American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier discuses whether the Lincoln Saltdogs offense is enough to carry this team to a championship.
Lincoln Saltdogs on Record Home Run Pace
The old adage is that you win championships with pitching and defense, and the American Association has helped to keep that cliché alive and well. In the last four seasons, 13 of the 16 teams that reached the playoffs were ranked in the top five in ERA, including the Lincoln Saltdogs last season, who were first in the league with a 3.45 ERA. In fact, Lincoln was also first in fielding percentage, helping them to win the Central Division.
Pitching has played a big part in helping teams to win. The 2014 Wichita Wingnuts had the best ERA in the league and won the American Association title. A year later, the Laredo Lemurs were third in the league in ERA and they surprised everyone by winning the championship. Only the Winnipeg Goldeyes have bucked the trend to an extent, winning the last two championships with ERAs that were not top five finishes, finishing in sixth in 2016 and in seventh in 2017.
Could the Trend Be Coming to an End?
In 2014 and 2015, all four teams that qualified for the post-season were ranked in the top five, including the top four teams in 2015. In 2016, there were two top five finishers and that was followed up in 2017 by three teams ranked in the top five.
The trends can be perceived in one of two ways. Either that pitching is still a strong indicator of a team’s chances of making the playoffs or that pitching is not as important over the last two seasons as it has been in prior years. The Lincoln Saltdogs are probably hoping that the latter is the case.
Last year’s ERA champs are not the team that Manager Bobby Brown painstakingly built to be a champ. While many of the pieces from 2017’s team are still in place, including starter Derek Gordon, J.R. Bunda, and Dimitri Kourtis, the pitching staff has been underwhelming to begin the season.
Through the first 21 games, Lincoln is ranked 10th in ERA, posting a 5.52 earned run average. That is more than two runs above last season’s total. Gordon was lights out last season, but has struggled mightily through his first five starts, posting a 5.53 ERA with 39 hits and 17 earned runs in 27.2 innings pitched. Newcomer Michael Tamburino is the only starter who has an ERA under five and three have numbers better than six.
There are 12 pitchers on the active roster and only six have ERAs under five. In comparison, the 2017 Saltdogs had only one pitcher that finished the season with the team with an ERA over four, Brian Smith, and he came late after being released from the Salina Stockade.
Offense Making Up the Difference
One would think with pitching woes like this that the Lincoln Saltdogs would be near the bottom of the South Division, but that is not the case at all. Entering today’s action, the team is second in the division with a 13-8 record and they are 7-3 over their last 10 games. How did this happen?
The Saltdogs are winning for one reason – they are an offensive machine that no one can match. Lincoln is second in team batting average (.299) and first in runs scored (146). They lead the American Association in on-base percentage (.391) and slugging (.519). However, it is one particular area where they are leaving the rest of the league in the dust – home runs.
In 21 games this season, Lincoln is leading the league in home runs with 37, 15 better than the next best team. As a matter of fact, if you combined the second and third best teams, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and the Sioux Falls Canaries, they would be tied with the Saltdogs.
Currently, Lincoln is on pace for 176 homers this season, which would crush the league record set by the team in 2010 when they hit 128. Nine players in the American Association have hit at least five homers so far this season; four of them are from the Saltdogs. In fact, Lincoln has three of the top four home run hitters in the league, with Brandon Jacobs (8) first, Angel Reyes (7) tied for second, and Chase Simpson (6) fourth.
At the pace this team is on they could lose two of their tops players to injury or to affiliate ball and still crush the league record. This team is that potent and that is why they are only trailing the Sioux City Explorers in the South Division.
Is This a Championship Team?
The question is whether the Lincoln Saltdogs can go all the way by outslugging teams? Clearly, Brown expects his pitchers to turn things around, and that could very well be likely. Gordon, in particular, is a star veteran, and it is likely that he will return to his 2017 form.
Say that it doesn’t happen. Say this team really never gets their pitching righted. Can they still compete for a championship?
There is really no reason to think not. It is true that they lost three of four to the Explorers, but that was in the first weekend of the season, when the team was figuring out who they were.
Since that time, they have gone 12-5 and have used that potent offense to batter every team in their pathway. The Saltdogs have won four of five series, including taking three of four from Winnipeg in Canada and sweeping the Wichita Wingnuts at home, the two teams that battled for the American Association title last season.
Lincoln has scored at least 10 runs four times this year, including a season high 16 against the Sioux Falls Canaries and 14 against the Goldeyes. It is true that they have given up 122 runs, but they have scored 146 and have scored less than four runs just one time in 21 games. What this means is that opponents are going to have to outslug them to win and if the Lincoln pitching staff can allow less than five runs in three out of every five games they are going to win those three games almost every time.
It is true that Bobby Brown will be looking to make some changes to this pitching staff in the next week or two if they don’t come around, but he has the luxury of being patient for now. His offense is able to cover mistakes and keep this team winning, giving him time.
That is not the scariest part of all. Another old adage is that pitching usually defeats hitting early in the season. If that is true this year, who knows what this Lincoln Saltdogs team will be like in July and August. Maybe 200 homers are the true ceiling for this team.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA