Results tagged ‘ playoffs ’

Championship-Bound

Andrew Moss should have been a playoff hero.

Moss, starting the decisive Game Three of the NYPL semifinals for Batavia, became just the league’s second pitcher this year to throw a nine-inning complete game. He allowed just four hits – one a grounder that took a bad hop, another a dribbler past the mound – and did not walk a single batter. He needed only 89 pitches to complete the game, retiring the final 16 Tri-City batters in order and only once going to a three-ball count. With the league’s best offense behind him, the one-run performance should have been more than enough to send the Muckdogs on to the championship.

Instead, the Muckdogs are done, and Moss gets a big “L” in the box score. Becuase the ValleyCats’ pitching – its strength all season – came up huge at the biggest possible time. Jake Buchanan threw seven scoreless innings and Michael Ness shut out the hosts in the eighth and ninth, and the ValleyCats are playing for the title for the third time in seven seasons.

“Our pitching has carried us all year, and it was apropos that we won with it,” manager Jim Pankovits said. “I can’t remember a player or a pitcher who has stepped up like Jake Buchanan last night. It was unbelievable.”

Buchanan fanned six Muckdogs, all swinging, while only walking one – a two-out free pass in the seventh to Jon Rodriguez, who entered the game 7-for-10 in the series. He allowed only three hits: Chris Edmonson’s bloop single in the first, Victor Sanchez’s dribbler down the line in the fourth, and a hard grounder by Juan Castillo in the third, which probably should have been scored an error on third baseman Tyler Burnett.

“He had his best stuff [last night],” catcher Chris Wallace said. “His two-seamer and his change-up were giving them fits, and he did a great job locating his pitches. They didn’t stand a chance.”

The ‘Cats only scored one run: Tyler Burnett came home all the way from first on Adam Bailey’s two-out, fourth-inning double, aided when Edmonson slipped and struggled to pick up the carom off the wall. But it would be the only score they needed. Batavia, which racked up 41 hits in the first two games of the series, managed only three on Thursday. No Muckdogs made it past first base.

The 55 degree temperature, combined with the inward-bound wind and a large ballpark, provided pitcher-friendly conditions. Thursday’s pitcher’s duel, which was finished in just 97 minutes, was the polar opposite of Game 1 in Troy – a 10-9, extra-inning slugfest.

“The weather the last couple of days over there was nasty,” Pankovits said. “But we persevered, played very solid defensively, and we got some timely hits, and last night the pitching came through.”

“I used the weather to my advantage: I wasn’t afraid to pitch inside and go after them,” Buchanan said. “My two-seam fastball was good, running in and jamming them.”

As it turned out, Buchanan didn’t need any help from the elements: of the 16 balls put in play off the righty, 13 were on the ground (including 11 of 13 outs). Closer Mike Ness, however, was thankful for the conditions when his first pitch was driven to deep right-center by designated hitter Geoff Klein. The ball – which would have been a no-doubt homer at Joe Bruno Stadium – died on the warning track, and Adam Bailey ranged over from right field to make the catch.

Ness hit Edmonson – his former teammate on the Pittsfield Dukes – with one out in the ninth, but fanned Sanchez and Nick Longmire to end the game.

The Tri-City victory is likely the last NYPL contest that will be played at Dwyer Stadium. Rumors are that the Muckdogs – which averaged a league-lowest 1,100 fans this season – will be relocated in 2011. Only 600 fans were on hand for Thursday’s winner-take-all playoff game.

Brooklyn comes to “The Joe” on Saturday after clinching with a 6-4 victory on Thursday, overcoming a 1-0 deficit to defeat Jamestown in three games. The Cyclones, who finished the season with a league-best 51-24 record, are the clear favorite on paper, but the ValleyCats have been surprising people for six weeks now.

“I don’t know if all that matters now,” Bailey said. “It’s a new slate now that we’re in the championship. A lot of people didn’t think we’d be here, so we have a lot to prove.”

Saturday’s game willl start at 7 pm, and will be followed by fireworks.

