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Launch angles — September 5, 2017

All the baseball nuggets you need to start your day.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/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

Matt Olson keeps the Athletics alive — +.489 WPA

GIF via MLB.com

It doesn’t matter when the game is played, or where, or between whom. Even in early September, when some teams have sold off all their assets and others are gearing up for the playoffs, when the favorites have incredible odds and the underdogs are expected to go down quietly, you can see an incredible play anywhere, anytime. All it takes is a determined hitter, a hanging fastball, and a…

…okay, I’m sorry, can we talk about Matt Olson’s batting stance? This thing?

Image via MLB.com

“Is this how you hold the bat? Just kind of wobble it over the strike zone? Where do I put my hands?” How does a man get to the majors by blocking the umpire’s view? How does he bring the bat down quickly enough to get leverage? And why the hell is he standing so far from the plate? (Fun fact: In his six-year minor-league career, Olson was hit by 17 pitches, a level five big-leaguers have surpassed this season alone.)

Image via MLB.com

Why is his jaw hanging slack like that? Why doesn’t he concentrate on the microscopic piece of yarn and leather that’s hurtling toward him at 82 mph? Why does he look so confused? Is he having vision problems like Tommy Pham was? Is he just outright blind like Bryce Harper used to be? Is he trying to scare Blake Parker by appearing calm? Is he trying to lull Parker into a false sense of security by appearing dumb? So many questions.

Anyway, this bizarre approach has worked out pretty well for Olson, who brought a .248/.331/.554 triple-slash into this game. His fourth-inning solo shot boosted that batting line, and as he stepped to the plate with Oakland trailing 9-7 and two outs, he knew he needed to go yard again. Even though this 1-1 splitter from Blake Parker was nearly outside the strike zone, Olson still put a good swing on it:

Image via Brooks Baseball

Hitting a baseball has been described as the hardest thing to do in sports. Everyone goes about this difficult task in a different way — from Kevin Youkilis to Craig Counsell, MLB has seen plenty of strange stances. While Olson’s lackadaisical way of batting is definitely distinct, it hasn’t sunk him yet, and if he keeps coming up clutch like this, maybe it never will. (That won’t stop me from roasting him, though.)

Yesterday’s best game score

Robbie Ray — 94

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.

GIF via MLB.com

In yesterday’s Launch Angles, this was the top pitching matchup of the day, as Ray faced off against Rich Hill. While the Dodgers lefty performed well enough — two runs on two hits and a walk in six innings, along with nine strikeouts — he couldn’t hold a candle to the D-backs southpaw, who dominated from start to finish. Ray tossed 7 23 shutout innings, allowing three hits and no walks with 14 (yes 14) strikeouts.

Ray was stupid good in this game. He threw 107 pitches, and 82 went for strikes — that’s 77 percent! And this wasn’t a case where he got into some deep counts and padded his numbers with foul balls; he mixed in 21 called strikes and 24 swinging strikes, too. Of the 12 balls in play he gave up, just three went for hits. No matter how you slice it, he was in control of L.A.

While Ray has four pitches in his repertoire, two stand out — his four-seam fastball and his slider. The former was his bread-and-butter in this effort; he threw the heater 47 times, and picked up 15 called strikes and 37 strikes overall by pounding the zone with it:

Image via Baseball Savant

That fastball played off his breaking ball, which occasionally leaked into the strike zone but for the most part traveled below it. Dodgers hitters couldn’t hold back — they swung at 27 of Ray’s 40 sliders, whiffing on 15 of those cuts:

Image via Baseball Savant

Somehow, this wasn’t Ray’s best outing of the season. That came on May 30, when his 96 Game Score — for a complete-game, 10-K shutout against the Piratestook the top spot in Launch Angles. He’s now rocking a 2.80 ERA and 3.62 FIP in 138 innings; if that line drive hadn’t gone off his head and he’d avoided the DL, he might be in the NL Cy Young conversation. Without great counting stats, he’ll just have to settle for demolishing a divisional rival, which is a pretty great consolation prize.

Yesterday’s biggest home run

Martin Maldonado — 447 feet

GIF via MLB.com

Man, this Angels-Athletics game had everything. In addition to Olson’s two dingers, fans at the Coliseum got to see this:

Image via FanGraphs (duh)

Holy Tony La Russa, Batman! And those 12 Los Angeles pitchers had some power on their side, too. Martin Maldonado, Angels catcher and Nichols’ Law incarnate, had a career day at the plate, knocking two massive long balls. First up was this one in the second inning:

GIF via MLB.com

Athletics starter Chris Smith tried to back-door a breaking ball, but it caught too much of the plate, and Maldonado launched a 431-foot bomb to dead center. That brought the Angels to a 4-4 tie, which wouldn’t last long — Olson’s four-bagger in the third made it 5-4 Oakland.

So in his next at-bat, Maldonado decided to one-up himself. For the second time, he worked the count full against Smith. This time, the right-hander went for a four-seamer at the bottom part of the zone. And again, Maldonado would not be denied:

Image via Brooks Baseball

It was only the second two-homer game in his career — the first came on June 21 — and it was actually the second time this year he’s hit the longest round-tripper of the day, after his 465-foot moonshot on Aug. 29. (That home run also came off Chris Smith. What’d he ever do to you, Martin?) The Angels would go on to win 11-9 in 11 innings, and without Maldonado’s twin taters, they wouldn’t have made it that far.

SABRy tidbits

  • The Royals have a history of beating the odds, from their continual defiance of PECOTA and other projections to their meteoric rise through the 2014 playoffs to the World Series. This year, though, the devil magic seems to have vanished from Kansas City. Royals Review’s Matthew LaMar pours some cold water on the remaining hopes fans might have for 2017.
  • Earlier in the year, as Aaron Hicks looked like he was in the middle of a breakout, the sabermetric cognoscenti criticized the Yankees for sticking with Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield. But as Hicks has slumped and gotten hurt, Ellsbury has started to resemble his old self. Pinstripe Alley’s Tyler Morton has more on these new developments.

Today’s best pitching matchup

Zack Greinke (3.55 projected ERA) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (4.23 projected ERA)

Another Diamondbacks-Dodgers game! These teams are tops in the NL West for a reason — as of this writing, their rotations rank second and fifth in fWAR, respectively. From one to five, both Arizona and Los Angeles can trot out some imposing arms, and while these hurlers aren’t as great as the guys who pitched yesterday, they’ll still hold their own on the mound.

Greinke’s returned to form this year after an iffy debut in the desert, cruising to a 3.08 ERA and 3.14 FIP in 172 13 innings. Since he has the counting stats Ray lacks, he should get some votes for the NL Cy Young when everything’s said and done. Ryu, meanwhile, was on a good run — nine starts of 2.13-ERA, 3.23-FIP ball — until the D-backs knocked him around in his last game. The projections favor Greinke, but the Dodgers have been the stronger team this year; we’ll have to see which starter reigns supreme.


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.