August 2010

Notebook: Home Finale

The ValleyCats played their last home game of the regular season last night, and apparently they just did not want to leave Joe Bruno Stadium. We saw extra baseball for the second consecutive game; this one lasted even longer, a 14-inning thriller that took nearly four and a half hours to complete.

Monday’s result was happier for the ValleyCats, as they ended the home slate the same way it began*: a walk-off hit to score the winning run from second. Most of the 6,215 fans had left by that point – it was, after all, 11:30 on a Monday night – but the few that stayed saw the last of many thrilling games at “The Joe” this season.

Cool fact: the same umpires that were here on Opening Day also worked Monday’s finale: Carlos Torres behind the plate and Shane Livensparger on the bases.

Monday’s game was Tri-City’s longest of the season in both innings and time, lasting even longer in absolute time than the 11-inning Vermont game that saw a one-hour power delay. The ValleyCats have had tremendous pitching depth all season and needed all of it last night, going to 14 frames after playing 12 on Sunday. Aside from an uncharacteristically shaky seventh inning by lefty Travis Blankenship – who came into the game with only four earned runs but allowed three last night – the ‘Cats’ pitching was lights-out. Jake Buchanan allowed only one run – a two-out double by the ValleyCats’ nemesis, Nick Schwaner – and fanned eight batters without walking any. Brandt Walker, Jorge De Leon and Jason Chowning were more than solid in relief, seeing the go-ahead run reach third only once in the final seven innings.

Chris Wallace came up with the big hits all series, and last night was no exception. The catcher doubled home Mike Kvasnicka for the eventual deciding run in Saturday’s 2-1 victory and homered to give the ‘Cats the lead on Sunday. Last night, he came up with one out in the bottom of the 14th inning. Both pitchers had retired the side in order in their last inning and it looked like the game might last forever, but Wallace smoked a ball over the shortstop’s head all the way to the wall in left-center. Adam Bailey then drove a liner to the right-center-field gap – his second hit in as many at-bats against the left-handed pitcher – and Wallace came home just inches ahead of the tag with the game-winning run.

Austin Wates played the field for the first time with Tri-City, patrolling center field and giving Dan Adamson a day off. He made a terrific sliding grab on a hard liner deep in the gap in the top of the 13th, which eventually saved the game for the ‘Cats. Wates also doubled in his first at-bat and hit a couple other balls hard, but right at fielders. He was responsible for the game-tying run in the seventh inning: he drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on an overthrow, then scored on a Tyler Burnett single.

The ValleyCats set a new single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive year, bringing 155,315 fans to the park in 2010 – an average of 4,313 per game. Last night’s crowd of 6,215 was the fourth-largest in franchise history. Thanks to everyone who came to a game, followed this blog or helped in any other way to make this season special.

While Monday’s game certainly was not a must-win game in the literal sense, the ‘Cats would have been in a poor position, facing a 1.5-game deficit and two teams to chase with less than a week to play. Instead, they’re right in the thick of things in the Stedler Division, a half-game behind Vermont and a half-game ahead of Connecticut.

I’ve tweaked my playoff odds slightly, deciding to regress each team’s performance to the mean a little bit to account for the uncertainty in this league. This brings down the ValleyCats’ odds a little bit – they are the “best” team, by my simulation, because they have the best run differential – to the benefit of Vermont, whose half-game lead becomes a bit more meaningful. Connecticut dropped a game to both teams with the loss, and is now about a 1-in-5 shot, while the ValleyCats are nominally favorites but essentially a toss-up with Vermont.

Updated odds through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%

Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Another Attendance Record

Recent visitors to Joe Bruno Stadium have seen their share of excitement: the ValleyCats have played six consectutive one-run games at home. They’ve won three, improving their record in one-run contests to a respectably 9-12, but although they had their chances, the ‘Cats couldn’t pull one out last night.

5,445 fans showed up at the ballpark last night – enough to break the single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive season – and they certainly got their money’s worth. The early Sunday start time of 5 pm proved to be a big plus, as most of the fans were still there when the game was decided nearly four hours later. The ‘Cats surrendered a twelfth-inning run and lost 5-4, falling to 3-8 this season in extra innings.

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Six runners reached for the home team from the ninth inning on, but the ValleyCats weren’t able to bring any of them around to score. Marcus Nidiffer led off the eleventh inning with a double and stood on third with one out, but Jacke Healey’s fly ball was too shallow to tag on and Ben Orloff also flew out to center. A 12th-inning double by Tyler Burnett – who also doubled in the ninth – gave the ‘Cats some hope of tying the game and forcing more baseball, but closer Austin Hubbard bore down and retired the next two batters to end the game.

The ‘Cats may look back on this one with regret. Vermont lost at Aberdeen, so if the ValleyCats had been able to push one of those runners across, they would have been all alone in first place for the first time this season. Instead, they currently sit in third place, a half-game back of both the Lake Monsters and Connecticut. I still project the ValleyCats as a slight favorite, due to their still-strong run differential and the fact that they have three games remaining with Lowell, but it’s pretty close to a three-team tossup: Tri-City 38%, Connecticut 33%, Vermont 29%. If the ‘Cats had won, they would be above 60% right now. (Connecticut was the big beneficiary, seeing its odds rise by more than 20% after last night’s games.)

Bobby Doran gave up a run on a pair of two-out hits in the first inning, and for a minute I feared we might be seeing a repeat performance from Tuesday, when he allowed nine hits to the Tigers. Instead, he settled down and did not allow another score in his five innings, sending the Renegades down in order in the final two frames.

Murillo Gouvea opened the season quite poorly, and after allowing four runs in a little more than an inning against Brooklyn in mid-July, his ERA stood at 12.71. Many of us wondered if Gouvea would be sent down to a lower level to get straightened out. But whatever pitching coach Gary Ruby did to Gouvea certainly worked, as he’s allowed just three runs in 19.1 innings since. The Brazilian righty was lights-out last night, allowing only one hit in 3.1 innings and fanning eight Renegades – including four in the 11th inning, when Dio Luis reached after whiffing at a wild pitch. Gouvea now ranks second on the team with 50 strikeouts, and he’s thrown less than half as many innings as the team leader, Carlos Quevedo.

Instead, the ValleyCats’ loss came due to poor command by a couple unlikely sources: Alex Sogard and Michael Ness. Sogard had not allowed a run in the previous four weeks, a stretch spanning 14 innings. But he got into trouble right away in the sixth, walking Nick Schwaner and allowing a double to Steven Tinoco. (Schwaner and Tinoco killed the ‘Cats last night, going a combined 6-for-9 with three walks.) A line drive found Orloff’s glove and Sogard froze Mayo Acosta with a curveball, and it looked like he might escape the jam. But Dio Luis drove a 2-1 pitch to the right-center-field wall, driving in two and scoring himself as the ‘Cats kicked the ball around.

Ness had not issued a walk in three full weeks and had only six on the season, but he struggled to find the plate in the 12th inning last night. He hit Chris Winder with his first pitch of the night – Ness’s first HBP of the year – and then issued two-out walks to Schwaner and Tinoco. (With bases open and the go-ahead run on third, he was wisely being careful to both batters, particularly Tinoco, once he fell behind in the count.) Derek Dietrich then lined a shot to first that Nidiffer gloved but could not catch cleanly, and the Renegades had the run they needed.

The ValleyCats have had a lot of trouble figuring out the Hudson Valley pitching staff, scoring only 12 runs in five games. The lone hitter who seems to have it figured out is Chris Wallace, who doubled to score the eventual game-winning run on Saturday and came up big again last night. Wallace scored Mike Kvasnicka with a fifth-inning homer – the ‘Cats’ first hit of the game – that was crushed to right-center. Wallace later walked and laid down a nice sacrifice in the eleventh.

Burnett finished the game with a pair of doubles, which will hopefully give him a bit of a spark – he had only three hits in his previous 30 at-bats. Dan Adamson has also been slumping a bit – one for his last 14, and the hit was a routine grounder last night that Elias Otero played too deep on – and will get a rest tonight.

Adamson’s spot in centerfield will be taken by Austin Wates, who made his first appearance last night since being hit on the hand in Tuesday’s contest. Wates pinch-hit in the ninth and smacked a hard line drive with a man on, but it went right at Otero, who had moved to second base. Tonight marks his first appearance in the field with the ValleyCats.

I can’t believe it’s this time of year already, but tonight marks the last regular-season game at “The Joe.” Hopefully the ‘Cats make the playoffs and come back here next week for some postseason baseball.

Kevin Whitaker

Three-Horse Race

Playoff Odds update, through 8/31 games: ‘Cats 57%, Vermont 16%, Connecticut 27%

Well, this week didn’t go quite as expected.

