December 4, 2023

Weird, Weirder, Weirdest

August 6, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

The independent minor leagues are not as independent as they used to be.  A number of them (namely, the Atlantic League, the Pioneer League, the American Association, and the Frontier League) are listed as Major League “Partner” leagues.  According to MLB, “These leagues will collaborate with MLB on initiatives to provide organized baseball to communities throughout the United States and Canada while working to expand the geographic reach of the game.”

The Pecos League, a 16-team independent league, is not an MLB Partner League.  They are truly independent.  And they are likely to remain that way.  To be sure, they are providing “organized” baseball to smaller metro areas west of the Mississippi, but the response from the community, for the most part, has been less than enthusiastic.

A little more than a year ago I reported on the Austin Weirdos, a new team in the Pecos League that played in front of minuscule crowds at a sub-par field.  It was a bit surprising that the team returned for a sophomore season.  Wondering if the situation had improved, I started to follow the team again this year.  Since the Pecos League season lasts but two months, this was not particularly burdensome.

Blackwell FlycatchersThe Weirdos joined the league last year along with Weimar, a town about 80 miles south of Austin.  The Weimar Hormigas didn’t make it past their rookie year.  Since hormigas is Spanish for ants, I guess you could say they were exterminated.  Or that the 2022 season was no picnic for them.  They were replaced by a franchise in Blackwell, Oklahoma.  Nicknamed after a bird, the Flycatchers have an inspired moniker for a baseball team, though it leaves the team open to wisecracks any time a fielder misplays a fly ball.

The Weirdos didn’t set the world on fire in 2022.  Still, their record of 19-30 was not that bad considering they were a new team with little fan support and an inferior ballpark even by high school standards.  In fact, they finished ahead of Weimar and the Colorado Springs Snow Sox.  There was plenty of room for improvement in 2023, but it never happened.  Not that things stayed the same; they got worse – much worse.

The first thing I noticed about the 2023 Weirdos was their change of venue.  The team had abandoned Parque Zaragoza, last year’s home, for a new home called Govalle Park.  Like Zaragoza, Govalle is part of the City of Austin parks system.  Judging by the pictures of the field on the internet, it did not appear to be an improvement.

While the other teams in the league had posted their rosters before opening day, the Weirdos were dragging their feet…or should I say cleats?  When they finally posted their roster, I could only wonder who are these guys?  The hometown for all their players was listed as “Houston.”  Well, Houston is a big city and the subtropical climate is baseball-conducive so it does turn out a fair number of professional ballplayers, but a clean sweep of the roster defies the odds.

I suspect that the Houston reference is to the Pecos League headquarters, which is located in the Bayou City.  Or it could be to the Houston Apollos, one of three teams in the Pecos Spring League.  During March these teams play at their “spring training” field on the Highway 8 Loop in Houston.  So the 2023 Austin Weirdos may have been hand-picked by the league office, or they could be a regular season incarnation of the springtime Houston Apollos.  Or there may be another explanation.  Hey, I’m just spitballing here.

The Apollos web site says that the team was established in 2002.  Yet the Pecos League was founded in 2010.  There may be a simple explanation for that 8-year gap, but it eludes me.  It is interesting to note that during the 2021 season, the Apollos played as a travel team in the American Association and finished 17-83.  That might sound pathetic, but it was far better than the Weirdos did in 2023.

The Weirdos’ first loss of the 2023 season occurred on opening day, May 31st.  Final score: Tucson Saguaros 36, Austin Weirdos 4.  Well, surely that will be the nadir of the season, I thought.  Nowhere to go but up.

Man, was I ever wrong.

After opening day the team not only continued to lose, they continued to suck.  Sometimes the losses were more “reasonable” (7-0 against Tucson on June 1, 10-1 against the Alpine Cowboys on June 3, 9-4 against the Roswell Invaders, the defending Pecos League champions, on June 7).  In one slugfest they were actually competitive, losing 15-12 to Alpine on June 9.  Yet blowouts were all too common (29-4 against Tucson on June 2, 15-0 against Alpine on June 4, and 21-0 and 22-2 against Roswell on June 5 and 6).

Given such a dismal start and the Pecos League’s short season, it was conceivable that the Weirdos could go wire to wire without experiencing the thrill of victory, knowing only the agony of defeat.  Yet on June 10 the hopes for a season-long losing streak were dashed as the Weirdos, entering the game 0-9, defeated Alpine 9-5.  For winning pitcher Joseph Richter, it was his only appearance of the season for the Weirdos (he also had 7 appearances for the Bakersfield Train Robbers of the Pacific Division).

The next day the Weirdos returned to form and were soundly trounced (24-7) by Alpine.  More than likely, Alpine manager Sean Persky gave the Cowboys a severe tongue-lashing after that loss the day before.

A 24-7 loss might be just another day at the office for the 2023 Weirdos, yet in retrospect that game stood out for another reason: It was their final home game of the season.  After the Alpine series, a curious thing happened.  A three-game home series against Blackwell was rained out.  Even more curious, the June 14 game was listed as a rainout on June 13!

I live about 200 miles from Austin and whenever monsoon style rains or flooding hit Central Texas, I hear about it.  I did not hear about any such meteorological activity, but maybe I didn’t get the memo.  So I checked the official weather record for Austin on June 12-14.  No rain.  I’m no Zen master so I won’t even take a stab at explaining how a cancellation can be both a rainout and a non-rainout.

Was there some other force at work?  Did the lights malfunction?  Had a sinkhole swallowed up the field?  Did a sewage pipe burst in the restroom and contaminate the grounds?  Had gold been discovered under the pitching rubber?  Was the field roped off because a UFO landed there?  Had the team missed a payment to the City of Austin’s Parks & Recreation Department?   Hmmmmm.

As it turned out, the Weirdos did not play another game in Austin the rest of the season.  All the remaining home games on their schedule were converted to road games.  After just five home games, the Weirdos were a travel team for the rest of the season.

Not that the team needed further demoralization, but that seems to be what happened after the three-day “deluge.”  The Santa Fe Fuego beat them by scores of 24-1, 29-6, 41-12, and 24-3.  Rainouts or not, that 41-run mark was the high-water mark of the season.  The Weirdo woes continued against the Trinidad (CO) Triggers with losses of 33-3 and 30-22.

Think about it: How often do you see a team score 22 runs and lose the game?  Believe it or not, that is not a record.  The Phillies once lost to the Cubs 26-23 but it was more than a century ago (August 25, 1922).

Surprisingly, the Weirdos were relatively competitive against Blackwell, losing a 5-game series by scores of 13-12, 22-15, 17-15, 18-7, and 19-8.  The fifth game was a legitimate rainout, sort of a moral victory for the Weirdos.

Nevertheless, the losses continued to mount as the Weirdos took on their Mountain Division rivals (no mountains anywhere near Austin but the city does sit on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country).  That includes all the aforementioned teams as well as the Garden City (KS) Wind.  When the season ended, the Weirdos had a record of 1-47.  To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the shortest of seasons, it was the longest of seasons.

Obviously, the Weirdos’ stats are atrocious.  The team ERA was north of 20.00 in the early going, but it “improved” to 17.58 by the end of the season.  For sure, that was by far the worst mark in the league, but the Weirdos were not the only team with a morbidly obese ERA.  In the Mountain Division, the Santa Fe Fuego (16-31) registered 13.73 and the Blackwell Flycatchers (17-24) 10.87.  In the Pacific Division (all California teams), the worst offender was the Dublin Leprechauns (4-44) at 14.7 (wouldn’t be surprised if their fans refer to them as the Lepers).  Another double-digit ERA (10.77) was compiled by the Vallejo Seaweed (12-37).  Clearly, the Kelp need help.

During the 2023 season, more than 200 pitchers toiled for the eight teams in the Mountain Division of the Pecos League.  That’s an average of 25 different pitchers for each team – for a two-month season!  Considering how ineffective the pitching is, I have to wonder: Why not do away with pitchers and convert the Pecos League to an adult T-ball league?  The scores probably wouldn’t be any  higher.

Of course, if you like a nice, neat scorecard, the Pecos League is not for you.  .300 team batting averages are rare in MLB, but not in the PL.  In the Mountain Division, for example, the Alpine Cowboys led the way with a .355 batting average.  Trinidad was right behind at .353.  Even the lowly Weirdos hit .329 in the course of winning just one game.

