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Launch angles — July 27, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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

Justin Smoak brings the Blue Jays back — +.453 WPA

There are two ways to tell the story of the end of the A’s-Jays game. In one telling, it’s about the struggles of Santiago Casilla, who, after a difficult 2016 with the Giants, took his save-blowing ways across the Bay this offseason. His outing consisted of a walk to Josh Donaldson, this home run, and a home run to Kendrys Morales (which we’ll get to later). Casilla has 15 blown saves between last season and this one, the most in the majors, and one can portray the events of last night as just another piece of Casilla’s struggles.

Alternately, one can focus on the batter, Justin Smoak, who is firmly in the midst of a breakout after years of disappointment. This was his 28th home run of the year, and raised his wRC+ to 154, fifth-best in the AL. He’s one of the batters you’d least like to face in this situation, no matter who is on the mound. In this telling, this isn’t an Oakland/Casilla collapse, but a Toronto/Smoak comeback. Neither is right, but the latter is certainly a little more pleasant.

I think WPA is useful not just because it’s fun, but because it generally matches our gut perceptions of the game. To prove my point: on the very next pitch, Casilla grooved another pitch, a fastball, and Kendrys Morales sent it out to right field too, walking the game off for the Jays.

If you watch the clip of Smoak’s home run with sound, you’ll hear the stadium going absolutely nuts. (You can see it too, barely; as Smoak rounds first, the camera visibly shakes from the elation in the Rogers Centre.) If you watch Morales’s dinger, however, the cheers are a bit less elated, a bit more relaxed. And it makes sense — he came to the plate with the game tied and no outs in the bottom of the 9th. His home run was dramatic, but substantially less so than Smoak’s, by both WPA (+.359 vs. +.453) and the gut reaction of everyone in the park.

Yesterday’s best game score

Chris Sale — 85

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.

By Chris Sale’s lofty standards, this start is actually totally routine. He’s appeared in this section of Launch Angles three times already, and he’s had a game score higher than 85 four times this season. But a line of seven innings, eleven strikeouts, no runs, three hits, and one walk is still impressive, and it says a lot about the kind of year that Sale’s having that this kind of dominance can be anything less than stunning.

The lanky lefty leaned most heavily on his slider last night, throwing it 44 times to the Mariners hitters, the most of any of his four pitches. The huge amount of run on the pitch makes it difficult to square up, meaning that it not only garnered four easy whiffs last night, but on the rare occasion it was put it play, it turned into easy outs. Of course, Sale’s slider is well-known, but maybe we should be talking about his changeup more; he threw it 19 times last night, and it was never put into play, with Mariners batters whiffing five times, fouling it off twice, and letting it go for a called strike another four times. His slider still probably deserves some of the credit; the location on the slider and changeup are almost identical:

Baseball Savant

meaning that batters have to defend against two pitches that Sale can pinpoint to the same location but that run in completely different directions.

At this point, you can pick any number of milestones to recognize Sale for. He’s well on his way to 300 strikeouts on the season, with 211 in just 21 starts. He has 14 games with ten or more strikeouts, the third-highest figure in Red Sox history (behind just Pedro Martínez). Over the past calendar year, Sale has struck out 315 batters in 242 innings. He’s in the midst of a season for the ages.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Domingo Santana — 476 feet

This was a true blast, a moonshot with a 31 degree launch angle that kicked the scoring off for the Brewers in the top of the first. Gio Gonzalez’s fastball was low, but now low enough, and Santana was able to drive it to the left field concourse. The distance of 476 feet makes this the sixth-longest home run of the season. The people in the park probably couldn’t tell you precisely how far this ball went, but I think it was obvious that this was a truly impressive blast; just look at how the Nationals fielders make no effort as this ball comes off the bat, and simply walk around in mild dejection. This was a no-doubter if there ever was one.

Remember Domingo Santana? He was part of that crop of Astros prospects in 2014 and 2015 that were supposed to make all the losing worth it. But Santana was shipped to Milwaukee in the Carlos Gómez/Mike Fiers trade, and hadn’t hit his potential since. He had continued to mash at AAA, but in 281 PAs last year, his 110 wRC+ wasn’t really enough to make up for his lackluster defense in right field. This year has been different on both fronts: his defense has improved, by whatever defensive metric you choose to rely on, and his hitting has taken a step forward too. Santana’s 126 wRC+ has slotted him in between Eric Thames and Ryan Braun for the third-best batting line on the Brewers, and he’s been one of the many surprises that has propelled Milwaukee to a competitive 2017 and potential postseason appearance.

As teams make the kind of veteran-for-prospect trades that brought Santana to the Midwest, he provides two useful lessons. First, this kind of improvement is both necessary to a rebuild, and hard. Prospects tend not to transition smoothly from AAA to the majors, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever manage. The difference between a successful rebuild and a decade of failure is whether the players you acquire make that jump. And second, patience with prospects is a virtue. I hadn’t thought about Santana in several years, mostly because he hadn’t immediately started beating up on major-league pitchers during his cups of coffee in 2014 and 2015. But now he’s a key part of the Brewers’ offense, and hitting dingers that go nearly 500 feet. The guys that get moved in the next week might not look like studs right away, but time is cheap, and it can mean a lot to a prospect.

SABRy tidbits

  • The Tigers are in full seller mode, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants want they’re selling. After a report from Jon Morosi that Detroit is struggling to offload Justin Verlander’s hefty contract ($28m per year through 2019), Ashely MacLennan notes that the Tigers are going to have to figure out their priorities. After long-time owner Mike Ilitch passed away this spring, his notoriously free-spending ways appear to have passed with him. Detroit will have to choose between offloading Verlander’s contract and getting some actual good players in return for him, and the priorities of the fans will probably not match the priorities of the new ownership in that respect.
  • “The road to the majors is long and winding, even for the very best prospects,” edition 3,944: Dansby Swanson is being demoted. As Demetrius Bell notes for Talking Chop, this isn’t a reason to panic, but it is a reflection of Swanson’s real struggles. Time will tell if this is nothing more than a bump in the road (still the more likely outcome) or a more serious indicator of struggle.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Max Scherzer (3.07 projected ERA) vs. Michael Blazek (4.54 projected ERA)

It’s okay if you don’t know who Michael Blazek is. He’s in his fourth season as an unexceptional major-league reliever with the Brewers (3.88 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 18.9 percent strikeout rate, 11.0 percent walk rate), and this will be his first major-league start. This matchup is not highlighted because of him.

We’ve talked about Scherzer so many times in this series, both in this section the day before he pitches, and in the best game score section the day after he pitches. He’s been outstanding, even by his own lofty standards, and has taken his game to a new level. FanGraphs’ daily scoreboard has an estimate of which team is going to win each game, based on the starters and the depth chart projections; it gives the Nats and Scherzer a 72.3 percent chance at walking away with the W today against Blazek and the Brewers. This should be a fun game, but not because it’ll be an evenly matched pitching duel. If you watch this game, it’s to watch Bryce Harper feast on an inexperienced starter, and to watch Max Scherzer embrace his berserker rage and carve through a lineup. Or at least, that’s why I’ll be watching.