The Lakeshore Chinooks had four players—three hitters and one pitcher—named to the 2017 Northwoods League All-Star game played in Wausau, Wisconsin on July 18th: Parker Sanburn, Nick Gatewood, Jacob Richardson and Matthew Mika.
Based on the numbers, their nominations are pretty straight forward and obvious. Mika is fourth in the league with a .343 batting average, Sanburn, as a reliever, has a league leading 46 strikeouts, Gatewood ranks second with a .348 average and third with 37 RBI's, and Richardson has been a consistent, everyday force in Chinooks lineup since day one. However, the paths they’ve taken to becoming some of the best in the South Division are remarkably different, and for Richardson and Sanburn, a bit unexpected.
Of the four, Richardson was the least likely to make the trip to Wausau at the start of the summer. The slugging third baseman hails from Southern Arkansas University, a small, Division two school that has a football stadium that can seat more than their 4,771 total student population and a Rodeo team that’s won more National Championships than every other school sport combined. Their baseball team is also well accomplished, winning 25 conference championships, but they've never brought home the big one.
That success explains why Richardson has looked every bit as talented, and sometimes even more so than a majority of the Division one players in the Northwoods. Currently, he holds a .290 average, with 12 doubles, two homers, 25 RBI, and for the nerds out there, a team-leading 20.4 wRC, a 4.5 wRAA and a 131.6 wRC+.
“It’s just a matter of getting to prove yourself,” Richardson said. “There's talent at the DII level, and a lot of it doesn't get the respect it deserves. But, it's just a matter of you knowing what you can do, taking it out there, letting it play, and getting the opportunity to let it show.”
Though, Chinook manager, Eddy Morgan wasn't surprised at all that Richardson, despite his collegiate competition, has been able to generate consistent success.
“When we talked to his coach, he said he was a main cog in their offense; he’s gonna be a middle of the order guy,” Morgan said. “The amount of years I’ve been in the league, I’ve seen DII guys, even a few DIII guys that had tremendous seasons and came in and continued that during the summer. Baseball is a bit different than some of the other major sports, some of the (lower level) guys can play at this level.”
Originally, Richardson started out at Central Arkansas, a Division one school that sits about a half hour north of the capital, Little Rock, and has an undergraduate population around 9,500. And, even though he had a productive Freshman season, hitting .409 in his limited 22 at-bats, he said, “It just wasn't a good situation” and he needed a “fresh start.”
The three-hour journey from Central to Southern Arkansas University, which ends up being a similar one and a half hour drive from his hometown of Rison, Arkansas, was exactly the fresh start he needed. This Spring, he hit .364 with eight homers and 46 RBI over 217 at-bats for the Muleriders and bloomed like an Arkansas Apple Blossom.
Although, it hasn't been gaudy numbers that have described Richardson’s summer. In fact, he hasn't had a single game with more than two hits or two RBI’s, but he does have a hit in 25 of his 34 games and is one of four players from the opening day lineup to still be on the roster. And, as the only one of those four to maintain a steady spot in the starting lineup, he’s been an absolute model of consistency.
“The most important thing is don't take any days off,” he said. “Just show up to play every day, try to get a little better. Just try to be consistent each game.”
It’s certainly paying off, and he hopes his performance and experience can pave the way for players similar to him that are just looking for that one chance.
Hopefully, it means that other guys will be able to get into the league and get the credit they deserve,” he said. “My little brother's coming up; he’ll be a senior in high school. Hopefully, it means he’ll get a shot to play in the league in a few years.”
Even more special for Richardson, a look back at the Chinook record book confirms he’s the first third baseman ever to be selected to the midseason all-star roster.
The second All-Star is Parker Sanburn, whose on the mound dominance—22.1 innings, 46 strikeouts, only seven hits, and an ERA of 0.40—is masqueraded by a goofy on the field appearance that features goggles, a two-foot long glove string, and a posture reminiscent of Red Sox closer, Craig Kimbrel. Pair that with his fun-loving off the field persona, and it’s almost impossible not to root for the veteran Chinook in his third summer with the team.
