Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Too many managers?

Phil Wrigley and his "College of Coaches."
One last post about managers, and it has nothing to do with t he Wild Things.

I received an email from a reader of the Observer-Reporter this week who read my column in the Sunday edition. The reader wrote that he was surprised that I didn't mention the Chicago Cubs' "College of Coaches" that was used in the 1961 and '62 seasons.

I didn't mention it because it wasn't exactly the same as the Wild Things' co-coaches or coaches-by-committee approach. The Cubs always had a manager. The problem was it was changing, first every month, then every week, then every series.

Confused? if you're too young to remember or never heard of the Cubs' "College of Coaches," then here a few links.

If you don't want to read three stories, I'll give you the Reader's Digest version. The Cubs had a string of 14 consecutive finishes in the bottom half of the National League entering the 1961 season, when owner Phil Wrigley decided to do something unique and hired eight coaches who would rotate through the organization from the minors to the majors, changing managerial jobs along the way. Some guys actually managed a rookie league team and the Cubs in the same season.

The Cubs started with a plan to divide the 1961 season into thirds and change managers at that point. It ended up that four managers were used, often rotating from week to week. Three managers were used in 1962.

The results were about what you would expect. The Cubs went 64-90 in 1961 and 59-103 in 1962.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wild Things going managerless

The Wild Things will not have a manager tonight. Or in the near future.

The Wild Things will go with what has been described as a "coach by committee" approach.

I'm not making this up. River City's Steve Brook will be the only manager in the ballpark tonight.

Washington's coaching duties will be split between coaches Bob Didier, Bob Bozzuto and Kevin Gryboski.

Power rankings and schedules

We all like rankings, and sports is filled with them: Top 25 rankings, power rankings, RPI ratings, Top 10 lists, etc.
One rankings system that has been around for a couple of decades is the Massey Ratings. Developed in the early 1990s by Kenneth Massey, the Massey Ratings rank the strength of sports teams. His ratings were part of the Bowl Championship Series since 1999.
Massey has ratings for professional sports, colleges and even high school football. And, yes, he ranks independent baseball teams, including those in the Frontier League:
Massey currently has the Wild Things ranked as the No. 4 team in the Frontier League, behind top-ranked Evansville, Gateway and tonight's opponent River City. One reason for Washington's spot behind Evansville and the top two teams in the West is strength of schedule. According to Massey, the Wild Things have played the easiest schedule in the league. The Greys, obviously, have played the toughest schedule followed by the Joliet Slammers.
Strength of schedule will even out by season's end, but it's interesting to compare remaining schedules. Here are some things to know about the schedules in the post-all-star-game portion of the season:
* Gateway (31) and Washington (30) have played the most home games so far, which means they have the fewest home games remaining.
* Joliet is the only team that has 10 home series remaining.
* Joliet, Gateway, River City and Lake Erie are the only teams that have two series remaining against the Greys, though the Grizzlies will play five games instead of six against the travel team. Joliet also has nine games remaining against Windy City, which is 17-33.
* Washington has only one road series remaining against a team currently with the losing record (Windy City). Evansville, Southern Illinois and Lake Erie each have three road series left against losing teams.
* Evansville and Normal will play only 95 games. They had a game rained out that will not be made up. Though they are not in the same division, the Otters and CornBelters met eight times in the first three weeks of the season.
* Lake Erie and Florence, the closest teams to Washington in terms of mileage, do not play the Wild Things in the second half of the season.
* Washington opens the second half with 12 consecutive games against teams currently with winning records.
* Joliet will play its next 15 games against teams currently with losing records.
* Normal is the only team, other than the Greys, of course, that will play its final six games of the season on the road.
* The only trip Evansville will make to Washington all season will be for the final series of the year in September.
* River City, which leads the West Division, will play only seven games against West Division rivals in the second half of the season.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kountis finds a home as Wild Things' closer

Timing is everything in the newspaper business. A good example of this was Saturday night, when the Wild Things hosted the Florence Freedom. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Observer-Reporter has a deadline this summer that is 30 minutes earlier (10:30 p.m.) than it was last year.

