Going into Friday, nine players on the Lakeshore Chinooks active roster have a batting average of .291 or higher, a number only the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, who proudly sport seven bats of their own above that line, come close to matching. Most Northwoods League teams have four or less. Nine is unheard of.
What’s even crazier, eight of those nine players have logged 72 or more at-bats and have appeared in 20 plus games, and, two of the nine, Jacob Richardson and Daniel DeSimone, have been there since the season began back in May. So, this impressive display isn’t one of small sample size.
No matter what batting order field manager Eddy Morgan puts on the wall, he can’t go wrong. However, he has developed a traditional, everyday top six that’s turned into a Northwoods League murderer’s row.
Over their last 11 games, this group is batting .347, with 13 HR, and 55 RBI, and the worst hitter—if you can call him that—has been Rylan Thomas. The slugging righty has “only managed” a 305 average with three homers and 10 RBI.
Basically, there is no weak spot, and every single one of these guys, including Drake Lubin, a 299 average with a HR, 15 RBI and 18 BB, Daniel DeSimone, a .291 average with 3 HR’s and 17 RBI, and Jack Dunn, a .292 average with 3 doubles and 10 RBI, give opposing pitchers nightmares.
However, there’s one group of happy hurlers that sleep quite well at night, the Lakeshore Chinooks pitching staff. Instead, they get the treat of non-stop run support and comeback rallies that have lead the Chinooks to a 24-20 overall record and a hot, division leading 6-3 start to the second half.
But, I wanted to know, if the Chinook pitching staff was forced to face the offense, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be easy to convince them, who would each pitcher be frightened to face, and what would their mindset be going in.
Last night’s starter, Austin Jones, a righty who’s been dominant in his own by sporting a 2.41 ERA over his first 14.1 innings, picked leadoff hitter, Matthew Mika.
“He never strikes out,” Jones said. “He’s very disciplined at the plate. He’s not going to swing at a pitchers pitch; he’s going to wait until he gets a mistake and he seems to capitalize most of the time. So, it's always tough as a pitcher when you can't get a guy out on your pitch.”
Currently, Mika sports the lowest strikeout percentage on the team, whiffing only 6.4 percent of the time, and in 510 total pitches he’s seen this season, from what I’ve calculated, he’s only whiffed on 17. That’s ridiculously low 3.3 percent of the time.
“He covers the plate well,” Jones said. “Sometimes, I have trouble getting in on guys so If I try to bust him in and leave it out over the plate a little bit, he’s not gonna miss it, he’s got really good hands.”
Byron Hood agreed with Jones, "He’s scrappy. He seems to get a hit no matter where the ball is placed. I feel like he can hit anything."
Luke Sommerfeld, a built, 6-foot, 6-inch righty who consistently pumps low-90’s on the radar gun, also chose the 5 foot, 10 inch Mika.
“He’s a complete player,” Sommerfeld said. “He’s someone you don't want to face. You can see that in our offense when he’s on base we score. He causes a lot of problems on the base paths too.”
On the season, Mika has 20 stolen bases which puts him in a tie for third and eight behind league leader, Marcus Still, who has 28.
However, his stolen base percentage of 90.9 is the best of any speedster with at least 18 swiped bags. Still only has a success rate of 87.5 percent. Plus, he’s played in nine more games than Mika.
So, it’s reasonable to believe Mika is the best base stealer the League has to offer, and when asked how he’d handle that kind of havoc, Sommerfeld said, “I’d ask for the day off.”
Sommerfeld wasn't alone with that feeling, but there were two pitchers that starkly contrasted, Cyrillo Watson and Alec Marsh.
“I’ll face all of them,” Watson said. I’m not really scared of any of them.”
Watson’s earned the right to say that. The University of Illinois true Freshman faced Big 10 hitters all Spring and has a 2.53 ERA over a team high 32 innings this summer.
But, if Watson was forced to pick a guy that might find some success against him, he said, “Maybe Mika, he just makes contact.”
Marsh, on the other hand, is coming off the best start any Chinook has had all summer. The Milwaukee native took a no-hitter into the seventh and finished his day with 8 IP, five hits, 2 BB and 8 K’s.
