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Launch angles — June 3, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Atlanta Braves v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/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

Eugenio Suarez scampers home — +.371 WPA

Well this is an odd play to see in this slot. Usually it’s occupied by some impressive piece of hitting, a smashed home run or a clutch single. Today, we get a wild pitch and a dash to the plate, a component in a pair of exciting innings in the Reds’ 3-2 win over the Braves in 10 innings.

For the first eight and a half innings of this contest, the outcome seemed predictable:

The Braves got a run off Bronson Arroyo in the 3rd (who I legitimately thought was retired until I wrote this sentence) and again in the 5th, and with *squints at notecard* Mike Foltynewicz in the midst of a gem, somehow, the 2-0 lead held for a long while. In the 9th, however, Adam Duvall led off with a double, and Suarez followed up with the same to cut the lead to one. A groundout put Suarez on third with two out, and Jim Johnson’s bounced fastball let him leisurely jog across the plate. Yes, that’s right; Johnson’s wild pitch wasn’t a spiked curveball, but a 94mph fastball that somehow hit the ground before crossing the plate. I don’t get it either.

It might seem odd to see Suarez in this spot and not Devin Mesoraco, who would hit a walkoff home run as the first batter in the bottom of the 10th. But when Mesoraco came to the plate, the game was tied, and the Reds had three outs at their disposal, thanks to Raisel Iglesias’s clean top of the 10th. When Suarez was on the 3rd, the Reds were down to their final out, and failure meant losing, not just more extra innings. So yes, Mesoraco is the one who got the cooler shower, but Suarez is the one who gets the coveted lead spot in the recap.

Yesterday’s best game score

Jimmy Nelson — 89

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.

It was a pitchers’ duel in Milwaukee last night. On a night when Clayton Kershaw struck out 14 and reached 2,000 Ks for his career, he was actually overshadowed by his opponent, the relatively unknown Jimmy Nelson, who threw eight innings with 11 strikeouts, no walks, 5 hits, and no runs. We told you to watch this game, and my colleague Chris Anders correctly thought that it might not be as one-sided as it looked:

Jimmy Nelson is projected for a rest of season ERA of 4.45, but that’s because of his past campaigns and not what he’s done this year. In 2017 Nelson is the proud owner of a 3.83 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and a career-high 22.6 percent strikeout rate. He is relying on his four-seam fastball and changeup more than ever, which is presumably due to the significant increase in vertical drop he’s seen on the latter this season. The projections are always a little slow to believe, but there’s plenty to suggest that Jimmy Nelson has turned into a legit mid-rotation starter.

That was true yesterday, and it’s even truer today. Nelson is now sitting on a FIP of 3.02, with more than a strikeout per inning, and he looks like yet another bright spot in a surprisingly fun Brewers season.

As Chris said, Nelson has turned increasingly to his fourseamer and changeup in 2017, but last night, he threw only a single changeup (if the Gameday algorithm is to believed, which it looks like it should be, based on the movement and velocity of the pitches). Instead, Nelson’s usage was spread pretty evenly between his fastball, sinker, slider, and knuckle-curve, and all four pitches worked for him last night, as he garnered at least a few whiffs on each of them. He also pounded the zone, throwing 76 percent of his pitches for strikes (versus his career rate of 51 percent), which has been party of his strategy for drawing his walk rate down from its high levels from earlier in his career to his current reasonable 6.7 percent.

Unfortunately for the Brewers, Kershaw was nearly as good as Nelson tonight, and by the end of nine innings, the score remained 1-1. It wasn’t until the 12th, when Cody Bellinger hit a solo shot and Kenley Jansen closed it out, that the game reached closure (though not the kind that Milwaukee was looking for). Nonetheless, Nelson pitched excellently, and at this stage of the Brewers’ rebuild, that kind of performance is probably more important than wins and losses.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Manny Machado — 465 feet

We’ve talked before, in this space, about what the proper vocabulary to use for a given home run is. It matters, when you’re looking at dozens of them over the course of a season; you start to have strong opinions about what’s a “drive” and what’s a “bomb.” But I’m not sure how to describe this swing and home run by Machado. He crushes this ball — this is the ninth-longest home run of the year — but it’s not a particularly violent swing. You can see Machado recognize the pitch long before it arrives, and while he waits, the force of his swing seems to build until it’s unleashed on that unlucky baseball. This wasn’t a swat, or a dinger, or a frozen rope; I’m not sure what it was. The swing was very smooth, and the ball went a very long way. It was a beautiful home run, is what I’m trying to say.

Machado is coming off of a wicked slump, so his season line is not great: .212/.289/.418, good for a 86 wRC+. But even when he’s not slumping, it’s easy to forget the kind of player that he is. I’m probably revealing my latent anti-Orioles bias, here, but it’s astonishing that his three full seasons have been worth 19.5 fWAR. To be fair, one of those was the result of some incredible defensive numbers that you might not fully believe in, but Machado is at 18.9 WARP (from Baseball Prospectus) and 20.5 bWAR (from Baseball-Reference) over those three seasons, so the general consensus is valid. He’s an outstanding defensive player, but also an outstanding hitter, who can do things like the home run pictured above without breaking a sweat.

Again, Machado’s season numbers aren’t great, and there are probably good reasons for that. But he has the fifth-, eight-, and now ninth-longest home runs of the season. His average exit velocity on fly balls/line drives is 98.0mph, which ranks eighth in MLB among players with at least 90 batted balls. Right above him are Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton; just below him are Miguel Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt. Machado hits like an elite slugger, but because he’s even better at fielding than he is at hitting, it gets overshadowed. That’s a shame. Thankfully, he takes it upon himself to occasionally hit massive, beautiful home runs like the one above and remind us of what we’re missing when we don’t pay attention to the greatness of Manny Machado.

SABRy tidbits

  • Aaron Judge has taken the league by storm, and in the process, he’s drawn comparisons to a number of players who preceded him. Over at Pinstripe Alley, Kenny Crocker asks: why? Why not let him be himself, instead of saddling him with all these parallels? It’s a good question, and a good read.
  • The AL is very tightly packed, with only a few teams under .500, and it’s wreaking havoc on the playoff picture. The Mariners have been disappointing in the first third of the season, but as John Trupin of Lookout Landing points out, the impact on their playoff odds has been heightened by the strange structure of 2017. It has been a rough season in Seattle, and finding another way it’s bad is both impressive and upsetting.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jon Lester (3.39 projected ERA) vs. Mike Leake (4.10 projected ERA)

There aren’t a ton of great pitching matchups in MLB tomorrow. This one isn’t bad, exactly, but it’s a bit below expectation for the supposed best matchup of the night. Still, it should be fun, not least because who each of these pitchers play for; the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry is alive and well, and Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run after moving from the latter to the former was a particularly fun part of last night’s game.

But I shouldn’t undersell the pitchers themselves; both are certainly worth watching. The projections don’t believe in him, but Leake is in the midst of one of his best seasons to date, with a 3.26 FIP and a stellar 2.24 ERA. He’s long been a consistent innings eater, and if he can elevate his game, it’ll help the Cardinals a lot in the crowded NL Central and Wild Card races. On the other side, Lester is still the same, quietly excellent pitcher that he’s always been. He also still can’t throw to first, and despite that being a known weakness for several years now, no one has figured how to consistently take advantage of it. It’s one of the greatest mysteries in sports, I think, and it provides the potential for raucous excitement in any game in which the opposition decides to give it a try.