Modesto Nuts

May 20, 2013

BEEK'S BLOG: Eating-up innings

The Modesto Nuts no longer have the worst batting average in the Cal League - they’ve actually moved ahead of both Bakersfield and Stockton with a robust .242 average.

But that only obscures the fact that no team has scored fewer runs than have the Nuts, who have touched home only 166 times in the 43 games leading into Monday night’s game against Visalia.

On Friday night, when they outslopped Lake Elsinore in a 12-7 victory, it not only was a high-water mark for runs, but the first time the Nuts hit double-digits this season.

That’s right, everybody in the crowd got certificates for free tacos upon exiting Thurman Field that night, which was Noche de Beisbol - the team’s annual tribute night to Latino culture. No, we could not make that up.

So with runs at a premium (or not at all, as was the case in the Rawhide’s shutout victory on Sunday) how it is that Modesto took a 19-24 record into Monday’s game.

The heroes are on the mound.

Dan Winkler, Monday’s starter, entered the game having pitched 46 ⅔ innings this season. As soon as he retired five hitters, he moved into the top six in the California League in innings pitched - joining teammates Chris Jensen, who leads the league with 53 ⅓, and Ben Alsup (48.)

That’s right, half of the top six pitchers in the league in terms of innings given to their team are Nuts, and there is a method behind the early success of Modesto’s rotation.

Because free agent pitchers historically shy away from signing with the Nuts’ parent club, the Colorado Rockies, the organization always is looking for ways to tweak the way it develops its own young pitchers.

This season, the Rockies stretched out their minor league starting pitchers in spring training, building their strength to the point where Modesto’s rotation was given the go-ahead to start the season with a 90-pitch limit.

In past seasons, pitchers worked on a limit of 70-75 pitches for the first few starts. Not only does the extended limit give starters a chance to work an extra inning each time out, but it also takes an inning off the workload of the bullpen - something guaranteed to pay dividends as the season rolls on.

“Some organizations don’t do that, but the Rockies built us up right in spring training,” Alsup said. “It’s a great thing - good for the starters. At the start of the season your stuff might not be as sharp, and you might need a few extra pitches to go deep into the games to not kill the bullpen, so it’s good for everyone.

“It also allows you to get into a better routine to go deep into games early in the season.” We’ll see by late July whether stretching pitchers in April has any impact - good or bad - on their performances late in the season, but so far so good.

And by the second half, maybe the Modesto offense will come up with the runs it needs to turn deep, quality starts into wins.

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