Author: Jake Floyd
Tonight’s games mark the end of the 2023 KCL regular season and it’s time to prepare for the playoffs. The Ground Sloths started hot and stayed hot to finish the season in first place, a position they held for most of the summer. With a record of 18-10 and a stunning run differential of +61, the sloths powered their way to the unofficial best season in KCL history, and a championship would certainly top off their incredible run.
As dominant as the Sloth’s run seemed, the Merchants were hot on their tail most of the season, finishing only two games behind. Their 16-12 record was enough to secure second place comfortably and give the leaders a run for their money.
The Bobcats got off to a slow start, but after a few hot streaks throughout the season, they battled their way into third place, earning most of their wins against their biggest competition in the Blue Caps. Finishing with a 12-16 record, the Bobcats are looking to show up bigtime in the playoffs and write their underdog story.
The Blue Caps struggled near the end of the season, losing two too many games to fall into fourth place, however they are certainly not out of the running. Finishing at 10-18, the Caps consistently show flashes of a championship team, even recording the season’s only triple play on the second-to-last day of the season, making a good argument for their status as a strong dark horse for this weekend.
The playoff bracket will be a simple, seeded bracket, meaning that the #1 ranked team will play the #4 ranked team, and #2 will play #3. The winners will then play the championship game the day after. The playoffs are single elimination and all regular season rules still apply, such as home run derbies taking the place of extra innings. With that being said, we can look into how we can expect these matchups to go.
Game 1: #1 Ground Sloths vs #4 Blue Caps
5:00 PM Friday, June 14
#1 Ground Sloths
It’s hard to not have the Ground Sloths as favorites to win the whole thing. They’ve been very effective throughout the season, absolutely dominating in run differential. Their projected lineup is hard to beat. Eddie Letamendi, the leadoff hitter, is impressively effective at the plate, batting .348 on the season with a 1.027 OPS, and was at one point holding an 11 game hit streak through his 18 games played. His biggest feat this season, however, has been his ability on the base paths. Letamendi has 20 stolen bases in 19 games, taking extra bases whenever he chooses. In the 3 through 5 spots are a mix of serious power and consistency. The likes of Justin Gutierez (.408 AVG, .971 OPS), Luke Stulga (.368 AVG, .997 OPS), and the MVP favorite Judah Morris (.507 AVG, 1.494 OPS) crush the ball and rack up on RBIs, scoring the quick Letamendi and Steinbaugh. This powerhouse section of their lineup has been critical to their success, as these three players account for ~40% of the RBIs the Ground Sloths have recorded and ~12% of the entire league’s RBIs.
Their lineup fills out with plenty of other above-average batters, such as Shea Zbrozek (.345 AVG), PJ Jerszynski (.311 AVG), Rance Bryant (.333 AVG), and Nate Cooley (.300 AVG). On top of their power at the plate, the Sloths also have dominant forces on the mound. We were fortunate enough this season that every team in the KCL had at least one pitcher in the running for the Cy Young award, which is crucial to the leagues parity as quality pitching is a huge factor for success. The only team, however, with two players fighting for the award was the Ground Sloths. Ben Plumley (4-0, 2.042 ERA) and Gus Lucas (2-2, 3.456 ERA) were both incredibly strong and consistent throughout the season. Lucas started the first game of the season for the Sloths, recording a dominant 10 Ks, 1 H, 1 BB in the emphatic 11-0 win against the Bobcats, prompting many fans to “get on the Gus Bus” early on. Plumley, on the other hand, made a late season charge, launching him to the best record in the league at 4-0, league leading 37 Ks, 2.042 ERA, and 1.167 WHIP through 24.0 IP. This dynamic duo should be the Ground Sloth’s ticket to a championship this weekend as they are the only team who can field elite starters for both Friday and Saturday nights.
Keys to Success:
- Let the big dogs eat. The sluggers in this Sloths lineup have to hit the ball hard and put it in play
- Pitchers have to go deep. The longer Plumley and Lucas can stay in the game, the better their odds to win
- Be disciplined. This Blue Caps team allows plenty of walks. If the Sloths can draw easy bases, they will be in an excellent position
#4 Blue Caps
While the Blue Caps have had their struggles this season, portraying them as a “last place team” seems unfair to the quality of team that they are. The month of July was rough for the Caps, going on an 0-6 run leading to their drop in rank. This is a team that, despite their recent record, is ready to compete and could make a solid playoff run easily, especially with their first matchup. The Blue Caps have earned more wins against the #1 Sloths than any other team, and the Sloths have struggled against this team, with the Caps being the only team the Ground Sloths don’t have a winning record against (4-4). Liam McGill, the routine leadoff man for the Blue Caps, is exceptional at putting the ball in play and scoring from that #1 hole. Batting .282 with a .665 OPS, he boasts a 7.2% strikeout rate, 22 runs in 24 games, and is tied with Letamendi for the league lead of SB (20), setting the scene perfectly for the league’s homerun leader, Caleb Royer. Royer hits the ball and he hits the ball hard. He is batting .375 with a 1.157 OPS (.457 OBP, .700 SLG), driving in 25 RBIs on the back of 6 HR, 2 3B, and 4 2B. He is normally followed by more power and bases in the form of Kannon Klein (.286 AVG, .840 OPS, 2 HR), Cam Anderson (.278 AVG, 1.030 OPS, 3 HR), and Gage Wolfe (.305 AVG, .897 OPS, 2 HR), all of which are excellent at progressing runners, wearing down pitchers, and getting on base.
The lineup for the Caps fills out with a surplus of players who excel at scoring runners, earning base hits, and providing depth at every position on the field. The Blue Caps have almost two starting lineups on their roster, likely the most depth in the league, with players such as Nick Melvin, Frank Derner, Luke Smock, John Shuey and Braiden Elliott rotating positioning in the lineup and on the field, while still outputting consistently productive at bats. Despite this depth, one of the biggest problems for the Blue Caps is their fielding. The Caps lead the league in errors (54), are last place in fielding percentage (.930), and are 2nd in catcher passed balls (12). When the league standings come down to a single game at the end of the year, these mistakes can have huge repercussions in rank. Fixing the sloppy fielding will be very important if the Blue Caps want to end their dry run in July and challenge for the title. The most make-or-break aspect of the Cap’s game this weekend, however, is undoubtedly going to be the performances on the mound. The Caps are worst in the league in ERA, BB, K, HBP, and strike percentage, and have consequently allowed the most runs in the league (197). Their Cy Young candidate in Braeden Roesch will presumably start Friday night to give themselves the best chance at upsetting the Sloths. Roesch has a 1-1 record with a 4.358 ERA and has 30 Ks in 17.2 IP (15.7 K/9), while also having 22 BB and a 2.264 WHIP, all of which indicates that his command will be hugely important for the Bluecaps success. If he can find the strike zone consistently, the Caps will be set up to make an impressive showing in the tournament.
Keys to Success:
- Sharp, precise play. Errors and walks have to be absolutely minimal against a strong offense
- Get rallies going. Hits have to be able to be strung together to do damage. The entire lineup is capable of putting the ball in the outfield and getting on base, but can they drive runners in off of it?
- Quiet the big bats on defense. The sloths are going to hit the ball. If the Caps can force weak hits and avoid extra base hits, they can capitalize
Game 2: #2 Merchants vs #3 Bobcats
7:30 PM Friday, June 14
The Merchants have been an incredibly under-the-radar powerhouse this season, going 16-12, with over half of those losses coming against the Ground Sloths, consequently bumping them to second place. Shown by their winning record and -5 run differential, the Merchants have been a very explosive and opportunistic team, leading the league in extra base hits and stolen bases: a combination that sets up to score very efficiently. Leading off and leading this effort is Chase Mason (.345 AVG, 1.018 OPS), a quick, consistent, and strong hitter who has 18 stolen bases and leads his team in HR (4). Recently, he has fallen to 3rd or 4th in the lineup to utilize that power off of the bat and drive home his teammates, such as Logan Van Heuklon (.430 AVG, 1.115 OPS) and Ashton Horchem (.333 AVG, .940 OPS). Van Heuklon is a strikingly consistent batter, accumulating 34 hits and 19 RBI in 25 games, earning him a .520 OBP and a mention in the MVP discussion. He has the longest “Games with a Hit” streak in the league this season at 14. His bat is crucial to the Merchants success and can be a catalyst to a big rally. The middle of the lineup for the Merchants is raw power in the form of Bryce Bishop (.242 AVG, .862 OPS, 3 HR), Dylan Holmes (.343 AVG, 1.208 OPS, 3 HR), and Jake Kutella (.179 AVG, .843 OPS, 2 HR). Purely looking at batting average will give you a bad impression of the importance of these three sluggers. With a combined 37 RBIs and 36 R, the core of this lineup swing hard at the ball to earn plenty of extra base hits, but also a combined 22% strikeout rate. These are major impact players for the Merchants, as whether or not these players can get hot can be the difference between a blowout win or a tough loss. It will be crucial for these guys to make solid contact against the Bobcats if they stand a chance at going through to the final.
The Merchants roster fills out with plenty of rotational players who love to hit the ball. Nick Bacura (.375 AVG, .982 OPS), Anthony Martinez (.325 AVG, .775 OPS), and Jack Shields (.325 AVG, .857 OPS) are some of these hit-happy players, with Nick Bacura recently putting on an impressive showing as a two-way player (4 IP, 0 H, 2 BB, 8 K). The starting job Friday night, however, will likely go to the Merchant’s ace Nathan Garard. Garard has thrown 20.0 innings this season to earn a 3-2 record, 1.750 ERA, 20 Ks, and 1.500 WHIP. The starter has been incredibly effective for the Merchants so far this season, boasting one of the best ERAs in the league and earning a candidacy for the Cy Young award. He’ll be looking to go deep into the game, limit the Bobcats base runners with weak hit balls, and pave the way for the Merchant’s relief pitchers to shine. The Merchants bullpen leads the league with saves (5) and has been a massive part of their conquest to challenge the Ground Sloth’s #1 spot. If the pitching stays sharp, they’ll be in great shape to make a run to the final.
Keys to Success:
- Keep the game close. The bullpen of the Merchants should be able to outplay that of the Bobcats, but the game has to be within manageable distance
- Get the core of the lineup hot. The leadoff guys won’t be able to play this game alone. If the middle and bottom of the lineup can turn the bats, then the runs should start to pour in
- Keep the momentum. The bottom half of the Bobcats lineup has struggled comparatively this season. Avoid giving them a reason to wake up as much as possible
The Bobcats are a bit of a wildcard coming into this game, mostly due to the combination of their tame offense and their bipolar pitching performances. The cats worked their way to 12-16 this summer to just edge out the BlueCaps for third place, which is also the team that over half of their wins came from. With a record of 2-6 vs the Merchants, the Bobcats are really going to have to buckle in to pull this game out. The Cats lead off with a recent high-performer in Tugg Hollandsworth. Hollandsworth is batting .345 with a 1.086 OPS, 7 SB, and 9 BB in 11 games, making him the perfect candidate to hit first for this Bobcats team who are loaded up with consistent, high-OBP players. Following Hollandsworth are several exceptional hitters: Tyler Thompson (.393 AVG, 1.071 OPS), Daniel Contreras (.429 AVG, 1.113 OPS), Pat Mulcahey (.389 AVG, 1.040 OPS), and Dan Mosele (.422 AVG, 1.217 OPS). When they’re hot, the top of this lineup is a force to be reckoned with. Each of these players has the ability to punish a sloppy pitcher, put the barrel on the ball, and earn extra base hits, which will be a huge factor in the Bobcat’s success in the playoffs. Another player who occasionally fits this description is Alec McGinnis (.270 AVG, .717 OPS), a skilled shortstop who is coming off a stellar KCL season last summer. McGinnis has struggled occasionally throughout the season, but is another player who is dangerous if he is hot.
The rest of the Bobcats team are where the volatility of this roster comes into play. Players such as Nick Mardis, Hayden Stork, Cade Tomhave, and Riley McAllister have batted below average this season, but have shown occasional excellent performances. This Bobcats lineup has the potential to challenge for the championship, but they’re going to need to fix their inconsistency. The mound is where the team exhibits this quality the most, though, with strangely contradicting statistics like leading in strikeouts but being last in hits allowed. The Bobcats have several decent starting pitchers available for this game, but none that really meet “ace” quality. Ben Dandelet (0-2, 4.278 ERA), Christian Badorek (0-0, 2.625 ERA), and Gavin Wernsing (0-0, 1.909 ERA) are the likely options, with Dandelet being the most utilized this season. Each one has a K/9 over 9, which could be potentially effective against a Merchants team with a 21.3% strikeout rate. Whichever starting pitcher is selected, it will be crucial for them to keep the Merchants out of a rhythm. No matter how they accomplish it, if the pitchers for Cats can keep the Merchants sluggers from getting hot, then their odds of advancing sky rocket.
Keys to Success:
- Come ready to play. Every player in the lineup will be important to swing this game their way. The more batters who can get in a rhythm, the better
- Control the pace of the game from the mound. Keep the pitching tame and don’t let the Merchants get hot. If that means several pitching changes to keep guys fresh, then so be it
- Get on the board early. The Merchants bullpen is effective, but their depth could come into question if Garard is worked hard and early