MadFriars' Announcer Series: Mike Couzens
Mike Couzens is the Broadcasting and Media Relations manager for the Fort Wayne TinCaps where he has been the lead play-by-play broadcaster for the team since 2012.
Those that are familiar with the MadFriars' Daily Farm Report are also aware that in addition to his broadcasting duties he also serves as a de facto beat writer for the TinCaps putting out one of the better summaries for every game the TinCaps played this season.
We caught up with Mike at the end of the year for his thoughts on the players he saw this summer in the Summit City.
Yeison Ascencio led the Midwest League in hitting and not a whole lot is known about him. What did you see this year?
Mike Couzens: First and foremost, we saw the first-ever Midwest League batting champion in the 20-year history of the franchise. That's no small accomplishment, considering Sean Burroughs hit .359 in 1999 and still didn't win the award. Asencio won the title with the 14th lowest average in the 65 years that the league has handed out the award.
If I had to draw an estimate off the top of my head of the percentage of first pitches that Asencio swung at, it would probably be around 60%. He is very aggressive. And you know what? It works. There are a lot of other hitters in this league who will swing at first pitches but not have the same results that he did. From talking to hitting coach Jacque Jones and some of Asencio's teammates, they all remark at a) his hand-eye coordination and b) the raw power that he naturally has. Remember—he didn't even go to spring training because of a visa issue, and didn't get to the U.S. this season until May. He essentially jumped right into the game and started to dominate. That said, his approach did prove detrimental at times when he would've been better served taking a few pitches, especially with runners on base, to see if the pitcher might work himself into a little bit of trouble and then need a fastball, which Asencio feasted on.
When he arrived in Fort Wayne he had a lot of trouble defensively, and would leap to catch routine line drives in right field because he would get there late. That was quickly rectified, and it was something that the coaching staff liked to see.
Austin Hedges came into the league as the Padres' second round draft pick in 2011 but based on his signing bonus he was their top selection and put up very good offensive numbers in his first year. Before you describe what he did at the plate how did he look behind the plate? Did he live up to the hype?
Mike Couzens: I thought he looked very good behind the plate. Every pitcher that asked about working with him as a battery mate had nothing but complimentary things to say about him. Throughout the season whenever Brad Ausmus or AJ Hinch would stop in, they would take a good portion of the afternoon to work with Hedges and Matt Colantonio on framing pitches and blocking techniques. I really enjoyed watching Hedges throw out runners, which happened at an increased rate as the season went along. He also had a really good ability to block the plate on throws from the outfield. The team was fortunate to have two very high-powered arms in Kyle Gaedele in left and Asencio in right who could throw out runners better than anyone else in the league, and that gave Hedges plenty of opportunity to stonewall runners at the plate with his body positioning, not to mention holding on to the ball through a collision.
He was second on the team in home runs with 10, and although he slumped for a big in the middle of the summer, was a reliable bat no matter where he was placed in the lineup.
When I was in Fort Wayne I was very impressed with Jace Peterson but though his defensive instincts were still developing. What improvement did you see from him?
Mike Couzens: Of shortstops I saw in the Midwest League this year, I would rank Peterson in the second tier of players behind Eugenio Suarez from West Michigan and Francisco Lindor from Lake County. Peterson's defense was at times a liability, but it was never anything that was concerning as something that you thought would linger throughout the entire season, because it didn't. Duanel Jones led the team in errors and Peterson was second, but most of their mishaps happened within the first 70 games. Remember that Peterson was not just a baseball player before this year, having also played football at McNeese State. It's his first full year of pro baseball, so you expect there to be a certain number of mistakes. A lot of the errors he had were on balls that needed to be charged, and the ball might skip off the heel of his glove, or mishandling a throw to second base when trying to turn a double play.
The one thing that Peterson has that not many players will is an innate ability to sacrifice his body to make a play. On May 10 he dove for an infield pop-up, collided with Colin Rea, and had to be carted off the field with what looked to be a neck injury. He was fine. But his football background has instilled in him something that leaves him fearless when it comes to diving for a ball, no matter how deep in the hole it might be.
Both Kyle Gaedele and Mike Gallic are considered toolsy players that have potential but needed to become more consistent. What did you see from them this year?
Mike Couzens: Gaedele is an excellent defender who gets to the ball with great ease. He played primarily left field, but also a decent bit of center, too, with no difficulty in that transition. He also has one of the strongest arms that I saw in the league this year. When he runs the bases it's really fun to watch, because he takes such big strides and moves very quickly. At the plate he did strike out at a rate higher than he would've liked, so that's something that he'll likely seek to cut down going forward.
Gallic was drafted out of Marist where he played primarily in center field, but with the TinCaps was a corner outfielder, working mostly in left. His numbers at the plate were really good, hitting as high as .316 on August 12th, but he went cold for the rest of August, hitting .205 for the month and finishing the season with an average of .273. He had a leg injury that kept him out late in the season (he was also injured late in 2011 with Fort Wayne), so consistency will be important for him.
I liked Travis Whitmore quite a bit. I thought he had a nice approach at the plate and was a pretty versatile player defensively. What do you think he did well and what aspects of his game does he need to improve upon going forward?
