This is a continuation of the series in which I take a look at the 2011 seasons of each of the Tigers' farm squads. Please keep in mind these reviews are intended to look at the team results. Obviously, that can't be done without talking about individual performances, but the players' stats and standings as prospects are not the focus of these stories.
Like the Connecticut Tigers, the Whitecaps came about as close as possible to earning a spot in the postseason. In fact, their missing the Midwest League playoffs was the result of losing to Fort Wayne on the last game of the year in a "do or die" situation. The fact that they had a shot at the playoffs was surprising on a couple levels.
First, the playoffs weren't really even in the conversation for the first half of the season. The Whitecaps finished just 32-37 and were the sixth place team in an eight team division. Then in the second half, after a loss to South Bend on August 20th they were just 27-27 with less than three weeks left in the season. They only pushed for the playoffs on the strength of an 11-4 run that included a six-game win streak and a sweep of Lake County in the season's second to last series. That set them up for the shot at clinching in the Fort Wayne series, but they dropped two of three and couldn't seal the deal. Interestingly, their second half push also served to cancel out that terrible first half and allow the team to finish with a winning record (70-69) on the season. So what caused the discrepancy in their first and second half records?
Well the difference in their 32-37 first half and their 38-32 second half certainly doesn't show up in their run differential for the two halves. They scored four runs per game in the first half and 3.9 in the second half. On the run prevention side, they allowed 4.2 runs per game in the first half and 4.1 in the second. That left them with a run differential of -11 in 69 first half games and -13 in 70 second half games.
If we look at the distribution of the scores in each half, though, we see that the second half Caps were much more susceptible to blowout losses. In games decided by five or more runs, they were 6-10 in the second half with a run differential in those games of -42. Compare that to their record of 8-8 (+6 run differential) in such games during the first half. So what we saw was the second half Caps scrunching a hefty amount of their runs allowed into just 10 games. In their other 54 second half games, the ones decided by four runs or less, they were 32-22 with a run differential of 29 runs. The first half Caps struggled in these games, going just 24-29 with a -17 run differential.
This tell us the Caps were much more competitive in the closer games in the second half. But that doesn't necessarily tell us too much about the difference in the team's overall quality, though. After all, saying "Well, we lost a lot of blowouts" doesn't strike me as the strongest argument for saying your team was better than it looked. So how about if we take a look at what changed in terms of personnel over the course of the season.
My first inclination in looking at a split season team who improved in the second half is to look at whether they received an infusion of talent from the draft. The Caps got contributions from seven players drafted by the Tigers in 2011. The four pitchers were Brian Flynn (7th round), Ryan Woolley (13th), Dan Bennett (19) and Brian Stroud (31). However, only Flynn and Bennett offered clearly positive results.
Flynn replaced Brennan Smith in the Caps' rotation. After seeing the Caps go 2-5 in games started by Smith, their record in that rotation spot improved to 9-4 under Flynn's watch. Obviously, we can't hang wins and losses solely on the starting pitcher. When you consider Brennan Smith's numbers (39.2 IP, 47 H, 4 HR, 19 BB, 27 K) side by side with Flynn's (67.2 IP, 58 H, 3 HR, 23 BB, 57 K), though, it's clear this was an upgrade. It's also one that coincided almost precisely with the season's two "halves" since all but one of Flynn's starts came after the split.
As I mentioned, Bennett was the other 2011 pitching draftee to make a positive contribution for the club. He joined the club on August 4th, shortly after Bruce Rondon went down with a shoulder injury. Losing Rondon was a blow to the Caps, but Bennett filled in more than admirably. In his 17 1/3 innings of work in the season's final month, he gave up just eight hits and one run (via a homer) while walking only one batter and striking out 17.
The other two pitchers from the draft, Woolley and Stroud, didn't add a great deal to the team's second half success. Woolley had good peripherals (26 K and 4 BB in 24.1 IP) but was susceptible to the long ball (5 HR) and gave up runs in about half his appearances. Stroud made just four starts late in the season.
Among the position players, you had two catchers taken early - James McCann (2nd round) and Curt Casali (10th) - and outfielder Jason Krizan (8th). Casali rode strong peripherals (14.1 BB%, .173 ISO) to overcome a low batting average and make a solid contribution (.227/.344/.400 in 92 PA) as Rob Brantly's replacement. Going from Brantly to Casali was a net loss at the plate, though, considering Brantly's line of .303/.366/.440 in 317 plate appearances was what earned him a promotion to Lakeland. McCann was no revelation for the team, either. Luis Sanz hit .294/.346/.336 in 131 plate appearances as the team's backup catcher. That's a strong contribution from a backup, especially compared to the .059/.132/.088 line McCann posted in his brief time with the team.
That leaves just Krizan as a possible contributor to the team's second half success. When you see his line of .239/.293/.321 in 205 plate appearances, you might think it unlikely he provided much of a boost. However, when you consider he essentially replaced P.J. Polk (.169/.254/.169 in 139 PA) on the roster, you can chalk him with Flynn and Bennett as a net gain for the second half Whitecaps.
When I first looked at this group, I didn't think they could explain much of the jump from the first half to the second. However, when you consider the improvement the team enjoyed in going from Smith to Flynn, that alone could be a significant portion of the improvement. That could certainly be the case if you consider the difference between the first and second half team to be mostly derived from luck.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the rest of the team and see if it offers any further explanations for this team of two halves.