How 'bout them Fisher Cats? Cole, McFarland, Schimpf

    
New Hampshire Fisher Cats 2015 Report
By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from away

The 2015 New Hampshire Fisher Cats finished with a 69-71 record under Bobby Meacham and were pretty much the team that they seemed: a middling club with (barely) sub-.500 record. The Fisher Cats did see some highly touted prospects join the club but, for the most part, had a club full of players who were either struggling to adjust to a higher level or trying to figure things out in a second (or third) time through Double-A.

The Fisher Cats finished seventh out of 12 teams in the Eastern League in runs per game (4.07) with an offense that was 0.4 years above the leagues 24.4 year old average. On the mound, the Fisher Cats lagged, finishing tenth in the league in runs allowed (4.21) despite a pitching staff that was 2.3 years older than the 24.6 year average in the league.

Part I: Blue Jays from Away Awards

Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game Champion
For those of you who followed the minor league reports here, you’ll know that I awarded Player of the Game (PotG) accolades on a game-by-game basis. It should comfort you to know that I’ve been keeping track of these daily awards and my rationale for the system is as follows.

The Player of the Game Awards were determined by a number of factors that included who I thought had the most impact on the game and who might have gone above and beyond. Most nights, there was just one Player of the Game. If there was, he earned one point. If I thought that either a) no one stood out enough to merit a single PotG, or b) two or more players were outstanding and deserved mention, I split the point up into two, three or four shares. If two players earned PotG mention, they each received 0.5 points and if three players earned mentions, they each received 0.3 points. There were occasions that I felt that no one merited the award and therefore, I did not give out any points.

The final standings for Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game for the Fisher Cats:

Ryan Schimpf and K.C. Hobson    10.8
Dwight Smith, Jr.    9.9
John Anderson    8.8
Taylor Cole    8.5
Casey Lawrence    8.3
Matt Boyd    8
Matt Newman    7.3
Shane Opitz    6
Kevin Nolan    5.8
Melky Mesa    5
Austin Bibens-Dirkx    4.5
Jon Berti, Roemon Fields    4.3
Jack Murphy, Joel Pineiro 2.8
Jorge Flores    2.6
Jake Fox, Dalton Pompey, Danny Barnes    2.3
Pierce Rankin    1.8
Ian Parmley    1.5
Mike Lee, Jeff Hoffman, Scott Barnes, Cory Burns, Conner Greene    1
Emilio Guerrero, Daric Barton, Cole Garner, Martin Medina, Luis Perez    0.5

And . . . It’s another tie! Ryan Schimpf is a fan favourite and led the Fisher Cats in home runs yet again while K.C. Hobson led the club in RBI, having somewhat of a bounce back season from 2014 with 14 homers.

Blue Jays from Away Player of the Year
The Blue Jays from Away Player of the Year is the same fellow who the Blue Jays rewarded with a Webster Award for the Fisher Cats. Ryan Schimpf was a dominant player in Double-A and, while he couldn’t recreate his success in his time with Buffalo, when he was playing in New Hampshire, he was unstoppable, hitting .271/.378/.581 with 20 doubles and 20 home runs. Incidentally, Schimpf led the Blue Jays organization in home runs for the third consecutive year, adding another three in Buffalo.

Blue Jays from Away Pitcher of the Year
This award was a tough one to decide because the best pitchers on the club this year were all relievers or are no longer in the organization. Sorry, Matt Boyd, I just can’t bring myself to hand out an award to a guy who made fewer than half a season’s worth of starts with the club. Additionally, Taylor Cole’s 164 innings carry a lot more weight with me than a guy who threw fewer than 50 innings. So, despite a 4.06 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, Taylor Cole wins the Pitcher of the Year award for 2015. I don’t want to minimize his accomplishments, however, as he was a durable, effective pitcher for much of the season.

Honourable mentions: Matt Boyd, Danny Barnes, Blake McFarland

Blue Jays from Away Reliever of the Year
Unlike the previous category, in this one, there is a ton of choice as the Fisher Cats’ bullpen was overflowing with outstanding hurlers. No matter where you looked, there were relievers for the Fisher Cats with sub-3.00 ERAs and over a strikeout per inning. One, however, got the edge thanks to his heavier workload and his ability to put up stellar numbers in a variety of categories. Blake McFarland has seen a renaissance in the past couple of years, reaching Triple-A Buffalo in 2015. McFarland threw 47 innings with the Fisher Cats, posting a 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP while striking out a whopping 62 batters and walking only six.

Honourable mention: Chad Girodo, Danny Barnes, Greg Burke

Part II: Starting Pitchers
The Fisher Cats had one of the worst pitching staffs in the Eastern League, allowing the second most runs. The thing that probably hurt the club the most was losing some of their top talent at the trade deadline while also seeing some of those players promoted.

We begin with the Fisher Cats’ biggest workhorse, our Pitcher of the Year, Taylor Cole. Cole, in his first full season in Double-A showed a lot of improvement over his brief 12 1/3 inning call up last year. Cole was dominant in 2014, mostly with the Dunedin Blue Jays, leading the minor leagues in strikeouts but wasn’t able to maintain his 31.6% strikeout ratio up a level in 2015. Still, Cole had a very solid season, striking out 18.6% and walking 8.0% with a 4.06 ERA (4.27 FIP) and 1.40 WHIP. Cole can still be a solid pitcher and could have a future in the majors but is now 26 and will be beginning his Age-26 season in either New Hampshire or Buffalo.

Righty Casey Lawrence, 27, is a typical sinker-ball pitcher who lives and dies on where the ball is hit. In 2015, he mostly died, posting his highest ERA at 4.52 and WHIP at 1.49 in 161 1/3 innings with the Fisher Cats. Despite that high ERA, his FIP was only 3.50 and, in giving up a lot of ground balls, probably had more find holes (thanks to a .381 BABIP) than in years past. Also hurting Lawrence was a 12.9% strikeout rate which was 2% lower than his figure at the same level last year while his walk rate, always miniscule at 4.5% is very consistent with his career. In a 6 1/3 inning call up to Buffalo, Lawrence gave up four runs on nine hits but didn’t walk anyone and came away with six strikeouts. Look for him in Buffalo in 2016.

Another 26 year old, lefty John Anderson pitched the most innings in his career, totalling 123 2/3 with most of them at the Double-A level. Anderson spent most of the season as a starter (20 of his 30 appearances overall) and was actually more effective than he was in relief. While I haven’t confirmed it with anyone in the organization, Anderson didn’t start any games after July, leading me to believe that he was moved into the bullpen to control his innings. Anderson’s season was a little mixed. He had some great ones and some not-so-great ones but there is still so much to believe in with the lefty who can (amazingly) still throw in the 94-95 mph range after so many injury woes. Anderson, in 120 2/3 innings in New Hampshire, had a 4.62 ERA (4.03 FIP) and 1.49 WHIP with a 13.5% strikeout rate and 7.9% walk rate. In just three innings in Buffalo, he gave up three runs on five hits, walked one and struck out three. I think that Anderson could be groomed to take over a lefty role despite the fact that he didn’t really pitch better against lefties than righties. Look for him in Buffalo, probably in the bullpen but possibly in a rotation.

Austin Bibens-Dirkx has been another reliable arm for the Blue Jays organization ever since he was signed as a minor league free agent in the 2012/2013 offseason. He’s always been reliable in whatever role and whichever level he’s pitched and while the numbers have steadily worsened as he’s moved up in level, he’s still able to provide a ton of quality innings. Spending most of the season with New Hampshire (making 20 appearances, 18 starts with 97 innings), he posted a 4.08 ERA (3.93 FIP) along with a solid 1.32 WHIP. Bibens-Dirkx struck out 20.6% of batters (improving over last year) while walking 6.7% (worsening more than 2.5% from last year). In 17 1/3 innings in Buffalo, Bibens-Dirkx allowed nine runs on 20 hits over 17 1/3 innings but only walked four and struck out 18. Last year was his Age-30 season and he’s probably going to be in the same roles he’s back with the Blue Jays in 2016 (I’m not completely sure of his contract status).

Matt Boyd, 24, got his feet wet in the major leagues with a couple of rough starts with the Blue Jays before returning to Triple-A. He ended up with the Tigers, getting another 50 innings in the big leagues with them but wasn’t particularly successful, finishing with a 6.57 ERA and a 5.98 FIP. Boyd was his best with New Hampshire, however, throwing 73 2/3 innings with a miniscule 1.10 ERA and 2.67 FIP, and a 0.77 WHIP. He was dominant, striking out 25.6% of batters while walking only 6.6%. In Buffalo, he was also effective with a 2.77 ERA, 3.46 FIP and 0.97 WHIP with a 24.2% K-rate and 3.9% BB-rate in 39 innings. Boyd needs to get more ground balls at the big league level but, as one of the friendliest guys we’ve met in our rounds of the Jays’ minor league system, we wish him all the best in 2016 and hope that he doesn’t face the Jays next season.

Righty Joel Pineiro threw 59 2/3 innings with the Fisher Cats at the age of 36 with a 3.77 ERA, and a 1.17 WHIP. He struk out only 25 batters in those innings but walked only seven. In four appearances, he threw 17 innings with Buffalo with a 5.82 ERA and 1.71 WHIP, striking out 10 and walking 6. He was released in July.

I know that the Blue Jays really like 28 year old righty Mike Lee. Lee, who stands 6-foot-7, had a rough season, spending most of it on the disabled list but still threw 36 innings for the Fisher Cats, with a 5.00 ERA and 4.27 FIP and 1.64 WHIP with a K-rate of just 11.1% and a walk rate of 6.2%. Let’s hope that his poor numbers came from the injuries and let’s see if he an have a good year in 2016.

Part III: Relief Pitchers
Relief pitching was definitely a strength of the Fisher Cats. The cats had a core group of very solid relievers, several of whom had career years in 2015.

Leading the charge, at least in innings and appearances was Danny Barnes. He’s had some injury struggles in his career and had a fairly rough season when coming back in 2014 with Dunedin. In 2015, though, Barnes, 25, threw a very solid 60 2/3 innings on the season with a 2.97 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and excellent peripherals, striking out 28.2% of batters and walking only 7.3%. Overall, he was one of the most consistent Fisher Cats and should get a shot at Triple-A next year.

Following Barnes, we have our Reliever of the Year, Blake McFarland. McFarland is among a group of non-drafted free agent relievers who have thrived in the Blue Jays’ system. McFarland’s success led to his Triple-A debut in 2015 at the age of 27 after being truly dominant in New Hampshire where he threw 47 innings with a 1.72 ERA and 0.89 WHIP while striking out 34.1% of batters and walking 3.3%. Those peripherals took a hit in Buffalo as he struck out 23.8% and walked 9.5% but there’s no reason to believe that he can’t keep up those strong numbers in a return engagement to the Bisons in 2016.

Hawai’ian righty Dustin Antolin has flown under the radar for years but had a second strong season in New Hampshire in his Age-25 season in 2015. Antolin threw 55 2/3 innings with a 3.07 ERA and 1.38 WHIP, striking out 23.1% of batters (down from last year’s 28.1% total) and walking 7.6% (down from last year’s 8.1%). Antolin’s FIP was 2.78 and he should be in line for a spot in Buffalo at the age of 26 in 2016.

Cory Burns just turned 28 this month and, with major league experience under his belt, could be expected to dominate in Double-A but, unfortunately, wasn’t able to get the job done. He’s been removed from the 40-man roster and had two stints on the DL this season but his 5.76 ERA and 1.65 WHIP weren’t up to the task. Still, he had a much better 3.60 FIP but his strikeout rate of 18.2% wasn’t overwhelming despite a solid 8.1% walk rate.

Scott Barnes, 28, was an eighth-round draftee of the Giants in 2008 but has mostly kicked around the minors since. In 2015, he pitched for the Fisher Cats and got a call up for the Bisons after getting claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays in December of 2014. Barnes has also been removed from the 40-man roster and had a similar season to Cory Burns with a 5.59 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 19.3% strikeout rate and 5.9% walk rate. He pitched 4 1/3 innings in Buffalo, striking out three without walking anyone and giving up just one hit.

