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Launch angles — October 15, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/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

Carlos Correa and José Altuve win Game 2 for the Astros — +.055 cWPA

That’s gonna sting for a long time if the Yankees can’t dig their way out of this two-game hole. A recurring theme since his return from the DL has been Gary Sánchez’s lackluster defense in the traditional catcher skills. His 53 wild pitches were the second-most in MLB, and his 16 passed balls were the first; combined, his 69 missed pitches were the most in the league by a huge margin, and with a relatively low innings total. Sánchez is a fantastic player, of course, but his subpar glovework will probably attract a lot of focus this offseason if the Yankees’ run through the postseason ends in the ALCS.

Because a clean catch here would’ve had Altuve dead to rights. I’m generally a fan of aggressive baserunning in the late innings — especially against a pitcher like Aroldis Chapman, you can’t assume you’ll get any further opportunities — but as the gif shows, the diminutive Astros second baseman was just rounding third as the ball skipped in to Gregorius. Maybe it was right to gamble on a bad throw or a faulty reception at the plate, but the odds aren’t great. In a tie game in the bottom of the 9th, the home team wins 80 percent of the time when it has runners on second and third with one out; that drops to 60 percent when it has a runner on second with two out. Altuve had to have roughly a 50/50 shot to make sending him worthwhile, and though it worked out, that seems like an extremely generous interpretation. “Scoreboard” is a totally reasonable response to this whole paragraph, though.

Let’s not lose sight of Carlos Correa in all this, because this was an extremely clutch hit and a great plate appearance leading to it. He laid off three close pitches off the outside edge of the plate, and with the count full, managed to not only fight off a nasty heater at the bottom of the zone but drive it the other way. And it was his fourth-inning home run that gave the Astros their first run and put them in the position for this dramatic win. After this performance, Correa’s hitting .280/.333/.720 in the playoffs, with two dingers and three doubles, and he’s unsurprisingly been a key part of Houston’s success.

Yesterday’s best pitching performance

Justin Verlander — game score of 92

This outing would’ve been impressive in the regular season; only two outings all year were better, by the catch-all metric of game score. And of course there’s an added layer of excitement because this is the playoffs, and because this start came against a very good team in a very important moment. But even more than your routine excellent postseason start, this gem from Justin Verlander is especially amazing: nine innings pitched, thirteen strikeouts, one walk, five hits, one run. There have been just seven other complete games in the postseason since 2011; especially this year, where bullpens have played an enormous role and lots of starters have been steered into relief (Verlander included), such a feat seemed nearly impossible until it happened.

The Astros ace had an incredible 25 whiffs on the afternoon, with 13 on his slider and another 10 on his fastball. Unlike lots of modern pitchers, he didn’t get those whiffs on the fourseamer up above the top of the zone; instead, Verlander kept his fastball down for the most part, and got whiffs by going off the plate slightly or by using its movement. If your pitch is good enough to get whiffs like that, it’s a much less risky strategy, as a slight miss doesn’t result in a meatball. He was similarly controlled with his slider, keeping it low in the zone and away from righties, and it was making them look foolish all night long.

Baseball Savant

It’s a tenet of sabermetrics that players don’t really vary their effort that much. They work hard whether they’re leading or trailing, fighting for the playoffs or twenty games back. But it’s really tempting to look at Justin Verlander’s fastball velocities and think that he tapped into something a little extra last night. He threw 124 pitches, with an average fourseamer speed of 96.6mph. Per Brooks Baseball, he had just three starts this year with a higher average velocity, one of which was also a playoff start. It seems like each postseason features some starter who blows all our minds with their utter dominance as they run to and through the World Series; maybe this is Verlander’s October.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Albert Almora Jr. — 412 feet

The home runs we’ve highlighted in this section have been underwhelming during the playoffs. It’s not that they’re bad or anything, but with just a few games each night, they can be a little less impressive than what we’re used to when there are ten to fifteen games going on. Thankfully, Albert Almora Jr. is here to save us. This home run probably wouldn’t have drawn any attention in the regular season on distance alone, but it’s at least an impressive, hard-hit blast, a laser ripped out to left field in a hurry.

Almora’s not a household name yet, but he’s one of the enormous crop of Cubs prospects in the 20- to 24-year-old range, and he might be well-known soon. He’s an above-average center fielder, which makes displays of power like this pretty exciting; an excellent defensive outfielder who can hit for this kind of power is a special player. Almora managed to hold his own as a 23-year-old this season, running a 103 wRC+ across 323 PAs, but it’s easy to hope for more when you see plate appearances like this.

Because this was no ordinary home run, of course; this was a home run off the one and only Clayton Kershaw, the consensus best active pitcher. This was the only big mistake of the night for the Dodgers lefty — otherwise, he struck out four and gave up three hits across five innings — and it really wasn’t that bad of a pitch. Almora hadn’t seen a single pitch inside the zone, and Kershaw went with a slider that caught the lower half of the plate but certainly was not grooved or anything like that. Playoff Kershaw at least has a reputation for being worse than regular season Kershaw, so maybe this isn’t as impressive as it might seem. But this was a good pitch from a good pitcher, and Almora cranked it more than 400 feet. It’s okay to be impressed.

SABRy tidbits

  • It would’ve been easy not to notice, but in his abbreviated August and September after his return from the DL, Kevin Kiermaier was outstanding, with an impressive 133 wRC+. Over at DRays’ Bay, our own Jim Turvey breaks down Kiermaier’s possible 2018, and is understandably excited about the possibilities.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jon Lester (3.70 projected ERA) vs. Rich Hill (3.51 projected ERA)

It’s an ex-Red Sox extravaganza for Game 2 of the NLCS, with two very good and very strange pitchers going up against each other. On the one hand, you have Lester: aging fairly gracefully, and even learning new tricks as he does (like how to throw a pickoff!); on the other, you have Rich Hill, following the strangest career path and aging curve ever seen and reinventing himself constantly. Both pitchers are very good and very cool, and it should be a very fun game (even if you ignore the whole “playoffs” thing).