In 2015, the Jackson Hammerheads slugged their way to a solid second-place finish in the East, 8 games behind Knoxville. It was a turbulent season that saw the passing of one manager and the firing of another, but overall things seemed to be moving on an upward track. With the playoffs expanding to four teams, a postseason invite for the Hammerheads seemed all but certain. Whiz kid owner/GM Steven Butler boldly proclaimed that 2016 was a championship-or-bust season. “Jackson is built to win championships,” the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Swap” declared. “Anything short of that is a failure.”
Not only did the Heads fail to win the championship in 2016, the season turned into a nightmare that few would have foreseen. No one imagined that Jackson would take a step backward, dropping from 83 wins to 79, and belly-flop from second to fourth in the division. No one imagined that the season would end with another fired manager, or a team that seemed farther away from contention than ever before. No wonder Butler described the Hammerheads’ 2016 campaign as “extremely disappointing and embarrassing.”
What went wrong? It started at the beginning, when Jackson posted a dismal 9-17 record in April, only a half-game out of the basement in the East. The slow start created what Butler called “a season-lasting hole to dig out of.” That start was mirrored by a 9-16 swoon over the final month of the season that sealed Jackson’s (and manager Bob Henley’s) fate. In between those two slumps, the Heads went 61-38, but it wasn’t enough.
One big problem for Jackson was all too familiar from 2015: a poor performance from their bullpen. Butler was aggressive in rebuilding the relief unit this season, drafting righty Bobby Boniface and trading for left-handers Tobias Dennis, Woody Flowers, and Boss Walker. But although the faces were different, the results were all too similar: a parade of frayed nerves and blown leads. “It was astounding to see the staggering number of games that fell apart late no matter what deal was made or who was on the hill in relief,” said Butler.
One of the prime culprits, again, was Rick Sheen. The bespectacled lefty was supposed to be a lockdown arm, but too much alcohol and too much nightlife seem to have ruined a promising career. Sheen began as the Hammerheads closer, but after blowing more than half of his save opportunities, he was deposed in favor of Boniface, who was far from stellar but converted most of his chances.
The starting rotation didn’t fare much better, compiling a 4.94 ERA and a quality start percentage that was third-worst in the league. Ace Henry Jones was perhaps the biggest disappointment, posting an 11-10 record and a 4.83 ERA. With both the rotation and the bullpen delivering subpar performances, it’s no surprise that Jackson posted a 5.01 ERA, ninth in the league. Even hiring Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as pitching coach in midseason couldn’t save this staff.
On the bright side, the Hammerheads’ lineup remained a slap-hitting, run-scoring machine. Jackson lead the league in batting average and doubles while finishing second in walks and stolen bases. The hitters exemplified Butler’s approach of “get on base and keep ‘em moving” to a tee.
Perhaps the biggest positive was the transition of Damian “Black Hammer” Deason from center field to DH. After Deason was a wizard at the plate but a horror show in the field in 2015, the Hammerheads asked him to give up his glove. Deason accepted the change without complaint and turned in another strong season, hitting .327 with a league-leading 65 doubles. Butler praised Deason as “the consummate professional.” Meanwhile, the Heads traded for Santiago Suarez, whom California had soured on after a poor rookie season. After receiving a hero’s welcome in Jackson, Suarez bounced back, hitting at a .274 clip with 27 homers and 123 RBI while providing flawless defense in center.
With that in mind, Butler says he wants Jackson to focus on defense next season. “Too long have the Heads favored offensive prowess at the expense of defensive efficiency,” said the whiz kid owner/GM. “No more.” Butler said that he plans to add some utility defensive specialists and find a manager who prioritizes defense.
Other items on Jackson’s lengthy offseason shopping lists include some help for the rotation, naming a full-time closer, adding another big bat, and possibly a change at third base, where Kim Fleitas had a disappointing season. Surprisingly, though, Butler says he’s not looking to upgrade the bullpen. “We still firmly believe in the core group of relievers we have on staff,” he said, identifying Dennis, Boniface, Walker, and lefty Hilton Sircy as building blocks.
Priority one, of course, is making that long-awaited postseason appearance. To do that, they’ll need to get past the Jacksonville Dragons and Orlando Calrissians, who lapped them in 2016. Butler praised the two Florida clubs for their improved play. “They moved up a notch on my belt,” said the Sultan, “but rest assured that are only at notch one, and the Hammerheads have revenge in mind come 2018.”
If Jackson comes up short again, Butler says, the next change will come at the top. “I realize I have likely been as much of a distraction as the solution over the past two seasons,” said the whiz kid. “It’s time to put my money where my mouth is: either Jackson makes the playoffs of I relinquish my duties as GM.” Butler added that he has full faith that his team can back up his guarantee. “It’s time to watch the playoffs from the dugout, not a bar! Sultan out!”