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Launch angles — October 12, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Five Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The MLB season lasts half the year, and it can be hard for the average fan to keep up. That’s where we come in. Every day during the 2017 regular season, Beyond the Box Score will be recapping all the biggest action from the previous day — with a sabermetric slant, of course — and looking ahead to what today will bring.

Yesterday’s biggest play

Didi Gregorius opens up the Yankees’ lead — +.042 cWPA

We’re experimenting with a bit of a shift in this edition of Launch Angles. Rather than using basic Win Probability Added, which looks at how much a given play improved a team’s shot at winning the specific game it was playing in, we’re using Championship Win Probability Added, a very similar stat available at The Baseball Gauge that looks at how much a given play improved a team’s shot at winning the World Series. Instead of talking about Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam here (and don’t worry, we’ll get to it later) and its .214 WPA, therefore, we’re talking about Didi Gregorius’s two-run home run and it’s .042 cWPA, and that just feels right. This was a decisive Game Five; it’s okay if it takes up more of our attention than it might normally get.

Gregorius chose a good time to have himself a heck of a game. This was his second home run of the night, and off Corey Kluber no less. Dinger number one was a solo shot that wrapped around the pole in right field, and dinger number two looked much the same. At 378 feet, it was shorter than a good number of outs, including a 384-foot line out Aaron Hicks hit in the next inning, and according to Statcast, balls with this kind of launch angle and exit velocity only turn into hits 48 percent of the time. Maybe Gregorius got lucky, or maybe he was trying to pull the ball down the line; either way, it worked, and in a crucial spot.

Cleveland would end up making this game close with a pair of runs in the 5th, though the Yankees would open up the lead again in the 9th. Still, for much of this game, the two runs that resulted from this home run looked like they were going to be the deciding factor, and it deserves every ounce of cWPA it picked up. Corey Kluber’s final line across two starts: 6 13 innings, 10 strikeouts, 3 walks, 4 home runs, and 9 runs. It’s too big a thing to place just on Kluber’s shoulders, but Cleveland’s playoff hopes without their ace were never going to be that strong. The storybook ending seemed fated: the longest championship drought in baseball ends, and the team with the second-longest drought is poised to go on their own miracle tear after losing in the World Series last year. Instead, Cleveland was bounced in the first round. Baseball’s resistance to storybook endings is one of the things that keeps it exciting, and sometimes heartbreaking.

Yesterday’s best pitching performance

Stephen Strasburg — 84 game score

Of course, right after talking about how baseball doesn’t always follow the obvious narrative, I stumble into about the most obvious storyline of these (still young) playoffs. The Nationals had been through all kinds of drama, thanks to the rain-induced cancellation of yesterday’s game. First Strasburg wasn’t going to pitch at all, for some unspecified reasons (possibly mold or just general sickness), and that induced a veritable avalanche of hot takes about the laziness of the modern generation and the lack of teamwork and empathy on their part. But then, it was announced this morning that Strasburg would actually pitch, and suddenly the narrative had reversed: now he was playing through possible sickness and ill-health just to give his team the best shot at winning the series. With those competing storylines, was any kind of middle ground ever possible? Strasburg was always going to implode or dominate; you can’t convince me that baseball fate doesn’t have a sense of humor, and that one of the ways it expresses that sense is by screwing with our expectations at every possible opportunity.

Anyways, Strasburg went down the “dominance” route, crushing the Cubs mercilessly over 7 innings with 12 strikeouts, 3 hits, 2 walks, and 0 strikeouts. This was a great outing even without the lowered standards of the postseason, the kind of start that easily could’ve appeared in this space on any day of the regular season. This was the best start of the playoffs to date, and that might remain true through the entirety of October; most offenses left alive are extremely potent, and most managers are going to want to get to their bullpen as quickly as possible. This kind of lengthy, outstanding outing is certainly the exception rather than the norm.

Strasburg racked up an insane 22 whiffs on 106 pitches, with 15 of those coming on his outstanding changeup (featured frequently in the above gif). He had the Cubs batters fooled all day, and never looked like he was losing control; in his final inning, he struck out the side in order, a nice exclamation point on a start with some narrative behind it. With the win, the Nationals forced a Game 5, which will be played today.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Michael A. Taylor — 393 feet

This is not a particularly big home run, in the distance sense, but it’s still a home run with several things going for it. First, as described in the WPA section, this home run was a very big deal, taking the Nationals from slight favorites to considerable ones in this must-win game. Second, the weather was absolutely horrible in Chicago, wet and cold, and so hitting a ball any kind of distance should probably get a few dozen feet of extra credit mentally added.

But the real fun of this home run came in watching it fly. It seemed destined to land beyond the fence as soon as it left Taylor’s bat; it barely scraped over the edge of the basket, but as you watch it in flight, no outcome but a home run seems to fit the drama and import of the moment. I always find it really funny to watch how fans react when the visiting team hits a home run: they don’t want to celebrate, exactly, but there’s something so instinctual about putting up your hands and moving toward (or away from) the flying white sphere that even antagonistic fans can’t help but react. They can be sure to do it in a halfhearted and generally unhappy way, though, which is what always gets me. Thanks, Cubs fans.

Taylor is not a dinger machine, but he’s got some pop, with 19 home runs in 432 regular season PAs from this year and a career ISO of .164. More importantly, however, (and more surprisingly, given how this scenario turned out) was who was on the mound for the Cubs. Wade Davis’s powers of dinger suppression are legendary; in the four years since he’s become a full-time reliever, he’s pitched 241 13 innings and allowed just nine home runs. That’s real good! But Davis did not make a good pitch in this at-bat: he threw three two straight fastballs (edit: the first one, that missed the zone badly, was actually a Carl Edwards Jr. pitch), and both were in roughly the same spot. The first was a strike, but the second was higher than it was supposed to be, in the heart of the zone, and it got crushed. Or, at least, as “crushed” as you can get during chilly October baseball. Get psyched for another month of spandex under uniforms, hurting hands, and balls that look like they should go a lot further than they do.

SABRy tidbits

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Kyle Hendricks vs. ???

Thank goodness the Nationals forced a Game 5 last night; if they hadn’t, we might be facing a day without baseball tomorrow. Instead, we get a decisive game for a ticket to the NLCS, and then start up with the ALCS on Friday, for a seamless transition from one stage of the postseason to the next. Pitching for the Cubs is Kyle Hendricks, a very good pitcher who I constantly underrate because he is as good as he is through contact management and control, not blazing velocity and strikeouts. In his first start of the NLDS, he threw seven shutout innings. It’s not official who he’ll be facing; my guess is that it’ll be Gio González, who last pitched on the 7th and had an okay outing. In any case, this will be must-watch TV, so be there.