After the ValleyCats defeated Connecticut for the fourth time in seven days on Tuesday, it looked like a two-horse race in the Stedler Division: the ‘Cats were hot, Vermont was treading water and Connecticut was fading quickly, three games out.

But everything went right for the Tigers after that. They swept a three-game set at Vermont, and the ‘Cats were swept at Hudson Valley. The Tigers, who had the league’s worst offense entering the series, dropped 21 runs on the Lake Monsters and won the last two games handily. Now they are right back at the top of the division, with momentum and six home games coming up, tied with Vermont and a half-game ahead of Tri-City. It is officially a three-team race.

Momentum would seem to make Connecticut the current favorite, but we just saw how quickly momentum can change. The Tigers now host the juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Cyclones – who, coincidentally enough, will then finish the season with five games against Vermont and three with Tri-City – before finishing with Aberdeen. Vermont still has to play eleven games in the final nine days (two makeups with Brooklyn, although one is the completion of the contest that was suspended in the 12th inning last week) – and, worse, all eleven will be on the road.

The ValleyCats have the easiest remaining opponent of the group when they travel to Lowell next week, but they’ll have to get through three more games with the Renegades, not exactly the team they wanted to see right now. Hudson Valley has won four straight and recently passed the ‘Cats for the fourth-best run differential. The Renegades match up well with the Tri-City offense: the ‘Cats are a very patient bunch, but Hudson Valley has allowed the fewest walks and hit the fewest batters this season.

Ultimately, the ValleyCats still look like the slight favorite, based on the schedule and (more importantly) their play to date. Although they are in third place, they have easily the best run differential of the group (TC +24, VER -12, CT -33), which means they should be expected to play the best from here on out. But time is running out, and they’ll probably need to beat Hudson Valley a couple times this weekend to remain the favorite.

Updated playoff odds:

Tri-City: 41%
Vermont: 33%
Connecticut: 26%

Kevin Whitaker

Sweeps Notebook

The ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the playoff race, taking all four games from the Tigers in a one-week span. Even after defeating Vermont last night to pull within two games, Connecticut’s odds of reaching the playoffs are still in the 2-3% range. Usually, I find claims of “must-win” games this far out to be hyperbole, but Connecticut probably can’t make the playoffs unless it takes the next two to sweep the Lake Monsters.

Bobby Doran was coming off five spectacular outings (29 IP, 5 ER combined), but didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday. He uncharacteristically left his fastball up and in hittable places often. Back when he was throwing low-90s early in the year, he might have been able to get away with that command, but last night he was 87-89 (and lower for the first couple batters, though that could have been a radar gun issue) and gave up nine hits. Three doubles in the fourth inning led to two runs, tying the game at 3-3.

Doran went to his curveball often and early in counts, getting a pair of strikeouts on hooks in the third inning. As usual, Doran didn’t walk anybody; he has allowed only seven unintentional free passes this year, for the second-best walk rate in the league (behind only teammate Carlos Quevedo).

Second baseman Alex Nunez made a pair of terrific plays in the early innings. He robbed Ben Orloff of a base hit, diving fully extended to his left and just barely snaring a grounder. He also made a great play coming in on a grounder off the pitcher’s foot making a quick throw while falling to get Mike Kvasnicka on a bang-bang play.

Dan Adamson continued to demonstrate his ridiculous power, getting a 1-2 curveball in the first inning and absolutely crushing it to left field. The blast landed right underneath the scoreboard, some 410 feet from home plate.

Travis Blankenship came on for Doran in the fifth with two outs and two runners in scoring position, and needed just one pitch to get out of the jam. Blankenship fanned lefty Eric Roof in the next inning with three curveballs away and continues to look very strong out of the bullpen.

Scary moment in the fifth: Austin Wates was hit on the right wrist by a 3-2 pitch by Josue Carreno. Wates went down quickly and stayed there for a couple minutes, eventually leaving the game. Things worked out pretty well, however. Pinch-runner Wilton Infante stole second and eventually scored on an infield single by birthday boy Kik&eacute Hernandez, while X-rays on Wates were negative.

Wates, who has a reputation as a terrific hitter, has been performing as advertised since joining the ValleyCats. We watched his first round of BP and it was not pretty – he was slicing balls around the cage, nearly hitting the visitors’ clubhouse a few times, and only squared up one or two well – but he needed no time to adjust, getting five hits in ten at-bats before leaving Tuesday’s game. He sat last night and I don’t know when he will rejoin the lineup, but this does not look like a serious setback.

Carreno came out after the fifth inning and had already thrown 90 pitches. I believe that’s the most we’ve seen from a starter at JBS this year.

Blankenship wasn’t the only reliever to have success on Tuesday. Brandt Walker wasn’t throwing quite as hard as usual – 92-93 instead of 95-ish – but got three strikeouts in 1.2 perfect innings. Meanwhile, Alex Sogard was consistently throwing 92 mph, as hard as I’ve seen all year. Sogard fanned the first four hitters he faced and then got four ground balls; two went through the left side for hits, but the next one was a tailor-made double play ball to escape the 10th.

The ValleyCats stranded seven runners between the 7th and 9th innings, any of which would have won the game. They loaded the bases in the ninth on a two-out rally that did not involve a hit; Ramon Lebron, consistently at 95-96 mph, walked Kik&eacute to load the bases but got Adamson to swing through a fastball up in the zone to force extras. Lebron struck out the side in the tenth inning and got two quick outs in the eleventh. But a walk to Ben Orloff sparked another two-out rally that again did not involve a hit; Hernandez reached base on a throwing error by shortstop Brett Anderson, and Burnett’s grounder went off Anderson’s glove into left field (his fourth error of the game) to bring home Orloff with the winning run.

Kevin Whitaker

Updated Playoff Odds

I’ll update this post with the current odds daily. 

Tuesday marked a turning point, as my system now sees the ‘Cats as the favorite.  The rainout hurt Vermont, which won’t get to make up its game with Lowell, while the ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the race by completing another sweep.

Through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%
Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%
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Warning: If you don’t like numbers, you won’t find much in this post (or the next) worth reading.

This is an update to my playoff odds post from earlier this week. I’ve corrected a few misconceptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games and made my model a bit more robust.

The biggest error I had was regarding makeup games for early-season rainouts. For some reason, I was under the impression that rained-out games would be replayed at the end of the season if they affected the pennant race. That is not the case. The ValleyCats’ rained-out games with Jamestown from July and with Aberdeen today will not be played, nor will Connecticut’s game with Staten Island today. Vermont has missed three-plus games so far, but can make up the Brooklyn and Hudson Valley games, plus yesterday’s suspended extra-inning Brooklyn game, because they play those teams again this year. Its rained-out game against Batavia, however, will not be replayed.

The other place I errored was with tie-breakers. I assumed that ties would be broken with a head-to-head game, but that is not the case. Instead, the tiebreakers go as follow: winning percentage, then divisional record, then run differential. It is rare that a tie will go even that far – I predict only a 0.5% chance that run differential comes into play.

The last update is an improvement to my model: an adjustment for home-field advantage. Home teams this year are 226-191 (.542), making home-field advantage a fairly significant factor. Thus, I gave teams playing in their home park a 4% boost in each game*. Note that I said “playing in their home park” – some of the makeup games (i.e., Vermont vs Brooklyn) will not be played at the same place they were initially scheduled; therefore, Vermont will be playing as the “home” team in Brooklyn. In such a case, Brooklyn would get the home-field advantage bump – research has shown that it is playing in a familiar park, not having the last at-bat, that provides the home team with an advantage.

*VERY technical note: In an ideal world, this home-field boost would not be linear – it has a smaller effect with a more lopsided matchup. To illustrate with an extreme example, if a team had a 4% chance of winning on a neutral field, we would not expect it to have a 0% chance of winning on the road. But I couldn’t figure out an easy way to make this effect non-linear, and I expect that all realistic matchups – certainly the ones that I am predicting here – are evenly-matched enough that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

(If anybody is following my work closely, I gave Vermont a 35% chance of winning its suspended game against Brooklyn, down 8-7 with two on and one out in extras. I got that number from this win probability table.)

The numbers:

Tri-City: 41.6% 

Vermont: 53.7% 
Connecticut: 4.6%

The ValleyCats continue to improve their playoff hopes. Keep in mind that these numbers still don’t take into account momentum – June games count as much as August games do. If you think recent results should carry more weight, you should give the ValleyCats a somewhat better chance than listed here. (For what it’s worth, I do think recent results should count more, given how much rosters and players change in this league, but I haven’t come up with a good way to separate recent performance from schedule effects.)

Kevin Whitaker

ValleyCats Playoff Odds

Note: I have learned that some of my assumptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games were inaccurate.  I’ll update later today with those revised.

