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Launch angles — July 22, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/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

Conor Gillaspie ties it in the 9th — +.492 WPA

The Giants entered the 9th down three, with just a 3.5 percent chance of winning the game according to WPA, and after two quick outs, that number fell to 0.4 percent. Then Buster Posey walked, Brandon Crawford knocked him in with a single, and Conor Gillaspie hit the above home run, miraculously tying the game and putting the Giants right back in the game. Exciting! But because this is the 2017 Giants we’re discussing, things did not go well after that point. Following a scoreless 10th, the Padres hit four singles with a walk mixed in in the top of the 11th, and plated three runs which the Giants failed to answer in the bottom of the inning.

I submit that there is little more crushing than tying the game in dramatic fashion, going into extra innings, and losing. This is especially true, I believe, when the deficit ends up at more than one run, as it did in this game. Not only did you have to play additional innings for no reason, wasting pitchers and keeping everyone awake for no benefit, you didn’t even get a close game out of it. You both had to play extra innings of baseball, and look outclassed. Not great!

But. In a season like the one the Giants’ are currently mired in, joy has to come from the little things. For lots of people, watching baseball isn’t really a choice, and rather than disengaging with the team when their in the midst of a 100-loss season, you simply engage with them differently. The focus becomes narrower; goals become more modest. A prospect’s development or a pitcher’s health become things to celebrate. Or, alternately, the absurdity of a late, game-tying home run from Conor Gillaspie. Gillaspie got his first real taste of the majors in 2011, but has only accumulated 1533 PAs in the seven-and-a-half seasons between then and now, which should tell you just about everything you need to know about his offensive abilities. He’s also had a checkered and complicated history with the Giants, traded to the White Sox in 2013 and returning last year on a minor-league contract. In other words, he’s precisely the sort of player whose game-tying home run is the funniest to observe. The Giants lost, sure, but they’ve lost a lot this year, and that means you’ve got to focus on the small things, like game-tying dingers from Conor Gillaspie.

Yesterday’s best game score

Mike Fiers — 74

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.

Mike Fiers has kind of fallen out of the public eye, it seems, but he’s in the midst of a fascinating season. After his excellent performance on Friday night — seven innings with nine strikeouts, one walk, six hits, and one run — he’s got a very good ERA of 3.59, but a pretty bad FIP of 4.91. The gap seems to be driven mostly by a very high strand rate (84.2 percent, versus 75.9 percent for his career) and a very low BABIP (.265, versus .290 for his career). But complicating matters is the fact that Fiers is running the highest ground ball rate of his career by a huge margin: his 45.0 percent rate is higher than his career rate by nearly 10 points. A ton of groundballs is one way to run a low BABIP and strand a bunch of baserunners.

But anytime a pitcher makes a change that abrupt, one has to wonder if it’s for real. And on Friday, Fiers’s excellence looked more like his excellence of several years ago — lots of strikeouts, very few walks, just two ground ball outs, fly balls but no home runs — than his excellence of the rest of 2017. But Fiers’s approach on Friday was starkly different from 2014–15. At that time, he didn’t throw a sinker, and used his fourseamer roughly half of the time; over the last few seasons, he’s introduced a sinker, and reduced his rate of fourseamers to make room. Last night, he made the switch even more sharply, throwing 58 sinkers and just 10 fourseamers.

In other words, this was the new Fiers, but with the strikeouts and outstanding results of the old Fiers. If he could maintain his current groundball rate while reclaiming his lofty strikeout rate of the past, the Astros could have yet another outstanding starter, thanks to the excellent combination of groundballs and strikeouts. They’re like peanut butter and chocolate, if peanut butter and chocolate could make you favorites to win the World Series.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Aaron Judge — 450 feet

I laughed audibly when I saw this clip. I was on the quiet car of an Amtrak at the time, so I was risking death at the hands of a cranky commuter by doing so, but it was an involuntary reaction to the sight of something extraordinary. Really, amazement is the only option; the broadcast clip makes it sound like all of Safeco went nuts as soon as Judge made contact, and I don’t think they were all Yankees fans. In some way, we should be used to what Judge is doing, now that we’re half a season into his career. But really, we should never get used to this kind of display, for our own sakes. If this home run bores you, then what’s left?

Aaron Judge almost broke the Home Run Derby this year. I didn’t mind, and I don’t think anyone else did either; what Judge did was fun as heck to watch. But he’s so strong that he can swing at something like 70 or 80 percent effort and still send the ball out of the park. What I really want is to see Judge go max-effort on some batting practice fastballs, and watch them go 600 feet. I bring this up because, until the Home Run Derby includes a distance contest of some sort, this might be the closest thing we get to my dream. I can’t imagine Judge holds anything back in games, and the pitch he swung at was, uh, a great batting practice pitch. This is generally not where you want your curveball:

Brooks Baseball

And good curveballs seem to be a weakness of Judge’s, in a way; this was only his second home run on a curve all season. Thankfully, for all our sakes, Andrew Moore didn’t fail in the boring, predictable way that so many others have, by throwing Judge a fastball in the heart of the zone. On his 31st home run of the season, we still got to see a surprise from Judge, and not just the distance that he hit it. I hope he does this for two decades.

SABRy tidbits

  • Eric Hosmer is having a great season at the plate, but as Ryan Heffernon of Royals Review notes, it’s also a bizarre season, featuring tons of opposite-field ground balls. It’s breaking the normal mode for offensive success, and it’ll be interesting to see if Hosmer can maintain this kind of production and this kind of profile simultaneously.
  • There comes an inflection point in every rebuild, where the focus shifts from the future to the present, and from the minor leagues to the majors. The Braves are rapidly approaching that point, which is part of the reason why their name has come up in a number of rumors this trade deadline. At Talking Chop, Eric Cole notes that this means some of the Braves’ prospect wealth is about to get spent, as they help make the team better, but indirectly rather than directly.
  • Pablo Sandoval (and his contract) were in the news this week, but for Brice Freeman of Camden Chat, all this talk of busts and wasted money reminded him of Chris Davis and the $161 million they owe him for his next seven years of play. He’s better than Sandoval, and currently hitting for some of his classic power, but isn’t doing anything else to make that number look even remotely reasonable.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jon Lester (3.54 projected ERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (4.09 projected ERA)

Well this is a nice little showndown. Lester and Wainwright are both probably fairly described as former aces at this point, though Wainwright’s path downward has been more precipitous; he’s sitting at a 5.08 ERA (and on a much more reasonable 4.03 FIP), while Lester is at a 4.07 ERA (better, but worse than Lester has ever been since 2012). If this matchup was just these two pitchers going head to head, without any other context, it might be somewhat disappointing.

But this is a nice, intra-division rivalry match. The Cardinals and Cubs have developed a very satisfying enmity over the last few years, driven by Dexter Fowler’s departure for St. Louis, the Cubs’ general success, and all the other weird things that go into this kind of relationship between two teams. In game one of this series, the Cardinals won 11–4, with a comeback that saw the Cubs’ bullpen melt down completely and allow nine runs in eight batters. So there are a lot of reasons to watch this game; it’s the best pitching matchup of the day, but if it doesn’t strike you right, a good, old-fashioned grudge match might.