8 Players to Watch at the NWLA Tournament
One of the great joys of competitive wiffleball is playing against and/or seeing players in person for the first time. Here are eight players that The DROP’s Paul Cooke is looking forward to seeing in person for the first time at the NWLA Tournament this weekend.
1. Caleb Jonkman (GBL Legends)
Caleb was ranked 41st overall in The DROP 100 last year and of all the players on the list, his ranking may have been the one that was the toughest to nail down. His statistics in his home league (Leroy) were otherworldly both in general and adjusted for league average, but it was difficult to gauge the overall talent level in the league. People that saw him play up close raved about him and he was as good of a two-way player as anyone at the NWLA Tournament. In the end, I thought I was being bullish on him with the #41 ranking but have heard since some feel he might have been underrated.
One year later and I am just as confused on Caleb as I was then. It is never ideal to evaluate a player based only on video and stats and given Jonkman’s unique circumstances, he was especially difficult to get a read on. That’s why he is the one player I am most looking forward to seeing compete this week. There’s no reason to believe the glowing reports on him aren’t accurate and I cannot wait to see so for myself.
2. Gus Skibbe (SWBL Cardinals)
Lack of a large enough sample dropped Gus Skibbe to #50 on The Drop 100 last year. In a vacuum, he had everything Jonkman had – good numbers at the NWLA tournament on both sides of the ball, positive words from those that saw him play, clear video evidence that he knows how to hit – except that his home league is medium pitch so any accomplishments from SWBL weren’t taken into consideration. It is clear the guy is a high-quality hitter and he held his own against some good pitchers in last year’s tournament. I want to be able to watch him against good pitchers up close and get a better understanding of what kind of hitter he is in a way that the stats and even video cannot really show.
3. David Ayres (KWL Keggers)
The astronomical NWLA tournament walk rate in 2018 (24%) is fascinating to me. It is so high that it almost has to be the combination of several factors (clean balls, narrow strike zone, inexperienced pitchers, talent level, sample size, the pressure of the tournament, etc.). The nice thing is that it provided a clear bench mark in ranking NWLA Tournament pitchers last year. If a pitcher didn’t walk guys and didn’t get crushed when coming over the plate, they immediately stood out. Nobody more so than David Ayres from the Kalmazoo Wiffleball League. Ayres’ 3.5% walk rate over 14 innings (a solid number of innings for the two-day tournament) was so below the average that it jumped off the page. It is a not a fluke either since he’s achieved similar results before. It isn’t difficult from video to see how he controls his pitches so well. I am more intrigued to get an up-close look at how he commands within the strike zone. He is crafty and hits his spots and those are sometimes the most fun pitchers to watch work.
4. Travis Stronjy/Scott Kujawa (WSEM Dads)
Apologies for lumping two great, distinct players together but there is a reason for that. Stronjy and Kujawa have been pitching stalwarts in WSEM for years now and each has experienced NWLA Tournament success, just never in the same year. Stronjy was solid in 2015 and 2016, Kujawa was lights out in his 2017 tournament debut (while Stronjy did not pitch), and Stronjy returned to form in 2018 while Kujawa struggled in his one very brief appearance. In this post-Farkas world for WSEM, they could certainly benefit from having Stronjy and Kujawa at the top of their games for the entire tournament. These two pitchers tore it up at WSEM’s Opening Day back in May, pitching to an 8-inning, scoreless statement. While WSEM has more talented arms than just these two, they will likely be the key to The Dad’s tournament success from a pitching perspective and it will be interesting to see if they can “click” in the same year for the first time.
5. Chris Roeder (OCWA Freaky Franchise)
Roeder is a veteran with a reputation as one of the better all-around players in NWLA Tournament history. He also had some success in GSWL fast pitch a while back, but this will be the first time seeing him in person. Roeder came in at #69 on the 2018 Top 100 thanks to an NWLA Tournament where he put up a batting average & slugging fueled OPS+ of 175 to go with his 190 ERA+ in 12 innings pitched. You look at Roeder and Ryan Bush’s pitching lines from last year’s tournament and its hard to figure out how Freaky Franchise finished 5th. Roeder is a true two-way player. While he took his walks last year, his .417 average and 1.088 slugging percentage are proof that he can hit and isn’t necessarily a product of the walk-heavy NWLA Tournament environment. Hitters with his skill set are a blast to watch.
6. Kyle Schultz (MLW All-Stars)
The consensus seems to be that the MLW guys will struggle in Morenci as they try to adjust to throwing from 10 feet+ further than they are used to. And that very well might be the case. Like everyone, I’ve watched quite a bit of MLW game action – their excellent videos are impossible to miss – and I think if they do struggle this first time out, it will simply be from lack of experience from 45 feet. The talent is there, the reps may not be. If any MLW player can make the transition in year one, it will likely be their captain and league commissioner, Kyle Schultz. Kyle has some experience from that pitching distance when he played a couple of seasons in WSEM a few years ago. While he struggled then, experience is experience and he will at least have that to rely on when toes the rubber in Michigan. From a hitting standpoint, Kyle and his fellow MLW teammates might actually be at an advantage. While MLW’s self-policed medium pitch speed keeps the flame throwing to a minimum, several of their pitchers still throw relatively hard. Coupled with the short mound distance, Schultz and company are used to having to be quick through the zone. His quick wrists and experience with picking up a pitch without much time to think could pay dividends against some of the tournament’s flame throwers.
7. Mike Speek Jr. (CCWB Chasers)
Originally, this was going to be Mike Speek Jr. and Sr. but I did see Sr. play in person at least once before (even if it was a decade and a half ago). The idea of second-generation wifflers is awesome. We are fortunate to have two of the very best in that exclusive category playing in MAW this summer (Chris Sarnowski and Kenny Rodgers Jr.). It is just so right that a sport with its roots in backyard, family games would lead to a plethora of “junior” wiffleball players, but at least right now there aren’t a ton of them. Besides for Red and Moonlight Jr., Speek Jr. might be the best of the current crop. He is having a breakout summer in Circle City and will be hoping to carry that success over to his NWLA Tournament debut.