Ducks manager Wally Backman believes he has solved the puzzle, or at least part of it.
How do you build a dominant pitching staff in the Atlantic League in 2022? Load it up with "velo," of course
Velo, short for velocity, is hard to find at this level of the sport. And that makes sense. Flamethrowers are, by and large, developing within the tight grasp of major league organizations. But Backman believes the Ducks have found a few, certainly enough to return to the top of the Atlantic League mountain.
“We have a few guys who can run it up there pretty good,” said Backman, who is entering his third season as manager. “The one thing that I found out, more so last year, is that the guys that have some velocity, they're tough on the good hitters. That's one of the reasons I think some of the good hitters are in this league, they had trouble hitting velocity. We looked for a few guys. I think we got three or four 94, 95 (mph) plus guys. We had one last year (Michael Tonkin, now in the Braves system).”
The Ducks open their 22nd season Friday night against the York Revolution at Fairfield Properties Ballpark in Central Islip. They are looking for their second championship in three seasons, and fifth in franchise history. They lost in four games to Lexington in last season’s Atlantic League Championship Series.
“It bothered me for a while,” said Lew Ford, the 45-year old Ducks all-time hits leader who is back for his 12th season. “We would have liked to have won. I feel like we had the best team. [We had] the best record (68-52). It didn’t feel good to end the season like that. I think, for the guys that were here last year, it’s another motivation to come out and be ready and get another shot at it.”
The Ducks have made the championship final series in each of the last five seasons, winning once.
Backman, who has agreed to a new three-year deal to manage the team, hopes that the extra velocity coming off the mound will lead to another title. Former major leaguers Brett Kennedy, Akeel Morris and Tyler Webb all approach 95 miles per hour.
“We have harder throwers this year and they’re just better pitchers, too,” Backman said. “They’re good pitchers with velocity. I think it’s going to improve the whole pitching staff.”
Backman isn’t the kind of manager that lives and dies by the radar gun, he just recognizes its added value at this level.
“I would rather have pitchers that can pitch, that throw strikes,” he said. “But it's nice to have those guys that have some velocity, too, that can get the strikeout. I think that's the difference that we have. We have guys that can come in and strike guys out.”
Webb, who made seven appearances for the Yankees in 2017, will likely close, Backman said. The lefthander pitched to a 2.08 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings with the Cardinals in 2020, but had a 13.22 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings in St. Louis last season.
“I want to pitch well and just get outs, in whatever capacity that is,” Webb said. “The job description’s the same no matter if you’re here or in the big leagues. You're paid to get outs, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Offensively, the Ducks are still trying to fill some holes, Backman said, namely the one left by former-Nationals infielder Steve Lombardozzi. Lombardozzi remains in ‘partial retirement’ after being named the Atlantic League Player of the Year last season. Lombardozzi hit .329 with 16 homes runs and 83 RBIs. He set a Ducks franchise record and led the league in walks (90) and finished in the top five in games played (119), hits (143), and runs scored (99).
Backman said he hopes that the hole left by the man known as ‘Lombo’ will be filled by Lombo himself.
“I've tried so hard to bring Lombo back,” Backman said. “He’s got a family now and he just feels that, right now, he needs to stay with his family. Trust me, his wife is all for him coming back. He's not going to fully retire. I'm hoping the guy gets the itch sooner than later to come back, and I think he might.”
Same goes for catcher Sal Giardina, who hit .317 in 81 games last season. Giardina played last year with the intention of it being his last, but Backman hopes he’ll return, too.