Previously, in 2015 and 2014 combined, he threw 20.2 IP and had a 2.61 ERA while giving up 14 hits, 6 ER, 19 BB, and collecting 20 K.
Those numbers, outside his K/BB ratio, aren't too far off from what we see this season, but his success never lead to an All-Star candidacy due to a late addition to the roster in 2014 and a severe back injury that set him back in 2015.
However, the trials and tribulations have made this summer all the more special.
“It means a lot to me,” Sanburn said “You know how revered the Northwoods League is in all of America, so if you’re an all-star in the Northwoods League, you’re pretty much in the top tier of everyone in the country. It makes me feel very confident in my ability. Basically, just excited to be a part of it.”
Though, Sanburn said being an All-Star was never a concrete goal of his.
“Basically, (my goal was) just to cut down walks and trying to work on getting ahead of guys,” he said. Then, all of a sudden I was figuring out a couple of things and things were working for me here and there. Now, I’m going to Wausau next week.”
Wausau might not be the only place he’s going.
His collegiate journey, which was featured earlier this summer, started at the University of Arkansas and currently sits in a state of limbo after finishing up at Des Moines Area Community College. Though it’s more than likely, based on his performance and the amount of MLB scouts seen at Kapco in recent games, Sanburn won’t have to worry about selecting a college this fall. Instead, he’ll be looking for an apartment in some minor league city.
EDIT: Since the original publishing of this article, Sanburn signed a professional contract with the Texas Rangers.
Similar to Richardson, Sanburn also made Chinooks history in his selection. He was the first reliever selected since 2014 when Andrew Elliot, who carried a 0.73 ERA and collected 36 strikeouts over 24.2 innings made the midsummer roster. Sanburn is also only the second full-time reliever ever selected.
"If I'm in that type of tier with him, that makes me feel a lot more confidence in my own ability," Sanburn said. "It’s way more special to be one of the only relievers. It makes me pretty dang good."
A few statistical notes on Sanburn, his league-leading 46 strikeouts have been achieved in only 22.1 innings pitched. The next highest on the Northwoods strikeout list that's pitched fewer innings than Sanburn is the Chinooks Joe Heineman, who has 33 strikeouts over 21.2 innings. Sanburn has more strikeouts than pitchers who've pitched 40 or more innings, that's insane.
Also, his ERA-, a stat that measures how good a pitcher's ERA is compared to league average is a 16. Since a league average pitcher has a 100 ERA-, that means Sanburn is 84 percent better than an average Northwoods pitcher.
Unsurprisingly, he's also dominant in FIP-. FIP (Fielding independent pitching) is a stat that eliminates fielders from the equation when calculating earned runs. Sanburn has a 0.70 FIP (that's incredible) and that clocks in at 69 percent better than league average.
Furthermore, he averages 18 strikeouts per nine innings. Is this even fair?
The third All-Star, Matthew Mika, even though he had no clue a Northwoods League All-Star game existed until rosters were announced on Friday morning and one of his teammates texted him, might have had the best first half of any Chinook, if not any player in the entire Northwoods League.
After coming off a solid sophomore campaign at UCF, in which he hit .278 over 227 at-bats and swiped 25 bags in 27 tries, he exploded onto the summer scene by collecting 34 hits in his first 99 at-bats (a .343 batting average) and stealing 18 bases in just 25 games.
For the record, the Chinooks all-time record for stolen bases is 23, set back in 2014 by Luke Meeteer. So, even if Mika’s base running dominance begins to dwindle, he should have no problem shattering that record.
However, if you’re looking for something to credit to Mika’s overwhelming success, mechanical, coaching, or otherwise, don't look too hard because the answer is pretty simple, “Baseball is Fun.”
As detailed in a profile earlier this season, the dynamic, base-stealing, defensive whiz plays the game with a simple motto, “Baseball is Fun,” and it’s allowed him to stay mentally and physically strong enough to persevere through the long grind of the collegiate and summer ball seasons.
“Coming out here and playing all the games here in the Northwoods is a grind,” Mika said. “But, my coach and everyone back at UCF has prepared my body, and it’s helped me in the long run. I was excited to get some days off, but I know the all-star game will be exciting at the same time, so I’m excited to play.”
He’s also brought plenty of that fun to the locker room through jokes, dance moves, and large amounts of ice cream. It’s a skill, and mindset that Eddy Morgan described as necessary during a long summer.
“He brings a little bit of looseness to everybody, and during a long summer, you kind of need that,” Morgan said. “It can be a grind, but he brings joy and happiness to it, so that’s pretty cool.”
However, it’s his contributions on the field that have stuck out to Morgan.
“I’d rank him right now, as far as infielders go, top three we’ve ever had here,” he said. “He’s got tremendous instincts.”
Though Mika doesn't like to worry about rankings or overly specific stats, he’s just out here to enjoy playing baseball with a great group of guys.
“I wasn't really thinking about (being on the all-star team),” he said. “I was just coming out here, having fun and enjoying my time with all the guys. Just trying to get myself better and the team better. Just so happens that I made the list.”
But, if Mika were to make his own list, it might include a few more than four Chinooks.
"If there was an all-star game, that I thought, everyone on this team would play in that game 100 percent," he said. "We do a lot of things well. We hit, we have a lot of fun, we’re loose and stress-free."
Unlike the other three, the Chinooks fourth All-Star, Nick Gatewood, has had a pretty straight forward path to selection.
This spring, while experiencing a breakout sophomore season at Georgia State, he led the team with a .319 average and added eight doubles, five homers and 22 RBI’s. Then, he immediately continued that success this summer as he currently sits at a .336 average with ten doubles, four homers, and 33 RBI’s in his 31 Northwoods League games.
"I don't necessarily consider him a power hitter," Eddy Morgan said. He's got some juice in his bat, but he can spray the ball all over the field. He's not pull, pull, pull. He'll drive balls into the left-centerfield gap. That allows you to stay on the ball longer and not get beat on breaking balls."
That ability, not being a predictable, one-dimensional pull-hitter, has been what's allowed Gatewood to flourish and become an unstoppable RBI machine in the Northwoods.
However, Morgan might need to reconsider his assessment after Gatewood's performance in Green Bay last night. The red-haired, 6 foot 2-inch behemoth, sporting a Robin Yount-esque haircut, mashed a grand slam on a swing that broke his bat. Normally, a broken bat means a pop-out, or in the best case, a lazy fly ball. Not this time, Gatewood–somehow–struck it well over the fence.
Dating back to his first game on June 7th, he has a hit in all but five of his 31 contests, a RBI in 16, and 9 with more than one RBI. He's been an absolute machine, and the sabermetric stats further support it.
Currently, his weighted runs above average (wRAA) sits at 9.3. To further explain, it's a catch-all stat that measures how many runs a player generates compared to the league average. So, Gatewood creates seven more runs than an average player, which is amazingly good. Yet, it still somehow falls behind Matthew Mika's 9.6 wRAA. That goes to show you how good they both are, and how valuable they are to this high-octane Chinooks offense.
Moving forward, into and past the All-Star break, Lakeshore, complimented by this terrific group of All-Stars and a plethora of players that could've been considered for the team but came up just short, has a real chance to turn 2017 into a special season.
Right now, their offense ranks first in batting average, at-bats, hits, and doubles, and with the recent surge of pitching success–currently, their team pitching ERA is a middle of the pack 4.28–it could culminate in a playoff spot or even an automatic berth via a second half division win.
Clearly, they have the talent, now it all comes down to execution.