Results tagged ‘ Vermont Lake Monsters ’

Notebook: Clutch hitting

Saturday night’s game has been postponed due to rain, and will be made up in a doubleheader at Vermont, as the Lake Monsters do not return to “The Joe” this year. Tickets for tonight’s game can be exchanged for any remaining regular-season home game.

All season long, the ValleyCats have struggled to get clutch hits. The ‘Cats have watched opponents execute better in the late innings, suffering an unlucky 4-10 record in close games despite playing nearly even in blowouts. On Friday night, that all changed, led by one of the newest members of the team.

Rafael Valenzuela joined the ValleyCats in Jamestown on Tuesday, the first of three position players assigned to Tri-City this week. Friday marked his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, and it was a good day to debut – a pleasant evening in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans.

After several fruitless opportunities in the earlier innings, Valenzuela strode to the plate with two on in the eighth inning to face NYPL saves leader Tanner Peters. He swing at a 3-1 fastball and flicked a high line drive the opposite way, slicing into left-center for a clean double. Justin Gominsky scored and Valenzuela replaced him on second, listening to his first ovation from the hometown crowd.

“I was nervous,” Valenzuela said of playing at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time. “All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight.”

Valenzuela was tentatively expected to open the season in Troy after playing at Rookie League Greeneville last season, but he broke his hamate bone in June and missed the first month. The infielder played four games in the Gulf Coast league on a rehab assignment and was happy to get the call-up to Tri-City this week.

“I spent most of my time with these guys during Spring Training, so being back with my friends here was really nice,” he said.

Drew Muren was intentionally walked to load the bases and Chris Epps struck out, preserving the tie game for Ryan McCurdy. With two outs, McCurdy took a strike and then turned on a fastball, driving a hard grounder two feet to the fair side of the third-base bag for a two-run, game-winning hit.

Manager Stubby Clapp was happy to see his team come through in the clutch. “That’s huge,” he said. “It’s good timing, if it’s going to start now.”

Don’t overlook the work of center fielder Justin Gominsky, who led off the inning with a hard single that bounced off pitcher Drew Bailey. Gominsky also singled to open the sixth inning, staying with a tough curveball on an 0-2 count and driving it up the middle, but was stranded at third.

A scout was in the press box before the game during last week’s homestand when the Michael Bourn trade went down. The scout, who covered the Midwest and saw some of Gominsky in college, said he thought Bourn could be a close comparison for Gominsky’s ceiling – great arm, good speed, little power but a good hit tool.

Also, make sure not to overlook another ValleyCat with an even stronger arm: reliever Dayan Diaz. He came on for Juri Perez with a man on and no outs in the seventh inning, and completed it with this sequence: 94 mph fastball past Jordan Tripp; 94-mph fastball up the ladder chased by Xavier Mackliln; fastball on the inside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis.

He got another strikeout to open the eighth inning, allowed a single, induced a ground ball but got the wrong end of a bang-bang call on the back end of the double play and allowed a soft roller with eyes through the 3-4 hole, giving the Lake Monsters some life. But Diaz got two strikes and reached back for a 95-mph fastball, and Chad Lewis had no chance.

Diaz, despite working out of the bullpen, has now earned five victories, tied for the NYPL lead.

The ValleyCats pulled to within five games of the division-leading Lake Monsters, exactly where they were through 47 games last season. Though they have three teams to catch, the ‘Cats can still dream of a comeback.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that all four teams have played at about the same level this season. Although five games separate the top and bottom of the division, every team has a run differential within 12 runs of the others:

*Also of note: Auburn has a winning percentage 100 points lower than Staten Island does, but the Doubledays have a notably higher run differential. The Yankees are a ludicrous 15-3 in one-run games.

Though they have struggled to win close games this season, the ‘Cats hope that last night may have been a turning point.

“It’s important to get the ball rolling at home,” McCurdy said. “We’ve got a couple games here, then we go on the road for a couple and a big homestand. It’s always fun to play at home, and over the last month or so, we really have to get going.”

Meanwhile, Valenzuela says he wouldn’t mind a playoff push – after missing the first half of the season, he wants to be a part of as many games as possible.

“I would like to play a lot of baseball still,” he said. “I really want us to get hot and keep playing a lot of games.”

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Late-game drama

With 9-3 and 10-0 decisions in the first two games of the season, the one thing lacking was late-game drama, and it appeared the trend would continue when Vermont took a four-run lead into the eighth inning on Sunday. But the the ValleyCats rallied for three runs on three hits, bringing up John Hinson in the highest-leverage situation of the short season: down one, first and third, two outs.

Hinson drove the ball hard to the opposite field – just as he had done in the previous two at-bats, for a double and a single – and Ryan McCurdy, leading off first, said that he thought it would be a game-tying hit. But shortstop Sam Roberts stepped to his backhand, jumped softly and snared the line drive to end the inning.

Matt Duffy singled with two outs in the ninth but advanced no further, and Vermont took the game and the series, 6-5.

Now, the ‘Cats go away from home for the first time this season. The rookies have taken road trips before in college, but manager Stubby Clapp commented on some differences that they will have to adjust to.

“They’ve been on the bus rides, but they’ll need to get used to the system, the organization we use on the road,” he said. “We don’t have our own facilities, we have to deal with the opposing team’s schedule and go from there.”

As I write this, the ‘Cats seem to be handling the change of scenery just fine, taking a large lead at Connecticut in the opener of the three-game series.

Abbreviated notebook:

-Drew Muren and Duffy have been in the 3-4 slots all three games so far, and if they keep playing like this, they’ll hold that position all year. Muren drew three walks last night while Duffy had three hits. Muren was caught stealing for the first time in three attempts when Vermont guessed right and pitched out on 0-2; it worked out okay for the ‘Cats, as with a new count in the second  inning, Duffy smacked a first-pitch double and eventually scored.

-Muren had the defensive play of the night in the ninth inning, preventing a potentially key insurance run by gunning out Xavier Macklin at the plate on a single. Muren had to range to his right and was not able to come in very far to field it, but he threw a dart to home plate, beating a surprised Macklin by 10 feet.

-The first eight balls in play off Euris Quezada were all on the ground, none hit all that hard; two went for hits, but both were slow rollers back through the box and over second base for singles. The Lake Monsters finally elevated a couple balls the second time through, though only two of the five fourth-inning hits were struck very hard. After three runs scored, he bounced back nicely, striking out Michael Fabiaschi with the bases loaded and inducing a soft grounder from Chad Oberacker to end the inning.

Quezada didn’t throw all that hard, topping out around 88, but had a strange release point and hitters seemed to have trouble picking up his breaking stuff in particular. He certainly seems to have potential to pick up more velocity – he got a late start to his pro career (signed out of the Dominican Republic and debuted at 20, two years ago) so his mechanics are probably not a finished product, and at 6’6”, 240 lbs., he seems to have more strength to tap.

-Travis Blankenship last night: 23 pitches, 12 strikes, no runs. Having seen a lot of the lefty last year, I can tell you that was a very Blankenship-like outing. He fell behind the first four hitters but got two out, then retired Jordan Tripp on a harmless fly ball to right.

-You don’t see this often: catcher Beau Taylor assisted three of Vermont’s first five outs – two whiffs were put out 2-3 and Muren’s CS.

-For the third straight game, Vermont’s starter went up there in pitches – J.C. Menna threw 87, which would be on the high side for an August game and is certainly a lot for an Opening Weekend contest at this level.

-If the people I met and worked with this weekend are any indication, the Oakland A’s are a classy organization, and the NY-Penn League is lucky to have them.

-13,965 fans turned out to “The Joe” this weekend, putting us ahead of last year’s record-setting pace despite some bad weather on Friday. Thanks to everybody who came to the ballpark, and we’ll see you later this week!

Stubby on his first weekend at Joe Bruno Stadium: “It was fun. I love being here, and I know the guys love being here.”

