Even though the Wingnuts started this season with seven wins in their first 11 games, something was missing. The missing piece was easily identifiable, though, and there was help on the way.
On May 26, Wichita added left-handed reliever and former major leaguer Alex Hinshaw, who missed the first 11 games to stay with his wife, who was expecting a child that arrived in late May.
Hinshaw is the latest find for Wichita manager Kevin Hooper, who feels most comfortable with his relief corps when it includes at least one lefty. Now the Wingnuts have two, as Alan Williams was moved from the rotation, trading places with righty Jason Van Skike.
“We’ve had a great track record of having that one left-hander down there,” Hooper said. “To be honest, Hinshaw (is) probably the best one we’ve ever had, when it’s all said and done, I think.”
Hinshaw follows Nick Walters, who balanced the bullpen the last two years, and Dustin Pease, who pitched for the Wingnuts in 2010 before being purchased by the San Diego Padres organization.
If Hinshaw is to exceed the production of those two, his most valuable asset will be his durability. Walters and Pease combined to pitch in 54 percent of the Wingnuts’ games during their three seasons, and most of those appearances weren’t used on facing one or two left-handed batters in the late innings.
Yes, those matchup advantages are important, but so is the ability to pitch to right-handers and help build the bridge to the closer and the other setup relievers. In 161 total appearances, Walters and Pease pitched 145 1/3 innings.
“Typically the lefties we’ve had have had success against righties and lefties,” Hooper said. “It’s just a situation where they’re so dominant against the lefties they end up facing them more often than not.”
Hooper finds left-handed relief so valuable that he can change the way he views left-handed pitchers in general.
Normally if a pitcher has experience as a starter and as a reliever, Hooper will first look at him as a starter. That can be the case with lefties, too, such as Williams. But Pease was a starter before joining the Wingnuts, and Hooper opted to use him in the bullpen to give Wichita a late-inning matchup weapon.
“I want a dominant lefty down in that ‘pen,” Hooper said. “Because there’s always good left-handed bats in this league, and there’s going to be a big time late in the game where you’ve got to get that guy out. That’s why we’ve always done it the way we’ve done it.”
Left-handed relievers are a valuable commodity in affiliated ball, even in the major leagues, so they don’t often fall to the independent ranks without some baggage.
Walters walked more than 10 per nine innings the season prior to joining the Wingnuts; Hinshaw has had the same issue, walking 6.7 per nine in the minors and 6.9 in 90 big league games.
Walters lowered his walk rate with Wichita and pitched well enough to make it essentially a moot point. Hinshaw is on his way to doing the same, having walked five in 4 1/3 innings but with eight strikeouts, one hit allowed and a perfect ERA.
“I’m fine with bringing those guys on,” Hooper said. “We’ve had a lot of success with bringing guys on who have struggled with command in the past. I give (pitching coach Luke Robertson) a lot of credit for working with those guys and maybe finding something small to tweak their mechanics that might help them.