The Hartford Yard Goats (48-40) entered the Eastern League All-Star Break with a flourish, winning the second game of a double-header with a walk off victory. After losing the first game on July 9, the Portland Sea Dogs and the Yard Goats were tied 4-4 in the bottom of the tenth inning. After a single and two walks, Dillon Thomas strode to the plate with a chance to end the game:
It was a great way to go into the break. The Yard Goats are now barely recognizable compared to the team that broke camp back in April. Various promotions have caused the roster to turn over several times but also the team that sprinted out to the best record in affiliated baseball is now seven games out of a playoff spot.
The Eastern League All-Star Game is on Wednesday in Akron, in which six Yard Goats will participate. Since Michael James already thoroughly covered the individual performances of the Yard Goats in 2016, let’s look at how Hartford as a team got to this point. We will now examine the 2016 Hartford Yard Goats First Half*: A Play in Three Parts.
I. The Hot Start
When it became apparent that the Hartford Yard Goats would begin their existence on an extended road trip, everyone affiliated with the team said all the right things. It wasn’t hard to believe that the team just might not only survive but thrive, much like the Biloxi Shuckers did one year ago. Then they won their first three games. Then they won every series until May. Then they rattled off a nine game winning streak.
The success was primarily driven by a stellar pitching staff and outfielder David Dahl. Four starters had an ERA under two, including Kyle Freeland and Harrison Musgrave. And all David Dahl did in the first month plus of the season was to lead the Eastern League in nearly every offensive category. These stellar performances would earn each of these three players a promotion to Triple-A Albuquerque before the All-Star Break. On the morning of May 12, the Yard Goats were 23-9 and seemed poised to cruise through the Eastern League season.
II. The Bad News
When the Hartford Yard Goats finally got to play their first games in the state of Connecticut, they had to do it 40 miles from home in Norwhich; even when they get to come home they have to be on the road. They went 1-6 in those games, which turned out to be a bad omen. As they awaited the announcement of the opening of Dunkin Donuts Park, word began to trickle in that the stadium might not be ready. Then it was announced the stadium wasn’t going to be ready for the May 31 home opener. Then it seemed like the stadium might not be ready all season. Then the city of Hartford kicked the developers off the project and construction was halted.
There hasn’t been much word since early June while the parties involved continue to battle with one another over responsibility. Since then the Yard Goats haven’t been the same. Maybe learning that they would be spending even more time than expected on the road sapped the adrenaline from the Yard Goats. With no end in sight for their odyssey, the Road Goats took their 23-9 start and went 25-31 over the next six weeks. Meanwhile, the Reading Fightin’ Phils got hot and took the Yard Goats from first place to 14 games back.
Interlude: The Numbers
As the season has progressed and the roster fluctuated, the team’s strengths and weaknesses have stayed mostly the same. The pitching staff remains excellent, second in the Eastern League in runs allowed (357), ERA (3.52), shutouts (7), and WHIP (1.28). While they have the second fewest strikeouts in the league (600), they have also managed to allow the fewest walks (226) by a wide margin. Much like the recently promoted Kyle Freeland, the Yard Goats pitching has been succeeding by controlling the strikezone rather than simply trying to overpower hitters.
The offense, however, is a bit less consistent. The team line of .259/.326/.381 is good enough for middle of the pack, even if all the raw numbers place them lower. The Yard Goats are tenth in the Eastern League in runs (366), ninth in hits, eighth in home runs (50), tenth in walks and ninth in strikeouts. They have stolen the second-most bases with 94, but they have also been caught far more than anyone else (60), good for a 61 percent success rate (shockingly, four teams have worse stolen base rates).
III. Regaining Form?
Act III has just begun, really. As we enter the last six weeks of the Double-A season, the Yard Goats have their work cut out for them. Their true record of 48-40 is better than their Pythagorean record (45-43) would suggest they should be, and most of their top performers (David Dahl, Kyle Freeland, Harrison Musgrave) have already been promoted.
For now, the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate will work to stay within striking distance of the division leaders, Reading (63-27). If they hope to catch them the offense will have to find a little more consistency behind All-Stars Raimel Tapia, Pat Valaika, and Dillon Thomas and the pitching staff will have to continue the run of dominance that launched them to the top of the league from the start of the season.
*they have played 88 of their 140 games so “first half” is a generous term but also more simple than saying “first two-thirds”