Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Massarelli out as T-Bones manager

Former Wild Things manager John Massarelli will not return in 2017 as manager of the Kansas City T-Bones of the independent American Association, the team announced Wednesday. Massarelli had been with the T-Bones for three years and had a 139-160 record, including a 42-58 mark this season.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Otters win it all

Here is the link to the story from the Evansville Courier-Press about the Evansville otters defeating River City 1-0 Monday night in the decisive Game 5 of the Frontier League championship series.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Not much has changed

Because not much has changed with the Wild Things, I've felt the need to break a basic journalistic rule and pull out a section of a blog post I made at the end of last season and include it in this post, almost word for word. I made a few changes to update facts. Here you go:

The upcoming offseason will be the most important one in Wild Things history. There are many topics that must be addressed, including getting a naming rights sponsor for the ballpark to replace Consol Energy. A good game plan for the future is desperately needed.

The first question to be asked in the offseason should be this: Is it really in ownership's best interest to run two teams, the Wild Things and the Pennsylvania Rebellion of the National Pro Fastpitch league? If you think things are bad with the Wild Things and the Frontier League, then you need to check out the Rebellion and the NPF. The Rebellion make the Wild Things look like the New York Yankees. The Frontier League's officials and business model make the NPF's look like the latter is being run by the kids who operate the neighborhood lemonade stand. The Rebellion missed the playoffs in a five-team league in 2015, then finished last in a six-team league this year. Four teams went to the postseason in 2015. One of those playoff teams was a first-year team that wasn't wasn't even allowed to acquire players through an expansion draft but still finished ahead of the Rebellion. This year, another expansion team finished ahead of the Rebellion and made the playoffs.

How any NPF team can remain in the financial black is beyond me. Judging by their poor attendance and the cost of having to fly to Florida, Texas and South Carolina to play games, the Rebellion have to be losing money.

A lot of money.

I have a feeling the Rebellion's financial losses are impacting the Wild Things. If that's the case, it's a very bad sign. One of financial trouble ahead. And the solution is not to raise ticket or parking or concession prices.

Operating two teams, with one front office staff, and neither team able to sell out a small ballpark (the Wild Things did have one sellout in 2016), makes no financial sense. The time to pull the plug on the softball team, if it is indeed a financial drain on the Wild Things, should have been before 2016, which happens to be the final year for Consol Energy's naming rights deal at the ballpark. A 10-year-contract was announced by Consol and the Wild Things in April of 2007. That means the deal ran through this summer. If another company doesn't step forward and put its name on the ballpark, it will be a big financial hit for the Wild Things.

There also has to be changes in the Wild Things' baseball operations. When you miss the playoffs eight times in nine years, there is something very wrong. The way you find players, the people you get recommendations from, where you're looking for players, the kind of players you sign, it all has to be re-evaluated and changed. Somebody needs to think outside the box.

Somebody in the front office or ownership needs to answer this: Why has a franchise that could pack the house almost every night fallen so far so fast that now it can't fill half the ballpark unless pyrotechnics are involved? If the answer is because the novelty of pro baseball in Washington has worn off, then that's too late to change. If it's the economy, then the Wild Things can't change that. But if it's because the front-office staff can only spend half its time selling tickets to Wild Things games because the other half is spent hawking Rebellion tickets, or if it's because the games have become boring, or the parking fee and ticket prices are too high, or the giveaway items have become either worthless or few and far between, or the team can't win, or the between-innings promotions are stupid or nobody in Pittsburgh/Westmoreland County/Fayette County hears/reads/knows about the Wild Things, or the customers are not treated with respect etc., then those things can and must be corrected. In other words, eliminated.

Now, back to this year and some new thoughts.

The Wild Things desperately need to improve their public image, especially in Washington. They have looked like the bully bad guys in the situation with the Trinity School District and how much it has cost the Hillers' baseball team to play at CEP. The Wild Things say they weren't overcharging Trinity for playing at CEP but rather they were getting a tax abatement. Call it what you want, a tax abatement or fleecing the local school district. It all semantics. The reality is the Wild Things need to charge Trinity and every other school that plays at CEP (or whatever it's called next year) the same fee, either a per-game rate or a per-hour rate. That shouldn't be a difficult thing to figure out.

The Wild Things also looked bad when they flexed their muscle and caused the Trinity/W&J deal that would have had the Hillers playing at Ross Memorial Park next year to fall through. Multiple sources have said the Wild Things threatened to put a fence around their parking lot if Trinity moved its games to CEP. That fence would make it impossible to park more than a few cars at Ross Memorial, so W&J pulled out of the deal. The Wild Things certainly have the right to fence in their parking lot, but this entire situation should have never reached the point where the team looks like the kid who says, “If I don't get my way, then I'm taking my marbles and going home.”

Monday, September 5, 2016

Playoffs? They went thatta way

For the eighth time in nine years, the Wild Things and the Frontier League playoffs went their separate ways.

In other words, not much has changed.

The Wild Things have gone 15 seasons without winning a championship, which is currently tied for the fourth-longest title drought in independent baseball history and the second-longest in the Frontier League. Chillicothe played 16 years without winning a title.

The Wild Things finished this season with a record of 46-49. That's an increase of four wins over last year, so there is some improvement going on. But in the Frontier League, you can go from expansion franchise to champion in less than a year, so improving the win total by a few is nothing to get excited about, especially when the team still has a losing record -- for the seventh time in eight years. In the Frontier League, one year usually doesn't have much impact on the next -- unless you're the Wild Things.

There has been only one postseason game played at Consol Energy Park since 2007.


That's all. One night of playoff baseball in nine years.

That's pathetically sad.

You would think that by pure blind luck the Wild Things would fall into a season of making the finals.

The reasons the Wild Things missed the playoffs this season came down to two things: their offense was the worst in franchise history and they couldn't beat the league's best teams, going 8-22 against the four teams that made the playoffs. It also didn't help that their two best pitchers, Trevor Foss and Zac Grotz, had their contracts purchased by major league organizations in August, while the Wild Things were in the midst of a playoff race. You simply can't replace top-notch pitchers in August.

Washington was mostly terrific on the mound, OK in the field and woeful at the plate. The Wild Things gave up the fewest runs in the league yet had a losing record. That's almost impossible to do.

Foss' performance was the highlight of the season. A right-hander who was signed in the offseason out of the Los Angeles Angels' system, Foss had an 8-3 record and won the league's ERA title at 2.50. He threw eight complete games and was within one CG of the 16-year-old league record when he had his contract purchased in early August by the Cleveland Indians.

The pitching was good enough to get Washington to the postseason. The hitting, however, was what prevented that from happening.

With the exception of right fielder David Popkins (.281, 15 HR) and designated hitter Ricky Rodriguez (.289, 9 HR), Washington's offense sputtered badly. A few other players had some good stretches, but they lacked consistency.

Washington's situational hitting was abysmal. Two statistics show just how bad it was: the team batting average with two outs and a runner in scoring position was an anemic .199, and the Wild Things had only seven sacrifice bunts all season. Some of those sacrifices weren't by design. Several were attempted bunts for a hit that just happened to advance a baserunner.

Washington finished last in the league in batting average and runs, was tied for last in on-base percentage and was next to last in doubles.

The .235 team batting average and 356 runs each are franchise record lows. Oh, for the days of the 2005 Wild Things, who had a .298 batting average and scored 645 runs. It might have taken the 2016 Wild Things 200 games to score 645 runs.

During the last-month playoff push that fell three wins shy of a wild-card spot, Washington played every game with at least two hitters in the starting lineup who sported a batting average of less than .200. Sometimes it was more than two sub-.200 hitters in the lineup. It's hard to win with that kind of pop-gun offense.

The lack of offense has been a long-running problem for the Wild Things, and one that somebody needs to spend time analyzing and finding a way to correct. Washington has finished last in the league in team batting average four times in the last six years and hasn't finished higher than ninth in that span. It's hard to be that inept on offense for that long, but if Washington is last in offense again next year, then you can add another year to the championship drought.

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.