Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

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?

Photobucket

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.

===

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)

Photobucket

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

Notebook: Going Green

Last night was our annual “Going Green” celebration here at Joe Bruno Stadium, where the park was environment-themed. Elliot Travis has more:

We also had a special seventh-inning stretch, featuring “Take Me Out to the Green Game,” written by our e-friend Mike Tauser. Mike is the man behind Farmstros and the creator of the incredibly creative “Quest for 3,000 Syllables”. He is tweeting 3,000 syllables about the Houston farm system in 2010, in haiku form – which works out to 177 haikus for the summer. Previous haikus about the ValleyCats include:

Talk about control
Just two walks by Quevedo
He has started six

And from last night:

Valley Cats go green
Do their part for the planet
Win the game as well

You can read all 2,278 and counting of Mike’s syllables here.

The ValleyCats won their third consecutive game, the first time this season they have had a three-game win streak. Lowell has not exactly been the toughest opponent this season and four of the ‘Cats’ five runs were unearned, but make no mistake, they deserved to win this game.

Tri-City committed a pair of its own errors but also had some great defensive plays. Kik&eacute Hernandez had the play of the night, when he made a sliding forehand deep in the outfield grass and threw to first to get Bryce Brentz by a step. Hernandez started the play near his regular position, but by the time he reached the ball he was about where the second baseman plays on an overshift, 15-20 feet beyond the infield dirt.

Shortstop Oscar Figueroa made a great snag of a ball to his right, and if the runner had been anybody but the speedy Felix Sanchez he would have gotten an out. Ben Orloff made two nice plays ranging to his left at third base, and Ben Heath made a pair of good throws to second; the first was too late to catch Sanchez, although the play was closer than any of us expected, and the second nailed James Kang on a steal attempt.

Jake Buchanan was easily the best I’ve seen from him, and he’s now had two consecutive strong starts (5+ IP, 1 ER in each). Both Buchanan and manager Jim Pankovits attributed his success to an aggressive approach; the righty did not walk a batter all game, and only once reached a three-ball count. He fanned five Spinners, going up the ladder with a couple fastballs and getting others with nice curves. (We have been having radar gun issues, so I don’t have velocities.)

And the ‘Cats hit. The hosts picked up 11 safeties, and had lots of chances to score. They only scored one run in the second despite racking up four hits; a double play grounder limited the damage. And in the sixth, Tyler Burnett appeared to score from third on a grounder off the bat of Mike Kvasnicka, but he was called out at home. I thought Burnett beat the tag, as did most everybody else in the press box; Burnett agreed after the game.

Although Burnett hits quite a few balls to the gaps, I doubt he’ll get another triple – the first baseman is not the slowest player on the team, but far from the fastest. His three-bagger yesterday came as sort of a fluke – Brentz dove after a popup down the line and landed hard as the ball rolled fifty feet or so away from him.

Kvasnicka had two hits, including a double, continuing to stay hot and extending his hit streak to nine games. Afenir, Hernandez and Burnett each have now hit safely in eight consecutive games.

Brandt Walker, coincidentally, issued the game’s only two walks, and Brentz scored the tying run after doubling in the seventh. But the ‘Cats got it right back and more, scoring three runs in their half of the inning on three hits and a misplayed bunt.

Mike Ness made things interesting in the ninth inning, loading the bases and putting the tying run on, but held on for the two-inning save. Ness fanned four, freezing a pair of Spinners in the final frame on pitches that might have been a couple inches off the plate. Ness now leads the team with four saves.

The ‘Cats look to keep the hot streak going with two more home games against Lowell, who fell to a league-worst 8-31.

Kevin Whitaker

Midseason Report

Today marks the midway point in the NY-Penn League season. 38 of the 76 scheduled games are remaining, although some teams have a couple more due to weather postponments. Tri-City has played 36 games and stands at 15-21. The ValleyCats seem certain to finish out of the cellar for the first time since 2006 – they’re already eight games up on 8-30 Lowell – but the record is still a bit of a disappointment to a team that has seemed inconsistent.

The pitching was scary good early in the year, while the offense was scary in a completely different sense, threatening the Mendoza line with a June batting average of .192. But both sides have gone closer to league-average levels. At the midway point, the ‘Cats are batting .243 and rank eighth in the league with 170 runs scored. Their ERA is up to 4.08, and only four of the league’s 14 teams have allowed more than their 179 runs.

Quite a few ValleyCats have heated up in the past week or two. Mike Kvasnicka was batting just .152 and slugging .207 ten days ago, but has been on fire for the past week. In his last eight games, Kvasnicka is batting 15-for-36 (.417) with two homers, six extra-base hits and 11 RBI.

A couple of reserves have earned more playing time with recent hot streaks. Tonight’s DH Buck Afenir has gone 5-for-11 in the team’s last ten games to raise his season batting average to .314. Afenir’s biggest hit came at Cooperstown on Saturday, when his pinch-hit double in the ninth inning brought home Dan Adamson with the game-tying run. Shortstop Jacke Healey had only four hits on the season at the start of last week, but homered in back-to-back games against Brooklyn and Aberdeen, then had consecutive two-hit games at Vermont over the weekend.

Kik&eacute Hernandez has been unstoppable for the entire month of July. The second baseman hit just .152 in the first month of the season but has hit safely in 20 of 21 games this month, upping his season average to .295.

Here’s a look at where everybody in the NYPL stands thus far, sorted by run differential:

Photobucket

The last column represents the number of games Tri-City has remaining against each team. As you can see, the schedule was pretty front-loaded, and the ValleyCats will generally face easier opponents from here on out. That starts with a three-game home series against Lowell tonight – the Spinners come in having lost 13 of their last 14 contests. Only 14 of the ‘Cats’ 39 remaining games come against teams that currently have a positive run differential. (Note: this assumes they will not make up the rained-out game against Jamestown, which will only be played if it has playoff implications at the end of the season.)

The ValleyCats have unlucky this year – we would have expected them to win 17 games based on their run differential, when they are actually 15-21. And they’ve faced a tough schedule to this point, playing a lot of games against the league’s better teams. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the ValleyCats to play .500 or even a bit better in the second half.

Their playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Brooklyn currently has the league’s best record, at 25-13. If the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind. So even if the ‘Cats play .650 ball from here on out – which only one team did in the first half – they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

But that doesn’t mean the season is lost. The ValleyCats seem very likely to post their best record since 2006, and may be able to reach .500 by the end of the season. For a team that seemed incapable of scoring a run one month ago, that wouldn’t be a bad ending.

Kevin Whitaker

Cooperstown Notebook

The ValleyCats made a special trip down to Cooperstown today, playing their annual meeting against the Tigers at Doubleday Field. The game coincides with the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend – Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog will be officially inducted tomorrow afternoon – so the town is always full of excitement and energy. Combined with the historic nature of the field and area, it’s a great atmosphere for a ballgame.

Things are a little crazier this year, because the Tigers moved to Connecticut in the offseason. When they played in Oneonta, the Cooperstown game was a perfect fit, but this time around the ‘Cats have a very rough travel schedule: they finished a game at Aberdeen on Thursday night; drove nearly six hours up to Norwich, CT on Friday for a game that was postponed due to rain; spent four hours on the bus to get to Cooperstown for the 1:00 start today; and embarked on a 4.5-hour trip after the game to Vermont, where they will play at 1:05 tomorrow (Sunday).

But despite the crazy schedule, the players seemed pretty excited to play on Doubleday Field. They certainly got their money’s worth, playing a 13-inning marathon (longest of the season) that lasted three hours and 36 minutes and forced me to use a second scoresheet for the first time this season (mine go to 11). I was kind of wishing the game had taken place at home, just to see the kind of chaos that would have exploded on the whiteboard. 17 ValleyCats and 18 Tigers appeared in the game, including three pinch-runners, two pinch-hitters and eleven pitchers.

