Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lack of hitting is 'discouraging'

Ten games is hardly a large sample size, especially in a 96-game season. With 86 games remaining, it's not even worth checking the standings for another month.

However, is 10 games deep enough into the season to draw any conclusions about the Wild Things' hitting or lack of hitting?

Manager Gregg Langbehn knows its not wise to draw many conclusions after 10 games, especially when he's playing his entire group of position players instead of a set lineup. However, his frustration with the team's hitting was obvious Wednesday night after a doubleheader split with Traverse City. The Wild Things had only 10 hits in the two games. Two of those hits came in the night's final inning.

Washington enters today with a league-low .196 team batting average. Only Schaumburg and Traverse City have a team on-base percentage worse than Washington's .303. Somehow, with all the offensive scuffling, the Wild Things have won five of those 10 games.

"We're finding ways to win," Langbehn said.

The hitting, however, has to get better. One area that needs improvement is simply making contact. Only three teams have struck out more times than Washington's 79, but each of those three teams have played more games than the Wild Things. And when you consider that Washington has spent the majority of its current six-game homestand facing soft-tossing finesse starting pitchers, that's not a good sign.

"To be honest with you, it's a little discouraging," Langbehn said. "I know 10 games is a small sample size, but we're not hitting. The guys know it. Are they pressing? I don't know. But it has to get better. I believe in them."

Washington has four hitters who are making the switch from playing in affiliated ball last year to the Frontier League this spring. Sometimes hitters find that a difficult adjustment. In the Frontier League, it's more breaking balls, more offspeed pitches and less velocity from the starting pitchers. It takes time for the hitters to adjust.

Those four hitters are batting a collective .159.

"This a breaking ball league. It's a secondary-pitch league," Langbehn explained. "It's taking longer for some guys to adjust. Whether that's a major factor or not, the hitting is just not good enough right now."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Strange stretch

The last four days has been an odd stretch for both the Wild Things and the Frontier League. Let's recap:

* Traverse City pitcher Kramer Champlin threw the first no-hitter in the Beach Bums' 11-year history last Friday night. One day later, Beach Bums pitching coach Ricky VanAsselberg resigned. VanAsselberg seemed like a great hire for the Beach Bums because he was one of only a handful of people who have managed a team to an independent league championship. He won two championships (2010 and 2011) in the American Association. The resignation apparently was for financial reasons.
"You have to do what's right for your family," Traverse City manager Dan Rohn told the Record-Eagle. "He's been a manager for nine or 10 years. When you make manager's money and all of a sudden come in and make a third of what you were making, it's tough to live on.
"I just financially didn't work out for him. It's too bad. He's a good baseball guy."
Traverse City filled the vacancy on the coaching staff by releasing catcher Jake Rhodes and hiring him as a coach.
The Beach Bums play a doubleheader tonight at Washington.
* On Tuesday, the Normal CornBelters announced they have forfeited the second game of a doubleheader against the Joliet Slammers that was played May 15. Normal had won the game 12-1.
At the root for the forfeit was Normal infielder Kevin Czarnecki did not have the proper visa. To play in the Frontier League, foreign-born players must have a work visa. Czarnecki is from Canada and has only a student visa.
The league requires the work visa because, well, the government requires it. And this year, it has been harder than ever for independent baseball leagues to get work visa for their players. That's one of the reasons many Latino players were put on the suspended list in the last month or two -- they've yet to be approved for a visa.
Because Czarnecki was ineligible to play for Normal because he lacked the proper paperwork, the CornBelters forfeited the game without much fuss. We all remember the strange situation and hard feelings that resulted from the Evansville roster snafu and forfeits last year, so the CornBelters probably handled this the right way.
* Then there's the Wild Things, who have been stuck with a 4-4 record since Saturday night. That's because the Sunday game against Lake Erie was suspended because of rain and Washington had scheduled off days Monday and Tuesday. No baseball team likes to go three days in a row playing only 2 1/2 innings.
One interesting thing to come out of the suspended game was we've learned that Wild Things lefty pitcher Brandon Hinkle has a very good pickoff move. Hinkle walked three batters during his three innings Sunday but picked two of those off first base.
I asked Washington manager Gregg Langbehn, who as a lefty pitcher made it to the Class AAA level, what kind of pickoff move he had. Langbehn admitted his pickoff move was nothing special. So who had the best pickoff move Langbehn has seen?
"Andy Pettitte," Langbehn said without hesitation. "You couldn't tell what he was doing, going home or over to first base."
Langbehn added that he managed a pitcher in the Houston Astros' system, Dave Qualben, who had "15 to 20" pickoffs in one season.
"He might have had a better move than Pettitte," Langbehn said.
"For some guys, a good pickoff move is very difficult to develop. Hinkle has the knack for it."

