Seahawks staying power hinges on defense

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
1:32
PM ET

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Seahawks will look to be the 1st repeat Super Bowl winners since the Patriots in 2004 and 2005.
The Seattle Seahawks enter the 2014 season as the top-ranked team in ESPN.com’s weekly NFL Power Rankings.

The Seahawks have plenty to boast about after a 13-win 2013 season, which was capped off by a 35-point victory over the Broncos for the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.

Many of the key pieces from last year’s team are returning in 2014, which begs the question… How long can the Seahawks stay No. 1?

What hasn’t changed
The Seahawks’ biggest strength last season was their defense. Seattle finished with the fewest points allowed, the fewest yards allowed and the most turnovers forced. No team had completed that trifecta since the 1985 Chicago Bears.

The Seahawks made sure to lock up key members of the secondary, signing cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas to extensions.

The Seahawks had the lowest opponent Total QBR (29.0) last season and limited opponents to a league-best 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Seattle also led the league in interceptions (28), bolstered by Sherman’s league-leading eight.

Offensively the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson at quarterback and after a brief holdout, Marshawn Lynch at running back.

The Seahawks have been the most run-heavy team the past two seasons with that duo in the backfield. Since joining the Seahawks in Week 6 of 2010, only Adrian Peterson has more rushing yards and rushing touchdowns than Lynch.

When Wilson does pass, he makes the most of his opportunities. He is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt in his career, third-best in the NFL during that time. That average is bolstered by Wilson’s league-best 51.3 completion percentage on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield.

What has changed
The Seahawks did lose key pieces to both their defense and offense in the offseason.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks lost three members of the defensive line in Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald. The Seahawks sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 31 percent of dropbacks last season, best in the NFL, and were able to do so with a deep rotation.

Seattle had eight defensive linemen record between 500 and 700 snaps last season, including the three they lost. The Seahawks brought in 34-year-old defensive tackle Kevin Williams in free agency, and didn’t address the d-line until the fourth round in the 2014 NFL Draft.

The Seahawks also lost Wilson’s favorite target in Golden Tate this offseason. Wilson targeted Tate 44 times more than the next highest Seahawks receiver the past two seasons (including playoffs), completing 67.8 percent of his attempts to Tate with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The Seahawks used a second-round pick (Paul Richardson) and a fourth-round pick (Kevin Norwood) on wide receivers, but the big change for Seattle’s offense may be a healthy Percy Harvin.

Including playoffs Harvin played a mere 59 offensive snaps for Seattle last season, but he led all players with 137 all-purpose yards in the Super Bowl. Harvin gained the second most yards after catch the first four years of his career, so if he stays healthy he could become Wilson’s new favorite target.

First 3 Games
The Seahawks start their 2014 season with three straight playoff teams from 2013: the Packers, Chargers and Broncos. The starting quarterbacks for those teams all finished in the top six of Total QBR last season. But if the Seahawks’ defense continues to produce at an elite level, Seattle could find themselves No. 1 for a while.

Mariota is a model of efficiency at QB

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
11:51
AM ET

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota is one of the top dual threats in the sport.
Entering Week 1, Marcus Mariota was the favorite to win the Heisman, according to the ESPN Heisman Watch.

Mariota did not disappoint in his first game. He was responsible for 310 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, despite not playing in the second half of Oregon’s 62-13 win against South Dakota State.

Throughout his career, Mariota has been one of the most efficient and consistent FBS quarterbacks. He has ranked second in the FBS in Total QBR in each of the last two seasons.

His 87.3 career Total QBR is the second-best for any player with at least 20 starts in the last five seasons, behind Johnny Manziel.

Mariota has an FBS-high 13 games with a Total QBR of at least 90 since 2012.

Mariota makes Oregon go
The Ducks have been one of the most efficient offenses in the FBS, ranking third in this category in each of Mariota’s first two seasons.

They have scored on an FBS-high 45 percent of their drives since Mariota became the starter, best in the FBS.

When the ball is snapped to Mariota, Oregon averages 7.5 yards per play, the second-best for any quarterback who has taken at least 500 snaps (Jameis Winston is No. 1).

The Ducks have gained at least 10 yards on 28 percent of their plays with Mariota at quarterback, which is also second to Florida State and Winston.

Mariota makes plays
Mariota has been responsible for 82 touchdowns in his career, most for any Pac-12 player in the last three seasons and sixth-most for any FBS player.