Each team had quite a few chances to put the game away – eleven different runners reached scoring position in the ninth and extras – so there were quite a few interesting tactical decisions made in the late innings. Here are some of the ones worth pointing out:

Look into the box score, and you’ll see an unusual move in the top of the ninth inning – the ValleyCats pinch-hit for their DH with their backup catcher. That doesn’t happen often. Now, nobody will argue it was the wrong decision – it regained the platoon advantage with lefty Logan Hoch on the mound, and Stanley isn’t exactly killing the ball regardless – and the results backed that up, as Afenir came through with the biggest hit of the day, a line-drive double to right-center that plated Dan Adamson.

On the very next batter, Connecticut made a decision that I think more teams in this league should copy. Jacke Healey pinch-ran for Afenir, and the ‘Cats were pretty clearly going to bunt – Wilton Infante, one of their best bunters, was batting, and the go-ahead run was on second. Connecticut aggressively blitzed Infante on the pitch, so that when Infante laid the bunt down, the first baseman was no more than 30 feet from the plate. It worked, as Infante bunted the ball right back to the pitcher, who had plenty of time to nail Healey at third. It was a poor bunt by Infante, but given how Connecticut played it, he would have needed to execute a very good bunt down the third-base line to successfully advance the runner. Most teams I’ve seen will play more conservatively in that situation, conceding the runner’s advancement while getting the batter out. I’m not a fan of playing exclusively for one run in that situation to begin with, but if teams are going to predictably bunt in those situations, it’s possible to exploit it and get the lead runner out more often.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, lefty Chao-Ting Tang came up with one on and one out against southpaw Travis Blankenship, and I thought for sure a pinch-hitter was coming, but Connecticut left him in. Tang hit a line drive, but it became a 6-3 double play when pinch-runner Matt Mansilla strayed too farr off first. (That was a perplexing play in its own right – Tang’s ball wasn’t hit all that hard, and it was obvious to everyone in the ballpark except Mansilla that it would be caught.) There are plenty of reasons to let Tang hit in that situation, so I didn’t think much of it until the 13th inning. Tang came up again in that frame with one on and one out against a lefty (Adam Champion)…but this time, the Tigers pinch-hit with righty Chris Sedon. That didn’t work out for them either, as Sedon struck out, setting the stage for Ryan Soares’s game-winning single. But I’m not sure what happened between the ninth and 13th innings to make pinch-hitting suddenly seem like a good idea (especially because, if I were to pick one to have a bigger expected platoon split, I’d definitely go with Blankenship over Champion as being relatively tougher on lefties).

‘Cats manager Jim Pankovits did a great job of managing his bullpen in extra innings. Blankenship was deep into his second inning of work when he got Josh Ashenbrenner to ground into a fielder’s choice for the second out. That put runners on first and third with righty Alex Nunez coming up – the Tigers’ cleanup hitter, who had two hits already in the game – and I thought for sure Blankenship would come out of the game for a righty. Blankenship has done well against right-handed hitters so far this year, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable – he comes from a low arm slot and throws a lot of breaking balls, two qualities that tend to make a pitcher vulnerable to opposite-handed batters. But Pankovits stuck with Blankenship, and it worked out in the end. He got Nunez down 1-2, then hit him with a breaking ball – which was better than leaving one out over the plate, given the situation. Then he induced an easy ground ball from the next batter, lefty Eric Roof, getting out of the jam.

Pankovits made another interesting decision in the 12th. With one out and PJ Polk on third, he had Brandt Walker intentionally walk Josh Ashenbrenner to pitch to Nunez. The reasoning for this wasn’t very obvious at the time – it seemed a sideways move at best, one that wasn’t necessarily detrimental but somewhat pointless. The ValleyCats weren’t setting up a double play – they kept the infield in after the walk – nor were they loading the bases to set up a force at home. I didn’t have stats with me at the time, but I checked and sure enough, the rationale became pretty obvious. With one out and a fast runner on third, Tri-City pretty much needed a strikeout to stay in the game (or an infield popup or a hard, at-‘em grounder, but those are less common and less predictable). Ashenbrenner has only four strikeouts in 93 at-bats this year, while Nunez has fanned 34 times in 118. Sure enough, Walker sent Nunez down swinging, and got Roof to line out to escape a seemingly impossible bind.

