Ranks of Elite Chillicothe (Mo.) Fish Sticks Had Plenty of Candidates

Paul Sturm
psturm@chillicothenews.com
Chillicothe Mudcats switch-hitting outfielder Matty Johnson leads off the bottom of the third inning of the second game of a June 27, 2008, home doubleheader against the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Grays with a bunt single. It was one of 69 he had that season and 84 in his season-plus with the Fish. His career rate of 1.423 hits per game is tops among those who have been Mudcats in at least two seasons and the Texan's 23 extra-base hits in 2008 share the team record with the late Steve Martin and Logan Eickhoff.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Having recognized, during this summer’s COVID-19 pause in team play, top Chillicothe Mudcats pitchers and 2-way (pitched and played positions regularly) performers through the college-level, summer baseball team’s first 18 seasons, our recap of the club’s history – like the modern major league game – will shift for a couple of “innings” to recall many of the top offensive players.

Having reviewed statistics for contact and power hitting, run productivity, and baserunning, an original list of 30-40 accomplished position players was sifted to a group of 20, rather than the “top 10” pitchers previously saluted, since a team routinely utilizes many more position players than hurlers in a game. The offensive group of 20 then was further panned for its gold nuggets – the 10 best Mudcats ever to swim into the batter’s box and assume a defensive position.

While hitting skill overwhelmingly carries the most weight in such consideration, when close calls between two or more players for either top-20 inclusion or a spot among the 10 best, additional factors – such as whether a player primarily was used as a fielder or designated hitter, his baserunning productivity (base stealing, run scoring), defensive skill and versatility, and number of games in which he was in the lineup – were utilized to help make a final determination.

Counterintuitively, only eight of which are among the 39 once-Mudcats who have been selected in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft or signed with pro teams after being undrafted.

At the end of the process, some players – including a team record-holder or two – were surprising absences, but warrant noting, at least in passing.

Not among the topmost 20 are a pair of early stalwarts who still hold significant team marks, lefty-swinging 2002-03 corner infielder Travis Dunlap and 2003 third baseman/DH Jason Clark.

The most-notable and debatable omission probably is Dunlap. In a team-record 77 career games, the Phoenix, Ore., resident had the most runs batted in for a season (45 in 2003) and career (66), along with six career homers, but a .291 career batting average and comparatively-modest slugging percentage in that plethora of games worked against him.

Similarly, Clark, not a very accomplished fielder,  is absent, despite still sharing the season and career records for home runs (9).

Likewise, 2011 outfielder Logan Moon – who played in a season-record-sharing 51 games and took a record 216 official at-bats, came up shy, despite 68 hits (tied for sixth-most in a season), 30 RBI, 35 runs scored, a solid .315 batting average, and 15-of-18 base stealing.

The same is true for 2018 catcher/first baseman/DH Gaven Strobel, one of only nine Mudcats ever to amass both an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) rate above 1.0 and a slugging percentage of .560 or higher. The fact that, primarily splitting time behind the plate with Jared Fry, he got into barely half (23) of the team’s games and had less than 100 plate appearances hurt his case.

Also just short was 2013 outfielder David Zorn, who – primarily from the leadoff spot – would have been one of only seven .400 hitters in team history had he had one more hit or one less at-bat. Instead, despite his .398 average and extremely-high .487 on-base percentage (OBP), having only 39 total hits tipped the scale against inclusion.

Pivoting attention to those who are included, this first of two installments highlighting position players for their offensive output will present the lower half of the top 20.

They include, chronologically, Tom Huntingford, Matty Johnson, Zach Esquerra, Taylor Johnson, Trevor Jones, Tanner Bily, Derek Birginske, Thomas Lerouge, and Anthony Lantigua.

The “cream of the crop” 10 best will step into the spotlight in Saturday’s print edition. No attempt at ranking them in a specific order from 1-20 was made; instead, they’ll be recounted in alphabetical order by last name.

Tanner Bily, 2013, 2b/of

One of the last “cuts” between the top 10 and second 10, a lack of at-bats, not a lack of production, worked against the University of California-Davis player who joined the 2013 squad about 2-1/2 weeks into the season and then found himself on a roster awash with guys “raking.” With significant contributions from Bily, that club finished with the highest team batting average ever and the most runs scored.

An Anaheim Hills, Calif., resident, Bily had only 74 official at-bats across 22 games, but used them to produce 23 runs batted in. That made him one of only three Fish hitters ever to average at least one RBI per game played in a season (Tyler Bullock and Dunlap are the others).

He also hit – and with pop – when runners weren’t in scoring position, compiling a .432 batting average and .527 slugging percentage. Only teammate Paul Trenhaile (.434) has posted a batting average higher than Bily’s (using the major league statistical standard for batting champions of having at least an average of at least 3.1 plate appearances – not official at-bats – per team games played and the club having 27 games after his arrival). Only Bily (.512) and Trenhaile (.517) have posted season on-base percentages of .500 or higher.

Bily’s average of 1.45 hits per game played is seventh-best in team history and he’s one of only 10 to have had a season OPS of 1.0 or higher.

Derek Birginske, 2013, of/p

Already recalled as among the Mudcats’ best-ever position player/pitcher hybrids, the Russellville, Ark., resident was on that same, mashing 2013 club with Bily, Jones, and Trenhaile.

Because of his dual role and the presence of so many other productive hitters, the Arkansas State University player was not utilized as a fielder or hitter all that often by head coach Eric Peterson, but, when he was, he delivered powerfully.

The righthanded hitter had only 54 at-bats during the 18 games in which he was used as a position player, but pounded the ball at a team-record .611 slugging percentage with four doubles, a triple, and two home runs among his 21 hits. His batting average was a lofty .389, helping him have a .450 on-base percentage.

With those numbers, Birginske was one of those 10 Fish with a season OPS above 1.0. His 1.061 mark is fourth-highest for a season and third-best for a career and his ratio of 17 RBI in 18 offensive games is sixth-best all-time.

Zach Esquerra, 2011, of/DH

One of the premier power hitters and run producers in club history, the big La Habra, Calif., product shares the season record for home runs (9) with Clark, drove in 40 runs – third-most in Mudcats annals, and had 21 extra-base hits among his 40 total hits, tied for fifth-most. He’s one of only two Fish regulars ever to have more than half of his hits be more than singles (Huntingford being the other).

He’s one of only three players ever to hammer three roundtrippers in a game (July 10, 2011), as well as one of only 11 to homer in consecutive games and one of only two with a walk-off “bomb” – his game-winning grand slam at home against St. Joseph on June 22, 2011.

While his RBI total is third-highest ever, his six in a July 25 game are tied for third-most in a game and his ratio of RBI to games played (40:47) is seventh-highest.

Keeping him short of the top 10 were a .260 batting average and his DH-heavy use.

Tom Huntingford, 2004-05, of

One of the very best of the organization’s 2-years players, he could play any of the outfield posts well, while being a steady performer in both seasons.

When the Canadian (West Vancouver, British Columbia) hung up his fins at the end of the 2005 season, he owned 36 extra-base hits, a total which still stands as the club’s career record by two over top-10 member Edgar Ramirez. Using his good speed, Huntingford whacked 22 doubles or triples during his 41-hits first season, leading to a fine .515 slugging percentage. Interestingly, the next year, he had two more total hits (43) and “went deep” four times, yet produced only 14 total extra-base blows.

From Peru (Neb.) State University, the righthanded-hitting flyhawk batted .311 in 2004 and .309 in ’05 to finish with a balanced career mark of .310. His 84 career hits equal M. Johnson’s as second-most all-time behind only early star Josh Mayo’s 88.

Matty Johnson, 2008-09, of

Two weeks and 30 at-bats into his first Fish season, Mudcats head coach “Jud” Kindle’s projected leadoff man owned only two hits in 30 at-bats (.067 avg.) and might well have had the coach wondering if he’d erred when he recruited the small, swift, switch-hitting outfielder. Within days, however, any worries were allayed – emphatically.

In his final at-bat of a June 13 game, the Lewisville, Texas, outfielder singled. The next night, he went two for five with three RBI, setting him on a course for 67 hits in his final 171 at-bats – a torrid .392 pace that elevated his final batting average to a very respectable .349 following his sophomore year at Crowder College in Neosho. His team-leading seven triples – tied for second-most in team history – paced that year’s squad to a still-record 25 3-baggers and the organization’s first 30-wins year (32-17).

With 15 hits in 11 more contests the next year, before personal circumstances caused him to stop playing for the summer, his career 1.423 rate of hits per game is tops among those who have been Mudcats in at least two seasons. Additionally, his 23 extra-base hits in 2008 share the team record with the late Steve Martin and Logan Eickhoff, both members of the position-player “top 10.”

M. Johnson’s 69 hits in his first year remain tied for fourth-most in a season and, as noted previously, his 84 career hits match Huntingford’s total (in 71 games) as second only to Mayo’s 88 (in 68 games). M. Johnson played in only 59 games.

While not overly eager to steal bases his first season – he swiped 13 in 19 tries, when he came back in 2009, he more aggressively and efficiently pilfered 12 in 13 tries during his 11 games. At that rate, extrapolated over the entire season, he’d actually have outpaced teammate Darian Sanford’s team-record 50 thefts (in 63 attempts) that summer; over the same number of games as Sandford, M. Johnson would have racked up 53 in 58 tries.

Taylor Johnson, 2012, if

Like Bily, the St. Edward’s University junior’s scintillating hitting in abbreviated action tried to pull him into the top-10 group, but couldn’t quite.

Contacted and signed about three weeks into the approximately 8-weeks season with the Mudcats’ record at 11-10, the lefty-swinging Dripping Springs, Texas, infielder went only five for 23 (including a 3-hits game) in his first seven contests as the club sank to 13-15. However, on June 28, in an 11-3 home win over Sedalia, the team’s and T. Johnson’s seasons coalesced into a streaking comet.

His 3-for-4 effort in that game sent him on a tear which produced 35 hits in his final 86 at-bats (.407 average), helping lead the 2012 Fish to 18 wins in their last 22 regular-season games. When a split of four regional-tournament games at St. Joseph followed (games in which Johnson did not participate), that year’s squad set a still-standing team record of 33 wins (in 54 games).

T. Johnson’s torrid three weeks not only produced an average of virtually 12 hits a week, but a whopping 15 doubles, a pair of triples, and two home runs, including the first of only two home-game-starting roundtrippers in a July 12 contest against Nevada. With 19 extra-base blows among his 40 hits in 109 at-bats (.367 avg.), he generated a whopping .596 slugging percentage, fifth-best for a season in team history.

His 1.481 hits-per-game rate is sixth-loftiest for a season and he’s among only 11 Fish ever to have an OPS of 1.0 or higher, squeaking over that threshold at 1.006.

Trevor Jones, 2013, of

Yet another member of the 2013 attack shows up in the Mudcats’ “top 20” in the person of the University of Central Missouri outfielder who generally split time with the aforementioned Zorn (each got into 31 of the 47 total games) in the leadoff batter’s role.

The suburban St. Louis (Florissant) resident, like many of his teammates, didn’t post the raw “counting-number” stats that some standouts in other seasons were able to amass because the abundance of hitting talent on the ’13 squad led to a lot of time-shares in the lineup.

Even though his high batting average (.386) was 12 points below Zorn’s and his excellent .462 on-base percentage trailed his teammate’s .487, Jones slipped into the “top 20” by having a 24-19 advantage in RBI, a 44-39 margin in hits, a team-high 32 runs scored (Zorn had 27), and by setting a team record for stolen base efficiency.

