By TYLER MALAND
When Kenny Long (Illinois State) first walked into the Orleans Firebirds’ office less than a week before the start of the 2010 season, he could easily have been mistaken for an intern. He wore his hat low over his eyes, walked with his hands in his pockets, and didn’t speak much. He was 6-0, and thin as a rail, with shaggy blonde hair. As he responded to questions from the Orleans general manager with monosyllabic grunts, one couldn’t help but look at the baggy blue shorts that hung just below his knobby knees and think that a gust of wind might have turned those blue Nikes into balloons and sent him floating into the air.
Long was not an intern but a left-handed relief pitcher, and to the distant observer, he was equally unimpressive on the mound. His fastball was slow – rarely clocking 75 – and his off-speed stuff was, obviously, even slower. Thankfully, it’s not up to the distant observer to rate baseball players or make Cape League invitations. Long deserved his shot in America’s premier amateur summer league more than most. As a red-shirt sophomore for Illinois State in 2010, the lefty appeared in a school-record 31 games, struck out 74 batters in 65.1 innings, posted a 1.01 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), and his 1.38 ERA was third best in the nation.
It didn’t take many summer days for Long to prove he could be just as dominant against the next level of competition. In his second appearance of the year he was the lone bright spot in a 5-0 loss, hurling 2.2 scoreless innings, and striking out five without allowing a hit.
He was equally untouchable in his next appearance, this one a pressure-packed save situation. He entered at the start of the eighth inning with a 1-0 lead over the home team Cotuit Kettleers, and promptly struck out the side. In the ninth, he faced Cotuit’s 4-5-6 hitters and cut through them like a hot knife through butter. There was a strikeout of C.J. Cron (Freshman All-American, Mountain West Freshman of the Year), a pop-out to second by Kevin Patterson (First-team All-SEC at Auburn) and a fly out by Paul Hoilman (College and Cape League Home Run Derby champion).
Long is listed at 6-0, 150; the mammoth Hoilman could hit a 90-mph fastball for a home run using a bat the size of Long. So how does he do it?
Firebirds manager and reputed pitching guru Kelly Nicholson calls him a “poo-slinger.” He works in the mid-to-high 60s, sometimes the low 70s, and any pitch he throws may have a couple feet of movement. Long’s best pitch is his side-armed slider, which he calls “the frisbee” because it starts a few feet behind a left-handed hitter and glides in with a huge curving arc, eventually sweeping the outside corner. He changes arm slots within at-bats, so he may throw a sidearm pitch with a release point three feet off the ground, and the next he’s back to a three-quarter motion and a release point seven feet off the ground. Long is, of course, a nightmare to lefties. But his deception is so effective that he is equally tough on right-handers.
Long led the Cape League in appearances (21) and innings pitched by a non-starter (32), and boasted a 1.13 ERA. He gave up 21 hits and four earned runs in 32 innings, and opponents batted just .172 against him. He struck out 36 and walked 11, with a 0.97 WHIP. During one stretch he did not allow an earned run in 13 straight appearances.
Although he started the 2011 spring with an elbow injury, “dazzling” would be an understatement for Long’s performance on the mound for Illinois State. In 39.1 innings pitched, he posted a 4-1 record with a 0.92 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP. He held opponents to 25 hits and a .177 batting average, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an impressive 45-to-7.
Long, who is on the Orleans 2011 roster, has one more year of eligibility at Illinois State. But he has heard murmurs that he will be selected in the upcoming MLB draft. Still, nothing is certain for a pitcher of his size and style. “I want to show that the way I pitch I can get people out at the next level,” he says. “I think the caliber of players in the Cape League are some of the top notch in the country. If I show that I can get people out there, it should correlate to the next level.”
Professional success from unorthodox pitchers – especially lefthanders – is hardly rare. Bill “Spaceman” Lee was a junk-ball lefty famous for his “moon ball” or “Leephus pitch,” which was essentially a 50-mph lob. Lee won 119 games in 14 seasons, including three straight seasons of 17 wins, and he helped carry the Red Sox all the way to Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. Although he is a hard-throwing right-hander, Tim Lincecum is the paragon of quirky success in today’s game. He is listed at 5-11, 165, has shoulder-length brown hair, and pitching mechanics that would get a 17-year-old cut from his high school team. Yet the 26-year-old Lincecum is known as “The Freak,” and can whip a ball 98 miles per hour with his Gumby-like frame. This shaggy-haired skinny kid was pitching in Harwich six years ago and has taken home a Cy Young Award and a World Series ring in his last two seasons with the San Francisco Giants.
With his impressive efforts at Illinois State and on the seacoast ballparks of Cape Cod, Long was listed at No. 78 on College Baseball Daily’s list of the 100 top college players of 2011. Ironically, he was 17 spots lower than Hoilman.
What does this ranking mean? To put it into context, last year’s 78th player was Tony Zych (Louisville), who earned the 2010 Cape League Outstanding Pro Prospect award. At No. 75 was Kolten Wong (Hawaii), Long’s teammate last summer in Orleans, and the Cape League Most Valuable Player. Both are expected to be early round picks in the draft.
In a league that serves as the stepping-stone for many players into professional baseball, evaluation of a Cape League talent inevitably turns to projections. Does this guy project as a major league player? Can his body hold up? Is middle relief his ceiling? How quickly might he rise to The Show? Or is this a player whose career peaks at Double-A?
For Long, conventional wisdom does not point to an impressive major league career or warrant a high pick in the 2011 draft. He essentially has nothing but his gaudy numbers. But as author Michael Lewis wrote in his classic 2003 book, Moneyball, “If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”
Could a similar outcome be possible for Long? The popularity of sabermetrics has tailed off since its boom in the first half of the decade, and the A’s have made the playoffs just once in the last seven seasons. But if Long continues to dazzle on the stat sheet, professional teams will have no choice but to give him a serious look, and some money to go with it.