Welcome to the Great Baseball Skills Competition, a weeklong breakdown and ranking of baseball’s elite and unique talents. Each day this week, we’re taking an aspect of the game and profiling the players who best demonstrate specific skills, such as hitting a fastball, snapping off a nasty breaking ball, dashing around the bases or taking away a home run.
Today, only the best of the best are left as the winners of each day this week square off in our final round.
Weigh in with your vote below, and we’ll reveal the winner Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
The skill: Two-strike hitting
Category: At the plate
What makes him great: You could make a case for any number of hitters as the best two-strike hitter in baseball, and Altuve belongs in consideration, even if there’s not universal agreement on the subject. He’s a hitter who gets the most out of his body and the most out of every at-bat.
Altuve hit .275 (fourth in the majors) with two strikes last season. His .266 two-strike batting average over the past three seasons is the best in the majors. His 13 percent swing rate in that span is 15th lowest, and he ranked as the second-toughest batter to strike out in the American League in each of the past three seasons.
Altuve also had modest two-strike power, and his improvements in that area were in line with his overall improvements as a hitter. He totaled five two-strike home runs in the first five seasons of his career. He hit six in 2016, along with 14 doubles and a triple.
It’s this type of output that has helped Altuve win two batting titles in the past three seasons. Altuve is an MVP-caliber performer as he enters the prime of his career. — Mark Simon
They said it: I think Altuve actually laughs when he gets two strikes. He thinks it is fun. Like Mark Grace once told my Cubs teammate in spring training: When you get two strikes on Altuve, it is better for the pitcher to avoid wasting a pitch and throwing the ball down the right-field line before Altuve hits it there. Altuve defines letting the ball get deep; he apparently hits the ball out of the catcher’s hand as he is throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Now that is deep. — ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville
The skill: Throwing arm
What makes him great: One thing old-timers love to complain about is that nobody has a good throwing arms anymore, not like the good ol’ days … you know, like the late 1970s and 1980s when guys like Jesse Barfield, Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Ellis Valentine, Glenn Wilson and Bo Jackson all had legendary cannons. Wait … that’s the era I grew up in, which makes me an … oh, never mind.
Anyway, one thing fans of all ages can agree on: Cespedes has a throwing arm that matches the best of any generation. His throw from deep in the left-field corner to nail Howie Kendrick at home plate in 2014 was an instant classic, one of 16 assists he had that season, which led all outfielders. Here’s another video of his best throws that season.
While 2014 was his peak season in assists, Cespedes added 13 in 2015 and nine in 2016 — in part because runners haven’t been testing him as often. For example, when he played left field, runners took the extra base — such as first to home on double or first to third on a single — just 16 times in 63 opportunities. His “hold” percentage of 71.4 percent was above the MLB average of 62.5 percent for left fielders. If there’s a knock against Cespedes, it’s that since he doesn’t like to play right field, his arm is wasted somewhat in left field, where there are few opportunities to throw out advancing runners. — David Schoenfield
They said it: Cespedes has one of the strongest arms in baseball and can throw runners out at the plate from the warning track without hitting the cutoff man or bouncing the ball to the catcher. An absolute missile of an arm that puts him in the conversation with some of the best outfield arms of all time, a level just below the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, Barfield and Roberto Clemente and in the conversation with Yasiel Puig, Jose Guillen and Jackson. — ESPN Insider Jim Bowden
The skill: Snapping off a perfect breaking ball
What makes him great: Clayton Kershaw is not a pitcher who overwhelms you with velocity, but rather a combination of pitches with nasty looks and nasty breaks. Though Kershaw has an excellent fastball, what separates him is that he has an outstanding curveball and slider.
Opponents slashlined .142/.157/.208 against it in that span. The .364 OPS was the lowest among 125 pitchers who qualified (made at least 50 starts). Next lowest was Jon Lester‘s .417 and Kluber’s .424.
Kershaw’s slider has a sharp break, and hitters swing right over the top of it. Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has induced misses on 45 percent of swings against it. That’s third best in the majors, trailing only Noah Syndergaard and Max Scherzer.
Kershaw’s curveball has a loop to it. You might swing over the top of it, or you might buckle at the knees. Whatever you do, you’re not hitting it. Opponents’ batting averages against it the past five seasons: .083, .096, .122, .121, .118. That comes out to .109 for the five-year span, best in the majors. — Simon
They said it: He is a command artist. He puts them where he wants, at whichever speed he desires, whenever he pleases. – ESPN baseball analyst Dallas Braden
The skill: pitch framing
Category: In the field
What makes him great: Posey was the best in baseball at getting his pitchers extra called strikes last season. By our measure, he recorded 241 more than the average catcher would have on the same assortment of pitches. In second place for 2016 was Yasmani Grandal at 221.
Posey was almost equally good at making sure pitches in the strike zone were called strikes and getting pitches out of the strike zone but close called as strikes. “Subtle glove manipulation” is the key to his success, according to longtime Rockies catching instructor Jerry Weinstein.
Added our Jim Bowden: “His consistent targets and setup are so solid and special that it can be deceptive to umpires on certain pitches that land outside the zone, but give the illusion they are on the black.”
With Bumgarner, Posey widens the outside part of the strike zone against a right-handed hitter. With Cueto and Samardzija, he gets the extra strikes at the outer, inner, top and bottom edges of the zone. Most importantly, Posey gives his pitchers peace of mind. — Mark Simon
They said it: What Buster Posey does with pitch framing is criminal. We think of framing as making a pitch look pretty, but what he is doing is framing the hitter — setting the hitter up for imminent failure and somehow putting the blame on the hitter. Posey has a future on the wrong side of the law if he so desires. — ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville