July 2010

Notebook: Kvasnicka catches

The ValleyCats went with a different defensive alignment than usual yesterday. Ben Orloff played his first game at shortstop since July 8, 2009, and handled the position very well. Orloff had only two chances yesterday but made the most of them. He handled a soft grounder in the first inning, but the highlight-reel play came in the fourth, when he reached a grounder up the middle and flipped it to Kiké Hernandez, who barehanded it and relayed to first while falling backwards, getting Brett Anderson by a step for a double play*.

Evan also nominated that as the best play at The Joe this season. I’m sorry, but that honor still belongs to Chad Mozingo, for his catch diving backwards on the warning track that turned into a double play. We’ll all be extremely lucky if that one gets topped this year.

As a senior at UC-Irvine in 2009, Orloff won the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate shortstop, so it was nice to see him play well back at his old position. If you’re looking for some man-love for Orloff, Evan gave you plenty of it this afternoon. Orloff is a very good defender and one of the nicest people on the team. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll still be leading the team in batting average at the end of the season.

But the defensive assignment that will get more notoriety is the fact that Mike Kvasnicka started at catcher for the first time as a professional. Kvasnicka was seen by many teams as a catcher entering the draft and he played there at times in college, but the Astros announced him as a third baseman, and he’s spent his time at third and in right this year. They still want to have him catch once in a while to stay fresh; he’s been catching bullpen sessions and he was behind the plate in a game situation for the first time last night.

It was only one game, but Kvasnicka looked more comfortable behind the plate than he has anywhere else this year. Connecticut didn’t test him much early on – they put Anderson in motion in the second, but PJ Polk put the ball in play – and the pitchers also made it easy on him, for the most part.

Things finally got interesting for Kvasnicka in the seventh, when the speedy Polk stole second and third. Both bags were stolen more off pitcher Brandt Walker than off Kvasnicka, though. In particular, his release and throw to second base was terrific; Polk had a great jump and I was expecting him to have the base easy, but Kvasnicka made it a close play. He was more to blame for the steal of third, as he had trouble transferring a pitch low and away (to a RHB) into his hand and didn’t make a throw, but given Polk’s jump and the pitch location I’m not sure he had a play anyways.

I can only remember one ball in the dirt from the first seven innings, a relatively harmless one right into Kvasnicka’s glove. However, the rookie did make a really nice play to block an 0-0 pitch from Andrew Robinson with a man on in the eighth; the ball bounced in the left-handed batter’s box and kicked up high, but Kvasnicka moved well to get his body in front of it. (He then got crossed up on the next pitch, expecting fastball and getting curve, but the pitch was down the middle and he was able to catch it before talking to Robinson.)

Overall, a very strong first outing behind the plate. If the Astros decide they want him behind the plate – or if, a year down the road, another team wants him there badly enough to trade for him – I saw nothing yesterday that would dissuade them.

Buchanan didn’t have a bad outing last night, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings. He was sitting 88-91 mph with his fastball all night, although the Tigers tagged it for a few hits. He hit Josh Ashenbrenner with a 1-2 pitch and it came back to hurt him, as James Robbins hit a ground-ball single off the glove of a diving Hernandez. His curve was very sharp, as he racked up three strikeouts in the first three innings on 76-77 mph curveballs.

The second-inning run came on a bit of a fluke, as Les Smith hit a grounder that took a bad hop and jumped over Tyler Burnett’s head at first, going for a double. Anderson immediately jumped on a first-pitch fastball for a single to bring home the run, but Buchanan settled down after that. He finished with six strikeouts on the night, getting two more later in the start by climbing the ladder with fastballs.

Buchanan also displayed Houston’s “organizational philosophy”, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced (17/20 overall).

The fifth-inning run was anything but lucky, as Londell Taylor took a 3-2 pitch well over the fence in left field. The Tri-City pitchers have generally been excellent this season, but they have been susceptible to the long ball, allowing 11 homers (tied with Hudson Valley for most in they NYPL). Murillo Gouvea has been the worst offender, allowing a league-high four homers.

On the other side, Brennan Smith was starting for the first time after opening the season in the bullpen, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him. The righty made a seamless transition to the rotation, throwing four scoreless innings.

The ValleyCats had more success against the Tiger bullpen. Tyler Clark, with a herky-jerky delivery and a 69-71 mph curveball, allowed three hits and three walks in two innings, but escaped with only two runs. He could have gotten out of the fifth unscathed when Hernandez hit a possible double-play grounder with the bases loaded, but the relay throw pulled the first baseman off the bag.