During that time, he was responsible for at least three touchdowns in a game 18 times; only former Northern Illinois running back Jordan Lynch has had more such games.

Mariota takes care of the ball
Mariota has 10 career interceptions, tied for the third-fewest for any player with at least 20 starts during the last three seasons.

The only active player with at least 20 starts and fewer interceptions than Mariota is Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has 502 fewer attempts. Mariota set the Pac-12 record with 343 consecutive passes without an interception.

Mariota can run
Mariota has rushed for 1,510 yards in his career and has averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Almost half (49 percent) of his carries have been designed quarterback runs.

On such plays, Mariota leads all Power Five quarterbacks with 10.1 yards per rush and is second to Braxton Miller with 17 runs of 20 yards or more.

Mariota is often not touched on these plays until he is well past the line of scrimmage, as he averages 8.2 yards before contact.

Cabrera digs in, at least on Monday

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:51
PM ET
It took Miguel Cabrera five swings of the bat to better his home-run production for the entire month of August.

Cabrera got back on track with two home runs in a Tigers’ rout of the Indians and their ace starter, Corey Kluber.
In doing so, he passed Larry Walker and moved into a tie with Harold Baines for 61st all time with 384 home runs.

Perhaps more importantly, he snapped a career-long 27-game homerless drought and re-established the inner half of the plate as his domain.

Cabrera’s dominance is largely due to his ability to overpower balls pitched to that area. From 2011 to 2013, he hit 78 home runs against inner-half pitches. Only one other player was within 20 of his total, Mark Trumbo with 69.

But this season had been a different story. Cabrera had only one home run against an inner-half pitch in his last 78 games combined and 10 against them all season, less than half the total of major-league leader Josh Donaldson, who has 21.

Cabrera’s slugging percentage against inner-half pitches is .537. In each of the previous four seasons, he’s slugged .660 or better against them.

Cabrera’s issues actually got to the point where recently he’d become very gettable inside.

In three games against the White Sox over the weekend, Caberera saw 14 inner-half pitches, which resulted in him making eight outs, including four strikeouts.

Monday would be a different story. The Indians tried to come inside twice on Cabrera. Both pitches found the seats.

Tags:

MLB

Stats to know: Derek Carr to start Week 1

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
8:24
PM ET
The Oakland Raiders did something that the Cleveland Browns were unwilling to do: make a rookie quarterback their Week 1 starter.
Derek Carr
Carr
Derek Carr will get an opportunity to establish himself as the team’s leader this Sunday when the Raiders face the New York Jets.

Here are some of the top statistical storylines related to this story.

Earned on merit
Carr had significantly better numbers this preseason than the other possible starter, former Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.

Carr had a 67 percent completion percentage with four touchdown passes. Schaub completed only 51 percent of his pass attempts and did not throw for a touchdown.

One and only
Carr is currently slated to be the only rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 this season. A second-round rookie quarterback starting Week 1 is a little unusual. It didn’t happen at all from 2002 to 2009, but this will mark the third instance in the last five seasons.

Carr’s opponent will be the most recent second-round rookie quarterback to start in Week 1: Geno Smith of the Jets. Smith beat the Buccaneers in his debut last season.

What can we glean from his college numbers?
Carr led FBS last season with 74 completions of 20 yards or longer for Fresno State last season, but he also threw an FBS-high 138 screen passes.

Carr's average pass traveled seven yards past the line of scrimmage, the fewest air yards per attempt of any of the top quarterback prospects in this past NFL Draft.

Also something to watch: Carr had a completion percentage of 29 percent when under duress, worst among the top quarterback prospects. When not under pressure, his completion percentage jumped to 72 percent.

Carr will be the first Fresno State quarterback to start Week 1 in his rookie season since his brother David started for the Texans in 2002.

David Carr had a rough go of it that season, completing only 53 percent of his passes, being intercepted 15 times and being sacked an NFL-record 76 times.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that the Carrs will be the first pair of brothers to start Week 1 of a season as a rookie.

The path to this point
Rich Gannon's last year in the NFL was 2004. Since his departure, the Raiders have struggled to find a starting quarterback.

Derek Carr marks the eighth different Week 1 starter for the Raiders in the last 10 seasons and the fourth in the last four seasons. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Carr will actually be the Raiders' first rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Carr is the fourth-highest drafted quarterback by the Raiders in the Super Bowl era, the highest since they drafted JaMarcus Russell No. 1 in 2007.

