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A visit to the Arizona Fall League

A report from the Mesa vs. Salt River game Tuesday.

Owen Caissie bats in an AFL game November 8, 2022
Al Yellon

MESA, Arizona — Tuesday afternoon, I headed over to Sloan Park to see the Arizona Fall League game between the Mesa Solar Sox and Salt River Rafters. (I love the AFL nicknames!)

The Solar Sox, who include Cubs prospects, won the game 9-8, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time on rehashing the game itself. Mainly, that’s because Matt Mervis, who I did want to see, didn’t play in this game. I did go to the AFL Fall Stars Game on Sunday and saw him win MVP honors, but didn’t write that up as Josh covered it all in his weekly AFL wrap.

Cubs prospect Owen Caissie, pictured above, started in left field in this game and I wish I could tell you something good about his performance, but he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, which obviously isn’t optimal.

Also appearing in this game was Cubs lefthanded pitching prospect Riley Martin:

Al Yellon

Martin was the Cubs’ sixth-round pick out of Quincy University, a small school in (of course) Quincy, Illinois. He posted a 3.38 ERA and 1.198 WHIP split between Low-A Myrtle Beach and High-A South Bend during the 2022 season, with 120 (!) strikeouts in 82⅔ innings. So far in the AFL: eight appearances covering 12⅔ innings, 2.84 ERA, 1.184 WHIP and 19 strikeouts. In this game Martin threw the last two innings and struck out four. He allowed a two-out double in the ninth and an unearned run — that runner scored on an error, by former Cubs prospect Ronny Simon, who’s now in the Rays organization.

Martin is a really impressive prospect, mixes up his pitches well and has a deceptive motion. I’d think he’ll be ticketed for Double-A Tennessee this year. He turns 25 in March and might even have a shot at Triple-A Iowa if he does well enough with the Smokies.

About Ronny Simon: He was the prospect traded to the Diamondbacks for Andrew Chafin in 2020. He went to the Rays last November for Jordan Luplow. The Cubs, of course, traded Chafin to the Athletics in July 2021 for Greg Deichmann and Daniel Palencia. Deichmann was released by the Cubs in August, but Palencia is a solid prospect. Last year with South Bend he posted a 3.94 ERA and 1.208 WHIP in 21 appearances (20 starts) with 98 strikeouts in 75⅓ innings. He turns 23 in February and is worth watching.

The pitching in this game, apart from Martin, was somewhat shaky, with 17 runs and 22 hits allowed among 10 pitchers who threw. Those 10 hurlers combined to throw 315 pitches, which is well above the MLB average of about 250 for a nine-inning game. And yet, this game ran two hours and 44 minutes. A 315-pitch MLB game from 2021, with that much scoring AND two mid-inning pitching changes, one of which lasted about five minutes due to an injury, would have run at least 3:15 and possibly longer.

That’s the positive effect of the pitch clock. It seemed to me that both hitters and pitchers adapted easily to the clock. There were no clock violations called in this game; hitters for the most part stayed in the box and pitchers generally threw their offerings with more than seven seconds left on the clock. The clock starts when the pitcher has the ball on the mound, and they are using the 2023 MLB standard: 15 seconds with no runners on base, 20 seconds with runners on base.

The game just feels faster. It’s hard to describe unless you’re actually sitting watching one, but there were no times during this game where I felt as if things were dragging. That’s a good thing and you will notice the difference when the clock comes to MLB in 2023.

The AFL is also using the bigger 18-inch square bases and at first they do look a bit odd, but you get used to them quickly. There weren’t any plays in this game where the bigger bases came into play.

Lastly, the shift restrictions (not “bans” as they are incorrectly termed) are being used in AFL games. You can see this most noticeably when there’s no third baseman playing right field. Had there been, at least a couple of hits that got through in this game would have been turned into outs. In practice, what happens against LH hitters (who are shifted on the most) is that the second baseman backs up as far as he can on the dirt, and the shortstop comes as far as possible toward second base while still staying on the left side of the infield. One game isn’t going to tell much about something like this, but it is my sense that long-term, some hitters who get shifted on a lot (I’m looking at you, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo) might see their BA’s go up a bit.

With this win, the Solar Sox evened their record at 13-13 and are tied for second place. The second- and third-place teams will have a play-in game Friday to face the first-place club (Surprise, who has clinched first place) in the championship game Saturday. Glendale is also 13-13 and two other teams, Peoria and Scottsdale, are 13-14, so that should come down to the wire.

If you are interested in watching the game I attended, it’s here [VIDEO].

I might head back over to Mesa Thursday to see the AFL regular-season finale. If you are in the Phoenix area during the AFL season, it’s well worth your time to see an AFL game. The price is right ($10) and only a few hundred people attend, so you can sit up close.