Blue Jays: Analyzing the Fisher Cats dominant playoff run

The Toronto Blue Jays Double-A affiliate captured the Eastern League title on Friday, here’s how they did it

NYSEG Field after the rain washed out a May 2017 Binghamton-New Hampshire game. Photo by Roy Widrig.

 

All season long, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats have been a pleasant diversion for Blue Jays fans. Obviously, the Jays’ Double-A affiliate was home to the one and only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the first four months of the season, before his promotion to AAA Buffalo. The Vlad-less Fisher Cats finished the season well enough, posting an 18-18 record. However, they weren’t quite as strong as they had been with Vlad—the Fisher Cats boasted a 58-44 record prior to his promotion—falling out of top spot in their division by season’s end.

 

The last ten days have been a very different story. The Fisher Cats have looked like a team possessed since the start of the Eastern League postseason, resulting in last night’s Eastern League Championship victory.

 

The win was driven by great performances throughout the team. Over six games, the Fisher Cats’ offense was electric, producing 40 runs (6.67 per game) and a slash line of .268/.346/.359. It ran on good contact (.340 BABIP) and good plate discipline (11.4% walk rate), with strikeouts limited reasonably well—the Cats’ 21.9% playoff K rate is only slightly higher than the Eastern League average of 21.3%.

 

Power was in relatively low supply in both series—both teams in both series struggled to meet the Eastern League average (.137 ISO)—but the Cats’ produced the majority of it in each. Ultimately, by having base runners on so often (.346 OBP), the Fisher Cats were able to convert a little power into a lot of runs.

 

 

The pitching and defense were just as strong, giving up a stingy 12 runs against (2 per game) and a .235/.286/.310 slash line. The Fisher Cats improved on a solid performance against Trenton in the divisional series (.672 OPS/.300 wOBA against) by completely shutting down Akron in the championship series, limiting them to a .522 OPS/.235 wOBA.

 

The offense produced five runs or more in five of six games, led by the top of the team’s batting order. The standout of the bunch was number three batter and Postseason MVP, Harold Ramirez. Ramirez, the Eastern League’s batting champ (.320 AVG) during the regular season, produced a .400/.480/.600 slashline, driving home five runs and scoring seven runs himself. As a personal favorite of mine, I look forward to seeing where Ramirez rises to in off-season prospect lists.

 

Cleanup hitter Cavan Biggio, the Eastern League’s regular season MVP, didn’t hit a homer until the final game of the Championship series, but still contributed offensively throughout, thanks to a number of singles and walks (.333/.462/.500). Bo Bichette, the team’s top-rated prospect and number two batter, similarly had a light-hitting but effective postseason performance for the Cats, with eight singles driving him to a .346/.393/.385 slash line. Jon Berti, the team’s veteran leadoff hitter, wasn’t necessarily at his best (.261/.370/.304) but did get on base 37% of the time and stole three bags (out of three attempts), exactly what one wants from a leadoff hitter.

 

Behind the plate, duties were split between prospect Max Pentecost and veteran Patrick Cantwell. While Pentecost didn’t shine in his four starts (.188/.278/.375), Cantwell stepped up in limited action (.500/.500/.750), driving in the first run of the Championship clinching game with a double before scoring the second run of the game himself.

 

Forrest Wall and Santiago Espinal, two recent Blue Jay acquisitions, had Berti-like performances, displaying limited power but getting on base often enough. Wall (.238/.333/.286) managed to get on base in all but one game, scoring five times. His postseason was highlighted by an extra innings game-winning double in Game 1 of the ELCS. Espinal (.211/.286/.211), on the other hand, had two very different series—he was limited to a single in nine plate appearances against Trenton (getting benched for Game 3), but produced three singles and two walks against Akron, good for a .417 OBP in the ELCS.

 

Joshua Palacios (.250/.304/.350) acquitted himself well, considering he had a total of three career plate appearances at Double-A prior to the playoffs. Palacios managed to make most of his hits count, finding himself among the team leaders in RBI, with six. His two-out bases-loaded (and clearing) triple in Game 2 of the divisional series was his biggest contribution, putting what was a 7-3 game well and truly out of reach.

 

Just as impressive as the offense the pitching staff and defense was top notch, combining to concede one run or less in four of six games. Fielding errors are an imperfect stat, but the Fisher Cats’ single error through six games paints a picture of a defense that came to win a Championship. A particular standout performer on defence was Gunnar Heidt. While he struggled at the plate (.143/.250/.143), Heidt was fantastic defensively at first base.

 

Between the starting rotation and bullpen, there is no shortage of strong pitching performances to highlight. The starters ate innings, going an average of 5.1 innings per start and producing a 2.27 ERA. The bullpen was fantastic, conceding only three earned runs over 22.1 innings for an eye-popping 1.21 ERA.

 

With two strong starts under his belt, T.J. Zeuch was the standout starting pitcher for the Fisher Cats. He went six innings in both starts, keeping Trenton scoreless and limiting Akron to one run. His 1.42 WHIP seems a lot worse than it is—all 12 hits that he conceded were singles, including seven groundballs and five liners. He struck out 18.4% of the batters he faced.

 

Jordan Romano was the other member of the Fisher Cats rotation with two starts. He limited the opposition to three earned runs over ten innings, avoiding the long ball on his way to a 1.00 WHIP. He struck out 17.5% of the batters he faced.

 

Hector Perez and Jon Harris started the other two games. Perez got a shot in Game 2 of divisional series, but only went 3.1 innings after surrendering six hits (including two dingers), two walks and three runs. In his place, Harris got the start in Game 2 of the Championship series. Harris had a solid game, going 6.1 innings, while surrendering only one earned run on five hits and no walks. He also managed to strike out seven of the 24 batters he faced (29.2%).

 

Perez’s short start led to a fantastic long-relief performance by Tayler Saucedo, the Fisher Cats #5 starter during the regular season, in his lone appearance of the postseason. Saucedo came into the fourth inning of a 5-3 game with the tying run at the plate and one out and induced an inning-ending double play. He ended up pitching 3.2 scoreless innings, conceding only one hit and one walk against two strikeouts.

 

Kirby Snead was the standout reliever in a quality Fisher Cat bullpen, pitching five scoreless innings in a late-inning setup role. He gave up only one hit (a groundball single) and three walks against six strikeouts. Travis Bergen was just as important to the Fisher Cat bullpen, shutting down four of the six games. Bergen pitched 4.1 innings, giving up three hits and one walk against five strikeouts. His lone earned run occurred with the Cats up 8-4 in the ninth with two outs in the Championship clincher.

 

Danny Young, Dusty Isaacs and Corey Copping each made their own useful contributions out of the ‘pen. Young provided volume, pitching five innings of relief over three appearances (2 ER, 1.00 WHIP, 21% K rate). Isaacs pitched 1.2 innings, only giving up a hit and a walk against three strikeouts. Copping, the Blue Jays’ return in the John Axford trade, pitched three scoreless innings, with two hits and a hit-batsman against six strikeouts. Since joining the Fisher Cats, Copping has struck out 26 of 73 batters, producing an impressive 35.6% K rate.

 

An honourable mention goes to fireballer Jackson McClelland. As a recent callup, he wasn’t high on the Cats’ postseason pecking order, getting into one game. Nevertheless, he made an impression in his lone postseason appearance, striking out a batter with a 98 mph heater.

 

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats produced an utterly dominant postseason performance, winning all six games they played. For players like Bichette, Biggio, Romano, Zeuch and Snead, winning championships is becoming old hat, after their postseason success with High-A Dunedin in 2017. The bulk of this team will likely spend 2019 in Triple-A with the Buffalo Bisons, looking to win yet another championship.

 

This season’s success at Double-A has been great to see in its own right. Nevertheless, I think it’s definitely a big bonus that the coming wave of Blue Jays prospects have already developed a taste for postseason success and an understanding of the focus and determination it takes to win championships.

 

*Featured Image Credit: Ryan

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.