In part one of our interview, we took a look at the position players that stood out for Tri-City. Today, we will dive into the pitcher’s that found success in the Northwest League.
MadFriars’ Announcer Series: Chris King — Part Two
MadFriars: When you look at the pitching staff, there were a lot of interesting guys, including a few college arms that stood out. However, Wen-Hua Sung, a holdover from the 2016 international class had a really good year. What was the biggest turnaround for him from last year to this year?
Chris King: There was quite a bit of growth from Sung; it was great to see. As you mentioned, his numbers were not the greatest in his first year with the Dust Devils. But it was a whole different story for him [this season].
He just seemed like he was a different guy in the sense that — as you said, he was one of the top pitchers for the Dust Devils this year. I think it’s a really tough transition and maybe you overlook that for someone being from Taiwan. No one else speaks his native tongue, as far as a player goes. Terrance Lee was with the Dust Devils for the second straight year. Terrance is a great guy and helped out Jordan Light, the trainer, so Terrance helped out as an athletic trainer but he also serves as Wen-Hua Sung’s interpreter.
I think it’s tough for the Latin players and you think ‘my gosh, all this stuff is new to them’ and they are young and in a situation that is new to them and tries to speak their second language as best as they can, although you do have your teammates to lean on. But for Sung, I just get excited for him when there is someone on another team who’s from Taiwan or has that connection for him. He is someone who has pitched at a high level since he was a Little League World Series hero a decade ago, so I think that baseball being his life and such a big part of him is nothing new.
But as you said, he really turned it around and the strikeout numbers were fantastic. The team ended up breaking the Northwest League record in strikeouts this year and I guess that goes along with the trend in baseball. The Dust Devils actually broke the record they set two years ago. Prior to that, the record had almost stood for 20 years. So that was a fun record to see broken and to track throughout the season.
Mason Fox had quite the dominant stint for Tri-City. What were your thoughts on him?
Chris King: There were a number of players, like Fox, Dom Disabatino and Jake Sims that were position players in college but they were drafted because they have live arms. But Mason Fox was fantastic. It was fun to see him pitch so well to the point where they promoted him not once but twice.
His numbers, from what I saw, were just about as good with the Dust Devils as they were in Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore. So that was really fun to see.
Ethan Elliott dominated the Northwest League after signing with the Padres in June. What can you tell us about him?
Chris King: He has a deceptive fastball that kind of snuck up on hitters. Elliott was a four-year guy from a Division II school in Tennessee but Elliott just kind of fit in perfectly. He was mowing down hitters in his Division II conference and he did almost the same thing with the Dust Devils. He comes out and throws strikes — he had four walks in 35.2 innings. He threw a lot of innings this spring, so he didn’t get to throw deep into games with the Dust Devils. He was a guy that you couldn’t ask for much more.
[In terms of velocity] Elliott might be more consistently in the high-80’s. The scouting report of Elliott is that his fastball was deceptively fast. When you see that fastball, it had good movement to it and a lot of times guys couldn’t catch up to it.
Jason Blanchard had a great season and finished on an absurd run of scoreless appearances. What can you tell us about him?
Chris King: If you just looked at his numbers and you thought, ‘okay, he went 1-3 with a 3.38 ERA, that’s a solid first season,’ but I don’t think those numbers tell the whole story. In his last nine outings, he didn’t give up an earned run. That streak went 28.1 innings. He had some bumpy outings in the beginning but he started the combined no-hitter that the Dust Devils threw at the end of June.
Once he found his footing, he was so good for the Dust Devils. Blanchard and Elliott were two guys at the end of the season that the team had the most confidence in on the mound. When they got to the playoffs, those guys weren’t going to pitch deep into games but you were excited to see them on the mound because they were so good and so consistent. In Blanchard’s case, once he hit his stride after his first few outings but they were both so good for the Dust Devils and that carried into the playoffs.
In terms of pitcher’s who could work a little deeper into games, Nick Thwaits had some good moments during the season but overall what were your impressions of him?
Chris King: Nick Thwaits was strong. He was the opening day starter for the Dust Devils and he started the last game of the championship series. So it kind of came full circle with him. The Northwest League level has kind of changed a little bit in the sense that when I started in 2012, you’d have a pretty consistent rotation. You would have guys that would go five or six innings it seemed like more often than not.
But now it’s a six-man rotation for the Dust Devils and there were piggyback starters. So in a sense, it’s fun to see a guy like Nick Thwaits who got a chance to go a little deeper into games. He had a strong, solid season overall. He had some really good outings. He was the Northwest Pitcher of the Week and had a really good outing at Hillsboro. He’s a guy that’s just in his second year out of high school.
Ignacio Feliz was acquired from Cleveland last off-season and had a solid run as well. What can you tell us about him?
Chris King: Feliz is quite interesting. He was acquired in that trade for former Dust Devil Walker Lockett, so it was especially exciting to see him. Feliz had a solid season overall and both [he and Thwaits] had an outing that stood out. Feliz had a great outing in Vancouver, which is a tough place because they get over 6,000 for most games. Feliz went six scoreless innings. So it’s fun to see those guys who can pitch deeper into games to get a chance to flourish and get a chance to get settled in a little bit, even if they have a bumpy first inning.
Jake Sims was a small college position player that converted to pitching and posted some really big strikeout numbers. I know he had some issues with walks but he seems like a really interesting arm. What were your impressions of him?
Chris King: He has a really electric arm. We were spoiled a little bit; he’s not an Andres Muñoz-type of arm but Muñoz spent parts of two seasons and he has about as live of an arm as you can see. While Sims isn’t an arm of that degree, we’re talking about a guy that can throw gas.
Sims pitched in 22 games and over his last 10, he was 3-0, with a 3.00 ERA and had 21 strikeouts in 15 innings and had eight walks in those 15 innings which is maybe not ideal but much more manageable than the walk-per-inning that he was close to average. We started to see that transition [to pitching] and the work that he put in with [Dust Devils] pitching coach Leo Rosales. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he was a project but he was a 31st-round draft pick and he was drafted because he has an electric arm and he turned into a guy that was really reliable out of the bullpen.
Going back to the position player side, is there any guy — or maybe a few guys — that kind flew under-the-radar and were just really good for Tri-City in 2019? Also, who would be your selection of player of the year?
Chris King: It’s a good question for the player of the year. Kelvin Melean cooled off towards the end of the season but when you look at his numbers, he finished not only first on the Dust Devils in batting average but he finished second in the league in batting average. He was a guy that was in the top-ten in the Northwest League in a few different offensive categories.
He was in his second tour of duty with the Dust Devils. He had been with the team in 2017 as kind of a young but highly touted infield with Luis Almanzar and Justin Lopez. I know those haven’t flourished as quickly as some folks would have hoped but I am keeping my fingers crossed that Almanzar and Lopez develop into big-time players but I know it hasn’t gone the smoothest for them at the higher levels, beyond their time with the Dust Devils. So Melean was part of the infield with those guys and he was 18.
Even at 20, he’s still a younger guy overall in the Northwest League but he felt like a veteran because he had been around two years ago. He did everything you could ask of him and at the same point, I mentioned that no-hitter, he had a defensive play in that game that robbed Everett of a hit and it seems like every time there’s a no-hitter or a perfect game, there’s always one play that you look back on and without that play, that historic game doesn’t happen. And that was Kelvin Melean’s play at third base; he played outstanding defense at the hot corner. As far as Team MVP goes, Melean gets that vote.