There is no guarantee that any Wild Things home game will be completed in less than three hours, so that means I need to have what we call an "early story" ready to substituted for a game story if play runs long or the game is delayed because of rain.

Last Saturday, I wrote a 34-inch feature story on Washington closer Jonathan Kountis. It served as a placeholder for the Wild Things game story. As luck would have it, the game ended in time for a quickly written game story to run in the print edition. The Kountis feature, which included quotes from Bart Zeller, was pulled.

I had planned to use the Kountis feature leading up to the Frontier League All-Star game but, as we all know, Zeller resigned Sunday. It seemed odd to run a story in print that featured quotes from a guy who just resigned, so it hasn't appeared in print. We did put the story on the O-R's website Sunday.

If you missed it, then here it is:

By Chris Dugan
Sports editor

When the Frontier League season drew to a close last year, Jonathan Kountis’ career as a professional baseball player had fallen to the point where he was playing for the Greys, the league’s traveling team, and had a 1-5 record with an unimpressive 7.08 ERA. He displayed all the signs of a being a pitcher who had been pushed onto baseball’s scrap heap.
However, Wild Things manager Bart Zeller didn’t see a struggling starting pitcher when he watched Kountis, even when the right-hander from Akron, Ohio, gave up five runs in five innings to Washington in his final outing of the year.
What Zeller saw was the future closer of the Wild Things.
Zeller remembered Kountis as the being best ninth-inning pitcher in the Frontier League in 2012, when the latter had a 6-2 record, an impressive 1.08 ERA and 19 saves for the Lake Erie Crushers. Kountis struck out 68 batters in 59 2/3 innings that year.
“What I saw last year was a pitcher who was miscast as a starter,” Zeller explained. “I knew starting wasn’t what Kountis wanted to do. He told me that he wanted to be a closer and that’s all I needed to hear. I told him, ‘With the record you had at Lake Erie, the job is yours.’ So far, he hasn’t left anything to be desired.”
Kountis (6-3, 220) has rejuvenated his career and played a major role in the Wild Things spending six weeks in first place. He has a 1-2 record, a 2.28 ERA and has tied the franchise's single-season saves record before the season reached the all-star break. B.J. Borsa had 19 saves in 2004. Kountis earned his 19th save Saturday in the Wild Things’ 5-4 win over Florence.
Kountis will be one of seven Wild Things in the league’s all-star game Wednesday in Sauget, Ill.
"Jonathan has been excellent,” Zeller said.
That Kountis’ career has led to Washington is quite remarkable. That career has included several unexpected twists and unlikely incidents, including changing schools before his senior year of college, slicing open a finger on a nail protruding from a wall in the Dallas airport and learning how to be a relief pitcher by watching videos on
Kountis spent three years as a starting pitcher at Ohio Dominican University and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 42nd round in 2009. As a 42nd rounder, Kountis didn’t have much bargaining power, so he opted to return to school for his senior year. Instead of going back to ODU, Kountis transferred to Embry Riddle University, an aeronautical school in Daytona Beach, Fla., that happened to have a powerhouse baseball program at the NAIA level.
Kountis pitched well enough for Embry Riddle that he was drafted again, this time in the 19th round by the New York Mets in 2010. He performed well in a brief stints that summer for the Mets’ affiliates in Brooklyn and Kingsport, Tenn.
“Things didn’t work out as planned,” Kountis said. “The next year, the Mets brought a lot of pitchers in for spring training and I was demoted to Kingsport, where I had already played.”
He was released after pitching only 5 1/3 innings.
“It was a lost year,” Kountis said. “I didn’t know what to do next. I heard that John Massarelli was managing Lake Erie, and I had worked out at Mazz’s training facility in Canton, so I asked him for an invite to the Crushers’ spring training in 2012. He said he’d invite me, but the only job he had open was closer. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’
“I didn’t know anything about being a closer. I didn’t know where to begin.”
So Kountis booted his computer, logged on to and watched videos of relief pitchers. One player in particular, Jonathan Papelbon, caught his eye. So Kountis studied the video clips of Papelbon and changed his pitching motion to mimic that of the major leaguer.
“I couldn’t emulate Mariano Rivera. Nobody has a cutter like his,” Kountis said. “I saw Papelbon’s videos and liked the way he hides the ball. He also threw the ball over the top, so I could keep the same arm slot by throwing like him.”
With the help of a split-fingered fastball that he developed while with the Crushers, Kountis had the breakout year he needed, yet he wasn’t signed by any major league team during 2012. That winter, Kountis went to six tryout camps. The last one was in Toronto and the Blue Jays invited him to their minor league camp for spring training.
“I was in extended spring training when they said they wanted me to be the closer at (Class A) Vancouver,” Kountis recalled. “I was on my way to Vancouver when I was in the Dallas airport. I sat a bag down while exchanging money for Canadian currency. When I was done, I reached for my bag, but a nail was sticking out of the wall and I hit it with my hand. I split open the middle finger on my pitching hand.”
Though his finger had not healed, Kountis pitched in 10 games for Vancouver with little consistency. He often reopened the gash while pitching. He was released before the finger healed.
“I didn’t have a feel for the pitches,” Kountis explained. “The finger kept ripping open.”
Kountis wasn’t unemployed very long as he landed a job with Laredo of the independent American Association. “It just didn’t work out there,” Kountis said, and he was released again after only four games and 3 2/3 innings.
He returned to the Frontier League and signed with the Greys. But being a last-place team, the Greys needed starting pitchers more than a closer.
“I hadn’t thrown more than 30 pitches in a game in two years,” Kountis said. “I thought, ‘Do I have to develop a windup again?’ But there was only a month left in the season, so I decided to give it a try and see where it took me.”
Kountis is friends with former Wild Things pitcher and coach Gary Lee, who suggested Washington as a home for him in 2014.
“All the Greys players were free agents at the end of last season. The first day other teams could talk to me, Bart Zeller called,” Kountis said. “He said I could close for Washington and gave me 48 hours to think about it. I didn’t need that long. I had known Bart since 2012 and I knew some of the relief pitchers who played for him. I also knew he won a championship with Joliet. He knows how to put together a good team.”
Zeller has another playoff contender this year, and Kountis will be counted on to secure many important victories in the season’s second half.
“I’m all for the team,” Kountis said. “This team has the best chemistry of any I’ve been around. There are no cliques, no evil seed. … I hope we can bring a championship to the city.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

Zeller resignation

Here's the story from Monday's edition of the Observer-Reporter on the resignation of Wild Things manager Bart Zeller:

By Chris Dugan
Sports editor

With his team tied for first place in the Frontier League’s East Division, Bart Zeller resigned Sunday morning as manager of the Wild Things.
According to Wild Things owner Stu Williams, the 72-year-old Zeller cited “health reasons and concerns” for his resignation.
Zeller did not respond to a request for comment.
Zeller guided Washington to a 31-19 record entering Sunday evening’s home game against the Florence Freedom. It was Washington’s final game before the all-star break.
“I do not know what his health reasons and concerns are,” Williams said, “but I do know that to leave a team as good as this one, and at this point in the season, that must say something.”
An interim manager has not been named. Hitting coach Bob Didier, pitching coach Kevin Gryboski and bench coach Bob Bozzuto prepared the team Sunday.
“I’ve talked to the coaching staff, and I’m going to take the rest of the week to think about it,” Williams said.
“We have three extremely talented individuals. Bob Bozzuto has meant so much to this team for so many years and is a knowledgeable baseball guy. Bob Didier has probably 50 years of experience, almost all of it is on the major league-level, and Kevin Gryboski is a major-league-talented pitcher who is taking good care of the pitchers. With that in mind, I can’t make a wrong decision. I expect we will have a solution after the all-star break.”
Zeller was to manage the East Division team in the Frontier League All-Star game Wednesday night in Sauget, Ill. He will be replaced by Evansville’s Andy McCauley. Gryboski and Bozzuto were to be coaches at the game but Williams said no members of the Wild Things’ coaching staff will be going to Sauget.
Among the in-game duties for Zeller was coaching third base. That job was done Sunday night by Didier, who coached third base in the major leagues when he was on the coaching staff of the Oakland Athletics.
The resignation came one day after the Wild Things defeated Florence, 5-4, in a game that included two pitches thrown behind batters and warnings issued to both teams by home plate umpire Matt Neader. Moments after Washington starter Tyler Elrod threw a pitch behind Florence’s Joe Staley in the fourth inning, there was an altercation in the Wild Things’ dugout between Zeller and Gryboski.
Following the game, there was a players-only meeting on the field that Williams described as “a group of adults getting together and deciding to act like adults.”
The coaching staff later met with Williams. Gryboski was not in the dugout Sunday night. He watched the game from the owner’s suite. A Wild Things spokesman said Gryboski was not suspended.
“Last night, we had a problem in the dugout and a little problem on the field. We got to the bottom of that situation (in the dugout),” Williams said. “It was all game-time emotion and needed to be dealt with.”
Despite trailing 4-0 in the inning of the altercation between coaches, Washington rallied to win the game, getting a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth from Stewart Ijames and scoring four times in the fifth.
“This team is incredible,” Williams said. “It is as professional a group as any I’ve met in any walk of life. … If anybody is missing this season, then they’re missing something extraordinary.”
Zeller was in his second season as Washington’s manager. The Wild Things had a 41-55 record and finished in sixth place in the East last year.
Zeller managed the Joliet Slammers for two seasons (2011-12) and led them to a league championship in 2011. He was let go by the Slammers after the 2012 season and hired as bench coach by Washington. When Chris Bando resigned citing health reasons in the offseason, Zeller was promoted to manager.
Washington will begin the season’s second half Friday night at home against the River City Rascals.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Zeller resigns

With his team tied for first place in the Frontier League's East Division, Bart Zeller has resigned as manager of the Wild Things. No manager has been named as of Sunday night.

Friday, July 11, 2014

In a slump

The Wild Things, who were alone in first place in the Frontier League's East Division every day since June 1, awaken today to find themselves in second place ... sorta.

While Washington and Evansville are tied for first place in the games behind column, the Otters have a winning percentage that is .005 better than that of the Wild Things.

After winning 10 of 11 games during an early season stretch, Washington is only 14-14 over its last 28 games. It's not hard to figure out why the Wild Things have been sputtering.

Early in the season, Washington's offense was being carried by its Big 3 of Danny Poma, C.J. Beatty and Stewart Ijames. Beatty and Ijames were hitting balls over outfield walls with regularity, and Poma was among the top five hitters in the league. You knew the three had to cool off sometime. Ijames has continued to hit at a torrid clip, but Poma's batting average has dropped slightly and Beatty has been scuffling as of late.

Carter Bell has hit for average over the course of the season, and Garrett Rau has had some productive games at the plate, but the rest of the lineup has been inconsistent at best and highly unproductive at its worst.

Put it all together and Washington's team batting average has dipped to .249, which is 10th in the 14-team league, only .001 better than Traverse City.

You can't win a division title batting .249.

And Washington is 11th int he league in walks drawn, which means only the Greys and Lake Erie have a worse team on-base percentage than the Wild Things.

That puts a lot of strain on the pitching staff, which is having to win 3-2 and 4-3 games every night.

So when Washington gets home runs from unexpected sources, such as last night when Maxx Garrett and Jim Vahalik went deep against Lake Erie, and and the bottom of the order scratches out a few hits, the Wild Things need to take advantage of those spurts of bonus offense. The 5-3 loss to the Crushers was a, well, crusher. Who knows if at season's end Lake Erie winning the season series (5-4) over Washington will be a factor in the postseason or not, but that was one game the Wild Things would like to have back.