With a roster filled with veteran players from their 2014 Texas League championship team and players from the 2014 Stockton Ports team that led the California League in regular season wins, the 2015 Midland RockHounds were expected to be the most successful squad in the Oakland A’s organization. They more than met those expectations with a record-breaking regular season and another Texas League title.
Led by manager Ryan Christenson, the RockHounds would win a franchise-record 83 games during the 2015 regular season. It took the team a little time to hit its stride, however, as the RockHounds finished the first half at 35-35. They dominated the competition during the season half, posting a 48-22 record. Those 48 wins were the most in any one half in RockHounds’ history, a record that had stood since 2001.
Midland’s roster featured a significant number of the A’s best position player prospects, so it was no surprise that they were one of the top offensive teams in the Texas League. Led by new hitting coach Eric Martins, Midland led the league in team batting with a .278 average and tied for the league lead in team OBP (.356). The RockHounds had the best team OPS (779), were second in the league in homers (117) and led the league in walks by 20 (589) and doubles by 44 (310). They also led the league in hits (1,335) and were second in runs scored (724 and 5.17 per game).
Midland’s starting rotation got off to a bit of a slow start, and the team ERA reflected those early season struggles (4.02, third-highest in the eight-team league). The ‘Hounds, who were guided by pitching coach John Wasdin, led the league in shutouts (16) and were third in the league in saves (38). They allowed the second-most hits and walks, as well as the third-most homeruns. They were in the middle of the pack in strike-outs, but they hit the fewest batters in the league.
The RockHounds received plenty of post-season hardware in addition to their championship trophy. Chad Pinder earned the league’s award for top player, while Pinder, Ryon Healy, Colin Walsh and Ryan Dull all landed on the league’s post-season All-Star list.
Only hitters with at least 170 at-bats were considered for this article.
There were numerous outstanding individual performances from RockHounds’ players in 2015. Chad Pinder led the way with an MVP performance. The A’s 2013 compensation round pick had a solid – but injury shortened – season with the Stockton Ports in 2014. He played mostly second base for the Ports, but he moved back to his college position of shortstop in 2015 after the A’s traded shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson. Pinder responded with an outstanding season on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Pinder posted a .317/.361/.486 line. He hit a career-high 15 homeruns, matched his career-high with 32 doubles and finished third in the league in OPS. Pinder’s consistency was remarkable. With the exception of May (when he hit .292 with a 731 OPS), Pinder posted an OPS of 856 or higher every month. He hit .300/.364/.457 during the first half of the season and .331/.358/.512 during the second half.
Defensively, Pinder made a smooth transition from second to short. He committed 26 errors, but Pinder showed solid range and a plus arm. He may end up at third or second in the big leagues, but Pinder should, at the very least, be able to be a depth option for a big league team at shortstop. Most importantly, Pinder made it through the season with a career-high in games played after missing significant amounts of time due to injury in 2014 and 2013. Ironically, Pinder had to miss the Texas League finals with a hamstring strain suffered when making a spectacular catch in the final game of the semi-final series, but he was durable during the regular season.
Pinder’s double-play partner for most of the season was second baseman Colin Walsh, who propelled himself from organizational depth to legitimate prospect with a standout season. Walsh led the RockHounds in several offensive categories, including OPS (918), walks (124), OBP (.447) and doubles (39). It was the best season of Walsh’s career since 2012 in the Midwest League with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization. He joined the A’s early last season after being released by the Cardinals and had a solid, if understated, season at three levels for Oakland. Walsh was more than solid this year, showing power, patience and the ability to take an extra base, as well. He swiped 17 bases in 24 chances and was generally a pest to opposing teams in every facet of the game offensively.
Defensively, Walsh showed an improved glove at second and got some time in the corner outfield towards the end of the year. He could be a future super-utility player at the big league level.
The corners of the RockHounds’ infield were manned for much of the season by a trio of top A’s prospects: Ryon Healy, Matt Olson and Renato Nunez. Healy and Nunez split their time between third base, first base and DH, while Olson saw a significant amount of time away from first base for the first time in his pro career. All three were major contributors to the RockHounds’ 2015 success.
