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Launch angles — June 26, 2017

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All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Detroit Tigers v San Diego Padres
Underdogs aren’t all the same.
Photo by Denis Poroy/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

Mikie Mahtook fulfills his own underdog story — +.406 WPA

GIF via MLB.com

On Saturday, Padres catcher Hector Sanchez came through in the clutch with a solo home run. My colleague Chris Anders had this to say about the journeyman backstop's efforts:

Sánchez owns a career 74 wRC+, 0.3 bWar/0.0 fWAR, and just 14 home runs in his seven major league seasons; so in fairness to Greene, this is the last person you’d expect to beat you. But that’s what makes an underdog story so satisfying, the thought that anyone, at anytime, is capable of greatness.

Mikie Mahtook didn't start out as an underdog. At LSU, he was one of the best hitters in the country, helping the Tigers won the College World Series. The Rays drafted him 31st overall in the 2011 draft, and the following offseason, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo ranked him the 96th-best prospect in baseball.

But like many of the players Tampa Bay took that year, Mahtook couldn't live up to his potential. In his career on the farm, he hit .272/.338/.410, which isn't MLB material even for a solid defender. After a disastrous 2016 in which he cost the Rays 0.8 fWAR in just 196 plate appearances, they shipped him to Detroit for a PTBNL. Heading into Sunday, he’d been precisely replacement level for the Tigers.

As he'd done for the previous team to bear that name, Mahtook ended up coming through. In the ninth inning of Sunday’s Padres-Tigers game, with each team at five runs, the Detroit offense cooked up a late rally. Brandon Maurer put a couple of men on base, and J.D. Martinez managed to move them to second and third with a swinging bunt.

Mahtook had already driven in one run, on a third-inning triple off Clayton Richard. This time, he started off patient, as Maurer fell behind 3-0. But Mahtook fouled off the fourth pitch he saw and whiffed at the fifth one, making the count full. With his back against the wall and his team in need of a lead on the road, Mahtook had no room for error.

Technically, he did make an error in that inning, running into the third out after Justin Upton scored from second. But the TOOTBLAN couldn't negate the two runs he put on the board, and a 1-2-3 inning from Justin Wilson sealed the W for the Tigers. While Mahtook was, and is, a pretty terrible hitter — for his big-league career, he now has 124 strikeouts and 16 walks — he managed to come up with a hit when his team needed it most. Who doesn't love a prodigal son returning home?

Yesterday’s best game score

Jeremy Hellickson — 74

GIF via MLB.com

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.

Jeremy Hellickson spent exactly one year in Arizona — on Nov. 14, 2014, the Rays traded him to the Diamondbacks, who flipped him to the Phillies on Nov. 14, 2015. He’s started two games against the Dbacks since then, allowing a combined four runs over 13 innings on nine hits, zero walks, and 14 strikeouts. Think he misses them?

Hellickson has developed an incredible changeup — he's credited the pitch for keeping him in the major leagues — and that was on display Sunday. The Dbacks saw 27 changeups, took 19 for strikes, and swung-and-missed at nine. The cambio was responsible for five of his seven strikeouts, including the three in the GIF above. While Arizona had just three lefties in its starting lineup, the down-and-in changeup worked well against the righties:

Image via Baseball Savant

Hellickson has had a pretty terrible start to the year — even after yesterday's strong outing, he has the highest xFIP in the majors. After striking out a career-best 20.0 percent of opponents last year, he's dropped to 11.8 percent this year. But he's been more deceptive recently, with 10, 13, and 16 whiffs in his last three games, respectively. The Hellickson to whom Philadelphia extended a qualifying offer might still be in there — it could just take the sight of his former team to bring him out. Say, how many more times do the Phillies play the Diamondbacks?

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Randal Grichuk — 478 feet

GIF via MLB.com

On May 29, after he hit .222/.276/.377 in his first 181 plate appearances, the Cardinals demoted Randal Grichuk to the minors. My BtBS colleague Jason Rollison thought Grichuk’s time in St. Louis might be coming to an end, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption at the time, given the performance of and/or money owed to Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty.

But Grichuk, it appears, wants to stick around. Before he played in the minors, Grichuk tinkered his swing with George Greer, whom the team hired to do exactly that. Whatever Greer did, it worked: At Triple-A Memphis, Grichuk hit .270/.313/.603, swatting six long balls in 67 plate appearances. The club called him up before Sunday's game, and he returned with a bang.

GIF via MLB.com

Has the prodigal son finally returned home? (Editor's note: Jeez, Romano, you really need to read the Bible more.) Only time will tell. But man, that’s a pretty sweet swing. And it came on an inside pitch, which Grichuk had been struggling with before his demotion. Maybe that Greer guy knows what he’s doing, or maybe Grichuk finally put it all together.

SABRy tidbits

Why have the Mariners been so bad for so long? Is it a string of poor management decisions, continued failure to develop prospects, and repeated one-sided trades? Or is it something deeper than that? Lookout Landing's Isabelle Minasian suspects there are deeper factors at work, and let's just say there's something backward about the whole thing.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Jose Berrios (4.31 projected ERA) vs. Chris Sale (2.88 projected ERA)

Perhaps no 2017 pitcher underscores the conservative nature of projections quite like Jose Berrios. He’s exploded out of the gate with a 2.67 ERA and 3.30 FIP in 54 innings, but because of his utter failure in his rookie season — when he had the highest ERA (8.02) and third-highest FIP (6.20) among American League starters — Steamer and ZiPS aren’t optimistic about his future. Continuing to throw more strikes and net more whiffs should help him beat the predictions and keep the Red Sox in check.

Chris Sale, too, gets no respect. He’s notched a 2.85 ERA to this point, which aligns with Steamer and ZiPS, but those systems think his FIP will rise from 1.97 to 2.81. Sale has stranded just 70.6 percent of baserunners to this point, one of the lowest marks in the league, so if he can scatter his hits against the Twins, they might not put too many runs across, either. The first duel of this four-game series between two AL contenders should be a low-scoring affair.


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.