Last year, MadFriars.com announced Ben Johnson and Jared Wells as Hitter and Pitcher of the Year, respectively. The San Diego Padres agreed a few days later at their annual awards banquet. This year, the names have a chance to again coincide.
Organizational Hitter of the Year: Will Venable
It was easy for MadFriars.com to jump on the Venable bandwagon. The outfielder placed second in the Midwest League in RBI’s with 92 and set a new Fort Wayne Wizards team record with that output.
“I would endorse that,” manager Randy Ready said of giving Venable the Player of the Year award. “He was our leader on and off the field.”
He hit over .290 in all but one month during the season and was one of just seven players in the league to end the year with a .300-plus average, landing at .314.
An athletic specimen who was at one time better known for his basketball skills, Venable displayed his variety of skills throughout the year. Despite not playing baseball full-time until this season, he showed patience, an aggressive attitude, power, and supplemented that with speed.
“He is an athlete,” Max Venable, Will’s dad who doubled as the Wizards hitting coach, said. “He picks up things pretty quick.”
A smart, instinctive player, Venable also provided protection for those enviable players that hit behind him in the order.
“Having Venable hit in front of me for two months was a complete privilege,” third baseman David Freese said. “That guy was always one base.”
Organizational Pitcher of the Year: Mike Ekstrom
MadFriars.com was lucky enough to see Ekstrom on numerous occasions and came away impressed with his confidence and calm demeanor yet aggressive attitude in attacking the strike zone.
Ekstrom tackled the California League, a reputed hitters league, and proceeded to stomp all over it. In 12 of his 14 starts he allowed two earned runs or less and one earned run or less in nine of those games.
“I had one really bad outing, otherwise nothing too bad,” a modest Ekstrom admitted. “I was confident and aggressive and I knew where my fastball was going.”
“He pitches to contact, and keeps the ball down,” Lake Elsinore pitching coach Steve Webber added.
The best indication of his ability to keep the ball down was the two homers he surrendered in the Cal League, coupled with his 1.51 ground out-to-fly out (103-to-68) ratio. Let the fielders do the work for you.
The right-hander moved up to Double-A Mobile and was tabbed with four losses in which he allowed two earned runs or less, including three where he yielded one earned or less. He continued to hammer strikes down in the zone, mixing his pitches well. His fastball was clocked in the 90-93 range but it is the changeup he threw for strikes that set up everything else, including a slider to keep hitters off-balance.
“I think as the season progressed he learned that once you get ahead you don’t always have to give the hitter a good pitch to hit,” Mobile manager Gary Jones said. “You can see if you can get him to chase a little bit or be a little finer.”