June 2011

Clash of the Titans

John Lackey and Jerome Williams face off at Salem-Keizer two months after they were selected in the June 1999 draft.

August 20, 1999.

Tom Kotchman and the Boise Hawks were in Oregon to play the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the San Francisco Giants’ affiliate in the Short-A Northwest League.

I’d flown up to visit nearby friends and see the Anaheim Angels’ affiliate on the road. The game that night was billed as a match of top pitching prospects.

Jerome Williams was the Giants’ first round supplemental pick that June, #39 overall. John Lackey was chosen in the second round by the Angels, #68 overall.

Williams was considered the more polished product. Lackey had converted to the mound that year in his junior college season while not playing first base.

The next winter, Baseball America ranked Williams the Giants’ #4 prospect. They wrote:

Williams is a classic projection draft with a loose, wide-shouldered body that has been compared to that of Dwight Gooden. His fastball is in the 89-92 mph range now, and the Giants expect his velocity to go up as he fills out. Williams has a fluid, easy delivery and arm action.

BA concluded that “Williams might have the highest ceiling in the organization if he physically matures as the Giants think he will.”

A few weeks later, BA published the Angels’ Top 10 prospects list. Lackey wasn’t on it. Under “Newcomer Report,” David Rawnsley included Lackey in a list of Boise pitchers who “flashed above-average stuff.”

When they met on August 20, Williams had the better night. He worked four innings, gave up two runs on five hits in four innings with three strikeouts and three walks. Lackey took the loss. In six innings, he gave up seven runs (six earned) on eight hits with four strikeouts and five walks.

History, of course, shows that Lackey went on to a far better career. He won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and hit the jackpot when he signed a free-agent contract in December 2009 with the Boston Red Sox for five years totalling $82.5 million.

Williams reached San Francisco in 2003 at age 21 and posted a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts (131 innings). He was traded to the Cubs in 2005, claimed by the A’s on waivers in late 2006 and released, then signed with the Nationals but suffered a rotator cuff injury and was released. His nomadic career took him into independent ball, the Puerto Rico winter league and even Taiwan in 2010.

Jerome began 2011 with the Lancaster Barnstormers in the independent Atlantic League. The Angels acquired him on June 16 after he posted a 6-0 record with a 2.91 ERA.

Williams made his Triple-A Salt Lake debut last night. In six innings, he gave up three runs (one earned) on eight hits in six innings, with six strikeouts and no walks. The Bees won 6-5 — at Fresno, a Giants affiliate, and Jerome’s home team in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

This morning’s Fresno Bee wrote:

The right-hander, a first-round pick in the 1999 draft, worked in and out of trouble for six innings and left with a 5-3 lead. He allowed eight hits and fanned six.

“It was awesome, amazing. I felt great,” he said, standing by the Grizzlies dugout. “I got some balls up, but for the most part kept them down and got groundballs.”

It was home-sweet-home for Williams, who has lived in Fresno since 2002 when he met his future wife, Sarah, a Fresno City student and Central High graduate. They married in 2004, have three children and he’s part-owner of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue that has restaurants in Fresno, Crescent City and New York.

Last night was only one start, but if Jerome should resuscitate his career at age 29 and contribute to the Angels in the major leagues, it will be a feel-good year in a season desperately in need of one.

Return to Statesville

The 1961 Statesville Owls team photo. Nine surviving players reunited fifty years later on the same field.

It all began when the Los Angeles Angels, one of two American League expansion teams in 1961, desperately needed minor league affiliates.

Roland Hemond, the Angels’ newly appointed farm and scouting director, had only three months to find affiliates. He signed working agreements with a Triple-A team in Dallas-Ft. Worth that was already affiliated with the Phillies, and with a Class D team in Statesville, North Carolina whose players were mostly signed independently.

The Statesville Owls were part of the Western Carolina League, a circuit created to feed talent into the Contintental League, a proposed third major league. But when the Continental League folded — in part because the A.L. expanded into the Los Angeles market — the WCL scrambled to find its own talent.

“Affiliation” had a much looser connotation in 1961. A minor league club could still sign, trade and release its own players. But they could also get players from an affiliated major league club. Some got them from more than one.