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Take 5

Five games into the Wild Things' season and what have we learned:

* The Internet video streaming of the season opener didn't work, but it has worked for the last 4 games. The picture quality is poor. The focus, or lack of it, is a major issue.

* The old baseball mantra is play .500 ball on the road and the Wild Things can do that by winning the final game of the season-opening six-game road trip tonight at Joliet.

* Hitting has been a major problem. Actually, it has been a major problem for longer than just the first five games of this season. The Wild Things haven't finished in the top half of the league in team batting average since 2008. They've had the worst batting average in the league in three of the last five years.

So it's probably no surprise that Washington enters today with the worst batting average in the league at a mere .169, even after playing three games at Gateway, which is definitely in the top-3 hitters ballparks in the league. Again, it's only five games, but if you're a longtime Wild Things fan, then you have to be thinking "Here we go again."

Even with the miserable team batting average, Washington can finish the first road trip at .500. That's a positive.

* Strikeouts are a big reason for the low batting average. They have whiffed 48 times in five games. This continues a trend from last season when only Evansville's hitters had more strikeouts than Washington's.

* The Wild Things already have lost one catcher to injury. Kyle Pollock was placed on the 14-day DL after playing in only the season opener. Eddie Sordono has caught the last four games. Washington had two other catchers, John Fidanza and Stephen Sunday, in spring training. Fidanza was placed on the suspended list and Sunday was released by Washington and signed by Florence. To replace Pollock, the Wild Things acquired catcher Alex McKeon from Laredo of the American Association. Laredo owed Washington a player (actually, two players from the Matt Sergey trade last season). McKeon spent the last two seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization but played in only 39 games.

* Washington's bullpen has been good. It's on a streak of having allowed a run in only one of its last 11+ innings.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Play ball!

GCS Ballpark

The Wild Things' 15th Frontier League season -- and and their most important since the first one back in 2002 -- begins tonight in Sauget, Ill., against a veteran Gateway Grizzlies team at GCS Ballpark.

I say most important because of a number of reasons.

* They've missed the playoffs seven of the last eight years and have posted only one winning season since 2007.

* For the first time, the local radio station will not be carrying Wild Things games. All games are supposed to a live audio/video stream. You can find this on the team's website. There are currently two 'Watch Live" buttons. It will be interesting to see what the webcasts look like. Many of us have seen webcasts before for college or MLB teams. Here is what a good webcast of an independent team:

It will be interesting to see the Wild Things' production, though I might be willing to give it a pass during the season-opening road trip. As I understand it, one camera will be used on the road and multiple cameras, like in the above-linked game, at home.

* Average attendance has held steady in the 1,700-1,800 range for four years. The schedule is somewhat favorable for attendance early this season. There are only two weekday home dates when the kids should still be in school.

* The Consol Energy Park name is gone at season's end. My guess is the asking price for naming rights will be hefty because it will likely have to help cover the financial losses incurred by the Pennsylvania Rebellion.

* There is a new manager (again).

* The Wild Things need to create some kind of buzz about the team.

I can go on.

As for the team, we basically learned nothing from the exhibition games. The New Jersey Black Sox are a bad team and were overmatched. They lacked pitching.

My guess is this team will be better than last year, but will it be good enough to make the playoffs?

The hitting should be better than last year when Washington finished tied for last in batting average and next-to-last in runs. The pitching staff had a big makeover and a lot of roles are unsettled. As always, pitching will hold the key to the team's success.

The big change for the Frontier League this year is it's down to 12 teams with the folding of the Rockford Aviators and the no-longer-needed Frontier Greys traveling team. History tells us that each time the Frontier League has contracted, pitching was much improved across the league.

The Wild Things will have new division rivals. No longer are Florence, Evansville and Southern Illinois in the same division as Washington. The Frontier League has switched to what is basically a north-south format, though it kept the East and West division names. Washington, of course, is in the East, with Lake Erie, Traverse City, Windy City, Schaumburg and Joliet.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Former Wild Things pitcher sues Frontier League

Alex Kaminsky

Former Wild Things pitcher Alex Kaminsky and ex-Florence Freedom pitcher Casey Henn have sued the Frontier League, claiming the league exploits players by not paying minimum wage and overtime pay. Sometimes the players were not paid for their work, the suit claims. The suit was filed in federal court in Akron, Ohio.

Kaminsky started 10 games for Washington in 2014 and had a 2-5 record and 4.97 ERA before being traded to Joliet.

The lawsuit is very similar to one filed two years ago against against Major League Baseball, alleging minor leaguers make less than required by State of California and federal laws governing minimum wage and overtime.

Minor league teams, especially those in independent baseball, might have the upper hand in these cases because the Fair Labor Standards Act has exemptions for season recreational employees. If those employees works for an organization for seven or fewer months out of the year, then minimum wage and overtime laws do not apply.

Kaminsky and Henn contend they had to get jobs during the offseason even though they had to stay in baseball shape. Kaminsky and Henn claim they each made less than $1,200 a month in the Frontier League when they played for the Lake Erie Crushers and Florence Freedom, respectively.

Here is the link to the story:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The value of veteran Frontier League pitchers

One interesting aspect of the Frontier League, or independent baseball in general, is planning for the future is a risky proposition.

In major league baseball, or even college and high school ball, planning for the future is easy. At those levels, you know what your roster will look like in the following season and can plan accordingly.

Because rosters in the Frontier League turn over as quickly as omelets, planning for the future is very difficult. The best-designed plans often awry in a hurry. Players retire. They get 9-to-5 jobs. They quit playing to return to college. They request trades to another league or a team closer to their hometown.

At the end of last season, the Wild Things' starting rotation appeared to be in good shape for 2016. Luke Wilkins and Ernesto Zaragoza each were in the rotation all of last year and Matt Fraudin was very good after being signed out of Gardner-Webb University. Jon Klein, who had a stellar career at Mercyhurst College, was picked up from Southern Illinois in the trade that sent Tim Flight to the Miners. Wilkins, Zaragaoza, Fraudin and Klein each would be able to return to Washington in 2016 and be classified as R2. If you understand the roster rules in the Frontier League, having an effective starting pitcher who is classified as an R1 or R2 is a huge bonus. Having four before the season even begins is a rarity.

But let's look at what happened to those four players:

* Wilkins had elbow surgery (fortunately, not the reconstructive variety) in the offseason and is currently on the suspended list. It is not known when he'll be ready to pitch.

* Zaragoza signed with a Mexican League team and has a 3-1 record with a 1.97 ERA in five starts. It doesn't look like he'll be released and re-signing with Washington any time soon.

* Fraudin is back with the Wild Things.

* Klein was placed on the suspended list. Who knows if he will ever play again.

Losing Wilkins, Zaragoza and Klein, who combined for 17 wins in their rookie seasons in the Frontier League, is a big hit to the Wild Things' pitching staff. Add in the loses of relief pitchers Matt Purnell, Steve Messner and Jonathan Kountis, and Washington will have a pitching staff that is almost entirely newcomers.

Fraudin is the only pitcher on the active roster who has won a game in the Frontier League. He was 3-2 in his half-season pro career.