Adam Champion didn’t have his best outing. The southpaw entered with two out in the fifth and gave up a bases-empty double to lefty Josh Ashenbrenner, but got out of that inning without further trouble. He fell behind the first four batters he faced in the sixth, however, and it cost him; he pegged James Robbins with his first pitch, and Robbins came around to score on Anderson’s two-out single.

Oscar Figueroa went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs, including the big hit in the sixth inning: a ground-ball single up the middle that may have went off Clark’s bare hand, scoring Bailey.

Patience fueled the ‘Cats’ late inning rallies. Ben Orloff led off the seventh with a 10-pitch walk (though he admitted afterwards that he fouled off a couple pitches he should have hit), Heath’s critical grounder that Anderson booted came after seven pitches, and Burnett drew a seven-pitch, bases-loaded walk (technically, Tyler White only threw six pitches, as the second ball was called because he went to his mouth on the pitching mound).

Dan Adamson led off the eighth with a triple to center, also on a full count. Adamson’s blast short-hopped the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, and would have been gone most anywhere else on the field. Oscar Figueroa brought him home with a double, but stayed at second when Wilton Infante popped up a bunt.

Then came the game’s deciding play – Ben Orloff grounded through the right side, Taylor picked up the ball in shallow right field as Figueroa was rounding third, and manager Jim Pankovits waived him home. The throw was good enough to beat Figueroa, who slid past the tag and base, and was finally tagged out in a cat-and-mouse game behind home plate.

The ball, as mentioned, was picked up in shallow right field, and Taylor had plenty of time to throw Figueroa out. But I have no problem with Pankovits’ decision. First off, as he mentioned after the game, it’s not exactly like the ‘Cats have been good recently at bringing runners home – this was probably their best shot. And although outfielders should probably make that play on a shallow ground ball, they don’t always succeed – I’ve seen basically that same play at the plate four times this season, and Figueroa was only the second runner to be thrown out (Kvasnicka gunned down the other in last week’s 11-inning contest).

Walker had a long inning, even though he faced only five hitters and didn’t allow a hit. He walked Polk, who stole two bases and scored, and then walked Julio Rodriguez. But his stuff is clearly there, starting with a 94-95 fastball with good sink. He threw a 77-mph curve to freeze Ashenbrenner for his first strikeout, then threw an 83 changeup to set up a fastball that he blew by Robbins to end the inning. Walker needed 26 pitches to get through the five batters.

Nine runners scored last night. Six of them reached base on either a walk or hit by pitch.

The ‘Cats continue to have absolutely no success at bringing runners home – they’re 4-for-25 with RISP in two games this series, stranding 11 runners each game. I remain mystified by their inability to drive in runs. It would make sense that they would struggle to move guys along if they struck out a lot…but they don’t (only 3 K’s last night). I guess it could be partly due to lineup construction – this early in the season, it’s hard to know who your best hitters are, so it’s more difficult to cluster them together, making it more likely that guys who get on base will be left there…but I don’t really think that can explain more than a small part of it. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.

Kevin Whitaker


Random Thoughts Heading into the Holiday Weekend

This doesn’t extend to everyone on the team, but the
ValleyCats so far this season are dead last in the New York-Penn League in
batting with a .205 average (I was pleasantly surprised after checking this stat).
A couple of days ago the ‘Cats were batting below the Mendoza line… as a team! They were shut out in three
straight games on the road. Honestly, that isn’t acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys on this team that can hit. Ben Orloff has really come
around and has stepped up as one of the leaders of this team. Heading into the
final game in a three-game set against the Tigers, Orloff leads the team with a
.333 batting average. He struggled last year, partly due to some elbow
tendonitis. He never batted above .179 last year and was 1 for his first 21. In
21 ABs this year he already has seven hits. 

And defensively, don’t even get me started. Orloff is one of
the most talented defensive middle infielders I have ever seen. He has already
made two highlight reel worthy defensive plays. I’m talking SportsCenter top
ten and Baseball Tonight’s web gem kind of plays. He had one the other night
that blew me away. On a pop up in foul territory, Orloff ran all the way from
second base and made a sliding, over-the-shoulder catch just in front of the
tarp. And last night might have been the best play fans at “The Joe” have seen
all season. On a ground ball up the middle, Orloff ranged all the way to his
left, scooped up the ball on the second base side of the bag, flipped it to
second baseman Kiké Hernandez, who bare-handed it over to first for the 6-4-3
twin killing. Media Relations/Productions Manager Chris Chenes was standing
next to me at the time. His jaw hit the floor.

 As my fellow
VCN member Kevin Whitaker has already pointed out, pitching has been the
strength of this team. The bullpen has pitched exceptionally well. As a group,
the ‘pen under Pitching Coach Gary Ruby (Ruby Ruby Rubaaaaayyyyyy. Sorry,
couldn’t help myself. Love that song when he comes out, even if he doesn’t) has
a 2.50 ERA. The pitching staff collectively has a 3.21 ERA, which is good for
fourth in the entire New York-Penn League. Tom Shirley and Carlos Quevedo have
been phenomenal so far for the ‘Cats. Quevedo is in the top-20 in the NYPL in
ERA and is eighth in strikeouts. Shirley ranks fourth in K’s, but the biggest
problem with Shirley is that he throws too many pitches. He allows a lot of baserunners, which could come back and bite him later.

“It’s pretty evident to everybody we can really pitch,” said
Orloff. “It’s good as a hitter cause we’re in every ball game. We’re never
going to be chasing five or six runs with the way these guys have been throwing
the ball. So if we can just execute – do these little things, score enough runs
- we’re going to be real successful this year.”

Notes from the
World Cup:

It’s the biggest sporting event in the entire world (apologies
to die hard American football fans and bracketologists all around the world,
but it’s true) and it’s coming to a close. We had “World Cup Wednesday” here at
ballpark last week and it really brought out a lot of love for the event. A lot
of the front office staff here in Troy is extremely interested. Some watch it
on their computers, some listen to it on the radio, and some watch it on the TV
in the concourse.

When USA played Ghana, and eventually lost in a heartbreaker
in extra time, we had quite the scene here from “The Joe.” There were
ValleyCats staff members mixed in with Lowell Spinners players and a few
ValleyCats players sprinkled in. Most of the crowd lived and died with every US
shot, except for Kiké Hernandez. When people say the world stops for the World Cup,
they aren’t lying.

As for my prediction: have to go with the Netherlands against Germany. Germany
dominated, and I mean dominated, the
favorite to win the cup after beating Argentina 4-0. The Netherlands team is
very interesting as well. Sneijder and Van Persie have been sensational, and
you can’t forget about Kuyt. In the end, I have the Germans winning in a 3-1 game over the Netherlands. Germany is on a
roll right now. The only team that can stop them is Spain, and the only way
they do so is if Fernando Torres remembers how to play. He has not been himself
this entire cup (to his credit he is coming off an injury).  

 

Evan Valenti

Notebook: Bats bounce back

Great to see the ‘Cats snap out of their offensive funk last night. They snapped a four-game losing streak and a three-game scoreless streak, putting up four runs on nine hits and riding their pitching to a 4-2 victory over Connecticut.

Ben Heath is the face of this team’s offense right now. The catcher reached base three times in four plate appearances yesterday, most notably with a fifth-inning home run that gave Tri-City its third and ultimately decisive run. Heath has hit safely in his last six games and now leads the team in most offensive categories, at .290/.439/.613 with three homers (the rest of the ‘Cats have four combined). His 1.052 OPS ranks fourth in the NYPL right now. He’s back in the cleanup spot tonight, getting a day off from the field at DH.

That solo homer in the sixth was an absolute bomb. It landed on the Top of the Hill Bar & Grill, right next to the scoreboard in left field. I walked it out this afternoon during batting practice and estimated it at 425-430 feet, and it’s elevated a good 20 feet above field level. I’m pretty sure that’s the lfarthest homer we’ve seen at The Joe this year, although Adam Bailey’s shot last week was close.

Kiké Hernandez had a great night at the plate as well, going 3-for-5 with three clean line drive hits. He earned neither a run nor an RBI in the first inning but had the most important hit, taking a 2-2 pitch the opposite way for a stand-up double in the first inning and moving Wilton Infante over to third. He reached base with a one-out shot to left, and Mike Kvasnicka followed with another line drive base hit, snapping his 0-for-13 slump. Josue Carreno struck out the side, but not before walking Adam Bailey and throwing a wild pitch that scored Hernandez. I was surprised when Kiké tried for home and thought he was a goner, as the ball barely made it onto the grass behind home plate, but he got his hand clearly in front of Carreno’s tag.

The ‘Cats continue to have difficulty bringing runners home – they stranded 11 and only scored four last night. I believe that’s mostly due to bad luck – they don’t strike out particularly often, and I don’t think there are any other repeatable factors that could influence that – with a little blame on the bad baserunning as well (two more pickoffs last night).

Tom Shirley had another interesting outing, throwing effectively but not managing his pitches very well. Shirley threw 27 pitches in the fourth and brought his game total to 73, probably over his limit. But although he walked four and gave up three hits, he got six strikeouts to get out of quite a few jams. He did not induce a batted ball out in the first two innings; five struck out, while Heath made a nice throw to erase Alex Nunez trying to steal second. The first time Shirley got an out on a ball in play, he got two for the price of one on a 4-6-3 double play in the third; he got three ground balls and one popout last night.

All of this is nothing new for Shirley. He’s used to striking out hitters – 18 (tied for fourth in the league) in just 10 inning – and he’s used to getting ground balls (4.50 GO/AO ratio). He’s also used to short outings (the four innings today was his longest so far), because he hasn’t been efficient with his pitches. He has been getting in and out of jams all year: Shirley has allowed seven hits and seven walks in 10 innings, yet still somehow has not allowed a run. Nobody can sustain that for a full season, but if he keeps getting whiffs at this rate – if my math is correct, 43% of hitters to face him have gone down on strikes – he will be able to strand more than his share of runners.

Also, the ‘Cats are 3-0 in Shirley’s starts, and have not allowed an earned run in those three games. This is mostly due to coincidence plus Tri-City’s strong bullpen – Shirley has only been responsible for 10 of those 27 innings – but it’s a nice pattern. If he can get through innings more quickly and build up his arm strength, maybe he can actually pick up one of those wins.

Shirley also lacked a second pitch for the second consecutive start. He was pretty much just a fastball pitcher again, and it’s really amazing what he’s been able to do with that pitch – he was in the 88-90 range again yesterday, but it really gets onto hitters (especially lefties) quickly. He showed two breaking balls – looked like a slurve and a curveball to me. The slurve was in the low-70s and a little bit effective, while he threw the other breaking ball in the 60s, telegraphed it out of his hand and had very little command of it. (Note: take the pitch classifications with a huge dosage of salt. I talked to pitching coach Gary Ruby a little bit after the game but he wouldn’t really elaborate much on Shirley’s breaking stuff.) But he keeps his fastball low in the zone and commands it very well, which has been all he has needed so far.

David Martinez bounced back from a rough outing and was his usual solid self, going 1-2-3 in the fifth inning and eventually earning the win. The only hit he allowed was a ground ball single that a diving Tyler Burnett knocked down at third base, but he could not complete the play. Travis Blankenship was stuck with both runs but neither was earned; the main culprit was a two-base throwing error on Burnett. Blankenship did hit Chao-Ting Tang, who came around to score, and the second run came in on a cheap bloop to center. Blankenship, drafted out of Kansas in the 31st round this year, sure looks like he’ll be a successful LOOGY at the higher levels. He certainly fits the profile; his fastball is mid-80s, but he relies mostly on his offspeed stuff, which all has a lot of lateral movement from his 5/8ths arm slot. The results are there as well: lefties are just 1-for-9 off him this year with five strikeouts. So far, righties have also had trouble against him (1-for-9 as well), but that probably won’t remain the case throughout his career.

Joan Belliard got three strikeouts in 1.1 innings, allowing only one baserunner on an E-4. Two of his K’s came on 79-mph changeups that looked good. Belliard also gets great sink on his pitches, inducing a lot of grounders.

And Jorge De Leon notched his first save of the season, getting two ground balls and a strikeout to end the game. He wasn’t quite lighting up the radar gun like he has in the past, sitting 91-94 in his inning of work.

A couple other items…

We got our first game-time rain last night, as the skies opened briefly in the eighth inning. It never came down nearly hard enough to threaten play, but on this cold night, it sent a good portion of the 3,485 fans scurrying for cover under the concourse or out of the park altogether.

Connecticut starter Josue Carreno got the loss, but didn’t pitch that poorly and showed good stuff. He was also 88-90, with an 80-mph changeup that fooled a couple ‘Cats and a 75-mph curveball that got at least three strikeouts.

Pitchers on both sides benefitted from a very generous outside corner (to both lefties and righties). The same umpire will be behind the plate on Saturday, so look for that again.

Kvasnicka snapped his hitless streak last night, but he still does not exactly look good at the plate. In particular, he’s still very shaky from the right side – the switch-hitter is 1-for-11 on the season against southpaws. He looked absolutely lost on three offspeed pitches from Antonio Cruz in the eighth, going down on strikes.

Kvasnicka starts at catcher tonight for the first time this season. If you want to know how he plays behind the plate, you know where to look.

Kevin Whitaker


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.