CHAMPS: Generals ride bullpen, hot prospect bats to Southern League title

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Marty Herum (beard) and Rudy Flores rush to embrace each other after combining for the final out of SLCS Game 4 at MGM Park. (Top and bottom photo credits: Michael Krebs/Biloxi Shuckers)

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The 2018 Jackson Generals entered the postseason with the fewest wins after the All-Star Break of any playoff-bound team. First-year manager Shelley Duncan had a message ahead of the North Division Series: “Get three runs.” Eight times in nine playoff games, the Generals scored three or more, winning six of those games. Stirred by two hot-swinging prospects and a strong bullpen, Jackson toppled the Montgomery Biscuits and Biloxi Shuckers for their first Southern League title as an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate.

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Chasing Zeke: Kevin Medrano nearing Ezequiel Carrera’s single-season batting average record

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Kevin Medrano (credit: Pam Dietz)

Kevin Medrano and Juniel Querecuto were two of the most frustrating players for opposing pitchers in the First Half. Between them, they cracked exactly three home runs (all by Medrano), and yet they hit safely more than 35% of the time. Querecuto did it with a lot of line drives, and Medrano did it with good bat control and tenacity, fighting off pitch after pitch before finally getting a single or even a double down the line. Before being promoted to Triple-A Reno, Medrano led the league with 24 doubles in the First Half, and his .368 batting average batting average before the All-Star Break was tops in the circuit as well. The question that nobody could answer was this: would it hold up?

The Generals’ all-time record for a season-long batting average is .337, accomplished in 97 games by Ezequiel Carrera back in 2009. Carrera’s feat helped the 22-year-old climb the ladder to the big leagues, where he would debut in 2011 with the Cleveland Indians at age 24. 508 MLB games later, Carrera owns a career .262 batting average in The Show, playing most recently with Toronto in the 2017 campaign.

Medrano’s record chase is happening in his age-28 season, perhaps too late to springboard him onto a big-league radar the way it did for Carrera. (Medrano has shown increased versatility on defense this year, playing both corner outfield spots and every position in the infield.) That being said, to take down the franchise record would be a pretty cool way for the veteran to make his mark. He’s batting under .300 in the Second Half, so a surge in production would benefit both his cause and the team’s championship chase. With less than a week to go, the finish line is in sight.

Marty Herum’s Southern League-best 19-game hit streak came just in time

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Marty Herum (photo credit: Pam Dietz)

With less than 15 games to go in the Southern League’s regular season, Shelley Duncan and the Jackson Generals have accomplished a lot, but they still have bigger goals in mind. This is part three of a late-season look at the Generals’ personnel and the battlefield ahead.

HAMMERIN’ HERUM: JACKSON’S THIRD BASEMAN SETS LEAGUE-BEST HITTING STREAK IN 2018

Generals third baseman Marty Herum hurt himself on the basepaths on April 24th, and the subsequent DL stint lasted more than two months. When he returned, the sixth-year pro had a tough time getting traction, batting just .202 between June 28 and July 27. But Herum, an undrafted signee out of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, kept on paddling. You don’t get to Double-A from the NCAA’s Division III ranks without running a few rapids.

Herum went 2-for-3 in the Generals’ July 28 win at Montgomery, and he added another hit the next night. And the next night. And the night after that. The hits kept coming, singles and doubles against the Biscuits, the Tennessee Smokies, and the Chattanooga Lookouts. The former Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawk got two more hits in the August 14 opener against Montgomery against home, tying teammate Ben DeLuzio for the team-high streak in 2018 at 14 straight games.

Entering August 15, a challenge faced Herum: The Generals were playing a double-header, and an added wrinkle would make it even tougher to continue the streak. First off, game two of the double-header was set be a seven-inning contest, meaning Herum wasn’t certain to get a third at-bat. Furthermore, the first “game” of the twin-bill was the resumption of a suspended game (from August 1) in the second inning, and Herum had already batted once in that contest without getting a hit. Because the statistics from the August 1 contest had not yet been finalized, a hitless performance through the rest of the resumed game would undo part of the streak. Like an evil baseball version of Chutes and Ladders, Herum’s hot-hitting span would be reduced to separate four-game and ten-game streaks in the scorebook. Herum had to hit safely in both contests in order to stay near the top of the league leaderboard.