Update as of Sunday afternoon: Each team split its last two games, and the playoff results predictably changed little.  I have the ValleyCats at 36.13%, Vermont at 51.40% and Connecticut at 12.46%.

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We know the ValleyCats are in the playoff hunt. Tri-City is 1.5 games behind Vermont and a half-game back of Connecticut in the Stedler Division, playing its best baseball as we head towards the home stretch. But what kind of chance do the ‘Cats really have of reaching the postseason?

I put together a quick-and-dirty simulation for the rest of the season in an attempt to answer that question. I’ll try not to go into too many details about how I made the simulation, because I don’t expect that many of you care; leave a comment or email me if you want to know more. But a quick and fairly technical summary: I first figured each team’s pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s performance going forward from its current run differential. Then I plugged those records into Bill James’s log5 formula to figure the odds that each team wins each game. I then used these odds to simulate the Tri-City, Vermont and Connecticut games for the rest of the season*, and played out the season 1,000,000 times. (This task is made a lot easier by the fact that the wild card will almost certainly not come out of the Stedler Division, so I only had to worry about three teams.)

*I included makeups for games that have been lost to rain this year – Tri-City vs Jamestown, Vermont vs Batavia and Staten Island – because they will be played if they affect the pennant race at the season’s end. (My mistake – these games will not be made up.)

Here were the results:

TRI wins:  30.3244
VER wins:  45.3815
CT wins:  8.3277
TRI + VER tie:  9.5976
TRI + CT tie:  2.2061
CT + VER tie:  2.9302
3-way tie:  1.2325

That comes out to a 16% chance that we’ll end up in some sort of tie. The same log5 process I used above can create odds that each team wins a head-to-head play-in game (there is no play-in game; the tiebreaker is divisional record), allowing us to estimate the full odds that each team makes the playoffs (for simplicity’s sake, I assumed that each team would win the three-way tie one-third of the time):

Tri-City: 37.38%
Vermont: 51.83%
Connecticut: 10.80%

I was surprised that Connecticut’s odds are so low. But if you look at run differential, the Tigers just haven’t been very good this season. They rank dead last in runs scored and have a worse run differential than all but two teams; their Pythagorean record pegs Connecticut as a .426 team, rather than a .500 one. The Tigers are 10-5 in one-run games, and will probably not be as lucky going forward.

The ValleyCats have a better run differential and expected record than Vermont, but the 1.5-game edge in the standings is enough for Vermont to remain the favorite. Still, I can assure you that their playoff odds are as high as they’ve been all season.

Two major caveats come with these results. The first is that my simulation does not currently discriminate between home and road games, treating them all equally. I will probably build in an adjustment for this in the next edition of my playoff odds. The second is less clear-cut. Right now, all of my predictions are based on full-season data, so games in June count just as much as games in August. I am not sure if this is optimal or not, particularly in a league where players get promoted relatively frequently; when I do this again, I’ll consider weighting recent results more heavily. It clearly makes a difference in this race – Vermont is playing terribly of late, while the ValleyCats are hot. If you think recent results are more predictive than early-season games, you should consider Tri-City somewhat more likely to make the playoffs than these numbers, and the opposite for Vermont. 

Kevin Whitaker

Reinforcements Have Arrived

Words almost cannot express how excited Kevin Whitaker was
when the Astros selected Austin Wates in the third round, 90th
overall, in this year’s draft. I was sitting next to him during our live chat
and he was astonished, to say the least, when he realized that Wates had fallen
that far. Kevin and I had watched film and studied most of the top talents that
were available to the Astros (and occasionally watched some Bryce Harper
footage just for the wow factor), and
Wates was considered one of the top college bats in the entire draft. And
Houston got him at 90! He will arrive here in Troy tomorrow afternoon.

In Keith Law’s draft-day chat, Kevin asked him if he liked
the Wates signing:

Love it. Teams doubt his ultimate position
- no real evidence he can play CF beyond his speed, and he doesn’t look great
out there in practice. But at 90, you have to take a chance on that swing and
plate discipline”.

Did the Astros just draft another J.D. Martinez and get one of the
biggest steals of the draft? Possibly.

BaseballBeginnings.com has been studying and watching Wates for years
and they have been a fan for a long time. John Klima, a contributing writer for
Baseball Beginnings, had this to say about the former Hokie:

I loved Virginia Tech outfielder Austin Wates when I saw
him on the Cape in 2009. For my money, I want guys who give me more than one
tool. Obviously they have to hit, but I want guys who can help the club win in
more ways that one”.

There’s that “love” word again. Seems like Keith Law isn’t the only
one that thinks the Astros might have gotten one of the best players in the
draft. Wates is a four-tool player. He has above-average speed, great plate
discipline, can hit to the gaps, should hit for average, has great range, and
has an average to above-average arm. What is there not to like? Here’s the rest
of the Baseball Beginnings scouting report on Wates (numbers are based on an
80-point system, with 80 being the highest and 20 being the lowest):

Austin Wates 



PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION
: Average height, lean, long and loose athletic
frame, loose hands and wrists, much physical projection in front of him.



STRENGTHS
: Above-average speed, good first step out of the box, graceful and
controlled runner. Good hands, line-drive approach, modest power, should have
gap-to-gap ability. Average arm, good accuracy. Rangy defensive outfielder, can
play all three OF positions.



WEAKNESSES
: Doesn’t have one glaring tool weakness.



SUMMARY
: Excellent all-around OF prospect with above-average speed,
athleticism and hitting ability. Lack of well above-average power shouldn’t
dissuade a team from giving him an opportunity. 



GRADES
(Present/Future):

Hit – 40/60


Power – 35/60?

Run – 70/70?

Arm – 50/50?

Field – 50/60



Overall Future Potential – 60


So he has no glaring weaknesses? Sign me up and put him out on the field ASAP.
The talk amongst Kevin and I put him in left field, giving the ValleyCats an
outfield of Wates (LF), Adamson (CF), and Bailey (RF) for the playoff push. Add
Wates to an offense that is raking the ball in August (seventh in overall
batting average at .256, third overall in RBI with 67, and first in both
categories in the Stedler Division), and you have a team that, combined with
excellent pitching, could make a serious run in the playoffs.

Did the Astros draft a better version of J.D. Martinez (Wates is
better defensively and has a lot better speed)? Only time will tell.
But if Wates comes as advertised, the Astros could have a phenomenal outfield
for the future with J.D. in left and Wates in right.

Evan Valenti

Stedler Division Race

The ValleyCats shut out Connecticut last night, 6-0, as Vermont fell 4-3 to Lowell. The ValleyCats are now just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.

I’ll say that again: The ValleyCats are just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.

Back in July, Vermont’s lead over Tri-City was flirting with double digits, and it seemed impossible that the ‘Cats would have an interesting home stretch – most (especially I) thought they would settle for avoiding the basement for the first time since 2006, thanks to Lowell. Well, it now looks like this year’s ‘Cats might fully copy that 2006 team, which won the Stedler Division and made the playoffs.

Vermont’s nosedive in the standings certainly helped. The Lake Monsters have won just eight of their last 27 games, despite playing nine games against last-place teams and only five against teams currently above .500. Vermont, which hasn’t won consecutive games in four weeks, will need to right the ship as soon as possible if it wants to maintain its season-long hold on the division lead.

But it’s not as if the ValleyCats have just stood around while other teams fell. Instead, they’ve been playing extremely well over the past three weeks. Since losing a 13-inning thriller at Connecticut in Cooperstown, the ‘Cats have gone 15-8, including sweeps of Vermont and four of six in their most recent homestand. Only Jamestown has a better record than the ‘Cats this month.

And it’s not as if this is a fluky streak. The ValleyCats are near the middle of the pack in the NYPL record-wise, but after their recent hot stretch, they have the fourth-best run differential in the NYPL. Run differential is a better indicator of true talent, and a better predictor of future performance, than record. So, though it may be hard to believe, the ValleyCats have played like a playoff team in 2010. They have had an average offense but have allowed only 239 runs, fourth-best in the league despite playing in a hitters’ park.

Photobucket

Based on their runs scored and allowed, we would expect the ValleyCats to have a .553 record this season. But they’re still a game below .500 and 1.5 out in the division race, thanks to some poor luck in one-run games: Tri-City is 5-10 in such contests, worst in the league. (The ‘Cats also are further below .500 in extra innings than anyone else at 2-6.)

So the ‘Cats still have some ground to make up in the division. Fortunately, neither of the teams they are chasing is playing very well. Vermont has been outscored by 16 runs this month, bringing its season run differential down near zero despite an amazing start, and certainly looks headed in the wrong direction. And Connecticut is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Tri-City: it has a run differential of -34, better than only two other teams in the league, with a record bolstered by a 14-8 performance in one-run games. The main culprit for the Tigers has been a futile offense, which ranks last in runs scored.

