Four Trivial Things to Watch This Weekend

Baseball matters this weekend, in as much as it ever truly matters. The division races are decided, but the Wild Card races in both leagues provide plenty of reasons to tune in and root for whatever outcome pleases your baseball-loving sensibilities. As things stand right now there are 13 teams with hopes of postseason play, but a week from now only eight teams will remain. Stakes don’t get much higher than that.

But the postseason pool is not the only thing that will be finalized this weekend (or, if #TeamEntropy gets its way, early next week). In a few days, the regular season will come to a halt and 2016 stat lines will be frozen forever. Is a batter a 30-home-run guy or did he stop at 29? A .300 hitter or a .299? A sub-3.00-ERA pitcher or one with a 3.03 ERA? These trivial distinctions will be determined over the next few days.

What should you watch this weekend? The playoff races. Obviously. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling. But if you’re a weirdo with an affinity for the trivial side of this sport like me, there are a few other things to keep your eye on this weekend. Here are the four I’ll be watching most closely:

The Dodgers’ Strikeout Rate

Two pitchers in major-league history have finished a career (min. 3000 IP) with a strikeout rate above 25%: Randy Johnson (28.6%) and Nolan Ryan (25.3%). The 2016 Dodgers currently have a 25.2% strikeout rate as a team. That’s right, the revolving door of healthy and injured pitchers has resulted in a Dodgers pitching staff that has struck out batters at a rate roughly equivalent to Nolan Ryan’s career rate.

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NERD Game Scores: The Sound and Fury and Cardinals

Devised originally in response to a challenge issued by sabermetric nobleman Rob Neyer, and expanded at the request of nobody, NERD scores represent an attempt to summarize in one number (and on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game. Read more about the components of and formulae for NERD scores here.

***

Most Highly Rated Game
Pittsburgh at St. Louis | 20:15 ET
Glasnow (18.1 IP, 104 xFIP-) vs. Martinez (188.1 IP, 94 xFIP-)
Yesterday, the author experimented with a version of NERD game scores that does not assume an average NERD score of 5 for all teams every day of the season, but instead assesses a score to each club based on its postseason odds, where odds of 50% would equal a perfect score of 10 and odds either of 0% or 100% equal a NERD score of 0. Given the number of teams which have either clinched a playoff spot or, in most cases, been eliminated from the postseason altogether, this naturally leads to a lot of 0s. The advantage, however, is the there aren’t a number of teams clustered around the 4 mark, which naturally becomes the “average” score at a point in the season when most teams are playing for little and/or nothing.

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One More Incredible Rangers Statistic

As you’re no doubt aware, it’s been a hell of a season in Texas. The Rangers own the best record in the American League, with the eighth-best run differential. They’ve destroyed their Pythagorean record, which has caused them to destroy their BaseRuns record. Much of this has been fueled by historic success in one-run games, and much of that has been fueled by historically clutch hitting. Teams are successful every year, but the Rangers have followed an unusual course. It’s been simultaneously thrilling and bizarre, something difficult for analysts to explain. At this point, there might not be any sense in trying.

There’s one more nugget I want to throw on top of the others. For the reasons detailed above, this Rangers season has been truly exceptional. It’s hard to imagine a team drawing it up like this. Yet there’s another split you might have trouble believing. I know I did! Which is why I’m writing this in the first place. I don’t really know what it means, but I can’t not bring it to your attention.

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Clayton Kershaw and the NL Cy Young Award

The numbers are almost laughable. In a season when over 100 players have hit 20 home runs, Clayton Kershaw has put up a line for the ages. Through Tuesday: a 1.65 ERA, 1.67 FIP, a nearly unthinkable 168:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The only blemish is his low innings total, resulting from the back injury that cost him a substantial part of the summer. With no one seeming to run and hide with the NL Cy Young Award, it’s only natural to ask whether Kershaw might still be a worthy recipient of the hardware.

Last week, I used granular batted-ball data to measure the contact-management performance of all ERA-qualifying NL starters. This group did not include Kershaw. In that article I referred to my hypothetical Cy Young ballot, if it were limited to only qualifiers; that ballot would have been headed by two above-average contact managers with very strong K/BB profiles, Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks. Today, we add Kershaw to that mix, comparing him to those two pitchers, again utilizing exit-speed/launch-angle data in our analysis.

