The Fort Wayne TinCaps returned to the field in 2021 after a one year absence – or as radio play-by-play man Mike Maahs looks at it, 610 days between baseball games. During that time, they moved up to High-A, and continued their stretch as the best A-Ball Ballpark in minor league baseball. Even though the TinCaps failed to make the playoffs for the third season in a row, there were still plenty of bright spots. Pitchers Ethan Elliott and Matt Waldron emerged as prospects, while the offense was led by Agustin Ruiz and the doubles machine Tirso Ornelas.
As he has for 19 seasons, Maahs saw many of the TinCaps’ highlights from the press box. In addition to his responsibilities for the TinCaps, Maahs is in his 27th year as a broadcaster for Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he calls men’s and women’s volleyball and women’s basketball.
Mike was nice enough to answer some questions about the 2021 TinCaps.
The interview has been lightly edited.
MadFriars: With no season last year, what were your expectations for Parkview Field and fan interaction this year? Did the fans respond as well as you had hoped?
Mik Maahs: For someone like me who has broadcast minor league baseball since 2003, not experiencing minor league ball for a year is something I never want to experience again. Because of the pandemic and the rules and guidelines, we weren’t sure what to expect. When the season began in May, we had a max of 3,000 fans seated in pods of four with a mask. Our first game without these restrictions was the Fourth of July. Once the guidelines were relaxed, we had over 220,000 fans come through by the end of the season. That number was actually in 59 games instead of 60 since we had the Mothers Day game rained out.
So did the fans respond? Yes, they responded better then what I could have even dreamed of.
As someone who has called Low-A games for nearly two decades, did you notice a difference in play with the promotion to High-A this year?
Mike Maahs: I definitely noticed a difference. The big parts were in age, talent and maturity. For the previous three campaigns, not only were we the youngest team in the Midwest League but we were one of the youngest in all of full season minor league baseball. The year Fernando Tatis Jr. was in Fort Wayne, the team leaders were both 18. This year, we had a pitcher who is 26. In 2019 that would have been impossible, as the age limit for Low-A is 25.
The maturity is another noticeable thing, mainly in preparation for the game. The goal for every hitter is to impress the big league club, which made many young players want to swing as hard as they could all the time. In Low-A, when you got two strikes on a batter, a huge majority of hitters were keying in on the fastball. Since pitchers were not stupid, a lot of them would throw a breaking ball down and away, and more often than not the batter would swing. I realized pretty quickly that that doesn’t happen nearly as much at the High-A level. The players were not only older, but they have received more instruction, and were trying to perfect their strong points. From a hitter’s standpoint, you are learning pitcher tendencies, and are better able to recognize a pitch in the zone compared to the slider that ends up a foot off the plate.
It was also interesting just how many college players we had. College baseball has been growing by leaps and bounds, and the players who come here out of college, it is evident that they have already been through the grind of a long season, and know how to prepare. No offense to the high school players or the international signings, but so many of the college players have been coming in as students of the game. It doesn’t mean that every college player will make the majors, but the High-A players have a lot higher floor than what we were used to seeing.
On the mound the team was led by High-A Central’s Pitcher of the Month for May in left-hander Ethan Elliott. In his nearly three months with the club before his promotion, what about him stood out to you?
Mike Maahs: My nickname for Ethan Elliott when he was with us was “Bulldog”. Ethan was 24-years old this year and he had all the self confidence in the world. Whenever I think of him, I have to go back to his third start of the season. It was our first road trip of the year, and we had a five- man rotation for a six game series, meaning whoever tossed in the Tuesday game, would throw again on Sunday against the same team.
In his first start he gave up three runs and we lost 3-0. The adjustments Elliott made during the rest of the week, ended up producing arguably the best start we had all year. He went six innings, no runs, one hit, no walks, and 13 strikeouts.
One of the nice things about Elliott, was that while some games are lasting over four hours, he would just take the ball and throw it. I think most of our quickest games were with him on the mound He knew what he wanted to throw, could hit his spots, and would just go out there and had faith that if he put the ball where he wanted it, a player couldn’t hit it.
