If you had to pick the Patriot League’s most disappointing team for the 2015 season, the Silver City Outlaws would likely be it. Other teams finished with worse records, but none fell as far short of expectations as the Outlaws. Widely expected to be a leading championship contender, Silver City got off to a scorching-hot 14-4 start. From there, though, the Outlaws took a nosedive, and ultimately crashed to a 70-80 record and a flat third-place finish in the West.
To Outlaws manager John Jarha, it’s no mystery why things went wrong. “From my perspective, the reason is pretty simple: We just didn’t swing the bats like we should have,” said Jarha. “Our starting rotation was great, even better than I thought we’d be at the start of the season, but we didn’t give them any help.”
The numbers bear out Jarha’s argument. The team finished with a 4.19 ERA and a .738 OPS against, both marks good enough for third place in the league. However, Silver City’s hitters batted only .239 (only last-place Salt Lake was worse) with a .736 OPS (third worst in the league). The Outlaws struck out an eye-popping 1014 times, the most in the league by far (no other team had more than 800). Factor in the offense-enhancing conditions (hot temperatures and high elevation) at The Corral, and the chasm between the team’s strong pitching and dismal hitting is even more stark.
A major chunk of Silver City’s offense came from RF Nathaniel Wason, who was one of the league’s best all-around offensive players. Wason’s 54 homers led the league, and his .667 slugging percentage was second in the league to Milwaukee’s Felipe Mateo. The Outlaws had a few other players with decent pop (3B Rusty Brewmaker hit 29 homers, 1B Muzz Elliott 27, and CF Javier Cardona 24), but the team struggled to get runners on base ahead of those blasts.
“We had plenty of homers,” said Wason, “but far too often, they were solos. We weren’t scoring runs in bunches the way we needed to.”
The team’s offensive struggles undermined a quality pitching staff. Rookie lefty Pedro Rodriguez made a strong case as the league’s best pitcher, posting a 3.06 ERA that was second-best among starters and leading the league with 212 strikeouts. Thanks to the lack of support, though, Rodriguez posted an underwhelming 12-11 record.
The rotation, anchored by Rodriguez, was Silver City’s greatest strength. The rookie southpaw was supported by solid performances from lefty Rob Tildon (10-14, 3.88, 169 Ks) and righty Juan Carlos Lopez (12-12, 3.97). The biggest surprise, though, came from veteran right-hander Linus Pauling. The 31-year-old impressed the Outlaws brass by posting an 11-14 record and a 3.49 ERA, fifth-best among Patriot League starters.
“I mean, I don’t think anyone expected what Linus did in the first half—probably not even Linus!” said Jarha. “We brought him on to shore up the back end of the rotation, and he ended up being one of our most solid starters. He’s not a big strikeout pitcher like Pedro or Robbie, but he knows how to get hitters out, and he did everything we needed him to do and more.”
Outlaws owner Justin Rallis praised the production from his team’s two teenagers, the 19-year-old Rodriguez and the 18-year-old Brewmaker. “Pedro is a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his first season, and Rusty was just a home run and five RBI short of a 100/30/100 season,” said Rallis. “That’s a terrific foundation of young players to help build and improve our franchise.”
Jarha was also full of praise for Brewmaker. “Rusty led the team in on-base percentage, and finished second [to Wason] in runs, home runs, RBI, and game-winners,” the manager noted. “That’s pretty amazing for a kid who was in high school last year!”
Despite the impressive work of the two rookies and the strong rotation, however, the Outlaws finished well out of contention. The feeble offense was the primary reason for the team’s failure, but the bullpen also played a role. In the first half, the Silver City relief corps was a reliable unit, one that earned the affectionate nickname “Dirt Hogs” from Jarha for their low-glory, blue-collar work ethic. In the second half, though, the former team strength became a liability. The pen finished with a 4.96 ERA, and several relievers showed clear signs of overwork down the stretch, most notably righty Jamaal Sapp and closer Go Matsumoto.
How will the Outlaws make sure that 2016 isn’t another disappointment? Outlaws GM Hank Stroman declined to discuss specifics, saying, “My highest priority is making sure we re-sign the players we need to win games next year.” He did suggest that the team was actively looking to improve through both free agency and the draft.
Jarha is focused on improving the team’s hitting. “I’ve gotta let the guys go home for a little while and see their families,” said the Outlaws manager, “but I want to get back in the cages as soon as possible. I don’t want to be sitting here next year talking about why our team couldn’t hit the ball.”
Stroman did hint that next year’s changes might extend beyond the roster, saying, “I’ll be evaluating the performance of our entire staff to determine if we need to make a change.” When asked if this meant Jarha or some of his coaches might be dismissed, Stroman replied, “I didn’t say that. What I said is that it’s my job to make sure our guys have the right coaches and environment. If that means I have to make a change in the coaching staff, I’ll make that determination at the appropriate time.” With a laugh, the GM added, “That isn’t today, though.”
Based on the owner’s comment, it’s not clear whether Jarha or his staff can rest easy this offseason. What is clear, though, is that the Outlaws had better see some upward mobility in the standings next year, or players and coaches alike will see their feet held to the fire.