When the suspended game was resumed, Herum, came to bat in the fourth inning with two outs, a man on first, and the game scoreless. Marty singled through the left side to keep the inning afloat, officially breaking the tie with DeLuzio and matching Birmingham’s Eloy Jimenez and Luis Alexander Basabe for the longest streak in the Southern League this season. The Generals ended up falling 4-0 to the Biscuits, and manager Shelley Duncan slotted Herum into the lineup in the fifth slot for game two, meaning Herum was only guaranteed two plate appearances to try and top all Southern League competitors in 2018.

In the nightcap, Herum led off the top of the second inning in a scoreless game.

On the second pitch from Montgomery’s Sam McWilliams, Herum helped himself to belt-high fastball, breaking the 0-0 tie with an opposite field home run over the 16-foot wall in right. The dinger was the 26-year-old’s first in almost four months, and it spurred Jackson to 5-1 victory while extending his hitting streak to a league-best 16 games.

Herum’s streak ended at 19 straight contests with a base hit. It’s the longest hitting streak in the Southern League since Jacksonville’s J.T. Riddle hit safely in 25 straight games in 2016. Part of the fun of Herum’s success has been the coverage of Herum’s streak by the fan-run Twitter account, @HowsMartyDoing. With 366 followers, the audience may be small at present, but the laughs run big. At any rate, it was awesome to see Herum find a groove in the latter part of the Second Half. Marty is batting over .300 in August, and his stick will be a critical component for Jackson if they want to succeed in the playoffs.

Ben DeLuzio catches everything. Can he catch Corey Ray in the Stolen Base Race?

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Ben DeLuzio, attempting to steal. (Breaking news: he was safe.) – Photo Credit: Pam Dietz

With less than 15 games to go in the Southern League’s 2018 regular season, Shelley Duncan and the Jackson Generals have accomplished a lot, but they still have bigger goals in mind. This is part three of a late-season look at the Generals’ personnel and the battlefield ahead. 

THE STOLEN BASE RACE: BEN DELUZIO CATCHES EVERYTHING, BUT CAN HE CATCH COREY RAY?

It’s not hard to see the difference that Ben DeLuzio makes when he’s healthy. After hitting a scorching .355 in July with 15 steals, he went back on the DL with a busted lip that required stiches after on a headfirst slide into third base at Chattanooga. (Spoiler alert: he stole the base, No. 25 on the year.) Upon his return to the roster a week later, DeLuzio set about catching everything that threatened the outfield grass, totaling 10 putouts over August 17 and 18 to lead all Jackson and Montgomery players who were not catchers or first basemen. Nearly every one of DeLuzio’s grabs involved a dive towards the infield, a calculated angled into the gaps, or an on-your-horse sprint to the center field wall. Montgomery managed only 3 runs over their final 19 hits in those two games, losing both contests as the Generals beat the Biscuits in a series for the first time in four tries.

On the basepaths, DeLuzio collected 27 stolen bases in 58 games through August 23, trailing only Biloxi’s Corey Ray, the league leader at 33 (through 124 games). Ray has swiped one base in August so far; DeLuzio has taken three. Ray is vying to become the first Southern League player in modern history to lead the circuit in both home runs and steals. DeLuzio might be just the man to spoil the fun. There’s a photo of the superhero Wolverine on DeLuzio’s locker, taped there in jest by a clubhouse prankster who thought DeLuzio’s beard and intensity resembled the character’s. There’s still time, and patience, as the saying goes, is not Wolverine’s strong suit. If there’s a series to target, it’s the matchup between Jackson and Birmingham at Regions Field (August 24-28). Birmingham catcher Zack Collins has allowed 19 stolen bases to the Generals this year, more than any other catcher in the league. Even with a revamped Barons rotation, DeLuzio should be on the move.

