Todd Butler took a moment about a month ago to decide how he was going to coach Wichita State’s baseball team after the Shockers’ bad start.
“What direction am I going to go?” Butler said Thursday. “Am I going to break and become negative or am I going to be a leader and stay positive?”
It took him some time to decide, such was the state of Shocker baseball.
There are still big issues. A tough schedule and injuries to key players – especially pitchers Sam Tewes and Willie Schwanke – have left Wichita State often looking like some other team in those Shocker uniforms.
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WSU is 13-19. And that includes winning five of its first six Missouri Valley Conference games against teams in the bottom third of the early Valley standings.
Butler decided to stay positive. He sees things he likes in the development of his team and insists he’s not creating a silver lining where there’s only a dark cloud.
He recognizes that 13-19 doesn’t sit well with Shocker fans, most of whom wondered what they were getting in Butler, a former Arkansas assistant who replaced the iconic Gene Stephenson after the 2013 season.
This is slow going, no way around it. If WSU is making progress, it can be hard for the average fan to pick up on as the Shockers prepare to meet another struggling Valley opponent, Illinois State, this weekend at Eck Stadium.
“In 26 years of coaching, I’ve never been through a record like this,” Butler said. “No excuses. My job is to encourage this team and to not let them pout and sulk about where we’re at.”
There are numbers, right there in the statistics for everyone to see, that no one would ever believe the Shockers are responsible for.
It starts with a 5.14 team ERA, a ghastly number considering how outstanding Wichita State pitching has been through the years. Unquestionably, injuries to Tewes and Schwanke have helped the ERA to balloon, but historically the Shockers have had deep and talented pitching staffs.
Not so much this season.
Until recently, the Shockers’ defense was atrocious and the offense has been hit or miss, with “miss” usually carrying the day.
Michael Burns, Tanner Dearman and Mikel Mucha were, according to plan, going to spend much of the season terrorizing pitchers with soaring on-base percentages.
Hasn’t worked out that way.
Mucha is batting .273 and his on-base percentage is just .325. Dearman and Burns, meanwhile, are batting .222 and .178 respectively, with two extra-base hits in 127 at-bats. They look at first base longingly, thirsty for its touch.
Also, junior college transfers Chase Rader and Jordan Farris have cooled after fast starts. Outside of Ryan Tinkham, Daniel Kihle, Sam Hilliard and senior catcher Bob Arens, whose .342 average is getting him more and more playing time, the Shockers haven’t been doing much at the plate
This is Butler’s first head coaching job since he was at McNeese State from 2001-03, where his teams were 90-83.
The Shockers were 31-28 last season, Butler’s first with WSU. The team and the program had started to fade during the last years under Stephenson, but never to anything like 13-19.
With a passionate fan base, built up over 36 seasons of incredible success under Stephenson, the whispers are becoming more and more audible.
That’s not fair to Butler, who has done what no coach sets out to do – follow a legend. He brought in a bunch of new players this season, mostly from the juco ranks. The Shockers now are getting back to recruiting high school talent and, they hope, developing them into good college players.
This season’s plan started off rough.
“Too many new guys, too good of competition and we weren’t ready to play at Long Beach or TCU,” Butler said. “The schedule was a little bit more advanced than our team was at that time.”
Butler was encouraged this week, though, when the Shockers fought hard before losing 6-4 at Texas. He saw more confidence in his team than he had seen 10 days or so earlier when the Shockers dropped a three-game set at No. 4-ranked TCU.
“We competed against Texas,” Butler said. “It’s always fun playing there because it’s a beautiful place and the crowd is hostile. I think our guys are growing into the kind of program we need to be by playing these high-quality teams that have recently been to the College World Series.”
The Shockers haven’t been to the CWS since 1996 and this isn’t going to be the team to break that drought.
Still, Butler thinks the Shockers can be a load in May as they get healthier and more confident.
“I like where our team is emotionally and how they’re coming together,” Butler said. “They’re excited to play whereas a month ago for the coach and for our team, it was a hard time for all of us. We’re a lot stronger now.”
All anyone can do is to sit back and see what happens. The Shockers could get to 8-1 in the Valley by sweeping Illinois State, but then that path gets tougher with road series coming up against Bradley, 24th-ranked Missouri State and 16th-ranked Dallas Baptist.
These are dangerous woods and the Shockers aren’t the big bad wolves they once were.