Wichita Wingnuts – Anatomy of a Record Breaking Season: Wingnuts Wire
The human body is one of the most complex and spectacular designs that God created. An examination of the anatomy of the human body shows how unique and detailed every aspect of the body is. If one were to examine the anatomy of person they would find 12 systems, all intricately working together to make the overall function of the body work. Without a circulatory system the role of digestion would be virtually useless, and without the immune system the body itself would breakdown and lose battles to whatever bacteria or virus entered the magnificent design known as the human body.
While the entire design of the body is impressive in itself, it is the small details that make it so mesmerizing to contemplate. It is the incredible way that the glands regulate body functions, cells work to form tissues, which work to form organs, with work to form systems that then work together to regulate, assist and enhance the function of other systems. It is a wonder.
If you examine the anatomy of the human body you also learn what an adaptable design it is. When injuries or losses to a tissue, organ or structure occur, the rest of the body adapts to overcome that loss and keep the body running at an amazing efficiency. This allows a person to lose a spleen and still keep itself clear of impurities. It is the body that can lose a portion of the liver, yet regrow it back. It is the body that can have a massive cut and yet cells and tissues can regenerate to close that gap and restore functionality and protection. It is the human body.
While a baseball team may not be as spectacular and mesmerizing to think about, it too has an anatomy. A winning team, in particular, is not just a group of 22 players playing their best each night, but is a system of athletes who, when they come together, form something that is beyond the sum of their parts. A breakdown of that anatomy shows a design where struggle and collapse in one area is overcome by increased performance elsewhere. It is a process of all players going beyond their individual abilities to supplement the success of others. Just like a body has cells that form tissues, which form organs, which from systems, for a baseball team there are moments that form periods, which form streaks where a person can look at the team and see when it all came together. This is a look at the anatomy of the Wichita Wingnuts.
The Body: A Record Setting Performance
The 2014 Wichita Wingnuts did something that no American Association team had ever done before – they won 70 games in a single-season. It did not end there however. The team kept on winning until they reached 73, which gave them a .730 winning percentage, just 14 percentage points off the 1941 minor league mark set by the Wilson Tobbs for the highest single-season winning-percentage for a team that played at least 100-games (87-30, .844). It was an amazing season from start to finish.
What made the Wingnuts season so special is that this was not a team that won with the same set of 22 guys all year. That in itself would have been a spectacular feat. This team lost key players to Major League organizations, to injury and to trade yet still managed to pull it together for an historic season.
Nervous System: GM and Manager Are the Brains of the Outfit
The Wingnuts lost their dominate closer, the top starter in the league and one of the best table-setters in the American Association. All they did after losing the last of the three of these players was go 12-1. That can only happen because the brains of the team built a club that can handle key losses and not miss a beat. GM Josh Robertson not only built a team from the start that had what it took to win every night, he made key acquisitions that seamlessly fit into the team, and made them look better. Jake Kahaulelio was having the best season of any second baseman north of Laredo, then a thumb injury shelved him for the year. No problem. Abel Nieves is acquired, and all he does is hit .558 in his time in Wichita. Jon Link signs with the Marlins organization and Justin Klipp is dealt with just two weeks left in the season. In comes Celson Polanco who posts a 2.91 ERA. Matt Nevarez joins the Pirates organization, so Robertson acquires closer Dan Sattler from St. Paul. Let us not forget the signings of Chris Peacock, Chase Johnson, Victor Diaz and Jake Luce, and the acquisitions of David Espinosa, Chris McClendon and Jared McDonald. He made all the right moves to not only keep this team competitive, but to help the rich get richer.
A great GM is a big help, but the man who pulled all the right strings in Wichita this season was manager Kevin Hooper. One team executive told me they would take Hooper over any manager in the league, and with good reason. There has been a lot of fluctuation to the team roster in the last month, but all the team did was go 27-5 since the All-Star break. Hooper was the managerial version of the goose that laid the golden egg, making move after move that came up golden. Just consider this; in the last two weeks Hooper threw his pitching coach into a game, and he earned his first professional victory in 10 years. A few nights later he thrusts Matt Robertson into an emergency start, and all he did was shutout Grand Prairie during his time on the mound. This is a guy who had been seriously struggling in the bullpen, yet this night he produces his best performance of the season. And let us not forget a few nights ago when Dan Sattler is ejected in the ninth, and Hooper has no one left in the bullpen, all he does is use infielder Taylor Oldham to come in and save a 3-run lead against the heart of the vaunted Laredo lineup, and Oldham throws a 1-2-3 inning. Genius is all that can be said.