Taylor Widener Is The Best Starter In The Southern League, And Other Pitching Notes

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Taylor Widener (credit: Cody Cunningham)

With less than 15 games to go in the Southern League’s regular season, Shelley Duncan and the Jackson Generals have accomplished a lot, but they still have bigger goals in mind. This is part one of a late-season look at the Generals’ personnel and the battlefield ahead.

BY A WIDE MARGIN: TAYLOR WIDENER LOOKS LIKE THE SOUTHERN LEAGUE’S BEST PITCHER

Baseball America recently released their annual “Best Tools” survey that took votes from league managers to determine which players had stood out by individual skill. Ben DeLuzio (Fastest Baserunner), Shelley Duncan (Best Manager Prospect), and former General Wei-Chieh Huang (Best Changeup) all represented the Jackson squad in the voting, but one name was most notably absent: Taylor Widener. The 23-year-old right hander escaped any noteworthy vote totals for Best Fastball (Dylan Cease, Birmingham), Best Breaking Ball (Kyle Wright, Mississippi), Best Control (Duncan Robinson, Tennessee), and Best Pitching Prospect (Griffin Canning, Mobile). Those votes may be legitimate, but at some point, you have to explain the thorough fashion by which Taylor Widener has dominated his peers in the Southern League.

Check out these resumes, prepared blind, and see who you like:

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Status Update 7/11/18: Stupid, Splendid, and Specious Splits (Pt. 2) – Generals Hitters

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Splits won’t tell you a lot about Rudy Flores that you can’t observe on your own. Guy can swing it. (Photo credit: John Sewell)

NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part examination of split and component stats. Check out our pitching-focused post from yesterday

JACKSON, TENN.One of the more fascinating things about the game of baseball is the way certain component numbers deviate from one another when breaking down overall statistics. Some guys are great in day games, while others play better at night. Why is that, and who knows it? There are certainly answers for some of these oddities, but do they all matter? It depends on whom you ask. Let’s take a look at a few of the interesting season splits for the Generals, through 7/8/18:

MILB.COM – SELECT HITTING SPLITS (On-Base Percentage)

HITTERS Home/Road Day/Night 2 Outs Ahead/Behind in Count Bases Empty/Men On
Cribbs .374/.329 .267/.223 .318 .489/.173 .324/.378
DeLuzio .286/.276 .229/.308 .250 .410/.108 .284/.283
Flores .409/.352 .383/.380 .333 .532/.283 .347/.410
Herum .348/.347 .320/.296 .293 .488/.200  .353/.344
Leyba .306/.347 .346/.326 .333 .492/.216 .390/.271
Littlewood .302/.323 .304/.316 .346 .507/.073 .321/.308
Prince .407/.374 .407/.387 .365 .575/.173 .411/.368
Robertson .346/.376 .382/.359 .448 .488/.255 .359/.367
Rosario .382/.219 .176/.357 .429 .423/.176 .353/.302
Vinicio .287/.272 .222/.294 .329 .382/.261 .267/.294
Westbrook .294/.363 .177/.309 .323 .411/.291 .341/.315

For the record, DL players, players who joined the team in July, and players with fewer than 20 games played at Jackson aren’t on this list.

*Spoiler alert: Rudy Flores can get on base. Good hitters can get on base under almost any conditions, and Flores shows you that by consistently getting high marks across the board in the above categories. There’s a reason why he’s a two-time Southern League All-Star AND why he saw a lot of time in left field last season—J.R. House needed his offensive ability in the lineup.

 

*You’ll notice also that the Generals tend to have a higher on-base floor, so to speak, in night games than in day games—it’s harder to prepare when you’ve got less time before the game, and that’s always the case with daylight games.