Kevin Whitaker

Pennant Chase Postmortem

Me, on 7/5:

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.

Me, on 7/15:

Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division. […] The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite [the good run differential] – 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.

Me, on 7/28:

[The ValleyCats’] playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Even 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 they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

Evan, on 8/13:

If you had told me back in the beginning of July that, come August, the ValleyCats would have a shot to win the division, I would have had you declared officially insane. […] It was July 10 and most fans were already hoping for the wild card.

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One month into the season, it was not exactly likely that the ValleyCats would be playing meaningful games in September. They stood at 11-18 on the morning of July 19, 9.5 games behind Vermont. The Lake Monsters had cooled off slightly – it would have been impossible to do otherwise after a 14-3 start – but still had a firm hold on the Stedler Division. Tri-City was also well behind Connecticut in the division and trailed several teams in the wild card, and looked headed for a third-place finish.

There were some signs that things might turn around. The ‘Cats were unlucky in close games, and their strong run differential portended better things for the future. Meanwhile, their offense was bound to improve, while their pitching staff was one of the league’s best.

You can trace the ValleyCats’ turnaround to a late-July game at Vermont. Nearing the end of a seven-day road trip that had proven less than fruitful to that point, they found themselves in a 7-3 hole to the Lake Monsters, after ace Carlos Quevedo suffered his worst start of the season. But the ‘Cats battled back, striking for three runs in the seventh and two on a Mike Kvasnicka single in the eighth to win a 10-8 slugfest. Bobby Doran picked up his first win the next night to complete an unlikely sweep.

After the great weekend, fellow VCN member Chris Chenes proclaimed that the ValleyCats would make the playoffs. Evan and I thought he was crazy. We were both optimistic about their future, but the math seemed too daunting – they still trailed the Lake Monsters by 7.5 games (with only two head-to-head matches left), and the wild card was looking less and less attainable as the Pinckney Division teams pulled away from the pack. 

Recent history doesn’t matter a whole lot in the minors – teams change almost completely from year to year. What little difference it does make, however, certainly seemed to go against the ValleyCats. Tri-City was coming off three consecutive last-place finishes, and indeed no Houston affiliate had reached the playoffs since 2007*. But Chris stuck to his guns, and would eventually be vindicated. 
*The manager on that pennant-winning Salem Avalanche? None other than our own Jim Pankovits.

Tri-City was in danger of losing its next series, a three-game home set against Lowell, when they trailed the rubber match 5-1 in the seventh inning. Such a loss, particularly on their home field, would have been very disappointing for the ‘Cats, as the Spinners had not yet won a series all season. But Adam Bailey belted the team’s first (and only) grand slam to tie the game, and Dan Adamson sent the fans home happy, leading off the 11th inning with a walk-off homer.

The ‘Cats swept another two-game set with Vermont early in August, then embarked on a six-game road trip to Mahoning Valley and State College. They lost slugger Ben Heath to promotion midway through the trip, yet ended it on a high note by winning the last two to split the six games. Tri-City allowed just eight runs over the final five games of that trip, which manager Jim Pankovits credits as the point where his team really started its comeback:

About that time, we had made some adjustments to the rotation and started to go to a more regular lineup, and I think we just got on a roll. We played very well that series, and it continued to a couple more series when we came home. The game of baseball is a really streaky game, and we got on a really good hot streak about then.

The ValleyCats then returned to Joe Bruno Stadium, where they won 11 of their final 15 games, and won series against Williamsport – then leading the Pinckney Division – and Staten Island. The All-Star break did little to cool their momentum, as they swept Connecticut on the road, pulling back to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season. More importantly, they passed Connecticut to take second place in the division, and stood only 1.5 games back of the Lake Monsters.

That paved the way for a thrilling, topsy-turvy stretch run:

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Shown above are my playoff odds on each day for the final two weeks. The ValleyCats swept a home-and-home with Connecticut – taking the latter on a heartbreaking two-error eleventh inning by shortstop Brett Anderson – pushing the Tigers three games back and seemingly knocking them out of the race. But Connecticut would not quit, proceeding to take three at Vermont while the ValleyCats dropped three of their own at Hudson Valley, an extremely unlikely turn of events that left the Tigers right back int he thick of things. The division was still completely up for grabs heading into the last week of the season.

The ValleyCats more or less saved their season in their home finale, pulling out a 14-inning thriller on the heels of a 12-inning defeat to Hudson Valley. Two extra-inning losses would have left the ‘Cats deep in third place and in an unenviable position to embark on a season-ending, six-game road trip.

Instead, Chris Wallace doubled to the left-field wall in the 14th, his third huge hit of the series. Bailey followed with his third hit of the game, a single to right field, and Wallace slid home just inches in front of the tag. Bailey was far from the ValleyCats’ most consistent hitter this season – his batting average was just a point above the Mendoza Line entering that game – but he would be critical down the stretch, racking up a league-high 14 hits in the final week of the season.

The ValleyCats then swept Lowell, while Connecticut improbably did the same to Aberdeen to remain a half-game back. Vermont, meanwhile, dropped four of five at Brooklyn to be all but eliminated from the race. The two teams switched places on Friday, setting the stage for a remarkable Saturday. The ValleyCats took an 8-7 slugfest at Brooklyn – with the key hit, naturally, provided by Bailey – wihle the Tigers finally lost at Aberdeen.

That left the ValleyCats needing only a win or a Connecticut loss entering the final day of the season. Connecticut and Aberdeen began 2.5 hours before Tri-City took on the Cyclones, but the ‘Cats still didn’t know if they needed a win as their game started, because Connecticut forced extra innings. The Tigers twice threatened to make the Tri-City game decisive, scoring in the 11th and twice in the 13th. They entered Sunday with a league-best 19-10 record in one-run games, and a 6-2 record in extras, and it seemed like they would pull another victory out of nowhere (Connecticut finished above .500 despite being outscored by 44 runs).

But this time, they came out on the short end of an improbable defeat. The Ironbirds put two runners on with two outs, and #3 overall draft pick Manny Machado tripled off the right-field wall. Kipp Schutz, who hit a walk-off grand slam against the ValleyCats back in July, ended Connecticut’s season with a game-winning single, and the ValleyCats were free to celebrate.

In the end, the ValleyCats won with incredible pitching. Their 17-11 August was fueled by a 2.56 ERA and 81 runs allowed, both best in the league. Vermont, meanwhile, posted a 5.45 ERA while allowing 159 runs in August, going just 9-17 to blow a seven-game lead. Connecticut fared slightly better on that end, allowing 119 runs with a 3.57 ERA, but hit a league-low .212 for the month.

All five regular starters had a terrific month, posting ERAs below 3.00. David Martinez, a mid-season conversion from the bullpen, fared the best, allowing just four earned runs in 30.1 innings and fanning a team-high 31 batters. Bobby Doran (3-1, 2.41) and Jake Buchanan (2-3, 2.97) rebounded from slow starts with strong months, while Carlos Quevedo (3-1, 2.97) and Andrew Robinson (2-2, 2.74) continued excellent seasons in August. On the other side, the mid-month additions of Marcus Nidiffer (.317/.386/.540 in August) and Austin Wates (.368/.500/.474 in 19 at-bats) boosted an offense that saw some of its regulars drop off a bit, while the arm of Chris Wallace (14/25 CS with Tri-City) proved a valuable asset behind the plate.

The ValleyCats make the playoffs, and will be a tough match for a strong Batavia squad in the first round. All four playoff teams are very good, which should make for a very fun week.

So, Chris: You were right, and I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

Kevin Whitaker

Three-Horse Race

Playoff Odds update, through 8/31 games: ‘Cats 57%, Vermont 16%, Connecticut 27%

Well, this week didn’t go quite as expected.

After the ValleyCats defeated Connecticut for the fourth time in seven days on Tuesday, it looked like a two-horse race in the Stedler Division: the ‘Cats were hot, Vermont was treading water and Connecticut was fading quickly, three games out.

But everything went right for the Tigers after that. They swept a three-game set at Vermont, and the ‘Cats were swept at Hudson Valley. The Tigers, who had the league’s worst offense entering the series, dropped 21 runs on the Lake Monsters and won the last two games handily. Now they are right back at the top of the division, with momentum and six home games coming up, tied with Vermont and a half-game ahead of Tri-City. It is officially a three-team race.

Momentum would seem to make Connecticut the current favorite, but we just saw how quickly momentum can change. The Tigers now host the juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Cyclones – who, coincidentally enough, will then finish the season with five games against Vermont and three with Tri-City – before finishing with Aberdeen. Vermont still has to play eleven games in the final nine days (two makeups with Brooklyn, although one is the completion of the contest that was suspended in the 12th inning last week) – and, worse, all eleven will be on the road.

The ValleyCats have the easiest remaining opponent of the group when they travel to Lowell next week, but they’ll have to get through three more games with the Renegades, not exactly the team they wanted to see right now. Hudson Valley has won four straight and recently passed the ‘Cats for the fourth-best run differential. The Renegades match up well with the Tri-City offense: the ‘Cats are a very patient bunch, but Hudson Valley has allowed the fewest walks and hit the fewest batters this season.

Ultimately, the ValleyCats still look like the slight favorite, based on the schedule and (more importantly) their play to date. Although they are in third place, they have easily the best run differential of the group (TC +24, VER -12, CT -33), which means they should be expected to play the best from here on out. But time is running out, and they’ll probably need to beat Hudson Valley a couple times this weekend to remain the favorite.

Updated playoff odds:

Tri-City: 41%
Vermont: 33%
Connecticut: 26%

Kevin Whitaker

Updated Playoff Odds

I’ll update this post with the current odds daily. 

Tuesday marked a turning point, as my system now sees the ‘Cats as the favorite.  The rainout hurt Vermont, which won’t get to make up its game with Lowell, while the ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the race by completing another sweep.

Through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%
Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%
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Warning: If you don’t like numbers, you won’t find much in this post (or the next) worth reading.

This is an update to my playoff odds post from earlier this week. I’ve corrected a few misconceptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games and made my model a bit more robust.

The biggest error I had was regarding makeup games for early-season rainouts. For some reason, I was under the impression that rained-out games would be replayed at the end of the season if they affected the pennant race. That is not the case. The ValleyCats’ rained-out games with Jamestown from July and with Aberdeen today will not be played, nor will Connecticut’s game with Staten Island today. Vermont has missed three-plus games so far, but can make up the Brooklyn and Hudson Valley games, plus yesterday’s suspended extra-inning Brooklyn game, because they play those teams again this year. Its rained-out game against Batavia, however, will not be replayed.

The other place I errored was with tie-breakers. I assumed that ties would be broken with a head-to-head game, but that is not the case. Instead, the tiebreakers go as follow: winning percentage, then divisional record, then run differential. It is rare that a tie will go even that far – I predict only a 0.5% chance that run differential comes into play.

The last update is an improvement to my model: an adjustment for home-field advantage. Home teams this year are 226-191 (.542), making home-field advantage a fairly significant factor. Thus, I gave teams playing in their home park a 4% boost in each game*. Note that I said “playing in their home park” – some of the makeup games (i.e., Vermont vs Brooklyn) will not be played at the same place they were initially scheduled; therefore, Vermont will be playing as the “home” team in Brooklyn. In such a case, Brooklyn would get the home-field advantage bump – research has shown that it is playing in a familiar park, not having the last at-bat, that provides the home team with an advantage.

*VERY technical note: In an ideal world, this home-field boost would not be linear – it has a smaller effect with a more lopsided matchup. To illustrate with an extreme example, if a team had a 4% chance of winning on a neutral field, we would not expect it to have a 0% chance of winning on the road. But I couldn’t figure out an easy way to make this effect non-linear, and I expect that all realistic matchups – certainly the ones that I am predicting here – are evenly-matched enough that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

(If anybody is following my work closely, I gave Vermont a 35% chance of winning its suspended game against Brooklyn, down 8-7 with two on and one out in extras. I got that number from this win probability table.)

The numbers:

Tri-City: 41.6% 

Vermont: 53.7% 
Connecticut: 4.6%

The ValleyCats continue to improve their playoff hopes. Keep in mind that these numbers still don’t take into account momentum – June games count as much as August games do. If you think recent results should carry more weight, you should give the ValleyCats a somewhat better chance than listed here. (For what it’s worth, I do think recent results should count more, given how much rosters and players change in this league, but I haven’t come up with a good way to separate recent performance from schedule effects.)

Kevin Whitaker

ValleyCats Playoff Odds

Note: I have learned that some of my assumptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games were inaccurate.  I’ll update later today with those revised.

Update as of Sunday afternoon: Each team split its last two games, and the playoff results predictably changed little.  I have the ValleyCats at 36.13%, Vermont at 51.40% and Connecticut at 12.46%.

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We know the ValleyCats are in the playoff hunt. Tri-City is 1.5 games behind Vermont and a half-game back of Connecticut in the Stedler Division, playing its best baseball as we head towards the home stretch. But what kind of chance do the ‘Cats really have of reaching the postseason?

I put together a quick-and-dirty simulation for the rest of the season in an attempt to answer that question. I’ll try not to go into too many details about how I made the simulation, because I don’t expect that many of you care; leave a comment or email me if you want to know more. But a quick and fairly technical summary: I first figured each team’s pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s performance going forward from its current run differential. Then I plugged those records into Bill James’s log5 formula to figure the odds that each team wins each game. I then used these odds to simulate the Tri-City, Vermont and Connecticut games for the rest of the season*, and played out the season 1,000,000 times. (This task is made a lot easier by the fact that the wild card will almost certainly not come out of the Stedler Division, so I only had to worry about three teams.)

*I included makeups for games that have been lost to rain this year – Tri-City vs Jamestown, Vermont vs Batavia and Staten Island – because they will be played if they affect the pennant race at the season’s end. (My mistake – these games will not be made up.)

Here were the results:

TRI wins:  30.3244
VER wins:  45.3815
CT wins:  8.3277
TRI + VER tie:  9.5976
TRI + CT tie:  2.2061
CT + VER tie:  2.9302
3-way tie:  1.2325

That comes out to a 16% chance that we’ll end up in some sort of tie. The same log5 process I used above can create odds that each team wins a head-to-head play-in game (there is no play-in game; the tiebreaker is divisional record), allowing us to estimate the full odds that each team makes the playoffs (for simplicity’s sake, I assumed that each team would win the three-way tie one-third of the time):

Tri-City: 37.38%
Vermont: 51.83%
Connecticut: 10.80%

I was surprised that Connecticut’s odds are so low. But if you look at run differential, the Tigers just haven’t been very good this season. They rank dead last in runs scored and have a worse run differential than all but two teams; their Pythagorean record pegs Connecticut as a .426 team, rather than a .500 one. The Tigers are 10-5 in one-run games, and will probably not be as lucky going forward.

The ValleyCats have a better run differential and expected record than Vermont, but the 1.5-game edge in the standings is enough for Vermont to remain the favorite. Still, I can assure you that their playoff odds are as high as they’ve been all season.

Two major caveats come with these results. The first is that my simulation does not currently discriminate between home and road games, treating them all equally. I will probably build in an adjustment for this in the next edition of my playoff odds. The second is less clear-cut. Right now, all of my predictions are based on full-season data, so games in June count just as much as games in August. I am not sure if this is optimal or not, particularly in a league where players get promoted relatively frequently; when I do this again, I’ll consider weighting recent results more heavily. It clearly makes a difference in this race – Vermont is playing terribly of late, while the ValleyCats are hot. If you think recent results are more predictive than early-season games, you should consider Tri-City somewhat more likely to make the playoffs than these numbers, and the opposite for Vermont. 

Kevin Whitaker

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.

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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

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