You might be thinking those pitchers can be easily replaced because at the end of March there was a whole new crop of pitchers who were released from minor-league spring training. That is true, but it's difficult to find four or five good starting pitchers, as the Wild Things are trying to do. If you look at Frontier League rosters since 2002 -- when Washington joined the league -- the best teams usually had several holdovers on their pitching staff from prior seasons or acquired Frontier League veterans to boost their starting rotations.

If you look at some of the best Washington teams, they had Frontier League veterans who contributed mightily to the pitching staff. In 2003, Dave Bradley, Ben Ally and Jared Howton were FL veterans. Aaron Ledbetter and Tom Cochran were FL veterans when they joined the Wild Things and helped Washington to the 2007 championship series. When the Wild Things had only 11 returning wins in 2009, they posted a 43-52 record.

Here is a breakdown of the number of Frontier League pitching wins Wild Things pitchers had entering each season:

2002* -- 14
2003* -- 27
2004* -- 13
2005* -- 15
2006* --  25
2007* -- 58
2008   -- 46
2009   -- 11
2010   -- 13
2011   -- 14
2012   -- 32
2013   -- 41
2014* -- 68
2015   -- 23
2016   --   3
* = playoff team

In the seven seasons in which Washington made the playoffs, the Wild Things' pitchers entered that year with an average of 31.4 Frontier League wins. In the seven years in which they missed the playoffs, Wild Things pitchers averaged 25.7 wins, with 58 of the wins coming from Aaron Ledbetter and Justin Hall.

Having a staff with only 3 FL wins -- until Wilkins returns -- shows that Washington can't miss on the starting pitchers they signed in the last five weeks. Those pitchers can't have an long adjustment period to Frontier League hitters.

Here is a breakdown of how many Frontier League pitching wins each team has on its current active roster:

82 -- River City
68 -- Lake Erie
61 -- Gateway
51 -- Southern Illinois
50 -- Schumburg
46 -- Normal
35 -- Evansville
35 -- Florence
22 -- Traverse City
21 -- Windy City
17 -- Joliet
  3 -- Washington

I was curious how many FL pitching wins Southern Illinois had on its roster last year during spring training. The Miners had the league's best record last season at 63-33. A quick check of showed the Miners with 39 FL wins as of opening day. League champion Traverse City had 27 FL pitching wins on opening day 2015.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Fox file

Today is the first player feature of the preseason in the Observer-Reporter. It's on infielder Justin Fox and what he has in common with former NFL wide receiver Randy Moss,

I also found this recruiting video of Fox from his high school days.

Friday, April 22, 2016

WJPA, Wild Things end broadcast partnership

If you want to listen to Wild Things games this season, then you will have to switch to a different electronic device. For the first time since the Frontier League debuted in 2002, broadcasts will be available only online.

WJPA-FM (95.3) had been the home radio station for the Wild Things since their inaugural season, broadcasting home and away games. The station opted not to continue with the partnership.

“It has been a good relationship with the Wild Things and we enjoyed the 14 years,” WJPA sports director Bob Gregg said, “but we have baseball on the AM (1450) with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s a lot of baseball. It was decided that we should concentrate our summer evenings with music on the FM side. We put a lot of time and resources into developing our music and regular programming, and we felt that it was best to concentrate on that instead of baseball.”

To access the games this season, Wild Things fans will have to visit and click on a link that will be embedded on the website. According to Chris Blaine, the Wild Things’ director of marketing and communications, broadcasts of all home and away games will have audio and video. The video streaming feature is a first for Wild Things games. Washington opens the season May 13 in Sauget, Ill., against the Gateway Grizzlies.

“We decided that we wanted to be more cutting edge and utilize technology, and be a leader in the league in this area. So there will be live streaming of both home and away games,” Blaine said.

Washington will not be the first Frontier League or independent team to offer video streaming of games. The Southern Illinois Miners have been video streaming their home games for several years. The independent American Association and Can-Am Leagues offer webcasts of selected games.

The loss of WJPA and the move to internet broadcasting leaves uncertain the status of Randy Gore, who has been the voice of the Wild Things since 2005. When WJPA dropped the Wild Things from their programming plans, Gore hoped to remain involved in the team’s broadcasts. Gore owns the PAC Sports Network, which provides webcasts of Presidents’ Athletic Conference games in various sports, and had made an offer to the Wild Things for his company to stream Washington’s 96 regular-season games.

