Ironbirds ITW Awards 2007: Part I

Inside, ITW discusses the good and not so good of the Ironbirds 2007 campaign. While some returning players and draftees making their professional debuts flourished in at a new level of competition, others returning and trying out professional baseball for the first time scuffled.

Biggest Surprise: RHP Joe Esposito (5-3, 2.77 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 48.2 IP, 51 SO, 18 BB)

Joe Esposito has come on to be one of the biggest surprises for the Ironbirds and the organization this year. Esposito came in as an unsigned free agent at the beginning of the short season and worked his way into a significant role with the Ironbirds as a go to guy. Manager Andy "Etch" Etchebarren is not afraid to use him in any role at any time, but has used him mainly as a bridge to get to the late inning pitchers. Clearly, he is not afraid to throw him out there in any situation.

Though Esposito has pitched in just 48.2 innings, he still ranks 28th among NYPL pitchers in strikeouts. Esposito barely misses the required two-thirds IP per game to make the leader board for ERA and WHIP; he would place 4th in the league in ERA and 5th in the league in WHIP, as of September 1st. However, he will not reach the required amount of innings pitched due to a well-deserved call-up to Delmarva on August 31. At just 5'10", Esposito may be short for a flame-thrower, but he utilizes a hard sinking two-seam fastball that has reached the mid-90's on the stadium radar gun (which has taken a couple MPH off of pitchers this year) and a good change-up to keep batters off balance. He uses the whole plate and is not afraid to use his pitches on anyone.

"[Joe Esposito] has maybe been the biggest surprise we have. Some guys have surprised me a little bit, but for a guy not to be drafted, you don't know what to expect," Etch told Inside The Warehouse. "You expect a guy to maybe eat up some innings for you, so-so pitcher if you're losing by 3 or 4 runs you put him in the game to suck up 2 or 3 innings, so you don't hurt your prospects… Ha! That ain't what we got here. He's a pretty good pitcher."

Most Improved Pitcher: RHP Nathan Nery (5-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 56.0 IP, 39 SO, 17 BB)

Nathan Nery came into this season with a completely different approach and delivery after a rough professional debut last year. It was a close call on giving him Most Improved or Biggest Surprise, but the consensus with the coaches has been that Nery has taken the biggest "stride."

"[I worked on] my stride length," Nery Told Inside The Warehouse. "Last year I had a much shorter stride, and they say how tall you are is pretty much how far you should stride, and my stride was about 4 feet last year and I'm 6'5""

The longer stride allows Nery to push off with his back leg and improve his overall velocity on his pitches. His fastball rested in the mid to low 80's last year, while this year he is rushing it up to 90 MPH. He now utilizes his improved change-up as well. By providing more heat on his fastball, Nery's change has become more affective on opponents. He will go into the off-season adding a curveball as well, according to Pitching Coach Calvin Maduro.

"Improved the most? That's a good question. Nery. Nery made a huge improvement," Maduro responded. "He has thrown his fastball and got a lot of sink on his fastball, and he throws his change-up and is working on a curveball. He's improved a lot."

Etch also spoke highly of the young left-handed pitcher.

"The way Nery had pitched last year, and then this year, it's a real surprise," Etch added. Last year, he couldn't throw it over the plate, throwing 82 to 84 [MPH]; this year he's throwing the ball much better over the plate and he's throwing up to 90 [MPH]. That's surprising to me."

Most Improved Position Player: SS Tyler Henson (.289 AVG, .353 OBP, .449 SLG, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 29 E)

There maybe some controversy on this one because of his inconsistent defensive play this year, but Henson has earned the honor being named the Most Improved Position Player. Defense has been a load of trouble this year, as the 29 errors in 67 games testify, but most of theses have been throwing errors and are considered a correctable problem.

If you take a look at his stats last year, he only hit for a .230 average with Bluefield and struck out 49 times in 148 AB's. Though strikeouts have been a bit of a problem this year, he has cut down the strikeout-to-AB ration by nearly a full official AB and has raised is OBP by nearly 40 points from .314 last year. His hitting has been a complete turnaround. He raised his average by over 50 points and ranks third among shortstops in the NYPL for this category. His power has also come along this year. Henson, at the time of his call-up straight to Frederick, ranked first in slugging and home runs for shortstops in the NYPL. Finally, when putting all of this together, looking at his numbers, his improvements, it is equally shocking that he is just 19 years old and now playing with high-A Frederick to finish the Minor League season.

"Hopefully, next year, when we see him playing somewhere else, [Tyler Henson] will be even better. He's come a long way and played very well," Etch said. "If you had seen him at Bluefield last year and seen him now, you wouldn't know it was the same guy."

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