The one decision that didn’t pan out came in the 13th, when Pankovits elected to bring in Jorge De Leon with two outs to face Soares, who drilled the first pitch for a game-winning single. But you certainly can’t second-guess Pankovits for this one – he got his closer into the game against a hot hitter in a critical situation. (If anything, I would have brought De Leon in to face Sedon once the pinch-hitter was announced, but Champion handled him just fine.) It didn’t work out this time, but the managing instinct was the right one – have your better relievers pitch in the most important situations. If Jerry Manuel does that today, the Mets might not lose again.*

*The Mets have played 52 games on the road this season, and have 12 walk-off defeats. That’s completely insane. Yet, Manuel was content to watch another celebration today without ever getting his best reliever in to the game.

Soares, of course, lined a single into center, and pinch-runner Les Smith scored from second to win the game. Adamson’s throw home was on target, but his arm isn’t the strongest, and it bounced home a step too late to catch Smith at the plate.

Tyler Burnett continues to absolutely rake – he went 3-for-5 with a walk and a 12th-inning double today. Burnett also scored a pair of runs; he is now tied for second in the league in doubles and tied for third in walks.

The ‘Cats as a team stroked five doubles today. Wilton Infante nearly had a sixth, but Polk made a fantastic leaping catch up against the wall in right-center-field. Nobody went yard, which came as a bit of a surprise given the friiendly confines (296 down the left-field line, 338 to the marking in left-center, 316 to right); besides Infante, Adam Bailey came closest to a homer, hitting a fly to the warning track to straightaway center, easily the deepest part of the park at 390 ft.

Mike Kvasnicka had another pretty good night with the bat, 2-for-6 with a double. After a rough first month of the season, his batting average is now up to .200, and I bet he’s at least a .270 hitter from this point forward, if not better.

Walker had two nice strikeouts in the eleventh inning as well, throwing a nice breaking ball to Julio Rodriguez for the first out and then getting Soares to chase a pitch in the dirt with the winning run on second.

Andrew Robinson pitched really well, but was bitten by some very rough luck. He gave up three hits in three innings, but they came back-to-back-to-back, leading to two runs. Even worse, none of the balls was hit well – a chopper that hung in the air too long, a high bloop down the right-field line and a soft grounder up the middle.

David Martinez, on the other hand, was a bit lucky to even get through the first three innings with only three runs allowed (six hits). He was putting pitches over the plate, and Connecticut was taking advantage – in the first two frames, Martinez faced 10 hitters and threw only 17 pitches. Martinez settled down, though, and retired the last eight batters he faced.

Ben Heath had been mired in a bit of a slump – 3 for his previous 23 entering today’s game – so it was nice to see him come up with a big hit in the third inning. His double brought home Kik&eacute Hernandez and enabled the three-run outburst that tied the game.

Some pictures from today’s memorable game:

Pankovits hits some grounders during warm-ups:

warmups

Hitting coach Joel Chimelis talks to Kik&eacute and Kvasnicka before the game:

chimmy

Ben Orloff signs an autograph for a lucky fan:

Orloff autograph

Things got kind of cramped in the small dugouts:

TCdugout

CTdugout

Connecticut came up with an interesting solution: put players in the stands!

CTstands

Kvasnicka at bat:

Kvasnicka batting

Buck Afenir is congratulated after his game-tying double:

Afenir celebration

scoreboard

The Tigers celebrate the walk-off victory:

celebration

Doubleday Field

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Brooklyn series

This weekend was a little crazy for those of us working at the ballpark – with a 5:00 Sunday game and an 11:00 am matinee Monday to close the three-game series, the schedule was really compressed. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to write anything about Brooklyn yet, so here’s a weekend roundup:

Fortunately, the players were not adversely affected by the odd schedule – the ‘Cats played their best ball of the series by far on Monday, defeating Brooklyn 7-4 to avoid a sweep. The first game was ugly and the second loss was disappointing, but at the end of the day, losing two of three to Brooklyn is pretty much what we should have expected. The Cyclones are the best-hitting team in the league and they had three of their four best starters this season lined up for the weekend, so winning this series would have been very difficult. Brooklyn is two games behind Lowell but leads the league in run differential at +52 (Jamestown is second at +41, Vermont is at +40).

Brooklyn is actually one of the least patient teams in the league, but they make up for it by absolutely hitting the crap out of the ball. Its .290 batting average is 21 points better than anyone else in the league, and the Cyclones lead the league in doubles, triples and homers. As a result, they have a 13-run lead on the rest of the NYPL despite ranking second-to-last in walks. The home run category is the most impressive – they have hit 31 homers, while Auburn is second at 21 and Jamestown ranks third with 17. (They have hit more homers on the road than at home – and have only allowed eight longballs – so it’s not as if their power is the result of playing in a bandbox.)

The Tri-City pitching staff has been homer-prone this season, allowing a league-high 26 dingers, including five in this series. Carlos Quevedo found this out the hard way, giving up two bombs in an outing that was unimpressive by his very lofty standards. Rylan Sandoval took the second pitch of the game off the scoreboard well beyond the left-field fence – his fourth homer in his last ten games – and Cory Vaughn hit a two-run shot in the third inning. Quevedo gives up his homers in bunches – the only two he had allowed to this point also both came in the same game, at Vermont in June.

But the righty settled down after that, holding the Cyclones scoreless for three more innings to notch his sixth consecutive quality start. Quevedo got a bit lucky in the fourth, escaping the inning unharmed despite allowing two clean doubles, as Ben Heath gunned down the first runner trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. He didn’t have his best stuff early on and left his fastball up a bit, but was perfect in his final two innings, throwing 20 of his 21 pitches for strikes in those two frames and mixing well to keep hitters off-balance. Quevedo was successful against league batting leader Darrell Ceciliani, inducing a pair of groundouts and a harmless fly ball in three at-bats.

Quevedo fanned two more batters without a walk. He has walked two batters in 40.1 innings, easily the lowest BB rate in the league. His SO/BB ratio is now an insane 14…I can’t find sortables for that statistic, but I would bet that tops the NYPL as well.

The ‘Cats got an offensive boost from an unlikely source in Jacke Healey. The shortstop came into the game with only four hits on the season, but hit a two-out shot to deep left-center that left the park. The two-run homer gave Tri-City a 5-3 lead it would never relinquish. Healey, a bench player known more for his slick glove, also made a great sliding forehand in the fourth inning, retiring Brian Harrison at first by half a step.

After the game, Healey said the guys in the dugout were teasing him all game because his girlfriend came to visit him the night before. Manager Jim Pankovits quipped, “Maybe we should bring her with us on the road.”

Brooklyn added a third homer, when Jeff Flagg led off the ninth inning with a moonshot that landed in the Tri-City bullpen. The wind here usually blows out to right field, but was going towards left at a pretty good clip on Monday; 9 out of 10 days at this ballpark, Flagg’s ball is an easy flyout. Michael Ness was unfazed, however, snaring a J.B. Brown comebacker and doubling off Joe Bonfe at first to end the game.

Healey wasn’t the only middle infielder to hit well on Monday. Second baseman Kik&eacute Hernandez, whose 13-game hit streak snapped in the series opener, went right back to stroking the ball in the final two games, picking up three singles in each contest. Like most of the ValleyCats, Kik&eacute started the season slowly, but he is batting .347 in July.

Mike Kvasnicka also recovered from a Saturday 0-fer to strike the ball well. He blasted a big two-run homer in the eighth inning on Sunday, pulling the ‘Cats within one run, and added a double and two singles over the final two games. Kvasnicka’s early-season struggles have been well-documented; hampered by a hand injury, he was batting .108 at the end of June and continued to struggle into the next month. Hopefully, this weekend marks something of a turning point.

Kvasnicka did strike out three times in the final two games, however; he now has 23 whiffs in 118 at-bats. That’s not a horrific rate for a player in his first month of professional ball – three other ‘Cats have at least as many – but it’s something to watch over the final month and a half of the season. I wasn’t as worried about it when he was among the league leaders in walks, but he has drawn just one free pass in his final 11 games while striking out at the same rate. Two innings after the homer, Kvasnicka came up with the tying run on first and nobody out, but went down looking on three pitches.

“I’ve been [practicing] my right-handed swing a lot because we haven’t seen a lot of lefties,” Kvasnicka said of his homer, his first from the right side this season. “But I got an at-bat lefthanded [in the 10th], and I was thinking about mechanical things to make the switch back over, and I wasn’t ready to hit because of it. I had been swinging the bat well lefty, but I let the mental side take over for a few pitches there.”

“In the last week and a half, I’ve had a lot of lineouts,” he continued. “Baseball’s a cruel game in that sense – once you start feeling good, you’re not going to be hitting .400 the rest of the year. There’s been definite progress in the cage work and in batting practice, so it should come around.”

Evan thought Kvasnicka should have bunted in the tenth; I disagree. Although it is practially standard managerial practice, a sacrifice bunt down one run in the ninth or extras generally hurts a team’s chances of winning the game. According to Baseball Prospectus’s extensive study in Baseball Between the Numbers, a successful sacrifice down one run with a runner on first will actually decrease the offensive team’s win expectancy by as much as 5%. Given the slightly lower-scoring environment of the NY-Penn League and the increased chance that the opponent will make an error on the play, you can probably make an argument that it’s a break-even proposition, but then you need to account for the fact that Kvasnicka – who did not lay down a single sacrifice bunt in three years at Minnesota and has yet to bunt this season – is probably not the world’s best bunter. If you think Kvasnicka’s a true .170 hitter, then yes, a bunt makes a lot of sense with better batters coming up – but I don’t believe that, and I doubt Pank does either.

Dan Adamson made a fantastic diving catch on a bloop to end the fifth inning on Monday. The ball looked like it would fall in shallow left-center, and I thought Healey and Wilton Infante were the two that might have a shot at it, but Adamson came from out of nowhere, laid out full extention and made the catch. Adamson’s defense was crucial a day earlier, when he gunned down James Schroeder trying to stretch a base hit into a double leading off the seventh. Monday’s other great play came from Vaughn, who threw an absolute lazer to gun down Infante – one of the fastest ValleyCats – tagging for third on a fly ball that was hit pretty well to right field. Vaughn’s throw reached third on the fly.

Tom Shirley was having his best outing of the year on Saturday – a pretty impressive feat for a guy who hasn’t allowed an earned run all year – so it was a shame to see him come out after three innings and 44 pitches after re-aggrivating his knee injury. He said it was “just a little strain.” Pankovits said, “We don’t think it’s serious – it wasn’t serious before – but we’re being cautious with him.” Shirley’s knee caused him to miss his start last week against Jamestown.

Shirley fanned four batters in three innings and had his best stuff of the year. Whereas he’s been working in and out of jams this season – he had allowed 18 baserunners in 14 innings entering Sunday – the southpaw allowed two walks and no hits against a tough Brooklyn lineup (albeit one without two of its top hitters). He was sitting 88, dialing as high as 91 and dropping as low as 85 when behind in the count, but his offspeed stuff was the best I’ve seen from Shirley this year. I don’t believe he threw his curveball (67-73) for a strike, but it was around the zone every time, instead of being completely a junk pitch, and his slider (79-80) was an effective offering.

Murillo Gouvea took the hill next, and I think the book on him is pretty much written at this point: he struggles when he’s not missing bats. When he’s striking out a lot of guys – like his 8 K performance against Jamestown last week – he is an effective pitcher, but in every other outing he’s been hit hard. The first four batters Gouvea faced all reached base. Gouvea allowd four runs and really only pitched well enough to retire two batters; two more gave themselves up on sacrifices.

Mike Kvasnicka threw out his first runner from behind the plate on Sunday, gunning Vaughn at second in the top of the fifth. Kvasnicka has struggled with recieving at times this year, but I’m not worried about his arm. He also made a nice play to throw out a runner at first on a strikeout-wild pitch, when Andrew Robinson’s putaway pitch to Amauris Valdez was well wide but ricocheted off the backstop back towards the plate.

Robinson and Jorge De Leon both looked great on Sunday. Robinson held the Cyclones scoreless for 3.1 innings but left with two on and two out in the eighth, and pinch-hitter Darrell Ceciliani – the NYPL batting leader – singled off De Leon to plate both. Those were the only earned runs allowed by either pitcher in the game’s final 5.1 frames. De Leon flashed 97 mph and was consistently at 95-96 early in his outing, the fastest I’ve seen him sitting at all year. He was left in to throw 2.1 innings and 42 pitches, both easily season highs, which I found kind of surprising – the last time Tri-City stretched him out, he struggled by the end of his second frame. He still pitched well enough to get out of the tenth inning, were it not for a Figueroa throwing error, but he was down to 90-91 mph by the end of the night.

The bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday featured a somewhat humorous play, going down in the book as (Johan) Figuereo picking off Figueroa. The ValleyCats weren’t laughing, however, as it looked at the time to be the final blow to their chances of winning. Of course, fate intervened on behalf of Tri-City, as Figuereo threw two wild pitches – his first two of the season – with two outs and two on to tie the game.

42s were wild on Sunday, as the ValleyCats were all dressed in identical #42 jerseys to honor Jackie Robinson. This was a very nice tribute, but not particularly fun for those of us in the press box who had to figure out who everybody was. We were thankful this happened in July and not, say, a month earlier, as we generally knew each player well enough to identify him.

Saturday featured an electric game, but not in the good sense. From about the fifth inning through the eighth, lighning flashed all around the park every 20 seconds or so, creating an interesting atmosphere to play baseball in. Play continued throughout – the lightning was always in the distance past the outfield, and rain fell only briefly – but the storm sent many of the 4,365 fans scurrying for shelter. The brunt of the storm came after the game, making my drive home fairly adventurous.

The opener was pretty ugly otherwise, except for the eighth-inning triple play. I thought Luis Nieves’s line drive was a base hit off the bat, as did both baserunners, but Figueroa ranged to his left to get the ball fairly easily. I wasn’t thinking triple play at all, but Tyler Burnett called for the ball and Hernandez made the quick turn at second, getting the ball to first just in time to triple off Juan Centeno. I – and most of the people I talked to afterward – thought Centeno was safe at first, but Burnett was pretty adamant afterwards that they got the out.

A.J. Pinera just flat-out dominated the ‘Cats for six innings. Pinera struck out five, gave up only two hits, and never issued more than two balls to any hitter. He got through three different innings on eight pitches or less, and was only at 57 when he was pulled. This was only his second start, so Brooklyn was understandably loath to push him too hard, but it sure seemed like he could have kept going – he fanned four of the last five batters he faced. Naturally, Pinera’s replacement, Brian Needham, opened the seventh inning with four straight balls to Tyler Burnett.

Burnett, incidentally, has drawn 22 walks this season, tied for second in the NYPL. He and seven others are tied atop the league leaderboard with 10 doubles.

The ‘Cats run into another hot opponent this week in Aberdeen, winners of four straight. Brooklyn had posted four consecutive victories before coming to The Joe, while Tri-City met Staten Island on an eight-game streak earlier this month.

Kevin Whitaker

Videos:
Saturday
Sunday
Monday

And check out this ridiculous story about ‘Cats reliever Jason Chowning, courtesy of Astros County.

