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Launch angles — August 19, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/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

Machado belts a walk-off grand slam — +.665 WPA

Remember when you played baseball in the backyard as a kid? Or even just hit a ball around, throwing it up to your self and taking a wild hack as it came down. What did you imagine you were doing? For me, at least, and I suspect for lots of youths, walk-off grand slams played a key role in those fantasies, as did home runs generally. Last night, Manny Machado had the kind of day that makes those fantasies look realistic. After homering in the third and fifth innings, driving in three runs and keeping the O’s within striking distance of the Angels, he came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with one out, the bases loaded, and Baltimore down two. Now, if this was actually a childhood fantasy, there would’ve been two outs, and the Orioles would’ve been trailing by three (so that nothing but a home run would get it done). But Machado matched the fantasy in the way that mattered, hitting a 424-foot blast to center that cleared the bases and won the game.

It’s pretty remarkable what going three-for-five with three dingers will do to your batting line. Machado added five points to his wRC+, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that this was his 117th game of the season. Our own Martin Alonso Ratcliffe delved into Machado’s much-improved second half last week, and the addition of these three dingers did nothing to hurt that; after wrapping up a solid July (with a 130 wRC+), he’s nearly two-thirds of the way through an outstanding August, currently sporting a 187 wRC+ for the month.

I didn’t necessarily expect this game to have playoff consequences, but with the loss, the Angels fell back into a tie for the second Wild Card slot, and the Orioles moved to within two games. That nonetheless means that Baltimore needs to leapfrog five teams to make the playoffs. If they manage to construct some kind of wild stretch run, a resurgent Manny Machado will be a key component.

Yesterday’s best game score

Dallas Keuchel — 77

For the first time in a while, Corey Kluber was something other than dominant — 5 13 innings, four Ks, one walk, one run — opening the door for other folks to distinguish themselves. Enter Dallas Keuchel, who went seven innings with three strikeouts, one walk, three hits, and no runs. I’ll be honest: that looks like a somewhat underwhelming best start of the night. It’s a very good start! But not what we’ve come to expect from this space, exactly.

On the other hand, maybe it’s underselling this start to focus on Keuchel’s strikeouts and walks. The A’s put 16 balls in play, and all sixteen were ground balls, hoovered up by the Astros infield and quickly disposed of. It’s tempting to write off a ton of batted balls turning into outs as lucky rather than skillful. But when someone has as long a track record as Keuchel does — owner of a career 59.6 percent ground ball rate, and a 2017 rate of a whopping 66.2 percent — giving credit to the pitcher feels a lot more reasonable. His main pitch is a nasty sinker that stays low in the zone, and in an age when high heat has become the trend du jour, Keuchel has continued to pitch as a bit of a throwback. He certainly can strike hitters out, as the GIFs above show, but being able to generate outs without the K keeps him from relying too heavily on any one skill.

With Lance McCullers’s health highly uncertain, and the Astros being cagey about adding any other starters, there’s a lot of responsibility resting on Keuchel’s shoulders. With a thirteen-game lead over the Angels in the AL West, the regular season is just about locked up. But Keuchel’s going to play a large role in any Houston playoff series, so you might want to get used to all the grounders.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Nelson Cruz — 482 feet

This is an impressive, no-frills blast from Cruz, the third-longest home run of the season thus far. Tropicana Field is not the best backdrop for, well, just about anything, if only because it’s empty and cavernous and thus a bit depressing. I think the camera work deserves a lot of credit; on too many highlights, you can’t track the ball into the seats at all, and it’s only crowd motion that alerts you to where it lands. But we get the entire flight of this moonshot, until it lands in the upper-deck, and thus can fully appreciate the impressiveness of Cruz’s swing.

Because, my goodness, he hit this ball a mile. The Rays were down by five in the bottom of the 9th; I think everyone involved was probably just looking to get things over with. Is that why Brad Boxberger threw a 92mph fastball to Cruz on the inner-half of the plate, just above the knees, in a location where a blast like this is not exactly expected but perhaps not fully surprising? Maybe! Probably not, but in hindsight, this does not look like a fantastic decision by the Rays righty.

Cruz is having a resurgent season and, in particular, an outstanding August. This is his third appearance in this slot in the month, and this home run raised his wRC+ over that stretch to an insane 275. This was his 9th home run of the month, two more than in any other month this season, and there’s nearly two weeks still to go. Because this recap featured a bunch of AL teams, and because (almost) literally every team in the AL has a shot at the playoffs, I’m compelled to say the same thing I’ve said twice now: if and when the Mariners do make the postseason — they currently sit just a half-game out of the second slot — Cruz is going to deserve a lot of the credit, and bear a lot of the responsibility for their eventual outcome.

SABRy tidbits

  • I quite enjoyed this from Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, on how to increase balls in play, speaking with players and combing through data to evaluate their suggestions and impressions. I think this is the right way to approach baseball’s rules: ask what we want, and figure out if there’s a way to achieve that without sacrificing too many other things we also want. My suggestion for more balls in play? Cut the basepaths a few feet shorter.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Chris Sale (2.84 projected ERA) vs. CC Sabathia (4.70 projected ERA)

Yankee/Red Sox games can be a tiresome affair for everyone not in the inside of the rivalry. (I grew up a Red Sox fan, so I can speak only from observations, not first-hand experience.) But I hope that, despite the grindingly slow pace and ridiculous amounts of focus from national outlets, there’s something in the pageantry that’s fun and enjoyable.

Maybe not! But even if not, you should still watch this game, because you should watch every Chris Sale start you possibly can. CC Sabathia isn’t his old self, nor has he been for several years. But while the projections think he’s fully out of gas, he’s had several great starts this year, including one in July against the Red Sox in which he went eight shutout innings. This should be an enjoyable game, even for those without a personal stake in its outcome.