A total of six head-to-head games remain within these teams: the ‘Cats have three left with Connecticut (two away), while the Tigers play three at Vermont. The Lake Monsters and Tri-City each have three remaining with Lowell, while Connecticut is done with the Spinners.

But for the most part, it looks like the McNamara Division will help settle this race. Vermont is least fortunate schedule-wise, with six games remaining against Brooklyn, but the others also have three games against the league’s top team. Tri-City has to play in Brooklyn, where the Cyclones have been much better this season (22-6 home, 16-14 road), but they also are the last three games of the season, so Brooklyn could rest some players and have less motivation, as it all but wrapped up a playoff spot a long time ago.

Of their other nine games against McNamara teams, the ValleyCats play six against Hudson Valley, which looks like the next-best in the division. But six of the nine (including three with Aberdeen) are at home. Connecticut is a little bit more fortunate, with six against Aberdeen and three home with Staten Island, while Vermont also plays three-game sets with Aberdeen and Staten Island but travels for both.

All things considered, the ValleyCats and Connecticut face a remarkably similar strength of schedule, while Vermont’s is noticeably more difficult (including nine straight on the road to finish the season). Given that the ValleyCats now look like the most talented team in the division, this should be a very interesting race. (See my playoff odds for more.)

Tri-City may also be picking up some help down the stretch: third-round draft pick Austin Wates signed on Monday and will join the ValleyCats tomorrow. College players can often struggle with the transition to pro ball – as those of us who saw Mike Kvasnicka’s first month in Troy know – but Wates has the potential to help this team. He was a terrific hitter in college and had one of the best bats in the entire draft, drawing raves from scouts and evaluators. His long-term position is an open question – second base seems most likely – but for the rest of this season he’ll probably be an outfielder, and he slots into left field nicely for the ValleyCats. (Update: see Evan’s profile of Wates.)

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Two pitchers

Bobby Doran and Jake Buchanan got their seasons off to slow starts, but both have turned things around in their past three or four outings, the biggest reason why the ValleyCats are now in the playoff hunt. Doran picked up his third win in four starts by dominating Williamsport, while Buchanan had an okay outing and fell victim to poor run support. The Crosscutters beat Buchanan and Tri-City on Thursday, snapping the ‘Cats’ four-game win streak (five at home) and avoiding a sweep.

Doran was making his first home start in over five weeks after six consecutive outings on the road. He was a slightly different pitcher than we saw at the beginning of the year. Early on, Doran would sit 92-93 with his fastball and dialed it up as high as 95; on Wednesday, he was 88-91, mainly 87-88 in the later innings*. He’s probably feeling the effects of a long season – between college and the pros, he’s up to 140 game innings at this point, with some throwing in a couple weeks off between seasons – so it will be interesting to see how he throws at the beginning of next season. The reduced velocity was no problem, as he had his best outing of the season, scattering five hits in six shutout innings.

*That’s right – the radar gun is back. I suppose it’s possible that there’s some bias – that the gun is reading differently than it was at the beginning of the season – but the other readings seemed right, and Doran’s drop in velocity was confirmed by the scout we’ve talked to.

Doran pitched off his fastball, going almost exclusively to a curveball for secondary stuff. He got a pair of strikeouts with his hook – a 75-mph to fan Cesar Hernandez in the third, and one 77 to get Edgar Duran swinging in the sixth. The other three whiffs came on his fastball – Duran chasing away in the first (88), Cusick chasing low in the fifth (87), and Lanning watching a 90 mph heater on (okay, off) the inside corner.

One thing stands out about Doran: he works extremely quickly. I don’t think I’ve seen a pitcher all year who goes as fast as Doran. I put a stopwatch for him on a couple pitches, and he was consistently releasing his next pitch within 7-8 seconds of recieving the ball from the catcher. (Usually, 10-11 seconds makes a pitcher something of a fast worker.)

Doran kept the ball down really well, showing great command. He has walked just seven batters in 50.1 innings – the third-best walk rate among NYPL starters.

Buchanan didn’t pitch poorly, but it wasn’t his best outing – three runs, two earned, in 4.2 innings. He was sitting 88-89 with his fastball, but went to his secondary offerings early and often – a 75-80 curve and 80-81 change. In particular, he threw quite a few more changeups than usual. All four strikeouts came on curves.

The earned runs came on one swing, a 3-0 pitch that Domingo Santana absolutely crushed to left. The other five hits were generally harmless.

Kik&eacute Hernandez saved a couple other balls from becoming hits with his best defensive game of the season. He made a diving grab of a fourth-inning liner and a nice sliding backhand on a grounder up the middle in the eighth, plus he came in nicely to make a play on a ball off the pitcher.

We got our first look at John Frawley yesterday – his first two appearances came on the road. He doesn’t exactly blow you away with his stuff – righties with an 83-mph fastball aren’t in high demand – but he sent the Crosscutters down in order in the eighth, getting a strikeout with a curveball (71 mph).

Tyler Burnett’s streak was finally snapped on Thursday: 37 consecutive games reaching base. He won’t be too broken up over losing the streak, which is nine games longer than anyone else in the NYPL has managed to date – he has not wanted to talk about it, and has actually said he hasn’t felt great as far as hitting goes. The streak ended in a disappointing way, though – in the eighth inning, he swung through a 3-2 pitch that was probably high. His 32 walks are good for second place in the league.

Burnett wasn’t the only one to struggle – the ‘Cats managed only five hits and one walk. Starter David Buchanan was the better of the Buchanans, allowing two runs and one earned in six innings. This Buchanan also threw his changeup often and had lots of success with it, keeping the ‘Cats off-balance all night. Two relievers held them hitless over the final three, also mixing their speeds well.

A couple other random great defensive plays: Mike Kvasnicka went way to his left to grab a Miguel Alvarez grounder in the hole yesterday. Wednesday night, Ben Orloff made a great turn on a 6-4-3 double play (off a very slow roller), getting the release while being taken out at second. Tri-City turned five double plays in the Williamsport series.

Kevin Whitaker

Four-homer Notebook

Four ValleyCats homered last night: Dan Adamson, Frank Almonte, Mike Kvasnicka and Tyler Burnett. The four homers were the most the ValleyCats have hit in a game since July 24, 2004*, when they hit six in a 10-2 victory at Oneonta. (That doesn’t look like a record that will fall anytime soon – nobody in the league has surpassed six homers in a game since 2004, and it has only been matched twice. Hunter Pence contributed two of the six homers.)

*If that date looks somewhat familiar…the last time we had to find a historic event, two triples and two homers, it happened two days earlier that same week. Next time the ValleyCats do something that hasn’t happened in a long time, I’m looking for it in that week first, and going from there.

I noted earlier that Williamsport is the best fielding team in the NYPL…but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good when four balls leave the park. And when Carlos Quevedo is pitching, runs will be at a premium.

Quevedo had his eighth quality start in eleven tries last night, continuing to dominate the league. His command again seemed to get better as the game progressed, throwing 13 of 14 pitches for strikes to retire the side in order in the fifth. His lone strikeout came that inning as well, going up the ladder to send Drew Rundle down swinging.

And, of course, the control was there: he didn’t walk a single hitter, and went to three balls only once. He’s now allowed just three walks in 62.2 innings, which is just unfathomable. Quevedo also did not allow a homer last night – his biggest weakness to this point – and gave up just one earned run in six frames.

The one batter who worked a three-ball count also caused the most trouble, as Edgar Duran pulled a 3-2 pitch down the right-field line for a triple. Adam Bailey was shaded way towards center field, which was the only reason Duran was able to reach third (where he would score on a groundout). Quevedo only gave up four more hits – two liners, two grounders – but allowed a few other hard-hit balls that could have snuck through.

He was helped out by some very good fielding – the ‘Cats, not the Crosscutters, looked like the better defensive team in last night’s game. After a double play erased a Carlos Alonso single, third baseman Ben Orloff dove to his right to snare a Cesar Hernandez grounder, getting up in plenty of time to retire the speedy second baseman. Quevedo also helped himself out, picking Hernandez off second in the first inning and snaring a Duran comebacker behind his back to lead off the fourth. (Williamsport reliever Jake Borup saw Quevedo’s play and raised him one inning later, barehanding a Dan Adamson comebacker on one hop.)

Adamson hit the game’s first home run, taking a fly ball roughly 380 feet to left field beyond the bullpen. Burnett said of Adamson after the game, “I can’t explain how much juice he has in that bat.”

