Please welcome Jason Burke as the newest member of our OaklandClubhouse team. In his first article, Jason looks at the recently completed first-half pennant races for the Midland RockHounds, Stockton Ports and Beloit Snappers, highlighting what went right and what went wrong during the first half of the season.
For the Midland RockHounds, Stockton Ports and Beloit Snappers, the first half ended just short of a playoff berth. The similarities didn’t stop there, however. The clubs went a combined 103-106 with each club hovering around .500 ball, and Midland nailing that mark at 35-35. All three clubs finished out the first half slumping, with the RockHounds and Ports going 4-6 while the Snappers really limped to the finish line at 2-8.
Each team is going to have to come out swinging in the first half (technically the ‘Hounds have already started their second half, even with the Texas League All-Star game set for next week) in order to clinch a spot in the postseason. Midland is looking to win its fourth consecutive Texas League title, taking the last two over the Northwest Arkansas Travelers, who have already claimed their 2017 playoff berth.
Let’s take a look at the first half that was for all three clubs, including each team’s All-Stars, how the A’s top prospects are faring, as well as some other standouts down on the farm.
The ‘Hounds started off with a 11-12 April that included a 3-9 stretch right out of the gate. Much like the A’s, Midland has struggled away from home, going 14-20 on the road while holding a 21-15 record at home.
Top prospects: Grant Holmes (#4), Yairo Munoz (#5), Richie Martin (#10), Heath Fillmyer (#14), Max Schrock (#20), James Naile (#37).
The group listed above brings an interesting mix of prospects. Holmes and Schrock were brought in via trades last season while the other four were all drafted by Oakland. Holmes was acquired in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill deal last season, while Schrock was acquired in the Marc Rzepczynski trade.
Holmes, a 21-year-old righty, has struggled with his overall numbers since coming into the A’s organization. He posted a 6.91 ERA in six games last season with Stockton, and this season he is 5-7 with a 5.00 ERA in 16 appearances (12 starts), though his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is a much better 3.49, meaning that his defense isn’t doing him many favors.
The main problem for Holmes has been his consistency. After beginning the year as part of a tandem rotation, Holmes has been a full-time starter since May 9. He’s had starts where he’ll go eight innings and allow just two hits, but follow that up with a four-inning, seven-run performance like he did earlier this month. On the bright side, Holmes started off the second half on the right foot, firing six innings and allowing just one unearned run on eight hits, striking out seven. His ERA for June is a solid 3.38, so he may be turning the corner.
Martin and Munoz have always appeared to be linked, with both players listed at the same position while being separated by just a month and a day in age. They’re both also highly rated in the A’s farm system.
In 51 games, Martin is batting .233 with a .323 OBP, three home runs and 11 driven in. He has also seen most of the time at short, starting 50 of the team’s 70 games there, while Munoz has been splitting time between short and third. Munoz, on the other hand, has been one of the better hitters in the Texas League, batting .307, though he has a similar OBP to Martin at .335. Munoz has also clubbed five homers, driven in 25, and stolen eleven bags without being caught. For the sabermetric audience, Munoz has a 128 wRC+, best on the team.
Martin just returned to the lineup last week after being hit in the face by a pitch at the end of May.
Fillmyer has made 15 starts this season for Midland after splitting last season between High-A Stockton and the RockHounds. He holds the exact same ERA he did back in the California League last season, 3.60, yet a bit higher than his 2016 Double-A ERA of 2.54 in eight starts. Fillmyer is 3-2 this season and has totaled 65 innings, allowed 73 hits, walked 29 and struck out 42. His FIP does not do him the same favors as Holmes at 4.91, insinuating that he isn’t performing as well as his ERA would indicate. Part of that is because Fillmyer is not a strikeout pitcher, and FIP takes strike-outs heavily into consideration.
Schrock has been getting the majority of the starts at second and is batting a cool .304 with a .340 OBP. He also has a team-best 11.6% strikeout rate, adding five homers and 20 ribs. He missed the first three weeks of the month after aggravating an Achilles/hamstring injury.
Finally, James Naile, a 24-year-old righty, went 1-1 with a 3.22 ERA in nine games (six starts) before landing on the disabled list in the middle of May with an oblique strain.
Number two prospect and last year’s first round draft pick A.J. Puk has been added to the ‘Hounds roster. He made his first start on Monday, allowing three runs across seven frames while striking out seven. We’ll go over his season with Stockton below.
Viosergy Rosa, 27, leads the team in home runs with 10, while Tyler Marincov, 25, is right behind him with nine. Both Rosa and Marincov also lead the team in strikeouts with totals of 72 and 79. Marincov landed on the DL today after breaking his hand on Wednesday when he was hit by a pitch.
It would be a crime not to mention both Brett Vertigan (.285 average, .376 OBP) and B.J. Boyd (.318, .367). As can be seen by his on base percentage, Vertigan is prone to walk a bit, with a 12.4% walk rate, while Boyd has been less likely to strike out at just 14.3%.
