For 27 seasons, from 1993 to 2019, Fort Wayne played host to Low-A minor-league baseball. The city would have done so in 2020, as well, had the coronavirus pandemic not forced the cancellation of the season.
Before the TinCaps returned to Parkview Field, however, Minor League Baseball underwent a significant shakeup. As part of that realignment, 12 of the 16 teams, including Fort Wayne, in the circuit formerly known as the Midwest League were invited to move up a level and join the newly created High-A Central.
Even before the season began, manager Anthony Contreras, who made the jump with Fort Wayne from Low-A to High-A, knew the team would be different from the ones he had managed at lower levels. The players have more experience and are better prepared for the day-to-day routine of a pro baseball season.
“(High-A is) guys that have gone through a full season or close to it,” said Contreras, who played in High-A in 2007. “You expect them to know what it takes, you expect them to know what bus rides feel like and how to get their bodies ready. The level (of play) is just a tad higher, but for the most part it's the expectation that they know how to get ready.
“There's a lot of unknown when you come to your first full season,” he said of players at Low-A. “I say babysitting to a point where I'm more navigating them through their day, especially for the first half of the season, until they get their feet under them and understand what it takes to play every single day for five months.”
The TinCaps, who return to Fort Wayne today to open a six-game series against the first-place Dayton Dragons, have passed the midway point of their first season at High-A. Players who are seeing the level for the first time – and even those who are returning to it – have noticed that the heightened preparation Contreras mentioned means a higher level of play on the field, as well.
Fort Wayne catcher Jonny Homza has seen the difference firsthand, from behind the plate and from the batter's box. To him, much of the disparity comes from the mental aspects of the game.
“Hitters have a more of a plan when they're in the box,” said Homza, who skipped Low-A, getting assigned to Fort Wayne after a 2019 stint in short-season Tri-City. “Same with pitchers when they're on the mound, they're talented enough to have some sort of plan and then go out there and try to execute it. It's more of a chess game, you're not just going out there and swinging at anything or throwing anything, you have to think a little bit.”
The consequences of not thinking through an at-bat have increased, as well, especially for pitchers. There are fewer hitters in High-A against whom a pitcher can get away with missing a spot.
“If you make a mistake, man, the least they're going to do is foul it off,” said TinCaps reliever Cody Tyler, who had short appearances in High-A in 2018 and 2019 and pitched in two games at Triple-A in 2019, as well. “It seems like the margin of error pitching to High-A guys and above, it gets slimmer and slimmer. You have to be on top of your game every time you come out.”
But the pitchers are not the only players who have to adjust. Because hitters are more likely to punish mistakes, pitchers are less likely to give in in hitter's counts.
Hitting coach Jonathan Mathews, who was with the TinCaps in Low-A as well, said that part of the challenge of hitting at the new level is not being able to expect certain pitches in certain counts. Hitters who have had success at lower levels mostly by guessing right against predictable pitchers will have to adjust their approach. Outfielder Grant Little agreed.
“Pitchers can command every pitch more so than in Low-A,” Little said. “It's hard to sit on pitches now. It's hard to sit fastball in fastball counts because a lot of guys can throw a 2-0 slider, 2-0 curveball for strikes. In Low-A, if you get ahead in the count, nine times out of 10, you're going to get a fastball. ... The pitching (in High-A) is much more crisp.”
In short, players have to have a mental plan for each pitch, but they also must have the physical ability to execute that plan or adjust if it goes awry. Pitchers who have success in High-A and above have the stuff to minimize the damage when they make a mistake, and successful hitters at this level possess the ability to spoil pitches even if they are fooled.
The TinCaps who are experiencing High-A for the first time are working through those changes and trying to keep up with the growing talent around them.
“The speed has picked up and you have to speed up with it,” utility infielder Ethan Skender said. “It's been an adjustment for me, but it's been fun, it's been a challenge and I'm just looking forward to keep getting after it.”
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Parkview Field
TV: Xfinity 81
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM