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Launch angles — June 17, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

San Diego Padres v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Jon Durr/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

Eric Thames does that thing that he does — +.357 WPA

This was a nice, clean walk-off dinger from Thames. He hits a lot of bombs, as you may have heard — this was number 19 on the season, putting him into a big tie for second in MLB, four behind Aaron Judge in first — so when he came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th of a tie game, there was a strong sense that the night be coming to an end very quickly. And indeed, the Brewers stalled no more; Thames was the first batter of the inning, and the last.

Ryan Buchter didn’t do a lot to help his cause. To start this plate appearance, he threw Thames a fastball that missed for a ball. He followed that up with a fastball for a strike over the outside corner, and then really attempted to throw the Brewers slugger off the scent by throwing him a fastball. This third one was neither a ball, nor precisely located on the edge of the zone; it was what could generously be called a “pipe shot,” and Thames took the invitation.

The NL Central, thus far, has been absolutely wild in 2017, and Eric Thames probably deserves a decent chunk of the credit. He’s not the only player off to an unexpectedly good start (more on that later), but he’s one of the most high-profile, and his contributions have been critical to the Brewers’ 37–32 record and 2.5-game lead on the Cubs for the division lead. It’s starting to seem like MLB has a stable and unfounded bias against the Japanese and Korean leagues. The players who make the jump to MLB tend to do so much more smoothly than expected; in just the last few years, in addition to Thames, we’ve seen Kenta Maeda, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Jung-Ho Kang all receive predictions of sharply decreased performance on this side of the Pacific, and all buck those predictions. Of course, there have been disappointments — Daisuke Matsuzaka sticks in the mind — but it still seems like, as a class, individuals making the jump from Japan or Korea to the U.S. are being underestimated. Eric Thames is doing his very best to change that, one huge dinger at a time.

Yesterday’s best game score

Dan Straily — 78

Game Score was developed by Bill James as a quick way to evaluate a starting pitcher’s performance, and recently updated by Tom Tango. The score begins at 40, with points added for outs and strikeouts, and subtracted for walks, hits, runs, and home runs. A score of 70 is very good; a score of 90 is outstanding.

On a night when Max Scherzer had his fifth consecutive game with at least ten strikeouts (game score: 77), and when Alex Wood threw eight innings of one-run ball (game score: 76), Dan Straily was not who I expected to be writing about in this section. But rules are rules, and he beat every other starter last night, fair and square. He didn’t have the longevity of most starts that appear in this slot, only going 6 13 innings against the Braves. But in those innings, Straily was utterly dominant, striking out 8, walking none, and allowing just four hits and no runs.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but in some way, Straily feels like the quintessential Marlins starter. He’s a guy you think you know, and then you glance at his page and he’s in the midst of a surprisingly good year. Right now, the 28-year-old righty is running a 3.89 ERA and 4.01 FIP, both of which are entirely solid, and the result has been 1.2 fWAR, a figure equal to what he accumulated last season in 191 innings. The reason for his newfound success seems pretty obvious: Straily has increased his strikeouts by about a fifth, from a career rate of 20.4 percent to 25.1 percent in 2017 thus far, while his walk rate has stayed totally stable. That’s a good recipe for success.

The question going forward, of course, is whether he’ll keep those additions. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the increase; Straily’s swing rate is down slightly, his contact rate is up slightly, and his pitch mix and velocity have remained stable. That could be why the projection systems seem not to have bought into his newfound success, and expect him to regress back to an ERA in the mid-4s. But after a start like last night’s, even against the hapless Braves lineup, it’s hard not to believe there might be something to his surge with Miami.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Travis Shaw — 449 feet

With each passing game, Travis Shaw seems more and more legit. It’s harder to dismiss a stat line as merely the product of random distributions when it’s sustained itself over ten weeks instead of two or four, and Shaw is now two-and-a-half months into the season with a batting line 30 percent better than average. But doubt in his abilities has never been unreasonable, and really, it still isn’t to not be fully convinced. In parts of two seasons at AAA, Shaw ran an ISO of .139, suggesting moderate power at best; as a major-leaguer, his ISO is .201, and in 2017 specifically, it’s all the way up to .241. In the high minors and his 2015–16 with the Red Sox, Shaw’s BABIP was always in the normal range of the high-.200s or the low-.300s; as a Brewer, he’s sitting at a .345 BABIP that would be difficult to sustain over a full season. Major jumps in ability are rare in any case; they’re especially rare for a player moving from the minors to the big leagues. It’s possible this is more the product of luck than the unlocking of some skill that only applies in the big leagues.

But this home run wasn’t lucky in any sense of the word. Yes, this was a straight fastball pretty much directly down the center of the plate, so in that sense Shaw caught a break. There are elements of luck involved in every aspect of baseball, and massive dingers are no exception. But Shaw turned this pitch around in a hurry, and sent it approximately to the moon, which is the sort of event that indicates a kernel of underlying skill that can’t be solely the product of luck or circumstance. This was a mammoth shot, and it makes it that much harder to dismiss Shaw’s early season prowess.

SABRy tidbits

  • Remember earlier, when I talked about how teams seem to undervalue hitters from Japan and Korea? I didn’t mention Hyun-Soo Kim, but I could’ve; ever since the Orioles tried to demote him after an excellent first Spring Training, there’s been a sense that they didn’t appreciate his abilities. His numbers have suffered some this year, but it’s easy to blame that on his inconsistent playing time. Now, with injuries to Chris Davis and Seth Smith, the Orioles could use some help at the top of the order, and Brice Freeman of Camden Chat argues that Kim’s skillset is well-suited to the role.
  • The Yankees have hit a bit of a rough patch of late, but they’re still in the midst of a shockingly good season. At Pinstripe Alley, Jake Devin has news that should be reassuring to Yankees fans and panic-inducing for everyone else: New York has actually underperformed its underlying play, in that a team with its pitching and hitting “should” have won even more games.
  • Every unheralded, multi-positional player dreams of getting one comp dropped on them: that of Ben Zobrist, the über-versatility guy. Over at Royals Review, Matthew LaMar gives the honor to Whit Merrifield, who our own Chris Anders also holds in high regard.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jake Arrieta (3.46 projected ERA) vs. Iván Nova (4.09 projected ERA)

Here’s a fun game. Which will be closer to accurate for the rest of 2017: this projection, or the exact opposite, with the 3.46 ERA for Nova and the 4.09 for Arrieta? Arrieta has the track record, which is what the projections are paying the most attention to, but his 2016 was worse than his 2015, and his 2017 has been worse than his 2016 thus far, with a 4.68 ERA and a 4.04 FIP. The ultimate example of the unpredictability of baseball has turned into a different, bitterer example of precisely the same thing. But! The projections still believe in him, so maybe we’ll see classic Arrieta again.

And besides, Nova sure looks better than he’s getting credit for, so it’s not as if this matchup isn’t worth watching. You can’t exactly blame the projections; they don’t know that Nova has been a beneficiary of the ministrations of Ray Searage, and that it’s seemingly done him wonders. He’s striking out barely anybody (13.7 percent), but also walking almost nobody (2.0 percent), and keeping his home run rate down (2.3 percent). That’s not a calculation error, incidentally; Nova really does have more home runs than walks. For a while, he had more complete games than walks. Nova is not pitching in a way we’re used to seeing, and if you told me he was about to fall apart, I’d probably believe you. But his contact-heavy approach is almost definitely going to be entertaining, and it might also be hugely successful, which makes this a matchup worthy of attention.