Independent Audit: Aug. 24
Church's shows newfound power in Frontier League
Scouts have always said power is the last tool to develop, but Ian Church has taken that truism to the extreme.
The 25-year-old came into this season averaging three home runs a year during his three pro seasons. In four years at Stetson, he hit a grand total of nine.
But after signing with Kalamazoo in the offseason, Church has proven the Frontier League's most surprising star. The 5-foot-10, 178-pound center fielder has turned into the league's top power hitter. His 21 home runs are seven more than anyone else in the league, and three more than he had hit in the last seven seasons combined.
"I didn't expect this," Church said. "In the years past, it has been expected of me. My previous managers always believed that I could put up these numbers, but it hadn't happened."
Church has been surprising pitchers, and opposing managers, all season.
"I tell you what, you look at him and say 'This is the guy who has 21 home runs?' " Kalamazoo manager Fran Riordan said. "He doesn't have a power hitter's body. He has an athletic body, but he's got tremendous bat speed. It's a line-drive swing, but he's very flat through the zone, and he gets a lot of backspin. He generates a lot of power with his lower half. If you're his size, you have to use your whole body."
Riordan signed Church after he spent his first three pro seasons in the Northern League. Church spent most of his first two seasons as a fourth outfielder, and although he earned an everyday job in 2005 with Sioux City, he battled injuries for much of the season. Riordan's sales pitch was simple: Sign with Kalamazoo and you'll be in the lineup, and center field, every day.
"It was a tough decision," Church said. "To tell you the truth, I was skeptical coming over. (Sioux City) hitting coach Billy Williams taught me a lot about the philosophy of hitting. It was a very tough decision. I wanted to stay under his wing, but I thought this would be more beneficial to me. I wasn't going to be a middle of the lineup guy there."
In the Northern League, Church was always one of the younger players on the team. But the Frontier League is limited to players 26 and younger, so Church immediately became one of the veteran leaders in the clubhouse.
"Coming straight out of college, I got thrown to the wolves playing in the Northern League," he said. "I had to learn my role there. I had to take advantage of when I got to play. Here, I knew I'd get 350 at-bats."
He has made those at-bats count. Church led all of indy ball in home runs, and he was the Frontier League leader in extra-base hits (52), runs (58), hits (88), doubles (30), and slugging percentage (.654), while ranking sixth in the league in batting (.314). He also was the MVP of the Frontier League all-star game, after winning the pregame home run derby.
"Every manager I talk to, every opposing player says, 'Hey man, when are you losing Church (to affiliated baseball)?' " Riordan said.
Church has also played every inning for the Kings in center field, where his 6.8-second speed in the 60 is good enough to cover the ground because he gets good jumps and has a solid arm.
In this day and age, such a power spike leads to raised eyebrows, but Church points out that he has lost 12 pounds since he left college. At 178 pounds, he's not exactly a hulking slugger. He credits his improvement to learning how to stay on the breaking ball, and learning how to use his top hand to generate backspin.
"I've always hit doubles," he said. "The difference is, this year those balls are carrying out."
A refined approach has also helped. "I pulled a lot of fastballs foul in the Northern League," Church said. "Billy Williams made me think about counts."
Williams made Church realize that after he cranked a fastball foul, he wasn't going to get another one. Pitchers were getting him out by relying on breaking balls while Church waited for another fastball. This year, Church has started looking for the curveball and has made pitchers pay when they hang one.
"I'd always tried to get back to fastballs," Church said. "The first two years, I dominated the fastball. The book on me was to get me out on the breaking ball. Billy got me last year to look for breaking ball after pulling a fastball foul."Familiar Names
The two top strikeout specialists in the independent leagues this year are names that should be familiar to indy fans.
Andre Simpson, who finished third in the Frontier League with 138 strikeouts last year, led all of indy ball with 109 strikeouts for the Golden League's Long Beach club. Overall he was 5-4, 3.36. Right behind him was Jason Shelley, whose 96 strikeouts for Gary were best in the Northern League.
The key to both pitchers' success is their split-finger fastball. Simpson, a 1998 21st round pick of the White Sox, has seen his independent league career take off since he added the split in 2005.
Shelley also uses a splitter to pile up his whiffs. He set a Frontier League record with 156 strikeouts in 2002 on his way to winning the Baseball America Independent League Player of the Year award, then signed with the Brewers, but returned to indy ball after being released by the club in 2004.INDEPENDENTS' DAY
• A year after Nashua's Brian Becker paced indy baseball with 41 home runs, the Atlantic League is suffering a power outage this season. Somerset's Ryan Radmanovich led the league with 18 home runs, which projects to 26 through a full Atlantic League season. Jeff Nettles, Bucky Jacobsen and Ozzie Timmons were the only other Atlantic Leaguers with 14 or more home runs.
• Last year, the Golden League's Desi Wilson hit .411 to lead the league in hitting in its inaugural season, becoming the first independent leaguer to top .400 since Pichi Balet did it in the Frontier League in 2002. This year, San Angelo's John Anderson is threatening to pull off the same feat in the first year of the United League. With a little over three weeks left in the season, Anderson was hitting .401 to lead all independent leaguers. Second-best was Balet, who was hitting a robust .372 for the American Association's Lincoln club.
• New Jersey's Aaron Myers threw the Can-Am League's first no-hitter when he shut down Worcester 3-0. Myers faced 28 batters, one over the minimum, and he walked two while striking out one.