The 1961 Owls had indy players from North Carolina and across the South, but added Angels players to their roster as soon as they arrived. Most Angels were from Southern California, although a few came from Florida and elsewhere. One player, Gaetan Boudreau, came from Quebec and spoke very little English.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, and the Jim Crow culture that still permeated the Southern culture, the team became a true band of brothers. White, black, Western, Southern or Québécois. It didn’t matter.

Three went on to major league careers. The rest went on to other lives, their playing careers forgotten except for the arcane world of minor league historical archives, and in their own memories.

But after four years of research, phone calls, letters, e-mails and an October 2009 gathering at the Angels’ minor league complex in Tempe, the 1961 Statesville Owls have finally returned to their home ballpark.

On June 17 and 18, the city of Statesville hosted a reunion of nine surviving Owls. The attendees were Dave Best, George Bryson, Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft, Jerry Fox, Bob Lucas, Vito Porta, Richard Simpson, and Ed Thomas. Fox and Thomas, two of the 1961 indy players, still live in Statesville and helped organize the reunion.

The 1961 Owls pose with City of Statesville mayor Costi Kutteh. Left to right: Jerry Fox, George Bryson, Richard Simpson, Mayor Kutteh, Ed Thomas, Dave Best, Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft (partially obscured), and Vito Porta.

The Owls were hosted by a new college team that has adopted the original name. The new Statesville Owls are part of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. The team set up a tent at a Friday night street fair where the players signed autographs on photos created from 1961 images. Later that evening, the 1961 Owls and invited guests gathered at a local restaurant for dinner and storytelling.

The next day, the players were treated to a barbecue at Jerry Fox’s farm. The players posed for a “Field of Dreams” photo in the corn field. They also called former teammate Jack Hiatt, recently retired as the San Francisco Giants’ farm director but still on the road as a special assignment scout.

And then it was on to their onetime home field.

The park looks much different than 1961. It’s used today as the home field not just for the college Owls but also Statesville High School. It’s in much better condition than 1961. The old infield was all dirt! The current infield is grass. One player joked that in 1961 they’d have been better off playing in the street than on that old rock-strewn infield.

The college Owls scheduled a fan fest before the doubleheader, but a thunderstorm passed through and the tents were gone with the wind, which seemed to affect attendance.

George Bryson, Alan Flitcraft and Vito Porta threw out the first pitches before the first game. Flitcraft went down to the bullpen to throw beforehand. He threw the first Angels’ organizational no-hitter on this field on August 26, 1961. When it came time to throw the first pitch, Alan threw a perfect strike.

Between games, the 1961 Owls were honored on the field with a City of Statesville proclamation, and a congratulatory statement from today’s Angels director of Player Development Abe Flores.

Five more alumni threw out the first pitch before the second game — Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, Richard Simpson, Dave Best and George Bryson.

After the ceremony, they sat behind the third base dugout in an area set aside for them.

I filmed the weekend’s events. The, um, family-friendly version is available to watch online. Click here to watch the reunion video. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required. Photos from the weekend are below.

The Statesville Record & Landmark published a June 19 article about the reunion. In the print edition, the article was on Page 1 with a color photo of Flitcraft’s bullpen.

To put this event in perspective, it would be the equivalent of the 2011 Orem Owlz having a reunion in 2061. It’s a tribute to their camaraderie that the 1961 Owls were willing to return to this town of 27,000 people just so they could reunite their band of brothers and walk on that field one more time.

On a personal note … This ended my four-year odyssey to uncover the history of the Angels’ first minor league team. I walked on that field, met those players, and became one of them when they asked me to autograph their first-pitch baseballs. I have new friends in Statesville simply because we share a common love for baseball.

Fifty years later, the 1961 Statesville Owls are still a family.

At the street fair … Left to right — Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft and Ed Thomas.

George Bryson discovers a photo of himself in 1961.

Statesville baseball historian Steve Hill (left) meets Alan Flitcraft.

The college Statesville Owls’ president Brian Suarez (left) with Bob Lucas.

George Bryson’s punch line gets a reaction at the reunion dinner.

The “Field of Dreams” photo at Jerry Fox’s farm. Left to right — Vito Porta, George Bryson, Alan Flitcraft, Dave Best, Jerry Fox, Walter Darton, Dick Simpson and Ed Thomas.

Vito Porta is interviewed by Statesville Record & Landmark reporter Jim McNally.

