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
Jose Abreu finds a hole for the win — +.726 WPA
Dellin Betances threw Jose Abreu four straight knuckle-curves up and away. The fourth one wasn’t a strike and wasn’t particularly well hit by Abreu, but it found a hole on the left side and slowed down on the outfield grass enough to score the tying and winning runs as the White Sox beat the Yankees 4-3.
I say it wasn’t hit particularly well, but the ball actually left Abreu’s bat at 103 miles per hour so that’s not entirely accurate. It’s that he hit into right into the ground; not ideal for a lumbering slugger. Although there wasn’t a great shot of the defensive alignment on either broadcast, it appeared as though the Yankees were playing relatively straight up. Of course hindsight is 20-20, but that was probably a mistake. This is Abreu’s career heat map on ground balls.
Even if Didi Gregorious is playing a few more steps to his right there’s no guarantee that he can get to that ball — it might’ve been perfectly placed — but it feels like that the Yankees could’ve been better positioned. While Abreu almost certainly was not trying to hit a grounder to the left side, it got the job done. Brett Gardner charged hard and made a smooth transfer, but his throw was a little bit high and a little bit late.
For the White Sox it was an ideal result after some less than ideal process. Abreu shouldn’t have swung at a 2-1 pitch outside and doesn’t ever want to hit a grounder, but if everything went as it was supposed to we wouldn’t have any fun. Sometimes a slugger smacks a ground ball through a poorly positioned defense. Baseball!
Yesterday’s best game score
Alex Cobb — 86
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.
Through six innings on Tuesday, Rays starter Alex Cobb was working on a no-hitter. He fell behind 2-0 to Josh Harrison and then threw a four-seamer fastball on the inside corner that Harrison was able to fight off and send into right field. It wasn’t a bad pitch location-wise, but that’s baseball. He allowed another hit to the very next batter — Andrew McCutchen — but would ultimately escape the jam. Cobb finished eight scoreless frames with those two hits and an earlier walk as the only blemishes on his outing.
Among the 75 qualified starters, Cobb’s 7.4 percent swinging strike rate ranks 68th in baseball. Generating whiffs is not his game. Despite this fact, it was still shocking to see that in this dominant outing Cobb got Pirates hitters to swing and miss just three times — total. The absence of whiffs translated to a mere four strikeouts on the day. There’s more than one way to skin a cat*, I suppose; and Cobb instead relied on seven groundouts and six flyouts to get the job done.
*(Which, by the way, is an incredibly creepy saying that I have no desire to learn the origins of. If you know where it comes from, please keep it to yourself.)
Of his 98 total pitches, Cobb threw his four-seam fastball 63 times and did an admirable job working both the top and sides of the zone, for the most part avoiding the heart of the plate. He also showed tremendous control of his knuckle-curve, only letting the pitch drift to his glove side if it fell below the zone.
Alex Cobb is a different pitcher than he was before Tommy John surgery. He’s using the splitter — which used to be his main weapon — far less frequently, having traded it for more curveballs and fewer whiffs. But even after the injuries and a change of approach Cobb has still been able to recapture some success, and that’s pretty cool to see.
Yesterday’s biggest home run
Troy Tulowitzki — 434 feet
When a player who used to be one of the best in baseball is suddenly a shell of his former self, it’s easy to dwell on the past. Troy Tulowitzki was once the game’s top shortstop, but is now decidedly not. Among shortstops with at least 150 plate appearances this year, his 75 wRC+ ranks 23rd. He missed significant time to begin the season, but in 42 games played has just four home runs and a sub-.300 on-base percentage. It’s a bummer when guys who once regularly made our jaw drop become normal, ordinary ballplayers.
That said, when players who were once captivating everyday are now just captivating every so often, we should probably try to appreciate it in the moment as a fond remembrance rather than a depressing reminder of what once was. Tulowitzki is no longer an elite ballplayer, but this plate appearance was fantastic.
Temporary Orioles closer Brad Brach got ahead 0-2. Tulowitzki then fouled off a third pitch that was in the same location as the first two and took a four-seamer that barely missed off the corner. After Brach bounced a splitter the count was even and it was back to the four-seam fastball, only this time it drifted back over the plate and Tulowitzki hammered it.
He fell behind, battled back, and crushed a mistake. Just like old times.
- Earlier this season I wrote about Mike Fiers, who at the time had an enormous home run problem. Either he was going to fix it or he would no longer be allowed to start Major League Baseball games. Fortunately for both Fiers and the Astros, it seems — at least for the time being — that’s he’s gotten the dinger problem under control. Over at Crawfish Boxes, “leistomania409” breaks down how he’s done it.
- It’s about that time of year when the trade rumors start flying. While Cleveland is certainly the favorite in their division, the American League as a whole remains tightly bunched. It’s shaping up to be a close race until the end and teams are likely to look for reinforcements wherever they can. Matt Schlichting of Let’s Go Tribe argues that despite appearances, the Indians don’t necessarily need to trade for pitching help.
Tonight’s best pitching matchup
John Lackey (4.19 projected ERA) vs. Stephen Strasburg (3.29 projected ERA)
For the most part John Lackey’s 2017 peripherals remain remarkably similar to 2016. His strikeouts have gone down a bit and both his hard hit rate and ground ball percentage have increased a small amount; but not by any substantial measure that would trigger major concern. It seems that the main difference from last season to this season is that, like much of the rest of the league, Lackey has been bitten by the home run bug. His home-run-to-fly-ball rate has increased nine percentage points and appears to be the leading culprit of his 4.74 ERA and 5.55 FIP. In fact, Lackey has failed to allow a dinger in just two of his 15 starts.
After going 12 starts and only allowing more than five earned runs once, Stephen Strasburg has now done it in two of his last three games. Despite the tiny slump, he still owns a 3.57 ERA and 3.20 FIP on the year. Early on it looked like Strasburg had traded strikeouts for ground balls but over the course of the year he has seen those rates normalize.
It’s two teams that could potentially see each other in the playoffs, with a current ace squaring off against a former ace. And if that doesn’t peak your interest, you still might want to tune in to watch John Lackey yell at an umpire, that’s always fun.
Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.