Results tagged ‘ Jorge De Leon ’

All-Star Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kevin Whitaker

Sweep Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker

Independence Day Notebook

July 4th is always a big day at Joe Bruno Stadium, and last night was no exception. 6,124 fans came to “The Joe” to see some baseball and fireworks, and they got an exciting contest. The ‘Cats won 8-6 behind Dan Adamson’s tie-breaking homer in the eighth inning.

The offense pounded out 13 hits, setting a season high (previous had been 12 on Opening Day). After a three-game shutout sweep at Vermont, the ‘Cats were hitting .197 and we were wondering if they would ever score runs. But in four games since coming home, they’ve averaged 6.5 runs and more than 10 hits per game. Their batting average is up to .220, no longer last in the league (ahead of Lowell and Mahoning Valley). Tri-City won’t be among the league leaders at the end of the year, but fortunately it doesn’t look as inept as it seemed early in the year.

The ‘Cats get a very tough test tonight against Batavia’s Andy Moss. Moss has a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings this season, with 18 strikeouts. He went seven perfect innings in his last start against Mahoning Valley, striking out the side in the seventh. In particular, his command seems likely to pose a problem to Tri-City’s patience-heavy offense – he has walked only one batter this season. If the ValleyCats approach ten hits again tonight, they’ll really be on fire.

Nobody has been better over this homestand than Ben Orloff – the infielder is 5-for-9 with five more BB/HBP, and playing his usual strong defense now that he has recovered from last year’s elbow tendonitis. He was 3-for-3 last night, including his first extra-base hit of the season, a double to bring home Frank Almonte in the fifth inning. Orloff now leads the team with a .370 batting average and a .485 OBP. After the game, manager Jim Pankovits praised the veteran, saying, “it’s no coincidence we’ve been winning more since Orloff has been in the lineup.”

Almonte had the biggest hit of the early stages of the game, a two-run homer to right in the third. It looked like a lazy fly ball off the bat and right fielder Adam Melker expected to catch the ball, but the wind (which always blows out to right field here) carried it a few feet over the wall.

Batavia starter Kevin Siegrist could not find the zone in the first inning, walking four batters in the frame. He threw 31 pitches – only nine of which were strikes – and the damage might have been worse had Frank Almonte not grounded a 2-1 pitch at his hands to short. All of the lefty’s pitches were missing to the same spot – down and in to a right-handed batter (which the Tri-City lineup was filled with yesterday). But he calmed down a little bit afterwards, only allowing one walk in his final two innings. He was pretty much limited to one pitch, as he could find the zone with neither his curveball nor his changeup.

‘Cats starter Bobby Doran left the game in line for his first win of the season. Working quickly, he retired the side in order in the first inning, getting some help from Kik&eacute Hernandez, who showed nice range to his backhand to stab Colin Walsh’s grounder. Doran hit 90 mph on the nose with most of his fastballs, but showed 92 and fanned Joey Bergman with 91 to end the first.

Doran got a little unlucky in the second, as a Jon Rodriguez chopper went over Mike Kvasnicka’s head at third for a double, putting two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Three groundballs limited the damage to just one run. 10 of the 12 outs on balls in play off Doran, and four of the seven base hits, came on grounders.

The righty located pretty well, pitching mostly off his fastball but giving up seven base hits. Two more balls could have easily been hits, but the big Doran got in the way: a fourth-inning line drive that he got his glove on, knocking the ball down and making the play at first; and a one-hop comebacker in the fifth that he fielded cleanly with two on.

Doran flew through the fourth, needing only nine pitches (all strikes). He showed his offspeed chops, fanning Jon Rodriguez with a 76-mph curve. He got in some trouble in the fifth, when two clean singles, a bloop single and a whild pitch brought home two, but froze designated hitter Geoff Klein with an 88-mph fastball to get out of the inning.

The ‘Cats stranded eight runners in the first four innings, 12 for the game. Wilton Infante appeared stranded in the fourth, but reliever Chris Corrigan made a play I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed – he fielded a soft grounder off Kvasnicka’s bat, had all the time in the world so he lobbed the ball softly to first…except the ball landed 20 feet past first base, allowing Infante to score.

Kvasnicka went 0-for-5, bringin him to 5-for-50 since his first two at-bats. But if he keeps swinging like he did last night, he’ll break out of his slump soon: he hit a hard line drive right at the center fielder in the first inning, and pulled a shot towards the hole with two out in the fifth, but Rodriguez made a terrific diving grab at first. Kvasi also made a couple nice plays at third base, picking a hot grounder to start a 5-4-3 double play in the seventh inning.

The most interesting pitcher we’ve seen here at “The Joe” is Houston Summers, who came in to pitch the sixth and seventh. Summers is a knuckleballer; it was amusing to see the radar gun read 53-58 and be accurate, while the righty lit up the gun with fastballs anywhere from 72-80 mph. But he was certainly successful – Orloff’s bunt single was the only hit the ‘Cats could manage in two innings (Infante also drew a walk). Neither of the players I talked to after the game, Orloff and Dan Adamson, had ever faced a knuckleballer before, and they were amused by the experience.

Alex Sogard wasn’t terribly sharp in his two innings, throwing only 14 strikes in 27 pitches, but the only run he gave up was Rainel Rosario’s line drive longball to left. Joan Belliard came into the eighth inning with a spotless ERA and a .103 BAA, but gave up a single to Bergman and then a moonshot homer to Rodriguez, tying the game.

The offense picked up the bullpen for once, as Adamson took a 1-1 fastball over the fence for a tie-breaking homer. The ball was gone off the bat, landing just below the Metroland sign in left-center. Three singles later, the ‘Cats had picked up an insurance run for the final margin.

Jorge De Leon came on for the save, thrilling the crowd with plenty of heat. He was 92-95 with his fastball, dialing it up to 96 to strike out star Muckdog Nick Longmire looking (to be fair, the pitch was 5-6 inches off the corner). He showed some wildness, walking Walsh and falling behind Bergman. But he got the latter to fly out to center, and then struck out Klein with a 95-mph fastball to end the game.

Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card. On that front, they got good news last night, as all four Stedler Division teams won on the first day of inter-divisional play.

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: Bats bounce back

Great to see the ‘Cats snap out of their offensive funk last night. They snapped a four-game losing streak and a three-game scoreless streak, putting up four runs on nine hits and riding their pitching to a 4-2 victory over Connecticut.

Ben Heath is the face of this team’s offense right now. The catcher reached base three times in four plate appearances yesterday, most notably with a fifth-inning home run that gave Tri-City its third and ultimately decisive run. Heath has hit safely in his last six games and now leads the team in most offensive categories, at .290/.439/.613 with three homers (the rest of the ‘Cats have four combined). His 1.052 OPS ranks fourth in the NYPL right now. He’s back in the cleanup spot tonight, getting a day off from the field at DH.

That solo homer in the sixth was an absolute bomb. It landed on the Top of the Hill Bar & Grill, right next to the scoreboard in left field. I walked it out this afternoon during batting practice and estimated it at 425-430 feet, and it’s elevated a good 20 feet above field level. I’m pretty sure that’s the lfarthest homer we’ve seen at The Joe this year, although Adam Bailey’s shot last week was close.

Kiké Hernandez had a great night at the plate as well, going 3-for-5 with three clean line drive hits. He earned neither a run nor an RBI in the first inning but had the most important hit, taking a 2-2 pitch the opposite way for a stand-up double in the first inning and moving Wilton Infante over to third. He reached base with a one-out shot to left, and Mike Kvasnicka followed with another line drive base hit, snapping his 0-for-13 slump. Josue Carreno struck out the side, but not before walking Adam Bailey and throwing a wild pitch that scored Hernandez. I was surprised when Kiké tried for home and thought he was a goner, as the ball barely made it onto the grass behind home plate, but he got his hand clearly in front of Carreno’s tag.

The ‘Cats continue to have difficulty bringing runners home – they stranded 11 and only scored four last night. I believe that’s mostly due to bad luck – they don’t strike out particularly often, and I don’t think there are any other repeatable factors that could influence that – with a little blame on the bad baserunning as well (two more pickoffs last night).

