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Launch angles — June 8, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/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

Mike Zunino hits an improbable walk-off — +.908 WPA

MLB.com

I believe this is the single biggest play of the season thus far, and rightly so. This is the kind of situation that I used to imagine in my backyard as a kid: two outs! Down one! Runner on base! Only a home run will do! It’s a lot easier to hit that game-winning home run when you’re making it up as a kid; when it’s a real ball, and a real pitcher, it’s a lot harder. The Mariners went from disappointing loss to triumphant victory in the span of a single swing (which is why they get the nod over the Trey Mancini-led Orioles comeback, which took two homers from Mancini in two different innings).

Mike Zunino has had a winding, and often disappointing early career with the Mariners. He displayed such promise as a youngster in 2013 and 2014, but saw his offense crater in 2015, and still hasn’t fully locked in his status as a major leaguer, spending significant time at AAA in every season except 2014. Whether that’s his fault or the fault of the Mariners development staff (who don’t have a great reputation) is up for debate, but it does mean Zunino was an unlikely hero last night.

If he’s going to be a good major league hitter, however, it’ll be through displays of power like this one. Zunino strikes out a ton — his K rate in 2017 is a clean 40.0 percent, 33.1 percent for his career — and to succeed while making contact that infrequently, a player basically needs to maximize the damage he does do on contact. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently called this “the Gallo threshold”, using the whiff-and-power-happy Rangers youngster as an example, but if Joey Gallo and Miguel Sanó are Zunino’s peers, they demonstrate the uphill path to success he faces. Both are striking out less than Zunino in 2017 (Gallo 38.7 percent, Sanó 36.5 percent), and hitting for way more power. Zunino’s ISO is just .178, even with last night’s home run; Gallo’s is .316, and Sanó’s is .312. His career ISO is just .175. If he’s going to whiff this often, the Mariners catcher needs to match it with a lot more doubles and home runs. Last night was a good start, and it came at the perfect time, but unfortunately for Seattle and Zunino, it’s been the exception more than the norm to this point in his career.

Yesterday’s best game score

CC Sabathia stifles the Sox — 83

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.

MLB.com

Sabathia had an outstanding night against the Red Sox, going 8 shutout innings and striking out five while only allowing five hits and no walks. Interestingly, all five of his strikeouts were of the looking variety; in addition to the three shown above, Sabathia fanned Deven Marrero and Sandy León (again). (Checking the game logs, I see that his strikeout of Mookie Betts is technically listed as a swinging strikeout, but it’s a check swing on a pitch that appears to be in the zone, so whatever.) I’m not sure exactly what to make of that — are looking strikeouts indicative of something in particular? — except that it seems as if the Red Sox hitters were completely unable to pick up Sabathia’s slider.

All five of the Ks came on his low-80s frisbee slider, and over the course of the game, Sabathia threw it 29 times (most of any single pitch). Interestingly, it garnered only a single whiff on all 29, and only 4 swings of any sort; it went for a whopping 13 looking strikes. The combination of a zone rate of almost 60 percent and a swing rate of under 15 percent is a potent one; that’s a pitch that Sabathia could pound the zone with, and not worry about getting beat up on.

On the whole, Sabathia’s hefty contract with the Yankees has not exactly been a smashing success for the team. Since 2012, he has a 4.21 ERA and 4.11 FIP; respectable, but not what New York was hoping for after his 3.10 ERA and 3.19 FIP from 2006 to 2011. But in 2017, his last season on the current contract, Sabathia has looked somewhat rejuvenated, with a 3.66 ERA and 4.17 FIP that are his best marks since 2012 and 2013, respectively. There aren’t any apparent major changes, but it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the big lefty’s 2017 goes, and what his market is like this offseason.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Marcell Ozuna takes John Lackey for a ride — 446 feet

MLB.com

I like this home run, aesthetically. I’m not the biggest fan of Wrigley when it comes to the visual effect of a dinger — there aren’t many landmarks or distance finders in the outfield — and the Chicago faithful were understandably unenthused about Ozuna’s blast to center. Instead, my enjoyment of this comes mostly from Ozuna himself. Lots of home runs involve short, brutal swings; here, Ozuna’s follow through leaves the bat almost all the way behind him, and has him heading toward first base on a strut, with his arms fully outstretched. It’s just a big, forceful, expansive swing, and it’s well suited to the 446 foot homer that resulted. (I also like the way Willson Contreras keeps his glove up where the ball was headed, as if to remind Lackey that missing a low-and-away target with a thigh-high pitch on the inner half of the plate is not good.) (And I shouldn’t have to mention Lackey stinkface, but it’s on display here, and it’s good.)

