Texas AirHogs: 2019 Season Recap
In American Association Daily, Robert Pannier looks back on the 2019 American Association season of the Texas AirHogs. This includes looking at the top player and pitcher as well as what to expect in 2020.
The 2019 Texas AirHogs Review
It was year two of the great Chinese National Team experiment in Texas and this year proved to go a lot better than the first. The 2018 AirHogs finished 25-75 and lost nine of their final 10 games, including losing their last seven games of the season. They never won more than three straight games and did that just one time.
The 2019 version did not have many of the same players from the 2018 Chinese National group meaning they were basically starting from scratch. However, this was a vastly improved team. The AirHogs finished 28-72, and twice won as many as four games in a row.
Even more important was the fact that many of these young Chinese players flourished. Li Ning, one of the few holdovers from 2018, went from a .226 average in 36 games to a .285 average in 78 games in 2019. He scored 39 runs and finished with an impressive .387 on-base percentage.
Zhang Tao blossomed into one of the best starters in the American Association over the final month, finishing the season 4-6 with a 4.02 ERA. He went 3-0 in his last three starts, allowing two total runs in 20.0 innings, including carrying a no-hitter into the eighth in his final start of the year.
This is a team that improved all year long under first year manager Chris Bando. The Texas AirHogs finished May at 2-13 and went 6-20 in June. They were hitting just .212 heading into July, and this looked like it could be a very long summer, but that was not to be the case.
The hitting improved in July, as they finished with a .270 batting average while going 8-20. They would step it up in August, going 11-19 and posted an ERA of less than five for the month for the first time in 2019. Their 11 wins were also the most posted in a month since August of 2017.
By the Numbers
(league rankings are listed in parenthesis)
Record: 28-72 (Sixth in South, 12th in League)
Home: 15-36 (12)
Away: 13-36 (11)
Extra Innings: 3-3
Hitting: .238 (12)
Pitching: 5.76 (11)
Fielding: .968 (11)
Batting Average: Jonathan Moroney (.315)
Homers: Stewart Ijames (10)
RBI: Stewart Ijames (50)
Runs Scored: Stewart Ijames (39)
Stolen Bases: Josh Prince (18)
ERA: Brett Eibner (1.00)
Wins: Tyler Matzek (5)
Losses: Zech Lemond (13)
Saves: Carlos Contreras (4)
IP: Zech Lemond (98.2)
Strikeouts: Zech Lemond (83)
Team MVP: Stewart Ijames
Stewart Ijames did everything the team could have asked from him and more. Not only did he put together an all-star season, hitting .278 in 81 games, but he was also a great role model for these young Chinese players who were looking for someone to show them how to be a professional on and off the field. Plus, he even pitched in seven games.
Ijames got off to a slow start, hitting .186 coming out of May, but he caught fire in June, hitting .312 with 5 homers and 20 RBI in 24 games. He continued to impress in July, hitting .289 in 24 games with 15 more RBI. By August, the Texas outfielder became one of the most coveted players in the league, and he was soon after dealt to the Kansas City T-Bones.
In 81 games for the AirHogs, Ijames hit .278 with 39 runs scored and 50 RBI. He led the team in RBI, runs scored, and homeruns (10). He also added 15 doubles and tripled three times to go along with 45 walks. Ijames finished with a .375 on-base percentage in Texas.
Top Pitcher: Zhang Tao
Zhang Tao proved one thing this season. These Chinese players can be pretty good. He was one of the few holdovers from 2018, when he went 3-3 with a 5.83 ERA. This season, things started out much like last year, as he did not earn his first victory until July 3 and sat out much of July with nagging injuries.
However, he returned in August and really looked like he had turned the corner on his career. The right-hander dropped his first two starts after returning, giving up four runs in four innings in each of those starts. He then took a no-decision on August 14, the game where he became a professional pitcher.
After giving up a single run in three of the first four innings, the righty settled down to allow just one more run over the next three frames. Most importantly, he kept his team in the game and the AirHogs responded, scoring three runs in the eighth to force extra innings in a game they won in 11.
That outing clearly changed his confidence and his approach. Zhang Tao came back in the next three starts to win them all, allowing two total runs in his final 21 innings pitched. In his August 20 start, he allowed one hit in seven innings to the Lincoln Saltdogs, then had a no-hitter through 7.2 innings on August 31. He allowed seven hits and six walks in his final three starts combined, striking out 19 in that span.
For the season, Zhang Tao made 13 starts, posting a 4.02 ERA. He tossed 69.1 innings, allowing 47 hits while striking out 62.
What to Expect in 2020
Many will look at 28 wins and think that was a really bad team, but the Texas AirHogs made huge strides in 2019 and that should bode well for them in 2020. They not only should see a number of these players return, but the team made some bold moves at the end of the season which should bolster their roster for next season.
The biggest is catcher Christian Correa, who will be a great teacher and leader for this team. The AirHogs also acquired a pair of right-handers from Winnipeg – Parker French and Mitchell Aker. Aker is an outstanding reliever and French could be a guy who makes 18-2o starts and could post an ERA at or below four.
It would be farfetched to think that this team will win 60 games next year, but 40 is reasonable and will likely be the goal. They could quickly become the team no one wants to face but, most importantly, they will be the team that no one pencils in a sweep when they see the AirHogs on the schedule. This team will make every club battle for wins, and we expect to see Texas put together at least one five game winning streak next season.
By Robert Pannier