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Launch angles — July 4, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-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

Mike Napoli extends the ballgame, but in vain — +.431 WPA

Win probability doesn’t take into account who is involved in any given situation, so the Rangers’ estimated 21.5 percent shot at winning this game at the start of the 9th took into account only the one-run lead held by the Red Sox, not the identity of the person trying to defend that lead. When Craig Kimbrel entered the game last night, he had a strikeout rate over 50 percent, and hadn’t allowed a home run since back in April. Red Sox fans probably felt like they had much better than a four-in-five chance of going home happy, and with good reason.

But Mike Napoli wasn’t ready to be done. He jumped all over Kimbrel’s first pitch of the inning, a 98mph fastball that caught a lot of the zone, and sent it way out to left field, tying the ballgame and giving Kimbrel just his second blown save of the season. The Boston closer wasn’t in peak form last night; he limped through the rest of the inning, escaping unscathed thanks in large part to an excellent defensive play by Dustin Pedroia. But the Rangers didn’t take the lead, and the rest of the Red Sox bullpen was able to keep the score tied until the 11th, when Andrew Benintendi broke the tie with a two-run single. Still, though it ended up coming to naught, Napoli deserves a lot of credit for his home run, and for sending this game to extras in the first place.

Yesterday’s best game score

Aaron Nola — 80

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.

Entering the 2017 season, there was a lot of buzz around Aaron Nola. His 2016 had been surprisingly good, especially by the advanced metrics — a mediocre 4.78 ERA masked a 3.08 FIP and a 2.81 DRA — and he was seen as possibly a major piece in the Phillies planned resurgence. So far this year, Nola has perhaps not lived up to those lofty expectations, but he’s been quite good, with a 3.73 ERA/3.59 FIP/3.08 DRA. Everything was working for the righty last night, as he turned in his best start of the season against the Pirates, throwing seven shutout innings with four hits, one walk, and eight strikeouts.

All four of Nola’s pitches were working. The gif above features Josh Harrison waving at a well-placed fourseamer, Andrew McCutchen being fooled by a similarly well-placed twoseamer, and Francisco Cervelli chasing a nasty curveball. And while it’s not in the gif, Nola’s changeup was just as effective, thrown four times and garnering four whiffs, including one that was the culmination of a John Jaso strikeout.

Particularly impressive was how well controlled each of Nola’s pitches was, even as the afternoon drew long.

His twoseamers were almost all up in the zone, his curveballs almost all below, and his changeups almost all running away from the lefthanded batters he deployed the pitch against. It’s interesting to see the band of fourseam fastballs that runs across the middle part of the zone. They look too tightly clustered to be there coincidentally, but that doesn’t strike me as a place you’d want to concentrate your fastballs overmuch. But clearly, Nola knows more than I about pitching, and whatever he was doing last night was working well. If and when the Phillies start making some noise again, Nola will be a big part.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Scooter Gennett — 452 feet

MLB’s title for the video showing this home run describes it as “drilled,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To me, that verb implies a bit more violence on the part of the batter and ball, a home run that gets out of the park in a hurry. This home run was almost leisurely, in the way that big blasts (especially in Coors) can sometimes be. Gennett’s bat “flip” as he watches it fly, if it can even be called a flip, is not so much taunting as it is the natural follow-through of what he did to that baseball. “Look at that ball go,” he seems to be saying. “I hit that quite well, and deserve a modest celebration.” Everyone agrees.

My colleague Ryan Schultz wrote about Gennett, and his sudden development of power (.141 ISO pre-2017, .280 this season), just last week. While 2017 has a standard script for the players hitting a surprising number of home runs — a sudden increase in their launch angle (get it???) — Gennett hasn’t really followed that, going through a much more modest increase. Instead, his newfound power comes from a more traditional improvement, in that he’s just hitting the ball a whole lot harder than he used to.

This home run is like a microcosm of that analysis, in that it’s best not to think too hard about why it happened. Did Gennett try to lift the ball, making a subtle change in his standard swing to take advantage of the new composition of the baseball? Maybe! Did Jeff Hoffman hang a changeup in the upper-center of the zone, AKA not a good place to throw a changeup? Definitely.

SABRy tidbits

  • The new year for signing international prospects began on Sunday, July 2, and over at Minor League Ball, John Sickels has a primer and open thread being updated with the proceedings. This is the first period under the new agreement, so bonus pools and penalties are different than they have been in the past.
  • Ángel Hernández, the well-known MLB umpire, has filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination on the part of the league in passing him over for preferential assignments. Anecdotally, his reputation as an umpire isn’t great, but the claims are serious and very plausible.
  • For a competitive team, the trade deadline can be a distinct type of hurdle, with an ill-considered acquisition looking foolish in hindsight if it doesn’t put the team over the hump. (E.g., Billy Beane and the 2014 A’s, who traded for Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija but nonetheless lost in the Wild Card game.) The Nationals have a pressing need for bullpen assistance, but without much available, GM Mike Rizzo is facing some hard choices.

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jon Lester (3.43 projected ERA) vs. Chris Archer (3.37 projected ERA)

This is a nice, evenly matched pairing to enjoy on the Fourth of July. At 2:20pm, right around when the good barbecues will be in full swing on the east coast, the 41-41 Cubs will face off against the 43–41 Rays. The record of the former is probably more surprising than that of the latter, but fans of both teams are paying more attention to these midsummer games than they expected to, though for opposite reasons. But in addition to a game with lots of possible playoff implications, this is an excellent pitching matchup, with both teams sending their aces to the mound. By ERA, Lester’s had the better 2017; by DRA and FIP, Archer has an edge. Either way, both pitchers are outstanding, and should deliver a highly enjoyable contest to keep on in the background while the corn is cooking.