SweetSpot: Russell Martin

The suspensions are in from Sunday's Brewers-Pirates fracas and they seem pretty fair to me:

Notably absent is Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, who kind of instigated the whole thing when he yelled at Gomez after Gomez's triple. Still, yelling at a guy isn't the same thing as throwing at a batter's head, so I'm not sure you can really call Cole an instigator here just because Gomez reacted (Brewers fans, of course, will disagree).

Anyway, I think there's a bigger picture here. This whole "play the game the right way" thing has gotten out of control. What's the right way? As Jon Paul Morosi wrote on FOX:
But for the most part, Gomez needs to be celebrated -- not discouraged -- for what he brings to major league baseball. At a time when the sport's message on instant replay and home-plate collisions has become muddled, Gomez illuminates an even greater concern: Why do major league players take exception to peers who have the audacity to enjoy themselves on a baseball field?

If Gomez's story sounds familiar, it should. Replace "Carlos Gomez" with "Yasiel Puig" or "Jose Fernandez," and the basic theme holds true: A Latin American-born player has become a star in the major leagues, and he's supposed to "tone down" his celebrations and remove the individuality from his game because "we don't do that here."

In my chat Tuesday, we had a big discussion about Gomez and his theatrics on the field. Gomez, who also had a flare-up against the Braves last September, is the common link, one reader wrote. Jacob from Georgia wrote, "Why do people keep pretending the [Brian] McCann/Gomez incident was about pimping a home run? It's blatantly clear to anyone who saw it happen that McCann and [Freddie] Freeman and everybody else were simply sticking up for [Paul] Maholm. Guys have pimped homers against the Braves before plenty of times, and we haven't seen McCann do anything. McCann got in Gomez's face because Gomez made a fool of himself by screaming at Maholm unprovoked. I guess it makes for a better mindless meme if we pretend that McCann is the rules police though, regardless of how little sense it makes."

Of course, it's not that simple, is it? Maholm had hit Gomez earlier in the season so Gomez probably had a rush of adrenaline after hitting the home run, screamed, and then had Freeman yelling at him as he rounded first base and McCann standing in the middle of the baseline as he neared home plate. McCann, of course, had another incident earlier in September with Fernandez. The Braves also had a bench-clearing incident against the Nationals in August after Julio Teheran hit Bryce Harper.

Plus, all this showing enjoyment and emotion on the field isn't a new thing. Pete Rose ran to first base on walks; he wasn't given the nickname "Charlie Hustle" out of admiration. Rickey Henderson had his snap catch in the outfield and was showboating home runs in the '80s. Dennis Eckersley used to point at batters after striking them out. Roger Clemens showed up to a playoff game with war paint on his face. You don't think Babe Ruth styled a few home runs?

I mean, we can go back to the days when players hit home runs and ran the bases with their heads down and didn't even stop as they crossed home plate. Or we can enjoy that there are different ways to play the game.

Before the postseason, Pedro Alvarez looked like the key guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as much as one player can be the key guy (this isn't basketball, after all).

Alvarez is a prodigious slugger -- he tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs -- but he also hit just .233 and led the league with 186 strikeouts. He can carry a team when he gets hot, like he did in June when he hit .309 with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. But he's also prone to spells of strikeouts and little production, like when he hit .180 in April or a 25-game stretch from late August through into September when he hit .178 with just two homers.

A good sign for the Pirates was Alvarez snapping out of that last slump with two home runs the final weekend of the regular season in Cincinnati. He went 0-for-3 in the wild-card win over the Reds, hitting a sacrifice fly, and then homered for the Pirates' only run in 9-1 loss in Game 1 against the Cardinals and went 2-for-4 with another home run in Game 2.

So Alvarez has been swinging the bat well, which set the stage for two key plate appearances in Sunday's critical Game 3, which ended up a 5-3 victory for the Pirates -- critical because, of the past 15 division series that were tied 1-1, the Game 3 winner has won the series 14 times (the exception being the 2011 Cardinals beating the Phillies).

[+] EnlargePedro Alvarez
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPedro Alvarez's problems with lefties should make him a target for late-game matchups, but he beat the rap on Sunday.
In the sixth inning, with the game deadlocked 2-2, runners at second and third with one out, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had starter Joe Kelly intentionally walk Alvarez and brought in ground-ball specialist Seth Maness to pitch to Russell Martin, who hit a sacrifice fly. You can quibble about Matheny's move here, but it looked like a toss-up: Maness had a double-play rate of 30 percent in possible DP situations; Alvarez had a strikeout rate of 30 percent during the regular season. The third option would have been using lefty Randy Choate to face Alvarez and go for the strikeout, and Choate is basically here to get Alvarez out in a big situation. But again, Maness versus Martin isn't a terrible matchup for St. Louis, even if it did load the bases (which I'm rarely a fan of).

(If anything, the bigger issue was letting Kelly start the inning with Andrew McCutchen leading off. Considering the Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers on the roster and considering the magnitude of the game, letting Kelly go through the order a third time was the risky move. Numbers show pitchers fare worse the third time through an order, and while Kelly did have a 2.69 ERA for the Cardinals, he also outpitched his peripherals; there was good logic to go with the bullpen to start the inning. McCutchen walked and Marlon Byrd doubled with one out, knocking out Kelly.)

Anyway, Martin hit a sac fly off Maness to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead.

To the eighth inning, after Carlos Beltran homered to tie the game (paging Reggie Jackson: somebody wants to borrow your nickname). Matheny went to rookie Carlos Martinez with McCutchen again leading off -- choosing Martinez over veteran Edward Mujica, the team's closer most of the season who hit the wall in September when he allowed 18 hits and nine runs in 7 1/3 innings.

Martinez just turned 22 and has just 28 innings in the majors but has a monster arm that can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. If they say the postseason is about power pitching then you can't argue too much with this move, and Matheny and the Cards have decided they're going with the kids this October -- installing rookie Trevor Rosenthal as the closer late in the year, giving other key outs to rookie relievers Maness and Kevin Siegrist, and they'll start Michael Wacha, another rookie, in Game 4.

But Martinez is also a bit of a one-pitch guy with an inconsistent curveball and batters did hit .313 off his fastball. McCutchen fouled off a 101-mph heater but Martinez then threw two balls and McCutchen knew what was coming and doubled to left field off a 97-mph heater. Justin Morneau grounded to short, with McCutchen foolishly darting for third where he was easily thrown out. Marlon Byrd walked on a 3-2 curveball -- seven of the eight pitches Martinez threw him were curves, certainly an interesting set of calls by Yadier Molina -- setting the stage for Alvarez.

Matheny correctly went to the hard-throwing lefty Siegrist, who averaged 95 mph and touches 99 on his fastball (where do the Cardinals find all these guys?). Alvarez hit just .180 against left-handers with just three of his 36 home runs. You could argue that Clint Hurdle should have hit for Alvarez, but Alvarez is one of his guys, do or die.

Toeing the rubber, Siegrist threw three fastballs. At 1-1, Alvarez lined the third fastball into right for an RBI single, scoring pinch-runner Josh Harrison. Good decision by Matheny, better result by Alvarez. Russell Martin added another RBI single for the final margin.

One interesting note is how the Pirates played aggressively in the field -- it hurt when McCutchen got caught at third -- and also on the managerial front. Hurdle pinch-hit for shortstop Clint Barmes with Jose Tabata in the sixth when the Pirates led 3-2; with two runners on, he was hoping to get an insurance run and was willing to sacrifice defense. While Matheny waited a couple batters too long to pull Kelly, Hurdle removed Francisco Liriano after six innings, even though he'd allowed just three hits and lefty Jon Jay was leading off the seventh for St. Louis. Liriano was only at 101 pitches, so he could have remained in the game, but Hurdle was not going to wait a batter too long to remove his starter.

Wacha faces Charlie Morton on Monday, and I'd give the pitching edge to Wacha, but the emotional and home-field edge to the Pirates. The Cardinals need leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter (.091, .231 OBP in three games) to get on base in front of Beltran. Both pens are in good shape and with an off day on Tuesday neither manager should hesitate to go to their relievers.

In other words: I expect another key matchup for Mr. Alvarez.

At the All-Star Game, I asked Joey Votto about the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was back when everyone was still skeptical about the Pirates, or at least a little skeptical given their second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012.

"They're 100 percent legitimate," Votto said. He then brought up Francisco Liriano. "For all the complaining people do about player contracts and players getting hammered for bad one-year deals or bad 10-year deals or whatever, there isn't enough being written about Francisco Liriano," Votto said. "That guy is so valuable to them."
[+] EnlargeFrancisco Liriano
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWith a win in the books, Francisco Liriano can afford to applaud Clint Hurdle's decision to start him against the Reds.

Prophetic words, because on an electric night in Pittsburgh, Pirates fans filled PNC Park with cheers, chants and the pure joy of watching October baseball for the first time since 1992. Andrew McCutchen’s mom sang the national anthem, former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek threw out the first pitch, and then Liriano threw down the gauntlet.

He retired the first nine Reds in dominant fashion, needing just 28 pitches. When Marlon Byrd and then Russell Martin homered off Reds starter Johnny Cueto in the second inning, the park exploded in a symphony of exultation and derisive chants of "Cue-to, Cue-to." It was good to be a Pirates fan.

After the Pirates made it 3-0 in the third, the key at-bat of the game arguably came in the top of the fourth. Liriano hit Shin-Soo Choo to start the inning and Ryan Ludwick singled, bringing up Votto, a chance for the Reds to have a big inning and get back in the game.

The Reds' three best hitters are Votto, Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, which is why this was a tough matchup for them: Liriano destroyed lefties this season, holding them to a .131 average with just two doubles and no home runs allowed. Basically, he turns left-handed hitters into pitchers. But this is Votto, the guy who knows how to work the count and wait for his pitch better than any hitter in baseball. Back in July, he talked about Liriano's fastball/slider combination and how much better he looked than when he had faced him when Liriano was with the Twins. He thought Liriano had simplified his approach, focusing more on just those two pitches, at least to left-handed hitters.

Slider, fouled off; swing and miss at a slider low in the dirt; slider off the plate, swing and miss. Three sliders, goodbye Votto.

The Reds did manage to score a run in the inning, and Todd Frazier cracked a long foul ball that just missed being a three-run homer and giving the Reds a lead, but that inning was the Reds' missed opportunity.

After that, things fell apart for Cincinnati. Cueto was lifted in the bottom of the fourth, Neil Walker, who had one extra-base hit off a left-hander all season, doubled off Sean Marshall, Brandon Phillips booted a routine double-play ball, getting one out instead of two and allowing a run to score. It was 5-1 and Liriano was just too good this game.

He went seven innings, allowing just four hits and one walk, striking out five. Choo, Votto and Bruce went 1-for-8 with a hit batter and four strikeouts. The pitcher who had trouble throwing strikes during much of his Twins career threw 64 strikes in his 90 pitches.

It's interesting to note that the stars of this game were Liriano and Martin (who added a second home run), two offseason under-the-radar free-agent signings by general manager Neal Huntington; Byrd, the astute late-season pickup from the Mets acquired to fill a hole in right field; and then veteran Jason Grilli, the guy trusted as the closer despite having only five career saves beforehand, who finished it off in the ninth. This team is built around likely National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, but Huntington's deals (last year's closer Joel Hanrahan was traded for setup man Mark Melancon) added the depth the Pirates teams of the past two years lacked.

After the game, Martin had a grin as wide as the Allegheny as he was interviewed on TV. He looked around the ballpark and said, "Hopefully we can keep this atmosphere late into October."

The Pirates have been the story of the year in baseball. It gets to continue, at least for a few more games, and hopefully for more than a few more games. On to St. Louis, the next step in the long haul to the World Series.

Reds-Pirates: What to watch for

October, 1, 2013
Whether or not you like the one-and-done format of the wild-card game, it does present a great opportunity to second guess everything the managers do, from roster management to pitching changes, bunts and, of course, when to use your closer.

Tim Kurkjian has five key questions for the game, but here some other key components on how this game may play out.
  • Obviously, to a large degree the outcome rests on the starting pitchers, even knowing quick hooks are in order. The Reds' three best hitters are Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce, all left-handed, so that's why Clint Hurdle is going with Francisco Liriano, who held lefties to a .131/.175/.146 batting line. He allowed just two extra-base hits to left-handers, both doubles. Liriano had one blow-up 10-run start against the Rockies, but he's been very consistent all season. He had just one other start where he allowed more than four runs -- and that was against the Reds. Still, to beat Liriano, it's likely the Reds' right-handed batters that will have to do some damage.
  • Meanwhile, Mat Latos was the likely starter for the Reds until he admitted he had pain in his elbow, diagnosed as bone chips. So Johnny Cueto draws the start. He's made just two starts since missing three months with an oblique strain, similar to the injury that knocked him out of Game 1 of last year's Division Series. He pitched well in those two starts, but they came against the Astros and Mets, so it's hard to read too much into those. While he's made just 11 starts this season, don't forget how good this guy has been: 2.61 ERA over the past three seasons. Cueto throws a fastball, slider and cutter, but his big pitch is a changeup that induces a lot of groundballs. Over the past two seasons, batters are hitting just .217 against the changeup (and .097 in 2013 in 62 at-bats). He threw 99 pitches his last start, so he's ready to go as deep as Dusty Baker needs.
  • This is going to be an armchair manager's dream because there are going to be a ton of potential matchups that could come into play. For Hurdle, he's gone with a nine-man pitching staff. Gerrit Cole is the long man/extra-inning guy, with lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson available to face the Choo/Votto/Bruce section of the lineup. Wilson and Watson can both get righties out, so Hurdle doesn't have to treat them as LOOGYs. The right-handers are Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, plus Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez. Basically, assuming Liriano goes even just five innings, Hurdle should be able to get the matchups he wants in the late innings, as Baker doesn't really have many pinch-hitting/platoon options on his bench.
  • You could argue that Chris Heisey should be in the starting lineup over Choo, who hit .215 with no home runs against lefties. He did post a .347 OBP, but part of that was HBP-induced (he was hit by a league-leading 26 pitches) and Liriano didn't hit a batter. I realize Baker isn't going to suddenly change, but the numbers say this is a bad matchup for Choo.
  • The Reds are carrying four left-handers in the bullpen -- Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Manny Parra and Zach Duke -- and 10 pitchers overall (Mike Leake is the long man/extra-inning guy). The extra lefties give Baker the ability to match up with Pedro Alvarez, Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, all of whom have big platoon splits. Alvarez and Morneau will start with Jones coming off the bench. But Baker has to be worry about getting too cute here. Hurdle won't hit for Alvarez, but Gaby Sanchez is a platoon bat for Morneau and Jose Tabata is another right-handed bat. Keep in mind the Pirates are carrying an extra position player -- they have three catchers in Russell Martin, John Buck and Tony Sanchez -- so Hurdle has a deeper and more usable bench.
  • As home team, the Pirates have an advantage in using the closer in a tie game. If Baker waits to save Chapman for a save situation, he may never get him in the game. Of course, this doesn't have to be an advantage for the Pirates. Baker doesn't have to wait use Chapman until the Reds take the lead. Look at what happened to the Braves last year: Craig Kimbrel had maybe the greatest closer season of all time but didn't get in the game until it was already 6-3 in the ninth. In the meantime, the Cardinals scored two runs in the seventh inning (some shoddy defense hurt, but Kimbrel could have been used to potentially get out of the inning).
  • Billy Hamilton versus Martin. The rookie speedster is on the roster. Martin threw out 40 percent of base stealers.