Muscular System: Brent Clevlen Made Himself the Leading MVP Candidate
It may have seemed like the Wingnuts Wire was a little overly smitten with Brent Clevlen, but this guy took this team on his back and excelled at every aspect of the game. He made just one error in centerfield, stole 14 bases, scored 76 runs, drove in 80 RBI, had 56 extra base hits, 33 doubles, 20 home runs and lead the league with a .372 average. While those numbers are all impressive, it is his overall consistency that really singled him out. Consider that from July 23-25 he had three consecutive games where he did not have a hit. He never had another “streak” where he went longer than one game without one. In the meantime he had a hitting streak of at least five games six times, including a season high 10 games.
Skeletal System: Pitching Staff Supports the Wingnuts Model
There was a lot of changes on the Wingnuts staff this season. Amazingly those changes had very little effect on the person that Wichita sent to the hill every inning. The Wingnuts were first in ERA this season, despite a fairly serious in-season overhaul, especially in the last few weeks. The pitchers ensure that their team is always in the game, and with the lineup they have, their efforts have been rewarded with lots of runs.
Integumentary System: Skin-Tight Defense Allowed Few Holes
A pitcher’s and a manager’s best friend is a strong defense, and that is what the Wingnuts put on the field each night. They led the league in fielding percentage and as a result gave up the least amount of earned runs in the league. Shortstop Ryan Khoury was named the American Association defensive player of the year, symbolizing how good this team is in the field.
Reproductive System: Khoury, Kahaulelio and Luce Make Scoring and Art-Form
One of the most critical aspects of why the Wingnuts had such a successful season was the fact that they responded to teams scoring against them. When their pitchers gave up runs, it was virtually inevitable that they would come right back and score themselves. A big reason behind this is that Khoury and Kahaulelio, and later Luce, were continuously getting on base and getting into scoring position. The “Circle K’s” rounded the bases at an unbelievable rate, and this was led by the fact that both of them had .400-plus on-base percentages. When Kahaulelio got hurt, Jake Luce took over the No. 2 spot for the most part and continued to look “Kahaulelian” in the way he played.
Immune System: Starters Kept Team Immune from Long Losing Streaks
The longest losing streak the Wingnuts endured this season was four. That happened once. In contrast the team had six streaks of at least six consecutive victories, including a seven-, eight- and a nine-game streak in the last month alone. This was due in large part to the outstanding work of their starting staff, especially Jason Van Skike, Tim Brown, Jon Link, Anthony Capra and Justin Klipp. The five were a combined 47-16, and none of them lost even two games in a row. In fact, 11 pitchers made starts for the team, and none ever lost two in a row. It is that kind of consistency that keeps a team immune from long losing streaks, and that is what happened this season.
Lymphatic System: Luke Robertson Conducted a Master Orchestra
In the body, the lymphatic system and the immune system work very closely together in protecting the body from pathogens to keep the body safe. One without the other would not function and would leave the body susceptible to significant health issues. This is how the pitching staff would be without Robertson. What many do not consider is that injuries, trades and signings created a situation where 20 different players pitched for this team. All those 20 did was lead the league in ERA, have the third lowest WHIP and opponent batting average, and finish second in overall saves. Six different pitchers had saves, and eight different starters had wins, including Robertson himself, who was forced into an emergency start and won his first game in 10 years. He has become a true conductor in preparing his staff to pitch the Wingnuts way, and his efforts have garnered incredible results.
Circulatory System: The Stolen Base Was Integral Part of Wingnuts Offense
The Wingnuts led the league in runs scored and stolen bases. The latter played an integral part in the former. Among the many records the team set this season, 174 stolen bases was a team record for the American Association. Six Wingnuts players had double-digit steals and four had at least 20. Khoury led the team with 31 and Kahaulelio had 16 at the top of the order, but stolen base artists could be found throughout their lineup. Clean-up hitter Clevlen had 14, and Carlo Testa had 24 primarily hitting out of the No. 5 spot in the lineup. Virtually every player in their lineup was a threat to take an extra base, and this helped them to manufacturer runs on the occasions when their sluggers were having an off-night.
Endocrine System: Catchers Directing Team to Success
The job of the endocrine system is to send out hormones to tell the other systems of the body what they should do. For the Wingnuts, this job falls on the field generals of the team, catchers Brent Dean and Chris McMurray. The two have produced well at the plate. McMurray hit .261 with 7 home runs and 60 RBI in 83 games. Dean hit .317 with 3 HR and 11 RBI in 21 games. The two are probably the best catching duo in the league, but it goes beyond their prowess at the plate. They combined to throw out over 30 percent of base-stealers and made just 8 combined errors. They both call an excellent game, block pitches well and have the confidence of the staff. They are the ones directing the action on the field, and the Wingnuts could not have two better ones to do so.
Excretory System: Middle Relief Cleaning Up the Messes
While there are many reasons why Wichita won so many games, no one needs to look very far past the work of their middle relievers and setup guys to see why they were so successful. No one may like to be thought of as the “excretory system” of the team, but without Mike Zouzalik and Daniel Bennett, and the recent editions of Chris Peacock and Chase Johnson, the Wingnuts would be in real trouble. This group is the rarely glorified group on the team, but consider that they are a combined 13-1 with 2 saves. They have a combined ERA of 3.21 and have allowed just 7 homers in 109.1 innings pitched. They clean up the “messes,” and keep the bases clear so that this team is in a position to win each night.
Digestive System: Two Super-Subs Provide Spark and Energy Off the Bench
Every team needs a spark plug, a burst of energy to come into games and provide the team with that little extra something that sparks the team to victory. For Wichita those two “energy creators” are Taylor Oldham and Jared McDonald. McDonald has primarily played in the outfield since joining the team in the middle of August. In 14 games he has hit .279 and scored 10 runs while adding 5 RBI. His production has not only given the team a catalyst off of the bench, but has also given Hooper the confidence that when he puts McDonald in the game, very little if anything is lost by his insertion. The same can be said of Oldham, who has played all over the infield, has hit .285 in 54 games, and driven in 25 runs. Impressively he has made just 1 error despite playing a variety of positions, including pitcher, where he had to relieve and earned a save for the team this last weekend. These two create energy for the team, and have added much to the team’s success.
Respiratory System: Unsung Heroes Breathe Life into Wingnuts Order
There are three guys in this order who quietly go about their business, not seeking accolades, but just playing solid baseball every night. The trio of David Espinosa, Carlo Testa and Chris McClendon don’t grab the headlines. They don’t garner the attention that Clevlen or Khoury get. They just produce. Testa hit fifth for most of the year and was doing an amazing job in the No. 5 spot. However, when the team acquired Nieves and Diaz, he was dropped from No. 5 to No. 7 in the order. This was guy hitting well over .300, had nearly 70 runs scored at the time and 50 RBI. Did he pout as a result? Not a chance. In fact, since the acquisition of Diaz, Testa has gone 16-40 (.400) with 9 runs scored and 6 RBI. The same scenario can be said of McClendon. He was hitting No. 7 in the order, and dropped to ninth with acquisitions. He has gone 12-36 (.333) with 8 runs and 8 RBI. Just another reason why this team is so good. Combined the three have 162 runs scored and 129 driven in. Espinosa and Testa are both hitting .338 and McClendon is at .296. These three allow Nieves, Clevlen and Khoury to grab the headlines, while they go about their business.
While any “system” on this team would in itself be great, it is the sum of all the parts that makes this team so good. They have compiled a team that has set all kinds of records, and now seeks a championship. It is very likely they will reach it, after all they have the makeup of a winner. Oh ya, did we mention they have the DNA of a winner?
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA