Despite missing the playoffs, the Durham Bulls obviously earned a lot of respect in 2015.
One week after Bulls lefthander Blake Snell was named Baseball America’s 2015 Minor League Player of the Year, the International League has named Durham Bulls General Manager Mike Birling as 2015's Executive of the Year.
Under his leadership, the Bulls set back-to-back single-season paid attendance records in 2014 and 2015. The team recently concluded its celebration of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park’s 20th Anniversary, ending the campaign with an all-time high of 554,788 cumulative fans.
“The Tampa Bay Rays congratulate Mike Birling for being named IL Executive of the Year,” Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay’s Director of Minor League Operations, said in a prepared statement. “It is such an honor to be recognized as the best by your peers. We are proud of Mike and the entire Bulls staff for this well-deserved award,”.
This is the second International League Executive of the Year award for Birling, who took home the honor after his first season as Bulls GM in 2003.
Top honors for Snell
Snell is just the ninth pitcher in 35 years to claim the top honor from Baseball America.
Past winners include Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and former World Series MVP Josh Beckett. The Baseball America award joins several other accolades bestowed on the minor league ERA leader, as Snell also claimed the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year nod and was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season by the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
A supplemental first-round pick in 2011 out of Shoreline, Wash., Snell vaulted from Class A Advanced Charlotte to Double-A Montgomery and then to Triple-A Durham, where he finished the season. He is the fifth Durham Bull to win the award, joining outfielders Andruw Jones (1996), Rocco Baldelli (2002) and Delmon Young (2005) and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (2010), who was the last pitcher to win the award. Snell is the first left-handed pitcher to win the award since the Rockies’ Jeff Francis in 2004.
“Last year, Blake was just another pitching prospect, but he combined development strides with performance like no one else in the minors in 2015,” said John Manuel, editor in chief of Baseball America. “His season ranks with the best performances by a pitcher in the last decade, as he was stingy with runs and profligate with strikeouts.”
Snell, 22, opened the 2015 season with a 46-inning scoreless streak and went on to lead the minor leagues in ERA at 1.41, the lowest mark since Justin Verlander’s 1.29 ERA in 2005. Overall, Snell went 15-4, 1.41, striking out 163 in 134 innings. He allowed just 84 hits, limiting opponents to a .182 average (best in the minors among starters), and walked 53 while posting a 1.02 WHIP. He tied for fourth in the minors in wins and strikeouts and ranked ninth in WHIP.
After joining the Bulls on July 24, the southpaw proceeded to go 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA in nine starts. From his Triple-A debut through the end of the season, Snell led the International League with a .187 opponent’s average, and ranked second on the circuit in wins (6), ERA (1.83) and strikeouts (57). Over his nine starts with Durham he allowed one earned run or fewer eight times, while finishing the season by going unbeaten over his final six starts.
Birling builds on successes
The Bulls have enjoyed a good streak since Birtling arived in Durham in 1998.
In recent years, Birling led the Bulls staff through the successful hosting of the 2012 Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game, the 2014 Triple-A All Star Game, and signifiant renovations of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, noted International League President Randy Mobley.
“He has gone from being one of the new guys in the League to becoming one of the experienced veterans who is highly respected for not only his team’s accomplishments in Durham, but for his overall contribution to the success of the International League,” Mobley said.
In addition to hosting both signature Triple-A events and spearheading an award-winning remodel of the DBAP, Birling and his staff have amassed a string of noteworthy accomplishments over the past several seasons. The club earned the John H. Johnson President’s Award in 2014 as Minor League Baseball’s most complete franchise.
It is such an honor to be recognized as the best by your peers.
Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay’s Director of Minor League Operations
In 2015, Durham Bulls Athletic Park began a four-year run as the host site of the annual ACC Baseball Championship. The DBAP’s 20th Anniversary season also saw the creation of Bull City Hospitality, a new food and beverage company fully staffed and operated by the Bulls. Since 2012, the Bulls are the only International League team to increase their average per-game attendance in each of the last four consecutive seasons.
“This award can be directly attributed to the hard work and dedication of our talented staff,” said Birling. “I am honored to share this recognition with them and am extremely proud of our collective achievements these past few years. Of course, this type of accolade isn’t possible without amazing fan support and we are so thankful for the special bond between the Bulls and the Triangle community.”
A native of Kimberly, Wisc., Birling began his career with the Bulls in 1998 as the team’s Assistant General Manager before being promoted to GM in December of 2002. Prior to joining the Durham staff, he was General Manager of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Class A) and was named the Midwest League Executive of the Year in 1998.
Birling will receive his award at the 2015 Baseball Winter Meetings this December in Nashville, Tenn.