Wilson Tobs players get ready for a pitch on a beautiful late spring evening during a game June 6 against the Morehead City Marlins in Fleming Stadium.
Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times
This summer, the Wilson Tobs stumbled to their worst record in 21 seasons in the Coastal Plain League. Much of that can be attributed to poor pitching and hitting but there are a number of reasons behind that. Nevertheless, there were plenty of bright spots along the way.
Photos: Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times; Photo illustration: Paul Durham | Times
Wilson Tobs general manager Mike Bell, right, and fans watch a hot-air balloon rise as part of the Pink at the Park Night on July 20 in Fleming Stadium, one of many community-based promotions by the summer collegiate baseball franchise throughout the year.
Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times
By Paul Durham
With the Wilson Tobs wrapping up their worst year ever, statistically, in their 21 seasons in the Coastal Plain League, some of the reasons for it can be found in the numbers. After all, baseball is dissected mathematically more than just about any other sport, especially in today’s era of Sabermetrics.
However, knowledge of such Sabermetrics concepts as WAR, WHIP, VORP or dERA isn’t necessary to understand much of why the Tobs have been historically bad this season.
The first number to know is 37, with which is the number of losses the Tobs finished with Monday’s final game at Fayetteville canceled due to rain. That is a club record of a dubious nature. Wilson’s 18-37 record is also the worst in the CPL this season, a situation to which the franchise is not accustomed. Despite having never won a league title, the Tobs are perennial contenders. In fact, in just five of the previous 20 seasons have the Tobs lost 30 or more games.
The 2017 season started with four straight losses and it seemed to go downhill from there. The Tobs have only managed consecutive wins on four occasions and two of those came in their longest winning streak of the season — three games from June 29-July 1.
The next number to know is 342, which is the number of bases on balls that Wilson pitchers issued this season. That’s the most in the CPL by a long shot — 71 more than the next team, the Florence Red Wolves — and 117 more walks handed out than the pitchers the Tops have faced.
Walks are bad, m’kay? And hit batters are just as bad. The Tobs plunked 84 opposing batters, compared to just 41 Wilson players who were hit by pitches.
To put it in perspective, Tobs pitchers only struck out 339 opposing batters, a CPL low. The pitchers with the four lowest ERAs in the CPL have bases-on-balls totals of 25 percent or less of their strikeouts.
And the Tobs also have the worst team ERA in the league at 7.42, which is even more notable when you consider that Wilson has allowed 8.48 total runs per nine innings. So it’s not really the defense’s fault, especially considering that the Tobs own the sixth-best fielding percentage (.965) in the 15-team CPL.
It’s easy to blame the pitching but Tobs hitters are also accountable for the dismal season as Wilson possesses the worst team batting average (.242) and is right behind Martinsville for the most strikeouts.
As it tends to happen in a season like the one the Tobs have endured, they have lost games when one or more component — pitching, defense or hitting — have been outstanding but the other has let them down.
The bottom line for Wilson’s lack of success on the field has been its lack of consistency.
“I think everybody on our roster has had a moment of success this summer,” Tobs head coach Aaron Lynch said. “It was just a matter of being more consistent.”
RECIPE FOR DISASTER
So, how did the Tobs go from having one of their best seasons in 2016, when they advanced to the semifinals of the CPL’s Petitt Cup playoffs, to having their worst season ever? Well, it’s easy to look at numbers and find some immediate answers, but the reasons behind those numbers is not quite as cut and dried.
For starters, six pitchers who had signed contracts with the Tobs never played in a game, including Barton College’s Trent Fennell and Dylan Ward. The Bulldogs duo threw a lot of innings in the spring and Barton head coach Josh Simmons decided it would be in their best interests to avoid additional wear and tear on their arms. Another pitcher, Noah Dyals of North Carolina A&T, was taken in the 17th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves, while two others, Tobs general manager Mike Bell said, decided to stop playing baseball altogether.
“If you looked at our pitching staff at the beginning of the year, we were going to be solid,” Bell said.
But by the time, the Tobs learned what would essentially be their starting rotation was not going to play, it was almost too late to find similar replacements.
“Arms are gold in this league and it’s really hard to find that in this situation,” Lynch said.
On top of that, some of the players that Lynch and Tobs president Greg Suire had signed simply underperformed this summer compared to their production during the spring with their collegiate teams. In the past, some of those players might have been released from their conditional contracts. However, Bell pointed out that it’s become harder to sign players to conditional deals as they want assurances they will play. And a few years ago Suire made the decision, after having more roster changes than any team he’d been involved, to sign players who would commit to being in Wilson the entire summer. The team, in turn, had a commitment to the players and wouldn’t start cutting guys for striking out too much or walking too many batters.
Another possible factor in the Tobs’ stumble out of the gates was Lynch missing their first 11 games. As an assistant coach at Davidson College, Lynch was with the Wildcats as they stunned No. 2 national seed North Carolina in the NCAA regionals and advanced to the first super regional in school history.
“Not being here at the beginning of the summer put a strain on some things as far as not being able to set a tone,” said Lynch.
THE GOOD NEWS
And if the Tobs have looked bad from the stands, it was worse from the dugout or on the field, Lynch assured. None of the players and coaches are satisfied with the performance of the team this summer.
“It is hard to sit over there every single night when the expectation is, is something going to go wrong tonight?” Lynch said. “We never want to be OK with losing.”
Despite all the losses, there have been plenty of bright spots for the Tops this summer. For one thing, Lynch said his players never gave up and continued to work hard.
“It’s August and we still have guys showing up early and that never happens,” said Lynch. “It’s not a lack of effort.”
The Tobs coach also pointed out that the main goal of each player in a summer collegiate baseball league is to improve and, for the most part, most of the Wilson players did that this summer.
“I want to be around the guys because they want to work and they want to get better,” said Lynch, who indicated that he plans to return as Tops head coach for a third season and fourth overall with the team.
From a different perspective, 2017 was a hugely successful year for the Tobs. Bell reports the team had the best attendance in the seven seasons under the ownership of Richard Holland and Suire.
“By the end of June we were almost 4,000 people ahead of where we were last year,” said Bell.
That translated into a total attendance of 46,110 in 31 games with one rainout.
The team raised more than 20,000 pounds of food in its Home Run for Hunger drive and Bell said more than $3,000 was raised in the fight against breast cancer.
Bell said the Tobs high school baseball fall league, entering its seventh season this year, is growing. In addition, the Tobs High School Varsity and Junior Varsity Baseball Classics are now annual spring traditions as well as the intercollegiate games between out-of-state teams the Tobs host in Fleming each spring.
The Tobs have become a community institution in their 20 years here and a generation of Wilsonians has grown up looking forward to taking in a ball game on a summer evening in Fleming Stadium. One bad — well, terrible — season is not going to change that.