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Launch angles — October 8, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-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

Bryce Harper ties the game in the bottom of the 8th — +.388 WPA

Uuuuuuuuuunngh. Everything about this home run is beautiful. Before Harper turned on this pitch, the Nationals looked like they were drifting placidly toward yet another early playoff exit; after, even with the game still tied (and the series still tilted toward the Cubs), they felt like favorites. As Devan pointed out on Twitter, it came at one of the most critical possible moments for the Nationals’ hopes of making the NLCS.

But this home run also looked the part of a game-tying, momentum-shifting dinger. It was an upper-deck blast, a 421-foot moonshot (the second-longest home run on the night). And Harper gave it the packaging it deserved, taking the time to watch it soar and bask in the noise of the packed Nationals Park.

There’s also something lovely about watching a hanging curveball get turned on with this much force and violence. Harper chased the first pitch of this plate appearance, a curveball that Carl Edwards Jr. buried in the dirt. But the next three fastballs all missed the zone badly, and Harper looked like he was waiting for a curveball on this pitch.

Brooks Baseball

If you watch Willson Contreras’s glove, you can see that Edwards Jr. missed his spot, too; it’s one thing to correctly guess that a curveball is coming, and it’s another to guess curveball and get one gifted to you right down the middle of the plate. That’s a recipe for a huge, momentous, memorable home run, and that’s precisely what Harper delivered.

Yesterday’s best pitching performance

Kenley Jansen (relief)

As is often true in the postseason, there were no standout starting pitching performances from last night, so we have to go a little deeper in the games to find a player worth celebrating. But Jansen’s performance is more than worthy: he entered with one out in the 8th, in a game that had seen several lead changes and shifts of momentum, and put the game completely out of reach of the Diamondbacks. He was perfect over five batters, with two strikeouts, one pop up, and a groundout.

Jansen is not a one-trick pony, but he leans very hard on his outstanding cutter. Last night, he only threw it on two-thirds of his 18 pitches, and I mean “only,” as that’s a step back from his usual high-80s rate. It’s the sort of pitch that a batter can know is coming and still can’t do much damage against; in 2017, Jansen allowed a .310 slugging against the pitch. Remember that that’s not including strikeouts or walks — when opposing batters put the ball in play, they get an average of .31 bases. That’s an incredible figure for a pitch that is thrown as often as Jansen’s cutter, and it’s one of the key drivers of his success and consistency. He never walks anybody, because he can throw the cutter in the zone over and over again and still get whiffs and poor contact.

The Dodgers have such confidence in Jansen (and perhaps so little confidence in the rest of their bullpen) that they let him “hit” in the bottom of the 8th, which is supremely funny to me. He was the second batter of the inning, too; it’s one thing when a pitcher hits with two outs and nobody on, as the odds of a pinch hitter turning that inning into a rally are low. The odds were not that low with Jansen, but Dave Roberts still decided to use Jansen for five outs and basically give up on that spot in the order instead of giving the ball to another pitcher. And who I am to argue with a result as good as this one?

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Paul Goldschmidt — 430 feet

I felt like I had barely settled into this game before the Diamondbacks were up 2–0. I can only imagine how fans with a real emotional stake in this game felt to see perennially underrated star Paul Goldschmidt show a national TV audience precisely why he’s underrated. After the Dodgers and Justin Turner did something similar to the Diamondbacks on Friday night, hitting a three-run shot in the bottom of the first inning, Arizona fans had to be feeling pretty good about returning the favor so quickly.

Ben Lindbergh published a neat article before Rich Hill’s start showing how he’s shifted his pitch distribution from his famous curveball toward his four-seam fastball, presumably as a result of his recurring blister problems that seemed to be caused in larger part by that curveball. This pitch was one of those fastballs, but placed right in the part of the zone where you really don’t want fastballs to go:

Brooks Baseball

Goldschmidt is also not the kind of player you get away with sloppiness against. An 89mph fastball down the center of the upper part of the plate is going to get crushed, and that’s exactly what happened.

To me, the playoffs are sad mostly because I don’t get to see individual players after they get eliminated. I don’t care as much about the Diamondbacks as an institution; I care about Paul Goldschmidt hitting huge bombs. With their backs against the wall 2–0, the DBacks face an uphill battle to the NLCS. And with players like Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, and the aforementioned Rich Hill on the Dodgers, I can’t bring myself to explicitly root for Arizona to advance. I am definitely rooting for them to win a couple of games, however, and make this a real series. We deserve some more Goldschmidt PAs.

SABRy tidbits

  • If the Kluber-for-Cy-Young narrative was strong in the last month of the regular season, it was deafening after Chris Sale’s first postseason start (a decidedly poor affair). Then, because baseball is baseball, Kluber went out and had a terrible start of his own. Over at Let’s Go Tribe, BtBSer Merritt Rohfling breaks down the start, and finds the main culprit: control (or the lack thereof).

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Carlos Carrasco (3.37 projected ERA) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (3.92 projected ERA)

I assume you’ll be watching every baseball game that happens today, seeing as they’re both elimination matches. But if you’ve got some errands to run today, and only have time to watch one of these games, I might lean toward the Cleveland/New York matchup on the strength of this pitching. The contrast with the Houston/Boston matchup is, uh, strong; neither Brad Peacock nor Doug Fister are a player I expected to make playoff starts at the beginning of the season. Carrasco and Tanaka, on the other hand, are both quasi-aces, in that tier below the ten best pitchers or so but not very far.

Tanaka in particular is interesting; he’s been pitching without a fully functional elbow ligament for parts of four seasons year now, and is still going relatively strong. 2017 was a down year for him, with a 4.74 ERA, but his home ERA is a sparkling 3.22 versus a 6.48 on the road. Whether that’s signal or noise remains to be seen, but tonight’s game might offer some clues.