A 26-44 record is hard to excuse or defend under any circumstances.
Sure, the Fort Wayne TinCaps are a Single-A team, the lowest level of full-season organized baseball in the entire MLB system. Sure, the majority of the roster isn’t even old enough to purchase alcohol legally; there’s even a few players who are just now old enough to vote. Sure, several of the team’s most talented players have been promoted to higher levels.
But when you finish with the worst record in the entire Midwest League by the time the All-Star Break rolls around, you can either make excuses or get to work.
So far this half-season, the TinCaps have decided they’d rather get to work. Fort Wayne is playing tremendously well right now with a 17-9 record since play resumed; four of those losses came to a single opponent, the playoff-bound Dayton Dragons. They’ve swept their in-state rivals, the South Bend Cubs, over that span of games. Only two teams, the West Michigan Whitecaps and the Quad Cities River Bandits, have won more games thus far. The transformation this team has undergone has been amazing to watch.
The biggest reason for the turnaround has to be the improvement of the TinCaps’ pitching. Fort Wayne gave up 5+ runs in 34 of their 70 first-half games–that’s almost exactly half–which is why they currently have the third-worst team ERA in the league over the course of the full season. When you’re giving up 4.83 runs a game but only scoring 4.33, you’re not going to win a lot.
The second half, though? Only five times in 26 games has this pitching staff given up five or more runs. Never lacking for swing-and-miss type stuff, the team now leads the league in total strikeouts with an astonishing 873 in 837 2/3 team innings. Most notably, Venezuelan righty Pedro Avila has ripped off three straight wins, with 29 strikeouts against only two walks and a single earned run allowed in 20 innings pitched; his performance has given the team the ace it desperately needed after lefty sensation Logan Allen was promoted to Class-A Advanced’s Lake Elsinore Storm.
The upgraded pitching has made life much easier for Fort Wayne’s lineup, led by super prospect and MLB legacy Fernando Tatis, Jr. Ranked fifth in San Diego’s entire system by MLB.com, the 18-year-old shortstop is putting up numbers that would make him the envy of any fantasy league, with a .268 average, 16 homers, 52 RBI, 53 runs, 20 steals and 47 walks. Likely the next in line to be called up, Tatis has hit seven of his homers since the Break and continues to be as good a hitter on the road (.267, six HR, 28 RBI) as he is at home (.268, 10 HR, 24 RBI).
At the end of the day, the credit for the resurgence should definitely go to manager Anthony Contreras, who’s making a very strong case for Midwest League Manager of the Year right now. The first former Fort Wayne player–as an infielder, in 2008–to return to the team as a manager, Contreras is in his second season as the TinCaps’ skipper and his third managing a minor league club. Player development seems to be fast becoming a strong suit of his; after leading the Tri-City Dust Devils of Single-A (Short Season) to a Northwest League Finals appearance in 2015, he took over in Fort Wayne, where he promptly oversaw a team that had five Midwest League All-Stars and helped to promote 20 players to higher minor league levels. That promotion number sits at 15 so far this season and will almost certainly climb if the TinCaps continue to win as they have.
It also needs to be pointed out that on a squad where the average age is 21.3 and pitcher Jim McDade is the old man on the roster at age 25, the ability to fix mistakes on the fly the way this team has shows that these kids are maturing a ton as the weeks go by. Again, it shows what an outstanding job Contreras is doing. Young minor leaguers are the most raw clay you can work with, and the molding they get at these levels determines what kind of success they’ll be able to achieve in the future.
Going from basement dwellers to frontrunners almost overnight is a sure sign that Contreras is staying on message and that his players are listening, a facet that managers at the higher levels of the Padres’ system will be very grateful for when the players being promoted reach their teams. It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation thus far for Fort Wayne,and the rest of the league should definitely be scared of what a motivated TinCaps squad can accomplish.