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Love the glove: Pitchers thankful for amazing D

Statcast data shows how fielders use skills, smarts to save runs
November 24, 2017

Baseball gave us plenty to be thankful for this season.One of the most dramatic Fall Classics in recent memory, culminating in the Astros' first World Series title in franchise history. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge's awe-inspiring home run displays. Cody Bellinger breaking into the big leagues and ripping homers at

Baseball gave us plenty to be thankful for this season.
One of the most dramatic Fall Classics in recent memory, culminating in the Astros' first World Series title in franchise history. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge's awe-inspiring home run displays. Cody Bellinger breaking into the big leagues and ripping homers at a record pace. Chris Sale striking out 300 batters. Corey Kluber pitching four consecutive months of near-unhittable baseball. The Indians winning 22 consecutive games. And so much more.
But sometimes it's the little things -- and no one knows that better than these players.
These pitchers saw balls fly off the bat that would be hits -- sometimes home runs -- in almost any circumstance. But whether because of a sensational defensive play, perfect positioning or even the ballpark itself, each turned into an out. As you enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend, here are some of the plays pitchers were most thankful for in 2017.
Dan Otero
Thankful for: Austin Jackson's acrobatics
Statcast™ hit probability: 73 percent

In one of the best games of the regular season, a crazy back-and-forth affair between the Indians and Red Sox on Aug. 1, Jackson gave Otero something to bring up at his Thanksgiving table. In the fifth inning, Hanley Ramirez hammered one of Otero's sliders to deep right-center field at Fenway Park, and it was headed over the fence. With an exit velocity of 102.9 mph and a launch angle of 32 degrees, Hanley's drive had a hit probability of 73 percent, according to Statcast™. Batted balls with that combination of exit velocity and launch angle have been home runs 78 percent of the time since Statcast™ started tracking in 2015. But this time, Jackson made one of the most sensational catches of the year, going over the wall to steal a home run from Ramirez and flipping into the Red Sox's bullpen. As Jackson reappeared from behind the fence with the baseball, Otero raised his arm in salute to his teammate. Jackson won the Esurance MLB Award for Best Play, Defense for his amazing catch.

Ervin Santana
Thankful for: Nothing falling but raindrops
Statcast™ hit probability: 89 percent

Speaking of sensational catches, no one makes them better than Byron Buxton, who said after Opening Day that the Twins' outfield philosophy is that "nothing falls but raindrops," then backed it up this season with all-world defense in center. That carried over into the playoffs -- during the American League Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium, Buxton made a sensational catch crashing into the center-field wall, taking an extra-base hit away from Todd Frazier. Frazier had crushed a Santana slider 103.6 mph at 27 degrees -- a barreled ball (the most dangerous type of contact according to Statcast™) that had a hit probability of 89 percent. But with Buxton out there, it might as well have been zero. It's no wonder he finished the season atop the MLB leaderboard with 25 Outs Above Average, the newest Statcast™ metric to grade outfield defense.

David Price
Thankful for: JBJ overruling Judge
Statcast™ hit probability: 91 percent

The Red Sox have a star center fielder, too, and Jackie Bradley Jr. showed it when they hosted the Yankees in a rivalry series at Fenway Park coming out of the All-Star break. He victimized none other than Judge, who would have had 53 homers in 2017 if not for JBJ. Judge laid into one of Price's fastballs, crushing a 107.5-mph, 32-degree drive to center -- just to the left of where Jackson made his catch falling into the bullpen. Bradley leaped high above the wall, bringing Judge's would-be homer back into the stadium for an out. Price, laughing in amazement, saluted his center fielder. The runner-up for the AL MVP Award, Judge had a hit probability of 91 percent on the play, and batted balls with that combination of exit velocity and launch angle have been homers 94 percent of the time. This one wasn't.

Thomas Stripling, Justin Verlander
Thankful for: Friendly confines
Statcast™ hit probability: 94 percent (George Springer vs. Stripling), 92 percent (Salvador Perez vs. Verlander)

Sometimes, you just have to be thankful you're pitching in the right ballpark. Dodgers reliever Stripling found that out at Minute Maid Park during Game 3 of the World Series, facing Springer with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning. Springer unloaded what would have been a grand slam almost anywhere … except center field in Houston. With a 108.2-mph exit velocity and a 32-degree launch angle, Springer had a hit probability of 94 percent with a combination that has yielded a home run 96 percent of the time. Springer thought it was gone. Stripling thought it was gone. But with Minute Maid's vast center field, it was only a long, routine out at the wall. Springer looked dumbfounded as he pulled up past first base. Stripling could only laugh in disbelief and relief as he walked off the field.

Even pitchers like Verlander get bailed out by stadium dimensions every now and then. While still with the Tigers, he was the beneficiary of Comerica Park's notorious expansive center field in a game against the Royals on June 27. Salvador Perez crushed a ball 105.8 mph at a 30-degree launch angle off Verlander -- a ball that Statcast™ projected would travel 427 feet. It was a barrel with a 92-percent hit probability, and a combination that has been a home run 92 percent of the time since the introduction of Statcast™. But thanks to Comerica -- and a terrific running catch by Michael Mahtook at the wall -- Salvy got nothing but an "F8" on the scorecard. That play was the longest projected distance on an out in 2017.

Chad Bettis
Thankful for: The Shift
Statcast™ hit probability: 95 percent

Once upon a time, this would have been a hit. But we're in the days of the shift, something pitchers are often thankful for. Less thankful? Travis Shaw, who flared a line drive into shallow right field off the Rockies' Bettis on Aug. 19 -- a liner with a 95 percent hit probability -- only to see second baseman DJ LeMahieu make a leaping over-the-shoulder catch going back into the middle of the outfield. LeMahieu was stationed as the "rover" on the play -- Statcast™ tracked his starting depth at 180 feet from the plate against the power-hitting lefty Shaw, well into the outfield. He went about 30 feet to snare the liner, which had a projected distance of 211 feet -- and was caught by an infielder.

Jamie Callahan
Thankful for: Nimmo finding the ball
Statcast™ hit probability: 82 percent

With Stanton chasing 60 home runs down the stretch, he stepped to the plate against the Mets' Callahan and ripped a line drive to left field that traveled at 117.7 mph, according to Statcast™, Stanton's sixth-hardest-hit ball in a season full of scorchers. This one didn't have enough air to clear the fence (the launch angle was 12 degrees), but it almost certainly should have been a hit, with a probability of 82 percent. But Brandon Nimmo was positioned perfectly in left field, barely having to move to make a catch that was far more routine than Stanton's frozen rope deserved. When balls are hit in the air with exit velocities like that, they're rarely caught. In fact, it was the hardest non-ground-ball out Statcast™ has recorded.

Alex Colome
Thankful for: The Kevin Kiermaier effect
Statcast™ catch probability: 18 percent

Kiermaier is one of the most electric defensive playmakers in the game, and Colome owed him thanks after he made one of the plays of the year on Sept. 15 -- robbing fellow ace center fielder JBJ. Kiermaier, one of MLB's fastest outfielders, had to run full-sprint into the left-center-field gap to chase down Bradley's deep fly ball -- his sprint speed on the play was an elite 30.4 feet per second (MLB average is 27 feet per second) -- before going into a full-extension dive to make the catch. Kiermaier's catch probability on the play was just 18 percent, making it a five-star catch, the most difficult level of play Statcast™ classifies.

Nick Wittgren
Thankful for: Ageless Ichiro
Statcast™ catch probability: 21 percent

Even at 43 years old, Ichiro showed he could still provide highlight-reel defense in the outfield. On May 3, with the Marlins needing one out to seal a win over the Rays, the future Hall of Famer came up with a terrific game-ending play. As Steven Souza Jr. blooped a short fly ball down the right-field line off Wittgren, Ichiro charged in to make a sliding catch for the final out, scooping the ball just before it hit the turf. He had to cover 107 feet on the catch, and he had just 5.3 seconds to do it. That combination gave his play a catch probability of just 21 percent -- a five-star catch for the 17-year MLB veteran.

David Adler is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.