*Check out each guy’s highest split—where is it? For a lot of guys, it’s when they’re ahead in the count. (In this case, 0-0, 1-1, and 3-2 counts are considered “even”; 2-2 is “behind”). Look also at who does well when they’re behind in the count. Jose Vinicio and Jamie Westbrook are freer swingers than their peers—if you’re not afraid to swing, you’re probably inclined to hit better in bad counts, provided you can make contact. (Walks, of course, can’t be drawn in a count where you’re behind.)

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Daniel Robertson is one of three healthy position players on the Generals’ roster who have played at the big league level, and his big-league plate discipline is a hallmark at the plate. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

*The three guys who have the highest on base percentage with two outs are Daniel Robertson, Alberto Rosario, and Josh Prince. Quick: what do they all have in common? If you’ve been paying attention, you may know that all three have MLB service time. If you’ve been to The Show, you’ve more than likely got both a very high awareness of any situation, and you can execute and/or maintain your plate discipline against strong talent. The Generals are lucky to have a guy like that in each third of their batting order most nights of the week.

FANGRAPHS.COM – SELECT HITTING DATA

HITTERS BB% K% ISO wOBA wRAA LD%
Cribbs 9.4% 28.8% .139 .336 3.2 20.3%
DeLuzio 7.1% 23.9% .088 .273 -4.3 16.7%
Flores 11.1% 22.2% .180 .379 14.4 18.1%
Herum 7.0% 13.0% .142 .355 3.0 17.6%
Leyba 9.0% 15.0% .113 .323 0.1 16.1%
Littlewood 14.6% 19.1% .106 .294 -3.4 12.9%
Prince 13.2% 23.2% .135 .376 8.0 27.4%
Robertson 11.2% 12.4% .160 .354 5.9 15.0%
Rosario 6.9% 13.8% .063 .304 -1.3 15.4%
Vinicio 3.9% 24.0% .098 .280 -7.4 9.9%
Westbrook 4.6% 16.9% .194 .357 9.4 17.3%

*Daniel Robertson is the guy closest to having a walk rate that outpaces his strikeout rate, which is great for a table-setter. He’s also shown surprising power, hitting six homers en route to a .160 isolated power mark. That combination of sneaky power and having a good eye at the plate are part of what got D-Rob to the big leagues in four different seasons. You want to prove people wrong as a 33rd round pick? Be efficient and show some pop.

*Galli Cribbs is still a glove-first shortstop, even after batting .351 in April. But wouldn’t you love to see shades of April Cribbs return? If that’s going to happen, he’ll have to reaffirm his plate discipline. After picking up 11 walks in April, Cribbs walked just 13 times over the next two months, which is partly why his numbers have dipped. If he can’t perform more consistently in bad counts (.173 OBP, his lowest split here by far), the only other option is to avoid them entirely. He’s hitting enough line drives to be a nightly contributor, but a strikeout rate near 30%, absent a lot more power, cannot be ignored going forward.

*If you’re hunting for a wild card, the so-called “x-factor,” it might be Marty Herum. Having just returned from an April injury, Herum played only 30 games through July 9, but his wOBA and wRAA are strong, and that’s important. DON’T LET THESE ABBREVIATIONS SCARE YOU, FAM – I’VE GOT YOU!

Think of wOBA as the highest revision of on-base percentage. The “w” part means “weighted,” i.e. not everything weighs the same—singles and doubles, for example, are weighted differently in this formula, as they should be. The reason wOBA is better than slugging percentage is scale. When you hit a triple in your only at-bat, your batting average is 1.000 and your on-base percentage is 1.000, but your slugging percentage is 3.000. Why? Slugging is scaled differently. With wOBA, every offensive result has a specific pre-determined weight, so the final number encompasses everything you’ve done at the plate and spits out a something you can easily frame in the context of the .300-.400 range decimals you’ve seen forever as a baseball fan.