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

Notebook: Home Finale

The ValleyCats played their last home game of the regular season last night, and apparently they just did not want to leave Joe Bruno Stadium. We saw extra baseball for the second consecutive game; this one lasted even longer, a 14-inning thriller that took nearly four and a half hours to complete.

Monday’s result was happier for the ValleyCats, as they ended the home slate the same way it began*: a walk-off hit to score the winning run from second. Most of the 6,215 fans had left by that point – it was, after all, 11:30 on a Monday night – but the few that stayed saw the last of many thrilling games at “The Joe” this season.

Cool fact: the same umpires that were here on Opening Day also worked Monday’s finale: Carlos Torres behind the plate and Shane Livensparger on the bases.

Monday’s game was Tri-City’s longest of the season in both innings and time, lasting even longer in absolute time than the 11-inning Vermont game that saw a one-hour power delay. The ValleyCats have had tremendous pitching depth all season and needed all of it last night, going to 14 frames after playing 12 on Sunday. Aside from an uncharacteristically shaky seventh inning by lefty Travis Blankenship – who came into the game with only four earned runs but allowed three last night – the ‘Cats’ pitching was lights-out. Jake Buchanan allowed only one run – a two-out double by the ValleyCats’ nemesis, Nick Schwaner – and fanned eight batters without walking any. Brandt Walker, Jorge De Leon and Jason Chowning were more than solid in relief, seeing the go-ahead run reach third only once in the final seven innings.

Chris Wallace came up with the big hits all series, and last night was no exception. The catcher doubled home Mike Kvasnicka for the eventual deciding run in Saturday’s 2-1 victory and homered to give the ‘Cats the lead on Sunday. Last night, he came up with one out in the bottom of the 14th inning. Both pitchers had retired the side in order in their last inning and it looked like the game might last forever, but Wallace smoked a ball over the shortstop’s head all the way to the wall in left-center. Adam Bailey then drove a liner to the right-center-field gap – his second hit in as many at-bats against the left-handed pitcher – and Wallace came home just inches ahead of the tag with the game-winning run.

Austin Wates played the field for the first time with Tri-City, patrolling center field and giving Dan Adamson a day off. He made a terrific sliding grab on a hard liner deep in the gap in the top of the 13th, which eventually saved the game for the ‘Cats. Wates also doubled in his first at-bat and hit a couple other balls hard, but right at fielders. He was responsible for the game-tying run in the seventh inning: he drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on an overthrow, then scored on a Tyler Burnett single.

The ValleyCats set a new single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive year, bringing 155,315 fans to the park in 2010 – an average of 4,313 per game. Last night’s crowd of 6,215 was the fourth-largest in franchise history. Thanks to everyone who came to a game, followed this blog or helped in any other way to make this season special.

While Monday’s game certainly was not a must-win game in the literal sense, the ‘Cats would have been in a poor position, facing a 1.5-game deficit and two teams to chase with less than a week to play. Instead, they’re right in the thick of things in the Stedler Division, a half-game behind Vermont and a half-game ahead of Connecticut.

I’ve tweaked my playoff odds slightly, deciding to regress each team’s performance to the mean a little bit to account for the uncertainty in this league. This brings down the ValleyCats’ odds a little bit – they are the “best” team, by my simulation, because they have the best run differential – to the benefit of Vermont, whose half-game lead becomes a bit more meaningful. Connecticut dropped a game to both teams with the loss, and is now about a 1-in-5 shot, while the ValleyCats are nominally favorites but essentially a toss-up with Vermont.

Updated odds through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%

Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Another Attendance Record

Recent visitors to Joe Bruno Stadium have seen their share of excitement: the ValleyCats have played six consectutive one-run games at home. They’ve won three, improving their record in one-run contests to a respectably 9-12, but although they had their chances, the ‘Cats couldn’t pull one out last night.

5,445 fans showed up at the ballpark last night – enough to break the single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive season – and they certainly got their money’s worth. The early Sunday start time of 5 pm proved to be a big plus, as most of the fans were still there when the game was decided nearly four hours later. The ‘Cats surrendered a twelfth-inning run and lost 5-4, falling to 3-8 this season in extra innings.

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Six runners reached for the home team from the ninth inning on, but the ValleyCats weren’t able to bring any of them around to score. Marcus Nidiffer led off the eleventh inning with a double and stood on third with one out, but Jacke Healey’s fly ball was too shallow to tag on and Ben Orloff also flew out to center. A 12th-inning double by Tyler Burnett – who also doubled in the ninth – gave the ‘Cats some hope of tying the game and forcing more baseball, but closer Austin Hubbard bore down and retired the next two batters to end the game.

The ‘Cats may look back on this one with regret. Vermont lost at Aberdeen, so if the ValleyCats had been able to push one of those runners across, they would have been all alone in first place for the first time this season. Instead, they currently sit in third place, a half-game back of both the Lake Monsters and Connecticut. I still project the ValleyCats as a slight favorite, due to their still-strong run differential and the fact that they have three games remaining with Lowell, but it’s pretty close to a three-team tossup: Tri-City 38%, Connecticut 33%, Vermont 29%. If the ‘Cats had won, they would be above 60% right now. (Connecticut was the big beneficiary, seeing its odds rise by more than 20% after last night’s games.)

Bobby Doran gave up a run on a pair of two-out hits in the first inning, and for a minute I feared we might be seeing a repeat performance from Tuesday, when he allowed nine hits to the Tigers. Instead, he settled down and did not allow another score in his five innings, sending the Renegades down in order in the final two frames.

Murillo Gouvea opened the season quite poorly, and after allowing four runs in a little more than an inning against Brooklyn in mid-July, his ERA stood at 12.71. Many of us wondered if Gouvea would be sent down to a lower level to get straightened out. But whatever pitching coach Gary Ruby did to Gouvea certainly worked, as he’s allowed just three runs in 19.1 innings since. The Brazilian righty was lights-out last night, allowing only one hit in 3.1 innings and fanning eight Renegades – including four in the 11th inning, when Dio Luis reached after whiffing at a wild pitch. Gouvea now ranks second on the team with 50 strikeouts, and he’s thrown less than half as many innings as the team leader, Carlos Quevedo.

Instead, the ValleyCats’ loss came due to poor command by a couple unlikely sources: Alex Sogard and Michael Ness. Sogard had not allowed a run in the previous four weeks, a stretch spanning 14 innings. But he got into trouble right away in the sixth, walking Nick Schwaner and allowing a double to Steven Tinoco. (Schwaner and Tinoco killed the ‘Cats last night, going a combined 6-for-9 with three walks.) A line drive found Orloff’s glove and Sogard froze Mayo Acosta with a curveball, and it looked like he might escape the jam. But Dio Luis drove a 2-1 pitch to the right-center-field wall, driving in two and scoring himself as the ‘Cats kicked the ball around.

Ness had not issued a walk in three full weeks and had only six on the season, but he struggled to find the plate in the 12th inning last night. He hit Chris Winder with his first pitch of the night – Ness’s first HBP of the year – and then issued two-out walks to Schwaner and Tinoco. (With bases open and the go-ahead run on third, he was wisely being careful to both batters, particularly Tinoco, once he fell behind in the count.) Derek Dietrich then lined a shot to first that Nidiffer gloved but could not catch cleanly, and the Renegades had the run they needed.

The ValleyCats have had a lot of trouble figuring out the Hudson Valley pitching staff, scoring only 12 runs in five games. The lone hitter who seems to have it figured out is Chris Wallace, who doubled to score the eventual game-winning run on Saturday and came up big again last night. Wallace scored Mike Kvasnicka with a fifth-inning homer – the ‘Cats’ first hit of the game – that was crushed to right-center. Wallace later walked and laid down a nice sacrifice in the eleventh.