Prediction: Liriano is tough, the Pirates have the ability to counteract Baker's moves, the bullpen does the job and Chapman doesn't make an impact. Pirates 4, Reds 2. (And I didn't even mention Andrew McCutchen!)

The 10 best decisions of 2013

September, 25, 2013
Let's take a break from these hectic final days of the season and look back at the 10 best decisions of the season. To me, these were decisions based on good analysis or good scouting or both, with a reasonable chance of working out. Signing Zack Greinke is easy. Having Scott Kazmir work out is good luck. These were calculated decisions that paid off.

10. Tigers don't overpay for a closer. Throughout the offseason, during spring training and into April and May, there were cries for the Tigers to go out and acquire a Proven Closer. General manager Dave Dombrowski resisted and eventually veteran setup man Joaquin Benoit took over as closer ... and has been perfectly great, going 4-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 23 saves and just one blown save. Why give up a good prospect for a closer when one isn't that hard to find?

9. Rays acquire Yunel Escobar. Last year, the Rays got so desperate for some offense at shorstop that Joe Maddon eventually had to move Ben Zobrist there. Escobar went from Toronto to Miami in the big Jose Reyes-Josh Johnson-Mark Buehrle trade, and then Tampa Bay got him for marginal prospect Derek Dietrich. Escobar wore out his welcome in Atlanta and Toronto, but hasn't had any issues in Tampa. The Rays didn't panic when Escobar was hitting under .200 in mid-May. He turned things around and has had a solid .258/.333/.370 season. These days, that's good offense from a shortstop.

8. Dodgers sign Hyun-Jin Ryu. For all the talk about the Dodgers' enormous payroll, they brought Ryu over from Korea with a $25.7 million bid and a reasonable six-year, $36 million contract. That's about $10 million a year for a pitcher who has gone 14-7 with a 2.97 ERA. That's only $8 million more than the Cubs gave for four years of Edwin Jackson, who has a 4.74 ERA. Chalk it up to good scouting.

7. A's trade for Jed Lowrie. Oakland had terrible production from its shortstops in 2012 and only had to give up platoon first baseman/DH Chris Carter to acquire the injury-prone Lowrie. It was a trade with little risk for the A's but high upside: Yes, Carter had power but he was never going to be a star with all of his strikeouts. Lowrie has stayed healthy and been one of the top hitting shortstops in the majors.

6. Reds trade for Shin-Soo Choo. This was a perfect example of a team identifying an obvious need -- the Reds needed a leadoff hitter -- and going out and solving the problem. Even though he struggles against left-handers, Choo is second in the National League in on-base percentage, walks and runs. His defense in center field has been a minor liability instead of a major one and the Reds are heading back to the playoffs.

5. Red Sox acquire good clubhouse guys. More importantly, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes also produced on the field. Victorino was a signing I liked even though it was widely panned -- I liked the idea of having a second center fielder in right field and a good option in case Jacoby Ellsbury got injured. Victorino's offense has been a bonus and his defense has been terrific.

4. Marlins give Jose Fernandez a job out of spring training. Fernandez didn't pitch above A-ball last year, so when he broke camp with the Marlins everybody wondered why the desire to rush him and start his service time when the Marlins weren't going to be any good. But sometimes you have to do the obvious thing: Like Dwight Gooden in 1984, Fernandez had to be in the major leagues because he was that good. All Fernandez did was post a 2.19 ERA and hold batters to a .522 OPS, the lowest for a starter since Pedro Martinez in 2000.

3. Pirates sign Russell Martin. The Pirates made several smart moves -- trading for Mark Melancon, giving the closer job to Jason Grilli, signing Francisco Liriano (although that one produced more upside than anyone could have imagined) -- but Martin was an under-the-radar move that solved a huge problem for the Pirates. Last year, the Pirates allowed 154 stolen bases while catching just 19 basestealers, an abysmal 11 percent caught stealing rate. Thanks to Martin, they've cut that total to 93 steals and 43 caught stealing, a 32 percent rate (Martin has caught 40 percent). Martin is also one of the better pitch framers around and his offense has been about league average. With what he's meant behind the plate, he could see some down-ballot MVP support.

2. Dodgers call up Yasiel Puig. It looks like an easy decision in retrospect, but this was still a 22-year-old kid with just 67 games of minor league experience, 40 of them above A ball. It took some guts to call him up in early June, even if the move was born out of a little desperation. Give credit to the Dodgers correctly analyzing the raw ability and believing he would hold his own in the majors.

1. Cardinals move Matt Carpenter to second. You can probably count the number of successful third base-to-second base conversions on one hand; players rarely move up the defensive spectrum to a tougher position, which is why many expected that Carpenter would soon return to a utility role. But in Carpenter the Cardinals had the perfect pupil: A player in his second season who wanted to break into the starting lineup, but also a 27-year-old with more maturity than most second-year players. He's a smart player with a good ethic. Plus, the Cardinals knew he could hit, not that they expected a .324 average and 55 doubles.

The season's underrated defensive stars

September, 13, 2013

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

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

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

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

What is he doing that those stats are rewarding?

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

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

Brian Dozier, Twins 2B
Pedro Florimon, Twins SS

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

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

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

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

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

Let me show you what I mean:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two reasons for that are:

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

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

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

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

Burnett, Martin key to Pirates' title hopes

August, 15, 2013
A.J. Burnett and Russell MartinMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett and Russell Martin are experiencing good times in Pittsburgh after leaving the Yankees.

