The Canberra Elite Cavalry topped the Sydney Blue Sox 7-2 on Sunday, to wrap up their Australian Baseball League schedule. The Cavalry had the same won-loss record as the Sox, but Sydney gained the last ABL playoff spot by virtue of a better head-to-head record with Canberra, which was all but sealed when they took 5 of the first 6 games of the season from the Cavalry.
The Blue Jays sent four players to Canberra, including fan favourite C Jack Murphy, back for his third stint with the Cavalry, and first timers 2B Christian Lopes, 1B LB Dantzler, and OF Anthony Alford. Lopes tore up the league, hitting .371/.421/.581, including a batting average of .450 over his last 10 games, before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury with three rounds left to go in the regular season. His injury left a huge hole in the Canberra lineup as they battled for that final playoff spot. The veteran Murphy was his usual dangerous down under self, hitting .353/.413/.542, providing leadership and deft handling of the Cavalry pitching staff. Dantzler was just starting to come around at the plate until back and hip injuries sidelined him for the final month, and he wound up hitting .267/.316/.425.
The player most Blue Jays fans wanted to see was Alford. The toolsy outfielder abruptly gave up college football for baseball in late September, and was sent to Australia to make up for lost playing time. Alford has just over 100 plate appearance as a pro, spread out over three abbreviated minor league seasons, and his inexperience showed against the mostly veteran pitching in the ABL, hitting .207/.327/.319, along with 9 stolen bases in 11 attempts.
We had a chance to speak with Alford as league play was wrapping up this weekend. Considering that other than brief trips to Florida for extended spring training (after spring football ended), Alford probably hasn't been out of Mississippi that much, let alone travel to the other side of the world, so we asked him how he found living in a foreign country. "It was very nice experience playing here in Australia," he observed. "The only adjustment I really had to make was driving on the other side of the road."
We noticed that Alford didn't get a whole lot of strikes to swing at as the season progressed. The veteran ABL pitchers fed him a steady diet of breaking balls on the outer half of the plate, followed by fastballs on the inner half. Alford agreed, and suggested that he was partly to blame for putting himself into bad counts:
The pitching wasn't really overpowering. You were right, I saw a lot of breaking balls and fastballs out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of times by being too aggressive. But they did do a good job of mixing pitches up on me. Most of the guys I faced had at least 6 or 7 years of experience on me.
With all of 25 PA's above rookie ball in his career, Alford likely had never faced pitching on a level with what he faced in Australia. Even though many commented that the quality of pitching was down this year in the league compared to other years, most of the pitchers in the league rely on pitching smarts and their breaking stuff far more than pitchers in rookie ball do. Still, Alford was upbeat about the experience he gained:
I really just came over here to learn and get caught up as much as I can. I wasn't really worried about the stats. I know they will come. This experience definitely benefited me in a lot of good ways. I've learned that the pitchers over here don't pitch like the pitchers in the states. It's like they pitch you backwards here.
When we asked him what part of his game he was most pleased with as a result of his Australian experience, he came up with the answer quickly:
I was more pleased with my improvement on defense. It's like I'm a totally different person on defense from the time I first got here and where I am at now. But I definitely need to keep getting at bats and be consistent with my approach at the plate.
As the ABL season ends, Alford and his Blue Jays teammates will be heading back home. Alford will have about a month to rest and get ready for the upcoming season, and told us that he reports for spring training on February 26th. It will be interesting to see how this experience benefits him. Our bet would be that it will be in the form of improved pitch recognition. Even against the advanced competition, and despite his occasional aggressiveness, Alford had a walk rate of 12% - still not good enough for a leadoff hitter, but impressive considering his resume to this point. It will also be interesting to see where Alford is assigned after spring training. Our initial thoughts had him starting with Dunedin, but he may need to at least start the season in Lansing - which is good news to those of us in Southern Ontario, who were about to scrap our travel plans after Franklin Barreto was dealt.
We also had a chance to correspond with David Polkinghorne (@Super_Couch on Twitter), who covers the Cavalry for the Canberra Times. In light of the injuries suffered by Lopes and Dantzler, and given some of the concerns expressed by Murphy about the import rule, we have to wonder if the Blue Jays are all that thrilled about sending their prospects to Australia. Polkinghorne's response:
I guess injuries are injuries and could happen anywhere. The import rule doesn't really take away playing time from the Jays players as they're given preference in selection, it's unaffiliated guys like (Canberra IF Marcus) Lemon who miss out on playing time. So the ABL is no longer a way for American guys to get back into the MLB system. Lots of people feel it has lowered the standard of play this season though which might make MLB clubs hesitant about sending guys down under. The Cavs are a lot weaker this season but that is partly recruiting on their behalf as well.All in all, the ABL was entertaining to watch this winter. Listening to commentary from the Aussie television guys was fun - they don't take things too seriously, and make observations like, "I reckon that pitch was about 75." The live stream was much more reliable this year, and the highlights on the ABL YouTube channel were updated regularly. It's interesting to see the variance in stadium facilities from one city to another - some are obviously makeshift diamonds on cricket grounds, while others are not that far removed from parks in the low minors in the U.S.