The Whitecaps came into the 2015 season with a talented roster that seemed capable of making the playoffs for the second consecutive year. But problems started almost immediately, with a mysterious illness and a hand issue conspiring to keep key reliever Adam Ravenelle out until June. Within the next three weeks the team also lost its starting center fielder Derek Hill, starting first baseman Will Maddox (for the year), and top-3 starter Artie Lewicki. It’s no surprise, then, that the team struggled to a 9-12 record in April.
They posted a respectable 16-14 record in May, but by that point they had fallen too far out of contention to qualify for the playoffs based on their first half performance. The first half of the season ended with a rather disappointing 6th-place finish, and a subpar 33-36 record.
Fortunately for the Whitecaps and their fans, the Midwest League splits its season in two, meaning teams who post a solid second-half performance still have a shot at the playoffs. West Michigan immediately took advantage of this second chance, winning seven of their first ten second-half games, going 17-12 in July, and then 18-11 in August. They finished the second half with a 42-28 record, clinching a playoff berth on September 2nd with a 1-0 win over the Fort Wayne TinCaps.
West Michigan squared off against Fort Wayne again in the first round of the playoffs, winning 5-2 exactly one week after clinching a playoff spot, and taking the best-of-three series the next night with a 2-1 victory. Next came a three-game set with the Lansing Lugnuts, the Whitecaps’ long-time in-state rival. Lansing took game one 5-4, but West Michigan bounced back with a big 8-3 win the next night, and then the club exploded for their best offensive performance of the year, collecting 22 hits and scoring 14 runs to clinch the series.
The championship round saw West Michigan square off against the Cedar Rapids Kernels in a best-of-five series. The Kernels struck first, pounding out a 5-0 win in game one, but the Whitecaps fought back with a 4-1 win in game two, and were poised to win game three until a two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth gave Cedar Rapids a 3-2 victory. West Michigan battled back once again, taking game four 2-1, and a three-run fifth inning was enough for the squad to hold on for a 3-2, championship-clinching win in game five.
Winning any championship is the result of great teamwork, but the Whitecaps were also bolstered by a number of terrific individual seasons. The team’s most consistent hitter all year was outfielder Michael Gerber, who batted .292, recorded 54 extra-base-hits, and stole 16 bases in 20 tries. Fellow outfielder Ross Kivett was also instrumental to the team’s success. He struggled with the bat for much of the second-half of the season, but played very good defense all year, and led the team with 28 stolen bases. Hill, a 2014 first rounder and the most highly touted member of the team, swiped 25 bags of his own, and certainly would have surpassed Kivett had he been healthy, but he made three trips to the DL with a quad injury, and he played his final game of the year on July 10th.
The Whitecaps enlisted a mix of Kivett, Austin Schotts, and Rashad Brown to replace Hill in the outfield. Schotts was promoted to Lakeland in July, and the speedy Brown made the most of his playing time, hitting .289 with 11 steals in 12 tries over 56 games. But Brown also went down to an injury in late August, leading to a nine-game trial in the outfield for young Victor Padron. But perhaps no hitter had a greater impact on the team than 2015 first-round pick Christin Stewart, who joined the squad on July 15th, and proceeded to hit .286 with 20 extra-base-hits (including 7 home runs) in just 51 games.
West Michigan’s infield saw some injuries and roster turmoil as well, but second baseman Joey Pankake, third baseman Zach Shepherd, and first baseman Will Kengor all played at least 110 games. Kengor, replacing the injured Maddox and the demoted Giancarlo Brugnoni, hit .286, while Pankake chipped in with a .268/.342/.366 line. Shepherd posted a solid .727 OPS in the first half, but a nagging wrist injury sapped his strength in the second half, and eventually ended his season in July. Francisco Contreras and 2015 draftee Josh Lester saw time at third in Shepherd’s absence, and while Contreras hit just .188 in the regular season, he was a key contributor in the playoffs, hitting .294 with a HR and 6 RBIs in 10 games.
David Gonzalez saw 85 games of action, playing solid defense at both second base and shortstop, and picking up perhaps the team’s most important hit of the season, a game-tying two-out single in 5th inning of the deciding game against Cedar Rapids. Garrett Mattlage and Steven Fuentes also saw some action in West Michigan’s infield during the year, while 2015 draftee A.J. Simcox, much like his fellow Tennessee Volunteer Stewart, provided a late-season spark for the offense, hitting .400 in 20 regular-season games, and .286 in the playoffs. The team’s catching duties were split almost evenly between Arvicent Perez, Franklin Navarro, Shane Zeile, and 2015 4th rounder Kade Scivicque. Once again it was the 2015 draftee who proved most effective, at least on offense, with Scivicque hitting five long balls for the Whitecaps.
The offense was responsible for much of the team’s late-season success, but a great deal of the credit for the 2015 season as a whole has to go to the pitching staff. Six different Whitecaps pitchers made at least 15 starts, and five of them posted ERAs below 3.80. The staff was led by 2014 2nd-rounder Spencer Turnbull, who went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 116 2/3 innings, and didn’t give up a home run during the regular season. Veterans A.J. Ladwig and Ross Seaton combined for a 23-17 record and a 3.66 ERA and Jeff Thompson led the team with 23 starts and posted a solid 3.79 ERA, but Fernando Perez struggled to a 2-12 record and a 4.51 ERA in 101 2/3 innings. Lewicki returned to the squad in mid June, and though he struggled in his first three starts back, he was outstanding in July and August, going 3-2 with a 2.50 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 54 innings. Trent Szkutnik, Spenser Watkins, Trey Teakell, and Tyler Ford handled the team’s remaining 15 starts.
West Michigan’s starters were consistently solid for most of the season, and that’s all the team needed from them, because the Whitecaps bullpen was tremendous all year. The powerful arms of Paul Voelker and Gabe Hemmer combined to throw 51 electric innings for the team, posting a cumulative 1.59 ERA with 57 strikeouts and just 15 walks, before both were promoted to Lakeland. Lefty Gabe Speier, acquired from Boston in the Rick Porcello trade, posted a very solid 2.86 ERA in 33 appearances covering 44 innings, while Gage Smith confused enough hitters with his side-armed delivery to post a 2.40 ERA in 56 1/3 IP. Ravenelle gave up seven earned runs in just 2/3 of an inning upon his return from injury, but he then surrendered only eight more runs over his next 33 2/3 innings, proving to be a valuable late-inning arm.
The bullpen also got help from the 2015 draft, with Teakell serving as an effective long reliever, Dominic Moreno chipping in with 22 innings, and 3rd-rounder Drew Smith making a single scoreless appearance. Another Moreno, Gerson, was still just 19 when he joined the team in late August, and he immediately assumed a role at the back of the bullpen, using a fastball that flirted with triple digits to post nine scoreless innings. But nowhere was the bullpen stronger than at closer, where Johan Belisario and Joe Jimenez combined to record 29 saves. Belisario led the team with 43 appearances, using his strong fastball/curveball combination to hold opposing hitters to a .227 batting average against. Jimenez was even better, compiling a stellar 1.47 ERA with 61 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 43 innings. Jimenez also won the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, and he struck out the side in the 9th inning of game five against Cedar Rapids, securing the championship, and cementing the 2015 West Michigan Whitecaps as one of the most memorable teams in franchise history.