Barring a major slump, the Pioneer League MVP was Meibrys Viloria’s to lose at the end of the first half.
Viloria, 19, tailed off a bit in the second half, but it didn’t cost him. The catcher became the third Idaho Falls Chukar since 2007 to win the Ralph Nelles Award. The league announced his MVP honor on Tuesday.
“I was working hard since spring training to right now, so I’m very excited,” Viloria said Thursday through I.F. bench coach Ramon Castro.
In the first 38 games, Viloria led the league in almost every major category: batting average (.457), on-base percentage (.504), slugging percentage (.793), hits (53), RBIs (36), doubles (15) and total bases (92). Most of those leads evaporated in the second half, but he still remained near the top.
His numbers look especially impressive compared to 2015. In 150 at-bats with Burlington last season, Viloria did not record a single extra-base hit. He had 37 in 226 at-bats this season (28 doubles, three triples and six home runs).
“I’ve been working hard, working with Andre (David) in the cage every day,” Viloria said. “That’s part of why I had a great season.”
Viloria still saw parts of his game that need improvement. Defense was his biggest weakness, he said, especially throwing outbase stealers. Viloria did, however, throw out 34 percent of all runners who tried to steal on him this season. That number would land him well within the top 10 of MLB catchers, and it was near the middle among regular Pioneer League catchers this season.
David, the Chukars’ hitting coach, said Viloria is mechanically sound as a hitter. One of the big things David worked on with Viloria was improving the position of his back elbow. That area has improved, David said, but there’s still room to grow.
David also praised Viloria’s hitting approach.
“When there were days that weren’t going well, which weren’t very many, he seemed to maintain a positive approach and knew that his plan and daily routine would carry him over into good things,” David said. “He understands what it takes on a daily basis.”
DINI’S BUMPY ROAD TO I.F.
Nick Dini played 42 games for the Chukars last season. The catcher returned to I.F. for nine more this summer.
Dini, 23, began the 2016 season with Single-A Lexington, where he played one game. He moved up to Class A Advanced Wilmington for seven games, then returned to Lexington on June 30. In his first at-bat back on July 2, a pitch hit Dini in the hand, forcing him to exit the game. He later found out that his hand was broken, and he was placed on the 7-day disabled list.
Dini returned to action in the Arizona League on Aug. 16 and was moved up to I.F. on Aug. 22. He hit .378 with an .843 OPS in 39 plate appearances for the Chukars.
The constant shuffling and limited playing time this summer has frustrated Dini. But he put his struggles into perspective after seeing so many of his former teammates get released.
“Every opportunity you get, you’ve gotta take advantage of it,” Dini said. “The harsh reality is, if you don’t, you’ll be out of a job. It sucks seeing guys go, but you understand that that’s part of it.”
STRAHM’S STRONG SEASON
Former Chukar Matt Strahm has thrived during his brief action with the Kansas City Royals this season. The left-handed pitcher owns a 0.54 ERA, 22 strikeouts and six walks in 16.2 innings pitched for the big league club this year.
Strahm, 24, was called up on July 31. He made his MLB debut that day and allowed one earned run in 0.1 inning against the Texas Rangers. He hasn’t allowed a run since.
Strahm made his professional debut with the Chukars in 2012. He returned to I.F. in 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery the year before, according to the Kansas City Star.
MLB.com’s most recent prospect rankings has Strahm at No. 4 in Kansas City’s system.
FOLLOW THE LEADERS
Multiple Chukars led the Pioneer League in various statistical categories this season. Here they are:
Batting average — Meibrys Viloria (.376)
Doubles — Viloria (28)
RBIs — Viloria (55)
Stolen bases — Nick Heath (36)
Errors — Ricky Aracena (38)
Hits allowed — Arnaldo Hernandez (99)
Walks issued — Matt Portland (37)
THE “WHO’S HOT?” PLAYER OF THE YEAR
C Meibrys Viloria
Apologies to Joe Dudek, Nick Heath, Alex Luna, Yeison Melo, Manny Olloque and Luke Willis, but this honor clearly belongs to the MVP.
THE “WHO’S NOT” PLAYER OF THE YEAR
LHP Nick Andros
Andros finished the season with a 9.20 ERA, 48 hits allowed, 31 strikeouts, 14 walks issued and seven home runs given up. On Monday at Orem, the Chukars had a 9-8 lead in the 10th inning when Andros entered the game. The Owlz scored two runs off Andros to walk off and eliminate I.F. from playoff contention.