Baseball returned to the Summit City after a year away and for the first time in their existence, the Fort Wayne TinCaps played at the High-A level. The TinCaps had some interesting players come through town but the team scuffled to a last-place finish and complied a 54-66 record.
Broadcaster John Nolan calls the TinCaps games on the MILB.tv app and those games are broadcasted on local television in the Fort Wayne article. The Syracuse alumnus gave us his perspective on the 2021 TinCaps.
MadFriars: After not seeing any action at Parkview Field in 2020, minor league baseball returned in May . Did you approach this season any differently than your normally would?
John Nolan: Yes, this season certainly had a different approach than the past. Previously, even in a “normal” year there was a decent amount of uncertainty going in since spring training for minor leaguers basically takes place in obscurity. But this year, add in coming off the lost 2020 season, plus Fort Wayne moving up from Low-A to High-A, and I really had no idea what to expect, ha. Of course there were also plenty of moving pieces in regards to health/safety protocols. Ultimately, not having the chance to travel to cover road games in person made me feel detached from the team compared to before. Though I was vaccinated (along with the vast majority of players/staff) and included in the team’s COVID-testing program, even being at home wasn’t the most comfortable.
Agustin Ruiz was probably the best offensive player that saw the field in Fort Wayne in 2021 and led the team with 15 homers. Was there anything you saw that was noticeably different in his game from the last time you saw him in 2019?
John Nolan: Most noticeably, Agustin Ruiz in 2021 as a 21-year-old at the High-A level showcased much greater power than he had in 2019 as a 19-year-old at the Low-A level.
With limited time on the field in 2020, he said he committed to strength training. That showed as he went from hitting four homers in 120 games in ’19 to 15 in just 72 this year, before his promotion to Double-A San Antonio, where he hit six more in 35 games.
This was by design, as he said he was focused on elevating the ball off his bat more than before. Sure enough, on batted balls, he increased his fly ball rate from 38% to 52% (while lowering his ground ball rate from 42% to 29%).
Tirso Ornelas is a guy Padres fans have had their eyes since he signed five years ago. After an up-and-down season, he really came on in September. From your vantage point did you see anything noticeable in his game down the stretch?
Yes, to your point, he was slashing .216 / .313 / .354 (.668 OPS) over 85 games through Aug. 25. Then over his final 22 games, he slashed .372 /.457 /.526 (.983 OPS).
Tirso said he had finally gotten into a spot where he felt relaxed at the plate and wasn’t trying to do too much. With his success, his confidence grew as well. He said he also made a slight change to his stance in the box. While he led High-A Central in doubles this season with 31, he went 48 games without a homer. He finally hit a couple homers in July, a few more in August, and two in September.
According to manager Anthony Contreras (AC), this offseason a key for Tirso is to improve his flexibility to be better equipped against higher-level pitching going forward.
By the way, helping to lead Mexico to silver in the U-23 World Cup, Tirso stayed hot. In 27 at-bats, he slashed .370 / .433 / .556 / (.989 OPS). And now he’s still cooking with Mayos de Navojoa in the Mexican Pacific League. As of this writing, through 35 games, he’s leading the league in batting (.386), doubles (12), and RBIs (34). His .953 OPS ranks third.
Jonny Homza was the best player in Fort Wayne during the first half before dealing with a shoulder issue in the final few months. Is he a guy that should be on the radar of Padres fans?
John Nolan: Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player whose final numbers were less representative of his ability than Jonny Homza. The shoulder injury not only prevented him from catching and kept him out of the lineup for extended stretches, but it also derailed what he had been accomplishing at the plate.
Through July 6 (47 games), he was slashing .282 / .413 / .500 (.914 OPS). The Padres never officially placed him on the Injured List, but by a week later, he started to miss time. Over his last 38 games, he slashed .141 / .219 / .169 (.388 OPS). From Aug. 7 on, he only caught one inning while mostly either sitting or DH-ing.
Assuming Jonny can return to full strength, you have to like not only his ability to barrel up the ball as a catcher, but also his defensive versatility. While he’s a solid defensive catcher, with his athleticism, he made cameos at first base, third, shortstop, and the corner outfield spots. (Earlier in his career he played a little second, too.)
He also has plus-makeup: exceptionally hard worker, humble, intelligent, tough, and has just about every other positive intangible.
At the end of the season, you got a sneak preview of Robert Hassell III, who is one of the top prospects in the Padres system. What impressed you most about him in a small sample?
John Nolan: Off the field and on, he showed maturity, poise, and an overall sense of professionalism that was notable for a prospect who just turned 20 in the middle of August.
At the plate, his three-homer game in just his third game at the High-A level was certainly attention-grabbing. In the franchise’s 28-season history, he was only the third player to ever do that, and the first in more than a decade. One of those homers, by the way, came off a lefty and was hit out to left field. Meanwhile, he had been making some mechanical adjustments at the plate for more pull-side power. He also hit a 400-plus-foot homer to center field in Fort Wayne.
Ethan Skender is such a great story and he finished strong before a late promotion to San Antonio. What were your thoughts on him as a player?