Inflated hitting statistics aside, if you believe in the maxim “good pitching stops good hitting,” it still applies in the Pecos League, but keep in mind that “good pitching” is relative.  In the Mountain Division, the champions were the Tucson Saguaros (32-13) with a division-leading team ERA of 5.49.  Their counterparts in the Pacific Division were the San Rafael Pacifics (38-8), with a 4.53 mark, the best in the league.  Neither of these ERAs is impressive, but in the Pecos League they were the best of show.

Believe it or not, there were a few hurlers who stood out.  Alex Valasek of the San Rafael Pacifics was 6-2 with a 1.67 ERA.  Dominic Scotti appeared in 21 games for the Monterey Amberjacks and went 4-1 with 8 saves, while his teammates Eric Parnow and Greg Salazar both went 7-1.

In the Mountain Division Humberto Vela was 7-2 for Roswell while Ben Kowalski was 7-1 for Trinidad, and Jaymon Cervantes was 6-1 at Tucson.  At Alpine, Dom Spinoso and Cameron Mulvihill were both 6-1 while Matthew Hess went 7-0 and reliever Bryson Spagnudo earned 7 saves with a 2.72 ERA.

At the other extreme, some of the negative stats are jaw-dropping.  Consider this sampling from the Weirdos:

Olson Moon, 33.40 ERA, 5.6 WHIP

Jackson Boone, 26.50 ERA, 4.71 WHIP

Dean Streich, 19.90 ERA, 4.57 WHIP

Ian Farris, 69.40 ERA, 11 WHIP;

Santiago Rodriguez, 54.00 ERA, 7.66 WHIP,

Aaron Cuellar, 21.60 ERA, 4.83 WHIP;

Andrew Lopez, 20.80 ERA, 3.57 WHIP

I could go on, but let me conclude with Yamil Matos, 101.00 ERA, 17 WHIP.  Now you might think that he appeared in just one game and ate some innings to give the bullpen a rest.  No, he appeared in three games.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to forfeit?

Of course, none of the above got a win or a save.  Only nine times did the Weirdos’ pitchers hold the competition to less than double digits in scoring.  Even in the few games wherein they were competitive they fell short: They had just four one-run games and lost them all.

Now if I were a consultant to the Pecos League, I could come up with plenty of suggestions, but a lot of them would involve the expenditure of money, which I gather they don’t have.  But there’s one thing they could do that wouldn’t involve any expenses: Cut back on the number of teams.

Given the inflated ERAs in the Pecos League, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are too many pitchers, and if there are too many pitchers, that’s because there are too many teams.  The other independent minor leagues make do with fewer teams.  The Atlantic League and the Pioneer League have 10 teams each, and the American Association has 12.  Admittedly, the Frontier League has 16 teams, but that was the result of a merger with the former Can-Am League, not expansion.

In MLB it is a given that expansion dilutes the talent base.  When the NL and AL expanded in the early 1960’s, that added 100 players to the ranks of major league ballplayers.  With 16 teams before 1961, there were 400 players in both leagues, so that meant there was a 25% increase in personnel.  Some individuals were given a chance they might not have had otherwise and proved worthy.  But most of them would have remained career minor-leaguers if not for expansion.  Conversely, contraction has the opposite effect.  Sure, a lot of players would be out of a job but the best players on the contracted teams would find a home.  The result would be a league-wide upgrade in the level of play.

Why not keep the teams with the best facilities and fan bases and jettison the others?  I take no joy in such a prescription, since I realize it would leave some fans high and dry.  Having lost a couple of minor league teams in my area in the past decade, I can relate.  I still miss those teams.  Given the attendance records of the Pecos League, however, I’m pretty sure few people would miss the lesser franchises, largely because few people are aware they exist.  That is certainly true of the Austin Weirdos, who would surely be the first to get the heave-ho if the Pecos League ever downsized.  Several other franchises are also good candidates.  If a team can’t compete in this league, then they should be euthanized.

I’m not going to suggest how many teams to eliminate.  Assuming that the best players on the eliminated teams would find new homes in the remaining teams, the league’s quality of play would be boosted no matter how many teams were deep-sixed.  So in cheerleading for this policy, the chant should be “2-4-6-8, which teams to eliminate?”

As I said at the outset of this article, I was surprised that the Weirdos returned in 2023; I will be shocked if they return in 2024.  I am reminded of the old W.C. Fields saying:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Then quit.  There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

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