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Launch angles — June 20, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-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

Marcell Ozuna walks the Marlins off — +.343 WPA

MLB.com

By the top of the third of this game, the Nationals were sitting on a 6–0 lead, thanks to homers from Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon and a double from Daniel Murphy, and the game looked like it was en route to a blowout. Instead, a grand slam from Justin Bour tied things up, and the contest progressed until the 9th, when A.J. Ramos kept the Nats quiet in the top half of the inning. Enny Romero got two quick outs, with a fly out and a strikeout, and the Nationals needed just one more out to get another whack at the Marlins bullpen. Instead, two walks and two singles later, the Marlins were winners, and the Nationals were victims of yet another blown save.

The bullpen situation is getting a little ridiculous in Washington. They’ve been searching frantically for some stability in the back end of the bullpen, but instead, nearly everyone they’ve turned to has ended up featured on the bad side of this part of the recap at some point. Here’s Koda Glover giving up a three-run blast to Robinson Chirinos in extra innings; here’s Matt Albers giving up a three-run blast (not a typo) to Tyler Flowers in the 9th.

If there’s a bright side for Washington, it’s that these bullpen struggles have probably felt worse than they’ve actually been. The Nats have 12 blown saves, which is a lot (tied for 5th in MLB). But one way to get a lot of blown saves is to take a lot of leads into the 9th, which bad teams can’t really do; the Yankees also have 12 blown saves, and like the Nationals, are also in the middle of an excellent season. If anything, this should be a reason for optimism in Washington; here’s an aspect of their game that can be quickly and easily improved, and that could add a few wins as soon as it happens. Even I don’t think that sounds convincing, exactly, but there are plenty of reasons to think the Nationals will be fine despite the almost comical levels of stress the late innings are causing them.

Yesterday’s best game score

Corey Kluber — 99

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.

Corey Kluber put on a clinic last night. He threw a complete-game shutout, giving up just three hits, no walks, and striking out 11 Orioles hitters. The story of the night was his incredible slider, pictured above making Caleb Joseph look like a dang fool. Kluber threw the pitch 28 times, and it resulted in a ball only five times, with an incredible 12 whiffs. When a pitch both never misses, and also is completely unhittable, the opposing hitters aren’t going to have a great time.

One of the most upsetting things in baseball is a once-great player who is struggling, particularly if it’s coming earlier than seems fair. Jake Arrieta’s rise to dominance was one of the most improbable stories of the 2010s; his sudden fall, if unreversed, will be as well. Félix Hernández’s past few seasons have been painful to watch, given how transcendent he was in his 20s. And, until recently, Kluber’s 2017 could have caused similar feelings. In his first six starts, before going on the DL with a back ailment, he had some flashes of excellence, but ended up with a 5.06 ERA, a 4.41 FIP, and a 25.6 percent strikeout rate/8.2 percent walk rate, both of which would’ve been the worst of Kluber’s career since his 2014 breakout if sustained over a full season. It was all too easy to imagine injuries and decreased effectiveness robbing us of one of MLB’s best starters.

Thankfully, that seems a lot less likely since Kluber’s return. Last night’s outstanding start was just one in a line of outstanding starts since coming back at the start of June. Over that period, the Cleveland righty is running a 1.61 ERA, a 0.88 FIP, and an otherworldly 38.2 percent strikeout rate/3.9 percent walk rate. It’s not totally clear what’s behind his renewed success: it could just be health; it could be his changed approach, which has seen Kluber move away from his fastballs and utilize the aforementioned slider and his cutter more often; it could be something else entirely. But whatever the reason, vintage Kluber is back, and that’s a reason for joy, among Cleveland fans and just about everyone else, too.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Eric Hosmer — 446 feet