John Nolan: It’s been a joy to watch Ethan play, going back to his time in Fort Wayne at the Low-A level in 2019. As you allude to, he’s an easy player to root for in part because of the adversity he’s overcome with multiple knee surgeries keeping him off the field for a few years. He’s also likeable as a person and is someone who goes above-and-beyond giving back to fans, especially kids, with kindness.
Another aspect of what makes him fun to follow is he’s the type of player who you feel like is always giving his best effort and willing to sacrifice for the team. Playing third base and second, he made highlight play after highlight play, charging to field grounders and showcasing lateral range with diving plays as well. Offensively, he was better than league average in batting, OBP and OPS, thus, earning that promotion to Double-A, where he had even greater success.
Hopefully, after experiencing more than his fair share of injuries so far (including being hit by 12 pitches in 82 games in 2021, once even winding up on the IL due to a concussion), he’s due for better fortune going forward and his skills can be on display.
Noel Vela was quietly one of the risers in the system this season. What can you tell us about the lefty?
John Nolan: Quiet is an accurate word to describe Noel’s personality, also, both on the field and off. Toward the end of the season as his confidence was growing, he finally displayed a bit more emotion on the field, like a bit of a fist-pump after a strikeout to end an inning. Nothing wild, but something. AC—a pretty stoic guy himself on the diamond—said he liked that and hoped Noel would unleash even more of it going forward.
As for why Noel’s confidence was growing, of the 15 TinCaps pitchers who threw 30+ innings this year, he had the highest K/9 (11.88) and lowest FIP (3.35). Noel was working with a fastball averaging around 92 MPH but rising up into the mid-90s on occasion. He complemented that with an effective curveball and changeup.
Ethan Elliott set the tone for a dominant season with nine strikeouts in his High-A debut. Despite not having a ton of velocity, what made him so dominant?
John Nolan: In the minors, we don’t have public access to all the advanced analytics, but it’s safe to say that even if his fastball was sitting around 90 MPH, it played up as the scouting report on Ethan is that he has a plus spin rate.
Adding to that, he has elite command. He found a lot of success utilizing that high-spin fastball, with a changeup and a developing slider, living in the top of the zone and on the corners.
For good measure, he’s another guy with plus-makeup when you factor in his intellect on the mound and, even though he’s a laidback guy off the field, he pitches with great competitiveness and fire.
Matt Waldron and his knuckleball development was one of the more fascinating stories of the year. How much different did his stuff play after the introduction of the pitch?
John Nolan: He went from dabbling with the knuckleball a bit out of spring training to throwing it the majority of the time by mid-season.
Unlike instances where maybe a guy goes to a knuckleball as something of a last-ditch effort for their career to survive, Matt was having decent success before the Padres decided for him to go more all-in with it. His fastball sits low-90s but can run up into the mid-90s. He can keep hitters honest with a slider and changeup as well.
His calling card before this was his control. Remember, as a senior at Nebraska, he had the second-best K/BB ratio in the country (93/7). As he was trying to make this transition on the fly in-season, his previously impeccable control suffered a bit, as you’d expect.
But another positive effect of the knuckleball is that with it being less taxing on his arm, he can log more innings. He was the only TinCaps pitcher to go eight innings in a start this year.
Much like Waldron, Moises Lugo was a bit of an unknown before 2021. What did you see from the young righty?
John Nolan: Yes, while Waldron was a bit of an unknown since he had been acquired in a trade from Cleveland last year and hadn’t pitched for a Padres affiliate before this season, Lugo had only made three appearances above the complex level despite having signed with the organization in 2017. Part of that was due not only to the lost 2020 season, but also a shoulder injury that hampered him in 2018 and ’19.
Moises flashed an electric mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider. He struck out as many as 10 in a start, and he did that in only four innings at Dayton on June 19. However, he struggled to put guys away early in counts and as a result wound up not pitching as deep into games. He actually only went more than five innings once, which wound up being his final start here in mid-August prior to his promotion to Double-A.
Among High-A Central pitchers who worked 70+ innings, Moises finished the season 2nd in batting average against (.188), 5th in K/9 (11.11) and K% (29%), 8th in ERA (3.46), and 9th in swinging strike rate (14%). He accomplished that at 22, a year younger than average for the league.
Were there any other players that Padres fans might want to watch going into next season?
John Nolan: The TinCaps used 57 players over the course of the season (27 position players, 30 pitchers), so there was no shortage of guys to track. Obviously some prospects had short stints late in the season (Euribiel Angeles, Brandon Valenzuela, Kevin Kopps, and even MacKenzie Gore), while others unfortunately suffered season-ending injuries (Erik Sabrowski, Carter Loewen, Jose Geraldo, Grant Little), not to mention those who finished at other levels.
Lefty reliever Ramon Perez only 22 turned in July. The southpaw from Cuba still needs to refine his stuff (mid-90s fastball, curveball, changeup) with more consistent control, but a scout I spoke to late in the season projected him as a future big leaguer.
Finally, one of the better stories of the season was left-handed starter Danny Denz. Besides returning from a spring training injury to become the ace of the staff for part of the summer, since he wears athletic glasses (goggles) on the mound, he’s embraced the “Gog Father” nickname. His family even printed t-shirts with that in the font from The Godfather. You’ve gotta appreciate a good nickname like that. So don’t just “fear the gogs,” but follow them, too.