As a season ticket holder with the Milwaukee Milkmen I watch a lot of American Association baseball. Outside of Major League Baseball, it’s probably the league I watch the most baseball from these days. I’m a regular viewer of American Association TV and in general, find the league to be both a lot of fun and of a higher quality than most people realize. That last part is very important, I think far too many people still erroneously believe that if a player is in unaffiliated ball then they aren’t any good.
A couple of weeks back I was attending a game between the Milkmen and the Chicago Dogs. This was not a season ticket for me, but I had made sure to get tickets to the game because I really wanted to see Carlos Zambrano pitch for the Dogs. Sadly, the only Big Z sighting took place when he coached first base for a half an inning. Still, it was, as per usual, an entertaining game with a lot of interesting talent on both squads. It became really interesting, talent-wise, in the 8th and 9th innings when the Dogs sent Luke Wilkins and Daniel Hurtado to the mound.
Up to that point in the contest, both teams had employed your prototypical stateside unaffiliated ball pitchers. Guys who live in the 88-89 range and rely on control but can occasionally ramp it up for a 91-92 fourseam fastball a few times a game. Watching such pitchers command a game is something I enjoy, and even though it stung as a Milkmen fan it was still fun to watch Jake Dahlberg carve up the home team with precision control and a diverse pitch mix. When Wilkins entered the approach changed, and Hurtado kept the new direction alive.
Wilkins’ first pitch was a fourseam fastball that zipped in at 95mph. The entirety of the 8th inning consisted of fourseam fastballs in the 93-96mph range with the occasional changeup and hard slider included in the mix. For the first two batters Wilkins looked unhittable, then the Milkmen got their timing down and started making hard contact. The Dogs defense didn’t help with a crucial error, but Wilkins’ stuff had looked so incredible the first two batters and then by the end of the inning, 2 runs and 3 hits later, he looked pedestrian as they come. His stuff was still great, it’s just that the Milkmen hitters were better.
The story changed somewhat in the 9th, but Hurtado’s stuff looked just as incredible as Wilkins had. His fourseam fastball sat in the 94-95 range and his slider had some serious bite to it. Hurtado struggled with his command, hitting 1 Milkmen player and walking another. He eventually got the final out of the game, but the Milkmen made him work for it and despite the dazzling stuff Hurtado looked very human by the time he left the mound.
The point of all this is twofold. First, the talent level in the AA, and all of unaffiliated ball, is higher than people want to think. Wilkins and Hurtdao have tremendous stuff, the sort of pitches that made someone a few rows behind me let out a “Holy damn” when Wilkins placed a 96mph fourseamer perfectly on the inside edge for a strike. To the naked eye, it simply doesn’t seem like players should be able to hit the stuff of Wilkins and Hurtado. There are plenty of pitchers like them throughout unaffiliated ball, and they get hit often. Wilkins sports a 10.66 ERA with the Dogs this year and has been hit so hard he’s on his 3rd team. Hurtado is also on his 3rd team, except the Dogs released him this week so now he’s hoping to catch on with a 4th team. Both pitchers have great stuff, the raw talent is present, but they are facing hitters who are just as good and can adapt to their stuff as the pitches pile up.
The second point is that this speaks to the talent level in affiliated ball as well. Pitchers these days from MLB all the way down to a league like the AA are insanely talented. They throw harder than ever before with breaking pitches that break at extremes that are hard to stomach at times. Yet, they all get hit, because the hitters are also more talented than they’ve ever been and are somehow managing to adjust to the new heights reached by pitchers. There is a talent drop off from affiliated to unaffiliated ball, but it’s not as extreme as it used to be, and I think both the eye test and the results speak to that fact.
MLB is still the king of the mountain and it always will be. The reality, however, is that baseball players at every level of the game are more talented than at any point in the game’s history. There’s some unknown pitcher getting ready to pitch for the Auckland Tuatara of the Australian Baseball League in the 2019-2020 season who hits 93mph with his fourseam fastball, can control it, and will probably never sniff an MLB roster. It’s not because this unknown player isn’t any good, but rather that the collective talent of baseball players the world over have reached a level that makes getting to the top of the mountain more difficult than ever.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Chicago Dogs