MLB.com

My goodness. One thing I’ve realized, thanks to this portion of the recap, is that it is really hard to eyeball the distance of a home run, and it would be easy to underestimate this blast from Hosmer. Kauffman Stadium has such a cavernous outfield that, at first glance, this home run looks a bit mundane; a shot that lands six to eight rows back is nothing to get too excited about. But when the ball needs to travel 410 feet just to clear the fence, another six or eight rows puts it in impressive territory. That’s one reason (of many) that I’m such a big fan of architectural features in the outfield of stadiums, such as the fountains that Hosmer deposited this baseball into. Every park should have something weird, ideally nature-y and connected somehow to the team’s city or general vibe, at about the 430- or 440-foot mark of their outfield. It would mean that I’d know to be impressed both by a home run that soars over the Yankees super-short right field wall and lands fifteen rows back in the “Ey! I’m Walking Here!” animatronic statue garden, and by a shot that just clears the ultra-deep center field wall in Houston and lands in the Minute Maid Park pool of orange juice. Until those teams take my excellent and carefully thought-out suggestions, I’ll have to settle for the fountains in Kauffman providing this service admirably. I might not be able to eyeball this as a huge dinger, but it hits water, and some gut part of me knows that must be impressive.

Hosmer is a divisive player. He’s well-loved by Royals fans, of course, and he’s often seen by those of a more traditional bent as something resembling a superstar. Others point to his sub-par defense, and say that the classic measures of batting average/home runs/RBI overrate him when compared to more sophisticated and accurate measures like wRC+. Our own Devan Fink wrote about this divide, and with Hosmer hitting free agency after 2017, predicted that the contract he eventually signs this year will show which of those tendencies is dominant in the game. Thanks to the Royals’ struggles and the team’s professed intent to rebuild, we might not have to wait until the offseason. Hosmer is currently sitting on a 121 wRC+, which is both very good and also not great for a defensively challenged first baseman. On the other hand, he can hit baseballs a mile, as he amply demonstrated last night. Seeing what the Royals can get in exchange for a half-season of his services will be fascinating.

SABRy tidbits

  • The Diamondbacks and Rockies, and their respective surges to duke it out with the Dodgers atop the NL West, are each one of the best storylines of the 2017 season. Over at AZ Snake Pit, Jim McClennan checks in on the Dbacks’ odds at the 70-game mark, and looks to past teams in similar positions to get a feel for what the likely outcomes of this season could be. As he points out, the last NL team with a record this good through 70 games that didn’t make the playoffs was the 1994 Braves, and that’s only because there were no playoffs in 1994, thanks to the strike. It’s probably too early for Arizona fans to be feeling confident, but cautious optimism and excitement seems like the proper path.
  • Figuring out when to pull the trigger on a rebuild is never easy. I’m of the opinion that it should be delayed as long as possible, because a team that isn’t trying to win games in the present is a real drag. But at some point, a team has to admit that both the short and the long term aren’t looking great, and start trying to change that. Cameron Kaiser of Bless You Boys makes the argument that the Tigers have hit that point, and given their roster and record, he might be right.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Matt Strahm (4.27 projected ERA) vs. Chris Sale (2.85 projected ERA)

Guess who? That’s right; somehow, against all odds, Chris Sale has snuck his way into this part of the recap. On the one hand, variety is the spice of life; on the other hand, basically every single pitcher in MLB is worse than Sale is currently, so variety might be overrated. Going into tonight, Sale is through 14 starts and 99 innings, almost exactly half of a standard season, and he’s sitting on 4.5 fWAR and 4.4 WARP. By either of the two most popular ways of measuring overall pitcher performance, he’s on pace for a nine-win season, and would be not just a deserving Cy Young winner, but a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s really good! You should watch him pitch!

And if you do, you can also watch Matt Strahm pitch, who might not match up well against Sale but is still kinda interesting. He’s a 25-year-old righty who did great things in relief for the Royals last season — 22 innings with a 1.23 ERA and 2.06 FIP — but has struggled this season, currently sitting on a 3.67 ERA and 5.13 FIP. This will be just his second start of the season, but with the Royals transitioning into “collect assets and wait for 2020”-mode, if Strahm can show some promise as a starter, they’ll certainly give him the leash to prove himself, if he can.