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Season in Review: Omaha Storm Chasers

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What went right and wrong up I-29 North.

This Week in the Minors begins a series reviewing the season for each affiliate in the Royals’ system. We begin at the highest level with the Omaha Storm Chasers.

Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A, Pacific Coast League)

Final record: 59-80

Home record: 32-38

Road record: 27-42

What went right: Omaha’s 150 stolen bases led the Pacific Coast League. Brett Phillips led the club with 22, followed by Erick Mejia’s 19 and Jecksson Flores’s 17. Nick Heath had 10 of his minor league-leading 60 stolen bases come in his brief time with the Storm Chasers

Bubba Starling came into 2019 as a minor league free agent signing, no longer on the original deal that brought a world of hype and expectations when he signed as first-round draft pick in 2011. With a line of .310/.358/.448, Starling hit well enough and consistently enough to earn his first big league callup in July. He played tremendous defense while splitting time between center field and right.

Splitting those games in center and right was Brett Phillips, who added glasses and an axe-handle bat in May that woke up some dormant hitting ability to go with his excellent defense. In the 65 games following those adjustments, Phillips did everything well, batting .282/.406/.622 with 15 homers, 10 triples, and 11 steals.

Shortstop Nicky Lopez was everything Omaha fans could have dreamed of, with dazzling defense and hitting to match. In the short time he was a Storm Chaser, Lopez spent tons of time with fans, and would even chat with kids and sign autographs during games.

Catcher Nick Dini started the season as Omaha’s backup, but stepped comfortably into the everyday role after an injury to veteran Andrew Susac. Dini hit .296/.370/.565 in 58 Storm Chasers games, and ended up in the Majors after a string of injuries and a trade above him on the depth chart.

What went wrong: Honestly, a lot. The pitching was never great, but thanks to the extremes of the Pacific Coast League’s friendliness to hitters, they rated in the middle of the pack in most categories. The pitching staff as a whole struck out fewer batters (1,044 total) than every other PCL team (league average was about 1,206).

The team offense did not keep pace with the eye-popping numbers that the rest of the league produced. Omaha bats were dead last in runs scored, runs batted in, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage, and OPS. Their team on base percentage was a point away from last place, and the team batting average was third-worst.

(Weird home run stat: Omaha’s 156 home runs hit were worst in the PCL this year, but that mark would have been the best in the league just four seasons ago. El Paso led the league in 2016 with 156 dingers.)

But on a personal note: This was my 13th season working in baseball, and this team was by far the best group of people I have ever worked with. Despite the on-field results not going their way too often, so many of the 2019 Storm Chasers were unfailingly generous with their time for fans and staff, support for each other, and singing and dancing in the dugout. Many were patient with my terrible Spanish. The team avoided the collective bad mood that usually sours July and August, when it’s hot out and the grind of the season has worn everyone thin. They were kind to me when I suddenly showed up with half my face paralyzed by a bout of Bell’s Palsy in July, and was scared to death of leaving the safety of my house. To look only at the on-field results would be to miss something lovely.