Burnett finished the game with a pair of doubles, which will hopefully give him a bit of a spark – he had only three hits in his previous 30 at-bats. Dan Adamson has also been slumping a bit – one for his last 14, and the hit was a routine grounder last night that Elias Otero played too deep on – and will get a rest tonight.

Adamson’s spot in centerfield will be taken by Austin Wates, who made his first appearance last night since being hit on the hand in Tuesday’s contest. Wates pinch-hit in the ninth and smacked a hard line drive with a man on, but it went right at Otero, who had moved to second base. Tonight marks his first appearance in the field with the ValleyCats.

I can’t believe it’s this time of year already, but tonight marks the last regular-season game at “The Joe.” Hopefully the ‘Cats make the playoffs and come back here next week for some postseason baseball.

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

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

Goose Eggs

There are a lot of things to like about this ValleyCats team, twelve games into the 2010 season. The pitching staff has been dominant, posting a 2.90 ERA – fourth-best in the NY-Penn League. Tri-City leads the league with 108 strikeouts, and has only walked 38 batters, less than the league average.

And the offense has shown strong secondary skills. The ‘Cats have walked 54 times, second-best in the league to date. And their power numbers – 17 doubles and six homers – are not bad in the context of the league.

But, as important as walks and power are, you still can’t score a lot of runs when you’re batting .197, as the ValleyCats are after tonight’s 4-0 shutout loss at Vermont, the second goose egg in as many days. And that’s certainly the biggest story surrounding the Tri-City team right now. On Sunday afternoon, I wrote that I really liked that night’s lineup, and they proceeded to score two runs on three hits, only one of which was well-struck. But although I thought I had jinxed them that night, Sunday’s lineup looks absolutely potent compared to the one we’ve seen in Vermont. Last night, three Lake Monsters combined for a four-hit shutout; tonight, three more home team pitchers allowed only two hits and three walks.

I will offer many of the same warnings I offered last week: we’re still dealing with small samples. This team certainly has the ability to hit – we saw that in the middle of last week’s homestand, when they racked up 28 hits in three games. And the fact that the secondary skills are still there gives me some confidence that the ‘Cats will figure out what they’re doing at the plate.

And again, we’ve seen this before. Tri-City’s batting average through 12 games last year was .198, eerily similar to that of this year’s team. The 2009 offense turned out to be fine, finishing up just shy of the league average at .242 despite the cold start. (Of course, that team picked up an offensive boost at about this point in the season, adding unknown college outfielder J.D. Martinez*, who eventually led the league in hitting. We certainly can’t count on getting that kind of addition again.) Vermont also has the best pitching staff in the league to date, although with only 12 games in the books we run into some cause-and-effect issues with the stats that we need time to sort out (i.e., does Vermont have good numbers because Tri-City is bad, or do the ‘Cats have bad numbers because their opponents can pitch?).

*Care to guess who’s currently leading the ValleyCats in batting average? That’s right, a college outfielder drafted in the 20th round, Dan Adamson.

So I guess my message is pretty much the same as it was last week: be patient. If the ‘Cats are still flirting with the Mendoza Line at the end of the upcoming six-game homestand, well, then it might be time to panic. But right now, it could be no more than a teamwide slump happening at a bad time.

Mike Kvasnicka will not finish the season hitting .121, I promise you that. He’s still found ways to be productive at the plate, however, drawing 10 walks (tied for fourth in the league).

Although the hitting is obviously the headliner, this also has not been a very good defensive team. The ValleyCats rank second in the NYPL in fielding percentage at .974, but that only tells a small part of the story – this defense is allowing a lot of balls to fall for hits. Even with all the strikeouts, opponents are batting .263 against Tri-City pitchers – 20 points above the league average. I plan on diving into this more in a later post, but eyeballing the numbers, I would expect that the ‘Cats have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play, and it might not be close. They have also thrown 12 wild pitches, one shy of the league high, and have thrown out a below-average share of base stealers.

I would expect the defense to get better over time, as the ‘Cats have been breaking in players at new positions. The fact that they are fourth in ERA despite having a lot of players unfamiliar at their position is a tremendous credit to the pitching staff.

Baserunning has been another pitfall of this young team. The ValleyCats got five runners on base tonight, and only two stayed there until the end of the inning. Vermont turned a pair of double plays, which certainly aren’t the runners’ fault, but Wilton Infante was picked off and caught stealing after his base hit in the fourth inning. Tri-City has had eight runners caught stealing and only five successful thefts, and I can’t find stats for pure pickoffs but there have been a couple of those.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, despite the 4-8 record, Tri-City has only been outscored by four runs (44-40). However, that comes with the caveat that Randy Consuegra basically handed them 5-10 runs, depending on how you want to count the inherited runners. Drawing walks is absolutely a skill, and this is a patient lineup, but Consuegra was a special case – batters could pretty much step in the box, see four or five pitches and know they were going to take first base.

I was legitimately disappointed that Carlos Quevedo pitched last night, because the team was on the road and I couldn’t watch. That’s how good he has been this year. He did give up a pair of longballs on Monday but was otherwise brilliant, allowing just two other runners to reach base in six innings. For the season, Quevedo has 16 strikeouts and no walks. That’s Cliff Lee territory. His next start should be at The Joe, projected for July 3rd against Connecticut.

Quevedo’s record so far is 0-1, which should demonstrate exactly how useful that statistic is for measuring pitchers (particularly in this league).

And after a pair of shaky outings last week, the bullpen is right back to its amazing old self. Tri-City relievers have thrown six scoreless innings in the series so far, giving up only three hits.

The ValleyCats and Lake Monsters finish their three-game set tomorrow. Tri-City looks to take the first step towards breaking out of its slump against Matt Swynenberg, who frustrated the ‘Cats in Troy last week. But as long as the pitching keeps this up, we will at the very least have a season full of close, fast-paced games.

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:


Power Outage scenes and thoughts

At one point in yesterday’s game, I actually began to wonder if we might be able to finish the game in under two hours. It would have ben a stretch, but didn’t seem like a ridiculous proposition: the sixth inning was almost complete at 8:29, just an hour and 25 minutes after the game began. Carlos Quevedo was throwing great for Tri-City – 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 0 R on 65 pitches – and the Vermont pitchers also working quickly, allowing just one run and no walks. Neither side had needed more than 15 pitches to complete an inning, and with potentially only two and a half innings left to play, it seemed possible.

Then, the scoreboard went dark, the lights went off, and ominous black smoke started escaping from the roof of the generator building behind the left-center field fence. You probably know the story by now. The game was delayed for 61 minutes until all the lights finally came back on and play could resume. In the meantime, the ValleyCats gathered outside the third-base dugout, entertaining fans and themselves by throwing items into the stands. The postgame fireworks show was instead launched during the delay to keep the crowd engaged.

Eventually the game was resumed. Vermont decided that, even after the delay, it had not been at the ballpark long enough, and scored a run in the eighth to force extra innings. Each team had a runner in scoring position in the ninth and tenth, but neither could score. In the eleventh, Vermont finally broke through. Henry Jimenez – who had entered the game in the ninth as a pinch-runner for designated hitter David Freitas – led off the inning with a single through the right side, and came around to score on a two-out single by pinch-hitter Justin Miller. The ValleyCats couldn’t answer, and Vermont had a 2-1 victory.

The 61-minute delay provided some of the wildest scenes of the season.

Infielder Enrique Hernandez became an honorary member of VCN, taping Elliot’s camera to the top of his head:

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Hernandez wanted to bring the camera out with him to coach first base, but the rest of us thought that was a bad idea.

The players throw giveaway items into the stands:

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Mike Kvasnicka stole some frisbees from Southpaw to throw into the crowd:
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Fun Facts: As long as Wednesday might have been for the ValleyCats, it was even longer for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Isner and Mahut began their match on Wednesday…and didn’t finish until Thursday, as Isner took the final set 70-68. Tri-City and Vermont could have almost played their game twice, complete with power delays, in the time it took the tennis pros to complete their fifth set alone (8 hours, 11 minutes).

In fact, in the 11 hours and 5 minutes it took Isner and Mahut to play their match, the ValleyCats could have…
    …put on 44 consecutive firework displays
    …waited through 11 power outage delays
    …in which they could have thrown an estimated 22,000 items into the stands
    …including 11 cardboard boxes, signed by a dozen ValleyCats.
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I think we’re all glad it didn’t come to that.

===

Some notes from the game:

The ValleyCats’ pitching staff is due for regression at some point – that 1.73 ERA is simply not sustainable for any team. But I am confident that Carlos Quevedo will continue to have a lot of success at this level. You can’t help but appreciate the righty’s pitching style. How’s this for going after hitters: In his first start, Quevedo threw first-pitch strikes to the first 12 batters he faced. Last night? 14 of the first 15. His fastball only sits around 89-91, but it gets on hitters really quickly, enabling him to challenge batters up in the zone and succeed. The stadium shadows last night helped a bit with that deception, but it was still impressive. Quevedo’s second pitch is a slow curve, which seemed to come in around 74-76 mph (though I trust the stadium gun a little less in this range, as it was showing a few curves at 61); it was very useful for him last night, although he did get some help from the umpire on a couple hooks.

Quevedo was the player affected most by the power outage: he was only at 65 pitches at the time of the delay, and would have pitched the seventh inning (although likely no more). He only allowed three hits – all singles – and now has not given up a walk in 10.1 innings this seasion. He currently ranks second in the NYPL with 10 strikeouts.

The bullpen was not as lights-out last night as it had been. The overall line is good – five innings, one earned run – but that overstates its effectiveness. The first run counted as unearned, but Tri-City pitchers were hardly blameless – Joan Belliard hit Ronnie LaBrie with one out, Travis Blankenship walked LaBrie over to third with two, and then Andrew Robinson walked the next batter to bring in the run. That was uncharacteristic of a team that has had remarkable control this season. The ‘pen held Vermont scoreless in the ninth and tenth, but didn’t make it easy, stranding a runner on second in the ninth and leaving the bases loaded in the tenth with the help of a baserunning out.

I was very impressed with the ValleyCats’ fielding. The outfielders threw out three runners on the basepaths. In the first inning, Chad Mozingo tried to stretch his leadoff single into a double, but hesitated a bit coming around first, allowing a strong throw by Renzo Tello to beat him to second base. In the tenth inning, Rick Hughes tried to score the go-ahead run on a soft single to right, but Michael Kvasnicka’s throw arrived well before Hughes and catcher Buck Afenir held onto the ball in the collision. In the eleventh, Cole Leonida tried to score an insurance run from second with two outs, but Tello again delivered a good throw to end the inning. Ben Orloff added a terrific sliding catch deep in foul territory in the fifth inning, while Oscar Figueroa, starting at third for the first time, made a nice play on a grounder in the second.

But the story, as always, is that the ‘Cats can’t hit. I already covered that theme this week, and one more game doesn’t change my opinion much. Still, Tri-City is batting just .197 on the season, which is not good.

Kvasnicka continued his hitless streak, going 0-for-1 in two plate appearances. The rookie did not start, but pinch-hit for Adam Bailey in the ninth with Burnett on first and one out. From the right side, he took a big swing through the first pitch, but eventually worked a walk. He got up again in the eleventh, this time from the left side and again with Burnett on first. The ‘Cats called a hit-and-run but got a bad pitch as Kvasnicka swung and missed at a fastball up and out of the zone, hanging Burnett out to dry between first and second and effectively ending the ‘Cats’ rally. Kvasnicka went down swinging on a ball in the dirt two pitches later.

He’s back in the lineup tonight, in the three-hole and starting at third. Let’s hope he breaks out of the slump.

Kevin Whitaker

Crazy game

Here’s the media board from today’s wild 11-inning thriller, which featured three pinch-hitters, a pinch-runner and nine pitching changes:

More to come tomorrow.

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