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Launch angles — April 16, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-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

Andrew McCutchen lifts the Pirates — +.502 WPA

This is a tremendous swing, and it wasn’t the only possible choice. In fact, the Marlins covered more WPA ground yesterday, when they went from down 4–2 to leading 5–4 in the bottom of the 8th inning, rocketing from a win probability of 11.3 percent to one of 84.8 percent. It took them two plate appearances to do it, however, so the consecutive home runs of Yelich and Stanton are considered separately for our purposes, and McCutchen takes the title instead.

All that is not to suggest that this isn’t deserving, because my goodness, what a crushing reversal. This game had already looked out of reach for the Pirates — the Cubs had a 6–2 lead in the 5th, which has translated to a win more than 95% of the time — but Pittsburgh clawed their way back within one run in the sixth and the seventh. McCutchen came to the plate with two outs, and so the Cubs were still in fundamentally fine shape. I’m going to stick in the whole chart from FanGraphs, because I think it helps to see exactly what it looks like to go from not-favorites to favorites in a single swing of the bat.

After a quiet start to the season, McCutchen hit his first home run on Thursday, making this blast his second in three games. His line in this short season still isn’t great, and resembles his disappointing 2016 more than any other year — .250/.298/.409, with a 6.4 percent walk rate and a 21.3 percent home run rate — but this wasn’t an easy pitch to hit from Strop, a slider located down and in that Cutch managed to square up nonetheless. He had also just laid off two sliders just below the zone that went for balls, so his pitch recognition skills drove this result just as much as his power stroke.

McCutchen is a very likable player, so here’s hoping that he’s on his way back to the excellence of 2012–15.

Yesterday’s best game score

Ervin Santana — 98

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.

I believe a 98 is the best game score of the year thus far. Whether it’s been beaten or not, though, it’s incredible, and the product of a day of downright dominance from Santana. His final line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 1 BB, 8 K. Some one-hitters mask serious underlying issues with a start, but not this one. The Twins starter ended his afternoon with only 107 pitches; Santana was not only excellent, but efficient, too.

Santana relied on three pitches: his fastball (50), his slider (43), and his changeup (14). The slider yielded the most whiffs (7), but really, Santana’s success yesterday was more the product of pounding the zone and challenging hitters than pure raw stuff. He started almost every PA off with a strike (20 of 29, or 69 percent), and ended the day with strikes on 67 percent of his pitches overall. This White Sox lineup wasn’t particularly threatening, so maybe it’s not a strategy that would work every game, but it sure succeeded yesterday.

Santana dropped his season ERA to a sterling 0.41 with yesterday’s performance, and while his peripherals aren’t quite as amazing, they’re still quite good; a 20.0 percent strikeout rate and 6.7 percent walk rate will definitely play. The Twins need all the help they can get; continued good performance from Santana would go a long way toward making this season a success in one way or another.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Kris Bryant — 451 feet

My word, that was a bomb. Tagging a ball off that scoreboard in left-center Wrigley means you hit it a country mile, and that’s exactly what Bryant did. Before yesterday, Bryant had yet to hit his first dinger of the year; he made it a good one. At 451 feet, this is the fourth-longest shot of the young season.

The danger of falling behind in the count is a simple concept that I don’t always appreciate the importance of. Tyler Glasnow is a hot prospect for the Pirates, but the 23-year-old was lacking command for much of yesterday (a 55% strike rate). He started Bryant off with a changeup in the dirt, then missed with a fastball on pitch number two. Down 2–0 in the count, he grooved a fastball, because what else are you going to do when you can’t find the strike zone? There are a lot of strategic concerns that go into pitching, and it’s almost certainly correct some percentage of the time to just pump a fastball middle-middle, even against Kris Bryant. But yesterday in the first was not one of those times, apparently.

SABRy tidbits

  • For the main SBNation MLB site, Grant Brisbee has a great reflection on Jackie Robinson Day, and what it should mean in the present.
  • Merritt Rohlfing (who will soon be joining us here at Beyond the Box Score) broke down Abraham Almonte’s apparent transformation into a patient hitter for Let’s Go Tribe. It’s a product of a changed approach by Almonte and by opposing pitchers, according to Rohlfing, but don’t expect his 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to hold.
  • Pinstripe Alley’s Matt Ferenchick tells the stories of the three Yankees players to pull a “Moonlight Graham,” who have one career major league game and zero plate appearances. A lot needs to go right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) for a player to achieve this feat, and the life stories of these Yankees are fascinating.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jon Lester (3.25 projected ERA) vs. Jameson Taillon (3.64 projected ERA)

It is apparently Cubs–Pirates day here at Launch Angles. This is a deserving matchup, though; Lester is an established veteran who is almost metronomic in his excellence, while Taillon is an exciting young player whose off to a great start in 2017. Through two starts, he’s sitting at a 1.38 ERA and a 3.55 FIP. Taillon’s repertoire isn’t special in-and-of itself, but his fastball sits in the mid-90s and his curveball can really bite.

Lester, at this point, should probably be a wholly known quantity. He too is off to a great start, having struck out 14 batters in his first 11 innings of work while walking only three. Lester is also fun to watch (or possibly frustrating) for his total inability to throw to first base. The Cubs (specifically, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras) have developed a lot of tricks to keep runners from getting comfortable, but it always feels like there’s the potential for a team to go hog-wild on the basepaths, which makes for a fun viewing experience.