But it took quite a bit for the Raiders to arrive at this juncture. They used three of their 2014 draft picks to acquire three different quarterbacks. They traded a fifth-rounder last year to acquire Matt Flynn (who is currently on the Packers).

They traded a sixth-rounder in that draft to get Schaub from the Texans.

And then they drafted Carr with their second-round pick.

All-in-all, the Raiders have used eight of their draft picks the last three drafts to acquire seven different quarterbacks.

Carr and Schaub are the only two of those quarterbacks still with the team.

For more on Carr, check out this piece posted in conjunction with Carr's visit to Jon Gruden's QB Camp prior to the NFL Draft.
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NFL

Top 10 stats to know: Phillies no-hitter

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
6:24
PM ET
The Philadelphia Phillies completed a combined no-hitter Monday. Here are the top 10 stats to know on the performance.

1. The Phillies completed the 11th combined no-hitter in MLB history, first since the Mariners used six pitchers to no-hit the Dodgers in June of 2012. It is the first combined no-hitter in Phillies franchise history, which dates back to 1883.

2. There have now been two combined no-hitters thrown in the past three seasons. None were thrown from 2004 to 2011. In fact, only one combined no-hitter happened in the major leagues from the 14-season span of 1998 to 2011.

3. This is the fourth no-hitter in MLB this season, succeeding no-hit efforts by Josh Beckett, Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum earlier this season. There were only three no-hitters thrown last season.

4. Beckett no-hit the Phillies on May 25. The Phillies are the fourth team in the past five seasons to get no-hit and throw a no-hitter in the same season.

5. It was the third no-hitter in the history of Turner Field. Ubaldo Jimenez hurled a no-no in 2010 and Randy Johnson threw perfect game there in 2004.

6. The Phillies' staff deserves credit for keeping the Braves off of their toes. Phillies pitchers did not allow a hard-hit ball the entire game. Starter Cole Hamels was particularly special, recording 12 swings-and-misses with his fastball, his most in a start in the past two seasons. Hamels quietly has a 2.00 ERA since May 11, second best in the majors behind Clayton Kershaw.

7. Phillies pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts and five walks. It's the first no-hitter with that many strikeouts and that many walks since Sept. 28, 1974, when Nolan Ryan threw a 15-strikeout, 8-walk no-hitter against the Twins.

8. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was also behind the plate for both Roy Halladay no-hitters in 2010. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ruiz’s three no-hitters caught (regular season and playoffs) is tied for second most all-time. Ruiz trails only Jason Varitek, who caught four no-hitters in his time with the Red Sox.

9. Lost in the shadow of a brilliant pitching performance was the offense of Ben Revere, who drove in five runs. Revere’s five RBI are tied for third most by a player for a team that threw a no-hitter in the game, according to Elias. Hunter Pence accomplished the same feat last season behind Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter.

10. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Jason Heyward is the first player in the modern era to have three stolen bases in a game in which his team was no-hit. The only other player to have multiple steals in such a game was Frank Chance for the 1903 Cubs (two steals) also against the Phillies!

August 2014: the month in home runs

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
3:03
PM ET

ESPN Stats & InfoTwo Cubs rookies, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, made an immediate impact in August.
Stats & Info tracks every home run hit throughout the season in terms of distance, height, speed, etc. Here are our best nuggets from the home runs in August.

Longest Home Run of the Month: Giancarlo Stanton
Giancarlo Stanton hit a 470-foot home run on August 11th off Shelby Miller, the longest home run hit during the month. The 470-foot shot was the second longest home run ever hit at Marlins Park, bested only by Stanton’s own 484-footer hit on April 4th earlier this year. Stanton has owned Marlins Park in its short 3-year history, accounting for five of its six longest homers.

Masher of the Month: Chris Carter
The Houston Astros’ Chris Carter dominated the month of August with 12 home runs, four more than any other player. Despite hitting plenty of homers, Carter has not been hitting them very far. His 12 homers in August had an average true distance of just 389.1 feet, below the 395.2 MLB average this season. He benefited from the small confines of Minute Maid Park in August, where his eight homers averaged just 381.1 feet.

Breakout Performance of the Month: Cubs Prospects
Cubs prospect Javier Báez burst on to the major league scene earlier this month, smashing three home runs in his first three career ballgames. Báez showed power to all fields as he became just the second player since 1900 to hit three home runs in his first three major league games.