A big leaguer between 2011 and 2013, Luis Perez finally returned to action for the Jays’ organization after having Tommy John surgery in 2013 and missing all of 2014 with complications of the injury. Perez pitched 52 1/3 innings with the Fisher Cats and another 13 2/3 innings with Buffalo and his numbers paint an interesting story. With the Fisher Cats, he had a 3.78 ERA and 4.80 FIP, with a 1.41 WHIP, 16.4% K-rate and 12.5% BB-rate. In Buffalo, however, some of those peripheral numbers indicate much better success despite a 5.93 ERA and 1.68 WHIP. He walked only 7.8% of batters, struck out a full quarter while posting a 2.13 FIP. Perez could be back in Buffalo next year and, if Loup continues to struggle at the big league level, may eventually become a lefty relief option.

Side-arming lefty Chad Girodo pulled a similar type of rise through the minors that his college teammate Kendall Graveman did last year. Girodo, 24, was drafted in 2013 in the ninth round and signed quickly for only $5000. In 2015, Girodo was extremely dominant (until he hit Buffalo) and put together a phenomenal season for a reliever. In 27 1/3 innings with Dunedin, Girodo posted a 0.62 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 30.2% K-rate and 6.6% BB-rate. Those numbers stayed excellent as Girodo stepped up to New Hampshire, dropping his ERA to 0.62, his FIP to 1.89 (from 2.29 in Dunedin) while his WHIP only went up to 0.97. He struck out 20.9% of batters and walked only 1.8%. In four innings in Buffalo, he allowed six hits and three runs but didn’t walk anyone and struck out three. Girodo could also be pushing the big leagues next year. While he doesn’t throw hard (I’ve seen him hit as high as 92 mph), he has a ton of movement on his fastball and could very well be a LOOGY at some point next year.

Hard-throwing righty Matt West was off to a terrific start on the year with the Double-A Fisher Cats, throwing 12 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run on nine hits and four walks with 17 strikeouts. I was thinking that he’d end up in the Jays’ bullpen at some point but the Blue Jays traded him to the Dodgers for cash in May. He ended up pitching well in Double-A for the Dodgers, not so well in Triple-A and got back to the big leagues with three solid innings.

Part IV: Hitters
The Fisher Cats featured a few very good performances from its hitters who collectively finished in the middle of the pack of the Eastern League.

We live in a different era now, folks. It’s one where Jack Murphy is no longer a member of the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization. Long known as one of the best defensive catchers in the Jays’ system and one of the most popular minor league players thanks to his Australian heroics and long hair/moustache combination, Murphy played 85 games for New Hampshire before being traded in September to the Dodgers for Darwin Barney who was very useful for the Blue Jays as a middle infielder off the bench in the run to the playoffs. Murphy threw out a third of potential base stealers this year and only allowed four passed balls in 76 games behind the plate. Always known as a switch hitter, Murphy told me that he’s given up switch hitting and just hit from the left side this year (unless he renegged and went back to it after we spoke around the batting cage at the end of April). In 328 plate appearances, he hit .220/.309/.315 with a healthy 11.3% walk rate and a 17.7% strikeout rate adding a little bit of pop with 14 doubles, two triples and three home runs. Headed back to Canberra this year to play for the Cavalry, it will be the first time he does it without representing the Blue Jays.

K.C. Hobson, who, incidentally, looks a lot like Jack Murphy with his long hair and moustache, repeated the Double-A level in 2015, posting improvements in his numbers and playing in 130 games with 120 of them at first base. He hit .240/.288/.367 with 19 doubles, a triple and 14 home runs (second on the club). Looking a little deeper, however, Hobson improved his strikeout rate (down to 19.6% from 21.4% last year) but his walk rate dropped to 6.3% from 7.8%. The other worry is that, as a first baseman, his ISO was at .126 (about the same as his .130 rate last year). Hobson should have another year on his initial contract after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 draft but first base is going to get crowded in Double-A as L.B.Dantzler, Matt Dean and Rowdy Tellez all jockey for playing time in 2016.

