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Launch angles — October 21, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Ronald Martinez/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 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

Evan Gattis belts a solo shot — +.065 cWPA

MLB.com

At the time, this almost felt like a blessing for the Yankees. Not because there’s anything good about a solo home run, but because it being nothing more than a solo homer seemed really lucky. CC Sabathia has put in a great set of performances this playoffs, but he looked completely gassed last night. His sinker velocity was down to 90mph, and over his 65 pitches, he garnered just three whiffs from Astros hitters. When Gattis hit this blast and put the Astros on the board, Houston had scattered three hits and two walks across the prior three innings; had the timing of this home run been just a little different, this game could’ve looked like a blowout in the making.

But the impact of Gattis’s home run was still unmistakeable. The ‘Stros jumped from a 55 percent chance to win up to a 69 percent chance, and from a more gut-y perspective, gave themselves a clear path to victory. Now the Yankees had to break the status quo in order to win, or even just to not lose; Houston just had to stall. They’d do a lot more than stall, of course, but this was the point in the game where the momentum clearly shifted in their favor, and it would stay there until the end.

This was a gritty at-bat from Gattis, who quickly went down 0–2 with a whiff and a called strike. But over the next five pitches, he successfully laid off two sliders below the zone and fouled off three cutters above it. When pitch number eight came floating in — a letter-high, 81mph slider that wasn’t sliding — Gattis had earned himself the healthy cut he took, and the thunderous blast that resulted.

Yesterday’s best pitching performance

Lance McCullers — in relief

MLB.com

There was a totally reasonable start that could’ve made this slot. Charlie Morton went five innings with five strikeouts, one walk, two hits, and no runs, good for a game score of 69. But Lance McCullers’s performance in relief — four innings with six strikeouts, one walk, one hit, and no runs — is what everyone was talking about after this game, and it felt appropriate to give it the nod here. (That’s not to minimize what Morton did, however; when you look at what his career was like before he added three MPH to his fastball, you get a new appreciation for his performance last night.)

McCullers threw 54 pitches, and a whopping 41 of them (76 percent) were curveballs. That included a stretch running from the top of the 8th through the end of the game in which the righty threw 24 consecutive curves, without a single fastball mixed in. McCullers could get away with this one simple reason: his curve is really nasty. And I’m not just talking about movement; McCullers can command the curve well enough to induce whiffs below the zone, grounders at the bottom of the zone, or pop-ups with pitches up and away, all without letting it run into the real dangerous parts of the plate. He’s thrown the curve almost 48 percent of the time during 2017 as a whole, and despite that heavy usage has a whiff rate of 19 percent and a slugging rate (on contact) of just .109.

McCullers’s curveball usage in Game Seven
Baseball Savant

It’s very reasonable to look at those numbers and think that McCullers isn’t throwing his curve enough, given how effective the pitch is; it could be that McCullers (and the Astros coaching staff) did just that before his Game Seven relief appearance. (Or perhaps they did it a bit earlier in the postseason; Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted that McCullers had simplified his repertoire and was leaning more on the curve during the ALDS, too.) Who cares if you’re predictable when the pitch they’re predicting is as good as this curve? It looked inspired last night, and McCullers may have pitched himself back into the rotation (and Brad Peacock out of it) with this performance.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Evan Gattis — 405 feet

MLB.com

Evan Gattis has one of the better stories of anyone on this Astros team. He looked on track to graduate high school in 2004 as one of the country’s top prospects, but anxiety combined with drug and alcohol abuse led to him going undrafted and walking away from his scholarship at Texas A&M. Wikipedia describes what Gattis did next as “wandering the Western United States,” and it’s apt: he worked as a pizza guy, ski lift operator, and janitor, among other things. And while he wandered, he continued to struggle with mental health, being diagnosed with depression and anxiety along the way.

In 2010, he decided to return to baseball, walking onto a Division-II team at the Texas state school attended by his brother. After an impressive season, the Braves picked him in the 23rd round of that year’s draft, making Gattis a 24-year-old draftee. He’s put together a very solid start to his career on the back of his power and decent catching ability, and now he’s headed to the World Series. You’re sure to hear a lot about Gattis’s journey to this point over the next week, and it shouldn’t be trivialized; his recovery isn’t about our entertainment. But it is an uplifting story, and one that makes it very easy to root for the burly Astro.

SABRy tidbits

  • Back in 2014, Sports Illustrated published it’s notorious “Your 2017 World Series Champs” cover about the Astros. With Houston making the World Series, that’s looking like an impressive call, especially given that the Astros had an average record of 58–104 from 2011–14. Ben Reiter’s story that inspired the cover is well worth a read.
  • So is Grant Brisbee’s defense of the call, which came from a different angle but reads just as much like a piece written to sound impressive in 2017.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Dallas Keuchel (3.74 projected ERA) vs. Clayton Kershaw (2.69 projected ERA)

This is not set in stone, given that Game One of the World Series is not tonight, or tomorrow, but Tuesday night (which sucks). But these are the two pitchers listed on MLB.com, and they’re the ones I’d expect. Kershaw last pitched on Thursday, which makes this a normally rested appearance, and Keuchel last went on Wednesday.

It’s foolish to ever bet against Kershaw, but the Dodgers ace has continued to struggle in the playoffs, and not just in the luck-influenced categories like home run rate. In his three starts and 17 13 innings of this postseason, he’s struck out opposing batters at a much lower rate than in the regular season (23.5 percent versus 29.8 percent) and walked them at a much higher rate (7.4 percent versus 4.4 percent). Odds are that he’ll snap out of it, given that he’s Clayton Kershaw, but he’s looked mortal thus far. Keuchel, on the other hand, has been on fire this postseason, with his strikeout rate spiking from 21.4 percent to 35.2 percent and his walk rate falling from 8.1 percent to 7.0 percent. This is a great pitching matchup to kick off what should be a great series.