Cubs teammate Jorge Soler duplicated Báez’s feat just 22 days later when he smashed his second and third career homers in his third major league game on August 29th against the Cardinals. Soler’s three homers averaged 427 feet, and all traveled at least 420 feet.

Noteworthy Homer of the Month: Mike Napoli
On August 26th, Mike Napoli hit a home run at Rogers Centre that was calculated at 451 feet, his longest of the season. It was Napoli's fourth career home run of at least 450 feet at the Rogers Centre (all in the last two seasons) and the most by any visiting player since ESPN began tracking home runs in 2006. In fact, four of Napoli's six longest career home runs have been hit in Toronto.

Cheap shot of the Month: David Ortiz
On August 16th, David Ortiz hit a high fly ball 318 feet down the right field line at Fenway Park that just barely wrapped around Pesky’s Pole for a home run. It was the second of two home runs Ortiz would hit that evening, but what made that second one interesting was its distance, or lack thereof. The 318 footer marked the shortest home run of the 2014 season, and the second-shortest Ortiz has hit since ESPN began tracking homers in 2006.

Top stats to know: Price vs Kluber

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:53
AM ET

AP Photo/Mark DuncanCorey Kluber ranks third in the AL in strikeouts this season.
The Detroit Tigers visit the Cleveland Indians on ESPN at 4 ET in a matchup of two of the American League’s best starters this season. Corey Kluber is having a career year on the mound while David Price has been an ace all season aside from his last start.

Kluber may not yet be a household name, but he’s been every bit as good as Price this season. His ERA is nearly a run better than Price, while he’s maintained the same strikeout rate and thrown one more quality start. Each hurler ranks among the top three in the American League in terms of strikeouts as well.

Career year for Kluber

Kluber has really taken a significant leap this season. His numbers are up across the board. With 13 wins, Kluber has matched his win total from his first two seasons as a starter combined. From 2012-13, Kluber’s 4.24 ERA is over a run-and-a-half higher than his 2.52 ERA this season, which ranks fourth in the AL.

According to Wins Above Replacement, only two pitchers in baseball have been more valuable than Kluber (5.8) this season: Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. By comparison, Price ranks 28th with a 3.2 WAR. Kluber gets hitters to expand the strike zone often. In fact, his 33.6 chase percentage is third-best in the American League behind Hernandez and Phil Hughes.

The difference maker for Kluber this season has been his curveball, which he’s taken to an entirely new level. Kluber leads the majors with 101 strikeouts via curveball this season. He’s throwing the curve a career-high 16 percent of the time, with opposing batters hitting just .083 against it. Opposing batters are chasing his curveball 45 percent of the time.

Bounce-back start for Price?

Price is coming off of what may very well be the worst start of his career. The Yankees recorded nine straight hits off him in the third inning last Wednesday. It marked his most career hits (9) and runs allowed (8) in a single inning. Price never got out an out in the third inning, the second-shortest start of career.

But he's still dominant in the big picture. Price has the fifth-most strikeouts over the last five seasons. Two of the players ahead of him on the list are currently his teammates (Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander).

Price’s control is a great strength. He has walked only 3.6 percent of the hitters he’s faced this year, on pace to be a career best and good for fourth-best in the majors. Price has a career-high 224 strikeouts this season, his third career 200-strikeout season.

Since coming over from the Rays at the trade deadline, Price has thrown his changeup at a career-high pace for good reason. Opposing hitters are batting 140 points lower against his changeup since Price joined the Tigers. No wonder why he’s throwing it once every five pitches.

Georgia, USC benefit big in Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
10:13
PM ET
For more information on the rankings here, check out the Football Power Index and Dean Oliver's primer on this metric used by the Stats & Information analytics team.

What were the top analytical and statistical storylines from Week 1 of the college football season?

Georgia is the new favorite in the SEC
Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC greatly improved in Week 1.

The Bulldogs’ win over Clemson and South Carolina’s loss to Texas A&M combined to raise Georgia’s chances of winning the SEC East from 29 percent (in preseason) to 62 percent and its overall chance of winning the SEC from 11 percent to 31 percent, via ESPN’s FPI rating.

The Bulldogs jumped from 14th to sixth in the rankings. That was the third-biggest FPI ranking jump of any Top-25 team after Week 1, behind Nebraska (up 13 spots to 28) and Texas A&M (up eight spots to No. 8).

South Carolina’s probability of winning the SEC East plummeted from 41 percent to 11 percent and its chance of winning the SEC fell from 19 percent to four percent.

