos to Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell for their work in handling Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and the rest.

8. Chris Johnson! Dude! How could you wait to No. 8 here to mention him?

No kidding. Two more hits on Wednesday, raising his average to .339, best in the NL. It's insane. His batting average on balls in play is .419. That's not off the charts, that's impossible. Only four players since 1950 have hit .400 on balls in play according to Baseball-Reference, with Rod Carew's .408 in 1977 the "record."

9. Dan Uggla? Why does everyone hate him?

Because he's Dan Uggla.

10. OK, the schedule has something to do with this, right? The NL East is kind of a joke.

True, but the streak did start with three wins over the Cardinals. But you know? The Braves have only seven games the rest of the season against teams currently with winning records (four against St. Louis, three against Cleveland). With a 70-45 record and 47 games remaining, the Braves could be on their way to 100 wins.

11. You forgot to mention Andrelton Simmons' defense!

I did. Thanks for covering me there.

Coming into the season, the Atlanta Braves' outfield was supposed to be the team's strength. Not only did it appear Jason Heyward was coming into his own, but the club acquired both Justin Upton and B.J. Upton over the winter, giving them three high-upside outfielders with All-Star potential in their early-to-mid 20s.

As you're probably aware, things haven't worked out as planned. Although Justin Upton had a fantastic April, the entire trio has struggled for the past two-plus months, hitting a combined .211 with 14 home runs since May 1.

And insult turned to injury this week: Heyward had to leave Thursday’s game early with a hamstring strain (he’s day-to-day), and then in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, both Uptons had to leave due to injury -- B.J. with an adductor strain and Justin with a strained left calf.

It would be easy to panic and think, "Oh no, the Braves are in trouble." But here’s the thing: The outfield has been awful for most of the season, and yet the club still sits in first place in the National League East, 13 games above .500 (53-40) and six games ahead of the Washington Nationals.

Thanks to Justin Upton's hot start, Evan Gattis' heroics, the steady performance of Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson -- not to mention the resurgent Brian McCann -- the Braves' offense has been surprisingly potent (third in the NL in runs). Meanwhile, the deepest pitching staff in the league has posted a 3.25 ERA, good for second-best in the league, all of which has provided the club with that six-game cushion.

With that in mind, allow me to offer the Braves a piece of unsolicited advice: Take it slow with your outfielders. If all three need to go on the DL, so be it. This would be the time to do it. You have four days off next week, which would mean they would each only miss about 10 games, which is practically nothing. Besides, it’s not as if these guys have been helping the team much anyway.

If the Braves are going to win the World Series, they are going to need production from Heyward and the Uptons, and maybe a little bit of a physical (and mental) break will help get all three of them back on track for the stretch run. It certainly can’t hurt.

Atlanta should be thrilled it has the luxury of such a large cushion, and that affords the club a lot of leeway here. Besides, it’s not like the replacements can play much worse.

The Atlanta Braves are a team built around its star outfield trio, and a big reason the Braves are a mediocre 33-32 since soaring to a 12-1 start is that Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward haven't been producing.

The Braves hold the largest lead of any NL division leader at 6 games, but that two-month stretch of .500 baseball has Braves fans wondering what big move the club will make before the trade deadline.

I'm not sure they make a move; this is pretty much the team you're going to see the rest of the season, and the best way for the Braves to improve -- and to hold off that potential NL East run from the Nationals -- is for those outfielders to start hitting.

Justin Upton hit 12 home runs in his first 23 games, riding that hot start to a potential starting berth in the All-Star Game, but he's hit .211 with three home runs in 50 games since then. B.J. Upton continues to struggle below the Mendoza Line and Heyward is hitting .216 after missing time earlier following an appendectomy.

There was some positive news on Tuesday, as Heyward hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning off Royals reliever Tim Collins in a 4-3 victory, his first homer all season off a lefty. While Heyward has played much better in June -- .297/.354/.484 with four home runs -- the overall season lines for the three are obviously a big disappointment compared to preseason projections (via Dan Szymborski):

Justin Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .263/.348/.442, 3.0 WAR
Current stats: .241/.351/.455, 1.2 WAR

B.J. Upton
Preseason ZiPS: .251/.322/.455, 3.5 WAR
Current stats: .177/.273/.315, -0.9 WAR

Jason Heyward
Preseason ZiPS: .265/.341/.472, 4.0 WAR
Current stats: .216/.318/.356, 0.3 WAR

You probably noticed one thing, however: Justin Upton is actually hitting right near his projected numbers; maybe he's gotten there in a peculiar fashion, but his overall line isn't a surprise. Instead of hitting like an MVP candidate, he's hitting like a guy who misses hitting in Arizona. Upton is actually hitting .275 with a .941 OPS on the road, but just .203 with a .656 at home.

Through April 27 he was hitting .305 with 12 home runs. What's been the difference for him since his hot start?

Before April 27 he wasn't missing anything in the horizontal middle of the plate. Of those 12 home runs, three had come on pitches in the middle-outside part of the plate, four on middle, two on middle-in and two actually came on inside pitches out of the zone. At that point in the season, here were his various swing data:

Swing percentage: 44 percent
Miss percentage: 29 percent
Chase percentage: 22 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 51 percent

Swing data since April 28:

Swing percentage: 43 percent
Miss percentage: 35 percent
Chase percentage: 21 percent
Percentage of pitches in zone: 47 percent

Here's what his batting average zones look like since April 28:

UptonESPN Stats & InformationJustin Upton is swinging and missing more often since April 28.

So there isn't a big difference in his approach; he's just swinging and missing more often. One note there: He's seeing more pitches up in the zone -- about 5 percent more often since that hot start -- and that's the pitch he's been struggling with. Since April 28, he's hitting .160 on pitches up. On the season, he's 0-for-22 on fastballs up in the zone (with eight walks and 17 strikeouts). He's going to keep seeing hard stuff until he shows he can turn on it.

B.J. Upton's struggles have been well documented. He's worked on his mechanics, but he's struggling to connect with the fastball: He's hit .194 against them, good for 158th out 161 regulars (only Josh Hamilton, Yuniesky Betancourt and Adeiny Hechavarria have a lower average).

Heyward's struggles against left-handers have become a legitimate problem on his path to stardom. After holding his own against them as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010, he's done little damage since:

2010: .249/.356/.399
2011: .192/.270/.308
2012: .224/.280/.354
2013: .185/.264/.308

His home run off Collins was a long blast to right-center off an 0-2 curveball. Collins wanted to go low and away but left it over the middle of the plate. "I was just looking for a pitch in the zone to hit," Heyward said. "Looking for a pitch in the zone to hit right there and try not to miss it. Put a good swing on it." It was just his fourth hit in 33 at-bats with two strikes against a lefty pitcher.

Braves fans seem to have their venom directed at Dan Uggla, but this team wasn't built to win based on Uggla hitting 36 home runs like he did in 2011. This team was counting on Upton, Upton and Heyward to be the best all-around outfield in the league. That is far from the case. It could be that the big decision the Braves face isn't a deadline trade, but manager Fredi Gonzalez determining if Jordan Schafer (.317/.406/.475 in 141 plate appearances) deserves more playing time.

Until or unless that becomes closer to a reality, don't count out the Nationals eventually making a run for the division title.