‘Cats Have Chance to Prove They’re For Real
by: Evan Valenti
I am honestly running out of new adjectives and superlatives to describe how good this year’s Tri-City ValleyCats team is. Amazing. Hot. Well-rounded. Incredible. Dominant (feel free to add your own personal adjectives in the comments section). Even using those, I feel like I am still underrating and undervaluing how well this team has performed over the first 44 games.
Heading into the New York-Penn League All-Star Game, the ValleyCats are 40-14 (best record in the NYPL and shockingly off to the best start in team history), have the highest winning percentage in all of Minor League Baseball, have a commanding 14-game lead over second place Lowell, and are near the top, if not number one, in almost every statistical category. Oh yeah, they have also only lost one series so far this year (a three-game sweep at the hands of the State College Spikes).
They do it with pitching, defense (second lowest in NYPL with 59 errors), speed, and hitting (both for average and power). They’re a five-tool team. And the most important part of that is the word ‘TEAM”.
The biggest issue with Tri-City this season has been their offense. They have had some troubled times at the plate, mainly when they are not patient. Yes, they just lost the league-MVP Andrew Aplin to High-A Lancaster. Yes, the team home run leader, catcher Jobduan Morales, was also promoted. Those two were keys in the ‘Cats stout offense. But like a well-oiled machine, manager Stubby Clapp has the right pieces to replace those two (and lefty reliever Kenny Long) to keep the cog maintaining at peak performance.
Outfielder Preston Tucker has hit five home runs in his first 21 games in Troy, equaling the number put up by Morales (which he did in 37 games). Tucker is a ferocious hitter, pulverizing opposing pitchers with scorching line drive after scorching line drive. But what he adds cannot be undersold: his experience on the big stage. Tucker played with a premier collegiate program, Florida, which reached the College World Series numerous times. In postseason play, Tucker hit a combined .368 in 30 NCAA tournament games with ten doubles, 11 home runs, and 41 RBI.
Tyler Heineman, now that he has enough at-bats, has taken the batting title crown from Aplin, and given his production over the past two months, has no intentions on giving it up. Batavia’s Breyvic Valera has the best shot, but he’s over 30 points behind Heineman (who’s currently hitting .366). He has collected a hit in every game so far in August (he’s hitting .417 this month) and has shown a great approach at the plate. He never tries to do too much with a pitch. He takes what the pitcher gives him and simply puts it where people are not. He is hitting over .300 from both sides of the plate and is another experienced collegian the ‘Cats can rely on.
Despite those two break-out players, M.P. Cokinos could end up being the “x-factor” for the ‘Cats offensively. I will admit, it is sort of a cop-out. He has not played much so far this season, so what you might get from him is honestly unknown, making him a prime candidate for the “x-factor” label. He’s off to a good start (14-last 33) and has received an increase in playing time since the Time Warner Cable Customer Appreciation Night against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, where he went 2-4 with a home run and two RBI.
The ValleyCats received a visit from Astros Hitting Coordinator Ty Van Burkleo in late-July/early-August, and Cokinos took full advantage of that. He was a sponge while Van Burkleo was in town, soaking up as much knowledge as possible. Literally, after every round of batting practice Cokinos would head behind the cage and break down his swing with Van Burkleo. I’m not sure what was said during those conversations, but they seem to have paid off for the ValleyCats backstop.
Between Tucker, Heineman, and Cokinos (with also Neiko Johnson sprinkled in as well), Stubby Clapp and the ‘Cats should have no trouble replacing the production of Aplin and Morales, which is the TRUE sign of a team. If they can do that they will prove something that has been discussed among people around the NYPL: The ValleyCats are simply just better than everyone else in almost every facet of the game.
This season is going to be one for the record books. But remember folks: It is not how you start, it is how you finish.