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Launch angles — September 22, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/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

Javier Báez grounds a hit up the middle to tie it up— +.309 WPA

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If you want to see a play that exemplifies baseball’s inherent randomness and cruelty, look no further than this game-tying single from Javier Báez on Thursday night. Baseball doesn’t care that Báez was down to his last strike despite not seeing one single pitch in the strike zone during his at-bat. Baseball doesn’t care that Jeremy Jeffress’ two-strike splitter was actually a pretty good pitch. Baseball is here to toy with your emotions, and on Thursday the city of Milwaukee was in its crosshairs.

Both Anthony Swarzak and Corey Knebel had pitched in the previous three games, so closing duties for the Brewers fell to Jeremy Jeffress. With a 3-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, Ian Happ immediately got on by beating out an infield chopper that required a lengthy review. He was ruled safe at first, but it was so close that an out call on the field would’ve likely been upheld as well. Take a look.

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Jeffress didn’t let the bang-bang play phase him and proceeded to get the next two hitters out to bring the Brewers to the edge of victory. The second out — an Alex Avila groundout — moved Happ to second base, so while Jeffress was now one out away from a save, a single would put that lead in jeopardy. Enter Javier Báez.

Jeffress had a plan against the free-swinging Báez and executed it, throwing everything below the zone to induce swings that, if they were to connect, would likely result in poor contact. On 1-2, Báez swung at a pitch below the zone and hit a 78 mile per hour grounder up the middle. Jeffress executed his pitch, but baseball happened anyway.

Zone Plot via MLB Gameday

I was watching this live, and exclaimed at my TV, “Oh, come on, gotta go to the high fastball right there!” But you know what, the pitch Jeffress threw got the same intended result — a bad swing and/or bad contact. Process is more important than results.

Of course, the virtues of good process won’t sooth the Milwaukee faithful as the Cubs went on to win the game in the 10th inning. The loss dropped the Brewers to 4.5 games back in the NL Central, meaning that realistically for them it’s now wild card or bust. While they remain just one game back in that race since the Rockies also lost on Thursday, it’s still an excruciating loss in a big spot for the Brew Crew.

Yesterday’s best game score

Cole Hamels — 77

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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.

In my mind, Cole Hamels is a former ace turned pretty good, mid-rotation starter. But ‘pretty good’ might actually be overselling it as he’s posted a 3.96 ERA, 4.75 FIP, and 4.54 DRA with a career-low 16.1 percent strikeout rate this season. Before 2017, Hamels had never posted a strikeout rate below 20 percent in the big leagues — ever. The Baseball Reference page in my mind has been amended to look at Hamels as a back-end starter from now on.

Despite 2017 appearances, on Thursday night against the Mariners in Seattle the old Cole Hamels showed up and delivered eight innings of one run baseball. The lone run came on a Nelson Cruz solo shot in the seventh, but it would prove the only major blemish as Hamels allowed just three hits and two walks on the night. Most impressive were the eight strikeouts, which is the most he’s recorded in a game this year.

Throughout his long, impressive career, Hamels’ calling-card has been his changeup; and boy did he have it working. He threw the pitch 27 times and it generated 11 of his 15 total whiffs! That’s a 41 percent swinging-strike rate for the change on the night, as opposed to a (still impressive) 21 percent swinging-strike rate for the offering on the season. For the most part Hamels kept it down and arm-side, but even a few of the his changeups in the zone generated whiffs.

Zone Plot via Baseball Savant

With the Rangers win and the Angels loss, Texas is now tied with Anaheim at 2.5 games back of the Twins for the second wild card spot. They’re not out of this thing quite yet, and a couple more outings like this from Hamels would help their cause immensely.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Robinson Canó — 438 feet

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Hamels didn’t come back out for the ninth, so closing duties for the Rangers on Thursday were given to Keone Kela as their usual option Álex Claudio had pitched the previous two nights. Little did Kela know that he would end up a part of history.

With one out, Canó stepped to the plate and proceeded to drive a first-pitch, 91 mile per hour fastball 438 feet to straight away center field for his 300th career home run. There’s not a lot that’s visually pleasing about where this dinger ends up — a common theme in this space — so let’s instead focus on Canó’s swing. It’s so damn sweet.

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That’s a 34-year old, driving a pitch on the outer edge of the zone to center field, and it looks effortless. No big leg kick — not that there’s anything wrong with that — just a subtle leg lift as he looks the ball all the way in and drives it out. In the absence of stadium scenery, we’ll have to settle for Canó’s swing; it’s as aesthetically pleasing as it gets.

The Mariners came up short and barring something unfathomable will miss the playoffs this season, but Thursday’s game still provided a cool moment for a probable Hall-of-Famer. Even cooler is that he got to share it with his mom. Awwww.

SABRy tidbits

Tonight’s best pitching matchup

Jeff Samardzija (3.71 projected ERA) vs. Rich Hill (3.59 projected ERA)

The Dodgers have had a dreadful September but still find themselves with a magic number of one entering play on Friday. Since the Diamondbacks send their ace Zack Greinke to the mound as they face the Marlins, clinching the NL West on Friday night may fall squarely on the shoulders of Rich Hill. He had a rocky start to 2017, but since July 1st has allowed more than three earned runs and gone less than five innings just once.

Trying to spoil a potential Dodgers celebration for the rival Giants is Jeff Samardzija, who’s had a solid season amidst a team full of disappointment. His 4.42 ERA looks pedestrian on the surface, but is belied by a 3.52 FIP, a 3.08 (!!) DRA, and a career-best 20.9 percent strikeout-to-walk rate. Samardzija is one of the few silver-linings to the Giants’ season and on Friday he’ll try his best to keep the Dodgers’ champagne on ice for a night.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.