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March 17, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Midwest League

Clinton’s professional baseball history began in 1906 as the Miners of the Class D Iowa State League. The city hosted clubs sporadically during the next 48 years before becoming a charter member of the Midwest League (MWL), a renamed and expanded version of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. The MWL upgraded to Class A in 1962. It has fourteen teams split into two divisions and a 140-game, split-season schedule. With an excessive spirit of inclusiveness, the league allows eight teams into the postseason: each division’s winner and runner-up in each half-season. Teams play two best-of-threes culminating in a best-of-five final.

Clinton has affiliated with numerous teams over the years, the most lengthy being a fifteen-year association with the Giants that ended in 1994. For most of its history, the team used the same nickname as its MLB parent. In 1994, its owners adopted the name LumberKings to honor the city’s heritage. Clinton is located on the western bank of the Mississippi River and was one of the largest wood processors in the nation during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Clinton plays at Alliant Energy Field. The former Riverview Stadium is a Works Progress Administration project constructed in 1937. Clinton residents voted down a city-financed renovation in 2002, but the complex underwent a $3.7 million renovation before 2006 with funding from Vision Iowa, the county Community Development Association, and other public and private sources. Improvements included new clubhouses, a completely reconstructed playing field, new fences, new seating sections, and replacement of the old wood bleachers with metal.

Despite the improvements, Clinton is a remnant of a bygone era in minor-league baseball, when practically any moderate-sized city could host a C or D-level team. It’s no coincidence that the five largest metropolitan areas in the MWL – Dayton, Grand Rapids, Fort Wayne, Lansing, and Kane County -- gained their franchises after 1990. Each has over 400,000 residents, while Clinton has just over 27,000 and the county less than 50,000. Worse, the city population has declined 20% since 1970.

Nevertheless, Clinton is committed to keeping baseball, and the park improvements are part of a larger effort to revitalize the city’s economic livelihood. The team is actually owned by Clinton’s citizens, who have rebuffed several offers to sell the team (and relocate it, no doubt). There is hope. After bottoming out at 44,400 fans in 1998, attendance has climbed in eight consecutive seasons. After the offseason renovations, 2006 attendance jumped 13% last year, from 95,775 to 108,301, despite the worst performance in Clinton baseball history. A postseason editorial in the Clinton Herald offered cautious optimism.

Texas affiliated with Clinton in 2003 after four years with Savannah of the South Atlantic League. This season, Mike Micucci will manage the LumberKings after a season in Spokane. Among Clinton’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

1 – 2006 draftees
8 – 2005 draftees
5 – 2004 draftees
2 – 2003 draftees
10 – undrafted free agents
1 – undrafted free agent signed from another team
3 – acquired in trade

You’ve probably read that Ranger management has handled its prospects aggressively. That strategy was featured most prominently in Clinton, where the typical LumberKing was no older than those in short-season Spokane. The hitters averaged 21.7 years of age versus 21.5 in Spokane, and the pitchers were actually younger: 21.0 compared to 21.4. Spokane’s only teenaged pitcher among the top fifteen was Kasey Kiker, while Clinton had four: Omar Poveda, Jake Rasner (now a White Sock), Zach Phillips, and Michael Kirkman. The team’s relative youth probably contributed to its woeful 45-94 record, including a 26-44 performance before the home faithful.

Full-season baseball is an unprecedented challenge to the players. 2006 Texas state high-school champs The Woodlands played 39 games. The 2005 NCAA champion Texas Longhorns played 72. The short-season Spokane Indians play 76. In contrast, the LumberKings will play 140 games in 152 days, plus playoffs if necessary.

Fans should keep in mind a few things when following the L-Kings:

  • The MWL favors pitchers. Run scoring is about 10% lower than in the American League. The league batted only .253/.325/.365 last year, compared to .275/.339/.437 for the AL. John Mayberry’s line of .268/.358/.479 may look vanilla for a true prospect, but that’s an OPS+ of 135.
  • Strikeout rates are 16% higher than in the American League. An MWL pitcher who strikes out 7.5 batters per nine innings is merely average.
  • On the other hand, the league permits far more unearned runs than the Major Leagues. In 2006, 16% of runs allowed in the MWL were unearned compared to 8% in the AL. Texas gave up 53 unearned runs last year. Clinton allowed 111 in 23 fewer games.
  • Alliant Energy Field used to favor pitchers, but in 2006 it became a hitter’s park. The park renovations cut the distance near the left-field corner, and they may have also slightly shortened the distance to right and right-center.

Once again, if you’d like to see each MWL team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth. Unfortunately, Alliant Energy Field and several of the other parks don’t resolve very well. Those Silicon Valley snobs apparently can’t be bothered with “flyover? country.

Posted by Lucas at March 17, 2007 12:26 PM