Midwest League All-Star Festivities: Day One

Skills and power competitions marked the first day of the 2010 Midwest League All-Star events in Fort Wayne, Indiana on Monday evening. Wisconsin outfielder Khris Davis and Fort Wayne first baseman Nate Freiman starred.

Despite the threat of vicious storms, day one of the Midwest League's All-Star break went off without a hitch Monday night under clear, sunny skies.

This preamble to the All-Star game itself featured a Little League home run derby, a couple of Midwest League skills competitions, the power showcase itself, and was concluded by fireworks.

The setting

For those who are not familiar with the stadium, Parkview Field opened last year – and is spectacular. It is the culmination of a more-than-a-decade-long fight amongst Fort Wayne city leaders and residents alike to build a spectacular minor league stadium downtown rather than a cookie-cutter, concrete, and chain link dud on the North side of town.

When the first minor league team was courted to the city for the 1993 season, they went with the latter. Finally, as part of a much-need downtown improvement project, the decision was made to erase the mistake, literally (by razing the old stadium and turning it into a parking lot), and build a noteworthy stadium and strategically develop around it.

The overall project has hit snags with the delayed development of a new Courtyard Marriott hotel (which now sits mostly complete in center field) and the stalled development of loft-style ballpark condos in left overlooking the field, but the stadium itself is spectacular.

To coincide with the move, the old moniker, the Fort Wayne Wizards, was scrapped and a contest was held to rename the team. I am still not sure how the winner won, but the team became the Fort Wayne TinCaps – I guess a tribute to local historical character, Johnny Appleseed.

Thanks to both a stunning new stadium and a generous – in my opinion - roster supplied by Padres in the first year of TinCaps existence, the team both shattered its own attendance record and pretty much dominated its way to a Midwest League championship. Fast forward to this year and the team wearing the TinCaps uniforms isn't as stacked but the stadium is still as exciting to enter to enjoy day one of the Midwest League All-Star festivities.

The TinCaps did not announce a paid attendance, but I would guess the stadium was about half-full – no doubt aided by their last minute decision to institute, and promote, a rare non-Thursday dollar beer night.

Throwing competition - infielders

After the conclusion of the Little League home run derby, the stadium was set up for the first acts of the night – the skills competitions. It was nothing more than a throwing accuracy competition for selected infielders, outfielders, and catchers. Essentially, there was a six foot by four foot oval with a two foot diameter circle in the center propped up vertically as the target. Hitting the center circle was three points and hitting the board at all was one.

Up first was the infield group, featuring Wisconsin's Scooter Gennett, Hak-Ju Lee of Peoria, Christian Lara from Great Lakes, and South Bend's Chris Owings. Scooter Gennett was the only one who man who hit the center target, but he misfired badly on the others – including throwing one over the target and a few rows up into the seats. The only noteworthy performance was the ultimate winner, Christian Lara, who managed to hit the board on four of five throws.

The TinCaps' "MC" announcing things from on the field then made the brilliant decision to try to interview the winner, a Venezuelan whose English is what I would call "in process" in front of a few thousand people. He tried hard and got a nice ovation for it.

Throwing competition - catchers

The catchers were up next. I was looking forward to this - given that I was sitting four rows directly behind home plate and used to be a catcher – but I wish they had simply forgotten the catchers entirely. Out of the twenty throws among Burlington's Wil Myers, Kane County's Max Stassi, South Bend's Tyson Van Winkle, and Chun Chen of Lake County, only seven managed to strike wood. Seven.

I was more than a little annoyed by the decision to place the target ON second base – given that catchers are taught to throw to the first base side of the bag – but they did the same thing for outfielders as well. In the end, Chun Chen probably needed a crow hop, Myers only got within five yards once, and I think Van Winkle and Chen tied for the victory with two of five hits (and, yes, Chen's one-hoppers counted). If only Robert Stock could hit.

Throwing competition - outfielders

When the outfielders' turn came, I was more than ready. I wanted to forget the catchers, for sure, but the group featured River Bandits outfielder D'Marcus Ingram and former first rounder and current Beloit Snapper Aaron Hicks, in addition to Lake County's Bo Greenwell and the TinCaps' own Danny Payne. My first impression was memorable. Hicks looks like a young Ken Griffey Jr. in build. It is no wonder scouts love this kid. Ingram is also impressive in appearance, but not when standing next to Hicks. I'd say Ingram's build is similar to a Kenny Lofton.

As a high schooler who could reach mid-90s on the mound, I was very interested in seeing Hicks throw. He did not disappoint. He has easily the best arm of the group – although it wasn't an arm strength competition – and he was a textbook example of a lesser-known quality in outfielder arms that scouts want to see: when a throw to home bounces in the infield, does it skip or does it bounce? Hicks' skipped. The other three's bounced. Only two of the twenty throws by the competitors struck wood. Hicks had one but the rest of his throws were probably better as they skipped just to the third base side of the target – where they should be in the first place.

Ingram's throwing was especially disappointing. He sailed some rainbows. I hope it was either some sort of strategy to win (which failed) or a result of his recent injury and not his actual throwing ability. If so, yikes. Greenwell was also uninspiring and Payne, with loud cheers from the local crowd, threw well enough to strike the target once to tie Hicks.

Home Run Derby – round one

Now that the throwing was over, it was time for the main event. I am not sure how valid a sample a home run derby contest is for evaluating swings, but I will give it my best shot.

River Bandits first baseman Matt Adams went first. Matt is an imposing lefty stick. He stands about 6'3", is built thickly, and stands tall in the box. He carries his hands tightly and his swing is fairly simple. He definitely has some power, but there were two leagues of power hitters in this competition and Adams was in the lesser of the two. In the end, he got three balls out but only one cleared by a significant distance. Even then, it was less than 400 feet.

Mike Trout was probably the one I was looking forward to the most, but he only produced two home runs. He clearly wasn't built for the derby. Trout hit most balls up the middle – which doesn't bode well in a home run derby. As the most elite overall prospect of the group, though, I was generally impressed by his build, swing, and unorthodox derby approach (intentional or not). He is much stronger than I expected and is built like a running back. Trout's rare combination of switch-hitting ability (he participated in the competition batting right-handed), power, and speed makes him elite.

Clinton infielder Nick Franklin is also a top prospect putting up good numbers, but I was not in love with his swing. He has high hands, an open stance, and a big load. He also showed a double toe tap on his load, but hopefully that was a product of the competition. Generally, Franklin is a young, thin infielder who generates surprising power with a huge load and a big swing. As he fills out, he'd be better off generating his power by other means.

Dayton second baseman Henry Rodriguez generated four dingers with a simple short swing but not prodigious power. Derby favorite Jerry Sands, first baseman for Great Lakes, who has 18 home runs at the break, didn't do much, managing only two home runs. South Bend third baseman Matt Davidson put on a good show, generating eight homers after he got warmed up with his strong swing led by a massive lower half. The night belonged to Wisconsin outfielder Khris Davis and Fort Wayne first baseman Nate Freiman, 7th and 8th rounders, respectively, from the 2009 draft.

Davis, a well built 6'0" right-handed outfielder out of Cal State Fullerton, really got the competition going after Adams in the first round. He produced easy, consistent, light tower power with a compact stroke and a nice toe-tap load (which reminded me a bit of a less dramatic Sammy Sosa). Before the crowd even noticed, Davis had nine bombs and half of them left the building either on the fly or by carom.

Freiman (pictured) is a freakish thin 6'8" first baseman. He started the season going gangbusters, but hasn't done much since the first few weeks of the season (having only six home runs at the break). I have written about him on the message board before. His swing is hideous—like nails on the chalkboard or chewing aluminum foil. He is so lanky and his arms and legs are so long that he just hasn't yet figured out yet how to synchronize it all. His top and lower halves load separately. Somehow – I have no idea – Freiman manages to general unbelievable power. Maybe he is the epitome of a batting practice all-star, but the results were legit. Going last in the first round, in front of a very biased local fan base, he popped twelve home runs.

The distances

Before getting into my shorthand notes of the rest of the results, it is important to understand the lay of the land, so to speak, of Parkview Field as you travel from the plate towards and past the left field wall. It is, I believe, 332 feet down the line. The fence varies in height from at least ten feet to maybe eighteen all the way around. Behind the wall is a section of seats under wooded pergolas that probably spans thirty linear feet. After the pergola seats, there is a concourse of maybe fifty feet in width bounded by a fancy construction fence designed to obstruct the views out from the beautiful field to the sad empty lot that is supposed to house the ballpark condos at some point. That lot has to be seventy feet wide or more, but I will call it fifty. That lot sits on the main East-West downtown street, Jefferson Boulevard.

If you are counting at home, that is conservatively, directly down the line as the home run flies, 362 feet to the concourse (but it has to clear to pergolas to get there), 412 feet to clear the stadium and land in the vacant lot, and 462 feet to Jefferson Boulevard. Obviously, as you move towards center, the distances increase.

Of Freiman's twelve first round home runs, three landed on the concourse, four landed on the vacant lot, and two landed on Jefferson Boulevard. One of the ugliest swings I have ever seen at that level produced power like I have never seen at that level. I still don't know what to think of it.

Home Run Derby – round two

The second round included Franklin, Rodriguez, and Davidson, too, but only, Davis and Freiman mattered. Because of their strong first rounds, they didn't need much to advance. Davis popped an easy five to guarantee his place in the finals and then spent three or four outs trying to hit one out to the opposite field just for fun. Freiman followed by jacking six using just three outs, including another onto the vacant lot, before retiring voluntarily since he'd already wrapped up the last at-bat advantage in the finals.

In the finals, Khris Davis decided he'd had enough of Freiman's upstaging, so proceeded to go bananas, swatting eleven out of the yard – only two of which was any shorter than the concourse on the fly. Freiman, with the home crowd behind him, started fast but had a lot of ground to make up. He launched a couple more majestic flies onto the vacant lot and onto Jefferson Boulevard but he ran out of gas at eight. His second home run ended up being more memorable even than the Jefferson shots. It was a laser shot that hit the top of the foul pole and shattered an advertisement for Huntington University.

It was quite a spirited competition, but Davis and Freiman definitely put on a show. Davis came out on top but Freiman's shots were probably more memorable. Going forward, though, I would be far more inclined to bet on Davis than Freiman. Davis has superb strength and athleticism, he has a compact repeatable swing, and he plays the outfield (not sure about his arm though). Freiman has a future only at first base and a goofy swing that produces massive power in a BP situation, but likely will not translate into games without refinement.

At the end of the night, I had one burning question:

How in the world did Khris Davis last to the 7th round in the 2009 draft?

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