Strong Arms Help Sugar Land Emerge As Atlantic League Juggernaut

They're in a major metropolitan area with a particular fixation on baseball, have a still-new stadium, play in a league with an overall talent level similar to the high minors and can fly to most away series. For an independent league team, the Sugar Land Skeeters have a pretty solid set-up.

And like a big-time college football team, they can use that advantage—combined with personnel with too many connections in the game to count—to lure top talent. In the franchise's second season, the results are showing on the field.

The Skeeters won the first half of the 2013 Atlantic League season, finishing in a dead heat with the Somerset Patriots. But both teams had records in a different universe than the rest of the league: Sugar Land was 47-23; Somerset 46-24. No other team had more than 37 wins.

Amazingly, the second half had been even kinder to the Skeeters. They were 18-8, giving them a three-game lead in their division. The Skeeters' overall .677 winning percentage is easily the best among the four most prominent independent leagues.

A quick look at the team statistics reveals a major contributing factor to that success. Sugar Land's overall ERA, at 3.23, is the best by a Texas-to-Pennsylvania-sized margin. Skeeters pitchers have allowed 71 fewer runs than the next-best team and 84 fewer hits. Their strikeout total is actually the lowest in the league, but so is the .236 opponent average.

With all the major league talent that has toed the rubber for Sugar Land this season, those numbers aren't all that surprising. According to manager Gary Gaetti, a 19-year major league veteran, the team had eight pitchers who could start games and four who could close. The club was so deep in pitching that Gaetti had to turn away pitchers who were plenty talented due to the team simply being full up.

"I actually had to tell a couple guys 'Listen, just don't even come, because we're full,' " he said.

Sugar Land started the season with 15 pitchers on its 27-man roster. Among those were Jason Bergmann, previously of the Nationals, and Sean Gallagher, who pitched on four major league clubs. Bergmann threw 30 innings out of the bullpen, allowed one run, struck out 33 batters and walked two. Gallagher compiled a 2.04 ERA over four starts.

Gary Gaetti

Gary Gaetti (Photo courtesy Sugar Land Skeeters)

Those two have since returned to affiliated ball, along with four other pitchers on the club, including Jason Lane, who first broke into the majors as an outfielder. Overall, 13 of the 19 pitchers who have thrown for Sugar Land in 2013 had previous experience in the majors. Julian Tavarez, a journeyman who recorded a 2.38 ERA in 2004 with the Cardinals, had planned on joining the club but was hampered by visa issues.

There's no secret that has led to the Skeeters' success, no game-changer that they're hiding from the rest of the Atlantic League. They don't have significantly more pitchers with major league experience; the Bridgeport Bluefish have 12. The teams don't have to keep player development in mind, like affiliated clubs often do. They want to win, and without age restrictions like some other leagues, the path is clear to acquire the best players possible and keep them healthy.

Through plenty of networking and a bit of luck in having them all stay healthy for so long, Sugar Land's collection of arms has simply been better than the rest of the league. It helps that they're no longer an expansion club that had to rely on supplemental draft and players who only had experience in the low minors, like they did last year, where the pitching staff had a 4.32 ERA.

The club had a core of players to bring back for 2013, among those being Gary Majewski, who had a successful stretch as a relief pitcher for the Nationals in their early years. People like Gaetti, pitching coach Jeff Scott and special assistant to the president Deacon Jones, a former big leaguer with also has a background in scouting, also have a multitude of contacts in the game.

So word has gotten out about the Skeeters and the opportunity they could provide. Big names associating with the club were part of it: Roger Clemens threw eight scoreless innings in 2012. Scott Kazmir made 14 starts with the Skeeters last year. While his numbers weren't stellar, something eventually clicked. Kazmir later signed a contract with the Indians and has a 3.96 ERA in 100 innings this year.

What has also helped Sugar Land is the team's location. At first glance, it seems like playing in the Houston area, far-flung from the rest of the Atlantic League, would prove to be a detriment, sentencing players to a brutal travel schedule and endless days on the road.

However, Gaetti said the Skeeter's travel isn't much worse than the rest of the league. They can often fly, rather than use a bus, and scheduling flights and bus rides on game days can let players stay home on off days.

Clint Everts

Clint Everts (Photo courtesy Sugar Land Skeeters)

"Nobody's actually said to me that 'Oh, I don't want to go to Sugar Land and play because your travel schedule is so bad,'" Gaetti said. "It's no different than anybody else's, other than you're going to an airport instead of getting on a bus."

And with Houston being the baseball hotbed that it is, the Skeeters can reel in natives of the area who want to keep their careers going but don't want to spend a lot of time far from home. If you are from Texas and you want to play in the Atlantic League, Sugar Land is your most logical option—play close to home compared to heading to the Eastern Seaboard.

Majewski is a Houston native, as is Kazmir. Lane spent most of his career with Houston. Former Expos first-rounder Clint Everts pitched on the same high school team as Kazmir.

The coaches take an individualized approach to each player. The team wants to see players succeed and won't impede them if they get a chance in affiliated ball, but while they're with the Skeeters, every decision is geared toward winning. And for experienced players, there's no better environment. "You keep your competitive edge," Director of Operations Michael Kirk said.

It's an approach that is paying off handsomely for the Skeeters.