Gore said he had made an offer for webcasting to the Wild Things but the deadline he set for a deal has passed. The Wild Things said the production of the webcasts will be done in-house and they have not yet chosen a broadcaster for the 2016 season.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Roster update

Trevor Foss

Since our last roster update on April 1, the Wild Things have been busy signing players recently released from minor-league spring training camps. Most of those players have been pitchers who likely will play more than casual roles with Washington this summer. You would think that relying heavily on recently released minor leaguers can be a good thing for an independent team, but that's not always the case (more on this in an upcoming blog post).

The players signed by the Wild Things since April 1 include:

* Pitchers Tyler Bolton, Trevor Foss, Zac Grotz, Connor Kendrick and Andrew Woeck. These are players who bounced around the rookie and Class A leagues the last two years. An exception is Kendrick, who was a 9th-round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2013 out of Auburn and won six games in the high-Class A Florida State League in 2014, then was organizational filler last year, pitching in 14 games in Class A, two in Class AA and one in Class AAA. Grotz has something going for him in that he's an R2, which makes him more valuable when talking roster limitations. The player whose numbers impressed me most is Foss. He had a very good senior year at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and won 13 games in three years in the L.A. Angeles' system.

* Catcher Kyle Pollock. He might have the biggest impact of any player signed this month. The only other catcher on the roster is Eddie Sorondo, who played in just four games with Washington last year after John Fidanza was placed on the disabled list. According to the transactions on the Frontier League website, Fidanza has not yet been re-signed for 2016. This means Pollock, who had a nice career at the University of Evansville and spent two years in the Kansas City Royals' system, has to considered the likely starter.

Meanwhile, pitcher Luke Wilkins, who led Washington with eight wins last year, was placed on the suspended list along with outfielder Ryan Mathews. Players on the suspended list can be activated but they are usually on that list simply to prevent them from signing with another Frontier League team. They rarely play again, which means it's unlikely that Wilkins will make it back to Washington from Australia.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Where are they now?

Stewart Ijames

Three notes about former Wild Things:

* Pitcher Vidal Nuno (2011) made the Seattle Mariners' opening day roster as a relief pitcher. The only former Wild Things player to appear in a major league game, Nuno had a 1-5 record with a 3.74 ERA last year in 35 outings with Seattle and Arizona. He did strike out 81 batters in 89 innings. Nuno has pitched in 71 major league games over three seasons.

* Outfielder Stewart Ijames has been assigned to the Reno Aces, the Class AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. I believe that when Ijames makes his Reno debut, he will be the first former Wild Things position player to play above Class AA. Ijames batted. 273 with 21 home runs and 56 RBI (talk about hitting a lot of solo homers) between Class A Visalia and Class AA Mobile last year. I find it interesting that Ijames will be the third former Washington player to appear on the Reno roster. Both Nuno and Troy Marks pitched briefly for the Aces last season.

* Former Wild Things manager Darin Everson is the manager of the Hartford Yard Goats, the Colorado Rockies' Class AA affiliate in the Eastern League. Hartford is the relocated New Britain Rock Cats. One of Everson's players last year at New Britain, Trevor Story, hit two home runs in his major league debut last night for Colorado against Arizona.

* UPDATE: Former Wild Things pitcher Chris Smith (2011-12) has been assigned to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays' affiliate in the Eastern League.

UPDATE No. 2: Outfielder Quincy Latimore, the former Pittsburgh Pirates prospect who played for the Wild Things in 2013, is back in the Eastern League and Class AA for the sixth year in a row. Latimore is playing for the Bowie Baysox (Baltimore) for the second consecutive season.

Also, pitcher Michael Hepple, who played briefly for the Wild Things in 2013, is with the Binghampton Mets in the Eastern League. Hepple was very good (3-2, 2.51 2 saves) as in the Class A Florida State League last year and pitched in seven games last fall in the prestigious Arizona Fall League.