Healy is one of the more underappreciated prospects in the A’s system. A 2013 pick like Pinder, Healy hit .285 with 16 homers for the Ports in 2014. Those numbers came despite Healy having a very rough start to the 2014 season. Healy started off slowly in 2015, as well, and at the midway point in the season, his OPS was just 708. Healy turned on the jets from there, however, and was arguably the top hitter in the Texas League the second half of the season. In 55 second half games, Healy hit .335/.358/.476. In July, Healy hit .368 and in August, he batted .364. Healy was equally red-hot during the post-season, when he hit .355 with four extra-base hits in seven games. Healy is an excellent defender at first and shows promise at third. Healy doesn’t walk much, but he doesn’t strike-out much either. Once he is able to tap into his raw power more in games, he should take a significant leap forward on the prospect charts.
Olson had an unusual season. For much of the year, the chatter was about what was wrong with Olson, who came into the season as the A’s top prospect after posting a 947 OPS for the Ports in 2014. By the end of the year, Olson had solid numbers despite stretches of struggling. In 133 games, Olson hit .249/.388/.438 with 37 doubles, 17 homers and 105 walks. Olson also added defensive versatility, playing nearly half of his games in right field. A former pitcher in high school, Olson’s arm strength was evident with his 11 assists in 59 games in right field. He is still an excellent defender at first base, but being able to play in the outfield, as well, should open a lot of doors for Olson to join the A’s big league roster within the next 12-16 months.
Nunez missed the first month of the season with a calf injury he suffered during the waning weeks of spring training. Once he joined Midland, he showed marked improvement at the plate over his 2014 season. Although limited to just 93 games thanks to that early season injury and a hamstring injury in August, Nunez had a solid season. He posted a .278/.332/.480 line in 381 at-bats. Although Nunez’s power numbers were down some from his 2014 season, he showed a much better understanding of the strike-zone. His walk rate rose slightly while his strike-out rate dropped by nearly five percent. It was the third straight year that Nunez improved in both categories. He was a bit unlucky on his batting average on balls in play or his slashline would have looked even better. During the post-season, Nunez hit .407/.500/.630 with two homeruns and 12 RBI in seven games. Defensively, Nunez continues to be a work-in-progress at third and he cut his teeth at first with 16 games at the position.
Nunez would have been the RockHounds’ post-season MVP had it not been for the other-worldly performance of outfielder Jaycob Brugman. In six games, Brugman homered four times and collected three doubles in helping to lead the RockHounds to the title. He also walked four times and scored seven runs out of the lead-off spot. During the regular season, Brugman hit .260/.343/.382 in 132 games in his first season at the Double-A level. He established several career highs, including in doubles (27), triples (8) and walks (62). Brugman’s homerun totals fell from 21 in 2014 to six, but he increased his walk rate and decreased his strike-out rate considerably. Brugman played all three outfield positions and will continue to get an opportunity to show what he can do during this year’s Arizona Fall League.
Brugman’s time in centerfield this season came mostly when regular centerfielder Chad Oberacker was on the disabled list. When healthy, Oberacker did a solid job of holding down the center of the outfield while putting together his best offensive season as a pro. In 101 games, Oberacker hit a career-best .294. He had a .360 OBP and he stole a team-high 19 bases in 23 chances. Oberacker also added 37 extra-base hits. A left-handed hitter, Oberacker did well against both righties (773 OPS) and lefties (825 OPS) this season. After two rough years in the Texas League, Oberacker’s third season with Midland puts him in a good position to move up to Triple-A next year.
Injuries once again impacted outfielder Josh Whitaker’s ability to get a full season’s worth of at-bats, but he still managed to rack up 355 official at-bats in 89 games this year. He posted a .256/.312/.437 line with 12 homers and 26 doubles. Whitaker played in only four post-season games because of a finger injury, but he homered in three of them and collected seven hits in 14 at-bats. Hopefully next year will be the year that Whitaker can get 500 at-bats to show what he can do.
For the first half of the season, the Midland catching duties were handled by Carson Blair and Bruce Maxwell. Blair earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A (and later joined the A’s big league roster), while Maxwell would team with Beau Taylor and Nick Rickles to catch the RockHounds’ staff down-the-stretch.
Blair joined the A’s during the off-season as a minor league free agent and he made a strong first impression by hitting .273/.389/.509 with six homeruns in 55 games for Midland. Blair would spend the second half with Triple-A Nashville before earning a September call-up with the A’s.