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Marty Herum’s bat and glove could be critical to the Generals’ success in the Second Half. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

Now, bear with me—you can stick with wOBA if you’d like to get off this sabermetric express train, or you can ride out to one more stop, wRAA. Baseball is about scoring runs, and wRAA uses wOBA as an input to determine the difference in run production between your player and an average player. We’re not talking about literal runs in the “R” column, but all of the offensive events that contribute fractions of a run, summed up into a nice, friendly, zero-scaled numeral. wRAA answers the question: “How many runs has this guy helped us produce beyond an average player’s contribution?”

Marty Herum’s wRAA, unlike his wOBA, is not among the top 3 hitters on the team. This is in part because wRAA works like a counting stat, in that you can collect more wRAA (and also lose wRAA) as you play more games. With that in mind, it makes a huge difference to divide wRAA by each player’s number of games played. In a per-game context, Marty Herum is the Generals’ third-best run producer, sitting at 0.1 wRAA/G behind Flores (0.18) and Prince (0.14).

Do you remember the Generals going 15-2 in April? How about the 26-32 stretch after that, when Herum was on the disabled list for every game except one (May 10, a loss)? If Jackson is going to turn things around from a sub-.500 record in the Second Half (currently 6-13), they’re going to need a positive impact from Herum, not unlike what they got in the First Half from now-Reno-Ace Juniel Querecuto.

Status Update 7/11/18: Silly, Spurious, and Special Splits (Pt 1.) – Generals Pitchers

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Despite some struggles in May, Yoan Lopez has proved one of Jackson’s most effective relievers. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part examination of split and component stats. Check out our hitting-focused post coming Thursday, July 12! 

BILOXI, MISS.One of the more fascinating things about the game of baseball is the way certain component numbers deviate from one another when breaking down overall statistics. Some guys are great in day games, while others play better at night. Why is that, and who knows it? There are certainly answers for some of these oddities, but do they all matter? It depends on whom you ask. Let’s take a look at a few of the interesting season splits for the Generals, through 7/8/18:

MILB.COM – SELECT PITCHING SPLITS (Opponents’ Batting Average)

Pitchers Home/Road Day/Night 0 Outs/2 Outs Ahead/Behind in Count Bases Empty/Men On
Atkinson .276/.224 .191/.268 .296/.250 .180/.386 .253/.246
Bellow .294/.167 .321/.220 .138/.209 .244/.314 .120/.350
Donatella .224/.212 .191/.227 .181/.212 .190/.273 .182/.277
Gibson .364/.200 .500/.250 .292/.333 .364/.150 .265/.294
Ginkel .241/.147 .000/.250 .190/.174 .111/.188 .111/.296
Goldberg .000/.143 .000/.074 .200/.000 .071/.000 .000/.059
Huang .161/.154 .250/.139 .267/.071 .048/.417 .208/.100
Jeter .245/.143 .500/.195 .231/.250 .292/.143 .146/.275
Lopez .232/.167 .133/.216 .188/.174 .116/.160 .227/.173
Payamps .218/.195 .194/.207 .273/.133 .114/.367 .212/.192
Takahashi .281/.246 –/.263 .333/.222 .190/.367 .188/.378
Widener .202/.193 .148/.208 .178/.158 .153/.218 .209/.178

For the record, DL pitchers and pitchers who joined the team in July aren’t on this list.

*It’s not a shock that Taylor Widener, Brad Goldberg, and Yoan Lopez hold some of the team’s best marks across each of the above categories. Those three have been among the most consistent pitchers on staff, notwithstanding a difficult month of May for Lopez. A few team trends stand out:

*Jackson’s record in road contests this year is a pedestrian 11-9, including 4-7 since the end of April. That’s strange, if only because none of the Generals’ four starters who have pitched in daytime games have allowed opponents to hit over .200 in the daylight.

*Every Generals pitcher has held opponents to a batting average below .250 on the road. Only eight of the twelve have BAs against them at home that are under .250.

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After coming over from the Chicago White Sox organization in an early June trade, Brad Goldberg has been an extremely useful bullpen arm for Doug Drabek and Shelley Duncan. (Photo credit: Mark Cunningham)

 

*In addition to Widener and Lopez, Kevin Ginkel has held opposing hitters at or beneath the Mendoza line in both none-out and two-out situations. The same is true for Ginkel, Goldberg, and Lopez when both ahead in the count and behind.