Burnett, of course, hit the final blast, a fly ball over the second fence in right field. The homer extended his on-base streak to a remarkable 36 games (he was 0-for-3 entering the at-bat), longest in the NYPL this year by 10 games.

Williamsport starter Lisalberto Bonilla opened the game throwing hard, but lost a little steam in the second inning. His lack of a go-to secondary pitch got him into trouble, as the ‘Cats timed up his fastball for two homers and a double. He started forcing his pitches and walked Ryan McCurdy and Ben Orloff, and a Kik&eacute Hernandez single ended Bonilla’s night.

Fun with scorecards: the ValleyCats went down in order in the sixth, grounding out 4-3 each time.

More fun with scorecards: Frank Almonte was stranded in the third inning after grounding into a fielder’s choice. He was the 13th runner to reach base, but amazingly was the first left there – seven scored, three were forced out, one picked off and one caught stealing.

Kevin Whitaker

Fielding in the NYPL

Fielding is hard to evaluate.

It is nearly impossible to judge defense without some level of subjectivity. Even the simplest defensive statistic, fielding percentage, relies on a scorer’s decision regarding whether a play would have been made with reasonable effort. More advanced statistics such as UZR attempt to take subjectivity out of the equation by comparing each hit with similar balls, and seeing how many fielders made those plays – but (to my knowledge) it makes other assumptions that are not always true, such as assuming that fielders begin from the same position and assuming that the batted-ball classification data is necessarily accurate.

While analysts have made tremendous improvement over the past five years or so, measuring individual defense remains an inexact science. It is even more so at the lower levels, where we don’t have nearly the data that MLB teams and fans have access to. Fans looking for information on a player’s fielding are limited to their own observation and fielding percentage, which at best paints a very crude picture and basically ignores a player’s range and ability to make difficult plays.

Fortunately, measuring team fielding is easier. In its simplest form, what is fielding about? It is about making plays: turning batted balls into outs.

That’s overly simplistic, and doesn’t account for many variables – double plays, stolen bases, preventing extra-base hits, passed balls and runners taking extra bases, to name a handful. But I think most would agree that the most important job of the fielders as a unit is to turn a batted ball into an out. And that characteristic is pretty easy to measure.

Strikeouts and walks are exclusively pitching stats – the fielders have essentially no say in whether or not those occur. (You could argue that a catcher’s ability to frame pitches could occasionally make the difference in those stats, but that’s a very, very weak effect at best.) Same with home runs – plays like this one aside, the fielders can usually only turn and watch as the ball goes over the fence.

But the balls hit in play? The defense has plenty of control over those. In theory, a perfect defense with lightning-fast players could turn every ball in play into an out. The worst possible defense could also never record an out on fair balls, never moving and dropping balls right at them. Actual teams, obviously, lie far from these extremes. Good-fielding teams will turn more balls into outs than poor ones, and we can measure this.

The statistic I just described is Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER), and if you’re already familiar with it, you skimmed through the last few paragraphs because you knew all that already. The formula is:

DER = 1 – ((H + Reach on Error – HR) / (PA – BB – SO – HBP – HR))

One caveat: MiLB does not keep data for “reach on error”. The only statistic available is total errors, which includes botched pickoff throws, throwing errors from the outfield, throwing errors on the back end of double plays and other plays that solely advance runners and don’t put runners on base. I estimated the number of errors that put an opposing batter on base as two-thirds of total errors (ROE = 2/3 * E).

So, which teams are best at converting balls in play into outs?

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Despite the league’s fourth-best fielding percentage, the ValleyCats best only two other teams in defensive efficiency. This is what I expected when I started this – opposing hitters post good batting averages off Tri-City pitchers despite striking out often. Oscar Figueroa has great range when he plays short but neither Healey nor Orloff are anything to write home about in that respect – both are good defensively, but more for their hands than their range. Kik&eacute has good range at second, especially to his left, but the ValleyCats have been breaking in a bunch of new players at third (Kvasnicka, Orloff, Figueroa), who don’t read balls as well off the bat yet. Adamson and Infante have great speed in the outfield, but the latter didn’t make good reads in center (a problem I’ve seen much less of since he moved back to left).

It’s important to keep these ratings in mind when evaluating pitchers – a ValleyCats hurler will see one fewer ball of 20 in play turned into an out than one on Williamsport.* The CrossCutters are 31-19 atop the Pinckney Division, in no small part because of arguably the league’s best defense. Williamsport comes to Troy tomorrow for a three-game series.

*Implied in that sentence was that getting outs in play is the full responsibility of the fielders. This is not a discussion I really want to fully get into here, but for those who might be unfamiliar with it: in the past decade of so, it has been generally accepted that major-league pitchers have little control over what happens to a ball in play. (An exception is that knuckleballers, submarine pitchers and other unconventional throwers usually allow fewer hits than standard pitchers.) Note that this has not been shown to be true or untrue at the minor-league level.

Kevin Whitaker

All-Star Thoughts

Note: all stats and records are as of before Sunday’s games.

Congrats to Tyler Burnett and Ben Orloff on being named New-York Penn League All-Stars! They will represent the ValleyCats at the All-Star Game in Staten Island next week. Burnett has been an offensive force, leading the ValleyCats with a .399 on-base percentage and reaching safely in each of his last 33 games. Orloff tops the ‘Cats with a .312 batting average and has spent significant time at three positions, making the team as a second baseman.

Evan and I were trying to predict who would be All-Stars last week, and we had a tough time paring down the field – there are a lot of ValleyCats with a good case to make the team. Some of the players that didn’t make the cut:

Carlos Quevedo should have made the All-Star team. The righty has walked only three batters in 56.2 innings – roughly half the rate of the next-best starter – and has 35 strikeouts to go along with it, for an insane 12.7 K/BB ratio. Quevedo has the fifth-best WHIP in the league at 0.99 and has thrown more innings than all but two other pitchers. He tossed six consecutive quality starts early in the year and has allowed more than two earned runs exactly once. He has a solid 3.34 ERA despite being a flyball pitcher in an extreme home run park. If that’s not an All-Star, I don’t know what is. (I think the All-Stars were selected before Quevedo’s most recent masterpiece – a two-run, 7.2-IP outing against Mahoning Valley – but he had a strong case regardless.)

So, why didn’t Quevedo get the call? The NYPL fell into the same trap that the big leagues do every year – it selected too many relievers. Of the 10 pitchers on the National League squad, only four are starters. In a league where almost all of the most talented pitchers are starters – even those who will end up in the bullpen at higher levels – this is absolutely ridiculous, and becomes even more so when you factor in the short nature of the season. Over six weeks and just 15-20 innings, you’re almost guaranteed to have several relievers end up with great statistics based on randomness alone. I know that all but one pitcher comes out of the bullpen in the actual All-Star game, but this game doesn’t count for anything – it is supposed to reward the best players and showcase the best talent. Having only four starting pitchers does neither. With only ten pitchers, there’s absolutely no reason to have more than three relievers on a team, four tops.

Since the All-Star selectors were so infatuated with relievers, one has to think that a couple members of Tri-City’s potent bullpen got strong consideration. In particular, Travis Blankenship and Jorge De Leon have been among the best relievers in the league this year; each has an ERA hovering around 0.50 with only one earned run. Now, ERA is not the best way to measure relievers – part of one’s job is to stop inherited runners from scoring, which does not show up in ERA – and each is partially responsible for a couple of unearned runs. Blankenship has a slightly better ERA but has struggled with command (13 K, 12 BB in 18.1 IP); De Leon has the “closer” label and four saves, plus the more impressive and entertaining stuff. All things considered, I’m not sure either rates as one of the top five relievers in the league, but they’re certainly worth a look.

Dan Adamson leads the team with a .839 OPS and also could have been an All-Star selection. He has blazing speed and great range in center, making him a defensive asset. He’s a four-tool player, and the one he lacks is the least important one – a throwing arm – who has hit four homers and 13 other extra-base hits this season. Adamson strikes out a lot but he squares balls up very well when he does make contact, and his .382 on-base percentage is very good. Adamson was unfortunate to be squeezed out by a plethora of great NL-affiliated center fielders, including (unofficial) midseason MVP Darrell Ceciliani and talented slugger Nick Longmire; sluggers Marcell Ozuna and Cory Vaughn, who are tied for the league lead with 12 homers, clearly earned spots. You could make a case that Adamson deserved the nod over Miguel Alvarez or possibly even Adalberto Santos, but it’s a close call either way and neither of their teams has many representatives either.

David Coleman had a nice profile of Adamson over at The Crawfish Boxes.

