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Chipper in need of more than just contact

There’s plenty to watch with the Detroit Tigers taking on the Atlanta Braves in ESPN’s first spring training telecast Thursday at 1 ET. Here’s a closer look at a couple of interesting storylines the new announcing team of Dan Shulman, Bobby Valentine and Orel Hershiser will be watching.

Chipper and changeups

One point of focus for Chipper Jones will be his performance against the slow stuff located away. Our Inside Edge video scouting data showed that Jones hit just .136 last season in at-bats that ended on a breaking ball or changeup on the outer part of the plate or beyond. That’s down significantly from .358 in 2008, and .274 in 2009.

Chipper Jones

JonesJones’ biggest bugaboo was the changeup away. It wasn’t that he was missing on these swings at an exorbitant rate (last season he was just above the major league average), but Jones wasn’t able to hit the ball hard when he made contact. All of our data sources indicate that Jones hit line drives and hard-hit balls at a rate well below the league average. When Jones did, he didn’t get hits. Jones was just 5-for-35 (.143) when making any sort of contact with a changeup away. The league average was .280 when making contact with those pitches.

Jones, who’s returning from a torn ACL, has missed 253 games over the past six seasons. Since 2005, the Braves are 375-344 with Jones in the lineup, and 127-126 when he does not play. Last season, Atlanta was 15 games over .500 (55-40) when he played.

-- Katie Sharp, Mark Simon, Douglas Clawson

Can the kid close?

Hershiser is picking Atlanta's flamethrowing rookie Craig Kimbrel as his National League Rookie of the Year. Even though Kimbrel isn’t pitching today, expect his name to be mentioned during the telecast.

Kimbrel’s strikeout rate (17.4 per 9 innings) isn’t the only amazing statistic. In 171⅔ professional regular-season innings, the youngster with a 95-mph fastball has yielded just five home runs (none in the majors). In his last 16⅔ innings, combining regular season and postseason, Kimbrel has not allowed an extra-base hit.

Notable Closers Since 2005
With Limited Experience

Something to watch with Kimbrel is whether he can get ahead in the count. Kimbrel threw first-pitch strikes only 43 percent of the time last season. That was the worst rate for those who threw at least 350 pitches. Kimbrel's first-pitch strike rate was just 36.6 percent in his first eight appearances. His rate improved to 55 percent over his final 13 regular-season appearances and four postseason outings.

This wouldn't be the first time the Braves went with an inexperienced closer. They did so multiple times during the 1990s, most notably in 1993 (Greg McMichael, 19 saves, 2.06 ERA), 1998 (Kerry Ligtenberg, 30 saves, 2.71 ERA) and 1999 (John Rocker, 38 saves, 2.71 ERA).

-- Katie Sharp, Jeremy Lundblad, Zach Singer

Stat of the day

A quick search of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index shows that Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward have a chance to be the second pair of teammates since 1900 to have an OPS of .700 or better in their “age-21-or-younger” season (age computed as of June 30). The only teammates who did that were Gary Carter and Larry Parrish in 1975 with the Montreal Expos.

Coincidentally, Parrish is in his first season as the Braves' hitting coach.

-- Ben Duronio