Goose Eggs

There are a lot of things to like about this ValleyCats team, twelve games into the 2010 season. The pitching staff has been dominant, posting a 2.90 ERA – fourth-best in the NY-Penn League. Tri-City leads the league with 108 strikeouts, and has only walked 38 batters, less than the league average.

And the offense has shown strong secondary skills. The ‘Cats have walked 54 times, second-best in the league to date. And their power numbers – 17 doubles and six homers – are not bad in the context of the league.

But, as important as walks and power are, you still can’t score a lot of runs when you’re batting .197, as the ValleyCats are after tonight’s 4-0 shutout loss at Vermont, the second goose egg in as many days. And that’s certainly the biggest story surrounding the Tri-City team right now. On Sunday afternoon, I wrote that I really liked that night’s lineup, and they proceeded to score two runs on three hits, only one of which was well-struck. But although I thought I had jinxed them that night, Sunday’s lineup looks absolutely potent compared to the one we’ve seen in Vermont. Last night, three Lake Monsters combined for a four-hit shutout; tonight, three more home team pitchers allowed only two hits and three walks.

I will offer many of the same warnings I offered last week: we’re still dealing with small samples. This team certainly has the ability to hit – we saw that in the middle of last week’s homestand, when they racked up 28 hits in three games. And the fact that the secondary skills are still there gives me some confidence that the ‘Cats will figure out what they’re doing at the plate.

And again, we’ve seen this before. Tri-City’s batting average through 12 games last year was .198, eerily similar to that of this year’s team. The 2009 offense turned out to be fine, finishing up just shy of the league average at .242 despite the cold start. (Of course, that team picked up an offensive boost at about this point in the season, adding unknown college outfielder J.D. Martinez*, who eventually led the league in hitting. We certainly can’t count on getting that kind of addition again.) Vermont also has the best pitching staff in the league to date, although with only 12 games in the books we run into some cause-and-effect issues with the stats that we need time to sort out (i.e., does Vermont have good numbers because Tri-City is bad, or do the ‘Cats have bad numbers because their opponents can pitch?).

*Care to guess who’s currently leading the ValleyCats in batting average? That’s right, a college outfielder drafted in the 20th round, Dan Adamson.

So I guess my message is pretty much the same as it was last week: be patient. If the ‘Cats are still flirting with the Mendoza Line at the end of the upcoming six-game homestand, well, then it might be time to panic. But right now, it could be no more than a teamwide slump happening at a bad time.

Mike Kvasnicka will not finish the season hitting .121, I promise you that. He’s still found ways to be productive at the plate, however, drawing 10 walks (tied for fourth in the league).

Although the hitting is obviously the headliner, this also has not been a very good defensive team. The ValleyCats rank second in the NYPL in fielding percentage at .974, but that only tells a small part of the story – this defense is allowing a lot of balls to fall for hits. Even with all the strikeouts, opponents are batting .263 against Tri-City pitchers – 20 points above the league average. I plan on diving into this more in a later post, but eyeballing the numbers, I would expect that the ‘Cats have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play, and it might not be close. They have also thrown 12 wild pitches, one shy of the league high, and have thrown out a below-average share of base stealers.

I would expect the defense to get better over time, as the ‘Cats have been breaking in players at new positions. The fact that they are fourth in ERA despite having a lot of players unfamiliar at their position is a tremendous credit to the pitching staff.

Baserunning has been another pitfall of this young team. The ValleyCats got five runners on base tonight, and only two stayed there until the end of the inning. Vermont turned a pair of double plays, which certainly aren’t the runners’ fault, but Wilton Infante was picked off and caught stealing after his base hit in the fourth inning. Tri-City has had eight runners caught stealing and only five successful thefts, and I can’t find stats for pure pickoffs but there have been a couple of those.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, despite the 4-8 record, Tri-City has only been outscored by four runs (44-40). However, that comes with the caveat that Randy Consuegra basically handed them 5-10 runs, depending on how you want to count the inherited runners. Drawing walks is absolutely a skill, and this is a patient lineup, but Consuegra was a special case – batters could pretty much step in the box, see four or five pitches and know they were going to take first base.

I was legitimately disappointed that Carlos Quevedo pitched last night, because the team was on the road and I couldn’t watch. That’s how good he has been this year. He did give up a pair of longballs on Monday but was otherwise brilliant, allowing just two other runners to reach base in six innings. For the season, Quevedo has 16 strikeouts and no walks. That’s Cliff Lee territory. His next start should be at The Joe, projected for July 3rd against Connecticut.

Quevedo’s record so far is 0-1, which should demonstrate exactly how useful that statistic is for measuring pitchers (particularly in this league).

And after a pair of shaky outings last week, the bullpen is right back to its amazing old self. Tri-City relievers have thrown six scoreless innings in the series so far, giving up only three hits.

The ValleyCats and Lake Monsters finish their three-game set tomorrow. Tri-City looks to take the first step towards breaking out of its slump against Matt Swynenberg, who frustrated the ‘Cats in Troy last week. But as long as the pitching keeps this up, we will at the very least have a season full of close, fast-paced games.

Kevin Whitaker

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