On the first Thursday of each month, the Federal Reserve will give Pitcher and Player of the Month honors. It will provide an overview of the best performances over the past month, and forecast what lies ahead for the winners.
Player of the Month: Third Baseman Drew Ward, Low-A Hagerstown Suns
Despite a DL stint that sidelined him for 11 days, Ward emerged as the Suns’ best all-around hitter. In 68 plate appearances, he batted .311/.382/.508 with 2 home runs and 21 RBIs. Ward’s performance also stacks under advanced metrics, as he finished the month as the team’s leader in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) with 155.
His numbers were in no small part due to the April 19-27 stretch, when Ward began an eight-game hitting streak that extended into May before concluding on Saturday the 3rd. That span was highlighted by his games on the 25th and 26th at West Virginia (Pirates), as he belted home runs in both contests while driving in a combined 6 runs.
With Bryce Harper being the outlier, the Nationals recent history suggests that Ward could remain in Hagerstown for most, if not all, of this season. He is just 19, and needs to show better range and quicker instincts at third (6 errors in 14 games). To this point, however, the Nationals should be very encouraged by the production of their third-round selection from last year.
Honorable Mentions: Destin Hood (Double-A Harrisburg), Wilmer Difo (Hagerstown), Kevin Keyes (High-A Potomac and Harrisburg), Stephen Perez (Potomac).
Pitcher of the Month: Righthander Taylor Hill, Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs
Hill is making the most of his first extended stint in Triple-A, beginning with a dominant April. In 5 starts, he went 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA and a 29:4 K:BB ratio in 30.2 innings pitched. Two of his wins came on 7-inning, 1-run performances against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) and Louisville (Reds) on the 12th and 24th receptively.
Hill has made one start in May, a complete-game shutout on just 3 hits against Toledo (Tigers) on Sunday. Adding his totals from that start, he is now 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and a 34:5 K:BB in 3.2 innings.
One of the keys to his success this season has been an increase in strikeouts. Hill, a pitcher that relied on contact and pinpoint command throughout his career, told Jake Seiner of MiLB.com that Chiefs’ pitching coach Paul Menhart has worked with him to improve the command of his off -speed pitches.
As I noted a few weeks ago, Hill’s ability to continue this success and earn prospect consideration largely hinges on whether he can maintain his strikeout numbers. While his track record (5.7 career K/9 rate in 375 innings) suggests that he cannot, it is worth following him to see if the aforementioned adjustments allow him to sustain this hot start. If his strikeouts begin to fall, the 25-year-old will need to rely on his pinpoint command to work through the International League.
Honorable mentions: Brian Dupra (Potomac), John Simms (Hagerstown and Potomac), Lucas Giolito (Hagerstown).
- Despite an extremely rocky start to this season, the Nationals insist that Matt Purke is healthy and will remain in Harrisburg’s rotation, according to Byron Kerr of MASN. With 6-shutout innings in a win over Richmond (Giants) on Wednesday, Purke improved his ERA to 7.18 through 26.1 innings.
- After posting a mere .630 OPS for Hagerstown last year, shortstop Stephen Perez has been one of Potomac’s best hitters thus far. Through 99 plate appearances, the switch-hitter is batting .330/.400/.447 and leads the team with 32 hits.