The Hickory Crawdads passed the one-quarter mark of the season last weekend during the series against Rome (Ga.) Entering Thursday night’s game at West Virginia, the team is at 26-13 and sit in second place, one-half game behind Hagerstown (Md.) in the South Atlantic League’s Northern Division.
The expectation entering the season was that the team would be built around a strong starting rotation that featured four returnees from last season, along with a lineup that was built for speed. For the most part, those expectations have been met. The team ERA of 3.27 is third in the SAL with the squad staying in most games because of overall strong starting pitching. On the bases, Hickory has 90 steals this season, more than the total steal attempts of any other South Atlantic League team.The 43 caught stealing attempts are more than the successful steal attempts of 10 other SAL teams.
I caught up with Crawdads manager Steve Mintz last weekend to get an overall picture of the squad in mid-May.
Now you’re at the quarter pole, so to speak. Standing wise you’re in a good position. Although I know you want to win and all of that, but development is the name of the game. How are things with development as a whole?
Mintz: I think it’s good. The team, they’re getting to know each other better. As far as the team meshing, we’re pretty happy with the direction that it’s going. As far as the pitching, we’ve seen really good signs, both starting and our bullpen. We have our little hiccups here and there, but things we’re able to address and fix quickly.
Defensive wise, I think we’re catching the ball and throwing it very well. There’s a few instances where we don’t get outs that we should get, maybe turning a double play when we’re too slow to the ball, or different things like that that are fixable. The main things that we’re looking for is ready position, and fielding, and angles and all those things are getting better.
Obviously from the baserunning side of it, we’re trying to understand the scoreboard, understand what we’re doing, the pitchers and catchers and what the other teams are trying to do, the times to the plate, can the catcher throw and different things like that.
I think in a nutshell, we’re on pace exactly where we’d like to be, as far as the development side of it. Obviously, winning baseball games helps that out tremendously, being able to address things while you’re winning, instead of not.
I’m guessing you’re pleased with effort. If you’re in first place at this point of the season, the guys see the standings and you don’t really have to address effort very much.
Mintz: There’s different times where we’ve seen the guys go out there and battle and come back from deficits and win. There’s other times when we get a lull there in the dugout and maybe take an at-bat to the field and different things like that. Those are things we can simply address and talk to them about. But for the most part, the effort and the work that they’re putting in before the games, and then obviously the 27 outs that we’re trying to get during the game, no real concerns there.
You said coming into the season that you were going to run and run and run, and you certainly have run and run and run. What are the things that you address as far as trying to teach these guys the running game?
Mintz: First and foremost, where we start at is the scoreboard. We direct every attempt and every decision that we’re making at the scoreboard. Our position is if we’re tied, we’ve got the lead, or we’re down a couple of runs, we’re staying aggressive. We want to continually put pressure on the defense. On the reverse side of that, we don’t want to run into outs.
What we’re starting to see now with the guys is they’re studying the pitchers more. They’re having an idea of their times to the plate. They understand the catcher. They’re understanding, “Do I need to get to second base or do I need to get to third base, or can I wait a couple of pitches and let (Andy) Ibanez drive me in or (Tyler) Sanchez drive me in?” All those things, you’re starting to see those come out.
We’ve still got a lot or work to do in the area. The biggest plus of it all is that they’re going. We’ve told them since the first day of spring training, “We want you to run; we want you to run and I’m not going to be the guy that’s stops you.” The guys that have the green lights; the (other team’s) managers can look at me all they want. I’m not putting on any signs over at third base. I’m watching them (his players) and seeing what they’re doing with their jumps and their leads and their secondaries and all that stuff that they’re supposed to be doing on the bases.
So far, I’m satisfied. Not that we’re where we want to be, but we’re learning. We’re taking a good look at the scoreboard and that’s my biggest thing for them to look at. Look at the scoreboard and you decide is it a time that we need to do this, or is it a time that we don’t need to do this.
Is that the biggest part of correction is to learn when to take those chances or not?
Mintz: The scoreboard and the pitchers. We had one stretch there that were throwing 1.2s, 1.25s to the plate and we were running. They were bang-bang, but we were still out. I’m trying to get them to understand that in those situations that we have to look for pitches. We have to maybe try to pick a 0-2 count, or if we can see a catcher’s sign and go on a breaking ball. So they’re learning things those things. So, if the pitcher gets 1.4 and over, they’re going. They’re going out and trying to get their leads and trying to get the best jump that they can get and go. That’s what we want them to do.
If they understand all those factors and they go and get thrown out, I’ll put them on the behind as they go back to the dugout. That’s what we want them to do. They have to learn how to steal bases. You’ve got Jenkins, Garia’s here now, Clark, De La Rosa, Moore – I think everybody sleeps on him, I don’t know why. But they have to learn how to steal bases.
Coming into the season, you had a strong rotation – at least on paper – with (Dillon) Tate, (Brett) Martin, (Pedro) Payano. (Jonathan) Hernandez has added some nice innings for you after a little bit of a bumpy start. Benjamin and Swanson are split off for now. For the most, your starters have run out some good innings.
Mintz: And they have to. I don’t care if you’re in little league or in the big leagues. Your starting pitching is what carries you. You’re not going to win without it and it’s been proven over and over again. You can’t outhit bad pitching. They’ve given us a chance to win in most of the ballgames that we’ve had. I even talked to the guys today. There’s been two ballgames that we’ve been blown out and they were right here against Greenville. All the other games, we’ve either won them or we’ve been in them. It’s not been some runaway mess, except for the two games. Our starters are doing their job and they’re getting us into the games and giving us an opportunity to score, get leads and even come back late in ballgames. That’s all we can ask from them.
The development side for them and what (pitching coach) Jose Jaimes is doing with them, learning swings and counts and pitch sequences, all are things that come with it. These kids are still learning on how to do. We’re happy to this point. They’ve each had a hiccup here and there, which is fine. We don’t expect them to go out there and have 30 outstanding starts. Where we’re at and what they’re doing, we’re happy. They’ve got more work to put in and more things to learn. It’s all a process, but we’re happy with where they’re at.
For you, who has taken the biggest step forward in the first six weeks?
Mintz: I’m not going to lie about it. (Jose) Almonte has been…
Now, you mentioned him before the season. I’m going to ask you about him. You look at the stats coming into this season at the DSL he didn’t hit much and then he skipped levels to come here. You said back then, “He swings the bat like a man.” Everything I saw and read, I went, “OK”. He’s really made you a prophet here.
Mintz: I might have told you or somebody else at the beginning of the year that I thought he was going to be a wildcard for us coming in. Not a lot going on to this point, but I’ve watched him in the last two or three spring trainings and some instructional league. I mean, the kid’s 18, 19 years old. What he’s been able to do for us in the bottom half of that lineup, being able to drive in runs and I think he’s got four or five home runs. He’s hitting .290, or whatever it is. It gives you that added little punch in your lineup knowing you’ve got a guy there that can hit it out and drive in runs. And he plays a great right field and has a good arm and he runs around out there good.
Maybe not so much a surprise to me. I’m happy for what he’s doing, but I guess I did say he was the wildcard of the bunch. You’ve got some of the other ones that you’ve got expectations for, but with limited expectations for him, I thought he would do what he’s doing.
Martin and Tate came into the season with a checklist. How are they progressing with what you wanted to see from them?
Mintz: I’m not all the way up on what we’re trying to do with them. Obviously, quality starts and offspeed pitches for both of them was a high priority and commanding the zone with their fastballs. Martin coming back in a repeat role and maybe dominate the league for three or four starts and then see what happens.
They’ve both had spots. Tate’s coming back and he’s doing all the stuff that he needs to do to make sure that he’s 100 percent go on everything. They’re pretty close to being on track. As I said, they’re all going to have their little sideways days, but you can’t get too hung up on that. You’ve got to look at the whole body of work and what they’re trying to do. We’re happy where they’re at. There’s no red flags or anything that’s had us so, “oh gosh, we’ve made the wrong decision.”
How much longer does Ibanez get to stay here?
Mintz: I have no idea (laughing). I reckon he’ll be here until they call me and tell me that he needs to get on a plane. Stuff like that is out of my control. I’m just going to mess with him while he’s here and have him do the things he needs to do to be prepared to go to that next step when they ask him to.
When you and I talked before the season, you said there were two things he needed to do: Get used to USA ball and work on some fielding issues. Are both of those progressing as you’d hope?
Mintz: No doubt. I think playing baseball in America, he’s acclimated himself very well to that. His second base play has grown leaps and bounds. Our infield coordinator Kenny Holmberg was in Charleston (S.C.) with us. He made a couple of plays and I walked up to Kenny and I said, “He don’t that play in spring training.” And he said, “You’re right.”
His angles and reading balls off the bat and different things like that, we’re tickled to death with. Obviously, he’s swinging the bat and leading the world in doubles. Everything we’ve wanted him to do, he’s accomplished to this point.