*Half of the Generals’ staff have strong marks with men on base, but the other six in the list have allowed batting averages at or above .275 with ducks on the pond. Sometimes the difference in those splits can be traced to a change in delivery, based on the fact that some pitchers perform differently in the stretch rather than in the wind-up. That said, those numbers (especially the ones that approach or exceed .300) are the kind that make fans squirm, particularly with regard to relievers.

FANGRAPHS.COM – SELECT PITCHING DATA

PITCHERS P/IP LD% IFFB% HR/FB K-BB% LOB% FIP/xFIP
Atkinson 17.0 19.8% 20.6% 11.3% 15.8% 66.6% 4.52/4.11
Bellow 16.9 15.7% 9.7% 3.2% 1.5% 70.2% 4.48/5.25
Donatella 16.5 18.9% 27.9% 5.8% 11.4% 72.1% 3.91/4.37
Gibson 14.7 13.5% 20% 0% 13.2% 65.4% 2.91/4.23
Ginkel 15.6 21.6% 38.5% 7.7% 28.4% 82.2% 2.22/2.33
Goldberg 17.3 0% 20% 20% 30% 100% 3.04/2.34
Huang 15.3 21.4% 30% 0% 23.5% 92.3% 2.38/3.24
Jeter 17.2 20.3% 35.5% 0% 11.8% 70.4% 2.91/4.45
Lopez 16.2 26.3% 33.3% 10% 24.2% 62.5% 3.06/2.94
Payamps 15.3 18.7% 26.9% 7.7% 25.8% 76.3% 2.71/2.84
Takahashi 16.5 21.3% 25% 19.4% 20.2% 60.8% 5.55/3.93
Widener 16.0 16.8% 29.5% 8.4% 25.6% 82.7% 3.00/3.06

*Giving up a line drive is not the same thing necessarily as giving up hard contact (which FanGraphs doesn’t measure in the minor leagues), but line drives usually lead to more hits than ground balls or fly balls. Goldberg’s current embargo on line drives is unlikely to remain that low for a long period of time, but it’s certainly part of what has made him successful (he has allowed one home run with Jackson on a fly ball). Lopez’s success in spite of giving up a significant percentage of line drives is also accurate – he allowed three late-inning home runs in May that were crushed, but he’s missed a lot of barrels as well, given his infield fly ball rate and K percentage.

*Anybody who has watched Bo Takahashi knows that home runs have been a recent pitfall for him. The elevated rate of home runs hit against him is way above the norm, but for a 21-year-old in his first month at Double-A, it’s not that surprising. Over time, Takahashi should be able to make fewer mistakes against good hitters and lower it down to the 8%-12% range, which is generally the range that guys pitch to in the Major Leagues. (Recall that one of the homers hit against him was inside-the-park as well.)

*Strikeout and walk percentages relate in a peripheral way to a Left On Base percentage, given that a pitcher with a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate tends to put fewer hitters on base and strand more runners when they do reach base.  The guys ranked highly therein have been as difficult to hit as any on the team, aside from former General Colin Poche.

*FIP and xFIP, for the uninitiated, are measured on the same scale as ERA but use fielding-independent measurements (home runs, strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen) to calculate a pitcher’s expected allowance on a per-nine-innings basis. FIP is best frame as a tool to frame how a pitcher has already performed, while xFIP speaks a bit more accurately to how their numbers might change in the future (it replaces home runs allowed with a league-average rate of home runs per fly ball). This is not to say that certain guys will definitively be better or worse in coming weeks or months, but it’s OK to be a little more optimistic for the Second Half outputs from Ryan Atkinson and Takahashi if you were on the fence.  If FIP and xFIP are close already, web developers would put that performance in “wizzy-wig” territory, i.e. WYSIWYG (what you’ve seen is what you’ll get).