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March 20, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The California League

The next step up in the Ranger farm system is the Bakersfield Blaze of the California League (CAL). The league began in 1941 as level C but was reclassified as A in 1963. It ranks higher than the Midwest League despite the same classification and is usually described as “A-advanced� or “high-A.� Current affiliations include the entire western divisions of the American and National Leagues plus the Boston Red Sox. Bakersfield is a charter member. In an arrangement that resembles Texas within the AL West, Bakersfield plays in the Northern Division despite being geographically closer to the southern, Los Angeles-area teams.

The CAL has a bizarre postseason format. Six of the league’s ten teams qualify. Each division’s first-half champion receives a first-round bye, while each second-half champ plays a best-of-three against the team within its division with the next best overall record. Then, the first-half champs play the winners of the first series in a best-of-five, and those winners play each other in a final best-of-five. (There will be a quiz next Monday.) Bakersfield last won the title in 1989 as a Dodgers affiliate.

Prior to joining the CAL, Bakersfield hosted only two years of professional baseball: as the Drillers of the San Joaquin Valley League in 1910 and the Bees of the California State League in 1929. Since then, Bakersfield has associated with many teams, the lengthiest union being with the Dodgers from 1968-1975 and 1984-1994. Afterwards, the team adopted the nickname “Blaze� and operated as a co-op for two years. The Blaze then spent four years with the Giants and the Devil Rays before affiliating with the Rangers. Texas’s relationship with Bakersfield is the shortest among its minor-league clubs. Texas originally affiliated with Stockton when it vacated the southeast US in 2003, but after two years the franchise contracted with the Blaze.

Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark (the “Historic� appears to be an official part of the name) was constructed in 1941 and is among the quirkiest in baseball. The in-play area resembles an overgrown softball field: dimensions are an ordinary 328 feet down the lines but only 356 to dead center, plus a uniform 15-foot wall. Despite the coziness, the park did not favors hitters in 2006 (or, more likely, the league’s other parks were equally hitter-friendly). Also, the park faces nearly due west, meaning a batter can look directly into the setting sun if so inclined. Umpires in the past would call an in-game delay until the sun crept below the outfield wall. More recently, a taller fence behind centerfield provides extra protection, and the team simply begins mid-summer games later than everyone else.

In 2006, low-A Clinton drew 108,000 fans in a city with 27,000 inhabitants. High-A Bakersfield drew only 77,000 despite its location in a rapidly growing city with 311,000 residents. Worse still, attendance is down from 101,000 in 2002, and only Visalia drew fewer fans in 2006. Since Visalia will complete a major renovation of its ballpark during the offseason, Bakersfield probably will rank last in CAL attendance in 2007. Rumors of the team’s departure have circulated since 1995 after it lost its long-time affiliation with the Dodgers. Since 1994, Bakersfield has never held an affiliation for more than four years. In 2004, a consortium of CAL owners purchased the team and ran it essentially as a ward of the league.

D.G. Elmore purchased the team in 2005 and appears committed to baseball in Bakersfield. The Rangers are also committed, having recently signed a four-year extension through 2010. Unfortunately, the new owner and the city have made no apparent progress on solving the facility problem. A new park is imperative to baseball’s future in Bakersfield, but the basic questions remain unanswered. Should it be located downtown? Should it be shared with Cal State Bakersfield? Most importantly, who will pay for it? Presumably, a new stadium won’t face the setting sun; the late and variable starting times make a colorful story but certainly aren’t helping attendance.

Among Bakersfield’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
7 – 2005 draftees
8 – 2004 draftees
6 – 2003 draftees
1 – 2002 draftees
4 – undrafted free agents
3 – undrafted free agents signed from another team

The ’06 draftee is 21-year-old reliever Danny Ray Herrera, also known as “Danny Ra Herrera� at The Baseball Cube. He and infielders German Duran and Mauro Gomez were the youngest members of last year’s team. The fifteen most active hitters averaged 22.8 years of age, and the pitchers averaged 22.5. Both groups average a little over one year in age more than their Clinton counterparts.

While the lower-level Midwest League depresses runs, the California League encourages them, glorifies them, even demands them. In 2006, the league hit .275/.350/.413 and teams scored 5.3 runs per game, 8% higher than the American League. It allowed a 9% greater walk rate but also 17% more strikeouts. Top prospect Eric Hurley surrendered 5.36 runs (earned and unearned) per nine innings last year, which sounds ugly but is in fact perfectly average for the league and park. As with the Midwest League, unearned runs are inflated relative to MLB. Bakersfield allowed 156 unearned runs last year, over one per game. Sam Lynn Park played neutrally last year.

Carlos Subero will return for his second season of managing the Blaze. He had previously managed the LumberKings from 2003-2005 and the rookie-level squad in 2001-2002.

If you’d like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at March 20, 2007 05:03 PM