By Zach Bernard
It’s easy – and understandably predictable – for baseball fans to begin dreading the late October chill. Sure, another exciting installment of the annual World Series is upon us, this year featuring teams long overdue to win a title. For the die-hard fan, however, it means there are only a maximum of seven games left during baseball’s calendar year before a cold and miserable winter counting down until spring training begins.
What’s ending abruptly on one continent is only just beginning on another, as first pitch for the Australian Baseball League’s 2015-16 season is set for this evening Down Under, which equates to tomorrow morning in North America.
While the Australian Baseball League in its current iteration only dates back to 2009, the concept of baseball itself in Australia isn’t new. Competitions on the continent date back to the 1800s as the Claxton Shield before organized leagues were born. The ABL itself began in 1989, but lasted only a decade before the league was purchased by former major leaguer Dave Nilsson amid its financial difficulties.
After returning to the Claxton Shield format for a number of years at the turn of the century, the Australian Baseball League was revived in its current form with the help of the Australian Federal Government and Major League Baseball, and played its “inaugural” season in 2010-11.
Australia’s season is a little different from that of Major League Baseball or Nippon Professional Baseball. Only six teams compete against each other during the 46-game regular season, which this year begins on October 23, 2015 and concludes on January 24, 2016 leading up to the playoffs. The postseason also takes place on a smaller scale; the teams finishing second and third in the final standings square off in the first round, and the winner advances to the Championship Series to take on the league’s top seed, which will likely conclude in early February.
The six teams that make up the ABL are the Perth Heat, Adelaide Bite, Canberra Calvary, Sydney Blue Sox, Brisbane Bandits, and the Melbourne Aces. In its short history, some teams have seen far greater success than others with little parity to go around, but entering only its sixth season as we know the ABL today, that can always change. Below, you’ll learn about each team’s brief history along with predictions for their 2015-16 campaign.
Perth Heat – In five ABL Championship Series since its inaugural season, Perth has taken part in all five of them and won four. They are the New York Yankees or Yomiuri Giants of the ABL. Led by Pawtucket Red Sox manager Kevin Boles, the Heat are searching for their third championship in as many seasons, but have lost the dynamic bats of Jordan McDonald, Joey Wong, and Tim Smith along the way. This could be a difficult adjustment for one of the ABL’s finest offenses in 2014-15, when they posted a league-best .361 OBP.
Perth’s loss of offensive firepower could be extra critical considering the departure of pitcher Mike McClendon, who in nine appearances (six starts) notched a 5-1 record while logging an ERA of 1.66 in 48 2/3 innings during the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, Brian Baker and Dylan Schmidt, who posted ERA’s of 7.46 and 5.82 respectively across a combined 19 starts, will need to deliver better performances in 2015-16 to help sustain Perth’s success.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Heat. Returning to the offense is second baseman Luke Hughes, who posted a superb .352/.431/.608 slash with six homers and a career-high 76 total bases in 33 games. 26-year-old catcher Matt Kennelly also seeks to reprise his 2014-15 season, in which he logged 66 total bases while playing all 48 of his team’s games.
Adelaide Bite – Your runner-up in the 2015 ABL Championship Series comes off the heels of a dominant season on the mound, in which they rode a microscopic 3.83 ERA and league-best 1.38 WHIP to the ABL’s best record with 32 wins. And while top starter Morgan Combs will not return for the upcoming season, Matthew Williams will. Williams went 3-2 with a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts last season, and posted a respectable 2.5 strikeout-to-walk rate.
Adelaide’s offense was nothing to sneeze at, either. They were second in on-base percentage with a .350 mark and first in slugging percentage at .444 which, added to the team’s batting average of .274, could legitimately be argued as the ABL’s most efficient offense as well. ABL batting champion Aaron Miller is gone after an amazing .389/.444/.701 slash with a second-best 12 home runs, but additional offensive leaders Tom Brice and Stefan Welch return to the fold, and if they can replicate last season’s success, there’s no reason to think Adelaide can’t dominate the ABL once again.
Canberra Calvary – The one team to defeat the Perth Heat in five ABL Championship Series’ (2012-13) is coming off the heels of a mediocre showing last season, mustering a 22-24 record and failing to qualify for the postseason.
