The most successful season in nearly two decades of Fresno Grizzlies baseball began with a bold prediction.
First-year Fresno manager Tony DeFrancesco declared the Grizzlies would make the playoffs in the franchise’s first year as a Houston Astros affiliate.
What followed was a series of memorable moments, both on and off the field, and the Grizzlies hoisting minor-league baseball’s top trophy in the end.
“It was thrilling,” Grizzlies general manager Derek Franks said. “There certainly was a lot of unknown and a lot of speculations if the affiliation change would be good or bad for the Grizzlies.
“But I couldn’t have scripted a better way for this season to have played out.”
The Grizzlies (84-59) set a club record for wins in a season, returned to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years and captured Fresno’s first Pacific Coast League title.
Then, they seized the Triple-A Championship on national TV.
I couldn’t have scripted a better way for this season to have played out.
Fresno Grizzlies general manager Derek Franks
“It’s a great accomplishment for Fresno and for the Houston Astros,” DeFrancesco said. “September was a lot of fun.”
In addition, the front office received a prestigious honor of its own – winning the PCL’s Larry MacPhail Award, given to the club that demonstrates outstanding and creative marketing and promotions.
The most popular promotion was Taco Truck Throwdown V in August, which brought a stadium-record crowd of 16,916 to Chukchansi Park and drew national attention, with the Grizzlies changing their logo and team name for the night to the “Fresno Tacos.”
As a league winner of the MacPhail Award, the Grizzlies are a finalist as the top promotional club throughout minor-league baseball. The winner will be announced at baseball’s winter meetings in December.
“The direction we had taken for a lot of the years was really tied to the major-league affiliate,” Franks said. “The challenge to reinvent ourselves as a ball club has been pretty special.”
Despite the record run and promotional successes, the Grizzlies experienced a drop in regular-season attendance from an average of 6,781 last year while affiliated with the San Francisco Giants to 6,457 this season.
324 Grizzlies’ average drop in attendance per game during the regular season. But the Grizzlies made up for it with a total crowd of 40,560 coming to Chukchansi Park for five playoff games.
The drop was made up with five playoff games at Chukchansi Park that generated an average announced crowd of 8,112 each.
Sales from postseason merchandise also are expected to help the Grizzlies’ financial bottom line.
Franks said he was encouraged by a boosted season-ticket renewal rate compared with a year ago, when the Grizzlies initially lost 30 percent of their season-ticket base, mostly due to the affiliation switch.
Fresno was introduced to a collection of talent this season rarely seen in past seasons, with the Grizzlies having benefited from a well-stocked Astros farm system.
Along this championship run, the Grizzlies sent 19 players to the majors, including nine who began the year in Fresno.
“That’s a big reason why we were able to win even as we lost players and new ones came,” Grizzlies ace Dan Straily said.
Carlos Correa, Matt Duffy, Jon Singleton, Dan Straily and Mark Appel were just a few of the key contributors for the Grizzlies in 2015.
Shortstop Carlos Correa, considered the top prospect in baseball at the beginning of the year, played in Fresno from May 12 to June 7 after a quick promotion from Double-A.
Along the way, Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, homered in his first game at Chukchansi Park and provided a walk-off RBI in his final at-bat with the Grizzlies.
Correa then starred for the Astros and is considered the front-runner to win American League Rookie of the Year.
Third baseman Matt Duffy became the first Grizzlies player to be named league MVP, leading the PCL in runs (94) and finishing second in RBIs (104), while also batting .294 with 20 home runs in Triple-A.
Duffy became more selective at the plate, reducing his strikeouts and increasing his walk rate. The Astros rewarded the 26-year-old in September with the first major-league call-up of his career.
Prior to a call-up in late June, first baseman Jon Singleton dominated the first half of the season and led all of Triple-A at the time of his promotion with 17 home runs, 56 runs, 66 RBIs and 47 walks while batting .280 with a .387 on-base percentage.
Singleton returned to the Grizzlies after about a month and was a key component in their playoff success.
Starting pitcher Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 draft, also played the second half with the Grizzlies. And though he experienced a series of highs and lows during his first stint in Triple-A, Appel, 24, stepped up when it counted most and was the winning pitcher when the Grizzlies won the PCL title.
“It’s just good to see quality players come through the system,” DeFrancesco said. “The (Astros) front office was diligent in the draft and bringing in talent.
“You’ve seen the lower levels of minors have success. That talent’s been working its way up. And then you saw what happened here.”
Seven Houston Astros affiliates reached the playoffs this past season – a sign that the Grizzlies roster could be well stocked in the upcoming years.
In all, the Astros had seven affiliates reach the playoffs this season.
And with future Triple-A Fresno rosters likely to be built from a Corpus Christi Hooks team that finished with the best record in the Double-A and a Class-A Lancaster JetHawks team that made the playoffs, the Grizzlies might just be beginning a stretch of playoff runs.
“The support we had and the atmosphere for those playoff games at home was outstanding,” DeFrancesco said. “Fans were into it. We were locked into it.
“It was just a great feeling to be a part of.”
- Oct. 8: 4-7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
- Of note: Fans can take photos with the Fresno Grizzlies’ Pacific Coast League championship trophy and the Triple-A National championship trophy