With the All-Star Break done and out of the way, and the second half of the season already started, now is a great time to have a glance at the top performing players who took us to the mid-point of the 2018 Bull League season.
While these players may or may not be in the conversation for the Carl Simms MVP or Sandy Koufax Awards come season’s end, one thing is certain: they were huge factors in leading their teams through the first half of the year.
LES GROVES – C – LOUISVILLE
Without a doubt, 2017 second-round draft pick Les Groves takes the top spot when looking at Lake League hitters through the first half. The keen eyed catcher now leads the league in all the major hitting categories, including batting average (.374), OPS (1.065), WAR (3.2) and extra base hits (29). He has managed to drive in 40 runs in 50 games, behind only Gabel Reyes of Minneapolis and Ramon Gomez of Detroit.
Groves was formerly the #1 prospect in the now-defunct Bull Oceanic League, an Australian/New Zealand independent league that ran in 2016. He was eligible for the 2017 Bull League draft after the BOL disbanded, and was chosen 52nd overall by the Battle Creek Attack (now Louisville Sluggers), inking a minor league deal with a signing bonus of $3.34 million. He played just 18 games in 2017 at the major-level, showing promise with a .282 average.
With runners in scoring position, he has been lethal against opponents, driving in 27 runs and batting.395 in those situations. If he continues to put up those kinds of numbers through the second half, he is almost certainly taking home hardware as the Carl Simms MVP winner.
GABEL REYES – CF – MINNEAPOLIS
“Cool Blue” Reyes, who hails from the Caribbean island of Aruba, signed with the Jacksonville Ravens (now Minneapolis Ravens) as an international free agent in 2016, inking a 6-year, $67.3 million deal as one of the most sought after internationals that year.
In his rookie year, 2017, he showed overflowing promise, winning the AEL Rookie of the Month for June, but was injured on July 9th after clobbering 16 home runs and batting .278 to open the season. A hip strain ended his season early, but he spent the offseason working himself back into shape.
The preparation has paid off in 2018. Reyes was named LL Player of the Week, and eventually LL Batter of the Month for June. In 59 games this season, he has beat his 2017 figure for home runs, blasting 17 and tying for second in the LL. He has also driven in 48 runs to lead the LL, and holds the top ISO (isolated power) at .280.
As the second half gets underway, Ravens fans wonder what sort of totals a healthy Reyes can ring up over a full 100-game season. His one weakness is lefty pitchers, but with cross-division rival Montreal fielding five right-handers in their rotation, the Ravens outfielder does not seem worried.
KNUCKLES MALONE – RHP – TORONTO
Toronto had a surprisingly hot start in May, and weathered rough seas in June to end up close to .500 and in contention for a wild card as the halfway mark rolled over. A large reason was the solid performances on the mound posted by their ace, knuckleballing Irishman Knuckles Malone.
Though he was just diagnosed with an elbow injury after his last start, the July 22 home game against Boston that opened the second half, Toronto looks at Malone as a key to their success going into the second half. His record was just 6-3, but in several of his no decision games, including his last one against Boston, his solid starts were important in giving the Nomads offence the room they needed to do their work. Even in that game, which he left after 3.0 innings, Malone managed 6 K’s and allowed just 3 hits and no walks. The Nomads would later pick up a win.
Malone’s three losses came in a string in June, and despite registering the “L” in consecutive games, he actually performed quite well, suffering at the hands of a lack of offense more than anything else. The first, against Detroit on June 12, was the worst of the bunch, allowing 4 runs on 9 hits, but managing 10 strikeouts in a 9.0 inning complete game loss. The next, on the 17th against Boston, would see him pitch a quality start, going 8.0 innings with just 3 runs allowed, again on 9 hits. The third was a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Montreal, in which Malone allowed just 2 hits and 2 walks in an 8.0 inning complete game.
With Malone day-to-day for the next few weeks, he may get less starts as Toronto shifts their strategy to preserve Malone in the event the team makes it into a wildcard. But after one half, he is already the LL’s ERA and strikeout leader, crafting a 2.02 earned runs average, and whiffing 112 batters in 102.1 innings.
AMERICAN EAGLE LEAGUE
CODY MARTIN – 3B – CALGARY
The power-centric AEL is loaded with hard-hitting talent, almost on every team. But head and shoulders above the crowd is 5-time all-star and 2-time Bull Cup champion Cody “Crime Spree” Martin, who has been stealing bases with his bat instead of his feet all season long.
Martin leads the AEL (and therefore the Bull League) in home runs, at 29 as of this writing. That’s nearly half of his 62 RBIs just driving himself across the plate, never mind anyone else who happens to be on base. His power got him 170 total bases after 60 games, and he leads the AEL in that category, as well as OPS (1.142).
His home run antics earned him a Player of the Week nod in early June, but will he win his first Carl Simms MVP award with these kinds of numbers? He has been close a number of times, finishing 2nd in voting in 2014, and 3rd in 2016. But if his performance continues at this pace, he will certainly once again find himself in the conversation.
KATAI KITIGAWA – CF – ST. PETERSBURG
One of Toronto’s stinging regrets must be the 2013 trade that sent a 19-year-old international amateur signing from Japan, Katai Kitigawa, to the San Diego Seagulls (now St. Petersburg Admirals) in a package deal that also saw Toronto banish RHP’s Fred Loveless, Masato Watanabe, and first baseman Juan Martinez, only getting three players and a 1st round pick in return.
One of those players, catcher Hong-ryul Oh, has been a perennial disappointment since that trade year for Toronto, with his batting average and home run production sinking to .208 and just 2 homers this season, down from 2013 highs of .272 and 17. The other two players, both pitchers, were also forgettable and have been since dealt around the league and have not progressed beyond the minors. The draft pick was helpful, but none of what Toronto got in the trade compares to watching Kitigawa in 2018.
Katai was named an all-star for his second time this year, and earned both the Gold Crown and Platinum Glove for top offense and defense in the outfield last season. With a .369 average this year, he is 3rd in the AEL in batting. He leads the AEL in doubles (23) and triples (7), making the most of his contact and speed tools to also collect 11 steals (tying for 4th in that category). His 3.5 WAR in the first half have him tied with Norfolk’s incredible run generating machine, catcher Earl MacPherson.
Kitigawa is just 24, and has loads of years left as he refines and develops further. He had an amazing first half of 2018, and will certainly continue to impress going into the last 40 games.
JOSE SOTO – RHP – ST. PETERSBURG
The Admirals certainly look like a complete package this year. Not only are they blessed with great hitting, such as Katai Kitigawa and Takeo Otomo, but their rotation is anchored by a solid Dominican arm in Jose Soto who was signed last season as an international free agent, and almost single-handedly brought the team (then the Anchorage Aces) into a playoff berth.
Soto’s amazing 15-0 debut season has passed to legendary status now, and for that alone one might be forgiven for pegging him this early in his career as an eventual Hall of Famer. But Soto has proven that his Rookie of the Year and Sandy Koufax Award winning debut last year was no fluke.
As we crest into the second half of 2018, Soto is 9-2 with the second-best ERA in the AEL at 3.40, and tied for the most innings pitched (103.1) and most games started (14). The undisputed strikeout king of the AEL last year is very probably going to smash the 174 he whiffed in his debut year, and land above the 200 mark, setting a new AEL season record.
The hard-throwing groundballer can hurl a sinker that sizzles at 97 mph, and a monster 12-6 curve that gives poor contact when hit, and has helpd him establish a 1.05 WHIP so far this year. Soto is tracking for a second Sandy Koufax Award winning season at this rate, and could be compared to a young Iron Arm, the iconic Hall of Famer who won 6 of those accolades.