I am a big fan of strikeout percentages, and not too many guys that have spent a lot of time on this club have high rates. In fact, the only player with double-digit innings and a double-digit strikeout rate is Brandon Mann, a 33-year-old left-hander.
In looking a little further down the K-rate leaderboards you’ll see Holmes and Puk’s one start, but you’ll also see Lou Trivino with a solid 9.18 K-rate in 33.1 innings. Trivino spent some time with the RockHounds last season, and while his ERA is nearly identical (2.45 last season, 2.43 this year), his FIP is even lower than his ERA this time around at 2.33, meaning that he’s pretty much mowing them down. With a ground ball percentage of 56.5 and a strikeout rate of just over one an inning, there’s a pretty good chance you know how Trivino is going to get you out. He was promoted to Triple-A Nashville earlier this week and will get to test his triple-digit fastball and solid secondary pitches against Triple-A hitters for the first time in his career.
The California League now has only eight teams after both the Bakersfield Blaze and High Desert Mavericks were contracted at the end of the 2016 season. It was a busy season for Cal League affiliates to shuffle big league clubs this off-season, with the Astros and Rangers switching over to the Carolina League and the Colorado Rockies switching affiliates from Modesto to Lancaster and the Mariners switching from Bakersfield to Modesto.
What this all means is that collecting a playoff spot should be a little easier this season with less competition involved. The two teams that have already clinched (oddly enough, Lancaster and Modesto) can’t take both spots, which means the remaining teams in each division have a one in three shot. Add in the fact that the San Jose Giants (30-40) are in the Ports’ division, and it’s basically a two-team race between Stockton and Visalia for a playoff berth. With that in mind, the Ports are 6-4 against the Rawhide this season.
Top Prospects: A.J. Puk (#2), Sean Murphy (#21), Logan Shore (#23), Casey Meisner (#28), Skye Bolt (#38), Nolan Blackwood (#48).
There is a lot of excitement surrounding last year’s number six overall pick, A.J. Puk. Behind Franklin Barreto, Puk is the top guy in the A’s system, likely followed closely by this year’s first round pick, Austin Beck. While the Cal League is known for being unrelenting towards pitchers, Puk put up a very respectable 3.69 ERA, and did what he does best–strike guys out. Across 61 innings he K’d 98, for a league-leading and utterly ridiculous 14.46 strikeouts per nine. All of those K’s also led to a league-leading 2.10 FIP.
It’s easy to see why Puk has already been promoted to Double-A in just his first full pro season.
Sean Murphy, a third-round pick from 2016, is batting .297 with a .344 OBP through 145 at-bats this season behind the plate. His eight bombs are tied for second on the team with Chris Iriart (#39), leaving both behind Seth Brown‘s 11 dingers. Unlike Iriart and Brown, however, Murphy’s strikeout rate is reasonable at 17.4%. Murphy is tied for the team lead in batting average, and leads the way in slugging, OPS and wRC+. He’s making the decision to trade catcher Jacob Nottingham for Khris Davis before Murphy was even in the system look very smart.
Puk’s Florida teammate, Logan Shore, was off to a solid start of his own before a lat strain landed him on the disabled list on May 15. He is still in Mesa working on a throwing program as part of his rehab. Before getting hurt, Shore had a 3.12 ERA (3.20 FIP) along with a 8.31 strikeouts per nine rate and an impressive 1.56 walks per nine rate.
Casey Meisner was acquired by the A’s when they traded Tyler Clippard to the Mets back in 2015. Meisner has spent all of his time in the A’s system with the Ports since that deal was made. This year he has improved both his walk and strikeout rates over last season’s numbers, now K’ing 9.84 per nine and walking just 2.66 per nine, down from 4.54 from a year ago. The biggest difference to any onlooker will be his record from last year to this year. While records don’t mean much in the development of a player, Meisner went 1-14 last season, and that can’t be easy for a (then) 21-year-old. This year he is 5-5, a Cal League All-Star and is the reigning Cal League pitcher of the week.
Skye Bolt easily possesses one of the best player names in the A’s system. He has progressed a level per year since he was drafted in 2015. He’s currently batting .242 with a .344 OBP, thanks in large part to his 12.8% walk rate. He’s launched five homers and driven in 27, and while he has swiped five bags, he has also been thrown out five times. He’s currently putting up the best offensive season of his pro career, but his 24.7% strikeout rate will be something to keep an eye on when he inevitably makes it to Double-A. Bolt is arguably the top defensive outfielder in the A’s system.
Finally, Nolan Blackwood, a 22-year-old right-hander, has a 3.45 ERA and eight saves this season to go along with a K/9 rate of 7.53 and a BB/9 rate of 3.45. Given that his strikeout rate is just over seven and a half, you’d prefer to see his walk rate a little lower. The sidearming Blackwood is a ground ball pitcher with a rate of 62.2% of his outs coming on grounders.
Marcus Semien is scheduled to join the Ports for what is expected to be a relatively lengthy rehab assignment. The A’s shortstop has been on the disabled list since the middle of April, so his time in the minors is expected to resemble a second spring training.
Right-hander Dustin Hurlbutt, 24, has tossed 61.2 innings with the Ports this season and holds a 3.65 ERA to go along with a stellar 10.07 K/9 rate and 2.34 BB/9. The one downside for the righty is that he is giving up roughly a home run every nine innings, which is right on the borderline of too high. Granted, this is the California League.
You’ve likely been wondering who Murphy was tied for the team lead in batting average with this entire time, and I’m so sorry to keep you waiting! It’s 22-year-old Tyler Ramirez, a seventh rounder from a year ago. On top of batting .297, Ramirez has five homers, has driven in 33, scored 43 times himself, and has a wRC+ of 128, second on the team behind Murphy. He has played all three outfield positions this season, although he has primarily been stationed in left.
Daulton Jefferies, the A’s #19 prospect, underwent Tommy John surgery after just seven innings with the Ports and he is out for the year.
The Snappers went 2-8 to close out the first half and that slump dropped them five games below the .500 mark. They’ll start the second half on Thursday in a familiar spot, in Clinton, where they were swept in three games just last week.
Also on the docket in the second half: three games against the Lansing Lugnuts and world beater Bo Bichette, who is batting a league-leading .396 and has a wRC+ of 208. He may get the promotion he deserves before the Snappers roll into Lansing in the middle of July.
Top Prospects: Luis Barrera (#29), Brandon Bailey (#30), Miguel Mercedes (#40), Nate Mondou (#41).
Outfielder Luis Barrera, 21, is in his fifth season with an Oakland affiliate, and through 55 games he is batting .289 with a .332 OBP with a pair of home runs and 19 driven in. He’s stolen seven bags and been caught seven times and was mired in an 8-for-38 slump when the first half ended.
Brandon Bailey was a sixth round selection last year and been pretty much split proof. As a starter (ten appearances) he has a 2.77 ERA and has struck out 42 in 39 innings, while as a reliever his ERA sits at 2.57 but he has K’d 21 in 14 frames. Combined, Bailey has a 2.72 ERA (3.08 FIP), a strikeout rate of 10.70 per nine and a walk rate of 3.06 per nine. He’s been working his way up to the 100 pitch mark this season, topping out at 89 in his last start of the first half, but has yet to pitch above five frames (he, too, was part of the tandem-rotation system early in the season). Efficiency will be a key moving forward, as only 46 of his 89 pitches in that June 18 start were for strikes.
Melvin Mercedes leads the team in home runs (11) and doubles (16) while acting as the team’s first baseman/DH. He’s one off of his career high in homers that he set last season with Vermont in 67 games. Mercedes has played in 62 contests this season, so there is time for him to break his own best before then, but there shouldn’t be much doubt that he’ll have a new high by season’s end. With all of the power he has, he’ll have to work on getting on base a bit more as he currently has a .300 OBP, which is far too low for a power-first first baseman. His .243 average could also use an upgrade, but a better eye at the plate would presumably fix both issues.
One of the main conceders with Skye Bolt for best name in the farm system is Nate Mondou. What’s great is that it kind of sneaks up on you. Nate, typical name, nothing to see here. Then he hits you with the Mondou.
On top of having a great name, Mondou is tied with Barrera for the team lead in average at .289. What stands out is that his strikeout rate (15.2%) and walk rate (11.5%) are pretty close, which is a sign of a good eye, or at least a good approach, as exemplified by his .371 OBP.
Dakota Chalmers (#13) started out the season with the Snappers, but was reassigned back to short-season after making ten appearances (five starts) and totaling a 4.34 ERA. He struck out 47 in 29 innings, but also walked a batter an inning.
Edwin Diaz (not the Mariners reliever) leads Beloit in wRC+ at 136 through 202 plate appearances. Diaz is also tied for the team lead in OBP at .371 with Mondou and is batting .282. Diaz is one of the better defensive infielders in the A’s system.
Lefthander Dalton Sawyer has made stops in Beloit and Nashville this season, but the southpaw currently is rostered by the Ports. He made his Cal League debut just before the All-Star break. As a Snapper, Sawyer posted a 10.26 K/9 rate to go along with a 2.25 ERA and a left-on-base percentage of 79.6%. Sawyer was named to the Midwest League All-Star team before his promotion.
Matt Milburn (a 29th rounder from 2016) holds a 5.58 ERA, but according to FanGraphs, his FIP is 3.43. That’s an indication that he may be pitching better than his ERA would lead you to believe, and the peripheral stats give the same indication. Milburn has a K/9 of 8.90, and a BB/9 of 2.56 across 59.2 innings, which is enough time for things to even out. Look for a better performance in the second half from him.
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