The Hillsboro Hops had their first year as a full-season league. Previously, they had been one of Arizona’s short-season affiliates, playing in the Northwest League since the franchise moved from Yakima in 2013. As the Hops, they won three titles in 2014, 2015 and the league’s final title in 2019. But it was all change after the reorganization of minor-league baseball this season. Along with much of the Northwest League, they moved up to the High-A level, becoming one of three leagues at that level.
Under manager Vince Harrison, the Hops finished with a record of 52-60. That left them fourth in the six-team league, finishing 131⁄2 games back of the champion Eugene Emeralds. They began reasonably enough, but a 3-12 streak beginning on June 15, including being swept in six consecutive games by the Emeralds, sunk the Hops’ hopes. They play in perhaps the most pitcher-friendly park in the Arizona farm system: in 2019, their overall Runs Park Factor was 0.904. It seemed to play similarly on both sides of the ball this year. The Hops had the best ERA in the league at 4.34, but were still out-scored by forty runs over the 112-game season.
That’s because their team OPS was just .695, coming from a collective triple-slash line of .238/.319/.375. That did put them above the Tri-City Dust Devils, but was still 44 points lower than the league average. In their defense, the team was about six months younger than High-A average on the hitting side (their pitchers were fractionally older than average, but only by 0.2 years). One area the Hops led the league was activity on the basepaths, where they attempted almost three hundred stolen bases, at a 77.3% success rate. Their 231 SB led the league... though so did the 68 CS! Defense-wise, they seem to have been not too good or bad, with a fielding percentage of .974, almost at league average (.973).
The man on top of the Hops’ hitters by OPS beat the second-best player by a cool 584 points of OPS... Naturally, there’s a caveat, in that Arizona’s top prospect going into the season, 20-year-old outfielder Corbin Carroll, saw his season ended after only seven games, with a shoulder issue that required surgery. Still, a slash line of .435/.552/.913 for a 1.465 OPS offers a tantalizing taste of what could be to come for him, in 2022 and beyond. Next up was Buddy Kennedy’s .881 OPS, before he got promoted to Amarillo, where he did even better, but we’ll get to that. We saw Kennedy in action in the Arizona Fall League on Saturday, though as noted in our report, he has been struggling there, batting just .156.
Catcher/first baseman Andy Yerzy passed through Hillsboro, getting sent up first from Visalia, then on to Double-A Amarillo. Though he hit just .229 as a Hop, decent plate discipline got his OBP up to .350, and 14 home-runs (tied for the team lead with Eduardo Diaz) in 61 games gave him an OPS of .828. The pattern repeated at AA: Yerzy hit .194 for the Sod Poodles, but had a .326 OBP and hit 5 HR in 21 games. The other position player we saw in the AFL, left-handed outfielder Dominic Canzone, also posted a High-A OPS above .800, hitting .263/.337/.468, and also stealing 18 bases in 21 attempts. He was similarly rewarded with a bus ticket to Amarillo, and we’ll hear more from him in the next installment.
As noted above, Hillsboro is quite a pitcher-friendly location, so that does tend to make those numbers look more impressive than they might be. Still hard to argue with Brandon Pfaadt’s 2.48 ERA over nine starts, including a complete game, and a K:BB ratio of 67:14 in 58 innings. He followed the hitters to Amarillo and, indeed, his numbers suffered, with a 4.59 ERA in six starts, though the K:BB still looked good, at 36:7 in 33.1 IP. The dozen homers allowed there was the main problem. Slade Cecconi, recently pulled from the AFL after some impressive starts and reaching his inning limit, had a 4.12 ERA over a dozen starts as a 22-year-old. also striking out more than a batter per frame (63 in 59 IP)
Ryne Nelson is another who impressed for Hillsboro. Over eight starts, he had a 2.52 ERA, and a K-rate of 13.5 per 9IP. He was also solid after moving up to Amarillo. Among the relievers, Lui Fuenmayor performed well. He got promoted from Visalia despite a 4.81 ERA, but performed much better for Hillsboro, fixing the control issues which had bugged him in A-ball (14 BB in 24.1 IP) Over 17.1 relief innings as a Hop, the 22-year-old Venezuelan struck out 27 while walking only 2, with a 1.56 ERA. Similarly, Mitchell Stumo (another AFL guy) saw his ERA drop after promotion from Visalia, to a 2.16 ERA, before he got a quick promotion to Amarillo. The AFL actually marks the fifth stop on the Stumpo 2021 North American Tour... :)