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Strong pitching has powered the dominant West Michigan Whitecaps

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The heart of the 2017 Whitecaps roster has been their powerful pitching staff.

Matt Manning delivers a pitch in the first inning of a game against the Fort Wayne TinCaps.
Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

The season that the Detroit Tigers are currently drudging through has spelled a lot of different things for the various sections of their fanbase. However, one thing has been universal: an exponentially increased focus on the farm system. The Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps couldn't have done more to step into the limelight.

When the Whitecaps won their first game of the season with a final score of 2-0, no one could have known how strongly this foreshadowed the entirety of their year. Almost every pitcher who has been with the Whitecaps have thrived. In fact, the team has pitched 28 shutouts, more than any other season in their history. They won an incredible 91 games, and finished the regular season with a 91-45 record.

As a group, the Whitecaps staff has been incredible. They will be relying on that pitching staff as they kick off the Midwest League Playoffs on Wednesday evening against the Dayton Dragons.

Take a look at their collective numbers compared to the rest of the Midwest League.

Whitecaps 2017 Pitching Stats

Stat Total Rank
Stat Total Rank
ERA 2.71 1
WHIP 1.11 1
Hits 987 1
Strikeouts 1249 3
Walks 354 1

The most amazing part about how well this team has performed is the fact that they have had their roster plundered time and time again. The very best of their players were promoted, leaving only the leftovers for the Whitecaps. Left without the teeth of their lineup, they were given a batch of replacements. Even Derek Hill, who came back from Tommy John surgery partway through the season, spent less than 40 games with the team before being moved up the ladder.

The pitching staff has not had it much easier. Kyle Funkhouser was one of the first dominoes to fall, being taken after seven games. Gregory Soto's promotion was another blow, and the Whitecaps had lost two aces in one season. The bullpen has given up its riches as well, sending several pieces up to higher levels and giving up one of its best to the rotation.

This team has been dead to rights many times over, and yet they are postseason locks. What has allowed them to be so good? Bless You Boys posed this question to catcher Austin Athmann, who had a two-part answer.

Our pitchers are able to command the zone, the low part of the zone, and able to get their of speed stuff over for strikes. Those are the basic things that are needed for pitching, and our guys are very good at it. ... We have fun. Not a lot of minor league teams emphasize having a good time, but we play relaxed and we enjoy ourselves out there.

When BYB spoke to pitching coach Jorge Cordova, he enumerated the reasons that the pitchers have been so successful, saying this:

They understand from the beginning they need to pitch with conviction. They know how to pitch to contact, they're not always trying to blow their stuff by the hitters. They know the need to get pitches in the zone early in counts, and they do it. [The most important thing for them to learn] is how to command their fastball. If they learn to command their fastball, they will move up in the organization. We work [on command] for 4-5 hours a day in the bullpens ... we talk, we watch videos. They give the hitters too much credit sometimes and start to nibble, but if they command their fastball in the zone, they can beat the hitters.

Command is certainly something that Matt Manning, one of the Tigers' top prospects, will be working on during his tenure with West Michigan. Although command has been the weak point of his game since he came onto the radar, he was seen as a flamethrower with low milage. The expectation was that he would walk a few more batters than what was ideal, but his velocity was for real.

Matt Manning walks back to the dugout after warming up before a start.
Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

Manning did all that and more in his pro debut, reaching the high 90s with regularity and striking out over 14 batters per nine while only walking 2.14 per nine. In that light, it is understandable that prospect watchers started to murmur when he opened the season at 93 mph. That murmur became a much more audible rumbling when the velocity didn't come back, but the worries were muted by spectacular results with the Connecticut Tigers.

When he gave up four runs over only 1 23 innings pitched in his Whitecaps debut, the dam broke.

Manning's career looked in jeopardy to some, seeing this bump in the road as indicative of a larger problem. Some thought that the warnings were evident in the drop in his velocity. In a season so bleak for Tigers fans, it is easy to paint a picture that is far worse than reality. Even I have to admit that I wondered if he was hiding an injury when his second and third starts in the Midwest League went just as poorly as his first.

He turned things around in in dramatic fashion for his fourth start with the Whitecaps, striking out six and allowing no runs over six innings. Only allowing five men reached base while facing him. His fifth outing was just as dominant, only allowing four baserunners and striking out nine over five innings.

Bless You Boys was able to speak to the young pitcher after the game, and when asked what the difference was between his first few outing and these more recent ones. "Those first three games, I was excited," Manning said in response. "These last two games, I've been able to step back, relax, and try not to overthrow. I just pitch the way I can. "

Cordova, mentioned earlier, was also optimistic about Manning, saying:

With him, it's a learning process. This is his first year playing in a long season. In the past, you know, in high school, he only ever threw 2-3 months. Here, he throws a lot of pitches. He's still only 19. And sometimes, he takes a little off his fastball to try and get it where he wants it and make his command a little better. I am not concerned at all [about his drop in velocity].

In the end, while Manning is one of the Tigers' top prospects, he has only been a very small part of a much larger reality. The West Michigan Whitecaps are a very good team, and while the offense has helped, it is really their pitching that has propelled them this far. They will have a spot in the playoffs for the fourth time in as many years. Entering a new era of Tigers baseball, one that will include the worst few seasons of the past decade, they will be one of the most exciting parts of this organization.