Relief Pitching Best Path to Majors For Indy Players, Including Saves Milestone-Chaser Wilhelmsen
Many baseball people like to say the easiest path to the major leagues is to become a catcher. Statistics prove otherwise for Independent Baseball players striving to reach the promised land where the minimum salary is a not-so-measly $480,000 a year.
Fifteen of the 18 players who have worn Independent uniforms and currently can boast of being on an active major league roster (or a disabled list) are pitchers, with 13 of them serving in relief roles. Five of the 13 started their professional career on an Indy diamond, six separate leagues can claim one or more of the bullpen hurlers and they are split about as one would expect from the entire pitching corps with five left-handers and eight from the right side.
The path to the big time is not always predictable for relievers, which certainly is the case of the only Independent grad regularly closing out major league games today.
Seattle’s Tom Wilhelmsen was out of baseball for five years (2004-08), spending some of his time bartending and playing coed softball, until he started his comeback with Tucson, AZ. He was so-so (0-0, two saves, 6.17 earned run average for 11 appearances) in the Golden League, but it got the Mariners interested and in less than two seasons he broke into the majors (’11).
Wilhelmsen moved up from eighth inning work to closing games just two months ago (his first save was June 4), and he already is guaranteed of finishing in the top four of all time (1993-2012) for the best save seasons in the major leagues among former Independent hurlers.
He has saved 15 games in 17 opportunities, and has won three of five decisions. The 6-foot-6 right-hander has had a busy season, working in 50 contests so far. He has struck out 65 hitters in 55.2 innings, and has allowed only three home runs while posting a 2.43 earned run average.
The top single-season major league save total for an Independent grad were the 31 posted by Sherrill with Baltimore in ’08 (he had 21 the next season) while Kerry Ligtenberg (Minneapolis, North Central and Prairie Leagues) saved 30 games for Atlanta in 1998 and Jeff Zimmerman (Winnipeg, Northern League) saved 28 in ’01 for Texas.
Kinney, Four Other Relievers Started in Indy League
Josh Kinney, one of the five current major league relievers who started their pro career in Independent Baseball, also is having a solid return in the Seattle bullpen after spending extensive time in the minors in the five years since his strong debut with the World Series-bound St. Louis Cardinals in ’06.
Now 33 and 11 years removed from his start at River City (O’Fallon, MO, Frontier League), Kinney has a 5.23 ERA for 13 appearances (16 strikeouts in 10.1 innings) since coming up from Triple-A.
George Sherrill and Joe Thatcher (also River City) are lefty relievers who started in an Independent league while Aaron Crow of Kansas City (Fort Worth, TX) and Texas’s Tanner Scheppers (St. Paul, MN) both got their start in the American Association. Sherrill and Thatcher are on the Seattle and San Diego disabled lists at present.
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Pitcher of Month Honors Bolster Lane’s Bid
I am beginning to think it is not so crazy to believe Jason Lane could get back to the majors as a pitcher long after the 35-year-old, who throws left and bats right, dropped off that level after he had played nearly 500 games and had hit 61 homers through 2007.
The latest achievement was winning Atlantic League Pitcher of the Month honors for his sterling 1.49 earned run average compiled in five July starts for Sugar Land, TX. He is at 2.50 overall, but has given up only 43 hits in 61.1 innings while winning four of six decisions. Lane got a look from Arizona in spring training, then went to Triple-A Reno, NV, but his pitching had been little more than in mopup roles since college prior to this season.
(This is an excerpt from the column Bob Wirz writes year round on Independent Baseball. Fans may subscribe for 2012 at reduced rates at www.WirzandAssociates.com, enjoy his blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com, or comment to RWirz@aol.com. The author has 16 years of major league baseball public relations experience with Kansas City and as spokesman for two Commissioners and lives in Stratford, CT.)