On the Beat: Fort Wayne

Some of the best sources for finding out about what is really going on at one of the affiliates is talking to the team’s beat writer, who is going to be possibly the only person that sees a significant amount of games and is not affiliated with either the big club or the affiliate.

Despite the decline of small and medium size newspapers, there are still some out there that produce excellent journalism. This year on MadFriars we were able to speak with Steve Mims of the Eugene Register-Guard, Chris Goff or the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and Felix Chavez of the El Paso Times on what they saw in 2014.

Next to people directly involved with the club, and the team’s play-by-play announcers, no one sees the individual team as much as these guys.

Last week we spoke with Steve Mims of the Eugene Register-Guard. Next up is Chris Goff of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

Chris is in his first year covering the TinCaps and in his third year reporting on the University of Indiana basketball. He previously covered the Indiana Pacers and is in his first year with the coveted Notre Dame beat.

Chris was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to give us his impressions of the 2014 TinCaps.

I thought a big change for the TinCaps was when Trea Turner came up. Not only did he hit really well but he had to make the defense much better.

What did you think?

Chris Goff: Before Turner arrived, the TinCaps had Mallex Smith, so it’s hard to say he dramatically changed the look and approach of the Fort Wayne lineup. But Turner’s effect went beyond statistics. The team was slumping and needed momentum and energy. Turner didn’t change all of that by himself, but he’s a big reason Fort Wayne made its sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Seeing Turner’s quiet confidence, and being aware of his pedigree, helped other players avoid a sense of panic. And, yes, Turner changed the infield defense for the TinCaps. He made three errors, an insanely low total for a man with his range on ground balls. His skill turned the TinCaps’ infield defense from awful to occasionally average. Glove work is certainly his strength relative to the major leagues. His speed is a weapon that other teams don’t have. But he can hit, and he got a lot of big hits for Fort Wayne in the stretch run. He batted .354 with runners in scoring position and plays the game correctly, plays it hard.

Can Dustin Peterson stay at third base?

Chris Goff: Peterson was a subpar defensive player this season. He had 38 errors in 126 games.

In the final two weeks, he was a half-and-half, third baseman/DH. But he has some of the quickness and arm strength you need to play third base. He moves well enough. His hand-eye coordination must improve. Will he ever be Brooks Robinson? Maybe not, but I think his offensive production can fit the positional profile. And since he just got used to being so close to the hitter – after playing shortstop in high school – it’s better to continue to develop Peterson at the hot corner now rather than try to move him back there later.

Long term, could he end up in the outfield? Yes. But I think he can weed out some of the mental lapses and show enough improvement to hang onto that third baseman’s mitt. He certainly can make mechanical adjustments so that fewer throws are high and off-line.

Jake Bauers had a great two months and then slumped the last six weeks. What impressed you the most about him and what part of his game does he need to work on?

Chris Goff: With Bauers’ season, as Michael Collins loves to say, file that under “a learning experience.”

At the All-Star break, Bauers reigned supreme as the best hitter in the Midwest League. His Class A debut was a dream-worthy scenario to that point. The unofficial demarcation line came on June 25. That was right after Fernando Perez went down with a two-week injury. Bauers went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts that day from the No. 3 spot in the lineup, and from then on he was a complimentary piece at best. His contact rate dipped from 83.4 percent to 78 percent. The on-base plummeted, and overall the narrative just went completely in reverse.

It’s fair to say he needs to show a greater grasp of the game’s finer points rather than relying a lot on the talent. A TinCaps’ employee pointed out that he has a penchant for yapping at umpires. Bauers was the youngest player in the league, if not every day of his season, then almost every day, so some growing pains were to be expected. I was most taken by the fact that he was as productive against left-handed pitching as he was against righties. He needs to work on his ability to hit when behind in the count.

One question: As he begins to drive the ball more, can he repeat his swing and timing? This season was really a tale of two seasons. The future will reveal exactly what kind of a player he really is.

None of us know much about Nick Schulz. What stood out about him for you?

Chris Goff: The biggest thing is that he was a really dangerous hitter.

Recognizing that Schulz played only the equivalent of a third of the season, he had the highest slugging percentage (.545) on the TinCaps. Schulz’s career was close to being on life support; then he signed with the Padres in April, got playing time at short-season Eugene and came to Fort Wayne, started raking and never stopped.

Baseball is filled with stories of players like Schulz who rose from being misfits and outcasts to achieve certain things. Schulz is a gritty, tough player and a super nice guy.

Ryan Miller showed much more power this year than he did at Eugene. How did he look behind the plate?

Chris Goff: To the untrained eye, he seemed comfortable. This year he made nine errors, allowed eight passed balls and threw out 28 percent of would-be base stealers. Teams were willing to run on him: 88 attempts in 73 games. He was durable.

Pitchers spoke highly of the way he calls and frames pitches. As you mentioned, he worked extra hard to become a more legit hitter. He likes being a catcher, and he’ll keep fighting to prove his toughness behind the plate.

An aside: He was a good media guy, and it helps a team when the catcher is one of its voices.

Kyle Lloyd came out of nowhere and led the entire organization in strikeouts and was the TinCaps’ best starter.

What made him so effective?

Chris Goff:His ability to pound the strike zone, especially on the lower half of the plate, is impressive. He had 155 strikeouts to 34 walks. Left-handers batted .219 and slugged .305 off him, and he was terrific in his Game 3 start against West Michigan.

That win sent the TinCaps to the Eastern Division Championship Series. Amazingly, Lloyd showed no signs of fatigue from a season in which he threw 69 more innings than the year before. I like his competitiveness and confidence, and his splitter was a big strikeout pitch.

I’ve always liked Cody Hebner. While his ERA didn’t look that strong I thought his peripheral numbers indicate he might be better than we believe.

What do you think?

Chris Goff: Hebner’s a guy you tend to think of as a power pitcher; he had a strikeout rate of 9.7 per nine innings. But he’s been improving his slider and changeup, and he also fields his position quite well.

Getting him into Fort Wayne’s rotation was one of the best moves for the TinCaps. A .284 batting average against (.364 BABIP) made him a bit erratic, but on the whole he earned his place, and his emergence settled some of the questions about Fort Wayne’s depth.

Hebner ended his year with a very solid performance in Game 2 against West Michigan. This was his fourth year in Single-A. In 2014, he lowered his walk rate. Will that earn him that one chance to prove himself as a starting pitcher in Double-A?

In your tweets you raved about closer Ryan Butler. What impressed you the most about him?

Chris Goff: Butler (10 saves, 0.83 ERA) was virtually unhittable. He was devastating against right-handed hitters: a .190 average, and only two extra-base hits (no homers), in 59 at-bats with Fort Wayne.

Obviously, he throws in the upper 90s, but his ability to locate his fastball down in the zone and on the corners was very impressive. Butler has the stuff and, I believe, the demeanor, for high-pressure situations.

What player stood out to you the most this season?

Chris Goff: Butler and Tyron Guerrero have incredible stuff, can throw 100 mph. I enjoyed their pitching as much as anything. But when I think of the player who seemed most ready for the challenge of the big leagues, it’s Turner.

I’d love to see a race between Turner and Smith. I’m curious to see how Turner, who may well be the Padres’ shortstop of the future, does in the Arizona Fall League. He truly was the centerpiece of all the minor leaguers we saw at Parkview Field this year.

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