Maxwell returned to Midland after a half season with the RockHounds in 2014. The left-handed hitting catcher struggled badly with the bat during his stint with Midland last season. Although his numbers still aren’t at the level the A’s would like to see, he did show improvement at the plate with Midland in 2015. In 355 at-bats, Maxwell hit .243/.321/.308. His power still hasn’t translated into games, but Maxwell has shown he can control the strike-zone. He struck-out just 54 times. Defensively, Maxwell caught only 22% of would-be base-stealers, but he was charged with just two errors and five passed balls in 78 games.
Infielder Wade Kirkland played an important role off of the bench for the RockHounds, filling in for various injured players throughout the season. The versatile Kirkland appeared in games at second, short, third and left field. For the third straight year, Kirkland also pitched in a game. He now has six innings pitched over his career. At the plate, Kirkland hit .258/.283/.367 with five homers in 229 official at-bats. He had a terrific August, batting .381/.412/.540 in 17 games.
Although he didn’t make the at-bat cut-off for this article, Anthony Aliotti’s contributions to the RockHounds during the final month of the season should be noted. Aliotti spent most of the year in Triple-A, but he joined the RockHounds on August 5. In 107 at-bats, Aliotti hit .299/.358/.449 with 10 extra-base hits. He was a big part of the RockHounds’ late season push into and through the post-season.
Only pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched were considered for this article.
The Midland bullpen was relatively stable throughout the 2015 season, but the starting rotation saw plenty of personnel changes during the course of the year. Chris Jensen and Jake Sanchez were the only two pitchers to log more than 20 starts for the RockHounds this year.
Jensen returned to the RockHounds after a Texas League All-Star season in 2014. Many of his numbers were similar in 2015 as they were in 2014, but there were two key differences: Jensen allowed a significantly higher percentage of flyballs (and, consequently, homeruns) and he gave up a lot more hits. His ERA paid the price, as it went from 3.14 in 2014 to 4.87 in 2015 despite the fact that he had an almost identical K:BB rate. Despite the higher ERA, Jensen was still the leader of the staff and a pitcher the RockHounds could count on to give them innings every fifth day.
Sanchez made the jump from Stockton to Midland and had a decent first season at the Double-A level. The former independent league star was the A’s return for Michael Taylor in the deal that sent Taylor to the White Sox last season. This year, Sanchez was the RockHounds’ only 10-game winner. In 25 starts, he posted a 4.50 ERA. He had a 100:41 K:BB and he allowed 12 homeruns in 142 innings. Sanchez made one start for Midland in the post-season and it was an outstanding outing. He allowed just a run on six hits and no walks in seven innings in the semi-final clincher versus Corpus Christi. He struck-out five in the game.
Atherton began the year in Stockton, but four outstanding starts in April earned him a promotion to Double-A. He made 14 starts for the RockHounds before landing on the disabled list in late July. Atherton would make only one more start the rest of the season. He finished the year with a 4.96 ERA in 78 innings. He struck-out 58 and walked 31. Before landing on the DL in late July, Atherton had been on a bit of a roll. In the four starts leading up to his DL stint, he had allowed just six runs in 26 innings.
The A’s acquired Frazier in a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks midway through the season. He made one start for Nashville and then joined the Midland rotation for the rest of the season. Statistically, Frazier had an unusual season for the RockHounds. His K:BB was the definition of mediocre (32:31 in 67 innings), but he posted a solid 3.22 ERA. He was able to be effective because of his ability to induce groundballs. Frazier got groundballs on more than 50% of the balls that were hit into play against him and he was one of the top pitchers in the Texas League in getting hitters to ground into double-plays. Frazier made arguably the most memorable start of the RockHounds’ season when he threw a nine-inning shutout in the Texas League title clincher. Frazier allowed just three hits and two walks and he struck-out nine in that win.
Long was a surprise member of the RockHounds’ Opening Day roster. He looked poised to make the jump to Triple-A after an outstanding season for Midland the year before. A roster crunch kept Long in Double-A for the first half of the year, although he would eventually earn a regular spot in the Nashville rotation. With Midland, Long threw 83.1 innings and posted a 3.13 ERA. He struck-out 67 and walked 31.