ST. LOUIS -- It's the kind of baseball weather in which every kid in the neighborhood should be out playing baseball: 76 degrees, sunny and late summer. Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett are working together on the field like two old pals playing a game of backyard catch. Burnett, the Pittsburgh Pirates veteran starting pitcher looks more relaxed than he has in years, and Martin, the starting catcher, seems at ease.

Yet, here the two are in St. Louis, 963 miles away from New York, where they played together with the New York Yankees in 2011, making a playoff run with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who would have thought when they each left New York, Burnett after 2011 and Martin after 2012, that they would be reunited again in Pittsburgh, helping to lead the underdog Pirates to first place in the NL Central.

"It's been awesome. This team is, it is a team," Martin said. "The guys, they pull for each other. It's not about individual numbers. Guys want to win. It's refreshing."

Many of the players on the Pirates came up through the minor leagues together, and this forms a brotherhood, a big difference between the Yankees and Pirates, as Martin pointed out.

"I remember my early days in L.A. That's kind of how it was," Martin said. "A lot of guys came up together, and you know you go through some battles in the minor leagues and stuff and you kind of bond together. You feel that tightness in this clubhouse. The Yankees -- everybody gets along, it's professional, but it's not quite the same as this is."

Martin knows Burnett well from their time together in New York, and he says he sees a difference in him this season.

"I feel like he's in a better spot," Martin said. "I think he enjoys being the No. 1 guy and being the leader. With the Yankees, he was kind of somewhere in the middle of the pack. He cares, and I think he understands that he's carrying the role of being a leader here.

"Every time he goes out there, he competes. He competes all the way through, and, obviously, he's got the fans behind him."

In New York, Martin said the fans would boo Burnett if he walked a couple of guys in the first inning.

"It's kind of unfair," he added. "But he was one those guys that the media feasted on for some reason. But over here, he's just been electric."

Burnett has a 3.18 ERA, but in Thursday's 6-5, 12-inning loss to the Cardinals that cut Pittsburgh's division lead to two games, Burnett didn't have a great outing, pitching 4⅓ innings while allowing eight hits and five earned runs.

"His fastball was elevated. Some of the two-seams [fastballs] he was trying to throw away ran back over the plate," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The curveball seemed to lose its bite, its tilt. Everything seemed to be working back towards the back and up."

Hurdle says the recent rough few days -- the Pirates have lost five of their past six -- is part of what this team needs to learn.

"The great thing about what we are going through is the challenges and opportunities we are all getting moving forward through the season," he said. "I mean, this is playoff-atmosphere baseball. You are playing against a very good ballclub, so the opportunities -- the challenges that come with it -- are just going to sharpen us for what's in front of us."

It might sound like a nice way to put a tough loss in perspective, but this is what is different about the 2013 Pirates.

"We had a young core, a young group," shortstop Clint Barmes said about last season, when the Pirates collapsed in the final two months. "Guys maybe not sure of their talent or their ability or playing at this level. This year, the difference, in my opinion, is I don't feel any of that in this clubhouse. The guys that maybe got their first taste of the big leagues last year -- and coming back this year -- kind of know what they are getting into and understanding that they belong at this level. The confidence, especially the pitching, it's been fun to watch."

Martin said the team chemistry in Pittsburgh makes the bad days not as bad and the good ones even better. As for Martin and Burnett, the two former Yankees are expecting great things down the stretch.

"We're both competitors, and that's the key to the game," Martin said. "You have to compete with every pitch, you know, not worry about anything else that's going on."

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

June, 27, 2013
Pirates celebrateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Pirates began Thursday at 48-30, tied with St. Louis for baseball's best record.

The Pirates -- the Pittsburgh Pirates -- have the best record in baseball. In late June.

Want to jump aboard the bandwagon? Here's everything you need to know about baseball's best team (as of this writing).

A -- Andrew McCutchen: Pittsburgh's center fielder is the face of the franchise. He even made the cover of "MLB 13 The Show" this year thanks to fan voting. And it was legitimate voting, not like when the mean kids in high school vote an unpopular girl prom queen as a prank. Almost all of McCutchen's offensive numbers so far are well off the pace of his 2012 career highs, yet the Pirates are still winning, and winning a lot. This is the most balanced Pirates team in decades -- excluding the many Pirates teams that achieved perfect roster garbage equilibrium, of course.

B -- Base-stealing: The Pirates have caught 28 percent of attempted base-stealers this year, good for 13th in baseball. What's so great about that? It's a massive improvement over last year, when they were dead last at 11 percent and caught just 19 baserunners attempting to steal -- the lowest total in baseball in 50 years. The reason for the improvement is twofold. New catcher Russell Martin has a better arm than Rod Barajas, and the organization has decided that ignoring baserunners and focusing solely on the hitter, thereby letting every even mildly ambulatory opposing player who reached first to jog to second, was probably not the best approach. Good thinking!

C -- Cole: The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He made his major league debut two weeks ago and struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. He later broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single. With three starts under his belt, Cole is 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA. On Tuesday against the Angels, he became the first starter not named Justin Verlander to hit 101 on the gun since 2008. He probably should call Kate Upton.

D -- Division: The National League Central has long been considered one of baseball's weakest divisions, even though it has produced two of the past seven World Series champions and four of the past nine NL champs. But this season, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds mean the Central has three of the four best records in baseball. Just imagine if they still got to feast off the Astros 15 times a year.

E -- Errors: The Pirates have the seventh-most errors in baseball this season, so that's a definite area for improvement. Errors go both ways, however, as the Pirates know well.

F -- Francisco Liriano: The Pirates agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December, but that contract was renegotiated -- under more favorable terms for the Pirates -- after Liriano broke his arm playing with his kids. Liriano is now 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. A year ago the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, who promptly broke his face bunting in spring training and then had a very good season. The lesson is this: If the Pirates sign a veteran pitcher everyone has given up on and then he sustains a comical injury, watch out.

G -- Grilli: The fourth overall pick by the Giants in the 1997 draft, 36-year-old Jason Grilli was given the closer's job this season after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Grilli leads the National League in saves and has an absurd 15.1 K/9. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. It's a strange world when good fortune shines on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

H -- Hurdle: Manager Clint Hurdle has managed to keep the Pirates positive in the wake of last season's historic collapse. Even better, he no longer has the Pirates bunting every time a guy gets on first base.

I -- Inge: Do the Pirates have the best record in baseball because they are pitching well and getting timely hitting? Or is it because of the INGETANGIBLES provided by Brandon Inge? Inge has a .207/.232/.272 slash line, which only further highlights his intangibles.

J -- Jordy Mercer: One of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses was thought to be that Clint Barmes provides zero offense from the shortstop position. Barmes has continued to provide zero offense, but now he does it from the bench. Since the 26-year-old Mercer took over at shortstop full time two weeks ago, he has hit .326. While Barmes has a higher OBP than Inge, his name unfortunately doesn't work well with intangibles-related word play.