Ozuna is a fascinating player, and a lot of things are coming together for him this season. He’s displayed surprising power in the past (a .186 ISO in 2014, a .187 in 2016), but this season he’s taken it to a new level, with an ISO of .247 that’s comparable to that of, e.g., Matt Holliday and Matt Davidson. Ozuna’s walk rate has ticked upward over his career, starting at 4.5 percent in 2013 and reaching 7.1 percent in 2016, but in 2017, it’s jumped all the way to 9.7 percent. He’s added power and walks without adding strikeouts (22.1 percent career rate, 21.0 percent this season), and the result is a true offensive breakout, with a wRC+ of 151 that’s better than his pre-2017 career best by 35 points. And, on top of all that, as he’s moved from center field to left, his defensive value (in a third of a season, so fair warning) has actually increased, a maneuver now known as “the Eaton.”

The upshot is that Ozuna is an entertaining and extremely valuable player, already worth 2.4 fWAR (tied for 11th in the league) in just 58 games. He also could soon be playing in a locale other than Miami, which would be good news for baseball fans almost everywhere (sorry, Marlins fans (who I have been assured do, in fact, exist)).

SABRy tidbits

  • It’s the time of the season where some of the early season, small-sample insanity has settled down. Guys who looked like they had reinvented themselves turn out to have just had a few good weeks that happened to come at the start of the season. On that note, Brad Rowland of Talking Chop notes that the power displayed by Nick Markakis at the start of the season appears to have been illusory, as he’s since settled back down to his normal levels. The result is not a bad player, but it is a normal 33-year-old player, and that’s not ideal for the Braves.
  • When you think of Coors Field, you almost certainly think of the park’s extreme altitude. But what about its weather? Richard Bergstrom (who debuted Monday for us at BtBS!) presented his findings over at Purple Row, which included better results for the Rockies when the wind is blowing out. Somewhere, a Rockies executive is furious that their super-secret teambuilding/weather-control hybrid strategy has been discovered.
  • After a great April, Starlin Castro’s May was entirely mundane, and at Pinstripe Alley, Joshua Diemert thinks he has the diagnosis: bad plate discipline. Pitchers appear to be adjusting to his hot streak, and Castro hasn’t yet adjusted back. Time will tell if he can manage to, but at least for now, the outlook isn’t positive.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Michael Pineda (3.96 projected ERA) vs. David Price (3.59 projected ERA)

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is not what it once was, but a series between the two is still worth paying attention to, particularly when they’re fighting for the top spot in the AL East. (I can hear the angry letters from Orioles fans arriving as I write this; true, it’s not a one-on-one fight, but for the purposes of this series, it’s Boston and New York who are drawing the most attention.) But even if these teams didn’t have history or circumstance pitting them against each other, this pitching matchup would make the game well worth watching. For New York, Michael Pineda’s career before 2017 was perplexing, with his strikeout and walk numbers consistently looking elite while his run prevention lagged behind. This season has also been perplexing, but for the opposite reason; while his strikeout and walk rates have moved in the wrong direction, his ERA has improved substantially. The result is still a talented and entertaining pitcher (and if you believe DRA, one of the best pitchers int the league).

And in the other dugout is David Price, a consensus ace who is nonetheless coming off a disappointing 2016 and a stint on the DL to start 2017. This will be just his third start of the season, and while the first two haven’t been bad, he’ll be looking to add durability and consistency. Price’s problem last season was mainly that he allowed too many homers, and with one in each of his 2017 starts, it would be a good sign if he made it through this outing untouched by the long ball. The Yankees lineup is not exactly a punching bag, though; their collective wRC+ of 113 is second-best in the majors, driven by the Aarons Judge and Hicks, and stifling them is easier said than done.