Mike Couzens: The best thing that Whitmore was able to do for this team was bounce around defensively. He played first, second, third and in a blowout 16-0 loss at South Bend even pitched an inning. All kidding aside, he proved to be someone that, because of his versatility, earned himself a spot in the lineup every day. His hitting was consistent, as was his defense. He played most at first base because the team lacked a true first baseman. Back in April it was Jose Dore, an outfielder in 2011, who the Padres were attempting to convert to a first baseman. Dore was injured the first series of the year and never returned to Fort Wayne. So many players saw time at first base: Lee Orr, Clark Murphy, Zach Kometani, Connor Powers, but none more than Whitmore. If he will remain at that position, he'll probably be expected to hit for a bit more power than he did in 2012.
Matt Wisler had a great season. What made him so effective?
Mike Couzens: I got to know Matt Wisler's father, Bob, over the course of the season, and from talking to him I understand why Wisler is the great pitcher and excellent person that he is. From a very young age, Bob said that he would track Matt's pitch counts and plan his workouts to help him be as successful as possible. When Matt decided to pass up a scholarship to Ohio State, where his girlfriend and many high school friends now attend, Bob told him that he would have to move to Arizona to begin his pro training immediately. It was Matt's choice whether to attend OSU, but he knew if he didn't that he wouldn't be laying around at home until spring training. He is the epitome of a hard worker. When Matt moved, Bob came out to check on him and helped him set his diet straight since, as a caring dad, he felt Matt was eating too much fast food. I don't say this to make it seem like it's a parent who is controlling, because Matt is 19 years old—and let's be serious, how many of us would handle a transition to being a professional baseball player on our own? I know I'd be on the phone with my mother every five minutes.
Matt is a very level-headed pitcher who works extremely hard at his craft. What sets him apart from other pitchers, not just at his age, but in this league, is his ability to command them for strikes. Even during his roughest outing of the year, an August 30th game where he gave up a season-high 11 hits in four innings, he did something no other pitcher on the staff might have been able to do. With the bases loaded in the second inning, he had a 2-2 count on the batter and zipped a fastball to the outside corner for a called third strike. Most pitchers would try to land a breaking ball in there for a strike, but he knew he could land his fastball with pinpoint precision.
He also has an interest in learning more about the game. I read RA Dickey's autobiography during the all-star break, and when I told Matt that I'd read it, he asked to borrow it and read it himself. Matt is a great pitcher who comes from a very good background, and looks like he has a lot of success in his future.
Before he got promoted to San Antonio Adys Portillo was having the type of year most people thought he would when he was signed in 2009. You saw him in 2011 and 2012. Why was he so much better this year?
Mike Couzens: Command of the fastball. He was able to set up great counts with his sizzling fastball, and then drop a big, breaking curveball in for called strikes. He was also, as he told me on several occasions, a much happier pitcher. He credited a lot of his success to pitching coach Willie Blair. The two of them were paired together during the difficult 2011 season where Portillo went 3-11 with a 7.11 ERA, and were able to form a very strong bond in which there was mutual trust and respect. I think that might be why Portillo stayed in Fort Wayne as long as he did this year, because he was having such a good year and was able to build his confidence after a rough patch the year before. Let's also remember that he's just 20 years old and finished the year in Double-A, with 2011 teammates Keyvius Sampson and Andrew Werner (who has, of course, moved up to the big leagues). Portillo recognized more this year that the ability to get ahead in the count early would work wonders for him, and was able to take advantage of that renewed approach to earn not only a trip to the All-Star game (where he was the starting and winning pitcher for the Eastern Division), but also a spot on the Midwest League post-season All-Star team.
Former Santana High School star James Needy finally got healthy and really came on at the end of the year. Do you think Needy could be one of the top pitchers for Lake Elsinore next season?
Mike Couzens: Undoubtedly, yes. He moved seamlessly from the bullpen to the starting rotation, and earned the nod in game one of the playoffs against Blue Jays super-prospect Noah Syndergaard…and won. He also worked a nine-inning complete game (the first for a Fort Wayne player since Stephen Faris in 2007) in late August, allowing one unearned run. Needy, like Portillo and Wisler, was successful because he attacked the strike zone. It seems like such a simple philosophy, but it's something many pitchers in this league struggle with.
Here's an interesting look back at history which I posted on my blog during the playoffs:
2009 Baseball America Top 100 High Schoolers
#2 Donavan Tate (Fort Wayne '10,'11)
#24 Keyvius Sampson (Fort Wayne '11)
#68 James Needy
#80 Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels CF)
#97 Billy Hamilton (Led MiLB with 155 stolen bases this season)
There were high expectations for him back in 2009, and because of injury he's missed time, but I certainly think he can be very successful whether out of the bullpen or as a starter.
Matt Stites is listed at 5'11” 170 but supposedly he can bring the ball to the plate in the upper 90's. One, does he really throw that hard and was he as good as his statistics indicate?
Mike Couzens: Yes and yes.
There is a picture taken of Stites during late July when the team was playing at Quad Cities. He ended a 7-6 extra-innings win by throwing a 100 MPH fastball. The pitch was consistently between 93-96. All one has to do is take a look at his strikeout to walk ratio of 60:3 during the regular season to know what kind of command he has. Stites only had 13 saves during the regular season, but it's partially because the team didn't give him many save chances with a 31-39 first half. He's headed to the Arizona Fall League and will be one of just two Low-A players on the roster for the Peoria Javelinas. More than 60% of players to go to the AFL have made the major leagues, so that's a harbinger of future success for Stites.
He was also named the Low-A reliever of the year by Baseball America. This was one of the most dominant seasons by a reliever we may see for some time in the Midwest League.
Who was the top prospect that you saw this year?
Mike Couzens: Matt Wisler