AKRON A .500 record doesn’t always mean a team has been battling its way through an average season.
Sometimes, it’s merely the midpoint for a squad that has been riding a roller coaster of ups and downs, trying to find consistency over the course of a long season. As the Akron RubberDucks bear down on the Eastern League All-Star break, their campaign - especially at the plate - has largely been an inconsistent one.
For first-year manager Mike Budzinki, the effort to find consistency has been a battle through the first two months of the season.
“That’s what we’ve really struggled with this year … the pregame work and everything is very good and very consistent, but it’s a big jump for a lot of these guys from high (Class) A to Double-AA and they’ve had to make some adjustments here the first couple months, but they’re learning and getting better and better,” Budzinski said. “I think we’re getting closer to where we want to be.”
One aspect of that struggle has been the number of new faces or simply young players who are stepping up to the Double-A level for the first time. The results indicate how much the RubberDucks have struggled, with a .248 team batting average that ranks as the third-worst in the EL.
While the team’s power hitting has been one area of strength, with Akron’s 74 long balls ranking second in the league. Hitting for average has been much tougher, with league-leading Francisco Mejia’s ever-rising average going as high as .373, but not other player on the roster hitting above .290 through the start of this week. A total of 21 different batters have appeared in at least two games in the first two months of the season, including prospects such as Bobby Bradley, Dorssys Paulino and Greg Allen, all of whom are playing their first full season at the Double-A level.
For those players, adapting to a new level is a work in progress.
“That comes with experience and obviously each level you step up, the competition gets better and better and they’ve got to adjust to that," Budzinski said. “Most of the time … there’s a select few who have that ability, you get a Francisco Mejia who can come up and just keep doing his thing, but most guys, there’s an adjustment period. The pitcher figure out a little bit better where your heels are and hit those areas more consistently and you’ve got to adjust off that.”
Still, the veteran manager doesn’t believe there should be much of an issue when it comes to his young lineup lacking confidence, given that even players reaching Akron for the first time have gone through multiple minor league seasons in which they’ve had ups and downs and have learned how to deal with those struggles and find ways to adapt and succeed.
“I don’t think there’s any issue or concern with that, it’s just about preparing every day in the cage and getting your work done in BP … each of them has a specific plan of what they’re working on and just sticking to those plans, goals and routines and just going out what we ask of them on the field is doing think too much about that, just compete,” Budzinski said. “By this point, most of them have three, four, five years before they get to Double-A, so most of them have some struggles and they understand you’re not going to go out every day, whether it’s offensively, defensively or on the bases, and be perfect, so our goal is to learn from those mistakes.”
The positive side of Akron’s struggles is that despite it’s up-and-down trajectory at the plate, the RubberDucks have found a way to grind out enough wins to stay in the playoff race. No team in the EL Western Division has run away with the lead and at the start of the week, Akron sat in second place, two games behind first-place Altoona and in the wild card spot.
A long stretch remains before the postseason, but having stayed in the race despite their early inconsistency offers hope that the RubberDucks’ best baseball could be ahead of them.
Along the way, the coaching and player development staffs are doing their best to help each player improve on an individual level. Like the team’s overall success, that growth doesn’t happen in a short span. It takes prolonged effort and education over months, something Budzinski and his coaches tell players to keep in mind as they go forward.
“We tell them exactly that, when we make changes that make sense to you, it’s going to take some time. You can’t just do it overnight, but we feel like if you make these changes, in the long run you’re going to be a better player,” Budzinski said. “I think whoever they play for, they want to know it’s someone who cares about them and is in the game to teach and coach and make them better. As soon as they can gain that trust and belief, that’s what we’re looking for, so they can help us win a championship, whether it’s here or in the big leagues.”
The current result may not be overwhelming in terms of sheer numbers, but as last season’s strong finish proved, the RubberDucks might have some magic left for the season’s second half. That season ended with the team hoisting its fifth EL championship and while it’s too early to say whether this season will end the same way, recent history is on Akron’s side.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB