By: Paul Cooke
At the midway mark of the 2018 Wiffle Ball calendar, The Drop takes a look at the players that caught our attention over the first half of the season. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the best players in the game but rather a collection of players and stories that stood out over the past six months. This article covers players that have played in an unrestricted pitch speed environment in 2018.
Jimmy Cole entered 2018 with an ambitious goal in mind – play in 175 games over the course of the calendar year. So how is it going? By my own unofficial count, Cole has made it north of 50 games but a little short of the 87 games representing the halfway mark of his ambitious goal. Cole has been all over place the first six months of the year, competing in three winter indoor tournaments, playing regularly in at least two leagues in upstate New York, competing in the Skibee Wiffleball League in St. Louis, traveling to a pair of tournaments in Pennsylvania, and suiting up for two of games in the Palisades. Whether or not he reaches his stated goal, Jimmy is well on his way to being Wiffle Ball’s 2018 Iron Man. [HIGHLIGHT: Cole's Grandslam at the MAW Winter Classic]
For an eight-day stretch in April, Cole’s Palisades Cardinals teammate and fellow New Yorker, Kris Morse, was an unstoppable force at the plate. It started on April 22nd at AWAA’s Opening Day tournament when Morse pounded out an insane thirteen homeruns for the tournament champion River Monsters. One week later in Palisades, Morse had a game for the ages. Playing for the Cardinals, Kris went six for eight with three homeruns, three walks and a whopping sixteen RBI in a route of the White Sox. Morse has since cooled off a bit – how could he not? – but the eight days in April when he suddenly became the wiffle equivalent of 2001 Barry Bonds is one of the more fascinating statistical feats so far in 2018.
The one-pitch rule in the Washington based JAL league was the subject of some debate earlier this year. What seems undeniable is that making good on one pitch isn’t easy even if you are getting nothing but fastballs straight over the plate (which – to be clear – is not the case in JAL). That is what makes Matthew Morton’s JAL XVII output so impressive. Morton saw 95 pitches during the winter/spring season. He let 30 go by for walks and picked up hits on 23 of them for an impressive .558 on base percentage. Even more impressive was that 13 of his 23 hits (57%) went for extra bases. To make extra base contact on 14% of the pitches you see over the course of a long season is impressive in any fast pitch environment. Due to his relentless offensive output, Morton was named MVP of the JAL XVII season.
Way back in February at Mid Atlantic’s Winter Classic, Dan Potter deposited the first pitch he saw in 2018 over the left-center wall for a solo home run. That proved to be a harbinger of his season – in more ways then one. The leadoff home run was the first of three game opening shots Potter has hit this season, with the other two coming on April 14th against Ben Stant and June 16th against Tom LoCascio. Since the start of the calendar year, Potter has done nothing but rake against quality competition. The longtime York Yak leads MAW in almost every major offensive category through three tournaments. One of the best athletes in the sport for the better part of two decades, the “Wiffle Ninja” – as he is known – is finally get his due. [HIGHLIGHT: Potter goes deep twice off of Cole]
Saturday May 5th was supposed to be a fun day of bonding between a veteran competitive wiffler and his two kids. And it was, but for Dave Capobianco, Mid Atlantic’s Torneo de Wiffs ended up being so much more. The longtime Wiffle Up player and former Fast Plastic NCT participant – serving as his team’s only pitcher and on a bad leg to boot – held down quality hitters like Dan Potter and Connor Young as he guided his New School Risers team to a 2-2 round robin record. Capobainco hit a walk off homerun in a play-in game to put his team into the semi-finals against heavily favorited My Name is ERL. That’s when Dave saw his two teenage children – who were growing more comfortable with each at bat – mount a rally on a walk and a triple which gave them the momentarily lead. In extra-innings, Dave took care of the rest by hitting his second game winning homerun in as many opportunities. Although the Risers came up short in the finals, their unlikely run to the championship game is one of the best stories of the half-year. [HIGHLIGHT: Dave Capobianco May 5th tournament Pitching Reel]
Tom LoCascio – a first ballot Wiffle Ball Hall of Famer if there ever was one – received a heck of a Father’s Day gift this year. The captain of In the Box spent the day before Father’s Day back on the Wiffle Ball field flanked by his 15-year old son, Gianni. For one afternoon at least, the 51-year old turned back the clock and even better, got a chance to introduce his son to a sport he had previously only heard about. As everyone expected, Tom played well and left everything he had on the field while pitching all three games for his team. Among Tom’s highlights were a 1-0 victory in their second game of the day and seeing Gianni pick up the nuances of wiffle ball hitting, culminating in several well struck balls against a couple of high quality pitchers. More than a few fellow players remarked that Tom could still make a major contribution on a lot of teams, should he choose to play more than once a season. [HIGHLIGHT: Tom LoCascio June 16th MAW tournament Pitching Reel ]
Being underestimated and proving his doubters wrong is nothing new to the Stompers’ Nick Schaefer. By way of example, in 2001 as a member of In the Box, Nick was benched during a pivotal USPPBA East regional finals game against the Lakeside Kings because of the misconception that Nick is a weak hitter. Eight months later, Nick hit a walk-off 3-run home run against that same Kings’ squad to capture a tournament title for his new team, the Stompers. Thirteen years later – after being written off as a player on more than one occasion –Schaefer is still competing at a high level both on the mound and on the plate. His velocity is down a notch or two and his barely scuffed balls look like an ancient artifact to some younger players, but Nick continues to produce at high level. Although his pitching workload has been limited in 2018 – the days of 25+ inning tournaments are in the rearview for Nick– he is nonetheless highly effective both on the hill and at the plate. Nick is 2-0 on the carpet this season in MAW against quality competition and he has hit the game winning homerun in both of those outings. Showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, Nick has been one of the game’s best full-time veteran players this season. [HIGHLIGHT: Nick Schaefer helps himself with a Grand Slam]
Two Way Stars
At 21-years old, Connor Young is what you might call a “young veteran”. Connor first played in competitive tournaments when he was just twelve years old and has been a mainstay in the sport ever since. 2018 might just be his finest season to date. The man they call Soup has a good shot of winning back-to-back MVP awards in Mid Atlantic and he steadied a Palisades Brewers team that was going nowhere fast before his arrival. After pitching nearly every single inning for My Name is ERL in 2017, Young relieved some of the pressure with several clever additions to round out the roster. That has allowed Soup to be at the top of his pitching game more often than not, even though he still racking up the innings. Young logged 70 innings between MAW and Palisades in the first half of the year, allowing a meager 16 runs in the process. The extra assistance from his teammates has also positively impacted Connor’s offense. Young is a true two-way threat now, just as capable of taking a top ranked pitcher deep as he is to strike out a big time power hitter. [HIGHLIGHT: Young Takes Matters into His Own Hands]
In 2017, Ryan McElrath put together one of the most impressive individual seasons in Palisades WBL history. Ryan took home the MVP and Cy Young honors to go along with a league championship, becoming only the second player in that league’s history to earn both MVP and Cy Young honors in the same season. So far in 2018, Ryan has picked up right where he left off. His hitting line through twelve games (.250/.407/.597) is nearly identical to last season but with a little more power. On the mound he has already racked up 36 innings for the Giants. While opposing batters have gotten to him more frequently in 2018 than 2017, a 1.25 ERA (per 5 IP) still ranks high up the leaderboard, particularly for pitchers who have thrown thirty or more innings. Ryan’s ability to pick up big hits and shoulder the bulk of the pitching load for his team make him one of the most valuable players anywhere. An impressive eight-inning victory in the finals of the Mid Atlantic Winter Classic this February only adds to his already impressive Palisades resume. [HIGHLIGHT: Ryan McElrath Winter Classic Pitching Reel]
You know that a player is truly special is when he is among the top all around players on the year and nobody makes a fuss over it simply because it is expected of him. Such is the case for Jordan Robles. Robles is having one of his typically great seasons but because we have seen this level of performance and winning from him time and time again, it may not register to the same way it has with players in the midst of breakout or career years. Jordan started 2018 in impressive fashion by winning three unrestricted pitch speed tournaments in a row – the MAW Winter Classic, MAW Opening Day, and AWAA Opening Day. He is on pace to record anywhere from his second to fourth best pitching season in his illustrious Palisades career. It is easy to take Robles’ talent for granted, which itself is a testament to his immense skill. [HIGHLIGHT: Robles April 14 MAW tournament championship game pitching reel]
Chris Sarnowski was bred to be a championship level wiffler. The son and namesake of the former State of Mind and Hitsom great, Sarno has been around the game almost his entire life and has played competitively for much of this past decade. 2018, however, has been a revelation. While it was abundantly clear from his past successes in GSWL Yard and elsewhere that Sarno had a bigtime bat, he’s shown this year that he has the arm to go along with it. Through three MAW regular season tournaments, Sarno has allowed just four runs in 43 innings of work. His resume includes wins over top-flight teams like My Name is ERL and Cloud9. Sarno is a hard thrower with a typical mix of pitches and has seemingly put his control issues behind him. [HIGHLIGHT: Sarno May 5th MAW Tournament pitching reel]
Another name that might fit that taken-for-granted mold is Tim Trenary of the Palisades Dodgers. Since 2012, Trenary has been one of the best and most consistent players in the Palisades, particularly on the mound where he has averaged 13 strikeouts per games over his eight Palisades’ seasons. This year he is putting up his typical strong pitching numbers with a 0.71 ERA and a tick over 12 strikeouts per game over 27 1/3 innings. While Tim’s offensive output is usually safely above average, he has really taken it to another level this season. In 51 at bats through the end of June, he has slugged nine extra base hits including six homeruns, which is good enough for a .725 slugging percentage. Combined with his solid .410 OBP, Trenary currently has a 1.135 OPS which if he can maintain would be the best of his career.
As a first-time player in Palisades WBL last year, Ty Wegerzn ran away with the league’s Rookie of the Year award. This year, his brother Dave is attempting to make it back-to-back ROTY awards for the Wegerzn clan. Dave Wegerzn – like Ty was in 2017 when he won Rookie of the Year honors – is by no means a newbie to fast pitch Wiffle Ball and that prior experience has allowed him to hit the ground running. Midway through the year, Dave is dominating the action on both sides of the ball with a 1.213 OPS and 0.67 ERA. If Dave can finish the season the way he has started it, he seems poised be the second Wegerzn in a row to finish as a season as Palisades’ top “rookie” player.
48 IP, 4 R, 134 K’s. That is Dan Whitener’s combined Mid Atlantic and Palisades pitching line through the first three months of the spring/summer season. Whitener – who also pitches at Chowan University in North Carolina – poses one of the most electric arms in our sport. He’s put his abilities to fine use this year, retiring quality hitters at a rate unmatched by any of his peers. Whitener has gone through a murder’s row in those two organizations and handled them with relative ease. If Whitener has a shortcoming it is that he is prone to the occasional lapse of command but his stuff and velocity is so good that he is often able to work around any walks. With his pedigree and stuff, the sky is the limit. [HIGHLIGHT: Whitener May 5th MAW tournament pitching reel]
It is rare to strike out 27 batters over one 10-innning game and lose, as Whitener did back on June 16th in Mid Atlantic. A lot of things need to occur for that to happen, chief among them an opposing pitcher that is up to the challenge. In this particular game that was Cloud9’s Sean Steffy, who kept ERL off the scoreboard by scattering five hits, walking one, and striking out twenty over those same ten innings. Sean’s first tournament appearance of 2018 was a doozy, as he showed off the overpowering stuff that helped propel his team to victory in the 2017 Texas Open. Sean is 5-0 in his last five starts dating back to last October. The matchup with Whitener and ERL in June was easily his biggest test in those handful of games – ERL collectively picked up five hits and made ten outs on balls in play – but as big game pitchers do, Sean found a way to work out of and around jams to get the job done. [HIGHLIGHT: Sean Steffy MAW June tournament pitching highlights]
Texas Wiffleball League head honcho and talented pitcher, Will Marshall, is spending a plastic free summer while playing for the Utica Unicorns of the United Professional Shore Baseball League. The UPSBL – an independent league in the Detroit metro area – began its season in mid-May and runs through early September. Working in relief, Marshall has held opponents scoreless in 7 of 12 outings and has a 4.12 ERA through games on June 23rd. Will has been on his game more often-than-not, with seven of his nine earned runs coming in just two outings. Will poses one of competitive Wiffle Ball’s most electric arms and this summer he is proving he can still get it done on the diamond as well. [HIGHLIGHT: Will Marshall FP Texas Open pitching clips]
Georgia's Village Idiots won an eight team tournament in Tennessee in 2017 but have yet to play in 2018. There’s a good reason for their absence, however. One of the Idiot’s key players – Justin Jones – is currently playing professional baseball in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Jones – a four year starting shortstop at Georgia state – signed with the Angels as an undrafted free agent this summer and is currently assigned to their rookie-level team Arizona.
