Tuesday, August 30, 2016

To play, or not to play? That is the question

After being around baseball for 45 years, I have become confused.

I used to know when a game should be delayed by rain. I used to know when a game that was delayed by rain should be resumed. I used to know when a game should be deemed postponed by rain.

Now, I'm not so sure.

And I'm blaming it on the Internet and cellphones.

The rule of thumb for rain delays used to be simple: you play if it's not raining and the field is playable; you don't if it's raining too hard or if the field conditions are dangerous.

These days, we have synthetic turf fields (often funded by taxpayers) that drain faster than your bathtub, turface, Doppler radar, 24-hour weather channels and some people still can't figure out when to play, when to stop playing and when to resume playing.

Here are a couple of examples:

* The Wild Things' game Sunday against Joliet. Important game in the Frontier League East Division standings for both teams, but especially Washington. The game was properly halted in the seventh inning, at 7 p.m. on the dot, when heavy rain began falling. Joliet led 4-2 at the time. A strong storm blew through and the radar looked ugly, with plenty of blue, yellow and green patches. The rain subsided to a few drops -- not nearly enough to stop a game -- by 8:45 p.m.

Players mingled on the field, what few fans remained in the ballpark gathered and waited on the concourse, what little water was standing on the field had long since drained off.

The only thing left was for the umpires to return to the field and tell the pitchers to begin warming up.

From what information I could gather, they had already decided the the game was postponed. They just hadn't told anybody. The radar looked too bad to resume playing, they deemed.

Therein is the big problem. Anybody who knows weather in Western Pennsylvania knows it's often unpredictable at this time of year. Storms pop up out of nowhere, others break up (for reasons I and local TV weathermen can't figure out) with no rhyme or reason. We had an example earlier this month when the Pony League World Series, which is played at Washington Park on the east side of the city, had heavy rain and a delay of about 90 minutes. At Consol Energy Park that same night, not a drop of rain. No rain delay in the Wild Things game. The radar said it was raining and it sure looked bad, but there was no rain.

In the days before cellphones and the weatherunderground app, the Wild Things and Slammers would have resumed playing Sunday. And it would have been the right decision. After the decision to cancel the game, I had enough time to do some interviews, walk back and forth between the pressbox and clubhouse, write a 22-inch story, walk to my car and drive to the office without encountering more than a dozen drops of rain.

An important game like that one should have been resumed. Back in my day (I can't believe I wrote that), the game would have been resumed. No radar, no cellphones. Just extending your hand and feeling if it's raining and looking at the condition of the field was all that was necessary.

* Earlier this season, and one of the reasons the Wild Things needed to play Sunday, was their decision to cancel (not postpone) a game against Normal. It was July 28 and the final game of a three-game homestand against Normal. It had rained all day. At 6 p.m., one hour before game time, it was decided to cancel the game. There were various reasons. One was that because of the all-day rain it was feared that nobody would show up. The Wild Things wouldn't make any money if they played. It also was a game Trevor Foss was scheduled to pitch for Washington. The Wild Things, who were in a playoff position at the time, were looking at a worst-case scenario of starting the game with their ace on the mound, having the game rained out after an inning or two and not being able to throw Foss for another five or six days. So they banged the game.

Because it was the last scheduled game with the CornBelters, it would not be made up. When Washington dropped below the playoff line, that missed game starting working against the Wild Things. It's one less game they have a chance to win.

What happened that night and the next day? Well, it stopped raining at 6:30 p.m. and didn't rain again for two days. The sun even came out at 8 p.m. It was sunny, there was no water on the synthetic turf and the game was banged before even a pitch was thrown. Then, the next day, Foss started for Washington in Florence and that game was suspended in the fifth inning because of rain. Foss was a signed a few days later by the Cleveland Indians.

* One thing that has been growing in popularity, it seems, is the rain delay with no rain, especially at the scheduled game time. We had one example at Consol Energy Park a few years ago when the start of a game was delayed more than 30 minutes because rain was in the forecast. It never rained. Imagine that.

Several Pirates games over the past three years had the same scenario -- rain delay but no rain. Yet there was a game against San Diego in 2006 (see photo) that was wasn't stopped despite steady rain that left puddles all over the infield. One Padres player commented after the game that he had never been positioned behind a lake during a game.