ValleyCats: Unluckiest team in NYPL

The ‘Cats got a big win tonight, thrashing Auburn 11-2 to snap a three-game skid. Tyler Burnett had a monster night, going 3-for-3 with a homer, a double and two walks; his 19 bases on balls rank second in the New York-Penn League. Ben Heath added a homer and a double, while Mike Kvasnicka notched his first extra-base hit since Opening Day. Tri-City pounded out 15 hits and didn’t commit an error while turning three double plays. Carlos Quevedo posted his fifth consecutive quality start, allowing two runs in six innings for his second victory of the season.

The 11 runs marked a season high for the ValleyCats this season. They also set another milestone you may not have noticed: with the blowout victory, the ‘Cats have now scored more runs on the season (112) than they have allowed (111).

That’s right, Tri-City has outscored its opponents this year. You would not expect that from the standings, however: the ‘Cats stand at 10-15 (.400), ahead of only two other teams in the NYPL.

It has generally been accepted in baseball (and in most other sports) that run (or point) differential is a better indicator of a team’s true ability than winning percentage. This is because the binary of “win” vs “loss” tells us relatively little about how well a team played in a given game. Run differential helps us get a better picture – a team that wins by 9 runs generally had a better performance than a team that won by one run. Over a larger sample, wins and losses cumulatively give us a pretty good picture of a team’s talent, but run differential will usually tell a more complete story.

Run differential and winning percentage often agree, but there are times when they don’t, such as for the ValleyCats this season. Based on run differential, we would expect Tri-City to be about .500; instead, they’re .400. Generally, difference between expected and actual winning percentage is chalked up to the vague term “luck”.

There is one factor, unique to baseball, that often explains the difference between expected and actual winning percentage: bullpen performance. If a team’s bullpen is lousy, it might lose more than its share of close games, which would hurt its winning percentage more than its run differential. However, it is easy to see that this theory does not fit the ValleyCats this year. The Tri-City bullpen has been far from weak; it has been outstanding, with a 2.68 ERA. I can’t find any sortable stats for bullpens around the NYPL, but the league-average ERA is 3.92, and the best pitching staff (Vermont) is at 2.75. Even after allowing for the fact that relievers generally have a lower ERA than starters, the ‘Cats have still had an excellent bullpen.

So, if anything, we would expect the ValleyCats to be overperforming their run differential, instead of playing well below it. Without any other likely explanation, I have to conclude that the ‘Cats have simply suffered some bad luck, and they’re more likely to play like a .500 team than a .400 team going forward.

Looking at run differential, there are a few clear-cut tiers in the NYPL:

Photobucket

Jamestown, Brooklyn and Vermont sure seem to have separated themselves from the pack. Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division, while the other two currently lead by small margins and should be expected to pull away. But the race for the fourth-best team is a real mess; according to run differential, 15-11 Williamsport is no better than 10-15 Tri-City. There are eight teams who are a good or bad game away from a zero run differential, which is awfully rare. Then the two Valley teams are a clear cut below, with Lowell unsurprisingly bringing up the rear.

Sabermetric pioneer Bill James devised a method of predicting winning percentage from run differential called the Pythagorean Expectation. The equation, which has held up well over the two or three decades since its inception, is fairly simple:

Expected WP% = RS-squared / (RS-squared + RA-squared)

A team who has allowed as many runs as it has scored would be expected to have a winning percentage of .500, and the results are similarly intuitive for other inputs (basically, the marginal value of each extra run has less and less effect on winning percentage).

So, compared to their Pythagorean expectation, which teams have been the luckiest and unluckiest? You won’t be surprised by the bottom team (positive = lucky; negative = unlucky).

Photobucket

According to run differential, Tri-City is basically as talented as any other team in the league, save the top three. The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite this good news – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances. But if their run-scoring and run-allowing rates stay roughly the same, the ValleyCats seem likely to win a bit more frequently than they have thus far.

Kevin Whitaker

Washed Away

It’s difficult to really complain about last night’s rainout – our 17th home game was the first one that was even seriously threatened by the weather. Most of us were expecting the umpires to wait longer than they did to officially call the game, because the ‘Cats don’t play Jamestown again and thus don’t have an opportunity to make up the game.

VCN’s Elliot Travis does his thing:


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.