Still, fans of the Calvary do have quite a bit to look forward to for 2015-16. Their dynamic duo catching platoon of Jack Murphy and Robbie Perkins returns for another year, while impressive third baseman Jason Sloan seeks to replicate his .421 on-base percentage from last season. And reliable starter Brian Grening hopes to improve upon his 4.38 ERA from last year as the team’s Opening Night starter in 2015.
Sydney Blue Sox – Few organizations have experienced the tough luck seen by the Sydney Blue Sox and its fans. Make no mistake, this is a tortured ballclub even in its short history, but the fact is they come to play every year and are always in the conversation.
They’re one good series away from making their run at the Championship Series, and with the return of sluggers Joshua Dean and David Kandilas to the lineup, the odds of being a dark horse in the ABL remain strong. Luke Wilkins, who went 5-3 with a fine 3.31 ERA in 11 starts last season, also returns to the rotation in 2015-16.
Sydney fans will have to hope for an overall better effort from their Sox and more than standout performances from the likes of Dean, Kandilas, and Wilkins. Surely, the Sox will have to hit better than their subpar .256/.342/.393 triple slash (and their home run total of 38, second-lowest in the ABL) and pitch better than their combined 4.98 ERA from last season in order to make a statement in 2016. If the overall team effort exceeds its achievements from last season, they should be an interesting part of the ABL discussion this year.
Brisbane Bandits – Dave Nilsson manages this group that went 20-25 last season and hopes to make more of a dent in the league than they have in years past.
Rick Teasley, with no prior ABL experience, will lead the rotation to start the season, while Ryan Searle tries to improve upon his 4.28 ERA from 2014-15 behind him. Andrew Campbell and Maxx Tissenbaum are a welcome return to the Brisbane lineup, as they hope to repeat their success as the ABL’s second-most powerful offense last season, when they hit 52 home runs and slugged .439, only five points lower than league-best Adelaide.
Pitching will be the key to Brisbane’s success in 2015-16, as the offense has a fine (and recent) track record of greatness one can expect to carry over into this upcoming season.
Melbourne Aces – Once a franchise that sought an ABL trophy against the Perth Heat in 2011-12, the Aces are looking to turn things around following a putrid 15-31 campaign last year.
Melbourne’s numbers at the plate and on the mound as a collective were outright ghastly. A slash line of .237/.302/.373 served as far and away the worst in the ABL, while the team’s 5.07 ERA and 1.56 WHIP gave offenses plenty of opportunities to win by large margins. 2014-15 was a season to forget in Melbourne, to say the least.
Even worse for the Aces, prime starters Cody Buckel and Makato Aiuchi will not be returning to the rotation in 2015-16. On the Aces lineup card, third baseman and last year’s offensive leader Josh Davies will be coming back, hopefully providing a jolt the Aces so desperately need.
2015-16 Season Outlook – It’s not unreasonable to expect the Adelaide Bite to reign supreme once again in the Australian Baseball League. They have the hitting, the pitching, and the track record to make a statement this season and finally win their first ABL championship.
Canberra and Sydney can legitimately compete for the second and third playoff spots, potentially capitalizing on big losses experienced by the Heat this year. Still, if there’s one thing Perth has proven since the ABL’s inaugural season, it’s that they’ll always find a way to be part of the conversation. Brisbane can be a dark horse, while Melbourne still has a ways to go.
The beautiful thing about the ABL is that these predictions can go many different directions. Turnover on rosters is far more rapid than what we see in North America and Japan, giving each season a unique feel in comparison to the last. Just because Perth lost some pieces doesn’t mean its new ones are going to be slouches, either.
So why should you care about the ABL? A lot of these guys make careers for themselves in our minor league systems. Plus, in the ominous chill of the winter months, you’re given the gift of what many of us like to call “breakfast baseball,” due to start times of games here in North America. And while the 46 games are spread out only on weekends, it’s pretty cool to have live baseball somewhere in the world during our colder months to ease the wait for spring training.
And watching games is as easy as going to web.theabl.com.au, checking out the schedule for game times, and making your way to abltv.com to watch the games live for free. Access to baseball from another end of the world has never been easier than it is today, and it’s a beautiful thing.
While we await what I’m sure many of us hope is an exciting World Series and conclusion to an amazing 2015 baseball season in North America, it’s encouraging to see another season just beginning elsewhere in the world. First pitch for most games takes place between 4 am and 7 am ET.