On Friday, the No. 2-ranked recruiting class for Wichita State’s baseball team ceased to exist. Practice started and recruiting hype became as meaningless as fall practice statistics and preseason predictions.
The Shockers are three weeks from opening the season with a series at Sam Houston State, starting Feb. 13. Coach Todd Butler’s job is to blend his 26 newcomers with nine returners to improve on last season’s 31-28 record and a fourth-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference. Collegiate Baseball, largely on the strength of six drafted players, ranked WSU’s 2014 recruiting class behind only LSU nationally.
Butler, starting his second season, likes the team’s talent and size and strength. With 11 players 6-foot-3 or taller, the Shockers will look more physically imposing than in recent seasons and Butler hopes that means his players won’t wear down over the spring. Fall practices provided a good start building a team out of so many unfamiliar parts. WSU practiced for two-and-a-half hours Friday at Eck Stadium, mostly consisting of batting practice, defense, relay throws, rundowns and base-running drills.
“The first year was a battle,” Butler said. “It was for the players. It was for me. I remember going to Indiana State to play a conference series and I was on Google Maps on my iPad, trying to figure out where I was going. I know the conference now. I know what the players look like. I actually know the umpires now.”
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Ten of WSU’s newcomers are transfers and Butler counts on them to bring an immediate boost, particularly to the pitching staff. Six of those newcomers will pitch and some will also play a position.
“We’re bigger,” Butler said. “Much bigger physically. Much stronger in the weight room. It’s kind of a Kentucky one-and-done thing. I think these guys will be here a year, and then they’re going to sign a pro contract.”
The six Shockers who turned down a pro team are a measure of the team’s potential. Third baseman Chase Rader, from Coffeyville Community College, was picked by Detroit in the 16th round. Cincinnati grabbed pitcher Isaac Anderson, from the College of Southern Idaho, in the 19th round. Pitcher Sam Hilliard, from Crowder (Mo.) College, went in the 31st round to Minnesota. Florida took pitcher Chase Williams, of Eastern Oklahoma State, in the 37th round. High school athletes Keenan Eaton, an outfielder from Parker, Colo., and Bishop Carroll catcher Taylor Sanagorski went in the 39th round, Eaton to Philadelphia and Sanagorski to the Tigers.
The process of blending newcomers and returners started in the fall. Butler discovered he liked the fastballs offered by his pitchers. Improving his pitching staff’s depth and power was a big priority.
“We have that 90 (mph) and above-type pitching now,” Butler said.
Even without first baseman Casey Gillaspie, Butler likes his team’s power potential. WSU’s speed should improve. Pitchers such as Hilliard and Anderson should help immediately on the mound. Hilliard will also play first base and transfer Ryan Tinkham appears to be another middle-of-the-order bat and he can catch and play first base.
“We’ve got lots of buy-in and team chemistry,” Anderson said. “A handful of us are junior-college guys and we’re all kind of living the (Division I) dream. We didn’t get that out of high school. Now we’re taking advantage of it and trying to run with it.”
Tinkham saw personalities mesh in the fall. He saw plenty of leadership and unselfish players.
“We all have the right attitude and mentality going into the season,” he said. “We’ll see what happens when we start playing games. You’ve got a lot of highs and lows and you’ve got to stick together.”
Worth noting — Catcher Brandon Kimbrel suffered a broken hamate bone, an injury that normally sidelines a player for 4 to 6 weeks. However, Kimbrel’s injury is on his catching hand and that may delay his return. He redshirted last season after transferring from Hutchinson Community College … WSU’s First Pitch Banquet is Thursday at Koch Arena. The Shockers open at home against Texas State on Feb. 20.