Jon Berti tied for the most games at second base for the Fisher Cats, despite getting some playing time in Buffalo for the first time in his career. The speedy infielder (who has also started playing some outfield) posted very similar numbers to those in his first Double-A season last year. In 63 games this year, Berti hit .262/.345/.336 with 12 doubles, two triples and a home run while stealing 19 bases in 23 attempts. In a further 166 plate appearances with Buffalo, he hit only .228/.307/.302. The key to believing that his .262 BABIP in Buffalo is not his usual figure is that Berti has tended to have a BABIP around .300 in the mid-to-high minors and his rate stats are not too far off from what he was doing at other levels. In fact, his walk rate in Buffalo (8.4%) is just a fraction of a point off from his walk rate in New Hampshire (8.8%) while his strikeout rate in Buffalo (15.1%) only went up 2.3% over that in New Hampshire (12.8%). Basically, Berti wasn’t overwhelmed by a higher level of competition in Triple-A and, if he continues to make solid contact, he’ll be just fine with the Bisons in 2016.

Kevin Nolan’s numbers have steadily declined since being an Eastern League All-Star in 2013. Last year, he got his first taste of Triple-A with 21 games in Buffalo and this year, he spent most of the season in Double-A with just nine in Buffalo. Nolan hit .246/.294/.346 in 109 games in Manchester, being much more of a utility man than an everyday shortstop. He played 49 games at third and 50 at short with another three at first base. Nolan hit five home runs, down from his 2013 career high of nine, and stole 10 bases. Given his limited shot in Buffalo, however, Nolan performed very well, hitting .300/.364/.467 in 33 plate appearances with a home run. He was fairly consistent with his walk rate (6.3% in NH, 6.1% in Buffalo) and his strikeout rate (10.5% in NH, 12.1% in Buffalo) and those numbers have remained very constant since he reached Double-A in 2013. Nolan’s seven-year contract may well be up, having played in the Jays’ system since 2009, and he could very well have the freedom to choose where he’ll play for the first time in his career, at the age of 28 in 2016.

Usurping Kevin Nolan’s role as the everyday shortstop for the Fisher Cats, 23-year-old Mexican infielder Jorge Flores had a season that could be called “breakthrough.” While Flores (who I call “Mightly Mouse” for his surprising pop and diminutive stature) doesn’t hit for a lot of power, he hit .276/.360/.347 for the Fisher Cats in 461 plate appearances, hitting 20 doubles, a triple and two home runs. Flores’s 5-foot-5 frame makes him tough to pitch to and he really started to improve his value by taking walks in 10.2% of his plate appearances while still maintaining a low 13.7% strikeout rate. His .071 ISO was his highest since 2013. Flores either doesn’t run as well as he thinks or just hasn’t been able to get good jumps as he was unsuccessful stealing bases more often than he was successful, stealing 10 times in 21 attempts. That said, Flores is a good fielder, making only 16 errors in 80 games at shortstop and he played 27 games at second base, making just two errors. Flores also got time in at third and all three outfield positions for the Fisher Cats. While Flores profiles as a utility player, he will give you good defense and has shown that he hasn’t be overwhelmed by quality pitching. He could be an odd man out and remain in New Hampshire next year, especially if the Jays stock the Bisons with a lot of minor league free agents, as they have over the past two years.

One of the best-known prospects to join the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2015 was Dwight Smith, Jr. Smith, a former first-round pick had an up and down year (after an excellent one in 2014 with Dunedin) but ended up with solid, but unspectacular stats: a .265/335/.376 slash line, hitting 26 doubles, two triples and seven home runs while playing mostly left field. Interestingly, his peripherals haven’t fallen off a cliff: Smith had a walk rate of 10.9% in 2014 and it was a little lower in 2015 at 9.2% while also lowering his strikeout rate from (an already low) 12.9% in 2014 to 12.5% in 2015. His BABIP was down about 17 points from 2014 which almost completely accounts for his 19-point drop in batting average year over year. The biggest area that regressed for Smith was his power. His ISO, at .169 in a tough hitters league (Florida State League) last year, fell to .111 in a much friendlier league and park, particularly for left-handed hitters. I see Smith returning to New Hampshire in 2016 as a 23 year old to see if he can find some more power and be more consistent after starting and finishing strongly in 2015.

