As I reach part two of my series on the minor league season, you might wonder why I'm going to spend an entire portion on the Kane County Cougars hitting. They had timely hitting, for sure. But nobody thinks that the reason the Cougars won the Midwest League title is because of their hitting. Except, their hitting had a large part to do with their title, and more so, the future success of the Cubs franchise.
It was an early-season game. The Cougars had started by splitting their first six games, then rattled off one of their winning streaks; this one wound up at eight straight. In the final game of the streak, the Cougars took on division rival Dayton in Ohio in a clash of the two best teams in the league at the time. Kyle Schwarber was still in college. Jake Hannemann was hitting in the .230s. Yasiel Balaguert was the team's best hitter.
They'd pushed across a run in the first, and were trying to extend on a one-run lead in the second. The first three hitters had reached, with the first one scoring. Ninth-place hitter Trey Martin came to the plate. He squared to bunt, but pulled back, drawing a quick ball. The next two pitches were strikes, and the season's offense was about to be crystallized in about five pitches.
Martin fouled off two pitcher's pitches, then watched the next pitch miss the zone. With a two-two count, the runner on second had a huge jump, but Martin fouled the pitch off, staying alive at two-and-two. On the next pitch, both runners were off, and Martin singled through the 5/6 hole, where the third baseman and the shortstop were both out of position. The rout was on.
In 10 years, it is wholly possible that people look back at the offensive portion of the 2014 Kane County Cougars team and are wholly unimpressed. Any success in the Midwest League has to be matched and bettered in the three highest minor-league stops before a trip to the parent club is usually summoned. However, the 2014 Cougars offense did what an offense has to do to be considered a threat. They took every plate appearance as important.
The Martin example, which drew praise from Dragons color-commentator Todd Benzinger, was a bit of an extreme example, but by no means an isolated one. When watching the division clincher against Cedar Rapids, plenty of at-bats were extended with two-strike foul balls, pushing the opposing pitcher closer to his pitch limit, and forcing the bullpen to come in early. Early count pitcher's pitches were taken as strikes to the same end.
While the cynic might say that an isolated at-bat by (for instance) catcher Cael Brockmeyer against a pitcher who might never make Double-A Ball doesn't prove much of anything. However, if a hitter avoids swinging at a bad pitch to swing at, I'm not seeing how that's a bad thing. What's more, until two strikes were registered, they rarely swung at strikes they weren't prepared for. Mental preparation matters.
In the second game of the division final against Cedar Rapids, Jacob Rogers started the scoring with an opposite field homer in the sixth inning off of a reliever. The reliever was in the game, in part, due to Jeimer Candelario drawing two of his three drawn walks off the starter. While Candelario didn't score, his patience pushed the starter toward an early departure, despite pitching rather well. The Cougars hitters weren't afraid of strikeouts, either. A six-or-seven pitch strikeout can be a valuable at-bat over the course of a game.
The game was decided in the seventh when shortstop Carlos Penalver batted with a runner on and none out in the last of the seventh, down 2-1. Trying to bunt, he pulled the bat back on a pitch outside the zone. The pitcher, not wanting to fall behind 2-0, got a pitch inner-half and Penalver hit his second homer of the season, going all Bucky Dent in the process. As always, making the pitchers work.
I usually sit behind the plate or by the dugouts. That night, we were close to the opposing on-deck circle. My dad noted that the players seemed rather smallish. I noted quickly that we were by the opposing on-deck circle. While the Cedar Rapids Kernels had a good squad, over half of their hitters were listed as less than six feet tall. They had only one really big dude, who knocked a two-run homer in the top of the seventh. The Cougars had one hitter under six feet in infielder Daniel Lockhart, who is 5-11. (The roster has been deleted from the team site.)
While we both know there is no height restriction to be a good baseball player, I remember a report from a minor league game in around 2010 or so. A Cubs fan noted the players for Daytona or Tennessee (not remembering which) seemed awfully pint-sized compared to the opposition. Now, it appears, the worm is turning. The Twins have a really good system, but our guys are notably bigger than theirs. This doesn't even include Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Schwarber, or the guys you're thinking of.
The difference this makes is subtle, but worth considering. Let's assume that, next March, recently signed Cubs scout Darnell McDonald is sent to a mid-level college baseball game on a Friday night. He's taking notes on the pitchers, of course. In the process of the game, he notices a grindy 5-9 outfielder. He doesn't have too much power, speed, or arm, and doesn't really look to add it in the future. He makes a couple of decent plays, and notes them as such. In his post-game review, he realizes, the Cubs don't specifically need any grindy players now. If the kid controls the strike zone, draft him on that. If he's a quality defender, peg him in the 24th round. If he's a speed-guy, maybe take him late.
As of now, the Cubs can pretty much limit their offensive interest to guys who look like they might be good offensive players, at least through the High-A level. There isn't much need to get over-burdened by hoping that this college junior might learn how to hit breaking stuff, or draw walks. If he isn't looking like a good pro hitter, draft someone else. Sign someone who might be. Take a player to fill the Eugene roster, sure. But obsessing over a glove-only middle-infielder isn't that important.
The reason the Kane County offense, in its final year repping the Cubs, was worthy of a title was because the players on Kane County's offense were better than the league they were in. They were better at commanding the strike zone than the pitchers in the league. Whether or not Shawon Dunston Jr. makes it to Wrigley, he was better than the bulk of the pitchers in the 2014 Midwest League.
Along with a stingy defense, the Cougars offensive players earned the title by making pitchers work for all 27 outs every night.