It reminds me of what a former minor league general manager once told me about a game he was involved with. It is the home team's decision to start or delay  game before the first pitch is thrown. Once the game starts, then it's up the umpires to decided to delay, resume or continue. The former minor league executive told me his team was hosting a game against a Chicago Cubs affiliate. The Cubs had one of their top prospects pitching that night. The sky was darkening at game time and rain was in the forecast. The decision was made not to delay the game, which triggered a tirade by the prospect about starting a game with a chance of rain.

That old baseball executive told me, "I'll never delay a game because it might rain. You know why? Because it might not."

In other words, he'll delay a game if it's raining and he'll play if it's not. No radar apps needed.

Sounds like a good system to me.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Just like Richmond

As I sat at Consol Energy Park Friday night watching the Wild Things drop a pivotal doubleheader to the Joliet Slammers, I found myself thinking I had watched these games before. Like 14 or 15 years ago.

That was when another team that, like the Slammers, wore green and orange and tormented the Wild Things with their impressive hitting. The Richmond Roosters used to frustrate Washington pitchers by spraying two-out singles all over the ballpark and then smack a long multi-run homer, just like Joliet did Friday night. Heck, Richmond even had Chris Mongiardo in their dugout as the pitching coach, just like the Slammers did Friday night.

The only difference in the visitor's dugout was that Jeff Isom was calling the shots from that side of the field. Back in 2002 and 2003, Isom was Washington's manager, wearing red & black. This time, he was wearing green and orange.

Washington edged Richmond for the East Division title in 2002, but the Roosters beat the Wild Things 3 games to 1 in the championship series. One of those Richmond wins was a 14-7 thumping in Game 2 at what was then known as Falconi Field.

Joliet's 5-1 and 4-2 wins felt a lot like that 14-7 game against Richmond. Though the scores were closer, it never felt like Washington had enough firepower to win.

For the Wild Things, the big difference in playing the current edition of the Slammers and the 2002-03 Richmond Roosters is this year's Washington team just doesn't have the hitting to get into a slugfest with an opponent. The Wild Things don't have a Josh Loggins or Shaun Argento or Jay Coakley or Brad Hensler or Joe Cuervo  or ... well, you get the point.

Washington has to pitch well, field well and even catch breaks. They didn't get the latter against Joliet. When the Slammers scored five runs in the fifth inning of the opener, the Wild Things should have been out of the inning unscathed. With two outs and a runner on second base, the Slammers' Marc Flores hit a ball back up the middle. The ball struck pitcher Matt Fraudin in the side of his right foot and deflected toward the third-base line for an infield single. Had the ball not struck Fraudin, it would have been gobbled up by shortstop Austin Wobrock for an easy inning-ending out. Wobrock played a shift against Flores the entire night and was positioned directly behind second base, where the baseball was headed before Fraudin's foot got in the way.

Joliet went on to score five runs in the inning and won the game. On the night, the Slammers had 20 hits to the Wild Things' nine. Washington had its chances but went an unthinkable 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position, including 0-for-12 in the opener. Three times in the first four innings of the opener Washington had a leadoff extra-base hit. None of those runners scored. It was that kind of night for the Wild Things, who are last in the Frontier league in batting average, runs, hits and on-base percentage.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Grotz sold to Dodgers

The Wild Things have sold the contract of pitcher Zac Grotz to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Grotz had a 4-2 record, 10 saves and a 1.36 ERA in 46 1/3 innings. He recently moved from closer to starter after Trevor Foss was sold to the Cleveland Indians.

By my count, Grotz is the 33rd different Wild Things player to have his contract purchased by a major league organization.

Another good start for Foss

Former Wild Things pitcher Trevor Foss had another good start for Class A Lake County in the Cleveland Indians' farm system. Foss pitched Monday against West Michigan and threw seven strong innings, allowing only two hits and one run. He did not issue a walk and struck out five. Over his last two outings, Foss has a 2-0 record, allowing one run, six hits and no walks in 13 innings.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How many wins will it take?

Wild Things manager Gregg Langbehn, when analyzing his team's position in the playoff race, said earlier this week that, "We've put ourselves in a position, with 24 games remaining, where we have to find a way to win about 17 games because there are so many teams fighting for a playoff spot."

That statement was made two games ago. Since then, Washington has gone 1-1, leaving it with a 35-38 record. They are six games behind first-place Joliet in the East Division standings and 3 1/2 back of Normal, which currently holds the final wild-card playoff spot. Because of one rainout (when it didn't rain that night) that will not be rescheduled, Washington will play only 95 games. There are 22 games remaining, including a doubleheader Sunday at Windy City.

So, how many of those 22 games will the Wild Things have to win to gain a playoff spot?

The Frontier League has been playing 96 games since 2004 and the average number of wins for the fourth-best team in those seasons is 53.41. In the six seasons in which the league has had 12 teams and played a 96-game schedule, the fourth-best record has an average of 53.11 wins.

That means, based on history, the Wild Things would need to go 19-3 to get to 54 wins.

But this is not a typical year in the Frontier League because so many teams -- actually, all of them -- are still within striking distance of a playoff berth. That means more wins for the league's bottom feeders, which in turn means the fourth-place team should have fewer than 54 wins at season's end.

The best way to guess how many wins it will take to finish as the final wild card is this: If Normal plays just one game over .500 for the rest of the season -- it has 21 remaining -- then the CornBelters will finish at 50-45. Based on this, it will take 51 wins for Washington to get the final wild card, meaning the Wild Things need to go 16-6.

For a team that hasn't won more than four consecutive games, that's asking a lot, though it's not mathematically impossible.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Rough seas

Remember all those good vibes from the Wild Things as they approached the all-star break? Washington was tied for first place in the East Division and holding one of the Frontier League's four potential playoff spots.

Fast forward less than a month and the Good Ship Wild Things is taking on water at a rapid rate. The ship might not be sinking but the water buildup in the engine room is causing coughs and sputters.

Washington is 5-15 since the all-star break, has lost a season-high six consecutive games and ended its nine-game road trip Sunday with a 2-7 record. Somehow, the Wild Things are still in third place in the East Division, but 5 1/2 games behind first-place Joliet. Forget for a moment about the wild card. Washington is closer to having the worst record in the league than it is to being in a playoff spot.

So what has gone so wrong so fast?

It has been a combination of things. A season-long offensive slump has finally caught up with the Wild Things. the pitching staff that carried the team in the first half of the year is leaking oil and ace pitcher Trevor Foss, who could be counted on to win every fifth or sixth day and give the bullpen the night off, had his contract purchased by the Cleveland Indians.

First, let's examine the offense. Washington is 11th in the 12-team Frontier League in hitting. The Wild Things haven't been above 11th in team batting average since the opening week of the season but they were finding ways to win games in the first half of the year. At one point early in the season, Washington had seven players hitting less than .200, and five of those were starters, but they were winning.

The team batting average is up to .237, which is almost the season high. But some of the pieces in the offense are struggling, even after Washington put up nine runs in a loss Sunday at River City. Let's examine the numbers:

Jamodrick McGruder is on streaks of 0-for-15 and 2-for-27.

Jimmy Yezzo is 3 for his last 19, and 6 for 31.

Chris Grayson is 4-for-22, even after getting three hits Sunday.

Grant Fink hit a couple of home runs on the road trip, but he's also 4-for-26.

Zach Fish hasn't exactly made an impact as he has one hit in 13 at-bats. He was released Monday.

Kyle Pollock, who had a nice hot streak at midseason, is on a 3-for-26 skid.

Logan Uxa has one hit in his last 12 at-bats.

Washington's is batting only .217 with two outs and runners in scoring position. That's the worst average in the league.

Getting the leadoff hitter of the inning on base has been a huge trouble spot. Washington batters are hitting only .236 when leading off an inning, which is second-worst in the league. Only Windy City is worse, at .229.

Those numbers will cause any team to lose games rapidly.

But Washington had those kind of ugly offensive numbers all season. They were winning games because the pitching was bailing out the offense.

Now that Foss is gone -- actually, it started before he left -- the pitching has been faltering.

Let's look at the numbers:

Chase Cunningham is 0-4 with an 11.66 ERA in his last four starts. He hasn't made it out of the fifth inning in any of those starts.

Luke Wilkins is winless since July 1 and has a 5.94 ERA over that period. Washington has lost seven consecutive games in which Wilkins has pitched, though not all of those can be blamed on the pitcher.

Sam Agnew-Wieland's last three outings have produced 13 earned runs over 9 2/3 innings, an ERA of 12.10. He, too, was released Monday.

Not all of the pitching has been bad. Matt Fraudin has been spectacular. Somehow he lost Saturday while allowing only four hits at hitter-friendly River City. How does that happen? Closer Zac Grotz, who hasn't had many opportunities to close recently, has allowed only one run since the break.

Basically, the Wild Things still aren't hitting, the starting pitching is not what it was in the first half of the season and even the fielding his been shaky since the break. It has added up to some rough sailing for the Wild Things, who need to right the ship before it's too late to send out an SOS.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

More on the Wild Things-Trinity School District battle

An editorial from the Observer-Reporter about the fighting between Wild Things ownership and the Trinity School District.

Again, the reader comments are priceless.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wild Things, Trinity battling over CEP use, fees

Consol Energy Park
Below is a link to an interesting story by the Observer-Reporter's Karen Mansfield regarding the battle between Wild Things ownership and the Trinity School District over the use of Consol Energy Park, a tax abatement, fees charged to high school teams for use of the ballpark, a potential switch by Trinity to W&J's Ross Memorial Park and some tactics by the Wild Things that blocked the move.

Wild Things owner Stu Williams, who sued the Frontier League last year, is looking bad in this one on different fronts while Trinity's baseball boosters are threatening to demonstrate/picket at Wild Things home games. The next home game is Aug. 9. That's an early start because it's a doubleheader that begins with the resumption of a suspended game from May 22.

Some of the comments on the story are priceless.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Foss sold to Indians

The Wild Things announced Wednesday that the contract of right-handed pitcher Trevor Foss has been sold to the Cleveland Indians.

And so goes the ace of Washington's pitching staff. Foss was 8-3 with a 2.50 ERA. He led the league in complete games (8) and innings pitched (100 2/3), shared the lead in wins and was second in ERA at 2.50.

I'm pretty sure that, unlike other teams in the league, the Wild Things do not keep count of how many of their players are sold to major league organizations. Thus, I'm taking it upon myself to figure out how many. I can recall 32 players, including Foss, who have gone directly from the Wild Things to affiliated ball. One player had his contract purchased three times. Another player, pitcher Justin Mattison, was drafted by the Wild Things at the Frontier League tryout and then signed almost immediately with San Diego, so I don't know if he should count or not. He signed with Washington the following year. Some players never played in a regular season game with Washington, while others played less than a half dozen games with the Wild Things.

Three players, at least, were signed for affiliated ball or spring training after playing with the Wild Things.

The following is the list of players I can recall going from the Wild Things to the affiliated minor leagues. If you know somebody who is not on the list, please let me know.

RHP Ben Ally -- Houston
SS Mike Ambrose - Pittsburgh
1B David Anderson - Baltimore
RHP Corey Bachman - Toronto
RHP Casey Barnes - Philadelphia
OF C.J. Beatty -- Chicago White Sox
RHP Dave Bradley - Milwaukee
C Adrian Bravo-Carmona - Tampa Bay
RHP Trevor Foss - Cleveland
RHP Robert Garvin - San Diego
SS Brett Grandstrand -- Tampa Bay
OF Stewart Ijames - Arizona
OF Scott Kalamar - Arizona
OF Josh Loggins - Colorado
C Brandon Ketron - New York Yankees
OF Quincy Latimore - Pittsburgh
RHP Michael Lucas - Chicago White Sox
RHP Troy Marks - Arizona
LHP Justin Mattison - San Diego
LHP Steve Messner - San Francisco
LHP Vidal Nuno - New York Yankees
C Pat O'Brien - Chicago Cubs
RHP Travis Risser - Tampa Bay
RHP Chris Rivera - Chicago Cubs
RHP Nathan Striz, Boston
RHP Darian Sanford - Chicago White Sox
RHP Chris Smith - New York Yankees
OF Chris Tuttle - St. Louis
C Jim Vahalik - Baltimore
LHP Alan Williams - Milwaukee
RHP Mark Williams - Milwaukee
LHP Al Yevoli - Arizona, Atlanta and Chicago Cubs

Signed later in career:
LHP Tom Cochran - Cincinnati
INF/OF Chad Ehrnsberger - St. Louis
OF Josh Loggins - Cleveland

Monday, August 1, 2016

Heck named head coach at North Allegheny

Andrew Heck
Wild Things left fielder Andrew Heck has been hired as the head baseball coach at North Allegheny High School.

Though in his fifth season as a player in the Frontier League, Heck also has been a high school baseball coach for the past four seasons at Sewickley Academy. He had a 39-27 record at Sewickley Academy and led the Panthers to the WPIAL semifinals and state tournament in 2014.

At North Allegheny, Heck will be reunited with former Wild Things manager Bob Bozzuto, who is NA’s athletic director. Heck succeeds Andy Maddix, who resigned after this past season.

North Allegheny is one of the top baseball programs in western Pennsylvania as the Tigers were 142-54 in nine seasons with two WPIAL championships under Maddix.

Heck has worked in various capacities for the North Allegheny athletic department the past few years.