You could also make a case for Ben Heath as an All-Star – not too many catchers also lead their team in home runs, but Heath is two clear of Tri-City with six. His .248 average is not pretty but he’s patient, with 20 walks in 150 PA, which combined with his power makes him very valuable. Heath also fell victim to a strong class of peers. David Freitas is Ceciliani’s closest MVP candidate – and you could make an argument for him as more valuable, given his positional value – while Audry Perez is getting a hit every three at-bats as a backstop. Had three catchers been named, Heath of Williamsport’s Jeff Lanning would have been the final choice. (As it turned out, Heath would not have attended anyways – he was promoted to Lexington on Saturday. We wish him luck in the Sally League and wherever else he may go.)

The youngest ValleyCat, 18-year-old Kik&eacute Hernandez, also had an All-Star case; Houston named him Tri-City’s Offensive Player of the Month for July (not sure how that didn’t go to Burnett, who hit for the same average with more power and walks, but still). Hernandez is a good second baseman and certainly has more pop than Orloff, who was selected as a second baseman; Hernandez has yet to go deep, but has 12 doubles and a triple to his credit. The All-Star selectors apparently preferred Orloff’s better average and on-base skills and defensive versatility over Hernandez’s power advantage.

All things considered, the National League affiliates are much more talented than the American League teams this year – NL affiliates are 194-145 in 2010 – which also hurt the case of some ValleyCats. The NL should be a fairly strong favorite in next week’s game.

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Around the league: Vermont is in a major tailspin right now, one that contined with an 8-1 loss at Batavia on Saturday night. The Lake Monsters have won just three of their last 14 games and don’t seem on their way to turning things around. They’re still in first place in the Stedler Division, a half-game ahead of Connecticut, primarily on the strength of a 14-3 start and a soft midseason schedule. Since July 16, Vermont is 6-15 despite playing half its games against last-place teams (4x Lowell, 3x Auburn, 3x Staten Island) and another five against teams below .500 (Tri-City and Aberdeen).

Vermont won’t be as fortunate from here on out. Including last night’s game, the Lake Monsters head into the All-Star break with nine games against teams above .500 – Batavia, Jamestown and Hudson valley – six of which are on the road. After the All-Star Game, they have to play six games against the league’s best team, Brooklyn, and all six agaisnt Staten Island and Aberdeen are away. Four games with Lowell are the only solace; they also play three at home against Connecticut, which will be critical if they have any hope of turning things around to reach the playoffs.

That’s very good news for the Tigers, who have pretty consistently playing .500ish ball this season. Connecticut also has five more left with Brooklyn after last night’s extra-inning loss and travels to Jamestown later this week, but otherwise has an easier slate. It’s done with Hudson Valley; nine remain with Staten Island and Aberdeen, but six are at home. No more games remain against Lowell, whom the Tigers have swept twice; but they still have a home series with Pinckney bottom-feeder Auburn and four with the 21-27 ‘Cats. Connecicut is a half-game back right now and boasts a run differential 23 runs worse than Vermont’s, but given the remaining schedules and Vermont’s recent slide the Tigers have to be the Stedler Division favorites at this point.

Vermont’s collapse is also good news for the ValleyCats, but with a caveat. The ‘Cats certainly weren’t going to catch a Vermont team that was well above .500, so the Lake Monsters’ slide keeps their hopes alive. Tri-City has a better shot at catching Connecticut at the top of the division – the ValleyCats still have four games remaining with the Tigers and actually have a significantly better run differential this season despite being 4.5 games back. Their schedule is no picnic, but not terrible either; six against Hudson Valley and three with Williamsport will be tough, but they have three games remaining at Lowell and home against Staten Island and Aberdeen. Tri-City closes with three at Brooklyn, which appears brutal – the Cyclones are 21-4 at home this season – but Brooklyn may be looking ahead to the playoffs by that point, which might allow the ‘Cats to sneak out a game or two.

However, Vermont’s slide also affects the ‘Cats in some less-positive ways. Tri-City has no games remaining with the suddenly vulnerable Lake Monsters, and now seems unfortunate for drawing five games with the then-juggernaut in June. More importantly, once we realize that Vermont has been one of the worst teams in the league over the past three weeks, the ValleyCats’ recent performance just does not look all that impressive. Take away the Vermont sweeps and Tri-City is just 5-9 in its most recent games despite an easy schedule. The ‘Cats went 1-3 at Connecticut, 1-2 at Aberdeen, 2-1 home against Lowell (needing extra innings to avoid handing the Spinners their first series win of the year) and 1-3 on the current trip at Mahoning Valley and State College. Every single one of those teams has been outscored this season.

The ValleyCats have an opportunity here to make a run at the Stedler Division title, but they’ll have to play better than they have recently to make things interesting.

Believe it or not, the ‘Cats are now in the top half of the league in run differential, ahead of seven other teams. Only three have a worse record than the ValleyCats, suggesting some poor luck in Troy. (Through games of 8/7)

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Kevin Whitaker

Sweep Notebook

My apologies for not finishing this sooner. This notebook is obviously a bit dated now, but hopefully it’s still of interest.

The ValleyCats had their best homestand of the season, sweeping a pair of games with division-leading Vermont. Tri-City hammered the Lake Monsters 10-1 on Monday night and pulled out a 5-3 victory on Tuesday, edging to within five games of Vermont in the standings.

Monday’s outburst was fueled by a two-homer, seven-run third inning, but Kik&eacute Hernandez and Wilton Infante each tripled later in the contest. The last time the ValleyCats had two homers and two triples in a game was way back on July 22, 2004: Mario Garza and Kevin Vital homered, while Vital and Brandon Barganier tripled. The ‘Cats scored two in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game but ultimately fell to Staten Island, 6-5 in 13 innings.

If you had asked me three weeks ago who would rank second on the team in home runs right now, it would have taken me a long, long time to guess Jacke Healey. Yet that’s exactly where the shortstop lies right now after his leadoff blast sparked a seven-run third inning on Monday night. Exactly one month into the season, Healey was scavenging for playing time, hitting .129 as the clear fourth man in a middle-infield rotation. But he homered in consecutive games in mid-July and did so again this week, coming within a couple feet of hitting the giant inflatable Uncle Sam more than 400 feet away against Vermont.

Healey has been solid all year and made a nice play on Monday on a chopper over the second-base bag. But the bigger story has been his power surge. Healey is now slugging .571 in 13 games since July 19, which is very valuable combined with his good glove at short. He put on a laser show in BP before Tuesday’s game, hitting five homers and some more line drives.

This isn’t the first time Healey has shown a power surge – this spring, the shortstop set a Youngstown State University record with 12 homers. He also led the Penguins with 59 RBI.

I would have been much more likely to guess Dan Adamson, who homered later that same inning to remain tied with Healy at four. Adamson, of course, hit the big walk-off homer on Friday night, and has been in the middle of quite a few big innings for the ValleyCats. As of Thursday night, he leads the team with a .848 OPS (edging out Tyler Burnett), tied for first in slugging and second in OBP.

The outfielder has fanned 48 times in 182 plate appearances, an ugly number that leads the team by 10, but it’s not all bad as he also has 22 walks (second on the ‘Cats). He started the season in center field, was moved to left for Wilton Infante shortly thereafter, but he was shifted back to center two weeks ago. He has looked good patrolling the middle of the outfield; the shift has certainly been an improvement for the Tri-City defense. He ran down a fly ball to the deepest part of the warning track in the top of the third on Monday.

Adamson went 0-for-4 in four plate appearances on Tuesday, which was unusual – it marked the first time in 22 games this season that Adamson did not reach base at home. Only Brooklyn superstar Darrell Ceciliani has had a longer such streak this season.

But Adamson’s streak is nothing compared to what Tyler Burnett has done recently. Burnett leads the team in OBP at .397, in large part because he has reached base in every game he has played since June 30th: 30 consecutive games. His streak is the longest in the NYPL this season by six games, and the longest active one by nine. The ValleyCats have been three-hit once and four-hit three times in that span, including three shutouts, but Burnett has constantly been producing. He hit his third homer of the season on Tuesday, a no-doubter to right field that gave the ‘Cats a seventh-inning insurance run.

Burnett’s defense has been coming along nicely at first, while Mike Kvasnicka continues to improve at Burnett’s natural position, third base. Kvasnicka made a pair of great barehanded plays on drag bunts on Monday, throwing out Hendry Jimenez by a step in the first inning and getting speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo in the third. He made a poor play in the seventh inning, drifting on a popup that fell past his glove on the infield (Healey should have called him off but let Kvasnicka take the play the whole way, for whatever it’s worth), but has otherwise looked decent at the hot corner recently. (Kvasnicka recovered to throw David Freitas going for second on that play.)

Jake Buchanan, first five starts: 17 IP, 15 R, 6 BB, 19 SO, 6.88 ERA
Jake Buchanan, last three starts: 16.2 IP, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 SO, 1.08 ERA

Most of the damage came from a two-inning, seven-run start at Auburn on July 16, but he’s certainly turned things around since then with three dominant starts. Buchanan has lowered his season ERA from 6.88 to 4.01, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue that trend. The righty allowed only two hits and one walk against Vermont on Monday; the hits, both clean singles, came in the second inning. He found his breaking ball after that and was unhittable from the third onward, fanning Hendry Jimenez with a hook in the third and freezing Jack Walker with a fastball to end the fifth. Buchanan’s best inning was his last one, as he got Connor Rowe to chase a curveball in the dirt for his third whiff, then induced a pair of easy ground balls in his third time through the top of the order. He was pulled after six scoreless innings and 73 pitches.

Alex Sogard wasn’t as dominant but pitched fairly well, scattering four hits for two runs in 3.1 innings. The lefty again went to his curveball often, even against opposite-handed hitters, and fanned Blake Kelso with a pair of hooks off the inside corner. He was pitching inside to righties with his fastball as well and getting ahead in counts – he went 0-2 on the first three batters and didn’t walk any. He allowed a home run to Justin Miller that was very, very wind-aided – I actually looked down because I was sure it was going to be an easy fly ball, but the wind from a nearby storm carried the ball over the wall and just beyond a leaping Infante’s glove. After the storm and some light rain had passed, star catcher David Freitas tagged a Sogard fastball in the fourth much harder, but without the wind it went for a double off the wall in left-center.

Murillo Gouvea had another good outing on Tuesday, allowing one run in 2.2 innings. He was living a bit dangerously at times – both his strikeouts came on high curveballs – but got the job done. Gouvea had a 12.78 ERA two weeks ago, but has allowed just one run in 10.1 innings since, fanning 15 batters in that span (3 BB).

With a one-run lead, two outs and a man on in the seventh inning, Jim Pankovits took out lefty Travis Blankenship and brought in Brandt Walker to face right-handed slugger David Freitas. Blankenship had walked the previous batter, but had only thrown eight pitches and Pankovits has generally been reluctant to play matchups with the southpaw. I was glad to see the change, as although Blankenship has actually been tougher on righties thus far (LHB .194/.390/.226; RHB .133/.278/.133), that screams “sample-size fluke” to me: Blankenship is the classic model of a LOOGY, relying heavily on breaking stuff from a low arm angle.

Walker retired Freitas to end the inning, and froze a pair of Lake Monsters in the next inning with fastballs on the outside corner. The ValleyCats’ other flamethrower, Jorge De Leon, came on to close the game out in the ninth. He fell behind his first three hitters 2-0 and brought the tying run to the plate with two outs, but Ben Heath made a nice sliding catch on a Jason Martinson popup to end the game.

Either Vermont has some great relievers or the ValleyCats are falling into a dangerous habit of giving up on at-bats late in games: Vermont’s last pitcher Kevin Cahill fanned five ‘Cats in 1.2 innings on Monday; and Tuesday’s final reliever, Mark Herrera, struck out four in 1.1 IP. So that’s nine outs, nine strikeouts to end games for the ValleyCats, who did have three singles scattered through those innings. I’m guessing it’s a combination of good pitching and poor approach, as I’ve seen this a little bit in the past from the ‘Cats.

Astros news: #8 overall draft pick Delino DeShields, Jr. has officially signed with Houston, for $2.15 million. Although it would be great to see DeShields in a ValleyCats uniform, it won’t happen unless the 18-year-old really, really lights up the Appy League out of the gate – he’ll be going to Greeneville next week.

Kevin Whitaker

What the Trade Deadline Means to Astros Farm System

Disclaimer: This blog
entry is really long. It is not for the faint of heart. You might want to get
some food, maybe something to drink (coffee, Red Bull), and get comfortable. I
did not expect this to be long, but things happen. Enjoy.

The Astros traded two players right before the deadline that
were pivotal parts of the World Series team in 2005 in Roy Oswalt and Lance
Berkman. Oswalt could have become the team’s all-time leader in wins, but was
traded to Philly before he could do so, and Berkman is one of the best power
hitters that the Astros have ever seen. Almost every Astros fan has mailed this
season in (you’re delusional if you haven’t – it would take an Athletic effort
circa 2002 and then some to save the season) and the front office seems to be
on the same page. Throughout the week the beat writers over at the Houston
Chronicle (Richard Justice, Bernardo Fallas and Zach Levine) have expressed
their gratitude for Oswalt and Berkman. Let’s face it, these are two of the greatest players Houston has ever seen. Berkman hit over 300 bombs
for Houston in his 12 seasons (hit 45 in ’06) and Oswalt had 143 wins over a
span of 10 years (including 20 wins twice). These guys were some of the most
dominant and feared players in the entire Major Leagues in the early part of
the 2000′s. But as much as it hurts, those guys are gone and might not ever be
back (even though Berkman has said he loves playing in Houston) so Ed Wade,
Drayton McClane, and the rest of the Astros front office need to look towards
the future. What does that entail? Oh, I’ll tell you.

Houston got a bevy of
players in these two deals, none of which I expect to land on the ValleyCats ever,
but some could have a huge impact on the Major League club.

The Astros got some quality back from the Phillies in the
trade for Oswalt. First, they got J.A. Happ, a guy that in his first full
season with Philadelphia went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA, including three complete
games (two shutouts). He was the runner up for the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year
behind Chris Coghlan (who batted .321 in his first stint in the Majors – that’s
unbelievable). Kevin Goldstein of Baseball
Prospectus
says of Happ:

“He
succeeds on deception and location, placing his 88-90 mph fastball in all four
quadrants of the strike zone, adding and subtracting speed to keep hitters off
balance, and altering his release to add sinking or cutting action.”

So in a
word, he has the potential to be filthy (he showed that capability last
season). He does exactly what you want a pitcher to do. He can locate the
fastball, keep it down, has an arsenal of pitches, and can keep hitters off
balance by varying speed on all of his pitches. I’m not saying he is going to
be an ace, even though he could turn into one, but he would be a great number
three behind Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez.

Next:
Brett Wallace. Going into this season, Wallace was ranked the 20th
best overall prospect this year by ESPN’s Keith Law (who is one of my favorite
writers of all time) and 27th by Baseball
America
. The Blue Jays traded Michael Taylor, a guy they got from Philly in
the Roy Halladay trade, for Wallace in the offseason, and Wallace did pretty
well playing for the Las Vegas 51′s (batted .301 in 95 games). With this
pickup, it seems like the Astros have their first baseman for the future.
According to KLaw, Ed Wade seems to have made a good decision:

He’s an advanced hitter who has been
adequate in Triple-A this year but hasn’t raked as I would have expected, given
what a good hitter’s park that is. However, he has an outstanding swing and
controls the strike zone well, doesn’t show the platoon split so common in
left-handed hitting prospects and was just 23 in Triple-A. He’s twice as
valuable a prospect as Gose. Despite concerns over his lateral mobility, he’s a
capable first baseman who will hit for average, get on base and have enough
power to be an above-average or better player there.”

Next: Mark
Melancon (I apologize to anyone that is a Yankee fan that listened to my
broadcast the other night – I murdered his name). Melancon is a power righty
that started his career in the New York-Penn League. He closed out the
championship game for the Staten Island Yankees in 2006, and has climbed the
ladder every year since. He doesn’t have the stamina to be a starter or long
reliever, but he could potentially be a great set-up guy to Matt Lindstrom. He
throws hard (92-95 mph) and his curveball is his strikeout pitch. Here’s
Law’s
scouting report
:

Mark Melancon‘s arm action is a train
wreck, but he has power stuff, including a 92 to 94 mph fastball, a power curve
in the low- to mid-80s and a hard change. On the right night, he’ll show three
above-average pitches. He had good control throughout his minor league career
but has seen his Triple-A walk rate nearly triple this season. He’s already had
Tommy John surgery in 2006, and his delivery is not easy on the elbow, so I
wouldn’t be shocked if he got hurt again. But until then he’s a potential
late-game option for Houston, possibly even a cheap closer.”

So with these
trades it looks like the Astros picked up a mid-rotation starter (who could end
up being an ace down the road), the first baseman of the future (who hasn’t
reached his full potential yet), and a back-of-the-bullpen guy (who could be a
closer or burn out his arm). What this means is Houston has finally committed
to getting younger all around and are fully committed to player development, so
guys at any level could have a shot at making the big leagues. Look at everyone
here in Troy. Any of them could turn into the next big thing for the Astros.
It’s all wide open!

The infield is
replaceable with maybe the exception of Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson (a former
ValleyCat). Johnson has been a stud so far this season (.341 in 39 games this
season), so maybe third base is locked up if he can keep this going, but I want
to look at the middle infield.

Second base: Jeff
Keppinger is having a good season this year for the Astros at second (batting
.291), but he’s 30 years old. He is not the future. The second baseman for the
Round Rock Express (AAA affiliate of the Astros) is Matt Kata. Kata is having a
decent season so far in 2010. He is hitting .277 with 20 doubles in 104 games.
Here’s the problem: he’s 32 years old! If he even broke through to the Majors,
he’d play what, one or two good years, maybe? He is not the answer at second for
the Astros.

Corpus Christi has a guy named German Duran. In 64 games for the Hooks this
year he is hitting .284, but his slugging percentage is not much higher. And
again, he’s a little old for someone that is going to be the second baseman of
the future. Typically you would want someone that is going to be around for a
while. He has made it as high as AAA, but did not produce at that level. Let’s
say he has a good season with the Express next season. So he cracks the big
leagues at 28? Not the solution.

Here’s my point:
it looks like the future second baseman is coming from, at the highest,
Single-A (even if they sign DeShields). There is a whole mess of second basemen
in Single-A, including a ton of former ValleyCats (Barry Butera, Andrew
Simunic, and Jose Altuve). Right now Albert Cartwright leads all candidates. He
was just promoted to Corpus Christi after batting .319 with Lancaster JetHawks.
He had 26 doubles, 13 triples, and 10 homers, which are awesome numbers for a
second baseman. He is turning 23 in October, so age is not a factor, but he has
committed 20 errors so far this season (which is the most in the California
league by eight). But if I had to pick a runner-up, it has to be Kik&eacute Hernandez. He is a great hitter, is creeping up for
the league-lead in doubles, is pretty good defensively, and oh yeah, he is only
18 years old! He has so much time and room for improvement. Power develops in
your 20′s, so imagine the numbers he’ll put up if he starts hitting home runs.
Look out!

At this point, if
you are still reading this props to you. Typically blogs are not really wordy.
Like I said earlier, I did not expect this entry to be nearly this long. I got
caught up in the whole thing and ideas kept coming out. I can break down each
position for everyone depending on the reaction of the public. So positive
comments = break down position-by-position.

The Astros are
turning the page on this season and opening a new chapter to hopefully bring
this team back to a World Series. They traded some big contracts away, opening
up the books to sign high draft picks (like DeShields). It might take a while,
but the talent is out there. There is some right here in Troy that could
easily be playing in the Majors in a few years.

Evan Valenti

Walk-off Notebook

6,130 fans were on hand to see Friday night’s game – the fourth-largest crowd ever at The Joe – and they saw the most exciting contest there this season. The ValleyCats fell into a 5-1 hole and seemed headed for another disappointing loss, but Adam Bailey’s seventh-inning grand slam tied the game. Lowell scored in the ninth to force extras, where the ‘Cats have had bad luck this season – 1-6 in those games entering Friday – but Dan Adamson hit a no-doubt, walk-off homer to left-center, giving the ‘Cats a dramatic 7-6 victory.

Adamson certainly strikes out a lot – his 44 whiffs lead the team – but he has been arguably the most productive ValleyCat, pacing them with a .828 OPS. (The team OPS rankings are pretty ridiculous right now, by the way; Adamson is only one-thousandth ahead of Tyler Burnett and Ben Heath, who are each at .827.) Last night’s walk-off was certainly his biggest hit of the season. Adamson said afterward he didn’t know if it was gone right away – he put his head down and ran hard to first – but everyone else sure did. Bailey, in the on-deck circle, threw his bat and began celebrating as soon as the ball left the bat.

Bailey made a great play to end the top of the inning. Speedy centerfielder Felix Sanchez drew a one-out walk and tried to tag on a long foul ball by Jose Garcia, but Bailey fired a from right field to nail Sanchez at second.

Aside from a pair of late walks to Sanchez – one which came back to hurt, one which didn’t – the Tri-City bullpen came up big. Jason Chowning allowed two runs plus on einherited but fanned four in 2.2 innings. The enigmatic Murillo Gouvea had his second strong outing in a row, scattering two hits amidst four strikeouts in two frames. Closer Jorge De Leon did not allow a hit in his two innings of work, and Brandt Walker earned the win with a scoreless eleventh.

The Spinners’ only run in the final six innings came in the ninth. Sanchez earned a walk off De Leon, and when I say “earned” I mean it, as he fouled off six to keep a 12-pitch at-bat alive. Sanchez was bunted over to second and took third when catcher Buck Afenir got crossed up on a pitch. With the infield in, Kolbrin Vitek hit a two-hopper at shortstop Oscar Figueroa, but Sanchez’s speed forced a wide throw home.

It was a shame to see the game turn on a Figueroa error, because the shortstop otherwise played brilliantly in this series. He made a great play in the second inning, ranging far up the middle to grab a Joantoni Garcia grounder and making the throw to first. He also showed great range to his right, getting a couple balls that seemed sure to get through the third-base hole, but each time the batter was too fast to make a play.

Figueroa also had a great pick and tag in the first inning to nail Sanchez on a steal attempt. Afenir made a great throw on the play and Andrew Robinson did a good job of holding on Sanchez, who leads the NYPL with 18 steals. Afenir also threw out David Renfroe trying to take second in the eighth.

Robinson was making his first professional start – and his first in 15 months, as he was a spot starter at Georgia Tech in 2009 and a full-time reliever in 2010 – and seemed a little off his game. The righty came into Friday with the best walk rate in the NYPL, but had some control issues against Lowell. He only issued one walk – and that came only when Brandon Jacobs worked a nine-pitch at-bat in the fourth – but worked into a lot of hitters’ counts, falling behind five of the first seven Spinners. Both runs he allowed in the second were unearned, although the first reached base when Robinson failed to corral a soft grounder.

Lowell starter Madison Younginer, a highly-touted 2009 draft pick, has a very unconventional delivery, bringing the ball back behind his body to knee-level and slinging it above his head. It hasn’t worked very well for him so far this year – 7.78 ERA, 18 BB and 18 SO entering Friday – but the ValleyCats had trouble with it. Adamson doubled in the second, leading to the first run of the game, but Burnett picked up the only other hit off the righty.

The ‘Cats had much more success against the Lowell bullpen. Tyler Burnett led off the seventh with a single off Charle Rosario, Mike Kvasnicka drew a walk and Afenir singled up the middle, loading the bases. Adamson fanned, but Bailey delivered the team’s first grand slam of the season. It was his third longball of 2010 and his second hit to clear the second fence in right field, landing just behind the CSEA sign beyond the foul pole.

Burnett went 3-for-4 and extended his hit streak to 10 games, and again got things started in the eighth. Tyler Lockwood sent both Wilton Infante and Kik&eacute Hernandez down swinging with breaking balls in the dirt, but Burnett singled to right and Kvasnicka followed with another walk. Afenir singled up the middle yet again, and Sanchez’s throw was much too soft to catch Burnett at the plate.

Lowell righty Roman Mendez was traded to the Texas organization today as part of a package that sent Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Boston. The ValleyCats wish the teams had pulled the trigger a couple days earlier, as Mendez threw well and earned the victory on Thursday. Mendez gave up a homer to Ben Heath and a fourth-inning run but was impressive, sitting around 97 mph with the ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun.

Alex Sogard made his second start of the season on Thursday. He threw a lot of curveballs, even to righties, and had a lot of success with his pitch, using it to strike out the side in the second. Unfortunately, the Spinners jumped all over his fastball, tagging the lefty for eight runs in 2+ innings. Kolbrin Vitek made the third out in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd innings for Lowell, which sent nine batters in each of the latter two innings.

The ValleyCats’ bullpen came up big, holding the Spinners no runs and only one hit – a Vitek dribbler past the pitcher – over the final six innings. But the damage was already done. Adamson made a terrific catch on a deep Bryce Brentz fly in the fourth, going way back to catch a ball over his head; Jacobs was so surprised to see the ball caught that he could not score from third base, even though Adamson was nearly 400 feet from home.

Brentz has strugggled all season to the tune of a .178 batting average, but had a terrific Thursday at the plate. The right fielder went 2-for-4 and could have had four hits; Adamson robbed him of one (and Jacobs of a sac fly), and he hit a sharp liner right at Wilton Infante in left field in the ninth. Brentz walked once, doubled and drove in two.

Had Lowell held on to win on Friday and take two of three from the ValleyCats, it would have been the first time the Spinners won a series all season.

Tri-City plays three games this weekend at Connecticut, including a Saturday doubleheader. Reliever John Frawley was sent up from Greenville to help add some pitching depth for the rough stretch.

Kevin Whitaker

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