K -- Kansas City Royals: If the Pirates finally end their streak of losing seasons -- they need to play just .404 baseball from here on out to do so -- the Royals will take over as the baseball team with the most consecutive losing seasons. In football, the Raiders have the longest streak of .500 or worse seasons, because the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLefty Jeff Locke could go from maybe-fifth-starter material to the All-Star team.
L -- Locke: Twenty-five year-old Jeff Locke entered spring training as one of the options for the fifth spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. He's now 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP and kind of has to be put on the All-Star team. He seems to be holding the team's depth chart upside-down.

M -- "Million Dollar Arm": "Million Dollar Arm," a Disney film starring Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, the agent who signed Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, is set to be released in 2014. The movie could have an even happier Disney ending if the team that signed Singh and Patel turns out to not be the laughingstock of baseball.

N -- Nineteen Ninety-Two: It's the year burned into the psyche of every Pirates fan. 1992: The last year the Pirates made the playoffs. 1992: The last year the Pirates had a winning season. 1992: When the sadness began. How long ago is 1992? Jaromir Jagr played in the Stanley Cup finals then. OK, maybe not the best example. But it's a long time ago.

O -- Organizational strength: Not only do the Pirates have the best record in major league baseball, but their Triple-A team has the best record in its league. Baseball America rated their farm system seventh-best at the start of the season, which was before the Pirates brought in two more first-round talents in the June draft. They also have McCutchen signed through 2018. It's going to be really hard to screw this up.

P -- Pedro Alvarez: The former No. 2 overall pick may never hit for average or even get on base much, but when he does connect, the ball often lands in a faraway land. If you want to compare Alvarez to a great Pedro from baseball history, go with Cerrano.

Q -- Quacks: The Pirates made news in the offseason when their bizarre practice of putting prospects through a "hell week" of Navy SEALs-style training was revealed. Of course, if the Pirates end the season with the best record in baseball, expect every organization to start doing this. It's a copycat league. Disagree with me and you owe me 75 pushups.

R – Rotation: In Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Cole, Charlie Morton, Locke, Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez, the Pirates have seven solid starters at their disposal, with James McDonald and Jeff Karstens set to come off the disabled list later this season for a total of nine. When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington took the job, Pittsburgh's rotation featured Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny and John Van Benschoten. An improvement, wouldn't you agree?

S -- Starling Marte: In his first full season in the majors, 24-year-old leadoff hitter Starling Marte is making headlines with a .340 OBP, 22 steals and eight home runs. His name also has "Star" in it and Marte loosely rhymes with "party," so he is a pun-loving headline writer's dream.

T -- Trades: Last season, the Pirates made the biggest trade deadline acquisition in their history by getting Rodriguez from the Astros. It was a fine deal for Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez isn't the kind of player who shifts the balance of power in baseball. Making a play for Giancarlo Stanton, however, as ESPN.com's David Schoenfield suggested? Yeah, that would do it. The Pirates have plenty of prospects and pitching to make a major deal happen. The one downside: If the Pittsburgh Pirates become heavy World Series favorites, the world probably ends. So there's that.

U -- Underwater: On June 1, Garrett Jones became the first Pirates player -- and second player in PNC Park history -- to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly. Pirates ownership didn't even demand that he reimburse them for the lost ball, which is definitely a positive sign.

V -- Voting: No Pirates are currently on pace to start in the All-Star Game. Is there a better indicator that the team is relevant than getting ignored by All-Star voters? Also, is Cal Ripken still getting All-Star votes? I'm too afraid to look.

W -- Walker: Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s second baseman. He is also from Pittsburgh. His nickname is the Pittsburgh Kid. Disparage him in any way at your own risk.

X -- eXplode: Burnett's rosin bag exploded in Pittsburgh's season opener.

Normally that would be a bad omen for the Pirates. But they played the Cubs that day, so the Cubs probably sucked up all the negativity in the environment like the sponge of failure that they are.

Y -- Yankees: When Russell Martin signed with the Pirates in the offseason because the Yankees didn't make a comparable offer, he was clearly disappointed to leave the pinstripes. Now the Pirates look clearly superior to the Yankees. There is no one of sound mind who can't enjoy that.

Z -- Zoltan: The Pirates make the "Zoltan" sign -- it's a reference to "Dude, Where's My Car?" ... don't ask -- when they get a big hit. Zoltan also served as the Z in an article very much like this around this very time last season, in which someone wrote that the 2012 Pirates probably wouldn't collapse like the 2011 Pirates because "there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates." Ooof. So, yeah. We’ll see what happens. All aboard the bandwagon! For now. Know that the exits are clearly marked.

DJ Gallo founded SportsPickle.com and has been a staff writer for ESPN's Page 2 and Playbook.

Here's the most important takeaway from the David Price-Tom Hallion incident on Sunday: Hallion missed the call.

Price thought he had struck out Dewayne Wise to end the seventh inning on a pitch on the outside of the corner. He even took a step to the dugout, but Hallion didn't ring up Wise. Price got Wise on the next pitch but after the game said Hallion swore at him.

"I'm walking off the mound, I'm just mad at myself," Price said. "I didn't say a single word or look at him. He [Hallion] yells at me." Hallion told a pool reporter, "I'll come right out bluntly and say he's a liar. I said, 'Just throw the ball.' That's all I said to him."

Something is fishy, but let's start here. Don't call the player a liar if you got the call wrong. Below is the location of the five pitches to Wise; the fourth one is the one in question.

David Price heat mapESPN Stats & InformationDavid Price's fourth pitch was a strike on the outside edge of the plate.
According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Hallion didn't have a good game on Sunday, with a correct call percentage of 83 percent: Out of 199 pitches that were taken in the game, he missed on 33 ball-strike calls. (Price benefited from some bad calls as well.) The league average is 87 percent, so while 83 percent doesn't appear drastically worse than average, it is -- that would be in the bottom-10th percentile of the league. Out of 200 pitches, we're talking a difference of eight pitches, which is certainly enough to potentially help swing the game's outcome.

Is Hallion a bad umpire? We can't go off one game, so let's check the season numbers: He ranks 64th of the 74 umpires who have umped at least one game behind home plate, with a correct percentage of 85.3. But that's only seven games. What about last year? Hallion ranked 66th of 82 umpires at 86.3 percent. In 2011, Hallion ranked 65th of 83 umpires. I think the trend is pretty clear: Hallion isn't very good at calling balls and strikes. He's not the worst, but he's a long way from the best.

He's a crew chief who began his major league career in 1985; he should know better than to offer a comment when asked about Price, let alone call the player a liar. Even if there was a misunderstanding, he should keep his mouth shut; umpires should always remain in the shadow.

In the end, the missed call to Wise didn't matter. Wise grounded out, and the Rays broke open a 3-3 game with three runs in the eighth and two in the ninth to give Price his first win of the season. But this little incident is a reminder: It's never good news when you're reading about umpires. We're stuck with them -- and the job is tough -- but we shouldn't be stuck with umpires who publicly call out pitchers they have to call balls and strikes on.


