My recent post about Brandon Guyer and his fellow Tennessee speedsters included, as it turned out, a rash prediction at the very end. Here is that last paragraph:
The real story to emerge from the minor-league campaign is that the Cubs needed a leadoff hitter and they now have Guyer, Campana and Jackson to choose from. Pity the opponent (the Jacksonville Suns, at the moment, in the Southern League championship series) that has to try to stop all three of them!
Before pronouncing the top of the Smokies’ order unstoppable, I should have looked at the batting average of the guy who would be doing the catching for the Suns, Chris Hatcher. Hatcher hit .202 this year at Jacksonville, down from .218 last year. In 2008, he batted .178 in high A ball. These averages, plus a little Darwinian theory, make it a good bet that when Hatcher is behind the plate rather than beside it, he performs quite well. Hatcher’s caught-stealing rate over five minor-league seasons is an impressive 38%. On the Smokies’ side, Robinson Chirinos’s career percentage is 31, while Clevenger’s stands at 29. Welington Castillo’s career percentage is a gaudy 40. Soto’s is 25 in the majors, 28 in the minors (although in his case, the minor-league defensive records are spotty). Koyie Hill sported a healthy 40% CS rate in 2009, but it’s down to 16 this year. The gold standard for modern CS% is Yadier Molina, with 49 this season and a career number of 47. Ex-Cub Henry Blanco is still on an ML roster at age 38 because his CS% hasn’t fallen below his 12-year average of 43.
(One Cub catching prospect who might bear watching is Luis Flores, who threw out 57% of would-be base stealers–27 of 47–in 47 games at Peoria and Daytona this season.)
Entering the playoffs, Tennessee was second in the Southern League with 147 steals in 139 games. In the four-game divisional series against West Tenn, they stole four bases (two by Guyer) in five attempts. In four games against Jacksonville, they stole no bases in three attempts. A pivotal steal attempt might have been in game two, when in the bottom of the eighth, Tennessee had finally tied the score at six after falling behind early. Campana hit a two-out single to knock in the tying runs, and now he represented the lead run, late in the game, with the Smokies already leading the series 1-0. With Brett Jackson batting, Hatcher nailed Campana attempting to steal second.
Jacksonville would score the winning run in the top of the ninth on a single, a throwing error on a steal of second, and a sac fly. The errant throw was by Clevenger, who had replaced an injured Chirinos two innings earlier.
In game 3, the Smokies had three hits and no steal attempts off lefty Brad Hand, and lost 2-0. Game 4 would be scoreless until the ninth. In the top of the fourth, Guyer singled with one out and was thrown out stealing with Lalli batting. In the sixth inning, Jackson walked with one out but died at first. In the eighth, Campana walked with one out and was thrown out at second when Jackson swung and missed on strike three.
Hatcher led off the home ninth and hit a championship-winning HR, helping people forget that a) he was 1 for 27 in previous at-bats in the playoffs, and b) he had performed ably on defense in the championship round and helped neutralize a Tennessee offense that had seemed unstoppable.
Jacksonville’s pitchers had been helpful, too, by keeping Campana, Jackson and Guyer off the bases. Combined, those three were 8 for 41 in the series. Campana was 3 for 15, with a walk and a double. Jackson was 1 for 10, with a double and three walks. Guyer was 4 for 16 with two home runs and a walk. In steal attemps, Campana was 0 for 2, Guyer 0 for 1.
One piece of bad luck for the Smokies was that Robinson Chirinos was hit in the hand by a pitch in game 3 of the semifinal series. It must have caused discomfort because he sat out the next and final game, which Tennessee won. Chirinos returned for game 1 against Jacksonville and hit a three-run homer, but he was substituted for in the middle of game 2. This was the game where the Smokies rallied to tie and then gave up a cheap run in the ninth. Chirinos was due up in the bottom of the 7th with two runners aboard and the Smokies trailing by a run, but Clevenger pinch hit for him and flied out to end the inning. It seemed like an odd substitution at the time. The next morning’s Knoxville News-Journal reported that Chirinos left the game due to an injury to his throwing hand, and was day-to-day. I’m tempted to connect the dots and conclude that Chirinos had reinjured the hand that was hit by a pitch the previous Saturday. There were at least three unfortunate results of this injury: Chirinos missed the big at-bat with men on; later in the game, his replacement made a throwing error on a steal that allowed the winning run to advance to third, where he would score on a sac fly; and left-handed-hitting Clevenger was in the lineup in place of Chirinos the next day when the Smokies faced that tough lefty second-rounder, Hand.