What have we learned?

The season is 30 percent complete, and the team is coming off its first official off day. So let’s step back a bit and take a look at what we’ve learned about this year’s ValleyCats so far:

The starting rotation is good. Euris Quezada has not had the best start to the season, going 0-3 with an 8.83 ERA, but the other four-fifths of the rotation has been anywhere from good to excellent. Juri Perez has the highest ERA of the four at 3.55, and this doesn’t feel unsustainable – all four of these pitchers have the stuff and command to be very good at this level. If the ‘Cats can get the fifth spot figured out, it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see this rotation go on a run like the 2010 team did last August, when all five starters had an ERA below three for the entire month. Now that players have had a few starts under their belt, Tri-City and other teams will be more willing to let their starters go into the sixth and seventh innings, which will magnify the Cats’ starting pitching advantage.

The star of the rotation so far has been Kyle Hallock, who has completed at least five innings in every start and has yet to allow more than two earned runs. Anytime you’re among the league leaders in K/9 and BB/9, as Hallock is entering tonight’s start at Batavia, you’re doing something right. The southpaw has 25 strikeouts against two walks, the best such ratio in the league so far, and ranks fourth with a 0.78 WHIP.

If there’s one candidate for regression among the Cats’ top four starters, it may be Jonas Dufek. Check out these splits: with nobody on base, opponents are hitting .410/.500/.645 off Dufek. But with men on, he becomes “Jonasty,” holding hitters to a .158/.200/.211 line. And with men in scoring position? .114/.184/.200. In a nutshell, Dufek has allowed lots of runners to reach base but has pitched extremely well under pressure. That’s great to see from a mental standpoint, but it’s not likely to be sustainable over a full season – if runners keep reaching base, hitters will eventually get lucky and have bloopers or line drives fall in critical situations, and runs will score. (Of course, leadoff batters aren’t likely to keep getting on base 64 percent of the time either, so it all may even out.)

DIPS likes the pitching staff even more. The ‘Cats have done well in all of the “three true outcome” categories – the team ranks fifth in strikeout rate (K/9), fourth in walk rate and fourth in home run rate allowed. Though they rank sixth in ERA, I have them third in the league in FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching). The difference can be explained by a .323 batting average on balls in play, the third-highest in the NYPL.

Now, a major caveat here: when discussing major-league pitchers, BABIP has been shown to have very little predictive value for pitchers – that is, what happens to a ball in play is mostly due to factors that are outside the pitcher’s control. This is not necessarily true for minor-league pitchers. Minor-league players – especially at a low level such as the NY-Penn League – are very different than major-league pitchers, and it would be reasonable to think that some minor-league pitchers consistently throw pitches that are more likely to go for base hits. (These pitchers would usually be weeded out before reaching the majors.)

In short: while the strong fielding-independent statistics and the high BABIP do suggest that the pitchers have been unlucky (and/or that the defense behind them has been poor), the evidence for that is not as strong as similar major-league numbers would be.

The offense needs improvement. This isn’t as clear-cut as you might expect: the ‘Cats actually rank eighth in the league with 4.43 runs per game, though they’re closer to eleventh (Brooklyn) than seventh (Hudson Valley). What’s not obvious is how exactly they’re doing it. Tri-City ranks 12th in batting average (.236), 12th in slugging percentage (.326) and tied for 10th in on-base percentage (.319), a profile that doesn’t usually lead to a league-average offense.

Only one team has left fewer runners on base than the ‘Cats. You could make a convincing argument that the ValleyCats are one of the better baserunning teams in the league, and generally good lineup construction has helped, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of this simply comes down to the team getting timely hits at a rate that may not be sustainable.

Plate discipline is not the problem. It feels like batters have watched a lot of third strikes go by at Joe Bruno Stadium this year, and fans of every team feel like their hitters strike out too much, but the ValleyCats’ problem is not their pitch recognition. The ‘Cats are striking out in a tick under 18 percent of their plate appearances, one of the best marks in the NYPL and well below the league average of 20 percent. They have drawn 83 walks against 155 strikeouts, the third-best ratio in the league.

But the ‘Cats just aren’t doing enough when they make contact. Despite playing in Joe Bruno Stadium, recently the league’s best home run park, Tri-City ranks dead last in the league with six dingers, even after hitting three in its last two games. I’d expect a better showing than that in the final 53 games – powerful hitters like Brandon Meredith and Kellen Kiilsgaard will hopefully return to the lineup, and guys like Zach Johnson and Miles Hamblin have shown the potential to hit for more power than they have so far – but this isn’t an offense that will be having too many one-swing rallies.

These outfielders can throw. Okay, we knew that from the start. Drew Muren leads the league with five outfield assists, and Justin Gominsky is tied for second with four. As a team, the ‘Cats have a league-best 11 outfield assists in 23 games, which the pitching staff must love.

Guess what? The ValleyCats have been unlucky. At this time last year, the ValleyCats were 9-14, but they had scored roughly as many runs as they had allowed. I argued that they would play better for the rest of the season, and sure enough they did, greatly surpassing even my expectations.

Well, it’s a year later, and the ValleyCats are 9-14. And guess what? They’ve only been outscored by two runs (104-102). Run differential is a better predictor of future performance than wins and losses. It certainly doesn’t mean another miraculous playoff run is coming – and a slew of difficult opponents in the next two weeks won’t make it easy for the ‘Cats to make a charge soon – but it means we should expect them to play more like a .500 team for the rest of the season than a .400 team. (14-8 Vermont, incidentally, has outscored its opponents by only one run, meaning the Lake Monsters could come back to the pack in the Stedler Division.)

So although 2011 hasn’t started the way the ValleyCats and their fans would have liked, we could still see some good baseball at “The Joe” over the final seven weeks of the season.

Kevin Whitaker

2 Comments

You know, I was just looking at Brandon Meredith in particular yesterday. His OBP is solid at .421, and by my count (home games only), he’s had 16 plate appearances of five pitches or more –seven of those 6+. In those PAs, he’s 4-10 with six walks and three strikeouts.

I’d love to see him at the top of the lineup, even though he’s not as quick as Hinson or Gominsky. I’ve noticed that he’s a huge instigator to this team’s rallies, and I’d love a guy with that good of a plate discipline at the top of the game.

I’d have to back this up by researching my scorecards, of course, but off the top of my head I don’t recall many Hinson or Gominsky at bats where they saw that many pitches.

Kevin thanks for that detailed analysis. While I don’t believe team statistics are useful in predicting anything, they definitely help in comparing what the ‘Cats have done relative to their peers. One of the things statistics can never quantify is the heart shown by the team in Monday night’s comeback. Yes, it fell short, but being down that much and getting the potential tying run to third is something I hope these young men can build on.

Those outfield assists have been a joy to watch. Great throws at the front end by Drew and Justin and solid performances with the catch and tag by Miles Hamblin and Ryan McCurdy at the back end. If NYPL teams are paying attention to scouting reports, the ‘Cats may lose some of the ‘outs’ those strong, accurate arms have been providing.

My favorite part of your report is the reminder that the ‘Cats are right where they were last year after 23 games. Let’s hope we can work our way to .500 in the next few weeks. Then we can start having dreams of another miracle finish.

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