What do you get when you take the overwhelming arsenal and velocity of Sean Steffy and put it on a nineteen-year old southpaw? You get My Name is ERL’s Blake Hoffman. It is unfair to burden Blake with such high expectations so early in his career, but there is no denying he has the stuff and ability to eventually justify that comparison. Blake has shown off his considerable talent over three MAW tournaments in 2018 but also struggled on occasion, as can be expected of any young pitcher. A longtime student of the game – Hoffman spent the prior five years uploading his backyard bullpen sessions to YouTube before making his pro debut in ’18 – he has the drive needed to become a top tier pitcher. Blake travels from his home in Marion, Ohio to York, Pennsylvania – a one-way trip of about 6 ½ hours – to compete in MAW tournaments. There’s no question the want-to is there and with his stuff, it is only a matter of time before he puts it all together. [HIGHLIGHT: Hoffman versus Way Too Beautiful]
Last summer, it was Tommy Loftus who broke out of the pack in the Ridley Park Wiffleball League and established himself as one of the game’s bright young pitchers. This year, it looks like its Sean Bingnear’s turn to do the same. Bingnear followed up on his sparkling 2017 RPWL playoff run (15 innings, 0 runs, 24 K’s) with an excellent start to the 2018 RPWL season (16 innings, 0 runs, 28 K’s) before a nightmarish outing on June 20th where he seemingly couldn’t locate the strike zone. Outside of the Ridley Park league, Bingnear is opening eyes with his work in Mid Atlantic. In two tournaments, Bingenear has tossed 16+ above average innings and was one pitch away from defeating Cloud9 by total bases on June 16th. Relying on a heavy screwball and smooth delivery, Bingnear has shown he can get top tier hitters out and should only get better as he gains more experience. The NWLA recently spotlighted the Longballs’ pitcher as one of their players to watch at this year’s NWLA tournament. Sean will likely do the hefty lifting for the Longballs at that tournament, with Loftus still on the shelf as he rehabs an arm injury. [HIGHLIGHT: Bingnear MAW June tournament pitching reel]
Another young pitcher with a near upset over Cloud9 on his resume is Cooper Ruckel of the Texas Wiffle Ball League’s Cosby Show. Last October, the hard throwing sixteen year old kept the eventual Texas Open champions scoreless in a pool play game, but came up short on total bases. In sixteen innings spanning four games this season in the Texas Wiffle Ball League, Ruckel has struck out 46 batters and allowed only two hits. With an electric arm and a deceivingly simple delivery, Ruckel can throw the ball past opposing hitters in a way very few others can. [HIGHLIGHT: Ruckel strikes out Ed Packer]
The Drop National Player of the Year
Wiffle Ball is ostensibly a team sport but in its current state, the game belongs to the individual player. While I hope that one-day soon we will again have the full-time teams and system necessary to accurately rank and compare squads, that time is not now. It is a player's sport right now and there is no shortage of talented players to be found throughout the United States and beyond.
The Drop wishes to recognize the outstanding achievements of the games best, most consistent, and game tested WINNING players. To that end, The Drop will name a 2018 National Player of the Year this fall. In addition to the award, the winning player will receive a cash prize of $500. This is an editor’s choice award, meaning there will not be an open or closed door voting process. The winner will be selected by the The Drop based on the following criteria:
- Based on a player’s performance in unrestricted pitch speed games* between January 1st and October 15th, 2018.
- The award will take into account a player’s pitching, hitting, and defensive accomplishments between (and including) January 1, 2018 and October 15, 2018.
- Among other considerations, the level of competition the player competed against, the player’s statistics, the number of games played at a high level, individual and team accolades earned by the player (i.e. championships), and the variety of competition will be taken into account when selecting the finalists and the award winner.
- A player’s FULL body of work will be considered for the award. One good tournament is not necessarily enough to make up for a lack of play or performance the rest of the award period nor can will one "poor" tournament performance overshadow an otherwise superb season.
- The selection will be made based on the hours upon hours of in-person and digital Wiffle Ball watching undertaken on a regular basis here at The Drop, conversations with players and organizers, and 2018 statistics.
* Organizations that meet this criteria include, but are not limited to: Palisades WBL; Mid Atlantic Wiffle; NWLA affiliated leagues that provide an unrestricted speed option (AWAA, Ridley Park Wiffle Ball League, WSEM, etc.); the NWLA national and qualifying tournaments; the Fast Plastic tournament; JAL; and the Texas Wiffle Ball League.
The finalists will be announced on Monday, October 22nd. The award winner will be announced Friday, November 2nd. The award will be presented to the winner at a yet to be determined date and location.
So keep on playing and GOOD LUCK!