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Francisco Liriano Made a Ballsy Decision

In a good way, Francisco Liriano is making life more complicated for the Blue Jays. Not that a team should take anything for granted, but as the Jays look ahead to the playoffs, it’s hard to know exactly which starters could and should serve as their starters. The Jays already had some depth when Liriano arrived as something of a salary dump, but a funny thing has happened — Liriano has found himself after leaving Pittsburgh. He’s slashed his walk rate, he’s upped his strike rate, and his ERA with Toronto is 2.92. Liriano looks good again, and he looked terrific Wednesday night.

Ultimately, for the Blue Jays, Wednesday was disappointing. They suffered through a blown save and a loss, and they still haven’t locked up an actual playoff spot. There’s work to be done, and because of the ninth-inning collapse, moments from Liriano’s start earlier have been forgotten. They simply can’t matter that much if the end result was a loss to a rival. I want to bring something to your attention, though. In the fifth inning, Liriano came through with a crucial strikeout of Chris Davis. In that showdown, Liriano took a hell of a chance, and the gamble paid off.

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Theo Epstein, Martin Prado, and Front Office Value

According to recent reports, the Marlins are on the verge of signing third baseman Martin Prado to a contract that would keep him from hitting the free agent market this winter; the extension will cost them roughly $40 million over three years, keeping Prado in Miami for his age 33-35 seasons.

According to even more recent reports, the Cubs are on the verge of signing President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein to a contract that would keep him from hitting the free agent market this winter; the extension will cost them roughly $50 million over five years, keeping Epstein in Chicago for his age 43-47 seasons.

Between the two of them, the Epstein news is certainly more significant. The architect of the best team in baseball, Epstein is now the highest paid executive in the sport, and this represents about a 250% raise over the contract he got when he got to Chicago, which paid him $18 million over five years. The Prado deal is more of a run-of-the-mill contract extension for a nice player, but it barely rated as news in the baseball landscape. But given the differing lengths of the contracts, Prado is actually making more per season, and the two deals are roughly comparable in value.

In other words, MLB just told us that one of the best executives in the game is worth about the same as the decline years of a solid non-star, a guy who should be expected to be something like a league average player during the contract he just signed. I’m sure the Marlins and Cubs weren’t trying to create this kind of juxtaposition, but thanks to the timing of these two deals, we can say that the market is currently valuing coveted front office members in a similar way to an average player.

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Trea Turner on Hitting

Trea Turner is squaring up a lot of baseballs. He’s also flying around the bases. The 23-year-old Washington Nationals rookie has a dozen home runs, seven triples, and 29 stolen bases in just 68 games. His slash line is a sexy .340/.362/.560. In a nutshell, he’s been very, very good.

He’s also thoughtful when the subject turns to hitting. The North Carolina State product likes to keep thing simple, but at same time, he has a nuanced feel for his craft. Launch angle is a familiar term, and he understands that what works for Daniel Murphy isn’t necessarily going to work for him. He isn’t going to tailor his swing for pull-side home runs. Nor is he going to take advantage of his plus-plus wheels by slapping and burning like a young Juan Pierre. Turner is going to be himself, and based on early returns, that’s an All-Star-caliber player.

Turner — currently manning center field after reaching Washington as a second baseman — talked about his hitting philosophy when the Nationals visited Pittsburgh over the weekend.

———

Turner on his approach: “For me, it’s really situational. It depends on different things. Am I leading off the inning? Are there are runners in scoring position? Does the pitcher on the mound have good command or bad command? Am I going good or going bad? There are a lot of questions I ask myself. Based on the answers to those questions, I’ll have an approach. You have to play it by ear.

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat — 9/29/16

10:56
Eno Sarris: happy birthday dad! (I was actually at this show)
12:00
Seabass: Resign Ramos in a dynasty at $6? ($220 budget)
12:01
Eno Sarris: I dunno. Catchers kinda suck year to year. I kinda just look for whomever is healthy and having a good year. It was a good year but he’s turning thirty, has a torn ACL and maybe meniscus, and probably should be valued as a .270/18 HR guy going forward.
12:02
Eno Sarris: And can you value him for the whole year?
12:02
Toki: What is going on with Renfroe? Is he for real or is this a mirage and once pitching adjusts good times are over?
12:03
Eno Sarris: I like that he’s not missing more than the power, which is not real useful in small samples. Maybe he won’t strike out 25+% of the time, which means maybe he can hit .250+ with good power. It’s also more likely he starts with the team next year, which is important.

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Asdrubal Cabrera as Daniel Murphy

If the New York Mets finish the 2016 season as world champions, they’ll have done it with a drastically different approach than the one with which they began the year. See, the Mets are something like a bat-first team now. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and now Steven Matz won’t pitch again until 2017, and while they’ve still got Noah Syndergaard and a suddenly impressive bullpen, it’s the offense that’s really carried their second-half resurgence. Since the All-Star break, the Mets have baseball’s seventh-best wRC+, among non-pitchers. Over the last month, they’ve had baseball’s third-best offense by that same measure.

And so, barring some unforeseen heroics from the likes of Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, it seems that the World Series aspirations in New York that began with the starting rotation now fall heavily on the starting lineup. If the Mets want to win this thing, they might have to slug their way there, the way Daniel Murphy nearly did for them last postseason. The Mets probably don’t love the fact that they opted not to go the extra year on Murphy in free agency and saw him not only go to a division rival in Washington, but go on to build off last postseason’s success and become potentially the best hitter in the National League. But even though the super-charged Murphy will now play for the Nationals in the postseason, the Mets suddenly have a super-charged middle infielder of their own in Asdrubal Cabrera.

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NERD Game Scores: Experiment from the NERD Laboratory

Devised originally in response to a challenge issued by sabermetric nobleman Rob Neyer, and expanded at the request of nobody, NERD scores represent an attempt to summarize in one number (and on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game. Read more about the components of and formulae for NERD scores here.

***

Attempting to represent numerically the probable appeal of baseball games, already an absurd enterprise, becomes even more absurd at the end of the season. It stands to reason that a spectator would prefer, all things being equal, to watch a game that offers postseason implcations to one that doesn’t offer them. After that, though, there are questions of preference that are likely too subtle to account for and then express in a single number.

Like, for example, what’s more compelling: a game that features two clubs, each with a very low (but still extant) probability of reaching the playoffs, or a game that features one club that’s been eliminated already against another that possesses exactly a 50% chance of reaching the postseason — and therefore resides at the crossroads of great uncertainty? Or, here’s another question: is a game featuring two clubs that have been eliminated entirely meaningless? Or, another one: is the “average” watchability of a game in April (when hope is ubiquitous) the same as one September (when most clubs have already become resigned to merely seeing the season out, like a marriage that exists only for the kids)?

While there’s probably something worthwhile to say about any of those questions, this post is designed only to address only the last one — which is to say, the matter of an April game versus a September one. By the typical methodology for calculating NERD team scores, all those same scores are adjusted to produce a leaguewide average of 5.0 exactly. For most of the year, the effects of that calculation are largely invisible. But as postseason odds begin to represent a larger portion of the team NERD score (which they do, slowly, as the season progresses), most clubs also begin to feature postseason odds either of zero or one. At that point, a plurality of teams are playing games of little consequence. This becomes “average.”

The result is that clubs all cluster together at around 5.0. Here’s an example of how today’s NERD scores would look calculated by the typical methodology:

Typical NERD Scores for September 29, 2016
Away SP TM GM TM SP Home Time
Robbie Ray AZ 10 5 6 5 7 WAS Joe Ross 13:05
Ryan Merritt* CLE 5 5 6 7 8 DET Daniel Norris 13:10
Henry Owens BOS 0 5 4 5 4 NYA CC Sabathia 19:05
Rob Zastryzny* CHN 5 5 5 5 7 PIT Ivan Nova 19:05
Ubaldo Jimenez BAL 5 7 6 5 10 TOR Marcus Stroman 19:07
Jeremy Hellickson PHI 4 5 5 5 5 ATL Josh Collmenter 19:10
Dan Straily CIN 3 5 6 7 8 STL Alex Reyes 19:15
Kyle Gibson MIN 4 5 5 5 8 KC Danny Duffy 19:15
Chris Archer TB 10 5 6 5 4 CHA Jose Quintana 20:10
Julio Urias LAN 8 5 5 5 3 SD Christian Friedrich 21:10
Kendall Graveman OAK 5 5 5 5 3 SEA Ariel Miranda 22:10
Jon Gray COL 9 5 7 7 7 SF Johnny Cueto 22:15
SP denotes pitcher NERD score.
TM denotes team score.
GM denotes overall game score.
Highlighted portion denotes game of the day.

* = Fewer than 10 IP, NERD at discretion of clueless author.

Basically, every club is a 5. Detroit and San Francisco and two or three other clubs receive a bonus for their still living postseason aspirations. But that’s it. All the other teams have either clinched and been eliminated. As a a result, this is “normal.” And because a majority of the clubs have nothing for which they’re a playing, they all receive basically an average score of 5.

For today, however, I’ve also employed an alternative methodology. One that doesn’t take for granted this average of 5.0. One that, as a result, implies that certain games in September are a bit hopeless — especially as compared to April, when every club features basically the same generic odds of reaching the World Series. For this method, what I did was merely to take each club’s chances of reaching the postseason and find the absolute value of that figured substracted from 50%. Then I’ve subtracted that figure from 50% and multiplied the result by 20. By this method, a club with a 50% chance of making the playoffs reaceives a 10.

Here’s how it works, with the Tigers as an example. The Tigers currently possess a 0.0% probability of winning the division and 29.0% probability of reaching the wild-card game, so a 29.0% chance overall. Here’s the calculation that follows:

  • |0.50 – 0.29| = 0.21
  • 0.50 – 0.21 = 0.29
  • 0.29 * 20 = 5.8

By this method, Detroit receives a NERD score of 5.8, rounded to 6.

Here’s that same thing applied to all today’s games:

Experimental NERD Scores for September 29, 2016
Away SP TM GM TM SP Home Time
Robbie Ray AZ 10 0 2 0 7 WAS Joe Ross 13:05
Ryan Merritt* CLE 5 0 4 6 8 DET Daniel Norris 13:10
Henry Owens BOS 0 0 1 0 4 NYA CC Sabathia 19:05
Rob Zastryzny* CHN 5 0 2 0 7 PIT Ivan Nova 19:05
Ubaldo Jimenez BAL 5 6 5 2 10 TOR Marcus Stroman 19:07
Jeremy Hellickson PHI 4 0 1 0 5 ATL Josh Collmenter 19:10
Dan Straily CIN 3 0 3 5 8 STL Alex Reyes 19:15
Kyle Gibson MIN 4 0 2 0 8 KC Danny Duffy 19:15
Chris Archer TB 10 0 2 0 4 CHA Jose Quintana 20:10
Julio Urias LAN 8 0 1 0 3 SD Christian Friedrich 21:10
Kendall Graveman OAK 5 0 1 1 3 SEA Ariel Miranda 22:10
Jon Gray COL 9 0 4 5 7 SF Johnny Cueto 22:15
SP denotes pitcher NERD score.
TM denotes team score.
GM denotes overall game score.
Highlighted portion denotes game of the day.

* = Fewer than 10 IP, NERD at discretion of clueless author.

In this case, there are mostly 0s where there were 5s before — because the average team’s postseason future is already settled. The top game by this methodology is the one between two still-contending teams in Baltimore and Toronto. The readers preferred broadcast is Baltimore television.


Daniel Norris, Justin Verlander, and the Tiger Slider

Don’t ask Justin Verlander if his new harder slider is a cutter, apparently. “Verlander is steadfast on this — he’s not throwing a cutter. It’s a slider,” is how Chris McCosky characterized the ace’s opinion on the changing pitch.

The difference between a cutter and a slider is difficult to really nail down — and is most easily represented as existing on a spectrum. First, there’s the cut fastball, thrown with a slightly offset grip but still a fastball release. That pitch usually goes about a mile or two slower than the four-seam with only a couple inches of drop beyond the four-seam. Mariano Rivera threw that thing better than anyone, but Adam Ottavino modeled it for us.

Then there’s the baby slider, a cutter grip thrown with a little more supination before release, and those go 4-plus mph slower and have a few inches more drop. Those are the pitches you see from Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, James Shields, and Adam Wainwright. Most of those pitchers refer to that pitch as a cutter, but most of those pitches also drop more than the overall average for the cutter.

To make matters worse, there’s a brand of slider thrown by the Mets which might fit between the “baby slider” cutter and the slider-slider. We’ve dubbed that pitch the Warthen Slider. And it might be the answer to why Verlander is throwing a harder slider that looks like a cutter, but one to which he still refers as a slider. And it might be part of the answer to why tonight’s starter Daniel Norris has seen such an improvement in his walk rate.

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Home Runs and the Middle Class

Yesterday, with the help of a much smarter friend, I dug a little bit into the home-run surge that we’ve all observed. There was room for some more examination, though, so this is to be considered a brief follow-up. Toward the end of that post, I engaged in some speculation. Based on evidence below, I believe I was wrong!

To re-cover some territory real quick, we do have this fact, established in the original post: Home runs are being bunched unusually tightly. The distribution of home-run rates around the game is closer to being even than ever before in at least the game’s modern version. That’s interesting! More and more hitters are getting into the dinger spirit, such that the landscape isn’t so dominated by a handful of elites. That now being given, let’s move on.

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The Other Weird Thing About the Home-Run Surge

The first weird thing about the home-run surge is that there’s been a home-run surge. No one expected this, yes? It’s worked out conveniently, given how many conversations were taking place about the diminished levels of offense. At the very least, those have been put on pause.

Now, since we’re given the reality of a home-run surge, we can poke around within it. I’ll show you what Dave showed me yesterday:

Last year, Jean Segura slugged .336. The year before, he slugged .326. This year, he’s slugging .496. His is one of the many faces of the homer explosion. Yet just where has this been taking place? Are homers up across the board, or has there been a change in distribution? I’ll give you a hint: There’s been a change in distribution. We’re seeing more home runs from what you might label as the lower classes.

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We’re Going to See Bullpen Games in October

For the last few years, as the season comes to a close, I’ve basically written a version of the same article, advocating for the extreme use of relief pitchers in the Wild Card games. I think the first one I wrote was back in 2012, when I titled the piece “Play-In Game Strategy: Skip the Starter”. And while teams have started to move more towards aggressive reliever usage, teams haven’t really adopted the full-on bullpen game as a planned outing as of yet.

I think this year, that changes.

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Carlos Correa, Playing Through Injury, and True Talent

“Different day, different arm,” is one of those things you’ll hear a pitcher say. You get up on the mound on a given day, and you try to figure out which pitches are working, what parts of your body are barking, where you can actually intentionally throw your pitches. It’s understandable, given the complicated mechanics required to throw the ball so hard, with so much movement — but it has implications for those who would attempt to place a number on their true-talent ability.

We know about this difficulty when it comes to pitching. Projections try to put a number on the true ability of a player, but pitching projections lag behind hitting projections. Even when a stat — like exit velocity — becomes meaningful in similar samples for hitters and pitchers, it behaves strangely for pitchers. It becomes meaningful quickly but isn’t quite predictive, either — maybe because pitchers add pitches, change the script, and become different more quickly than hitters. Maybe because their true talent shifts often.

Maybe true talent for hitters shifts more than we think, though. At least when it comes to their actual ability to express that true talent due to health reasons.

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Jeremy Hazelbaker on Proving His Skeptics (Like Me) Wrong

With the exception of an eight-game stretch in April where he went 13-for-26, with seven extra-base hits, Jeremy Hazelbaker has had a fairly unremarkable rookie season. The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder is slashing .239/.300/.487, with a dozen home runs in 221 plate appearances. He spent parts of June and July in Triple-A.

For a time, it looked like he might be a minor-league lifer. Drafted in the fourth round out of Ball State University by the Red Sox in 2009, Hazelbaker was dealt to the Dodgers following the 2013 season. Eighteen months later he was released. St. Louis signed him last May and assigned him to Double-A Springfield. He finished the year in Triple-A.

Hazelbaker was 28 years old when he reported to spring training — he turned 29 last month — and the odds were against him earning a spot on the Cardinals roster. He beat those odds.

I’d followed Hazelbaker’s career. I’d interviewed and written about him a handful of times as he was coming up through the Red Sox system. I’d seen the tools, but I hadn’t seen those tools translate into consistent performance. I was skeptical that I ever would.

When I caught up to Hazelbaker in early August, I admitted as much. Being perhaps a little too honest, I began the interview by saying: “I didn’t think you’d make it. Why was I wrong?” Here was his response.

———

Hazelbaker on proving me wrong: “Everybody has their opinion on guys coming up. There are things people don’t really get. Looking in from the outside, you don’t see how hard of a worker a guy is, or how much drive and determination he has. Do you want to call me an underdog story? You can if you want. Whatever you want to call it, I know there have been people skeptical of me — my path, my journey, my abilities along the way.

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 9/28/16

12:04
Dave Cameron: Happy Wednesday, everyone. It’s the final chat of the regular season; next week we’ll be in full on postseason mode.
12:04
Dave Cameron: So let’s wrap up the six month run with an hour’s worth of baseball talk.
12:04
Matt: Will the death of Jose Fernandez impact your Cy Young award vote?
12:06
Dave Cameron: I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about this over the last few days, and I continue to be of mixed feelings. On the one hand, Fernandez is a legitimate candidate, and we will never get to vote for him again; giving him the award would be a great way to say goodbye. On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that an award for on-field performance should be determined by something like this, and think it’s not fair to Jose or the other contenders to decide my vote based on his death. In the end, I think I’m going to vote as if he was still alive, and not have it impact the ballot.
12:06
Tommy Lasordid: Considering the current health of both teams, should the Dodgers be considered favorites over the Nats?
12:06
Dave Cameron: I would say so, yes.

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NERD Game Scores for September 28, 2016

Devised originally in response to a challenge issued by sabermetric nobleman Rob Neyer, and expanded at the request of nobody, NERD scores represent an attempt to summarize in one number (and on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game. Read more about the components of and formulae for NERD scores here.

***

Most Highly Rated Game
Cleveland at Detroit | 19:10 ET
McAllister (50.1 IP, 106 xFIP-) vs. Fulmer (155.2 IP, 91 xFIP-)
There are only a few teams playing games of real consequence at the moment, but Detroit’s and St. Louis’s games are probably the most consequential among them. Both trail their league’s respective second-place wild-card club by just a game. Both play at home tonight, too — and are likely, as a result, to host lively partisan crowds. For those compelled to choose, Detroit’s game also offers one of the American League’s top rookies in right-handed starter Michael Fulmer.

Readers’ Preferred Broadcast: Detroit Radio.

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Learning Something About David Dahl from One Swing

On Sunday evening, the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the Colorado Rockies in what was legendary announcer Vin Scully’s last home game at Dodger Stadium after 67 years of calling the team. The Dodgers won, in walk-off fashion, scoring in the ninth on a Corey Seager home run that tied the score at 3-3, and again in the 10th on a home run by Charlie Culberson that clinched the National League West Division and ensured Scully’s final call in Los Angeles would come on a high note.

But Seager and Culberson only had the opportunity for their theatrics because of a home run hit in the top of the ninth inning by a Rockies player. With the Rockies down to their final strike of the ninth inning and with rookie outfielder David Dahl in a 1-2 count with two outs, this happened:

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FanGraphs After Dark Chat – 9/27/16

9:00
Paul Swydan: Hi everybody!
9:00
Jeff Zimmerman: Hi
9:01
Byron: So it looks like the Dodgers are going to let Julio Urias pitch in the postseason going past his innings limit. Thoughts?
9:02
Paul Swydan: I think that flags fly forever, and that innings limits are arbitrarily set by teams out of fear and not science. Let the kid pitch.
9:02
Jeff Zimmerman: Not a huge deal, but I may start his spring training late next year
9:02
Aladdin Sane: Voted Kluber because the wording made me think we are assuming, for poll purposes, that he’d be out for the season.

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