The rebuilding of Wichita State’s baseball program will start with measurables — pitchers who can throw harder, athletes who can run faster and hit more baseballs more often.
If coach Todd Butler’s recruiting efforts work the way he plans, improving those talents are the first step toward repairing WSU’s image. His rebuilding job must also include that immeasurable boost of confidence that once carried the Shockers into a ballpark.
No more. It’s been a long time since the Shockers scared anybody.
That’s what four straight seasons without a Missouri Valley Conference title will do to a reputation. WSU finished fourth this season, its lowest since the 1984 team also finished fourth. WSU last built a credible NCAA at-large resume in 2008. Indiana State did in 2012 and again this season. WSU’s highest RPI in the past six seasons is a No. 46 ranking in 2013.
“There’s no mystique right now,” Butler said. “It’s been gone for years. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and attitude and work to get that back. That doesn’t come easy.”
None of this is surprising and the solution is no mystery. The Shockers need to win and they need to learn how to win over long periods of time. The Shockers haven’t come close to a double-digit win streak since the 2008 team won 19 straight. They haven’t played much more than 10 days of consistently good baseball since the 2010 team finished the season winning 16 of 20 games.
“It’s confidence, but confidence comes from winning,” WSU senior pitcher Aaron LaBrie said. “Once they start winning again, like we should and like everyone thought we were going to, you’ll have that intimidation factor.”
Butler places particular importance on his relievers establishing that aura. He carries around a black notebook with future roster projections written in black ink. He writes velocity next to the names of each pitcher and he expects to see a lot them throwing 90 mph or faster in the coming seasons. He watched Tulane, Dallas Baptist and Illinois State protect leads by bringing in hard-throwing relievers and expressed admiration and a bit of envy. The Shockers rarely rallied when trailing late in game in part because its bullpen leaked runs.
Butler envisions pitchers possessing swing-and-miss stuff that can demoralize the opponent and shorten the game. Depending on how the June draft affects the roster, he believes his recruiting class can add that asset.
“It starts on the mound,” he said. “We’re going to have to get some power arms out of the bullpen. We just have to get back to working on the recruiting trial like Wichita State did throughout all the years. We’ve got to pick it up again.”
There is, of course, more to winning than throwing hard. Butler and his coaches face work in many areas to get WSU back to the days when they started games with an edge because of their reputation.
“We need to play a lot of tough-minded baseball next year and just win like they have in the past,” sophomore center fielder Daniel Kihle said. “Nobody remembers how tough you play unless you get the win.”
That makes what senior Cale Elam did over four seasons remarkable. No other pitcher in the modern era excelled at two high-profile jobs as Elam did.
He served as WSU’s closer as a freshman and sophomore and totaled 14 saves.
As a junior, WSU needed him to start on Friday nights and he went 7-5 with a 3.17 ERA. As a senior, he continued to start, sharing the No. 1 role with A.J. Ladwig, and went 7-2 with a 2.22 ERA and even earned his 15th save in his only relief appearance.
Elam’s 15 saves are tied for 11th with Steve Haines on WSU’s career list. His 24 victories (10 as a reliever) rank 22nd with three others. His ERA of 2.39 ranks sixth among all Shockers. His 85 appearances rank ninth.
That puts Elam largely without a peer on WSU’s career list for his versatility. Darren Dreifort (1991-93) is the only other Shocker in the top 20 for victories (26) and the top 15 for saves (17). Some prominent Shockers started and relieved, none with the volume of success that Elam enjoyed.
Dreifort started four games as a freshman before moving to a relief role. Braden Looper (1994-96) started five games as a freshman before recording 25 saves as a sophomore and junior. Pat Cedeno (1986-89) went 32-7 with eight saves.
Travis Wyckoff (1993-96) might come the closest to matching Elam’s versatility. He started 19 games and went 20-5 with 13 saves. He started 16 games as a freshman, including the 1993 College World Series final, before moving to a relief role as a junior and senior. He also played plenty in left field.