Wichita State’s designated hitter will be its smallest player, 5-foot-7 sophomore Tanner Dearman. There could not be a better representative for how coach Todd Butler wants to play — aggressive and smart on the bases to put pressure on the defense.
Dearman will lead off and Butler wants him to put his command of the strike zone and speed in charge of the offense. As a freshman, Dearman hit .301 and stole 12 bases in 14 attempts. He walked 28 times and struck out 23, one of two Shockers with a positive ratio.
“He’s the pesky, pesky leadoff guy that just drives you crazy as an opponent,” Butler said. “He’s really learned how to bunt and steal on command. He can really run.”
WSU’s best two hitters follow Dearman. Right fielder Garrett Bayliff hit .373 last season and stole 11 bases. First baseman Casey Gillaspie, who led the Cape Cod League with eight home runs last summer, is WSU’s biggest power threat after hitting .299 with 11 homers in 2013.
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“His physical presence in the lineup is just intimidating,” Butler said. “The team looks up to him, but what’s important for Casey is what’s behind him in the lineup. That’s the concern — is he going to get pitches to hit with runners in scoring position?”
Third baseman Chase Simpson transferred from Oklahoma, where he started 12 games and hit .229 in 2012. He tantalized coaches last season during a redshirt season — WSU tried unsuccessfully to get him eligible immediately — and continued to hit with power in the fall. Catcher Tyler Baker (.328, 15 doubles) completes the middle of the order.
WSU’s success in wiping away years of disappointing offense may rest on the bottom of the order. Centerfielder Micah Green (.286, nine doubles) and left fielder Mikel Mucha (.281, nine doubles) must cut down on strikeouts to best use their speed. Butler ended fall practices unsure of his middle infielders and spring practices didn’t totally clear the picture.
WSU has been an excellent defensive team the past two seasons, posting a program-best .977 fielding percentage in 2013 after .974 in 2012
Gillaspie returns at first and Simpson shows good range and a strong arm at third. Seniors Erik Harbutz (.280, 13 doubles) and Dayne Parker (.243) can play shortstop and are experienced and versatile enough to play second and third. Sophomore Tanner Kirk (.231) and freshman Wes Phillips also play shortstop.
At second base, junior Cody Bobbit (.294, nine steals) is back after missing six weeks last season with a broken hand. He started 20 games, 10 at second and nine at shortstop before the injury. Junior transfer Zair Koeiman hit .351 with five home runs at Eastern Oklahoma State College. Dearman started 39 games at second last season, but is likely to play in the outfield.
Baker, an All-MVC pick last season, is an excellent defender who works well with the pitchers. Sophomore Parker Zimmerman (.194, one home run) started 23 games at catcher last season.
The Shockers always feature speed and this season will be no different. Mucha, Green and Bayliff will cover plenty of ground. Dearman will help in the outfield and sophomore Daniel Kihle (.191) will provide depth after starting 11 games last season.
Butler is blessed with plenty of experienced arms, starting with senior Cale Elam (7-5, 3.17 ERA). While he is not a hard-throwing future first-round draft pick in the mold of past Friday night starters, he is smart and competitive and throws all his pitches for strikes and lets his infielders gobble up ground balls. Elam rarely gives up hard-hit balls. In 93 2/3 innings last season, he allowed two home runs and 11 extra-base hits.
Junior A.J. Ladwig (5-6, 4.54) struggled much of his sophomore season before shining in postseason play. He threw a complete game in an 11-4 win over Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, striking out a season-high eight. He followed that with six solid innings in a 3-1 NCAA regional loss to Arkansas. Sophomore Garrett Brummett (4-0, 1.16) won a spot in the rotation in late April and earned Freshman All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball.
Junior lefty Kris Gardner (3-6, 3.45) also rallied late last season, throwing a complete game in a 5-0 win over Indiana State in the MVC Tournament. Freshman Sam Tewes is the newcomer most likely to break into the rotation. He possesses the physical and mental skills to contribute quickly.
The bullpen is the area hit hardest by the draft and graduation. Closer Brandon Peterson (1.12, 10 saves), Albert Minnis (3-2, 3.19) and T.J. McGreevy (4-2, 3.99) propped up an inconsistent rotation much of the season.
Butler can depend on senior lefty Aaron LaBrie (0.83 ERA, four saves) to fill many roles. Senior Foster Vielock (3-0, 3.71) gets first shot at closer and Butler likes his slider as a strikeout pitch. Senior Drew Palmer (6.10) started six games in 2013 before elbow surgery ended his season. He is healthy and could help as a starter or reliever.
Junior transfers T.J. Looney and Ray Ashford are counted on to add depth.