Jones was successful on all 21 theft attempts, pacing the team in swipes. No other Mudcat with at least 15 steal attempts has been perfect, as Jones was, and no other base burglar has been uncaught in his first 21 tries (two years ago, Peyton Cormane was safe on his first 20, but was thrown out on No. 21).

Anthony Lantigua, 2017, 2b

Another somewhat-unsung or under-appreciated Mudcats offensive star was this Belleville, N.J., infielder who was part of the northeast U.S. contingent fellow New Jerseyan Jack Winters brought to the midwest three summers ago.

More steadily productive than intermittently incandescent, the righthanded-swinging Bloomfield College product hacked away at a .362 average, fashioning an 11-games hitting streak in one stretch, and had an excellent .475 on-base percentage. His knack for getting on and getting around the bases, including 17-of-22 success stealing bases, helped him score a team-high 34 times. He tied the team mark for steals in a game when he copped four in a July 9 non-league contest in which he went a season-best four for five against the KC Monarchs Ban Johnson team.

Thomas Lerouge, 2015, of

Rarely spectacular, but almost-unerringly dependable, the Yucaipa, Calif., product unassumingly fashioned one of only six .400 batting average seasons the Mudcats have received.

Surprisingly, in retrospect, utilized in only 30 of the team’s 43 games, even though only one other outfielder was productive, the Grand Canyon University sophomore-to-be – unusual in that he batted right-handed, but threw lefty – led the club easily with his 46 hits and eight doubles. He struck out only 11 times in over 120 plate appearances and had a respectable 20 RBI in 30 games, mostly spent in the leadoff spot.

Named MINK League “player of the week” in the middle of the campaign, with an outstanding .467 OBP and average-boosted .521 “slug,” he came close (.988) to being a member of the 1.000 OPS fraternity. Perhaps his biggest achievement is his 1.53 rate of hits per game, fourth-best in team history behind three “top 10” shoo-ins.

Brett Sowers, 2009, 3b

Rounding out the review of the Nos. 11-20 all-time position players list is the only one who had his season cut short, due to injury.

The righthanded-swinging Englewood, Colo., resident was only four for his first 22 through the first six games of 2009, but then went nuclear. Over the next 10 games in a 13-days stretch, he batted. 442 (19 for 43) with four home runs, four doubles, and 15 RBI, capped by a 4-for-5 game in a doubleheader sweep at Beatrice, Neb. The sizzling stretch, in which he struck out only seven times and homered twice in a win at Nevada, rocketed his season batting average to .354.

He entered July at .359 before hitting a 1-for-16 skid the first five games of that month, a stretch which apparently coincided with an injury which abruptly ended his season on July 7 after only 25 games.

Even though the rest of the team – both hitters and pitchers – picked up the slack and overtook St. Joseph at the wire for the first MINK League North Division title, the absence of Sowers’ bat unquestionably impacted the team’s attack. Even without playing in the last 21 games of the 32-17 season, Sowers still led the NBC World Series tournament participants with his 24 RBI.

His RBI-to-games-played ratio (24:25) is fifth-best in club history. If not for the injury, the Yavapai (Ariz.) CC sophomore-to-be might have taken a run at Dunlap’s season record of 45 RBI and he reasonably could have projected to finish with as many as seven or eight home runs.

(Next: The 10 best.)

Russellville, Ark., resident Derek Birginske, who both pitched and hit well for the 2013 Chillicothe Mudcats baseball team, not only was versatile, but arguably ranks among the organization's top-20 offensive contributors ever, even though his hitting opportunities were limited by his mound use and the record-setting offensive roster that team had. In only 18 games of being in the batting order, Birginske used his mere 54 at-bats to bat .389 with two home runs, 17 runs batted in, and a career team-record .611 slugging percentage.