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Launch angles — October 14, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

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

Carlos Correa puts Houston on the board — +.109 WPA

GIF via MLB.com

Pitchers’ duels don’t usually have exciting offensive plays. This sort of WPA graph is what you’ll usually see:

Image via FanGraphs

This isn’t to say the ALCS Game 1 between the Yankees and Astros — a 2-1 nail-biter of a win for Houston — had no excitement. Two dominant pitchers went head-to-head (which we’ll discuss in a moment), and a late home run (which we’ll also discuss in a moment) made things close. But none of that swung the game all that much.

In low-scoring affairs like these, the first run — the one that finally breaks the tie, as first runs tend to do — will usually take the top spot. Such was the case in Friday’s game. In the top of the fourth, Jose Altuve knocked a one-out single, then stole second. Perhaps fazed by the runner at second, Tanaka caught a little too much of the strike zone:

Image via Brooks Baseball

Correa pulled the 2-1 slider to right field, and Brett Gardner’s underwhelming throw wasn’t nearly enough to catch Altuve, who decided to slide because he could. The RBI single put Houston ahead, 1-0.

This wasn’t the only run of the game, or even the inning — Yuli Gurriel followed up with a single of his own, scoring Correa from second. The Yankees had some more high-leverage moments in the next frame, putting the first two hitters on base before stranding them. At the end of the day, though, this swing was the decisive one, the one that broke the game open. That’s why it gets top billing.

Yesterday’s best game score

Dallas Keuchel — 82

Game Score was developed by Bill James as a quick way to evaluate a starting pitcher’s performance. The score begins at 50, with points added for outs and strikeouts, and subtracted for walks, hits, and runs. A score of 70 is very good; a score of 90 is outstanding.

GIF via MLB.com

The real story of Game 1 was on the mound. Masahiro Tanaka did his best — limiting one of the best offenses in MLB history to two runs over six innings is an impressive accomplishment — but he didn’t stand a chance against Keuchel. The Houston southpaw was firing on all cylinders, holding New York to four hits and a walk over seven shutout innings. After failing to reach double-digit strikeouts in a regular-season game, he fanned 10 Yankees in this sterling outing.

Earlier this year, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noted Keuchel had gone the way of Brad Ziegler, avoiding the strike zone like never before and pitching better as a result. That was the case in this game — Keuchel didn’t give the Yankees much to hit:

Image via Brooks Baseball

Still, he managed to throw 67 of his 109 pitches for strikes, thanks to an aggressive Bombers lineup and some slick framing from Brian McCann. His 56 sinkers racked up 15 called strikes, catching the Yankees looking whenever they weren’t making weak contact against it. For a change of speed, he tossed in 46 sliders and cutters, which gave him 10 whiffs and six outs on six balls in play. The result was — well, we’ve already talked about that.

Things won’t get any easier for New York in Game 2 later today, when Houston will trot out Justin Verlander — he of the 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts with the ‘Stros. Following a day off Sunday, the Yankees will face Charlie Morton and his renewed velocity in Game 3, with Keuchel perhaps returning in Game 4. Aaron Judge and co. will have their work cut out for them against this rotation.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Greg Bird — 399 feet

GIF via MLB.com

Well, at least the Yankees scored a run. In the top of the ninth inning, Ken Giles was looking to preserve the shutout — and the Game 1 victory — for the Astros. He’d already struck out Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks for the first two outs; only Bird and his .190/.288/.422 slash line remained.

Giles started out with a 98-mph four-seamer low for ball one. He tried another 98-mph four-seamer for the second pitch, and Bird fouled it off. That third pitch was…

Image via Brooks Baseball

…another 98-mph four-seamer, this time over the plate. Bird made solid contact, barely wrapping the ball around the Chick-fil-A-ad-adorned foul pole in right field:

GIF via MLB.com

Ultimately, Bird’s blast didn’t change a thing. Jacoby Ellsbury came in as a pinch-hitter and promptly went down swinging to end the game. But for a guy playing in his first real postseason, a huge hit like this — off a closer who’s given up 15 home runs in 244 regular-season innings — is something worth remembering.

SABRy tidbits

  • This wasn’t Keuchel’s first great postseason game against the Yankees. In the 2015 AL Wild Card game, he marched into the Bronx and blanked New York over six innings en route to a 3-0 Houston victory. Before Game 1, Chris Greenberg broke down some more crazy Keuchel-Yankees stats.
  • It’s hard to feel too sorry for Nats fans — after all, they’ve been the second-best team in baseball since 2012, behind only the Dodgers. Then again, they’ve had their hearts ripped out again, and again, and again. Grant Brisbee makes a compelling case for why D.C. sadness is the biggest baseball sadness.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Jose Quintana/John Lackey (3.44/?.?? projected ERA) vs. Clayton Kershaw (2.69 projected ERA)

As I’m writing this — about 4:30 a.m. EST, less than 16 hours before Game 1 of the NLCS — the Cubs still haven’t declared their starter. But even a projection of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ takes the top spot, just based on the fact that the best pitcher alive will be starting for the Dodgers. Gotta love the certainty of Kershaw! (Unless you’re Chicago.)

Quintana is clearly the better pitcher — FanGraphs doesn’t even have a projection for Lackey (I’m guessing they expect him to retire). But the lefty pitched in Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday, meaning he might not be well-rested. Regardless of whom they start, the Cubs should have a tough time scoring themselves. The ALCS started off with a Cy Young-winning southpaw dominating, and the NLCS could begin the same way.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.