Even as I projected the Lancaster Jethawks team to show a slight improvement in 2012, I wondered if I wasn't lying to myself, at least a little. I identified several factors that needed to go the Jethawks way in order to facilitate winning even five more games than last season. I have some minor concerns about the hitters being able to produce at the same rate as Jose Altuve, Austin Wates, Kody Hinze and Jonathan Singleton did in 2011, but when it comes to Lancaster I'm always more concerned about the pitching.
With desert winds of up to 40 mph blowing out to right field, you wonder how any pitcher ever succeeds at Lancaster. Dirk Hayhurst of The Bullpen Gospels fame demonstrates:
How have the Jethawk starters fared through their first starts and what are the keys to their success? Follow me after the jump.
Of the three starters at Lancaster who are repeating this level, I had picked RHP Bobby Doran to show the most improvement. Since he is predominately a groundball pitcher (which helps in the unfriendly confines of The Hangar) and since he had shown improvement toward the end of the 2011 season, I wasn't exactly going out on a limb with this prediction. His first start was messy with a passed ball, an error and too many balls being hit in the air. In his second start, though, he found his groove by keeping the ball down and commanding the strike zone and was rewarded with the win. Good defense behind him, keeping the ball down and pounding the strike zone will serve him well.
LHP Wes Musick only started five games for Lancaster last season, and he excelled in three of those five starts. His three good starts happened to be road starts. Musick had slightly more flyball outs than groundball outs in 2011 and it hurt him when they played at home. It is not a coincidence that he pitched beautifully in his first start this season on the road in Rancho Cucamonga and earned the win, but struggled back home in Lancaster. It is doubtful that Musick will suddenly become a groundball pitcher, nor would I recommend tinkering with what works for him everywhere else BUT Lancaster. Other than keeping up his strikeout rate (which is 11.7 SO/9 through the first two games), he'll just have to pray for calm days and lots of road starts.
The third holdover from 2011 is RHP Zachary Grimmett. I have a hard time seeing how Grimmett will ever truly succeed at Lancaster because he was an extreme flyball pitcher in 2011 and in two starts so far this season, I haven't seen any indication that that's changing. However, he had much better results at Lancaster during his second start than he did on the road in his first where he was charged with the loss. The difference? More strikeouts and more pop-up outs. If he can jam the hitters and see more pop outs and fewer flyball outs and increase his strikeout rate, I may be forced to revise my estimates on him.
The real wild cards in the mix are the two starting pitchers who came from Lexington and trying to project how Lancaster will treat them. RHP David Martinez has definitely shown the tendency to be a groundball pitcher, even an extreme groundball pitcher at times. Unfortunately, in his first outing, every mistake that he made up in the zone was hit -- five flyball hits, two line drive hits and one home run. The second time around, he only gave up four hits with three of the four being up and he added five strikeouts to the mix. In his third start (and first home start), his flyball rate was up and his strikeout rate was down. For the most part he got away with it until a two-run home run in the seventh inning took him out of the game. I think Martinez is going to be a great fit for Lancaster as long as he limits those mistakes up in the zone.
The final piece of the puzzle is RHP Ruben Alaniz. You might as well completely throw out his first two starts despite the fact that he only had a 3.38 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP through those two games. Why? Wild pitch, error and hit batter in the first game and another hit batter, another error and a passed ball in the second game, plus both of those games were on the road. My feeling that he profiles to do very well at Lancaster due to his good groundball rate and his excellent strikeout to walk ratio at Lexington was borne out in his first start there on Tuesday. His groundball rate was up, he struck out seven while walking none and he was rewarded with a win. The key to his success is to keep doing that.
Conclusion? I'm not ready to change my projections yet, but if these pitchers can figure out a way to regularly succeed in games played at The Hangar, this could prove to be a better year than I originally thought for the Lancaster Jethawks.