The knuckleball is rarely seen, but Matt Waldron picked it up last spring. What were your thoughts calling his starts, and did you see a difference with his knuckleball as the season progressed?
Mik Maahs: Many people knew this, but the knuckler was just something Waldron was playing around with during spring training. It’s common to see a lot of players play with throwing one during spring training, but settle back into their normal repertoire when the season starts. But when he started throwing his you could see that this could be something.
I don’t know how many pitchers throw six pitches effectively, but Waldron can, and can throw them all for strikes. His knuckleball became his pitch, and he was really working tirelessly to perfect it. There were plenty of times where he would hit a batter or quickly fall behind 3-0 to a batter, and you would often see him revert back to his fastball to get the out, but he liked throwing it.
Both he and Elliott were among the league leaders before they moved up. After seeing the amount of work that Waldron put in during the season to improve, if he can continue that work ethic, there is no reason why he can’t be in San Diego by September of next year.
Besides the two already mentioned, was there another pitcher that really impressed you this past season?
Mike Maahs: There were two pitchers that really impressed me. From a full season perspective, Edwuin Bencomo. He had 31 outings, 3.97 ERA, 71 strikeouts. For the first six weeks of the season, Bencomo was the bullpen in Fort Wayne. He would go out in both long and short relief and could just slam the door every time. His best pitch is his changeup, and his fastball got better as the season progressed.
For the first two months, he was really the only reliable reliever in Fort Wayne, had a bit of a rough patch in the middle, but finished out the season strong. His changeup will be the pitch that could get thim to San Diego, and I think he is good enough to make it.
The other pitcher that really stood out to me was Kevin Kopps. After one outing, I could see why he won so many awards with Arkansas this year. He only pitched in eight games here, but didn’t allow a run while striking out 10.
Everyone raves about his slider/cutter, and it is truly an exceptional pitch, but his fastball and breaking ball are underrated. He could locate all three pitches wherever he wanted to, and then would go to the slider for the strikeout. After a couple of games, I knew he would fly through the minors, and will be in San Diego before you know it. We didn’t have Kopps for a long time, but boy was it fun when he was here.
A few of the hitters have been with the team for the past few years. Starting with Agustin Ruiz, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen since he first made his debut in Fort Wayne in 2018?
Mike Maahs: Ruiz was our power guy. At the time of his promotion he was leading the club in both home runs (15) and RBI (56). I think he was the one person who could be penciled in every game in the three spot. It didn’t matter if he was facing a right hander or left hander, soft tosser or power pitcher, Ruiz was able to barrel them all.
One of the things that helped a lot of these guys this year was that they were in Fort Wayne in either the 2018 or 2019 season. They were familiar with the field, the weather, and the surroundings, and that helped with early season production. That includes Ruiz, Tirso Ornelas, Grant Little, and Justin Lopez.
With Ruiz, one of the biggest differences I saw was his ability to lay off the two-strike pitch down and away. The better pitch recognition led to lower strike out numbers, but also led to harder and louder contact even with two strikes. Besides that, I saw Ruiz really working on improving his strengths. By the time you get into your age 22 season, you know what tool is going to get you to the majors, and you really start to sharpen it. With Ruiz, he was cutting down on his strikeouts and hitting the ball for more power.
Tirso Ornelas is another player who has been in Fort Wayne for most of his professional career. While he had his best year in Fort Wayne this past season, it wasn’t without some hiccups.
What changes have you noticed Tirso make?
Mike Maahs: The funny thing about Tirso, was that you could see improvements in his entire game, except the home run power wasn’t there. Now he was leading the league in doubles the entire season, but the ball wasn’t going over the fence.
Once Ruiz was promoted, Tirso just stepped into Ruiz’s shoes. He became that cleanup hitter late in the season that the team relied on for pop. He led the league in doubles all year, but struggled to really elevate the ball. Once Ruiz was promoted, the balls started flying and he hit seven home runs over his last month or so with the club.
Tirso is a bit older now than when he first made his debut with the TinCaps in 2018, and with that he has become more mature. With Ruiz gone, you could see Tirso picking up the slack, and assuming that team leader responsibility. In August, he was the guy you wanted at the plate. Yes, he did still strike out more than we would like, but at the end of the day he was the guy you wanted at the plate.
Do you believe he can still become a major league corner outfielder?
Tirso still has work to do to become a major league player. He started the year in left field, then slid over to right when Ruiz was promoted. He had one of the stronger arms of any left fielder in the league. But he still struggles in both left and right with getting that quick initial read off the bat. You could see improvements, but it wasn’t as fluid as you would normally see from a major league caliber outfielder.
A lot of credit has to be given to AC [former TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras]. Even with the change in levels, it is hard for these players to return to the same location for three years in a row. Yet, AC was able to handle them and get them to buy in to the process. Whether they were struggling or going great, he was able to build them up while producing tremendous amounts of chemistry. The players played hard not just for themselves, but for their team.
As someone who covers as much baseball as I do, that is not always the case. AC built a culture of “if you play hard and do your best, your team will always be there to pick you up.” It’s a shame and not surprising that (former Padre staffer) Preston Mattingly signed AC to be the Triple-A Coach in Leigh Valley.
The last month of the year, the Padres promoted three of their top prospects in Robert Hassell III, Euribiel Angeles, and Brandon Valenzuela. While you didn’t get to see them for very long, what were some of your initial impressions of the trio of teenage prospects?
Mike Maahs: Hassell right away made an impression in Fort Wayne. Before he ever swung a bat, he caught a ball in center that was headed towards the gap. It looked like he was just gliding, and made a really difficult catch look easy. He gets great reads, runs a perfect route, and has the speed to get to any ball. Of course his bat also spoke pretty loudly as a week later he tied the franchise record with three home runs in one game.
After that though, Hassell tailed off towards the end. I am not sure if it was the new level, or just wearing down after his first full season in the minors. I’d be interested in seeing what he does in Spring Training next year. Personally I would like to see all three start 2022 in Fort Wayne before being promoted. Part of the reason is they are so young, and why rush them?
For Valenzuela, what really stood out to me was his game calling and his arm. He was throwing out baserunners, and by the end of the season, teams just stopped running whenever they got to first.
For Angeles, I don’t know. The one thing I noticed early on is that he likes to swing at the first pitch. I know he ended up either leading the Low-A league in batting average, but it took High-A pitchers only a week to see that he loves swinging at the first pitch. Now instead of those get me over first pitches, they are throwing it a few inches off the plate, and watching him struggle to make consistent contact. When the ball was hit in his zone, he was making a lot of loud contact, but the question will be if he can work the count more and be more selective with the first pitch.
While the 2021 season was a disappointing season record wise, what was your favorite moment from the past season?
Mike Maahs: There are two moments that immediately come to mind. The first moment was Opening Night, May 4, against West Michigan. I say that because we went 610 days between baseball games in Fort Wayne. I think whenever you go without it makes you appreciate more what you had. We had just over 2,000 fans, and we shut out West Michigan 8-0. Elliott and three relievers combined on the shutout with 16 strikeouts. More than the game though was the fans being back. They had to wear a mask, and were seated in pods of four, but they still cheered and danced and had a great time.
The other night that comes to mind was the Fourth of July. Seven of our eight largest crowds have come on the Fourth and Fort Wayne was allowed to open up just a few days prior. This year we had just under 7,700 fans, Parkview Field has a capacity of somewhere over 8,100, which was a bit low due to the pandemic. Even though we lost the game, it really looked like the community of Fort Wayne came together and it was more than a game.
Everyone was in a festive mood and after all the hardships that everyone in Fort Wayne, and all around the world experienced with the pandemic; the mood was a tremendous exhale. For three and a half hours, everyone was just having a good time.
On the field there were a couple great performances including Elliott’s dominating start and Hassell’s three home run night. But more than anything, as someone who has covered Fort Wayne baseball for as long as I have, seeing the community support return and get behind the club, is second to none.
I know its not back completely yet, but I am so glad to be back broadcasting, and the community is what really stood out to me this year.