Thirteen pitchers have started a game for the 2017 edition of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. That much turnover in the starting rotation usually indicates that successful pitchers have moved up to a higher rung in the developmental ladder or injuries have forced pitchers into the starting rotation. In either case, that much turnover would indicate a variable level of performance from the pitching staff. The starters’ success has been a prime contributor to the rotation’s turnover, but for each player who has moved up to AA Akron this season, another one has stepped in and successfully contributed.
At the head of this year’s standout starters is Brock Hartson. He began the season pitching out of the bullpen while taking the final steps in his recovery from offseason hip surgery.
“Going into the season my main focus was to be healthy,” said Hartson. “Bouncing back from [surgery] was goal number one.”
After four appearances out of the bullpen to open the season, Hartson shifted to the starting rotation. With 18 starts this season, and six in the previous year, Hartson has become a leader of the Hillcats pitching staff. It does not hurt that he leads the league in WHIP with a 1.00.
“This year I’ve worked a lot on my lower half. I think there has been improvement. Last year was subpar, to say the least,” Hartson said. “I think with the hip surgery, giving me the mobility I needed to get stronger definitely helped.”
Even with frequent turnover, the Hillcats pitching has been the class of the Carolina League. They lead the ten-team circuit in ERA (3.29), WHIP (1.17), fewest runs allowed (474), and fewest walks (335). This last statistic is perhaps the most telling one of the bunch. The Cleveland Indians have been drafting pitchers who fill up the strike zone. Many of them have college careers where they were effective in limiting free passes, and the Indians development system has proven to be very effective at turning these players into quality pitchers.
Strikeouts usually go along with a pitcher’s control, but the Hillcats staff ranks only seventh in strikeout totals for the Carolina League with 1,006. That is a good distance from the leader, Buies Creek, whose pitchers have rung up 1,162 batters on the year.
This is not to say that Hillcats pitchers are ineffective. Top prospect Triston McKenzie leads the league in strikeouts with 165, a 30-strikeout lead over Jeffrey Springs of the Down East Wood Ducks. What has made the Lynchburg rotation successful has been their ability to pitch deep into games. It is common for Hillcats starters to go six, seven, or more innings each time they take the mound. The team is second in the league with 11 shutouts, tied with Wilmington and second only to 15 by Myrtle Beach.
“It’s always difficult for your first full season to make it all the way through,” said pitching coach Rigo Beltran. “He’s [McKenzie] showing some signs of fatigue, but has bounced back in recent starts.”
With McKenzie getting some down time, first during the Carolina League All-Star break, and then while he attended and participated in the Futures Game, he has been able to learn how to handle a long season and remains among the top pitchers of the Carolina League.
Helping in the development of the pitchers has been a three-man catching core. Veterans Daniel Salters and Sicnarf Loopstok returned to the Hillcats, while newcomer Martin Cervenka has been a mainstay both behind the plate and in supporting the team with his bat.
“I think this year has been the most preparation I’ve had for each game,” said Cervenka. “As a player I have benefited [from the use of the Trackman system] understanding the game and trying to manage the pitchers through the game.”
The most outstanding of Cervenka’s nights behind the plate was Shao-Ching Chiang’s no-hitter. Chiang pitched the first complete game nine-inning no-hitter for the Hillcats. The most recent previous nine-inning no-hitter for the Lynchburg franchise was 1992. They were a farm club of the Boston Red Sox and Tim Van Egmond was the pitcher of record. Two years later, they would adopt the nickname Hillcats.
Not only was this Chiang’s most impressive outing of the season, it was his last in a Hillcats uniform, sort of. That Saturday night was Lynchburg Mets throwback night, so Chiang’s record performance came in an L-Mets uniform. Throwing only 106 pitches to frustrate the Winston-Salem hitters was notable, but the Hillcats only managed two hits themselves, pushing three runs across the plate to back Chiang.
The success of Lynchburg’s pitchers is a growing organizational strength, built on the ability of coach Beltran to develop the talent on the roster.
“I think it has to do with the mindset and the culture we’ve created with the Cleveland Indians,” Beltran said. “It starts at the top and trickles down. You just want to create that environment where there is positive support for development.”
This support helps McKenzie and Hartson continue to anchor the rotation. Midseason additions have also performed well, with the Hillcats producing a 78-49 overall record, best in the Carolina League. Matt Esparza and Thomas Pannone began the season as part of the rotation. Pannone was promoted to AA Akron after only five dominant starts, and later traded to Toronto as one of the players that helped to net Joe Smith for Cleveland’s Major League bullpen. Esparza, the opening day starter for the Hillcats, received his promotion to AA on May 30.
First Shane Bieber and then Aaron Civale arrived from Low-A Lake County to take their places, Bieber started 14 games for Lynchburg, producing a 6-1 record, while limiting batters to 95 hits and only 4 walks while striking out 82. He has continued his success following a promotion to AA Akron, where he has a 2-1 record and a 2.86 ERA in six starts.
Since arriving from Low-A Lake County on May 30 with Esparza’s promotion, Civale put up a 9-2 record with a 2.69 ERA in over 90 innings pitched. His 1.01 WHIP is just a hair above Hartson’s, but he does not yet have enough innings to qualify for ranking among the league leaders. Like Bieber, Civale exhibits control on the mound, with 72 strikeouts, to only eight walks since joining the Hillcats.
“I just take pride in not allowing a free pass,” Civale says. “My biggest goal each game is to limit walks and limit base runners.”
A recent home start for Hartson is an example of how the whole pitching staff has worked successfully all season long. Facing the Down East Wood Ducks for the first time this season, Hartson stymied opposing hitters. In seven innings, he allowed six base runners – three hits and three walks. With a slim one-run lead over opposing pitcher Jonathan Hernandez, any mistake could result in a Hillcats defeat.
“I try to treat it the same, zero to zero, every time I take the mound,” said Hartson. “I try to go out there and get back in the dugout as quickly as possible, letting my defense play for me.”
On this night, the defense would do just that. Jodd Carter would make a running catch in dead center field to prevent an extra-base hit. In the fourth inning, with runners on first and third and two outs, his catcher Salters would field a pitch in the dirt and throw a rocket to second baseman Sam Haggerty in time to apply the tag for the final out ending Down East’s only scoring threat of the game.
The final two innings would feature Luke Eubank, and Argenis Angulo holding the Wood Ducks scoreless to notch another Hillcats victory. Angulo would get the save, his 14th on the season, by striking out the side.
With a dozen games remaining in the regular season schedule, the Hillcats staff is gearing up for the postseason. For the third season in a row as a Cleveland affiliate, the Hillcats will pursue the Mills Cup. With Hartson, McKenzie, and Civale making up the starting rotation, there is excitement and hope for victory in Lynchburg.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/MiLB.com