Clemson and South Carolina had the two biggest drops in FPI rankings among teams in the Top 25, with Clemson falling 17 spots (to 30th) and South Carolina slipping 13 (to 20th). They were followed by North Carolina, which dropped 12 spots to 31 despite beating Liberty, 56-29.

North Carolina’s win against Liberty may have seemed dominant based on the 56-29 final score, but the Tar Heels trailed Liberty early in the second half before scoring 28 straight points. Their average in-game win probability ranked 29th out of 59 teams that won on Saturday.

USC rises in Pac-12
USC jumped from No. 9 to No. 5 in FPI after defeating Fresno State on Saturday. Conversely, UCLA dropped in FPI from No. 4 to No. 7 after its offense struggled on the road against Virginia.

USC now has the second-best chance to win the Pac-12 behind Oregon and the No. 1 chance to win the Pac-12 South.

USC travels to Stanford on Saturday in a game with conference implications. The Football Power Index gives the Trojans a 51.6% chance to win the game, and it is projected to be the closest Pac-12 game of the year.

Comeback of the week: LSU over Wisconsin
LSU came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat Wisconsin 28-24. Not only was that the largest comeback of the week, but LSU had the lowest average in-game win probability (35 percent) of any team that won on Saturday. The Tigers had an above-average chance to win on only 16 percent of their plays.

LSU’s win probability dipped to six percent early in the third quarter after Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead. The Tigers went on to score 21 straight points to win the game.

Unlikeliest wins of Week 1
Based on ESPN’s FPI projections, UTSA’s win against Houston was the most unlikely win by an FBS team against another FBS team in Week 1. FPI gave UTSA a 19 percent chance to win entering the game.

Other significant upsets included Temple (30 percent chance to win) over Vanderbilt, Colorado State (34 percent chance to win) over Colorado and Rutgers (34 percent chance to win) over Washington State.
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NCF

Kernels: One-hit wonders

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
10:06
PM ET
Our weekly look at the interesting and unusual in MLB couldn't help but notice the "hits" column.

• Although there hasn't been a no-hitter since Tim Lincecum's on June 25, this week kept us on watch. Since Monday we've seen more than a dozen no-hit bids get into the fifth inning-- including Saturday's game between the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers where both pitchers did it. Four of those bids persisted into the seventh inning, and two into the eighth.

One of the two was Tuesday's gem by Madison Bumgarner, who retired 21 straight Colorado Rockies before Justin Morneau doubled to start the eighth. That would be Colorado's only baserunner as Bumgarner fanned 13 and walked zero. It was the third game in Rockies history where their only hit was a double; the last was against Tom Glavine and the Mets on May 23, 2004 (the double was by Kit Pellow).

Lincecum issued one walk in his no-hitter, and Ryan Vogelsong faced just 28 batters in a complete game August 1.

• That makes the Giants just the second team in the live-ball era to have three 28-batter, nine-inning complete games in the same season; Joel Piñeiro and Chris Carpenter teamed up for the Cardinals in 2009.

•  Speaking of one double, the New York Yankees were held to that in Saturday's loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. The last time the Yankees were one- (or no-) hit at all was on September 4, 2009, also by the Jays, and a double (by Ramiro Peña) was also the one hit. The last such game where they struck out 12 times was on June 11, 2003, when they were on the wrong end of the Astros' six-pitcher no-hitter.

All's fair in love and the American League East, however. The Boston Red Sox also got one-hit on Saturday by the Tampa Bay Rays, the blemish being Will Middlebrooks' fourth-inning single. It's the third time Boston's been one-hit this season, their most since 1992.

Middlebrooks entered the game after Dustin Pedroia was involved in a collision. Nine days earlier, Middlebrooks had the lone hit in another one-hitter, against the Angels, and also off the bench.

That makes the Red Sox the first team in at least 100 years to have a bench player provide their only hit twice. (Brandon Inge had Pittsburgh's only hit twice last season, but he started one of the games.)

Saturday was just the second time the AL East rivals had both been one-hit on the same day. The other was May 25, 1989, when Chuck Finley of the Angels shut out Boston, and Todd Burns and two A's relievers blanked the Yankees (whose lone hit was by Rickey Henderson).

•  Jorge Soler had one big hit this week also. On Wednesday the Chicago Cubs' highly-touted 21-year-old sent the fourth pitch he saw in the majors over the wall in Cincinnati and became the first Cubs batter since Starlin Castro (2010) to homer in his first plate appearance. He's the fifth Cuban-born player to homer in his first game in the bigs. The others are Rays minor-leaguer Eddy Rodriguez (who played two games with the Padres in 2012), Kendrys Morales (2006), A's legend Bert Campaneris (1964), and Phillies outfielder Tony Gonzalez (1960).

Two games later, Soler hit two more homers, one of only two players this season to have a multi-homer outing within his first three MLB games. The other is his teammate, 22-year-old Javier Baez (August 7). Baez also had one homer in his debut; together they made the Cubs the first team ever to have two players, each 22 or younger, homer in their major-league debuts in the same season.

•  From one-hit wonders to the team that's never had a no-hitter, we couldn't end without mentioning the San Diego Padres.

Rene Rivera on Wednesday, Yasmani Grandal on Friday, and Alexi Amarista on Saturday all hit extra-inning singles around an off-day on Thursday. It was the Padres' first streak of three walk-off wins since doing four straight from April 13-16, 1986, and the first time they've ever had three straight in extra innings. Their weekend opponent, the Dodgers, hadn't lost consecutive extra-inning games via walk-off since August 2003. Of the Padres' 10 walk-offs this year, seven have been in extras, one shy of their team record set in 2006.



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MLB

Holliday clutch even when numbers down

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
9:16
PM ET
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday's performance may have declined a bit this season, but you can still count on him for a high second-half RBI output.

A day after driving in five runs in a win over the Chicago Cubs, Holliday had four RBIs (including the game winner) in a rally from a five-run deficit that put the Cardinals into a first-place tie with the fading Milwaukee Brewers.

Holliday now has 33 RBIs in 39 games for the Cardinals since the All-Star break. This matches Holliday’s history. Holliday has 528 RBIs in 875 career games prior to the Break (a pace of 98 RBIs pace over 162 games). After the break, he has totaled 509 RBIs in 686 games (a pace of 120 RBIs per 162 games).

Holliday has found his swing in the past six weeks as his power numbers have increased dramatically in the second half. You can see the full breakdown in the chart to the right.

Much of the improvement is due to better performance against left-handed pitching. Holliday did not have a homer against a lefty prior to the break, but has five since the break. He started the Cardinals rally on Sunday with a fourth-inning homer against Cubs southpaw Travis Wood, then had an RBI double against Wood in the fifth inning to cut the lead to 5-4.
Matt Holliday
Holliday

Holliday’s game-winning hit came against righty Carlos Villanueva in the eighth inning. That gave Holliday the major league lead in go-ahead hits this season with 27, one more than White Sox slugger Jose Abreu.

For all of Holliday’s issues earlier this season, he has been very successful in RBI situations. He’s hitting .338 with runners in scoring position in 2014, which ranks seventh in the National League.

Holliday became the first Cardinals player to drive in at least four runs in consecutive games since he did it in 2012. He joined Hall-of-Famers Jim Bottomley and Stan Musial as the only players to do this multiple times for the team.

Holliday also joined Oswaldo Arcia of the Minnesota Twins as the only players to have consecutive games with at least four RBIs this season.
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MLB

Matchup to watch: Gomes & Perez excel

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
3:15
PM ET
The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals don’t often find themselves under the "Sunday Night Baseball" spotlight. One of the other common bonds between these teams is how important the catchers are to their respective success this season.

Indians catcher Yan Gomes and Royals backstop Salvador Perez are two of the key players to watch tonight. Here’s a primer on the topics likely to come up on the game telecast:

The best in the league
With Joe Mauer having moved to first base, Brian McCann struggling for much of the season and Matt Wieters injured, there has been a lack of success from catchers with notable names. Gomes and Perez are in their second season of significant success.

Gomes and Perez rank 1-2 in the American League in wins above replacement, with Gomes a hair better (4.0 to 3.7). They rank tied for third and tied for fifth, respectively, in that stat among all catchers, with Jonathan Lucroy (5.3) and Russell Martin (4.6) in the top two spots.

Gomes has already almost matched his 2013 total of 4.2 WAR (done in only 88 games). Perez is on pace to match or exceed his 4.3 WAR from last season.

What to know about Gomes
Gomes has swung a really good bat lately. He is hitting .333 with a .901 OPS, four home runs and 14 RBIs in his last 22 games.

That’s upped his season OPS to .800, making him one of three catchers with an .800 OPS this season, along with Lucroy and Buster Posey.

Gomes thrives against pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. His .346 batting average against pitches to that area ranks fourth among batting-title qualifiers, trailing only Victor Martinez, Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. Also of significance with the Royals starting southpaw Danny Duffy tonight, Gomes has the ninth-best batting average in the majors against left-handed pitching (.351).

Additionally, he is the lone defensive standout on a team that ranks last in the major leagues in defensive runs saved. Catcher is the only position at which the Indians have a positive value in that statistic.

Gomes is a slightly above average catcher in 2014. He has four defensive runs saved this season, due mostly to his ranking in the top 10 in caught-stealing rate (31 percent).

What to know about Perez
The Royals have put Perez to frequent use behind the plate this season and for good reason. They are 68-49 when he starts at catcher, 6-12 when someone else starts.

Perez is valuable on two fronts. Though his on-base percentage is only .299, he is an important offensive player, one who ranks tied for second on the team in home runs and is third among their regulars with a .713 OPS.

He ranks as one of the game’s most eager hitters. His 41 percent chase rate (how often he swings at pitches out of the strike zone) ranks second in the majors, behind Pablo Sandoval’s 43 percent. Perez does this because he’s good at it. His .247 batting average against pitches out of the zone is ninth best in the major leagues.

But where Perez really earns his accolades is on the defensive side. He leads the majors with 10 defensive runs saved this season. Those have been notched on the strength of his ability to deter baserunners (caught 19 of 63 but also has five pickoffs) and his handling of the pitching staff. The Royals have a 3.23 ERA with Perez behind the plate this season and a 5.64 ERA when their other players catch.
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MLB

Jeff Gordon the favorite at Atlanta

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
12:42
PM ET

Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon leads the points race and is projected to win in Atlanta on Sunday.
Here are the projections for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Among other factors, our projection system takes into account drivers’ past performances at the track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. The data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a 1.54-mile quad-oval) and time of year.

With just two races to go before the Chase begins, all 12 drivers with a win have clinched a postseason spot, provided they attempt to qualify in both Atlanta and Richmond.

The most notable name without a win this season is Matt Kenseth, who won a series-high seven times a year ago. He is likely to make the Chase but is winless in 25 starts in Atlanta -- one of three tracks where he’s yet to win despite 25 or more starts.

Jeff Gordon has arguably been the strongest driver at Atlanta over the past decade. He is a five-time winner and has run 83 percent of his laps in the top 15 since 2005, the highest percentage of any driver. A sixth career victory would tie him with Bobby Labonte and Richard Petty for third most at this track.

Joey Logano picked up his third victory of the season last week at Bristol. In his past five starts this season, Logano has not finished worse than sixth and is the only driver to collect five top-10s over that stretch. Logano has led more laps this season (721) than he had in his previous five full seasons combined.

Two drivers looking to turn their fortunes around this weekend are Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. Kahne is 33 points outside of the final Chase spot and has an average finish of 31st at Atlanta in his last four starts. Busch has finished 36th or worse in four straight races and was caught up in an early wreck at Bristol.

Peavy leaves zone to spur to recent success

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
2:46
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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJake Peavy lost a no-hitter in the eighth but won for the third time in four starts.


Jake Peavy took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Saturday night as he continues a turnaround that might see him become a big part of the Giants' stretch run to the playoffs. Peavy is 3-1 with a 1.26 ERA over his past four starts after getting one win in his first 23 starts of the season.

How he won Saturday
Peavy recorded 18 swings-and-misses Saturday against the Brewers, the most he has had in a start since Aug. 13, 2011. Eight of those misses came with two strikes, his most in a start since May 26, 2012. Peavy also had eight strikeouts against right-handed batters, his most in a start since April 17, 2008.

Peavy was not afraid to try to make hitters chase, and he threw 72 pitches out of the strike zone. He got 26 swings on those pitches, and hitters were 0-for-11 with six strikeouts on at-bats ending with a pitch out of the zone.

Fastball improvement or luck?
Peavy’s fastball in his past four starts has been more effective in getting outs than early in the season, but what’s causing that is hard to say. Hitters hit .321 against Peavy’s fastball when they hit ground balls in his first 23 starts, more than 60 points higher than the league average on grounders off fastballs. Peavy is not inducing grounders with his fastball in his past four starts, as hitters have put four grounders into play off Peavy’s fastball and are 0-for-4.

Out of the zone
Peavy has gotten batters to chase pitches more in the past four starts. Hitters are chasing Peavy’s pitches out of the zone on nearly 35 percent of their at-bats, compared with 29 percent in the first 23 starts. More importantly for Peavy, when batters do chase, his miss percentage on these pitches is 41 percent, up from 34 percent in his first 23 starts.

Balls in play becoming outs
Hitters are hitting .260 on balls in play against Peavy over the past four starts, which is nearly 40 points lower than the number they put up in his first 23 starts. Peavy is not only seeing more batted balls turn into outs, but he’s also seeing fewer balls put into play. Hitters put 40 percent of Peavy’s balls in play in the first 23 starts, but that number is down to 34 percent over his past four.
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MLB Teams

Top Stats to Know: Saturday night thrillers

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
2:00
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Neither of Saturday night's spotlight games was settled until late in the fourth quarter, with one team needing a thrilling comeback and one team hanging on to avoid a major upset. Florida State, the reigning national champion and preseason No. 1, survived two Jameis Winston interceptions and no rushing attack to speak of to beat Oklahoma State 37-31. The Seminoles gave up 26 points combined in its first three games last season. LSU scored three unanswered touchdowns to come back from a 17-point third-quarter deficit in a 28-24 win against Wisconsin. Here's what you need to know about Saturday night's amazing games.

Winston’s new favorite target

With the loss of Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, Jameis Winston targeted Rashad Greene 20 times, Greene’s career high. Greene averaged eight targets and 81 yards per game last season. Winston didn’t target another receiver more than six times.

Seminoles rushing attack sputters
Florida State had 106 rush yards Saturday against Oklahoma State, its second-lowest total since the beginning of last season. The Seminoles ran for 203 yards per game last season, third in the ACC.

Karlos Williams is the feature back for the Seminoles this year after the departure of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., but he averaged less than 3 yards a rush. Williams was also contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on more than half of his rushes (12 of 23). He was hit at or behind the line on 22 rushes last season (24 percent). The Seminoles averaged 117 yards before contact last season when rushing but had only 30 yards before contact against the Cowboys.

Close call for preseason No. 1
This was the closest call in a season opener by a preseason No. 1 in over two decades. The last preseason AP No. 1 to lose a season opener was Miami in 1990. Until Saturday, every preseason No. 1 since then had won its season opener by more than two touchdowns.

LSU unfazed by late deficits

LSU came back to win after trailing in the fourth quarter for the 22nd time under Les Miles. LSU now has a winning record under Miles after trailing in the fourth quarter. The Tigers’ 22 such wins are the most in FBS since he took over in 2005, and they are the only FBS program with a winning record in such games.

Wisconsin blows big lead
Wisconsin led LSU by 17 points with 8 minutes to go in the third quarter, 24-7. The last time the Badgers blew a 17-point lead that late was on Sept. 27, 2008, at Michigan. The Badgers led 19-0 with under 3 minutes to play in the third quarter before Michigan reeled off 27 straight points.
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NCF

Top Stats to Know: Yeldon, Henry lead way

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
8:36
PM ET

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama rushed for 158 yards in the second half


Alabama won its season-opener on the strength of its running game and a smart passing game plan. However, its defense left something to be desired. Here’s a look at what you need to know about the Tide’s opening game.

Second-half rushing surge

Alabama returned to its bread and butter in the second half, pounding the ball up the middle with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who combined for 152 yards in the final 30 minutes. Alabama rushed for 109 yards between the tackles in the second half against West Virginia, slightly better than the 106 yards per game the school averaged on such rushes last season.

Yeldon and Henry each rushed for over 100 yards in this game, the first time those two rushed for 100 yards in the same game. Alabama only had two games last year in which it had two rushers crack the century mark.

Sims keeps it simple
Blake Sims completed 73 percent of his passes in his first career start for Alabama. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin kept the game plan simple, with just four of Sims' 33 pass attempts traveling 15 or more yards downfield.

Sims also relied heavily on Amari Cooper. He was 12 of 15 for 130 yards when targeting Amari Cooper and 12 of 18 for 120 yards when targeting everyone else.

Unlikely defensive struggles for Alabama
West Virginia's Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards against Alabama, the third-most passing yards allowed by the Tide in the Nick Saban era and over double what it allowed per game last season (180.3 yards). The only quarterback to throw for more yards against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who threw for 464 yards against the Tide last season. Big plays also hurt Alabama as the Mountaineers had 17 completions of 10 yards or more, the most the Tide allowed since the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
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NCF

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