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Launch angles — April 22, 2017

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Toronto Blue Jays v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/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

José Bautista seizes the lead — +.454 WPA

The Angels had almost escaped the top of the 13th unharmed. Jesse Chavez (himself a Blue Jay as recently as last year) got two quick outs, and looked like he was going to preserve the 5–5 tie for another half-inning. But then Kevin Pillar hit a ball up the middle that Chavez couldn’t get a glove on, and Ezekiel Carrera hit a bloop into shallow left, and there were two runners on as Bautista approached the plate.

By win probability, the Jays were slight favorites at that point (51.2 percent), but only slight. With two outs, there’s no possibility of a sac fly, and even if a run gets driven in, the Angels have another opportunity to respond. Instead, Bautista’s shot put the Jays in almost total control (win probability of 96.6 percent), because unlike one-run leads, three-run leads are very secure, and nearly impossible to give up in a single half-inning.

That’s why the sinking feeling deep in the gut of every Toronto fan in the bottom of the 13th must’ve been a sight to behold. After starting the year 3–12, something has finally gone the Blue Jays’ way, and they’re finally ready to snap out of this slump they’ve been in. All they have to do is get three outs before giving up three runs. But then Justin Smoak kicks a grounder at first base, and Aaron Loup walks a guy, and Chris Coghlan gets eaten up at third base, and suddenly the bases are loaded with nobody out and our imaginary Toronto fan is wondering what it will be like to be a fan of the only team in MLB history to win fewer than 10 games in a season. A single and a hit-by-pitch later (with a strikeout mixed in), and the bases are still loaded with only one out, and only one more run needed for the Angels to tie the game.

But a strikeout and a fly out later, and the Blue Jays had survived, somehow. The real tragedy of this game was not that the Angels had their hearts broken by a not-quite-comeback; instead, it’s that their last two outs didn’t come via double play. After cutting the lead to one, the Angels had a win probability of 52.6 percent; the next two plays dropped that to zero. If that drop had come on one play, we would’ve had our first defensive champion for WPA, as every night’s most impactful play has (so far) come courtesy of a hitter, not a pitcher or fielder. Without a double play, Bautista gets to take home the trophy, and Joe Biagini will keep waiting for his first super-clutch moment.

Yesterday’s best game score

Corey Kluber — 93

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.

The KluBot has been activated; the KluBot is pleased. Kluber had a bit of a bumpy start to the season, giving up fourteen runs over his first three starts. But his strikeout and walk numbers over those starts (22.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively) weren’t that far from where Kluber would like them to be, so it seemed like it was only a matter of time until we saw the former Cy Young winner and ace put on the kind of performance we’re used to seeing from him. That’s precisely what he did last night, twirling a complete game shutout with three hits, two walks, and nine strikeouts.

Kluber’s control was spot-on last night, as the above fastball located precisely at the knees of Omar Narvaéz demonstrates, but his stuff was also just filthy. Look at this slider. This is gross.

The horizontal run on Kluber’s sliders is so abrupt that they get automatically classified as curveballs by Gameday, despite their mid-80s velocity. The slider earned Kluber six whiffs last night, with his cutter gathering another seven. And when batters were making contact, the ball was staying on the ground (61.1 percent ground ball rate) and turning into outs.

Kluber is great, and baseball is better when he’s great. Aw, just look at how happy he is about this start:

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox
“I’m overcome by emotion.”
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Joey Gallo — 462 feet

Good gravy. That poor baseball didn’t deserve this fate. It’s hard for me to describe this home run, because we’ve been writing these recaps for a few weeks now, and I’ve used a lot of the standard verbs — crushed, hammered, smashed, etc. — when talking about dingers that weren’t nearly as impressive as this one. This ball was truly crushed, in a way all those other balls weren’t. Most of the time, at the moment of contact, I (a dummy who never played baseball at a high level) can’t really tell the difference between a huge home run and a standard fly ball. Not on this homer, though. The ball leaves the frame with such velocity that it’s impossible to think this was anything other than a tater. It’s thus almost unsurprising that Gallo tied Carlos Gomez for the top spot on the home run distance leaderboard with this shot.

Gallo and his prodigious power became widely known in 2015, when his talents were on full display at AA, where he ran a .322 ISO and a 192 wRC+. His weaknesses were also on display, however, and in 123 PAs with the Rangers later that year his 46.3 percent strikeout rate presented a cause for concern. With more than a year of additional seasoning, Gallo’s strikeouts haven’t gone away — in 2017 thus far, he’s sitting at 35.9 percent, sixth-highest among qualified batters — but he’s also walking a lot (12.5 percent) and crushing home runs like the one pictured above every once in a while. His profile is still that of a player who could fail at pretty much any time, but Gallo is still providing frequent reminders of his Giancarlo Stanton-like upside, and contributing to the Rangers’ playoff hopes in the present as well.

SABRy tidbits

  • Matt Ufford wrote a paean to Aaron Judge, and it features some excellent photoshopped art. (“SABRy” is a flexible term). Look for some Pacific Rim fanfiction featuring Judge beating up giant monsters to hit this space sometime in the coming weeks.
  • Howie Kendrick was off to a hot start before landing on the DL with an oblique injury. But as John Stolnis of the Good Phight reminds us, rebuilding teams are more interested in development than performance, and if Kendrick’s injury means that Aaron Altherr gets regular playing time, it may be a blessing in disguise. The Phillies have a lot of interesting young players, and sifting through all of them to figure out who will be the ones to contribute to the next contending team from Philadelphia isn’t easy.
  • David Freese recently spoke with USA TODAY about his clinical depression, and at MLB Daily Dish, Mike Bates reminds us that, just as much as an injured player, Freese needs and deserves our support. MLB is a strange environment, and one that almost certainly is not conducive to mental health in many ways. By speaking up, Freese has hopefully brought us closer to better understanding that environment, and to better supporting the players inside it.
  • The Luis Robert sweepstakes are on, as the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder was just declared a free agent and will be able to sign with a team starting May 20. As friend of the site Tim Eckert-Fong describes at Athletics Nation, part of the reason Robert is moving so fast is to make it to free agency before the new CBA kicks in. That gives certain teams (including the A’s) options they likely didn’t expect to have, and it’ll be very interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jacob deGrom (3.35 projected ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (3.86 projected ERA)

I sometimes can’t tell if pitchers are actually underrated, or if I just don’t appreciate them as much as I should (and as much as everyone else correctly does). Gio Gonzalez falls into one of those two categories, because it sure seems to me like he doesn’t get talked about enough. From his start in Washington in 2012 through last season, Gonzalez was worth 17.9 fWAR, which ranked 16th in the majors over that period. While he’s never been truly outstanding, the lefty has let the Nationals pencil in 3–4 WAR for each of those seasons, and this year doesn’t look much different. Through three starts, he’s allowed just three runs, and while his 18.3 percent strikeout rate is lower than normal, so is his 4.9 percent walk rate.

Taking the mound opposite him is Jacob deGrom, one of the Mets’ seemingly endless supply of excellent young starters. Through three starts, deGrom has been outstanding, striking out 30.6 percent of his opponents and walking only 5.6 percent. Ryan dove into his changed approach for 2017 — his slider and curveball are both excellent pitches, and deGrom has been throwing them just as often as his fastball — that looks like it’s behind the step forward he may have taken. Hopefully deGrom actually pitches tonight; he was scheduled to pitch on Friday night, before being pushed back with a stiff neck, one of many maladies afflicting the Mets currently.