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Launch angles — September 30, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Jim Young-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

Ian Happ’s three-run homer gives the Cubs more bragging rights — +.648 WPA

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It’s easy to forget now, but not long ago, the Cubs were really, really bad. From 2010 to 2014, they went 346-464 — a not-so-nice average of only 69 wins each year — and finished fifth in the NL Central each time. Even as Jed, Theo and co. turned around the farm system, the on-field product lagged behind, and Cubs fans had to endure some embarrassments at the hands of their divisional rivals.

That time has long since past. Since 2015, Chicago has dominated the NL Central, and most of baseball — and in the process, it’s gotten some revenge on those divisional teams that held it down for so many years. Earlier this week, the Cubs knocked the Cardinals out of playoff contention with an incredible Leonys Martin catch. The Reds, at 67-92 entering Friday’s play, had long since been eliminated, but that didn’t make this any less vindicating:

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Remember those early-decade Reds teams, that made the playoffs three times and generally battered their opponents? This Cincinnati ballclub is 6-11 against Chicago, and this hanging Michael Lorenzen fastball is just adding insult to injury. The Cubs are locked into their playoff spot — they’ve won the division and can’t catch the Nationals or Dodgers for a higher seed — but making their NL Central rivals squirm a little bit is its own reward.

Yesterday’s best game score

Masahiro Tanaka — 91

Game Score was developed by Bill James as a quick way to evaluate a starting pitcher’s performance. The score begins at 50, with points added for outs and strikeouts, and subtracted for walks, hits, and runs. A score of 70 is very good; a score of 90 is outstanding.

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Remember back in the good old days, when we thought Tanaka was awful and the Yankees would be burdened with the last three years of his contract? Since my colleague Steven Martano speculated in May that the Japanese right-hander wouldn’t opt out, he’s tallied a 4.07 ERA over 130 13 innings — with nearly six times as many strikeouts (155) as walks (26). Way to jinx it, Marty!

Tanaka’s production hinges on his split-fingered fastball. If he’s throwing the splitter well, hitters don’t stand a chance. That was the case on Friday against the Blue Jays, as he cruised to seven shutout innings with three hits, no walks, and 15 strikeouts. Of the 38 splitters he threw, an amazing 16 went for swinging strikes — that’s 42.1 percent! Unsurprisingly, he kept the pitch low in the zone, burying it when he needed to:

Image via Baseball Savant

Tanaka’s turned what looked like a disastrous campaign into a pretty successful one. He’s guaranteed $67 million over the next three years, and based on his turnaround and his age — he’ll turn 29 in November — I’d expect him to opt out of that, and wisely so. Whether that’s a good or bad thing for the Yankees remains to be seen.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Charlie Blackmon — 454 feet

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Over the first five years of his career, Blackmon was a useful role player for the Rockies, someone who could hit righties and play a passable center field. During that time, he slashed .282/.322/.408 against fellow southpaws, for a meager 87 wRC+. Facing someone like Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, Colorado would be best served leaving Blackmon on the bench.

This Charlie Blackmon is not that Charlie Blackmon, to say the least. That Charlie Blackmon, for one, would probably not have been patient enough to work the count full — he’s only recently toned down his aggression. That Charlie Blackmon didn’t hit for much power, despite playing for the freakin’ Rockies. And that Charlie Blackmon wouldn’t have turned on a changeup this far inside:

Image via Brooks Baseball

The Rockies are probably glad they have this Charlie Blackmon, who’s hit .326/.390/.576 and racked up 10.5 fWAR since 2016. His breakout has guided the Rockies to an 87-73 record this year, putting them on the brink of the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Not bad for a former role player who couldn’t hit lefties.

SABRy tidbits

  • In June, the Twins had the first pick in the MLB draft, thanks to their 59-103 record in 2016. Three months later, they’re 84-76 and headed to the playoffs. How did that happen? Over at Twinkie Town, myjah breaks down all the factors behind Minnesota’s meteoric rise.
  • This year, the Cardinals are 77-64 against 28 out of the other 29 teams in baseball — that’s a .546 winning percentage, good for 88 wins over a full year. But that 30th team has caused some problems for St. Louis: Those dastardly Cubs won 14 of the 19 games they played against the Cards in 2017. Marc Normandin reflects on the cruelty of it all.
  • Even though the Orioles have spiraled out of contention this month — they’re now 7-19 in September following last night’s 7-0 loss to the Rays — some young players are providing glimmers of hope. Anthony Santander, Baltimore’s most recent Rule 5 pick, doesn’t have a great stat line, but Camden Chat’s Nick Cicere (a BtBS alum!) likes what he sees from the 22-year-old switch-hitter.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Jameson Taillon (4.23 projected ERA) vs. Max Scherzer (2.87 projected ERA)

What more can you say about Scherzer? The guy won last year’s NL Cy Young thanks to a 2.96 ERA and 3.24 FIP. This year, each of those has gone down, despite the continued spike in scoring across MLB. Statcast notwithstanding, it’ll be a crime if anyone other than Scherzer (or that fellow out in Los Angeles) takes home the crown this season.

Taillon won’t take home any hardware this season, but that’s not to say he’s struggled. While the second-highest BABIP in baseball (.360) has given him a 4.62 ERA, his 3.55 FIP is much more reasonable, supported by solid strikeout and walk rates. He has a high-powered arsenal and prospect pedigree, like Scherzer; perhaps Taillon, too, can break out late in his career.

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.