Which was the most impressive pitching performance of the weekend?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,279)

Three stars
1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez did something Justin Verlander hasn't done, something Jack Morris or Jim Bunning or Hal Newhouser never did in a Tigers uniform: He struck out 17 batters in beating the Braves 1-0 on Friday night, the first win of an impressive sweep for the Tigers as they outscored the Braves 25-7. Sanchez set the Tigers' franchise record for strikeouts -- Mickey Lolich twice fanned 16 in 1969 -- and did it in eight innings. Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman each fanned four times, as Atlanta K'd 18 times altogether. Sanchez also became just the fifth AL pitcher since 1920 to fan at least 17 with one walk or fewer, joining Roger Clemens (twice), Johan Santana, Vida Blue and Luis Tiant.

2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. Zimmermann tossed a one-hit shutout over the Reds on Friday -- a night after Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano had one-hit the Reds. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Zimmermann didn't allow a single hard-hit ball and was especially dominant with his slider, throwing it a season-high 20 times as the Reds went 0-for-8 against it. Amazingly, the Reds became the fourth team since 1920 to have one or fewer in back-to-back games, joining the 2008 Astros, 1996 Tigers and 1965 Mets.

3. Russell Martin, Pirates. The Pirates took two out of three from the Cardinals, with Martin hitting a big home run in Saturday's 5-3 win and two more in Sunday's 9-0 shutout. The Pirates are 8-2 in their past 10 games, winning series against the Cardinals, Phillies and Braves.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Yoenis Cespedes, A's. With Cespedes on the DL, the A's had lost eight of nine. They were staring at an 8-6 deficit when Cespedes stepped in with one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth in his first game since April 12. With Orioles closer Jim Johnson having pitched in four of the team's previous five games, Buck Showalter had lefty Brian Matusz face Cespedes, but Cespedes ripped a low slider out to left-center and tied the game with a long home run, and the A's won in the 10th on a throwing error by third baseman Manny Machado (who tried to throw out a runner at third on a sac bunt).

Best game
Padres 8, Giants 7 (Saturday). The Giants jumped out to a 5-0 lead after two innings, but the Padres rallied for six off Barry Zito in the bottom of the fourth (including a great move by Bud Black to hit for pitcher Eric Stults with Jesus Guzman, who delivered a two-run single). The Giants retook the lead, but the Padres tied it up in the bottom of the seventh. Both bullpens were stellar into the 12th, with the Padres finally beating Giants closer Sergio Romo when Marco Scutaro booted what could have been an inning-ending double-play ball. OK, the Zimmermann game was pretty good as well -- he outdueled Homer Bailey and threw just 91 pitches while Bailey threw just 89 in seven innings. Good luck seeing another game this year that features just 194 pitches.

Hitter on the rise: Brandon Crawford, Giants
Is the light-hitting defensive whiz really hitting .291/.361/.547? He hit his fifth home run on Saturday -- one more than he hit last season.

Pitcher on the rise: Lance Lynn, Cardinals
After a sluggish start, some fans wondered whether Lynn -- who dropped 40 pounds in the offseason -- had dropped too much weight. But he's allowed just three hits and one run over 14 innings in his past two starts.

Team on the rise: Yankees
Wait a minute, they've made the playoffs every year except one since 1995! What are they rising from? What about preseason predictions of their demise? The Yankees swept the Blue Jays over the weekend, the bats are hitting home runs, the rotation is solid, David Phelps and David Robertson have pitched some key innings in the pen and Mariano Rivera looks like he only has another seven or eight years in him. The Yankees have some overachievers early on (Vernon Wells, the now-injured Francisco Cervelli), but as long as CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte continue to pitch well, they should hang in the AL East hunt.

Team on the fall: Angels
The Giants have lost five straight, including a sweep to the Padres, but the Angels lost three of four in Seattle and are staring at the same lousy April they had a year ago. Will Mike Scioscia still be managing the club this time next week?

Yankees fans must learn meaning of hope

March, 28, 2013
New York Yankees fans don't often use the word "hope." It's not that we have an issue with undue optimism; it's just that in the last 18 seasons there's rarely been a need to rely on hope as our sustenance. When your team finishes in first year after year, you stop hoping and you start expecting. Anything less than a World Series championship is a failed season. Fail to make the playoffs, and the year becomes an utter abomination. How lucky have we been over this time? In the only season in which the Yankees did not play October baseball (2008), the team still finished with 89 wins, which would have been enough to secure a postseason berth in other divisions.

Every year we hear it -- the team is old, the players are in decline, the other teams in the division are younger and therefore better -- and every year the Yankees stave off the worst consequences. This season, though, confidence does not run as high. It's not just that Derek Jeter's ankle is bothering him or that Mark Teixeira has a wrist injury or that Alex Rodriguez won't play at least until the All-Star break or that Curtis Granderson will miss at least a month or that the team replaced Nick Swisher with the much-maligned Vernon Wells. It's that all of these things have happened together, leaving the Yankees with an Opening Day lineup that includes just one of their star infielders (Robinson Cano).

A feeling of frustration predominates. If the team, despite its best efforts, just wasn't good enough because it was too young or was too hampered by being a small-market team with a limited payroll, that would be one thing, but that's not the feeling here. The Yankees aren't a small-market team and they aren't inexperienced. If the Yankees struggle, it's because the wounds are self-inflicted.

Most teams might be able to get under a $189 million payroll without making any tremendous sacrifice, but the Yankees can't suddenly pretend that the contracts of Rodriguez and Teixeira (among others) don't exist. The front office built a team that offered little roster flexibility and would be dependent on the successes of their big-money acquisitions. It worked in 2009, but that's now four years ago, and happened in that time.

Four years ago, Jesus Montero was the poster child for a revamped farm system. Now Montero is playing for the Mariners -- part of a trade from which the Yankees have yet to benefit. Four years ago the idea that Francisco Cervelli would be an Opening Day catcher would have been laughable. Today it's a reality. The frustration isn't so much that Montero isn't a Yankee -- at the time the trade was made, the Yankees were in desperate need of pitching help -- but that the team could have re-signed Russell Martin for $9-10 million, or less than they'll be paying Wells this season.

So there's a very real possibility that we Yankees fans, especially those born in the mid-'80s or later, will have to learn what it's like to rely on hope instead of expectations. The best part of baseball, of course, is that no matter what's predicted on paper, the games still have to be played, and a lot can happen over the course of a season six months long. Who knows, maybe Wells will turn into a more than adequate replacement for Swisher. Stranger things have happened.

Rebecca Glass writes for the You Can't Predict Baseball blog, with nightly roundups during the season. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccapbp.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)

Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).

Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.

Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Pirates win?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,043)

Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.

Yesterday's journeymen become 2012 stars

June, 9, 2012
Bryan LaHair Benny Sieu/US PresswireBryan LaHair, 29, is in the top five in the National League in slugging, OBP and OPS.

At 28 years old and after spending much of the previous five seasons in Triple-A, Bryan LaHair was a purportedly “known” quantity -- Quadruple-A bat, perhaps a fill-in first baseman. In his one brief shot at The Show in Seattle in 2008, he split time at first base with utilityman Miguel Cairo and Jose Lopez. He didn't shine, and it was back to Tacoma the next year. In short, he seemed a man doomed to a dim star on an obscure walk of fame to be named later, perhaps in Tacoma, maybe in Iowa.