Alan Flitcraft throws on the sidelines at Statesville Stadium.

Alan Flitcraft (left) and George Bryson watch the college Owls play.

Dave Best (left) and Walter Darton discuss action on the field. Richard Simpson watches to the right.

The 2011 edition of the Statesville Owls. Is a 2061 reunion in their future?

The Other Angels’ 50th Anniversary

Seven Angels minor leaguers from 1961 reunited September 25, 2009 at Tempe Diablo. Left to right — Alan Flitcraft, Dick Simpson, Dan Ardell, Walter Darton, Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, and Dave Best. Bobby Lucas arrived shortly after the photo was taken.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know that an ongoing project has been to reunite the 1961 Statesville Owls, one of two minor league teams the Angels had in their inaugural season. Statesville, North Carolina was Class D, a rough equivalent to today’s Low Class-A. The other affiliate was the Triple-A Dalls-Ft. Worth Rangers, an affiliation shared with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Angels are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, which means it’s the 50th anniversary of the Statesville Owls.

We staged a reunion in September 2009, held at the Angels’ minor league complex in Tempe, Arizona. Today’s future Angels had an opportunity to meet the original Angels minor leaguers. Click here to watch a video of excerpts from the reunion. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.

As the almuni departed, they tasked me with a solemn responsibility — to reunite them in Statesville for their 50th anniversary.

My wife and I moved from California to Florida in June 2009, so in March 2010 we drove 600 miles to Statesville. We met with Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox, two 1961 Owls who still live in Statesville. They took me to stand on the very field where Angels minor league baseball began. Click here to watch video of the Statesville ballpark visit. We established the initial contacts to make possible that 50th anniversary reunion.

Circumstances required me to bow out, so the locals took over planning, led by the new Southern Collegiate Baseball League Statesville Owls. They’ve arranged for a two-day celebration of the 1961 Owls, starting with a street concert in downtown Statesville the evening of June 17. The next day, as part of their FanFest, the Owls will play a doubleheader and honor the alumni. The first pitch in each game will be thrown out by the alumni, and between games they’ll be honored with a ceremony.

I didn’t think I’d be able to make it, but circumstances have changed so I’ll be heading north next week to record the events for posting on FutureAngels.com and this blog.

I do believe I’ll wear my 1961 Los Angeles Angels cap …

Ed Thomas, FutureAngels.com publisher Stephen Smith, and Jerry Fox in Statesville in March 2010. Thomas and Fox played on the 1961 Statesville Owls. Photo courtesy Steve Hill.

2010 FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Revisited

Mike Trout remains one of the top prospects in all of minor league baseball.

Last November I published the 2010 FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects report. These are published at the end of every season as a review of the year just concluded.

We’re two months into the 2011 season, so let’s take a look at how those prospects are doing so far this year.

1. Mike Trout OF — Considered one of the top prospects in all the minor leagues, Trout remains on course. His AVG/OBP/SLG as of May 31 were .305/.413/.512 (164 AB) with 13 stolen bases in 18 attempts. With Double-A Arkansas players, it’s always important to look at their home/away splits because Dickey-Stephens Park is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the Texas League. Trout’s splits (AVG/OBP/SLG):

Overall: .305/.413/.512 (164 AB)
Home: .268/.360/.423 (97 AB)
Away: .358/.482/.642 (67 AB)

That split suggests the 19-year old wunderkind is having a much better year than the overall numbers tell us.

I won’t be surprised if Trout moves up to Triple-A Salt Lake after the Texas League All-Star Game (which is June 29 at San Antonio).

2. Hank Conger C — Last November I wrote:

Hank has Jeff Mathis, Mike Napoli and Bobby Wilson ahead of him, but it’s expected that the Angels may move at least one of them this winter. Conger most likely will get more Triple-A seasoning in 2011 as he needs more catching experience and to clean up his throwing mechanics. Absent a setback, it’s reasonable to assume Hank will be the Angels’ starting catcher by the end of 2011.

That was pretty much on target. Mike Napoli was traded to the Blue Jays along with Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells. (The Blue Jays then flipped Napoli to the Rangers.) I didn’t think the Angels would carry three catchers, but they have, with Bobby Wilson having the least playing time.

