The more things change, the more they stay the same. After I awarded the inaugural Shorebird Player and Pitcher of the Month awards last season to a late-round, hot-hitting outfielder and a stylish lefty pitcher who was dominating the league early on, you would think a new year would change things up. But instead, it’s worked out to be players in a similar mold to outfielder Jake Ring and pitcher Alex Wells, who have both moved on to Frederick with longtime Shorebird skipper Ryan Minor.
Considering that Zach Jarrett hit just .201 in 45 Aberdeen games last season and struck out in nearly 40% of his plate appearances, it’s a bit of a surprise (or a testament to a lack of depth at some positions within the organization) that Jarrett was promoted to a full-season club as a 28th-round selection from last year. But instead of being the answer to the trivia question of having a famous father and grandfather (the Jarrett family is legendary in NASCAR), Zach has taken advantage of the opportunity. At month’s end Jarrett was pacing the SAL with his 7 home runs, but added 14 RBI and hit .338 with a tremendous 1.063 OPS. (An “average” player has an OPS of about .700, basically about a .330 on-base percentage and a .370 slugging percentage. Jarrett was at .400 and .663, respectively.)
As noted, we got Jarrett in the 28th round out of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, so he didn’t stray too far from his roots in that respect. (When the Shorebirds play at Hickory, Jarrett can visit his high school there; on the other hand, since NASCAR is in Dover this weekend maybe the family will stop in for a game?)
So far this season Zach has made a key adjustment in simply putting the ball in play. He has cut the strikeout rate significantly, with just 26 in 90 April plate appearances, and that is a large factor in his success. Whether the league can adjust to him or he can stay one step ahead of the pitchers is something to watch. So far, though, he has fared a little worse against experienced pitchers this season and we will see as the season goes on how much that will affect his stat line. It’s not likely he can keep up April’s frenetic pace, but keeping an average in the .280 to .300 range is a doable goal, along with a shot at 20-25 home runs. That would put him on the prospect map despite being about a year older than his peer group – Jarrett is already 23.
Zac Lowther, however, was already on the prospect map for the Orioles. Drafted in the second round out of Xavier University in Ohio, the Brooklyn Heights (a suburb of Cleveland) native was expected to do well here after pitching to a 1.66 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and striking out 75 batters in 54 1/3 innings for Aberdeen. But not all pitchers can succeed in full-season.
Maybe it’s being used to the cold as an Ohio native, but Zac picked up where he left off to such a degree that he was named a SAL Pitcher of the Week in April. Perhaps the Orioles’ brass believed Lowther could thrive in the chill, but he certainly froze the Hickory Crawdads’ bats in his first start, striking out 13 in six hitless innings on April 9. Nineteen days later, on the return visit to Hickory, Lowther made his “worst” start by giving up two runs on four hits in six innings, getting a no-decision. But Zac has amassed a eye-popping 39 strikeouts in just 22 innings, meaning he’s struck out exactly half of the 78 batters he faced over the month. Only 9 got to Lowther for a hit and just three for walks, meaning his WHIP was a microscopic 0.55. (For a more conventional measure by comparison, his ERA is just 1.23.) Batters are only hitting .120 against Zac, which basically means no one is going to make their career off him at this level. (One chink in his armor: 2 of those 9 hits were home runs, both at Hickory.)
Based on his last start being the worst, going forward the observation will be whether Lowther (who just turned 22 Monday) reverts closer to league average after dominating or continues to pile up strikeouts. To do the former may mean Zac stays here all season, but to do the latter would probably merit a mid-season (or sooner) promotion to Frederick. At this point the Shorebirds are blessed with the makings of a dominant pitching staff the likes we haven’t seen in awhile, which is why they concluded April in first place in their division after a all-time best 7-0 start. And with Frederick’s pitching staff needing a little help (early on their team ERA is ninth in the ten-team Carolina League) the Shorebirds may lose a couple of theirs. As a long-suffering Shorebirds fan, here’s hoping the Keys staff comes around because I want to keep the team we have and end the 12-season playoff drought!
Big campaigns from my initial Players of the Month will go a long way to making that a reality.