He changed that in his sixth campaign in the Pacific Coast League, changing the minds of scouts and analysts alike with 28 homers and a 1.070 OPS. And this year, taken seriously for the first time, he's a 29-year-old getting his first real shot at everyday play in the major leagues ... and blowing the league away. He's third in the National League in slugging, fourth in OBP, and fourth in OPS. And all it took to bring him to Wrigleyville was a minor-league contract, after the Mariners let him slip away as a minor league free agent.

By simultaneously shredding expectations and opposing pitchers, LaHair is providing a fine example that players' career paths aren't simply a matter of forecasting off past performance. That works on the macro level, for most players. But whether as a matter of changing their game or finally getting opportunities they'd long deserved, a few past-prime players are making the most of their opportunities this season.

You can't quite come up with a full lineup's worth of these guys, but beyond LaHair, here's my off-the-cuff list of this season's other “surprise stars,” some of whom will belong in Kansas City as full-fledged All-Stars in a month's time.

C A.J. Ellis, Dodgers: Say what you will about catching always being in short supply -- and it isn't -- Ellis had to wait until this year to get a clean shot at a catching job. Now 31, he's pretty much the perfect example of an organizational soldier: He spent his first two full seasons after getting picked in the 18th round out of Austin Peay as a backup at High-A, caddying for Russell Martin and then Edwin Bellorin (once upon a time a well-regarded Venezuelan prospect).

Ellis finally became a regular in Double-A in 2006. From the start, he showed tremendous ability to get on base, but the Dodgers kept him at the same slow pace, as he spent two years in the Southern League and two years in the PCL before graduating to two years as a big-league backup. That sort of long-form apprenticeship that seemed certain to lock him into little more than membership in the International Brotherhood of Backup Backstops.

Perhaps only taken seriously as a starter as a matter of grudging last resort this past winter, when the market offered slim pickings as far as catching help, Ellis is second only to Yadier Molina among NL catchers in his production at the plate while throwing out 41 percent of opponents' steal attempts. Ellis might be this group's best bet beyond LaHair to be headed to Kansas City for the All-Star Game.

SS Mike Aviles, Red Sox: It has been a bumpy road for Aviles since his old-rookie debut as a 27-year-old with the Royals in 2008. In K.C., he had to contend with injuries and the idea that he wasn't really a shortstop. This year, shortstops are putting up the collectively lowest OPS (.678) or OPS+ (88), so Aviles' .711 OPS/90 OPS+ clip is just a wee bit above average, not shabby considering he's also doing fine at short, according to advanced fielding metrics. Beyond buying time for Jose Iglesias, this has proven a relatively high-yield, low-expense gamble for the Sox: League-average shortstops usually cost millions on the market, but Boston got him for an organizational arm (Kendal Volz) and Yamaico Navarro, a utility player so interesting that K.C. flipped him to the Pirates, who have already ditched him in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeAlejandro De Aza
AP Photo/Brian KerseyCenter fielder Alejandro De Aza is making the most of his chance to play every day at age 28.
CF Alejandro De Aza, White Sox: If LaHair is the slugging surprise of the season, De Aza is the out-of-nowhere leadoff solution most teams need. Back in 2007, he got an opportunity with the Marlins, leading off on Opening Day, but injuries to first one ankle and then the other derailed that season and the next. In 2009, he gave the first indication that he wasn't just going to be a speed guy, slugging .506 for New Orleans; the Marlins were so impressed they let him slip away on a waiver claim by the White Sox. Finally getting a shot at everyday play as a 28-year-old in the one-hole, he's hitting .299/.381/.425 and he's holding his own in center. Juan Pierre never looked this good, but a crowd of quality center fielders in the American League will keep De Aza from All-Star status.

OF Gregor Blanco, Giants: Melky Cabrera isn't the only Giants outfielder having a season well beyond anything he's done before. A Braves prospect they lost interest in, he was dealt to the Royals, who dealt him to D.C. before the Nationals ditched him. All he's ever done is get on base; he just needed an opportunity. He got one when general manager Brian Sabean fished him off the discard pile this past winter. Pushing his way past Nate Schierholtz, Blanco has hit his way into everyday play in right field and the leadoff job with a .387 OBP as a 28-year-old journeyman. Blanco may rival Sabean's “discovery” of Andres Torres in 2009 before all's said and done.

RF Justin Maxwell, Astros: Nobody has doubted Maxwell's power or talent, but his ability to stay healthy has been an annual concern. The Nats decided they had better uses for his spot on the 40-man and traded him to the Yankees, but he spent more time on the disabled list in 2011 with a bum shoulder than he did in pinstripes. The talent-hungry Astros snagged the 28-year-old off waivers this spring, and he's been a free-talent find as a fourth outfielder, providing power against lefties and strong-armed defense.

SP Jerome Williams, Angels: Back in the day, Williams was a top prospect in the Giants' organization, ranking in Baseball America's top 20 for all baseball. That all seemed merited after a fine 2003 rookie season in which he drew an NL Division Series start for them against the Marlins. It was almost unrelentingly downhill from there; he needed elbow surgery in 2004, got dealt to the Cubs in 2005, and then bouncing through the Nationals, Twins, A's (twice) and Dodgers organizations, as well as a stint in the independent leagues. After making a nice impression on the Angels down the stretch last season, the 30-year-old Williams is getting regular rotation work in the majors for the first time in seven years as their fifth starter. More of a finesse righty these days, he's been an exceptional salvage-project success, putting up eight quality starts in 10 turns, far better work than most teams reasonably expect from a No. 5.

Quite simply, what these guys reflect is that not all replacements are “replacement level.” Just when you think you know what a player is capable of, a happy few beyond their expected peak age of 27 have demonstrated the delightful capacity to surprise and exceed the modest expectations even their fans harbored for them. I don't know about you, but I like these kinds of surprises -- here's hoping we see more of the same from all of them.

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

"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!
Drafts were on our minds for Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast , not only the upcoming amateur draft but also ESPN’s Franchise Player Draft. Keith Law and I explain it all!

1. Who would be the one player you start a franchise with? We discuss our picks and also the injuries to a few of the top players.

2. The Colorado Rockies moved on from the Jamie Moyer experiment, and we discuss what might be next for the left-handed gentleman.

3. Russell Martin and an umpire had an interesting Wednesday night, interesting and sad. This one is hard to believe.

4. Emailers have questions on the amateur draft, which starts Monday, and Keith answers them!

5. Thursday’s schedule is a shallow one, but we’ll be watching the erratic Max Scherzer as well as the home/road blues for Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke. Are those splits explainable?

So download and listen to Thursday’s fine Baseball Today podcast and have a great day! We’ll return on Friday.

Russell Martin a key to Yankees' success

April, 16, 2012
Martin/HughesNick Laham/Getty ImagesRussell Martin's ability to frame strikes and work with pitchers makes him invaluable to the Yankees.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Russell Martin knows what it is like to be framed. Sure, it’s his art, framing others, but every once in a while the tables turn. As the pitch comes toward the plate it looks borderline low. But then he glances back into the catcher’s glove. He sees a strike. The umpire does, too. Somehow, without flinching, the catcher grabbed the ball, brought it back into the strike zone and made the pitch look better -- so much so that a ball is now a strike.