The Angels have played 57 games to date, and Conger has appeared in 31 of them, 26 as the starting catcher. He’s thrown out only 7 of 31 runners (22.6%), but that’s often a misleading stat as it doesn’t reflect how well his pitchers have held on runners. He’s been charged with only one passed ball in 200 total chances; last November I noted he had allowed no passed balls in 2010.

Hank’s offense has been what you’d expect from a 23-year old rookie going through his first 100 at-bats. His overall AVG/OBP/SLG are .233/.288/.369 (103 AB), but Hank’s a switch-hitter. Mike Scioscia has given Conger only eight at-bats against left-handed pitchers (he’s 2 for 8, both singles), so most of his at-bats have been left-handed.

For now it looks like Conger will continue to split time with Mathis, although he may be on track to fulfill my predication that he’ll be the starting catcher by the end of 2011.

3. Jean Segura 2B — I wrote last November that the Angels had tested Segura at shortstop during fall instructional league and might move him to that position with Inland Empire in 2011. That turned out to be accurate, but he’s in the middle of his second stint on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain. The injury began in mid-April when he was hitting .412 twelve games into the season; since then, his AVG has dropped to .276. Even with the injury, he’s managed to swipe 18 bases in 23 attempts over 37 games. We’ll have to wait until the injury fully heals and Jean is back to his aggressive self to get a handle on his progress; the California League All-Star Game may be out of the picture.

It should also be noted that Arrowhead Credit Union Park is one of the few pitcher-friendly parks in the league. Let’s look at his home/away splits:

Overall: .276/.343/.428 (152 AB)
Home: .205/.284/.329 (73 AB)
Away: .342/.398/.519 (79 AB)

Hmmm … As with Trout, it looks like Jean’s home park is masking an overall better performance.

4. Garrett Richards RHP — Here’s what I wrote in conclusion about Richards:

It’s likely that Garrett will start 2011 with Double-A Arkansas, where he’ll find pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stephens Park to his liking. The key will be to look at his Texas League road numbers to get a more accurate gauge of his progress.

Okay, so let’s go to the splits:

Overall: 5-1, 3.90 ERA, 9 Games Started (57.2 IP), 40:23 SO:BB Ratio, .232 AVG.
Home: 3-0, 1.86 ERA, 4 Games Started (29.0 IP), 18:7 SO:BB Ratio, .198 AVG
Road: 2-1, 5.97 ERA, 5 Games Started (28.2 IP), 22:16 SO:BB Ratio, .264 AVG

So it looks like the home field is masking some overall mediocre starts by Garrett. A particularly stark contrast can be found in GO/AO, which is Ground Outs to All Other Outs. At home it’s an outstanding 2.12. On the road it’s 1.21.

The Texas League a decade ago had a reputation as a hitter’s league, but most of the franchises have new ballparks so it’s now considered fairly neutral.

Garrett just turned 23 on May 27, so plenty of time to adjust to Double-A.

5. Randal Grichuk OF — Randal is becoming a real-life incarnation of Joe Btfsplk, the Li’l Abner character described as “the world’s worst jinx.” In 2010 he broke first his left thumb and then his right thumb. He was recovering from the latter injury in extended spring training when he fractured his knee cap on a foul ball. It’s expected that he’ll report to Cedar Rapids once he’s healthy.

Mark Trumbo has taken over the Angels’ first base job and leads all major league rookie with ten home runs.

6. Mark Trumbo 1B-OF — The common expectation over the winter was that Kendrys Morales would be ready for Opening Day, so Mark Trumbo would probably head for Triple-A Salt Lake. Morales failed to heal as expected and eventually underwent a second surgery that shelved him for 2011, so Trumbo has started at first base for most of the Angels’ games.

In 180 at-bats, Trumbo’s line is .256/.306/.472. Recent media reports note that Trumbo has changed his hitting mechanics, adding a higher leg kick with his front foot. Compare that to this April 6, 2008 video of a Trumbo home run for Rancho Cucamonga, where he barely lifts his front foot.

In their spring 2007 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America wrote of Mark’s hitting mechanics, “He doesn’t have much of a load and his hands are slow.” That was a common criticism in his early years, that he was largely immobile below the waist on his swings. But he’s worked to correct that and cites the leg kick for a recent increase in home run production.

With Trumbo’s 2010 Salt Lake numbers, I noted that five parks in the PCL are super-hitter friendly, including the Bees’ Spring Mobile Ballpark. At neutral and pitcher-friendly fields, his line was .236/.300/.505. That’s not too far off from his .256/.306/.472 with the Angels in 2011. He’s trending in the right direction so hopefully he’ll continue to improve. His defense has been better than many critics claimed in the past.

7. Fabio Martinez RHP — Last November I wrote about Fabio:

Martinez was shut down after a July 30 start due to shoulder stiffness, probably due to his bad mechanics, and missed the Kernels’ post-season run. He spent the rest of the season on rehab assignment at the Angels’ minor league complex in Tempe. He pitched again in fall instructional league; I was there for his October 15 start, and he was back to his old bad habits.

Well, Fabio is still at the minor league complex, technically on rehab assignment. The official word is that he’s suffering from shoulder weakness. It’s hoped that he’ll be assigned to an affiliate by July. My guess is it’s either Cedar Rapids or Inland Empire.

8. Alexi Amarista 2B — With Brandon Wood waived to Pittsburgh and various injuries to other players, Alexi found himself in Anaheim after just 55 at-bats with Salt Lake in 2011 (.455/.483/.673). At only 22, he’s overmatched in the majors for now (.136/.170/.227 in 44 AB) and should return to the Bees once Vernon Wells comes off the disabled list, assuming no one else gets hurt. Mike Scioscia showed enough faith in his versatility to give him four starts in left field; he’s not a total stranger to the outfield, appearing there in 34 games with Rookie-A Tempe in 2008, but he’s best-suited for second base.

9. Trevor Reckling LHP — Trevor was the Angels’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, but derailed in 2010 when he struggled at the Triple-A level. The Angels sent him back to Double-A for the second half of 2010, and that’s where he began 2011. In nine starts, he’s 1-6 with a 3.78 ERA, and a 38:18 SO:BB ratio in 52.1 IP. Looking at his home/away splits, it’s interesting to note that he’s been more successful away from Dickey-Stephens Park — a 4.28 ERA at home (27.1 IP), a 3.24 ERA on the road (25.0 IP). A recent MLB.com article suggests Trevor is pitching better than his record suggests. He just turned 22 on May 22, still quite young for Double-A.

10. Jeremy Moore OF — J-Mo ended May with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .269/.299/.451. As mentioned upstream, a more accurate analysis of PCL numbers would filter out the super-hitter friendly parks, but that sample size so far is too small, so let’s look at Moore’s home/away splits:

Overall: .269/.299/.451 (193 AB)
Home: .280/.314/.500 (100 AB)
Away: .258/.283/.398 (93 AB)

His AVG from April to May dropped from .321 to .236, although on May 28 he had a 5-for-5 game at Tucson (one of those hitter-friendly parks).

Moore will turn 24 on June 29. He’s always been a raw toolsy project. Patience is a virtue when it comes to J-Mo, so let’s see where the rest of the year takes him.

Tyler Chatwood has a 3.64 ERA in the major leagues after 11 starts.

In closing … I didn’t include RHP Tyler Chatwood in the 2010 list for a couple reasons. One was the way I weigh who ranks on the annual list. I give consideration to the parent club’s needs, and coming into 2011 the Angels seemed to need left-handed pitching prospects (such as Reckling) and power-hitting outfielders (such as Moore) more than another right-handed pitching prospect (such as Chatwood). I was well aware that internally the Angels were very high on how Chatwood ended 2010, but I was concerned about his drop in strikeout rate when he was promoted to Double-A last year as well as his high walk rate.

That concern didn’t bother the Angels, who sent him to Triple-A to start 2011. After Joel Piniero and Scott Kazmir were injured and Matt Palmer faltered, Chatwood found himself called up to Anaheim at age 22. He’s managed to survive, posting a 3.64 ERA in 11 starts (64.1 IP) despite a SO:BB ratio of 29:34. How does he survive despite his poor SO:BB ratio? Double play ground balls. He has 13 so far.

With Palmer inconsistent at Triple-A and Kazmir’s career in free fall, it looks like Chatwood may spend the rest of 2011 in the majors. Tonight he pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings at Kansas City, giving up five hits while striking out two and walking two.

I knew when I wrote the article last November that I was taking a risk by leaving Chat off the list. If he proves me wrong, it’s all the better for the Angels.