This is the second part of a recap of the West Michigan Whitecaps' 2011 season (part 1 here), and a continuation of a series in which I revisit the 2011 seasons of each of the Tigers' farm teams. In the first part, I looked at the team's overall record and how it was divided between the season's two halves. I started to look into what may have led to the team's distinct performance in the split season and looked at the players who were added from the draft. What follows are explorations into the rest of the team and how the players performed in each half, starting with the players who were on the team all season.
Brian Flynn may have offered an upgrade to the rotation, but before we chalk up the second half improvement to a rotation tweak, though, there were some key players on this team played for both "halves". Another possible explanation for the team's reversal of fortune could be improvement from this group. Of the guys who both opened and ended the 2011 season with the Whitecaps, how do their splits look?
Let's first identify who these players were. From the position players, you have James Robbins, Hernan Perez, Nick Castellanos, Dixon Machado, Jeff Rowland and Luis Castillo. On the pitching side, You had Kevin Eichhorn, Kyle Ryan, Josue Carreno, Michael Torrealba and Patrick Cooper. So obviously, a substantial portion of this team's contributions came from players who stuck out the entire season in West Michigan. This isn't uncommon. The Tigers are loathe to move players up from West Michigan and typically don't do so unless they aren't really prospects or are in their second season at this level.
So what answers lie in this group? Well, the players who improved in the second half were Nick Castellanos, Jeff Rowland and to a lesser degree, Dixon Machado. Castellanos didn't have so much of a rough first half as a rough April. He rebounded to finish the first half with a line of .291/.333/.422, which is more than acceptable for a teenager in the Midwest League. But he was fantastic in the second half, hitting .331/.398/.449 with 22 doubles and a vast improvement in his control of the strike zone. Rowland wasn't an everyday player in either half, but after hitting .228/.338/.325 in the season's first half he stepped up in the later months to hit .255/.371/.404 in the second half. This allowed him to make a valuable contribution from the top of the batting order when he was in the lineup.
The rest of this group's stories don't fit neatly into the "there was a team-wide turnaround" narrative. Dixon Machado was certainly better in the second half, but he basically went from hitting like a better than average pitcher to a light-hitting shortstop. When I say light-hitting, I mean he didn't have an extra base hit after June. That was when he was hitting better. His most common double play partner, Hernan Perez, had a clear dropoff in the season's second half. After hitting better than .300 in both April and May, he never came close in any other month. In fact, after May he never approached being productive at the plate.
The final piece of the infield, James Robbins, was another one who saw a big dropoff as the season progressed. After hitting .277/.311/.455 with 10 homers in the first half, he dipped down to .224/.254/.354 and only six homers after the All-Star break. Not only that, he even managed to do worse at controlling the strike zone. After ten walks and 77 strikeouts in the first half, he regressed further to put up totals of six walks and 81 Ks in the second.
In the outfield, Luis Castillo went from being a respectably productive center fielder who could capably man the top of the order (.295/.365/.373, 26 BB, 36 K) to an offensive liability (.242/.285/.331, 14 BB, 33 K). Put this all together and it seems to me any change there might have been in production from the first half to the second - from this group - was a net loss. So let's see if the pitchers did their share in trying to drag this team into the playoffs.
Of the five pitchers mentioned above, three saw notably better results in the second half. Kyle Ryan saw less action (1st half: 76 IP; 2nd half: 61 IP) but better quality innings as he gave up a lower rate of hits, home runs and walks while striking out more batters. In fact, he struck out 51 in 61 second half innings after striking out only 48 in 76 first half innings. Josue Carreno's improvement wasn't quite as across the board as Ryan's, but it was real. In roughly the same number of innings between the two halves, Carreno slightly improved his hit and strikeout rates but his walk rate stayed pretty flat. His big improvement was putting a stop to home runs. After allowing six long balls in the first half, he cut that total down to one in the season's latter half. That was the main culprit in allowing him to drop his ERA from 5.60 to 3.48.
The last of those to improve was Michael Torrealba. Like Ryan, his numbers improved almost right down the line. His blemish was allowing one more homer in the second half, but besides that his hit, walk and strikeout rates all improved. It led to him shaving more than a run off his ERA when you compare the first half to the second. This is made all the more impressive considering he was good in the first half.
Now I labelled the first group as those who improved in the second half, but I don't want to give the impression Kevin Eichhorn wasn't a solid contributor in the second half that nearly earned the Caps a playoff spot. He was 6-2 with a 3.63 ERA. His peripherals overall were just a bit better in the first half. The first half saw him give up fewer hits and homers while striking out more batters. In the second half, he went deeper into games and cut down on his runs and walks. Essentially, the Caps got an inning per start more out of him in the second half and the price was relying more on his defense.
The fifth member of this group was Patrick Cooper and he was definitely trending downward as the season progressed. It should be pointed out, though, that he had two trips to the disabled list during the second half. He missed two weeks in July and then three more in August, both times after reporting tightness in his forearm. (Yikes.)
That brings us to the end of the regulars who held similar roles throughout the season. We saw an overall regression on the position side and a net improvement from the five pitchers. We still didn't see the type of difference we could clearly point to as "the difference" and I'm coming closer to just declaring the second half improvement as simple good fortune.
Let's not throw up our hands just yet, though. There were quite a few contributors to this team we haven't discussed yet. When you look at players who were only around in the first half and compare them to those who played only after the All Star break, you see a pretty clear improvement among the position players. Jimmy Gulliver (.157/.218/.216 in 56 PA), Edwin Gomez (.182/.222/.247 in 81 PA) and Billy Nowlin (.243/.324/.388 in 173 PA) were flipped into Josh Ashenbrenner (.295/.377/.344 in 70 PA), Ryan Hamme (.268/.332/.370 in 282 PA) and Clay Jones (.308/.402/.417 in 184 PA). These may have been replacements of utility infielders, reserve outfielders and part-time designated hitters but they were clear upgrades nonetheless.
Of course, the gains made in those three upgrades may have been negated (and then some) by another player we haven't mentioned who joined the squad around the same time as Ryan Hamme - Steven Moya. After struggling in the GCL in 2010, Moya received his assignment to West Michigan the second week of May. Predictably, it didn't go well. As the team's primary right fielder, he proceeded to hit .204/.234/.362 with only 12 walks and a whopping 127 strikeouts.
When we turn our attention to the pitchers we haven't discussed yet, we see some quality arms that were lost to either injury or trade. Ramon Lebron (1.83 ERA, 34.1 IP, 18 H, 10 R, 1 HR, 19 BB, 44 K), Jeff Ferrell (3.49 ERA, 28.1 IP, 28 H, 13 R, 3 HR, 12 BB, 24 K) and Bruce Rondon (2.02 ERA, 40 IP, 22 H, 11 R, 0 HR, 34 BB, 61 K) were all placed on the disabled list with injuries and never returned. Ferrell made it just six starts before elbow problems ended his season. Lebron and Rondon went down three weeks apart in July with shoulder issues.
The Caps lost another solid contributor when the Tigers shipped Antonio Cruz to Kansas City in the deal that brought Wilson Betemit to Detroit. Cruz's performance didn't match his 2-6 record. In 75.1 innings, he had a 3.11 ERA by limiting opponents to 29 runs on 68 hits, 28 walks and five homers while striking out 58.
The loss of these players' contributions appears to have been cancelled out - and then some - by the players discussed above. There are a few players who chipped in to help recoup those losses who we haven't mentioned. The most significant is Alex Burgos. The Tigers' fifth round pick from the 2010 draft joined the team on June 9th and finished out the season as one of the team's best starters. In 94.2 innings covering 16 starts, he was 6-5 with an ERA of 2.19. His peripherals may not have lived up to that ERA as he allowed just 63 hits on the strength of a .242 BABIP. He wasn't just getting lucky, though. He allowed just four homers, walked 33 and struck out 89.
Another pitcher who did a good job of trying to fill in for lost arms was Jade Todd. He joined the team after Lebron went down and in 17 games, covered 29.1 innings. His ERA of 3.99 was nothing to write home about, but it's a little misleading. He gave up 28 hits, walked only eight and allowed one homer while striking out 25. I'd pay more attention to that then the fact that three outings threw his ERA off kilter.
So there's your in-depth look at the West Michigan Whitecaps of 2011, broken down in an attempt to explain a team of two halves. We set out to try to figure out how a team could go from being so bad in the first half to nearly making the playoffs after a strong second half. We came away with the perhaps unsatisfying notion that it may have been as simple as a few more well placed singles in tight games. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise us too much. After all, the same first half team that suffered a 12-game losing streak was able to manufacture a winning streak of nine games.