J.J. Cooper will chat about independent leagues beginning at 3 p.m. ET.
There wasn’t a specific moment during the season when it became clear to C.J. Ziegler that he could break records. Nor was his performance particularly surprising.
That’s not to say it wasn’t impressive. Ziegler hit 30 home runs, which broke the American Association record. He had 99 RBIs, 13 more than his closest competitor, and also hit for a .318 average and a 1.053 OPS.
That mammoth offensive campaign has earned him the honor of Baseball America Independent League Player of the Year.
But look back to last year: In 2012, Ziegler’s first with the Wichita Wingnuts, he had 18 home runs and 61 RBIs—in just 58 games. If he hadn’t spent part of the season with Tabasco of the Mexican League, Ziegler likely could have put up similar or better numbers than 2013. He came into this year with a plan, though, and everything fell into place.
Ziegler entered the season with a sense of relaxation thanks to returning to the same team and league, as well as a particular focus on mental preparation. He homered in each of the Wingnuts’ first three game of the season and never really slowed down. Just over a month into the season, he had 10 home runs and 30 RBIs.
He hit his 28th homer, breaking the record of 27 held by Brandon Sing of the Sioux Falls Canaries, in a home game against Grand Prairie on Aug. 24. Ziegler’s 30th came against the Lincoln Saltdogs two days later.
His production was also aided by an extremely potent lineup that reduced pitchers’ chances to throw around him. Ziegler hit in the middle of the order for a Wichita squad that led the league in hitting and OPS and included former major leaguers Brent Clevlen and John Rodriguez, and league batting champion Abel Nieves.
“That’s what we tried to preach to him,” Hooper said, referring to the team’s insistence that Ziegler be patient at the plate. “Just know who’s hitting behind you, know who’s in front of you, know what’s going to be going on at that time in the game. With an open base, know that you’re probably not going to see something to hit right here.”
And if he needed another boost, Ziegler could just call on the fact that somebody else was chasing the home run record along with him. Sioux Falls designated hitter Tim Pahuta didn’t get off to as hot of a start, but he had 11 homers in June and 11 in August. The day after Ziegler tied the previous record, Pahuta hit two homers to break it and take the lead in the race.
“I wasn’t battling with the record, I was battling with somebody that was actually playing,” Ziegler said. “Him and I kept going back and forth. You saw that with Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera, those guys kept going back and forth with the home runs this year. When you’re putting pressure on each other, I think that’s the best thing in baseball.”
Though he fell just short of the 100-RBI goal he set before the season, Ziegler broke a record, won the league player of the year award and led the Wingnuts to the league championship series.
The last impression that he wants people to get, though, is that he’s satisfied with what he has accomplished in baseball.
“Whether that be affiliated (baseball), Mexico, Japan, that’s the big thing,” he said. “I want people to know that I don’t want to just be in independent ball for the rest of my life.”
Hooper said that Ziegler easily has the most power of any player he’s managed during his five-year stint with the club. He also said there were more scouts at Wingnuts games this year than he’d ever seen in that same time period.
Though he said he has yet to be contacted by any of them, Ziegler, who last played affiliated ball in 2009 in the Giants organization, likely caught the eye of at least a few.
He said he’ll start training again soon to be ready for the call that may come to play winter ball somewhere.
“I’m hoping that somebody comes, will see my numbers that I’ve been putting up for the past couple years and will say ‘Hey, we can give this kid a chance,’ ” Ziegler said. “And that’s all I can ask for.”