Overton began the year with Stockton but joined the Midland rotation after the All-Star break. The A’s 2013 second-round pick was on a strict innings limit all season as part of his continued recovery from Tommy John surgery, so he never threw more than five innings in any start with the RockHounds. Overton was a little inconsistent when he first joined Midland, but he settled in nicely during the final month of the season. He didn’t allow a run over his last four starts of the year (19.2 innings) and allowed just seven runs over his last seven starts of the year (34.2 innings). He had a 47:15 K:BB and he allowed four homeruns. Overton still isn’t throwing with the same velocity (91-93 MPH) that he had before his surgery, but he saw his velocity increase from the mid-80s to 88-91 by the end of the year. His secondary stuff and his ability to mix his pitches remain strengths. After throwing a combined 126 innings with Stockton and Midland this year, Overton will likely pitch without restrictions in 2016 and he could make the jump to the big leagues sometime next year.
Sean Manaea made only seven regular season starts for Midland, but he had a significant impact on the team. The left-hander was acquired in the deal that sent Ben Zobrist to the Kansas City Royals in late July. Manaea was dominant from the get-go with Midland, going 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA in 42.2 innings. He struck-out 51, walked 15 and allowed three homeruns. In his last regular season start, Manaea struck-out 13 in six shutout innings against San Antonio. He went on to dominate in two post-season starts, allowing a combined two runs in 15 innings in those outings. He struck-out 15 and walked two over that stretch.
Although he made only nine starts, Jonathan Joseph finished third on the team in innings pitched with 91.1. The longtime A’s farmhand began the year with the Ports, but he finally got his first promotion to Double-A after a fast start in April. Joseph had a solid run with Midland. He posted a 4.04 ERA with a 75:29 K:BB. Joseph actually pitched better than those stats would indicate, save for a rough month of July when he had a 6.23 ERA. Joseph has a nice assortment of pitches and can get his fastball up to 93 at times. He has been a part of the A’s organization since 2006 and will be a minor league free agent this off-season.
The Midland bullpen was outstanding all season. For much of the year, the group was led by closer Ryan Dull, who put Tecmo Baseball numbers up during his time with Midland. In 45 innings, he allowed just three runs for an 0.45 ERA. Dull struck-out 52, walked just 13 and allowed only one homerun. Opposing batters hit just .182 against him. He also saved 12 games. Dull would go on to pitch just as well for Nashville en route to a September call-up with Oakland.
Dull had plenty of company in dominating Texas League batters out of the Midland bullpen. Right-hander Tucker Healy did not allow a run from May 29 until August 5. He posted a 1.95 ERA in 55.1 innings. Healy’s strike-outs were down from his previous career norms (he struck-out 53), but Healy was much more difficult to hit. Opposing batters batted only .172 against him and he didn’t allow a homerun. He should get an extended look in Triple-A next season.
Seth Frankoff spent most of the month of May with the Nashville Sounds, but he otherwise was a steady presence in the RockHounds’ bullpen. A rough final two weeks of the regular season inflated his ERA, but he still posted a solid 3.24 ERA in 50 innings. He struck-out exactly a batter an inning and he walked only 14. Frankoff deserves an extended look in Triple-A and he could get that chance next season.
Kris Hall was another impressive arm in the Midland bullpen. The right-hander’s fastball was clocked as high as 97 MPH this season. Command was an issue for Hall, as evidenced by his 53 walks, but when he was throwing strikes, he was very difficult to hit. He struck-out 74 in 72 innings and batters hit only .220 against him. He allowed just four homeruns. It was a career-high in innings pitched for Hall, who will get to add to that innings total this fall at the Arizona Fall League.
Ryan Doolittle got off to a slow start in April, posting a 9.00 ERA in nine innings. After that, he was very reliable for the RockHounds. Doolittle finished his second season in Double-A with a 3.32 ERA in 57 innings. He struck-out 46 and walked 16. Despite being a flyball pitcher, Doolittle allowed only five homeruns. In 2014, Doolittle had his first healthy season since his pro debut in 2008. He followed that up with another fully healthy campaign and will head into minor league free agency with an impressive recent resume of work.
Andres Avila began the year with Stockton, joining the Midland bullpen on May 3. He served a long relief role for the RockHounds, posting 4.10 ERA in 48.1 innings. The native of Mexico struck-out 42 and walked 12.