“No, I wouldn't [take the day off],” he said. “If I get any chance to go on the mound, I’m gonna take it.
But, he had plenty of praise for his pick, Mika, and what the offense has done.
“They’re all so competitive, and they’re super disciplined at the plate,” he said.
In total, Mika was picked by five of the fifteen pitchers I surveyed, which puts him tied for the team lead with Nick Gatewood.
Nick Campe was one of the guys who picked Gatewood, the current Chinook closer said, “I feel like I would try to go on the outside corner on him and my ball kinda tails into a lefties barrel. He’s just been on fire.”
On fire is almost an understatement when it comes to Gatewood unless you’re referring to his long, red hair.
Over his last five games, the lefty slugger is hitting .440 with two homers and 11 RBI.
“It seems like he can hit anything,” said Tekota Metoxen, a new reliever acquired from Battle Creek. “Don’t leave fastball’s up, and use a lot of off-speed.”
It’s a good thought process, but Gatewood’s ability seems to surpass all types of conventional wisdom.
Traditionally, the weakness of left-handed hitters is left-handed pitching, but Gatewood is batting .308 (12-39) with five doubles, a homer and 12 RBI’s against lefties this season. And, the only two lefties on the Chinook pitching staff, Marshall Oetting and Alex McIntosh, both picked Gatewood as the hitter they fear the most.
“My changeup keeps righties off balance whereas my fastball tails away from righties so when I try to hit the outside corner against lefties, my ball tails back into the zone,” Oetting said.
McIntosh kept it more simple, “he can hit, he’s just a really good hitter,” he said.
His UWM teammate, Josh Serio agreed. "I saw the video of him hitting the broken bat grand slam and that was very impressive."
Three of the fiftteen votes went to Rylan Thomas, a collegiate teammate of Mika’s at UCF who made the freshman All-American team, was Rookie of the Year in the AAC, and was second team All-AAC.
“He just has a mature approach,” Joe Heineman said. “He studies each pitcher and almost hypothesizes what's coming. My fastball is not hard, so I would not throw him that. I’d be soft away every time. “
Peter Bovenzi agreed, stay away from the fastball.
“[Rylan] has a lot of power,” he said. “I tend to leave balls high, and he elevates pitches and hits them out of the park.”
Currently, Thomas leads the team with seven homers and a qualified .558 slugging percentage. He also leads the way with a .242 isolated power, a stat that subtracts slugging percentage from batting average to get a more realistic gauge of raw power.
“A lot of power in the bat, I feel like he’d probably match up well against my stuff,” said Cole Gnetz. “I think he picks up the fastball well, but I think if I hung a change-up, he’d probably hit that pretty well.”
Initially, Gnetz was going to pick Owen Miller, the ISU shortstop who hit for two cycles over a three game span, but he changed his mind due to prior history.
“I faced Owen this year, and I got him to hit a grounder to third that it got an error on,” he said.
However, Zach Engelken, a tall, built righty from Nebraska who arrived in Lakeshore earlier this week must not have faced the Redbirds.
I'd pick Own Miller" he said. "He had two cycles, and coming in, I was thinking this guy was a beast. Now that I've been here for three games, I know he can do something at the plate."
So, that puts the final tally at Mika 5, Gatewood 5, Thomas 3, and Miller 1, but I interviewed 15, so who was the outlier?
Austin Havekost chose to opt not for a hitter. Instead, he chose Luke Sommerfeld as the guy he’d least like to face.
[Luke] just swings as hard as he can,” Havekost said. With the way I throw, he could actually hit one out into Lake Michigan.”
Sommerfeld’s only at-bat of the season came way back on June 5th versus Kenosha where he grounded a first pitch fastball right to the shortstop for a quick out. But, Havekost clearly saw something special.
“Sometimes I miss up, Luke’s a free swinger after his first at-bat of the year, and he could accidentally hit one that lands 30 miles out into the lake.” he said.
So, while the final results prove inconclusive, one thing is for sure. There are a lot of scary bats in the Chinooks offense.