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Launch angles — April 8, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers
Bless up, Panda.
Photo by Leon Halip/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

Pablo Sandoval launches a three-run go-ahead homer — +.566 WPA

GIF via

On Oct. 29, 2014, Pablo Sandoval caught a foul popup off the bat of Salvador Perez, giving the Giants their third World Series win in five years. Since then, it’s been a downward spiral for the Panda. His 2015 Red Sox debut was an utter catastrophe — he was worth -2.0 fWAR that year, the eighth-worst mark of this millennium among qualified hitters. A shoulder injury sidelined him for all but three games in 2016, and he didn’t seem to have much future with the team.

When Boston traded Travis Shaw in the offseason, the club had an opening at the hot corner, which meant Sandoval had an opportunity for redemption. He came to spring training much slimmer than before, looking to become a starter again. Sixty-six plate appearances and a .338/.348/.677 triple-slash later, he won the third base job (against right-handers, at least).

All of this led into Friday’s game versus the Tigers. Down 4-0 entering the eighth inning, the Red Sox rallied for two runs before Sandoval stepped to the plate. James McCann called for the ball down and away; Francisco Rodriguez heeded the latter command and ignored the former:

Sandoval has always been able to turn on outside pitches, and he displayed it against K-Rod’s vaunted changeup. With that three-run long ball, Boston moved ahead 5-4.

Thus, Sandoval completed his comeback, giving the Red Sox a dramatic victory in Detroit and cementing his status as a hero for Boston fa—wait, never mind, Joe Kelly walked in the winning run in the next half-inning and the Tigers won. Sorry, Panda! The triumphant return will have to wait until next time, when a pitcher with Great Stuff can hold a lead.

Yesterday’s best game score

Mike Leake — 77

GIF via

This decade, a pitcher has started a regular-season MLB game 34,138 times. In 226 of those starts, the starter has had:

  • a game score of at least 70
  • an L

In the grand scheme of things, a 0.7 percent chance isn’t that ridiculous. It’s not quite on the scale of, say, the insanity of the Red Sox/Rays 2011 playoff race — which, according to Nate Silver’s calculations*, had a 1 in 278 million chance of occurring the way it did. Still, this drives home just how unusual last night’s Reds-Cardinals game was (and, you know, how stupid pitcher win-loss record is).

*The calculations are pretty flawed, but it’s a fun number to throw around.

While the whiffs are usually what get fans’ attention, a pitcher doesn’t need to get a hitter to swing-and-miss. Leake had just eight whiffs in 92 pitches against Cincinnati, yet still managed to rack up six Ks, thanks to 19 called strikes. Hitters looked over 10 of his 68 cutters and seven of his 11 four-seam fastballs, which he dotted on the corners and ran down the middle:

Image via Baseball Savant

After signing a five-year, $80 million contract last offseason, Leake had an up-and-down introduction to St. Louis; his 4.41 ERA was the worst of his career, but his 3.83 FIP was actually the best. On Friday, he managed to excel in both regards, with a 1.13 ERA and 1.74 FIP over eight sterling frames. Thanks to the Cardinals’ nonexistent bats, though, he took the loss.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Brandon Belt — 433 feet

GIF via

See, the thing about Brandon Belt is, his surname is “Belt,” and he hits the ball really hard, so…

…okay, this bit has run its course.

Most players of Belt’s caliber will garner a ton of attention. Over the past two years, he’s put up a 133 wRC+ (better than Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes) and earned 8.7 fWAR (better than Daniel Murphy and Robinson Cano). Yet he still seems underappreciated. Whether it’s the lack of power or the fact that he plays on the same team as Buster Posey, Belt don’t get no regard — no regard at all. No esteem, either.

That hasn’t stopped him from raking, though. When Luis Perdomo hung a curveball, Belt pounced to give the Giants a 5-4 edge. After the bullpen blew that lead — shocking, I know — Belt deposited a Ryan Buchter fastball over the wall in center field, for the fourth multi-home run game of his career. While San Francisco couldn’t come back, Belt put the team on his back, doing everything he could to make up for its crappy relief corps.

Maybe this is the beginning of the power breakout the Giants have been hoping for; maybe it’s just an early-season sample, doomed to regress away as the weeks turn into months. The Giants can only hope Belt will continue to belt consistently make solid contact.

SABRy tidbits

  • The big news for statheads this week has been MLB’s changes to velocity measurement, which have thrown a monkey wrench into many a writer’s plans. *Fumes silently* But 20-odd years ago, fans who cared about the numbers had bigger things to worry about — chiefly, they wanted to actually get their hands on the numbers. Joe Sheehan’s reflection on how far things have come is well worth your time.
  • While the Indians swept the Rangers earlier this week, Nomar Mazara left his mark. The young slugger hit .583/.583/1.000 in the three-game set, clubbing a monster home run on Wednesday. That performance impressed Let’s Go Tribe’s Merritt Rohlfing, who profiled Mazara and looked at how far he might go. (Spoiler: Pretty far!)
  • Blake Snell is a high-upside pitcher for the Rays; to this point, though, he’s struggled to reach that upside. Some of the pitches in his arsenal lag behind the others, and he’s always struggled with runners on base. DRaysBay’s Danny Russell might have found the reason for that latter point: Snell changes his delivery — probably for the worse — when he pitches from the stretch.
  • The Mariners’ season hasn’t gone well, to say the least; the team is 1-4 and last in the AL West in a must-win year. One Seattle player, however, has looked extremely impressive thus far: Relief pitcher Dan Altavilla, who’s allowed no runs and struck out five of the 11 hitters he’s faced. Over at Lookout Landing, Kate Preusser dreams on Altavilla’s potential. If he can come anywhere close to sustaining this, Altavilla and Edwin Diaz would give the M’s a formidable late-inning combo.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Clayton Kershaw (2.34 projected ERA) vs. Jon Gray (4.17 projected ERA)

For his career in Coors Field, Clayton Kershaw has a 4.63 ERA over 17 starts, the highest of any park he’s pitched multiple games in. (He’s also gone 8-3 in those starts. I really can’t emphasize enough how much pitcher win-loss record sucks.) With that said, he dominated the Padres on Opening Day, as you’d expect, and he’s also the best pitcher on the planet. The Rockies shouldn’t pose much of a challenge.

Jon Gray isn’t on Kershaw’s level, clearly, but his implosion against the Brewers notwithstanding, he’s already one of the better starting pitchers in the National League. Since coming up last year, he’s notched a 26.2 percent strikeout rate (very good!), an 8.3 percent walk rate (not bad!), and a 2.5 percent HR rate (very good!). Use FIP- to strip out the Colorado noise, and he’s a superior pitcher to Jon Lester and Madison Bumgarner, among others.

One thing the two pitchers share, to different extents, is a dominant slider. Kershaw’s slider led the NL with 24.3 runs above average last year, while Gray’s slider ranked 12th with 13.3 runs above average. Although the latter lags behind the former, the gap between the two is surprisingly small:

Slider comparison — Kershaw vs. Gray

Pitcher SL Strike% SL Whiff% SL GB%
Pitcher SL Strike% SL Whiff% SL GB%
Kershaw 72.7% 26.1% 57.7%
Gray 69.8% 24.9% 50.0%
2016 season only Data via Brooks Baseball

Coors Field isn’t always kind to breaking balls, of course, so this matchup might feature a few more heaters than normal. Still, when Corey Seager or Nolan Arenado gets to a two-strike count, expect these hurlers to bust out the slider and put them away.

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.