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Launch angles — June 19, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Colorado Rockies
Less optimism, more caution!
Chris Humphreys-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

Hunter Pence gives Giants fans a fleeting sense of hope — +.576 WPA

GIF via

In one episode of Futurama — the one with the candy hearts and Sigourney Weaver; I’m too lazy to look up the title — Leela and Fry have to race against the clock to turn the ship’s oxygen supply and artificial gravity back on. As she pushes the final button, Leela sees the apparent success and says, “Gravity normal… air returning… terror replaced by cautious optimism…”

Those last five words, I’ve always felt, apply to a certain area of baseball fandom: the feeling when your team takes the lead late in the game but has to give the ball to its shaky closer. Giants fans know the experience well, after five pitchers blew a three-run lead to eliminate San Francisco from the 2016 postseason. While the team’s relief corps had done a solid job to start the 2017 season — before Sunday, they ranked 13th in ERA- and 15th in WPA — the apprehension remained, whenever the bullpen came out to protect a late advantage.

On Sunday, the Rockies pulled ahead on two seventh-inning solo shots from Trevor Story and Pat Valaika. The Giants trailed 3-2 heading into the ninth, and it seemed a sweep was inevitable. But their outfielders gave them new life. Gorkys Hernandez worked a four-pitch walk off Jake McGee, bringing Pence to the plate as a pinch-hitter. After fouling off a fastball, Pence got another heater right where he wanted:

Image via Brooks Baseball

The long ball gave the Giants a 4-3 lead, and they added another run for an extra cushion. But even with a two-run edge and three outs to go, their optimism was cautious. They knew the Rockies could rally, and the fear of that kept them on the edge of their seats.

Mark Melancon started off the ninth inning by retiring Tony Wolters. Then it all fell apart. Raimel Tapia, Charlie Blackmon, and DJ LeMahieu hit three consecutive singles, bringing one run across and putting two more on the corners. Nolan Arenado had already hit a single, double, and triple; all he needed was a four-bagger. The writing was on the wall, and sure enough, Arenado went yard on the first pitch he saw:

GIF via

Sorry, San Francisco. Looks like Colorado sucked the air out of this one.

Yesterday’s best game score

Jimmy Nelson — 85

GIF via

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 Brewers-Padres series had been pretty crazy before this — Milwaukee had the Launch Angles top play on Friday and Saturday, although San Diego would take the latter game. But in the rubber match, there wasn’t much excitement, as Nelson was in control from the get-go. He threw the first complete game of his big-league career, allowing one run on six hits and two walks and striking out 10 Friars.

How did Nelson pull this off? Pitching against the Padres helps, obviously, but they don’t strike out that often on their own. The Brew Crew’s newfound ace had a devastating out pitch working for him — his two-year-old knuckle-curve. He threw the curve 37 times, and got (all these numbers are accurate, obviously):

  • 31 strikes
  • 14 called strikes
  • Seven swinging strikes
  • A .200 BABIP

In the first two seasons of his career, Nelson’s knuckle-curve was worth -3.7 runs by FanGraphs’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. This year, he’s thrown it much higher than before, and its run value has gone positive. On Sunday, the Padres saw a steady diets of curveballs in the zone, and they didn’t know what to do with them:

Image via Baseball Savant

Nelson had his four-seam fastball working, too — he’s used that pitch more often this year, and it’s aided his cause considerably — but the knuckle-curve was the star of the show. Whether they offered at it or let it go by, Padres hitters had no answer for the bender.

With this gem on his resume, Nelson now has a 3.39 ERA and 3.13 FIP. He’s struck out more than four times as many hitters as he’s walked, and he’s maintained a high ground ball rate like always. It’s fair to wonder — as Jeff Sullivan did — whether he’s become the Brewers’ ace. While Nelson won’t get to dice up the Padres every time out, his knuckle-curve should keep him sharp.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Kendrys Morales — 460 feet

GIF via

After making the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Blue Jays were dreading the 2016-17 offseason, when two of their key hitters — Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — would hit the open market. The team knew it couldn’t bring them both back, so it chose to re-up Bautista and let Encarnacion walk. To replace the slugging DH, Toronto brought in Kendrys Morales; it was a trade-off, to be sure, but hopefully not a major one.

The Blue Jays have struggled this year — they’re sitting in last place in the AL East, despite the Orioles’ implosion — and their decision to let EE walk doesn’t look good in retrospect. Morales and Encarnacion have similar batting averages (.257 and .261, respectively) and slugging percentages (.490 and .496, respectively), but Morales’s .307 on-base percentage pales in comparison to Encarnacion’s .377. The Blue Jays DH has a 107 wRC+; the Indians DH, 132.

But on Sunday, Toronto was probably pleased with its choice. Why? Later in the day, as the Indians went for the sweep against the Twins, Encarnacion did this to Kyle Gibson:

GIF via

That shot would’ve been the longest home run of the day. But a few hours earlier, Morales pre-empted Encarnacion with his own dinger off Dan Jennings. So even though Toronto’s designated hitter doesn’t walk as much, or run the bases as well, or have a parrot on his shoulder, he did hit the longest home run yesterday. And in the end, isn’t that what the Blue Jays really care about?

SABRy tidbits

  • As we near the end of June — I’m amazed too — the trade deadline looms in the distance. The A’s are in last place in the AL West, so they’ll probably deal some of their more appealing pieces. But which ones? Over at Athletics Nation, Nico questions whether Yonder Alonso and Sonny Gray should be on the block, while Torrey Hart narrows in on the latter.
  • The Angels traded for Cameron Maybin in the offseason, and the deal didn’t look wise at the time. After Maybin struggled out of the gate, a writer at Bless You Boys decided to gloat about the Tigers pilfering L.A. But Maybin has turned his year around, and Halos Heaven’s Rick Souddress is more than happy to return the favor.
  • Alex Colome is now in his second year as the Rays closer. Over that time, he’s put up a 1.92 ERA and 2.83 FIP, recording 56 saves and blowing just six. BtBS’s Jim Turvey, writing for DRaysBay, wants us to appreciate that sustained dominance.
  • Andrew Miller is having another sterling year for the Indians, while the Yankees bullpen has some hiccups in the middle innings. Should New York have held onto Miller at last year’s trade deadline? Nearly a year later, Pinstripe Alley’s Tyler Norton still likes the deal.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Zack Wheeler (4.18 projected ERA) vs. Clayton Kershaw (2.60 projected ERA)

By now, we’ve covered everything there is to cover about Kershaw. For more info on the best pitcher in the world, you can read any of the 14 Launch Angle previews that have featured him. For the Mets-Dodgers showdown tonight, I want to focus on Kershaw’s opponent — Wheeler, who’s had an interesting run as of late.

After a strong 2014 season, Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch in the majors in 2015 or 2016. He was chugging right along with a 3.45 ERA and 3.94 FIP this year, until he ran into the Cubs; one ugly start later, his ERA and FIP are at 4.48 and 4.37, respectively. His velocity hasn’t changed much since the surgery, and neither has his pitch mix, so the pitcher who put up a 3.54 ERA and 3.55 FIP could still be in there. Against Kershaw, the Mets better hope that pitcher comes out in full force.

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.