Tim Livingston, Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations
With many excited eyes on the team coming into 2015, it seems that the Sonoma Stompers have found a way to exceed even the highest of expectations. At 13-3, Sonoma is six games ahead of both Vallejo (8-10) and San Rafael (7-9) coming into Tuesday's action, and they're doing it with exemplary performances in all facets of the game. When Grantland's Ben Lindbergh and Baseball Prospectus' Sam Miller were brought on to help Sonoma from a baseball operations and scouting perspective, many believed that the Stompers would have an immediate advantage just because of both men's expertise. Yet even the duo that hosts the Effectively Wild podcast will tell you that they didn't expect a start like this.
"Nope." said Lindbergh when asked about the start, "I hadn't even seen the other teams before the season started. It was really hard to anticipate how we'd compare."
After three weeks, the Stompers have solidified their grasp on the top spot in the Pacific Association. No other team has as prolific an offense, with a team triple-slash of .302/.386/.448. The team's .834 OPS is 114 points higher than second-place San Rafael's. They lead the league in hits (179), extra-base hits (49), runs (116) and homers (18). They're tied for the league lead in walks (69) and have struck out the fewest times (122).
From 1-to-9, the team has been a constant offensive force, with five players batting .300 or better and six players above .370 in on-base percentage. The lowest slugging percentage on the team amongst regulars is .357, and all nine regulars have an OPS of at least .789.
"This is a really spectacularly deep team," said Miller, "As much as anything, I think it's just that there's no soft spot for teams to feast on. With 22-man rosters in this league, we're winning because we don't have a 22nd man."
To put the OPS numbers in perspective, the range of the nine regulars begins at Joel Carranza's .789 and ends at the top with player-manager Fehlandt Lentini's .954. The league average OPS through the first three weeks is .756 for eligible hitters (2.7 PA/game). All nine starters are at least 33 points above average, and Lentini's fourth-best mark is 1.45 standard deviations above the average, putting him in the 97th percentile in the league for offensive performance. The 37-year-old Sonoma native has been the star of the team so far, and much like fellow Sonoman Jayce Ray in 2014, he's putting together an MVP-level performance.
Yet with an offense performing as well as Sonoma's has, the ominous cloud of regression looms large. Last year, the idea of cluster luck was introduced and became one of the key concepts in determining how teams go on hot and cold streaks. It became a go-to example for whether the performance of a team was based on talent or timing. With the early season results, the Stompers might be susceptible to cluster luck, but with all nine regulars performing at such a high level, it's tough to see even with regression that the team will lose too much steam.
"We definitely have some of the league's best players. Feh certainly is," says Lindbergh, "I think the differentiating factor is the depth. We have the really good guys, but we don't have the really bad guys. I think even post-regression we could still be really good. I believe the bats."
"We have the depth to give guys days off, or if the pitching staff gets tired to swap one of the relievers in for a starter for a couple times through the rotation, so we should be a little less vulnerable to a fatigue- or injury-based slump," said Miller.
Defensively, Sonoma has a league-leading ERA (3.34) and has allowed the fewest walks in the league (47). The Stompers' run differential through the first 16 games sits at +50, and while the offense gets a lot of ink, a lot of credit also goes to a pitching staff that has induced plenty of weak contact and a stable defense that has been terrific behind that staff.
One look at the stats shows Sonoma way ahead of the other teams in both hits (129) and runs (66 R/53 ER) allowed. That's 34 fewer hits than San Rafael and 42 fewer runs. They've also allowed the fewest home runs (12). Batters are hitting just .237 against Sonoma with a .346 slugging percentage. Using the 2.7 PA/game cutoff, that's akin to the sixth-worst batter in the league on average.
It's a part of the team that Miller says might be the best thing that the Stompers have done so far in 2015.
"I think defense tends to not slump nearly as much as everything else, and our defense is probably the single factor that has thus far set us apart," he said. "We've allowed .8 unearned runs per game this year; the league average is 1.8 per game. And beyond those unearned runs is the corresponding improvement in our range, slowing the running game, avoiding wild pitches and past balls, etc."
In the outfield, Lentini roams center like a gazelle and makes the difficult plays look routine. Matt Hibbert is a center fielder by trade playing in right and can cover whatever ground Lentini can't, which isn't much in the first place. Mark Hurley has already added a couple of plays to a growing highlight reel early on, giving Sonoma the best defensive outfield in the league.
Miller agrees. "Having three de facto center fielders has made our outfield defense insane."
On the infield, Kristian Gayday is a smooth gloveman at the hot corner with a strong throwing arm. Up the middle, veteran infielders Gered Mochizuki and Sergio Miranda are a solid tandem and have worked well with the few early-season shifts the Stompers have employed. Danny Baptista has taken most of the innings at first base, showing off great reflexes and a reliable pick. He's also had a couple games at third base and has looked good there, as well. Utilityman TJ Gavlik might be the best defensive infielder on the team and has already made some terrific plays in only seven games.
Lindbergh credits Sonoma's advanced scouting and charting with a lot of the success early on. "[It's] probably the most tangible effect of what we've done so far," says Lindbergh, "The players seem to value the scouting information." In addition to the scouting, the Stompers have used video recordings to help players make adjustments both at the plate and on the mound. One player in particular who saw a benefit was Paul Hvozdovic, a left-handed reliever.
"Paul asked to see video of an appearance when he thought his mechanics were off. And I showed him, and it confirmed what he was thinking. He was able to correct the problem in his next appearance, and threw three scoreless innings." That came this past Saturday against Vallejo, when Hvozdovic's late-innings work kept the game in reach for Sonoma to come back and defeat the Admirals, 8-7.
All of this information when used correctly can be helpful to the team, and even if it's hard to quantify the effects of looking at video or hitting tendencies in advanced scouting reports, if any of it is the least bit positive, it's something a team will use in order to help them win. That's the essence of what Lindbergh and Miller have been doing, and they're hoping that the pieces of information they're able to provide to the players will continue the team's successful run so far.
"Ben and I have a lot of improvement we need to make before I'd claim we've added anything," Miller said, "This has been the players playing well. It all comes down to execution."