It wasn’t that long ago when the core unit of Oakland’s draft class from 2012 – affectionately referred to as the Swingin’ Baby A’s – was leading the Arizona League (AZL) in all offensive categories by a great margin. This was the same time that the AZL Rangers roster included top prospects Lewis Brinson, Nick Williams, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo. The AZL A’s dominated that line-up.
Chemistry played a significant role on that AZL A’s team: Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Bruce Maxwell, Renato Nuñez, Luis Baez, B.J. Boyd, Michael Soto, etc. made up the core, but time, promotions, and trades change things. Some things, that is.
My annual week-long coverage of the Stockton Ports on their road trip to the Southern California took place recently when the Ports visited the High Desert Mavericks (Mariners) and the Inland Empire 66ers (Angels). During the trip, I talked with pitching coach John Wasdin; visited with some of my Swingin Baby A’s; caught up with the voice of the Stockton Ports, Zack Bayrouty; and heard from my favorite member of the Daytona Cubs (by way of Stockton).
Since 2007, the High Desert Mavericks have been the Mariners’ Cal League affiliate. It is located in a town called Adelanto, “the city with unlimited possibilities” according to a billboard at the edge of town, along the 215 Freeway, north of Victorville. The only way to describe the environment is to say that if there were ever a place perfectly suited for a wind power plant, it is Adelanto. I asked a stadium employee if it was always that windy. He said, “no. Sometimes it’s really strong.” Perspective is key, I suppose.
As a first-time visitor to the Mavericks’ ballpark, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience; this is primarily due to the staff at Heritage Field at Stater Bros. Stadium. As is typical in minor league baseball, there are few people to do the work of many. There is one young man, in particular, Matt Melchior, who serves as the team’s Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations (as well as the PA announcer, a member of the sales team, and any other role needed by the team). He went out of his way to ensure I was well taken care of each game. I won’t be surprised if he is the GM of a minor league team sometime in the near future; he’s an 80-grade front office guy.
While the experience of watching a game in High Desert is enjoyable, I imagine pitching there is quite the opposite. The same could be said about Lancaster and Bakersfield and most other minor league parks in the California League, where ERAs expand with the light air and gale force winds. Pitching coaches in the Cal League certainly have their work cut out for them.
This includes Stockton’s pitching coach, 12-year major league veteran (and the #1 draft pick of the Oakland A’s in 1993 out of Florida State University) John Wasdin. Only seven years removed from taking the mound himself, Wasdin has the respect of each member of his pitching staff, and of the catchers, as well. Bruce Maxwell, who was recently promoted to Double-A Midland, has spent parts of the past three seasons with Wasdin and credits the pitching coach with much of his own development in handling both the starters and relievers of the Stockton staff.
“We talk every day,” Maxwell said. “He is great resource; a great teacher; a great mentor. I learn something new every day from [Wasdin].”
There’s no doubt Wasdin is doing something right with his staff; the numbers don’t lie. In each of the team pitching categories, Stockton is near the top in almost all.
Stockton Pitching Statistics, as of 7/27
2nd in ERA (4.24)
2nd in IP (951.0)
1st in fewest hits allowed (916)
1st in fewest Runs & 2nd in Earned Runs allowed (489 and 442)
5th in Home Runs allowed (100)
3rd in fewest HB (41)
5th fewest BB issued (369)
1st in strike-outs (944, lead by nearly 50 strike-outs)
Lowest WHIP (1.35)
I talked to Wasdin before game two of the series against High Desert. Unfortunately, the first game of the series saw Josh Bowman touched for four home runs in 7 innings. I happened to have been in the first row for the first home run. Because of the wind / undercurrent/ whatever it’s called, the ball looked as if it was being served up to the batter. Poor Josh; it was one of those games.
Wasdin was quick to point out to me, though, that the Mavericks’ pitcher, LHP Scott DeCecco, who allowed only one run in 5 innings, kept the ball down as he delivered it to the Stockton batters, and that’s what the Stockton staff needed to do when facing High Desert. He was very matter-of-fact about his approach. No excuses, no blaming the wind or weather – as I had been doing on behalf of the entire pitching staff. His line of reasoning and responsibility made sense. It is that level of accountability that makes Stockton’s staff so strong.
I said to him that he sounded like a pitching coach of a team performing near the top in almost all categories. He half-discounted what I said, as if I were making up the claim, until I assured him I was right. He is so focused on what he wants the staff to achieve; he isn’t concerned about where they stand against any other team but themselves. There’s one reason for the team’s success; a pitching coach who understands what it takes to be successful at the major league level, and who knows how to develop a young staff.
As challenging as the Cal League is to pitchers, it is a haven for hitters – for the Swingin’ Baby A’s. No matter which batting statistic selected, there are at least three members of the Stockton Ports near the top at any given time. Usually it’s the same - in interchangeable order: Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson and Renato Nuñez.
Matt Olson is the leader of two important categories – not only in the California League, but in all of High A (this includes the Carolina League, as well.) Olson leads everyone in home runs, with 29 (next closest is teammate Renato Nuñez with 25). Impressive as that is, Olson also, and equally important, leads ALL OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL in Walks (91). These numbers come as no surprise to me. This is the kid who hit two home runs in his first professional at-bats in the summer of 2012.
Daniel Robertson, who is second in all of Class High-A in most runs scored with 79, had a break-out spring training with the big league club. In fact, Robertson is one of the reasons the Oakland brass felt comfortable trading the organization’s top prospect, Addison Russell, to the Cubs on the 4th of July. Robertson’s defense is outstanding, and his bat production is as solid and consistent as the young man is.
Renato Nuñez, who is second in all of Class High-A with 25 home runs, right behind his teammate Olson. I met up with Renato Nuñez right after he returned from the MLB Futures Game at Target Field in Minneapolis, just before the MLB All-Star Game. I asked him how it felt to play in this prestigious exhibition game, where he made solid contact on both plate appearances, with the second resulting in a long single to left field.
The competitor that he is, Renato’s response was, “I wanted to win the game.” He told me in Spanish that he was honored to have been able to represent his country (Venezuela) and his parent club, the Oakland A’s, playing on the World Team…but he really wanted to win the game. He wants to win every game.
On Thursday, July 17th against High Desert, Daniel Robertson led off the game with a home run. Then, in an effort to come from behind in the top of the 9th inning, Matt Olson homered, and immediately following him, Renato Nuñez homered, as well. Because I enjoy these things, I was happy to see three of my Swingin’ Baby A’s do what they do best: score runs. But the story doesn’t end there. Between the Robertson and Olson/ Nuñez home runs, in Huntsville, Alabama, Addison Russell joined his best friends and former roommates hitting his first home run with his new team. It was perfect.
Stockton lost the series in High Desert and then moved south on the 215 to face the Inland Empire 66ers for a four-game series. Wonderful, helpful staff throughout the stadium and in the press box. The wonderful voice of the Stockton Ports, Zack Bayrouty, was his usual kind, helpful self when I arrived. He updated me on the newest additions to the Stockton roster; including two free agent signings: Tim Alderson – 1st rounder for the Giants in 2007 - and Zeke DeVoss - 3rd round pick by the Cubs in 2011.
During his first plate appearance with his new club, Miami native Zeke DeVoss bunted for a base hit. Welcome to Oakland, young man! Not long after I shared DeVoss’s efforts on Twitter, I heard from a former teammate of DeVoss; Daytona Cubs’ CF Billy McKinney. I was so happy to hear from Oakland’s #1 pick in 2013, who was traded to the Cubs with Addison Russell and Dan Straily on the 4th of July! Billy wanted to pass along that Zeke is a great guy, a great teammate and Billy is happy that his former teammate (brief though it was) has joined his former ballclub. Baseball makes the world so much smaller than we realize it is.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the highlights of the night for me: catching up with the A’s Farm Director, and one of the best/ nicest men you will ever meet, Keith Lieppman. Yes, I’m fortunate in that I see him in Arizona quite often, but it was a treat to see him in San Bernardino, all the same.
I don’t believe Bruce Maxwell is the last member of the Stockton Ports who will move up to Midland, but we will just have to be patient to see who joins him in the Texas League. Until then, #GoPorts!