As he tells this story, Martin talks with calmness -- a mixture of leadership, knowledge and initiative -- which leaves little room to doubt his ability as a catcher. Watch him closely as he interacts with teammates or manages the game from behind the plate, and one word comes to mind: trustworthy.

When Andy Pettitte walked out of the locker room for the first time in 2012, Martin stopped Pettitte and asked him where he was going.

Pettitte said he was on his way to throw his first bullpen. Martin, who joined the Yankees after Pettitte had retired and missed the 2011 season, told him, "I want to catch you."

Even though he was catching the 7:05 spring training game that evening, Martin grabbed his glove and spent some time catching and talking with Pettitte. They discussed how Pettitte likes to throw his pitches and what he likes to do on the mound. Martin later recalled being impressed with Pettitte’s command, and how serious he was with every pitch.

"It was great," Pettitte said. "I was glad he wanted to jump in there and catch me on my first 'pen."

The pitcher-catcher relationship is one of the most singular between teammates in sports. Unlike statistics such as batting average and slugging percentage, the impact a catcher has on a team’s pitching staff is hard to measure. The difficulty in qualifying a catcher’s influence on the entire pitching staff is a paradox: His impact on the team's ERA is unique to his relationship with each pitcher.

"The catcher is involved with everybody in the game, because he’s your field general," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He’s going to control obviously every starter, all your relievers, he’s supposed to have the game plan in place, defensively he can hold the runner, he can block balls in the dirt, he can steal strikes by framing properly. There are a lot of different things that you need your catcher to do, plus you want him to hit in our league."

* * * *

Talk about a catcher influencing a pitcher’s ERA and two words immediately come to mind: pitch selection. Most major league pitchers can recall how many times they shake a catcher off during the course of a game. Some even remember how many times over the course of a season. Pitchers know how in sync they are with their catcher.

"There’s not necessarily a pitch that’s better than the other in a certain situation," Martin says of calling the right pitches. "But a lot of it is just knowing your pitcher, and knowing the pitches your pitcher can execute."

Martin says taking in all the information from scouts, and from the pitching coach, goes into knowing the opposing hitters and being prepared to call a good game.

"Another thing that goes into catching ERA is your ability to receive -- getting a called strike here and there -- making a pitch look good that maybe was not necessarily a strike," Martin says. "For me, the true part of catching is being able to do that. I take a lot of pride in it."

Martin’s ability to frame pitches is recognized throughout baseball. Through extensive statistical research, Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus recently pinpointed Martin as the second best catcher (behind Brian McCann) in the major leagues over the past four years in framing pitches -- receiving that borderline pitch and influencing umpires to call a strike.

Cashman said he "very much so" takes advanced statistics and research into consideration when evaluating the work of a catcher. With the wealth of data now available via the Pitch f/x system, researchers like Marchi are digging into catchers' abilities in framing pitches, blocking pitches in the dirt, controlling the running game and fielding bunts. A major reason the Rays signed career backup Jose Molina to become their starting catcher was data that showed he was one of the best at framing pitches.

That one strike can make all the difference in an at-bat. Take a 1-1 count, for example. In 2011, major league batters hit .340 after the count reached 2-1. But they hit just .180 after the count reached 1-2.

The marriage

Maybe the catcher doesn't matter to a great pitcher like Mariano Rivera. After all, it doesn't seem like he needs much help on the mound.

"I can [use] all the help that I can get, and the catcher is one of those guys," Rivera said. "I mean, if you have a guy who really takes his business back there [seriously], he can help you more than 50 percent."

"It’s trusting," Rivera says of his relationship with his catcher. "It’s trusting. It’s a marriage kind of like."

Rivera pauses at this thought as Alex Rodriguez walks by and gives him a part friendly hug/part pummeling. It is a display of longtime friends and teammates.

As if reminded how important it is to have faith in his teammates, Rivera continues. "Trust in each other," he says. "Knowing what he is going to call before he actually calls the pitch. So when you have that kind of relationship, that’s when the catcher is in the game; you guys are thinking alike, you don’t worry about nothing else."

Chris Carpenter, who pitched one of the most mentally demanding games in recent history -- the Cardinals' 1-0 victory against Roy Halladay and the Phillies in Game 5 of the 2011 Division Series -- described what the best catchers can do behind the plate. "They can take control of your mind," Carpenter said. "They can take control of what you want to do."

Executing the perfect pitch, the perfect swing, or the most accurate throw in baseball requires muscle memory, but when the mind is clouded with doubt and uncertainty, executing the right play at the right time becomes more difficult. Preventing that doubt from creeping into a pitcher's mind is the intangible element in the art of catching.

"The catcher is like a quarterback," Cashman said. "He has to be a leader. He has to be able to take charge, and that will show up in his play. Listen, if he’s not a leader, he’s not going to be able to get back there and do the job. It will manifest itself in performance and stuff like that. So, he has to carry himself with leadership abilities, much like the quarterback in the huddle."

The key for Martin in reaching the mental side of the pitcher is to understand there are different kinds of people. And here lies his secret, because, of course, it is easy to trust someone when they know you well enough to let you just be yourself.

"It’s about communicating and knowing who you have on the mound," Martin said. "That goes into knowing how your pitcher is made up mentally. What kind of person is he? Is he the kind of guy that you have to kind of ease your way with him? You know, like a softer approach. Or is he the kind of guy that you kind of have to grab by the collar?

"The key is to build a relationship with your pitcher where he is comfortable with what you are putting down. Obviously you’re just putting some suggestions down, but the mindset is to have them focus on pitch after pitch; not having to worry about strategizing while they are on the mound. You want to simplify everything for them, where they are just on the mound executing each pitch at a time."

But Martin is not just putting random signs or numbers down. It is a combination of skill, knowledge and trust.

In his first season with the Yankees, Martin started 118 games, and the staff's ERA decreased from 4.06 in 2010 to 3.73. Manager Joe Girardi expects Martin to "do a great job like he did last year. Obviously he has fewer pitchers to learn, because he’s been here for a year. But the expectation is to continue to build on what [he] did last year."

* * * *

On a beautiful, 80-degree March day in Florida, Martin takes a break from batting practice before the night game. His 5-foot-10 frame sits comfortably in the shade of the Yankees' dugout as he looks out at the empty field. He’s thoughtful, thinking about baseball and his role on the Yankees.

"My take on baseball and what defines you as a good player is offensively it’s your ability to produce or create runs, and then on defense it is your ability to take away runs, take away hits, take away extra-base hits, and you combine both of those, and that’s who you are as a player," Martin says. "That’s what you mean to your team."

There it is again, Martin’s calm demeanor, easygoing and accepting. You can see it in Martin’s eyes. You can see why the pitchers enjoy working with him.

"One pitch can change everything,” Martin says. "It starts with pitching. You can’t wind down the clock in baseball, you have to get 27 outs."

One pitch can change a game. It's why the Yankees have complete trust in their catcher.