Tom Shirley had another interesting outing, throwing effectively but not managing his pitches very well. Shirley threw 27 pitches in the fourth and brought his game total to 73, probably over his limit. But although he walked four and gave up three hits, he got six strikeouts to get out of quite a few jams. He did not induce a batted ball out in the first two innings; five struck out, while Heath made a nice throw to erase Alex Nunez trying to steal second. The first time Shirley got an out on a ball in play, he got two for the price of one on a 4-6-3 double play in the third; he got three ground balls and one popout last night.

All of this is nothing new for Shirley. He’s used to striking out hitters – 18 (tied for fourth in the league) in just 10 inning – and he’s used to getting ground balls (4.50 GO/AO ratio). He’s also used to short outings (the four innings today was his longest so far), because he hasn’t been efficient with his pitches. He has been getting in and out of jams all year: Shirley has allowed seven hits and seven walks in 10 innings, yet still somehow has not allowed a run. Nobody can sustain that for a full season, but if he keeps getting whiffs at this rate – if my math is correct, 43% of hitters to face him have gone down on strikes – he will be able to strand more than his share of runners.

Also, the ‘Cats are 3-0 in Shirley’s starts, and have not allowed an earned run in those three games. This is mostly due to coincidence plus Tri-City’s strong bullpen – Shirley has only been responsible for 10 of those 27 innings – but it’s a nice pattern. If he can get through innings more quickly and build up his arm strength, maybe he can actually pick up one of those wins.

Shirley also lacked a second pitch for the second consecutive start. He was pretty much just a fastball pitcher again, and it’s really amazing what he’s been able to do with that pitch – he was in the 88-90 range again yesterday, but it really gets onto hitters (especially lefties) quickly. He showed two breaking balls – looked like a slurve and a curveball to me. The slurve was in the low-70s and a little bit effective, while he threw the other breaking ball in the 60s, telegraphed it out of his hand and had very little command of it. (Note: take the pitch classifications with a huge dosage of salt. I talked to pitching coach Gary Ruby a little bit after the game but he wouldn’t really elaborate much on Shirley’s breaking stuff.) But he keeps his fastball low in the zone and commands it very well, which has been all he has needed so far.

David Martinez bounced back from a rough outing and was his usual solid self, going 1-2-3 in the fifth inning and eventually earning the win. The only hit he allowed was a ground ball single that a diving Tyler Burnett knocked down at third base, but he could not complete the play. Travis Blankenship was stuck with both runs but neither was earned; the main culprit was a two-base throwing error on Burnett. Blankenship did hit Chao-Ting Tang, who came around to score, and the second run came in on a cheap bloop to center. Blankenship, drafted out of Kansas in the 31st round this year, sure looks like he’ll be a successful LOOGY at the higher levels. He certainly fits the profile; his fastball is mid-80s, but he relies mostly on his offspeed stuff, which all has a lot of lateral movement from his 5/8ths arm slot. The results are there as well: lefties are just 1-for-9 off him this year with five strikeouts. So far, righties have also had trouble against him (1-for-9 as well), but that probably won’t remain the case throughout his career.

Joan Belliard got three strikeouts in 1.1 innings, allowing only one baserunner on an E-4. Two of his K’s came on 79-mph changeups that looked good. Belliard also gets great sink on his pitches, inducing a lot of grounders.

And Jorge De Leon notched his first save of the season, getting two ground balls and a strikeout to end the game. He wasn’t quite lighting up the radar gun like he has in the past, sitting 91-94 in his inning of work.

A couple other items…

We got our first game-time rain last night, as the skies opened briefly in the eighth inning. It never came down nearly hard enough to threaten play, but on this cold night, it sent a good portion of the 3,485 fans scurrying for cover under the concourse or out of the park altogether.

Connecticut starter Josue Carreno got the loss, but didn’t pitch that poorly and showed good stuff. He was also 88-90, with an 80-mph changeup that fooled a couple ‘Cats and a 75-mph curveball that got at least three strikeouts.

Pitchers on both sides benefitted from a very generous outside corner (to both lefties and righties). The same umpire will be behind the plate on Saturday, so look for that again.

Kvasnicka snapped his hitless streak last night, but he still does not exactly look good at the plate. In particular, he’s still very shaky from the right side – the switch-hitter is 1-for-11 on the season against southpaws. He looked absolutely lost on three offspeed pitches from Antonio Cruz in the eighth, going down on strikes.

Kvasnicka starts at catcher tonight for the first time this season. If you want to know how he plays behind the plate, you know where to look.

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: Vermont roundup

I meant to post this before tonight’s game, but some World Cup-related distractions got in the way, so it’s now a little dated.

Well, the last two games went a little differently than the first six. The biggest difference was that the ‘Cats actually hit the ball. The stats:

-Tri-City had 10 hits in each game, 20 total – as many as the four games before that combined.
-The ValleyCats were batting .197 after six games, but raised that average to .222.
-5 runs on Thursday tied the season high to that point, which was then broken by Friday’s seven-run output.

Adam Bailey and Nick Stanley each broke out of slumps in big ways, getting three hits apiece. Stanley picked up all three in the first six innings – the last of which drove in Mike Kvasnicka to pull Tri-City within three – and walked in his fourth plate appearance. Stanley, meanwhile, drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly in the second and doubled with two out in the tenth, but most will remember his game-tying two-run homer in the eighth.

Bailey’s homer was gone from the moment it hit the bat, easily clearing the second fence in right field. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts cup of coffee with a giveaway if anyone hits it, and the sign has been mocked for its distance (at least 450 feet away in right field, maybe more). But if Bailey’s shot had been hit another degree or two to the left, it would have landed within 5-10 feet of the sign. I’d be shocked if anyone else comes closer to hitting it all year.

The ValleyCats are now hitting .222 and are no longer last in the league. Even that understates their offense to some degree – their team OPS of .662 ranks 10th of 16 teams in the NYPL. Offensive numbers in this league are always going to be lower than they are in MLB, because many players are in their first year learning to use wooden bats. For example, while the MLB league batting average is generally in the .260-.270 range, the NYPL average is .243 so far this year.

So…I don’t want to say I told you so, but I kinda did. But seriously, the last two games don’t mean the ValleyCats’ offense will be good any more than the previous two meant it was terrible, and so it’s important to keep an eye on the bats moving forward. But now I think we can all relax a bit after their cold start.

Yes, the bullpen was bad last night, giving up six runs and 11 hits in five innings. But it had a 0.70 ERA coming into the game. That was never going to last. The regression came at a bad time, but I still like it to be a strength going forward; a couple bad pitches ended up in bad places against a good-hitting team, but I loved how Belliard and Champion got out of the two-on, one-out jam in the 8th to keep the ‘Cats in the game, and I’m confident the relievers will continue to be strong.

I’m going to keep writing a lot about Mike Kvasnicka, because there’s a lot of interest in how he develops, particularly among Astros fans. Kvasnicka broke out of an 0-for-16 slump with a line-drive single in the first inning of Thursday’s game, also his first base hit right-handed this year. He still hasn’t been lighting things up offensively, but his swing has looked better from both sides, and he is pretty much where you expect him to be in his development. The first-pitch home run on Opening Day was nice, but he still has work to do. One encouraging sign is his plate discipline – he walked four times in 11 plate appearances against Vermont.

Defensively, things were mixed for Kvasnicka at third base against Vermont. He made a nice play in the second inning Thursday, picking up a slow roller and throwing across the diamond. But in the seventh inning of that game, he overran a foul popup, getting to the dugout only to see it fall five feet away, back towards the field. That play really just showed his unfamiliarity with the position – anyone who has ever tried to field a popup from third or catcher knows how difficult it is to judge a ball spinning back towards the field. Later that inning, Connor Rowe hit a hard worm-burner to his right; Kvasnicka got in front of it and gloved it, but couldn’t pick it off the ground, committting his first error of the season at third base. He got another chance with two outs and runners on the corners, redeeming himself on a hard two-hopper right at him. Last night, Marcus Jones hit a ground-ball double down the third-base line that Kvasnicka might have been able to knock down, but he reacted too slowly. Kvas is back in right field tonight.

Another player with positional questions is catcher Ben Heath. He’s still a backstop and will be for the forseeable future, but people have wondered if he has what it takes to stay behind the plate in the big leagues. He really hasn’t made strides towards answering that question yet this season. Heath was behind the plate for two wild pitches by Robert Doran two days ago and a third by Gouvea yesterday, all of which looked blockable. (On the final one, he reached out to scoop a backhand off the bounce instead of getting his body in front of it). He was also slow getting out from behind the plate in the first inning on Friday, allowing Blake Kelso to reach base on a bunt single. I’m not a scout and don’t know if he’ll end up catching in the big leagues, but he’ll have to work hard defensively to get there.

Renzo Tello made a couple of beautiful throws from left field to kill baserunners in Wednesday’s game, but came up short in a critical spot on Friday. Connor Rowe’s tenth-inning single was a soft grounder through the 5-6 hole, and Tello was playing relatively shallow in left. He came up throwing and would have had plenty of time to get Hendry Jimenez at the plate, but it was too far up the first-base line for Heath to make a play. Tello almost made a sensational play in the ninth, leaping to catch Stephen King’s line-drive homer, but missed it by inches (and was shaken up on the play).

But overall, the defense has been very strong recently. Kvasnicka’s fielding error was the only miscue of those two games for Tri-City. As well as he hit on Friday, I was just as impressed with Nick Stanley in the field. I have been critical of Stanley’s defense before, after two subpar games to open the season, but yesterday’s performance makes me think those might have been an aberration. He made a great play in the fourth inning, sliding to backhand a ball in the hole and completing the 3-1 play. A couple batters later, he started a 3-6-1 double play to get out of the inning.

Of course, the two best defensive plays were made by Lake Monsters. In the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, Frank Almonte hit a line drive to left field that looked like a sure double, but speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo raced back and made a terrific diving catch on the warning track. Renzo Tello was already past second base, expecting the ball to drop; Mozingo was able to get the ball back to the infield in time for the relay throw to double Tello off at first. And yesterday, Enrique Hernandez drove a one-hopper off the mound, but second baseman Blake Kelso dove to his right and snared the ball off the bounce, recovering to throw Hernandez out at first.

We had a scary moment in the third inning of Thursday’s game when shortstop Oscar Figueroa and center fielder Wilton Infante collided going after a popup in the middle of the field. Infante made the catch and was fine, but Figgy went down hard and stayed there for a couple minutes. He remained in the game and it didn’t seem to affect his play much, but he was still feeling the collision in his shoulder the following day.

Some other assorted notes on Tri-City pitchers:

Robert Doran had a very good outing Thursday night. His final line is okay – 4 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 SO, 1 BB – but it really could have been a lot better than that. Only one of those was really well-struck, though – a line-drive double to center by Wilfri Pena that scored a run. Pena only batted that inning because Doran slipped going after a nubber towards third, and while the other hits weren’t as lucky as that one, they could have easily been outs. A pair of ground balls found holes, and Justin Miller hit a ball in the gap that looked like an easy out off the bat but carried forever, going with the wind for a double. It’s a shame Doran was pulled after four due to his pitch count (57); he deserved the win in that game.

Doran was sitting 89-91 for the game, showing an 80 changeup fairly often. More impressively, he threw first-pitch strikes to the first 16 hitters he faced. Astros County picked up on this as well, and it’s by no means unusual within this staff. The day before, Carlos Quevedo went FPS on 15 of the first 16; on Opening Day Quevedo started out 12/12.

The guy who did get the win Thursday, lefty reliever Chris Blazek, did pitch even better. Blazek pitched in Troy way back in 2005 and was last seen in Corpus Christi in 2008, but sat out last season with a labrum tear in his pitching shoulder. The 25-year-old is working his way back up the ranks, and probably won’t be with the ValleyCats much longer if he continues to throw like he did against Vermont. Blazek struck out the side in order in the fifth inning, throwing a dirty changeup to fool Jimenez for the second out. He was just as perfect in his second inning of work, getting two strikeouts and a harmless grounder to first. The southpaw only sits around 85-87 (touched 88), but he hides the ball very well in his delivery, making it hard to pick up out of his hand. Opponents also have to respect his offspeed stuff – the change that got Jimenez clocked at 80, while he throws a breaking ball in the mid-70s – so even though his fastball doesn’t have great velocity, it gets on hitters quickly. As much as I’d love to see Blazek here as long as possible, I would imagine he’ll get promoted sometime in the next couple weeks.

Possibly the most interesting Tri-City pitcher this year is Jorge De Leon, a converted shortstop with an incredibly live arm. The closer was stretched out for a two-inning save on Thursday and got five-sixths of the way there, but walked the final two hitters and had to be replaced by Michael Ness. De Leon didn’t have great command that night, walking two and hitting a third. But he still showed flashes of dominance, freezing King on a curveball to open the eighth and then sawing off Jason Martinson with a 91-mph fastball on the hands. He never hit the 97 that he’s capable of on Thursday, but was in the low-90s and ramped it up as high as 95.

Murillo Gouvea did not command the ball well in his first start, losing a lot of pitches at the batters’ eyes. He had some more bad at-bats on Friday, but overall his control was much better, and he walked only one in five innings of work. Gouvea was again hurt by the longball, though; he gave up his second homer of the season, a two-run shot to Rowe in the fifth. That was about all the damage Gouvea allowed, however – he gave up a run in the fifth on a walk, bunt single, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly, and didn’t allow anyone else past second base.

I’ll have more analysis from tonight’s crazy game, hopefully tomorrow afternoon before the 5 pm start.

Kevin Whitaker

Other links: Fan blogger Jim Davey talks about Heath’s game-tying homer and some fans he encountered at “The Joe”

VCN’s Elliot Travis has video from Thursday’s game:

And from Friday:


Kvasnicka at 3B; weekend roundup

From a long-term perspective, the most important part of Sunday night’s loss was not the outcome of the game. Instead, it was the transition of one of the most promising young ‘Cats: Michael Kvasnicka started at third base for the first time, after playing the first two games in right field.

Although he was primarily an outfielder in college and was seen by many teams as a catcher, the Astros drafted Kvasnicka to play third base. The 33rd overall pick from the University of Minnesota has played everywhere on the diamond, but spent most of his time in the outfield and will be raw as third basemen go. He’s been taking grounders there all week, but today was the first time Kvasnicka was at the hot corner in live action.

He had plenty of chances to prove himself, too. Most notably, Alex Nunez led off the third inning by laying a bunt down the third base line, challenging the rookie’s chops at the new position. Kvasnicka picked the ball up nicely, and his throw almost pulled first baseman Tyler Burnett (moved off the hot corner to make room for Kvasnicka) off the bag, but he got the out. It wasn’t a terribly difficult play as drag bunts go, and most third basemen will get that out, but it was nice to see Kvasnicka handle himself well on it.

Kvasnicka had four other fielding chances at third, and handled them all with ease. The second batter of a game hit a slow chopper to third; Kvasnicka smartly checked off a double-play throw to second, set himself and threw to first, getting PJ Polk by a step and a half. The two other grounders Kvasnicka saw were easy – a two-hopper right at him in the fifth and a soft broken-bat grounder leading off the sixth – and he caught a high popup in foul territory; he had to come back towards the infield late to catch the ball, but he made the play.

One other ball went through Kvasnicka’s zone – a hard, one-hopper through his left side in the fifth inning off the bat of Matt Mansilla. It was a clean base hit, but he had a chance at making a great play if he made a little better read and/or moved better to his left. Not that we should be holding him to these standards yet, but I’d imagine a good percentage of big-league third basemen would have at least gotten a glove on that ball.

But overall, I think Astros fans have to be optimistic about what we saw from Kvasnicka defensively today. ValleyCat fans should be encouraged, too, as the move should strengthen the Tri-City defense. Kvasnicka right now is a downgrade at third from Burnett (who made a nice diving play in the first inning of Saturday’s game), but Burnett at first should be an upgrade over Nick Stanley, who did not technically commit an error in two days but saw three hits go off of his glove. Also, if any of the outfielders who have been DHing are average defenisvely in right, that will probably be a net plus to the ‘Cats run prevention. Kvasnicka made a fielding error trying to pick up a blooper in right in the first inning on Friday, three-hopped a throw home 20 feet up the line on Saturday and took a couple other awkward routes to balls in the outfield this weekend. That also frees up the DH spot for Stanley, should management decide they want his veteran bat in the lineup.

In fact, if you’re looking for a source of worry regarding Kvasnicka’s development, I’d take a look at his performance against lefties. The switch-hitter famously had no trouble adjusting to the speed of the professional game from the left-handed batters box, blasting an opposite-field homer and a double to the same place on the first two pitches he saw. But Connecticut turned him around in his last two at-bats yesterday and for all four today, and Kvasnicka looked shakier as a right-handed batter. From the right side, he’s 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, two popups to second base, and a weak grounder to third. He was up in a key situation in the eighth inning today with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, but was way behind an 87 mph fastball from Logan Hoch and then chased an offspeed pitch in the dirt for strike three. Six at-bats is obviously a tiny sample, and I’ll keep an eye on this one throughout the season.

Some other assorted notes from Opening Weekend:

I mentioned this in my gamer, but Connecticut starter Luis Sanz pulled off an interesting feat on Saturday: he allowed three batters to reach base in innings 2-5, but still faced the minimum 12 batters. Even more interesting was the way he did it. All three baserunners were retired in different ways – Renzo Tello was caught stealing, Tyler Burnett was erased on a double play and Dan Adamson was called out on a stolen base attempt due to batter interference on Tello. The call drew an angry reaction – not to mention confusion – from the crowd, but Pankovits didn’t really argue, and it looked like the right call. It was a 1-2 hit-and-run, Tello swung at a pitch way outside to protect the runner and ended up falling over the plate. Catcher Eric Roof still got a throw off and I think Adamson probably had even a good throw beat, but Tello was definitely in Roof’s path and the catcher sold the call.

Sanz had a really incredible outing, in the literal sense of the word: I was amazed at how he turned on and off his command. He threw six pitches, all strikes, to strike out Orloff, but after getting ahead of Figueroa he completely lost it. He threw only five strikes the rest of the inning, with 14 balls and three free passes mixed in. He was lucky Burnett swung first-pitch and Stanley on 2-0, each hitting into outs, because otherwise it could have taken him a long time to get out of the inning. But just as I was preparing for a long day, he found the switch again, needing only 44 pitches to finish the next four innings.

Murillo Gouvea did not have his best outing tonight. In particular, he had very little command of his pitches. In four innings, he managed to limit the damage to just two walks, but he needed 72 pitches to make it through those frames. He left stuff up in the zone all night, the main cause of the single, double and homer in the first inning, and threw quite a few curveballs that never made it below the hitters’ eyes. But the bullpen generally picked him up, and as a team, when you allow five runs you still definitely have a shot to win.

The story of tonight’s game, rather, was the fact that Tri-City hit just 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position. But while it may seem to read, “the ValleyCats offense sucks,” I don’t really agree. Let’s wait a bit longer before declaring the Tri-City bats dead in the water. For one, they weren’t really that futile today – they just picked up their hits at inopportune times. Tri-City didn’t string together two hits in an inning until the last one, and with four doubles and a triple, the ‘Cats were certainly in dangerous positions often. For another, although they didn’t do much yesterday, it was only two days ago that the ValleyCats racked up twelve hits off the Connecticut opening day starter. Finally, Guichardo is a very good pitcher: he posted a 1.73 ERA as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League last year and pitched well in a start at high-A Lakeland.

The run prevention, particularly the defense, is another concern. But I don’t think the last two sloppy days are much more indicative of Tri-City’s true talent level than the opener, when they were incredibly sharp (one harmless error, 15 K, 0 BB). As shaky as some of the pitchers have looked, the ValleyCats still walked only six batters in 18 innings (not good but certainly no disaster), and that’s with 15 different players taking the mound. Eventually a rotation and a bullpen will be set, and the better pitchers will get more innings. Converted shortstop Jorge De Leon looked very good in the ninth tonight, touching 97 on the stadium gun and inducing four groundballs (the first one a single through the 3-4 hole).

I’m not sure if the ValleyCats have 17 pitchers on their roster because they needed 15 of them this weekend, or if they used 15 pitchers this weekend because they had so many that needed work. Either way, as someone tasked with scoring and covering the game, I’m kind of hoping they get rid of a few soon, just so I don’t have to deal with so many pitching changes.

Kevin Whitaker

2010 ValleyCats Roster

In case you missed the news yesterday, we have an official roster for the 2010 ValleyCats. Here’s the press release.

We’ll be providing plenty of information on each player throughout the season. In the meantime, here’s some more information on the roster:

A total of 14 college players will be making their professional debut with the ValleyCats, after being selected in last week’s amateur draft. Foremost among them is Michael Kvasnicka of Minnesota, taken with the 33rd overall pick and signed yesterday. Kvasnicka played the outfield and caught for the Gophers, but Houston sees him as a third baseman, so Tri-City fans will get to watch his transition to the hot corner firsthand. He’s also listed as a utility player, which means we’ll probably see some of him in the outfield, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a few innings at second base. I wrote more about Kvasnicka after the draft.

A couple of other high draft picks will be joining Kvasnicka in Troy this week. Texas Tech pitcher Bobby Doran and Penn State catcher Ben Heath – selected in the fourth and fifth round, respectively – also were assigned to Troy. Two other pitchers taken in the first ten rounds will don ValleyCats uniforms this year: NC State righty Jake Buchanan and Xavier lefty Thomas Shirley. I also wrote about these Day 2 selections last week.

Buchanan should not be very lonely at Tri-City this year, as he joins a pair of former teammates on the ValleyCats. Left-handed pitcher Andrew Sogard was also drafted out of NC State this season in the 26th round. And first baseman Nick Stanley played for the Wolfpack before being drafted in the 25th round last season.

Eleven foreign players add an international flavor to this season’s roster. Five ValleyCats hail from Venezuela and five from the Dominican Republic, while pitcher Murilo Gouvea is from Brazil. Perhaps the most interesting of these players is Jorge De Leon. In his fourth professional season, the righty played 66 games between Tri-City and Lexington at shortstop, but batted just .206/.246/.286. This offseason, Houston decided to convert him to the mound, and he will be pitching for the ValleyCats this year. His fastball has reportedly been clocked at 97 mph this spring, making him one of the most interesting members of the pitching staff.

Five other members of this year’s roster spent time in Troy in 2009. Stanley played in 63 games for the ValleyCats in his first professional season, batting .230/.308/.354 at first base. Joining Stanley in the infield is middle infielder Ben Orloff, who batted just .165 in 97 at-bats before finishing the season at Greenville, and 1B/U Oscar Figueroa, who appeared in two games last season. Centerfielder Renzo Tello will also return to Troy after playing 45 games for Tri-City last year. The only true pitcher to return to the staff is Brendan Stines, who went 3-0 with a 4.93 ERA out of the bullpen in 2009.

Some other related links:

VCN was able to talk with Astros GM Ed Wade at Yankee Stadium last weekend, when Houston came to New York for interleague play. Here’s Wade’s take on the draft and what to expect at Tri-City in 2010:



The Hardball Times breaks down the 2010 MLB Draft. Houston split evenly between pitchers and hitters, but drafted 25 high school players, more than all but three teams.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball posted a review of Houston’s draft, with mostly positive impressions. Sickels is a big fan of one of our 2010 ValleyCats, fourth-round pick Robert Doran.

Former Astro Morgan Ensberg had an interesting piece describing what went through his head when he was drafted.

Tonight is the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce Baseball Challenge. The annual event lets Chamber members “be a ValleyCat for a day,” dressing in locker rooms, taking batting practice and then playing a seven-inning game at The Joe. VCN will be running a full-scale production of the game in preparation for Opening Day, so stay tuned tonight for a glimpse of the coverage we’ll be bringing you this season. (Update: Team Niagara wins, 2-0. Read about it here.)

Kevin Whitaker

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