Sometimes a team does something, or many things, different than other organizations. For example, the Oakland A’s are fairly well known to be the subject of Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball, in which their search for market deficiencies is chronicled. The St. Louis Cardinals have their own book, too; Howard Megdal’s The Cardinals Way.
Well, after the second straight year of having the best pitching staff in the Valley League by a huge margin, perhaps it’s time for the Charlottesville Tom Sox to publish “The Tom Sox Way.”
The Charlottesville franchise began to recruit differently as they were preparing for the 2017 Valley League season. General Manager Jeff Burton said, “We don’t just take arms like most teams… We recruit arms with a specific history and for a specific purpose. The staff numbers have really added up to something special and it could have been even better if we weren’t losing a bunch of arms each season to innings limits.”
Indeed, the numbers that the last two Tom Sox staffs have put up are ridiculous. In 2017, the staff, as a whole, in 377 2/3 innings, gave up 316 hits, 153 walks, only 7 home runs, and 353 strikeouts. Collectively the pitchers had a 2.96 ERA, .222 batting average against, 1.24 WHIP, and .281 slugging percentage. Every single number led the league except for strikeouts- the Tom Sox finished 5th in that category. The Tom Sox team ERA was more than a full run lower than the next best team, which ended at 4.29. (Of course, the number that matters the most is the 32-10 regular season record.)
The 2018 season was nearly as good. In 368 1/3 innings, the staff allowed 308 hits, 147 walks, 18 home runs, and struck out 405. The team’s WHIP finished at 1.24, while the batting average against was .220, and the slugging percentage was .295. The team’s ERA was 3.18, while the second place squad (the Waynesboro Generals) came in at 3.98. The team finished 24-18 in the regular season.
Individually, the Tom Sox have had a number of accolades. In 2017, ATVL’s #2 starter was Sean McCracken, and three relievers, Joe Burris (#2), Drew Loepprich (#4), and Layne Looney (#12), made the “best relievers” list. In 2018, Jared Wetherbee was ATVL’s #1 starter and also the League’s Pitcher of the Year, and Jake Hershman ended up at #9 on the top starter’s list. The reliever’s list, however, was dominated by the Tom Sox. Hunter Gregory (#6), Antonio Menendez (#7), Cody Maw (#9), and Kirby McMullen (#14) all received individual writeups as top relievers.
It begins with recruiting. “Building pitching staffs is incredibly difficult in today’s age because of the very logical care with which college coaches need to treat arms,” Burton explained. “I do hours and hours of research of every key partner team that we use, from major Power 5 schools to small D-3 ones. I always go [to the teams] with very specific requests. That doesn’t mean we always get our guy(s) but we set the table for the best offers because we’ve done our homework. We have a very specific set of criteria we expect from any upperclassman request. We obviously can’t know as much about freshman, but for that reason, we make calls to HS coaches (or travel coaches) and we make sure they have the skill set to succeed at the highest level.”
Then, when the players arrive, the Tom Sox are very deliberate in how they use them and what feedback they share, both with the individual pitcher and the player’s college coach. “We have a very specific plan for every pitcher,” Burton said, “but sometimes that doesn’t come together until the late spring once coaches see spring usage, or start to develop their plan for how they’ll use a pitcher the following year. Sometimes that even changes. For instance, that’s why we moved Jared Wetherbee from the bullpen, because he was to be their future closer, to starter midseason because they decided they saw him as a potential Sunday starter behind two All-American studs on the Elon staff.”
The Tom Sox also have interns who do more number crunching than most teams. “We give them analytic data. We give them prior year workload. We give them recommendations from other coaches if they need it. I don’t want to reveal the specific analytics that are important to me because that’s our “secret sauce,” but you can believe that it has everything to do with being able to control the baseball. Power arms are nice, but we hate walks,” Burton explained.
Ultimately, the plans and feedback help the Tom Sox get batter players. “I’m 100% sure our very specific pitching plan helps us with recruiting,” Burton agreed.
So while there might not be enough for a full length book, the Tom Sox clearly have a plan and are executing their ideas to put tremendous pitching staffs together. As with most things in competitive sports, it is likely that other Valley League teams will begin to adopt some of the Tom Sox’s ideas over time, or risk falling behind.