Halfway Home: ValleyCats Midseason Review
By Matt Appel (@mattappel)
After a 1-0 win over the Renegades in Hudson Valley last night, the ValleyCats had played their 38th game, which is half of the regular season games on their 2013 schedule. It has certainly been a first half to remember in Troy, as for the second straight season, the ValleyCats have the best record in the New York-Penn League at the halfway mark. Their 26-12 mark has been led by a league-best pitching staff, strong defense, and enough hitting to get by in almost every game. Let’s take an in-depth examination of how the ValleyCats have emerged as the team to beat in the season’s first half.
Pitching: Through the first 38 team games, the Tri-City pitching staff has registered a 2.51 ERA, the best in the league. In 334.0 innings, ValleyCats pitchers have allowed just 274 hits and a league-low 64 walks, for a total of 338 base runners. That equates to a 1.01 WHIP, by far the best mark amongst the 14 teams in the league. In fact, the next closest team is Brooklyn, who allow 1.15 base runners per inning. In 15 games, well over one-third of the season thus far, opposing teams have scored two or fewer runs, and un-surprisingly, the ‘Cats are 14-1 in those games. In 22 games, which is more than half the slate, the ValleyCats hurlers have surrendered three or fewer runs, resulting in wins 18 times in that span.
The most runs that the ‘Cats have given up in a game this year is eight on July 9th versus Aberdeen, but even that contest was tied at two heading into extras before the Ironbirds erupted for six runs in the tenth. Outside of that game (or really, one inning), no opponent has scored more than five runs in any game. In an unbelievable stretch, ValleyCats starting pitchers went 48.2 scoreless innings from July 5th until July 15th. Yes, you read that correctly. The ‘Cats were 8-3 during that streak.
The ValleyCats have had ten starters for most of the year, as a piggybacking system has been implemented throughout the Astros organization this season. With so many starters getting a considerable amount of innings, you would figure that a few are bound to get knocked around a little bit. However, of the eleven pitchers to start at least two games for the ‘Cats this year, 2013 #1 overall pick Mark Appel included, all of them have ERA’s under 5.00, ten of them have ERA’s under 4.00, and nine have ERA’s of 3.00 or less. It is hard to determine who has been the most impressive of the starters. Michael Feliz is among the league-leaders in ERA and strikeouts. There is Tanner Bushue, the NYPL Pitcher of the Week of the week ending July 14th, who has the lowest WHIP in the NYPL at 0.76, just barely ahead of Feliz at 0.90. Even though he doesn’t have enough innings to qualify, Chris Cotton has dazzled on the mound, allowing just one earned run in his first 17.2 IP, good for a 0.51 ERA. Zach Morton has a 1.07 ERA in seven appearances. Andrew Thurman has looked the part of a second round draft pick. The list goes on and on…
Out of the bullpen, Chia-Jen Lo was dominating during his rehab stint with the team, registering four saves. Richard Rodriguez has a 16:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13.2 IP. J.D. Osborne has been amazing since his call-up from Greenville, striking out the side in two of his three appearances, and looks to be the closer of this team going forward. The depth of this pitching staff has put the ValleyCats in a most favorable of positions to be the favorite to take home the NYPL title come September.
Offense: After the ValleyCats scored 30 runs in their first four games, they had the look of an unstoppable machine. While they have certainly come back to earth in their last 34 games, they are still formidable, albeit somewhat streaky. Dan Gulbransen led the way early before a much-earned promotion. In 15 games, the second-year ‘Cat hit .397 with three HR and 13 RBI. He was named the NYPL Player of the Week for the week ending on June 30th, a seven-day span in which he hit .500 with two homers and eight runs driven in. Since his promotion, the offense has at times struggled to put up runs consistently, but still rank third in the league in runs scored. Tony Kemp, the fifth round pick of the Astros this year, has been the team’s best player since Opening Day. He has appeared in all 38 games, and has been a run-generator like no other player on this team. The 2013 SEC Player of the Year is hitting .287/.364/.364 with one HR, 12 RBI, 22 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases. While he is in a little slump right now (9-for-41 in his last ten games), he projects to be the most important player offensively at the top of the Tri-City lineup for Ed Romero.
Michael Martinez has become the every-day cleanup hitter for the ‘Cats, and for good reason. Despite just a .242 average, Martinez leads the club with five HR and 18 RBI. The 36th round pick in 2012 of the Astros has hit one-fifth of the longballs for the ValleyCats, who lead the league in home runs with 25. In a lineup that is very left-handed heavy, Martinez can been able to balance the order with a good amount of pop from the right side. James Ramsay has also been a very consistent and reliable player for the ‘Cats offensively. Thanks to a .419 average in his last ten games, the seventh round pick of Houston this year has a team-best .304 average (amongst league qualifiers). In 32 games, mostly in center field, Ramsay has two HR and 14 RBI, and has walked more than he has struck out. A prototypical two-hole hitter, Ramsay’s production has picked up as he has become more accustomed to professional play.