The top three center fielders for theFisher Cats in games played all played more for other teams this year so we come to Ian Parmley. The 25-year-old outfielder was the seventh round pick of the Jays in 2012 and, despite signing for only $5,000, he has stuck with the club through four seasons now. Parmley split his season between New Hampshire (147 plate appearances) and Dunedin (137 plate appearances) and actually had far better numbers at the higher level, walking in 7.5% of plate appearances and striking out in 14.3% with a .278/.331/.361 slash line, hitting a home run, four doubles and two triples. In Dunedin his walk rate was higher (11.7%) while his strikeout rate was much higher (26.3%) while he hit just .171/.267/.188. Parmley’s true abilities probably lie somewhere in between and he’s probably going to be a fourth-outfielder in New Hampshire in 2016.

Right fielder Matt Newman’s BABIP plummeted in 2015, seeing his overall numbers fall despite a positive uptick in walk rate. Still, after a season that saw him hit 22 doubles in 2014 in 81 games had his power numbers fall in conjunction with his batting average as he hit 13 doubles (but nine home runs) in 2015 with a .208/.271/.339 slash line. Newman has a strong arm (with 11 outfield assists) and the 27-year-old lefty pitched for the second consecutive season, this time, throwing one scoreless inning with a strikeout.

Shane Opitz, 23, spent the whole season with the Fisher Cats after losing a lot of time thanks to injuries in 2014. Opitz hit .240/.283/.335 with a 5.6% walk rate and 12.5% strikeout rate in 391 plate appearances, spending time at all of the infield positions and all three outfield positions. If he can return to the type of offense he produced in 2013 and 2014 in Dunedin, Opitz could very well be an excellent utility option at the high minor league levels.

Yes, our Fisher Cats Player of the Year is all the way down on this list, as he only played in 76 games and had 307 plate appearances in Double-A. Still, Ryan Schimpf managed to dominate the Eastern League, hitting .271/.378/.581 with a club-leading 20 home runs and a whopping .310 ISO. Schimpf’s normally high strikeout rates dropped considerably, to 17.6% while his normally excellent walk rates stayed high, at 13.7%. In 31 games in Buffalo, his numbers fell off considerably, to .200/.270/.336 with three home runs. Schimpf’s initial seven-year contract is likely up and he could choose to explore other opportunities after his third consecutive season as the Blue Jays organization’s minor league home run king.

Injuries led Emilio Guerrero to play only 80 games this year including 52 with the Fisher Cats. Guerrero did not have the best of seasons, struggling to make contact in Double-A, hitting .230/.267/.328 and striking out in 26.2% of plate appearances while walking in 5.1%. He hit only two home runs. In 28 games with Dunedin, he hit .245/.298/.368 with a 6.1% BB-rate and a 20.0% K-rate. Emilio is in the Arizona Fall League and I’m sure the club hopes that his depressed numbers are a result of his injury rather than struggles adjusting to the higher calibre of baseball.

First baseman Jake Fox, 32, started the season with the Fisher Cats and hit .278/.361/.509 in 122 plate appearances, with five home runs before he was released from his contract to pursue an opportunity in Korea where he posted almost identical numbers (except for fewer walks).

Catcher Pierce Rankin started the season with the Fisher Cats and hit .248/.304/.381 over 116 plate appearances with four home runs before the Blue Jays released him in July.

Derrick Chung, 27, had injury woes throughout most of the season, finally returning to action in mid-July before arriving in Manchester in early August. In just 87 plate appearances, Chung was his usual self, hitting .282/.379/.366 walking in 13.8% of appearances and striking out in 9.2%. Hopefully we’ll see Chung for a full season in 2016.

Ronald Torreyes was picked up by the Blue Jays from the Astros in May and he played in 16 games for the Fisher Cats, hitting just .140/.204/.180 before being sold to the Dodgers where he played much better, hitting .293/.348/.410 in Double-A and .306/.340/.388 in Triple-A before making his big league debut in September, going 3/6 with two walks.

The Blue Jays signed Cole Garner out of the Mexican League this May and he hit .222/.250/.259 in eight games with New Hampshire before being shut down in early June. We have no more information on him or the 30 year old’s progress.

 
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Jay Blue

A lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan, Jay Blue started blogging about the Jays when he was living in Berlin, Germany. He founded his own blog, Blue Jays from Away, to write about developments with his home town team, focusing on the Jays' minor league system. When he's not watching baseball, he is usually on the diamond umpiring or he's pursuing his research interests in the field of ethnomusicology.