Sunday, July 27, 2014

Andy Wilkins' recent power surge and four other Charlotte Knights thoughts

Five thoughts on the Knights…

1. Without question the Knights (48-61) are playing their best baseball of the season right now. They set a season-high with five straight wins July 12-19, lost a game on the 20th, and then ripped off another five-game streak before dropping a 6-5 decision to Louisville on Saturday.

As a team, the Knights are hitting .323 in July to pace the International League, which they now lead in home runs (137), RBI (491) and runs (523). Before Sunday's Game 1 shutout loss to the Bats, they'd scored five or more runs in 15 straight games.

2. Although everyone’s been hot at the plate, Charlotte first baseman Andy Wilkins has been one of the top hitters in all of baseball over the course of his current 12-game hitting streak. Wilkins, who was named the IL’s Batter of the Week last week, is hitting .551 (27-for-49) with 10 home runs, 17 runs, five doubles, and 24 RBIs since the streak began.

Don’t think this has simply been a hot 12 games for Wilkins either, his 26 home runs are tops in the IL and so are his 70 RBIs. Wilkins has improved each month this season, hitting .183 in April, .212 in May, .306 in June, and .448 this July (entering Sunday).

“It’s just a timing thing,” said Wilkins towards the end of June. “I’d been struggling with getting my timing and keeping it consistently. I’ve had flashes of it here and there, but I’ve just been working on it, and it’s clicking right now.”

“He’s seeing the ball well and using the whole field,” said Knights manager Joel Skinner of Wilkins. “He’s staying on the ball and every once in a while he catches a mistake and doesn’t miss it.”

A left-handed first baseman with power is one of the most sought after commodities in all of baseball. However, the knock on Wilkins, who is now 25, has always been his aggressive approach at the plate. His 19 walks in 347 ABs (5.5-percent) are the fewest among any of the Knights regulars.

IL pitchers might be wise to start pitching around Wilkins, who can get himself out more often than the White Sox would like.

For now though, Wilkins -- who is averaging a HR every 14.31 ABs -- is as hot as anyone on the planet and a reason to bring your glove if you’re planning on sitting in the BB&T BallPark outfield anytime soon.

3. Jordan Danks, who is in his fifth season with Charlotte, is now just four hits shy of tying Joe Borchard for the Knights’ all-time hits record (439). In Game 2 of Sunday’s double-header he drew even with Borchard in all-time games played as well.

Assuming Danks doesn’t set the hits mark before the Knights return to Charlotte on Tuesday, I’d hope he gets one heck of an ovation from the crowd at BB&T BallPark when it happens.

Danks is a career .269 hitter in Class AAA and has a million reasons to feel jaded about still being in the minors at age 27. However, he comes to the park everyday with an, “If I’m going to be here, I may as well have fun attitude," is always willing to talk with the media, and is good for one highlight-reel play in centerfield a week.

The Knights are handing out Danks bobble-heads on August 19. That’s great and all, but it sort of feels like he deserves more…

4. It’s a small sample size so don’t go crazy, but Erik Johnson seems to have turned things around since the All-Star Break. He’s added two miles per hour back to his fastball, which sat at 91-92 in his last start at BB&T, and his trademark slider has shown more depth and movement than it has all season.

Johnson entered the year as the White Sox No. 2 prospect, behind Jose Abreu, and collapsed under the weight of lofty expectations after making the Chicago rotation out of Spring Training.

He was sent to Charlotte to get his command and confidence back, and, for three months seemed to do the opposite.

Post All-Star break, Johnson has gone 2-0 with a 4.76 ERA (inflated by one tough inning on July 17). He’s allowed just one home run (in 11.1 innings) after surrendering long balls at a 1.05/9IP rate pre break and has nine Ks to go along with just two walks.

There’s more rotation/turn in Johnson's pitching motion than I saw the first half of the season and his command has gotten back to a place where it's allowing him to set up his slider with fastballs on the outside corner. If that continues, Charlotte may soon say goodbye to the right-hander.

Johnson’s next start is happening right now, and it’s worth keeping an eye on.

5. Myers Park High School graduate and former Charlotte pitcher Jake Robbins (@jakerobbins49) has joined the Knights broadcast team of Matt Sweirad and Michael Pacheco as a color analyst for WMYT My12’s Saturday games as well as an occasional fill-in during the week.

During his time with the Knights in 2007, Robbins so endeared himself to Sweirad and Pacheco that he was their first call when they learned of the impeding TV deal with WMYT.

Robbins had no prior experience calling games at any level, but has slid into the role well. His knowledge of the game and rapport with the players has added another element to an already top-notch broadcast team.

Emptying out the notebook: 

Micah Johnson is hitting .364 in July and is now fully healthy after a mid-season hamstring strain. If the White Sox move Gordon Beckham, he's ready to step right in. The one aspect of his game to keep an eye on is his defense. Johnson will make plays in the field no one else can because of his elite speed, but then misplay a routine ground ball. He's still only 23.   

- Asked the Knights strength and conditioning coach Chad Efron to name the strongest two guys (in terms of weight they're consistently putting up) on the team. One (Josh Phegley) wasn't a surprise. The other, (Micah Johnson) was. 

Michael Taylor has hit .302 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 30 games with Charlotte and has, by all accounts, been an excellent presence in the clubhouse. He was the No. 29 prospect in the game in 2009, but has never been able to fully put it together. That the Knights have gone 24-15 since adding the 28-year-old on June 17 from the Oakland Athletics Class AAA affiliate isn't mere coincidence.