Conrad Gregor has shown great potential in spurts this year, but is still without a great stretch of games consecutively. The first baseman is hitting .243/.364/.287 with just one homer and 14 RBI. If the ‘Cats can get Gregor, their number three hitter in the lineup just about every day, to get into a solid groove, their offensive production figures to drastically improve.
The Tri-City lineup has proved, for the most part, to be pretty top-heavy, which would be one improvement the team could make going forward. Chan Moon has done a very good job at short, and provides a little relief in his typical spot at the bottom of the order. Ryan Dineen, Jon Kemmer, and the catching duo of Ernesto Genoves and Jake Rodriguez have all had streaks, but as a whole, are not totally reliable from game to game to produce offense. Kemmer appears to be coming on with two homers in his last four games, but is still hitting just .206.
The ValleyCats are averaging 4.39 runs per game at the half way mark, and that run total has seemed to represent a magic number. When scoring at least four runs, the team is 20-1. With runners in scoring position, the ‘Cats rank sixth in the league with a .244 average, which is a spot that the team could stand to improve in the second half as well. There was a week-and-a-half span from July 2nd through July 9th in which the ‘Cats didn’t eclipse five runs scored in any game, scoring two runs or fewer seven times. The offense at points has looked lethal, and at other points, has been a weakness on this team. If they strike a balance in the second half, their chances of being crowned champions can only improve.
Defense: While the aforementioned strength of the ValleyCats pitching is well-documented, some of the credit belongs to the great play of the team in the field. So far, Tri-City has a league-best .977 fielding percentage, and has made just 33 errors, tied for State College for the fewest in the league. Conrad Gregor at first, Tony Kemp at second, and Ryan Dineen at third, have all played exceptionally well with the glove. As a team, the ‘Cats have allowed just 20 unearned runs, second fewest only to Aberdeen’s 15. ValleyCats catchers have allowed just two passed balls this year, fewest in the NYPL. They have also thrown out 44% of would-be stealers, the second-highest clip of any team. Great pitching can sometimes be hindered by sub-par defense, especially at this level, but that has not been the case for the ValleyCats in the first half.
Now it’s time for a staple of every midseason recap: the meaningless award/prediction section!
MVP: It’s got to be Tony Kemp. Other players on the roster have been either very hot or very cold for a week at a time, while Kemp has been a consistent (for the overwhelming majority of the time) force leading off for the ‘Cats. It would be a mild upset if Kemp were not named to the All-Star team in a few weeks. Between his contributions at the plate and in the field, the Tri-City second baseman gets the nod here. Runner Up: Michael Martinez.
Cy Young: Michael Feliz, who, mind you, is just 19 years of age, has been the best pitcher for the ‘Cats this season. In fact, you could make a case he’s been the league’s best pitcher as well. Despite being just 3-2 on the season, Feliz has been phenomenal since the year began. His worst start was a five-inning, two-run performance on July 23rd in Hudson Valley. Feliz has over a 6:1 K:BB ratio in 33.1 IP. His 1.62 ERA is the second-lowest in the league. He is holding opposing hitters to a .200 batting average. Did I mention that he is 19 years old? I did? Well, it needed to be said again. Runner Up: Tanner Bushue (I would have gone with Cotton, but he’s only been with the team for three weeks-ish).
Game of the 1st Half: The game of the first half comes all the way back on June 20th, the ValleyCats first road game of the season. Playing in Lowell, the ‘Cats were trailing 5-0 going into the top of the eighth. They scored three times in that inning, and then scored twice more in the ninth to complete the incredible comeback, pulling even with the Spinners. In the 11th, the ‘Cats scored three times to take an 8-5 lead, which would wind up being the final. The five-run comeback is the biggest deficit the team has overcome this year. Runner Up: A 2-1 win on July 8th over Aberdeen which featured Ryan Dineen’s walk-off HR
Moment of the First Half: This is as predictable as it gets, but it has to be the debut of Mark Appel on July 5th. Appel became the first #1 overall pick to play for the ValleyCats when he started that night against Lowell. Appel received a no-decision in both of his starts, but they will go down as two of the most memorable no-decisions in team history. Runner Up: Dineen’s walk-off homer. 2nd Runner Up (because that play already was mentioned): Jon Kemmer making a crazy catch up against the left field wall in the top of the ninth of a 4-3 win over Hudson Valley on July 22nd to preserve the ‘Cats lead.
2nd Half Predictions: It would be an incredible turn of events if the ValleyCats don’t go on to win the Stedler Division. However, anything can happen (just ask the 2010 ‘Cats about that). I think the team will hold on to win their second straight division championship, a first in team history. Tony Kemp, Michael Feliz, Michael Martinez, James Ramsay, Chris Cotton and Tanner Bushue get named to the All-Star team. Towards the middle of next month, in a repeat of what happened last year, some of the team’s better players will start to get called up and damage the chemistry of the team slightly. They will still end the year with the best record in the NYPL, locking up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Unless the entire pitching staff gets called up, it’s hard to not envision the ValleyCats not walking away with the organization’s second title in four years at season’s end.