Rarely does the designated hitter stand out as such a compelling part of the lineup for Wichita State baseball.
Scarred by last season's lack of hitting, coach Gene Stephenson established "plus players" as this season's theme. He wants hitters who drive in more runs than they let in, establishing that he can live with an error or two if that guy can mash.
"We need to be able to score more runs," he said. "We see that there are certain players who are not as strong defensively as certain other players, but are much stronger offensively."
That is a DH, for better or worse.
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"DH says one thing — it says you need to get better on defense," junior Preston Springer said.
WSU's roster is normally heavy on speedy, defensively adept players. Last season, the Shockers received sparse production from the DH, usually a player who hit in bottom part of the order. This season, the Shockers overflow with DH prospects, players whose offense is ahead of their defense, or lack a clear position.
After last season, Stephenson is willing to be patient.
That group is led by Preston Springer, a junior transfer. If he produces as the DH, hitters such as Travis Bennett, Johnny Coy, Ryan Engrav and the loser of the catching competition must find other ways into the lineup. How the DH hits, how the DH-types produce at other positions and how Stephenson manages the balance will go a long way to defining the 2010 season.
"DH can be a key role," Bennett said. "If you have that extra guy who can hit and get extra power in the lineup, that's going to help out a lot."
The Shockers, 30-27 last season, know they need more offense. They hit .275 in 2009 and struck out almost twice as often as they walked (423 to 220). A lack of experience, left-handed hitters and power doomed WSU to nine losses in which it scored two or fewer runs. A Creighton freshman no-hit the Shockers in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. In the NCAA Regional, the Shockers wasted a three-hitter by pitcher Jordan Cooper in a 3-2 loss to Washington State.
So Stephenson will devote the early weeks of this season — perhaps longer — to figuring out his most effective blend. Most important in his mind are his many options. The roster boasts at least seven players who can hit left-handed, up from two last season. There is more competition for at-bats, giving Stephenson more options if injury or a slump hits.
Springer, who hit .398 with nine home runs at Odessa (Texas) College, figures to start the season as DH. He finished the fall near the top of Stephenson's list for hitters and is expected to give the Shockers extra-base power from the left side. He may take over at first base when Clint McKeever leaves and is working on his defense to make that happen.
For now, he is here to hit.
"I feel like I can be counted on to help contribute," he said. "I feel really relaxed. That's one thing about this program _ it's always fun. We've got a lot of guys that we're all little kids, just having fun playing the game."
The three positions most involved in the DH discussion are left field, third base and catcher. Bennett is a proven left-handed college hitter who started in left for Northern Iowa in 2009. Coy, a redshirt freshman with pop in his bat, plays third base and left field. Sophomore Chris O'Brien and senior Cody Lassley are fighting to catch; one could DH. Then there's freshman Erik Harbutz, who could start at third on the strength of his hitting.
Nobody came to WSU wanting to DH.
"I came here to play left field," Bennett said. "I came here to be out there and be involved in every play."
Bennett quickly learned in the fall that his defense wasn't up to WSU standards. He said he bulked up over the summer to try to become more of a power threat. He also didn't expect much competition for playing time.
"I thought I had my position locked," he said. "Then I had probably the worst fall I've ever had in left field. I just got lazy, I guess, in the summer time."
Bennett lost 12 pounds over the winter, dropping to 205 pounds, in an attempt to get faster. That, he hopes, will help his defense and offense on Eck Stadium's new artificial turf.
"The way this field plays now, you want to hit gap-to-gap and be able to get the doubles and the triples," he said. "That's the way I was as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Then I thought I could come in here and be a power hitter. I had to change up my outlook on how to play the game here."
Stephenson's outlook on how to win hasn't changed dramatically. His plan is to get a lead, rely on experienced pitchers and bring in defensive replacements in the late innings.
If that works, he will make plus players out of everybody.
"We need to have some guys in that lineup who can put a charge in the ball," he said. "I think our hitting is going to be outstanding. There are guys on this team that could blossom in a hurry."
A breakdown by position
The weekend rotation of junior Tim Kelley (5-4, 2.86 ERA), sophomore Jordan Cooper (8-6, 2.78) and sophomore lefty Charlie Lowell (6-2, 2.95) returns.
Kelley led the Valley with 102 strikeouts. Cooper capped his season with a three-hitter in a 3-2 loss to Washington State in the NCAA regional. Lowell struck out nine in five innings against Florida Gulf Coast in his first start.
Lowell slumped late in the season, failing to go longer than five innings in three of his final four starts. Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz thinks Lowell fixed mechanical problems.
"He didn't have the good down plane on his pitches that he had early in the year," Kemnitz said. "He was flying open and his arm was dragging."
Sophomore lefty Josh Smith (0-2, 8.62) is the likely fourth starter.
The bullpen starts with sophomore closer Chance Sossamon (4.50 ERA, 3 saves), who earned the job late in 2009.
The biggest story in the bullpen will be who gets the ball to Sossamon. Senior lefty Logan Hoch (shoulder) and sophomore Grant Muncrief (elbow) appear to be recovered from surgery and ready to pitch. Senior Tyler Fleming (shoulder) is a few weeks behind. If they are healthy, the bullpen is deep and experienced. If they are not, the academic ineligibility of sophomore lefty Brian Flynn (2-5, 4.98) is a major pain.
Sophomore Remington Johnson (3-0, 3.38) was the most pleasant surprise of 2009. He struck out 33 in 21 1/3 innings. Junior Justin Kemp (0-2, 6.31) is trying a sidearm delivery. Junior Mitch Caster started 30 games in the outfield and made five appearances in relief. He is the staff's hardest thrower and will likely contribute more off the mound this season.
Freshman T.J. McGreevy could earn some starts after an impressive fall. Senior Cobey Guy (0-0, 5.40) is healthy and also pitched well in the fall. He could play a large role in relief with his curveball and slider.
Senior Cody Lassley (.270, 16 doubles) started 53 games last season. O'Brien (.261, 5 HR) walked 37 times, second on the team. He started seven games at catcher and 42 at third.
Entering the final days of practice, Stephenson called the competition basically even, with Lassley's experience a factor in his favor.
"I think they're both going to be better offensively than they were a year ago," Stephenson said. "I think they're going to give us a solid defensive performance and call a good game."
The shortstop-second base combination of Tyler Grimes (.294, 5 home runs) and Will Baez (.275, 17 stolen bases) returns.
Baez led the Shockers with a .425 on-base percentage and was the only player to walk (42) more than strike out (31). He struggled at second, a new position, during the first half of season. In the final weeks, he handled routine plays more smoothly and should continue to improve.
Grimes, who took over the leadoff position late in the season, is adding switch-hitting to his repertoire.
Clint McKeever (.333, 43 RBI) started all 57 games at first in 2009 and led WSU with a .509 slugging percentage. Junior transfer Preston Springer will back up McKeever and likely serve as the DH.
Chris O'Brien moves from third to catcher, opening a spot that will be filled by a new face. Redshirt freshman Johnny Coy offers power potential.
"I think he is going to produce offensively once he gets in the groove and gets relaxed," Stephenson said.
Freshmen Erik Harbutz and Nate Goro are also options. Harbutz, who also plays shortstop, is the stronger hitter. Goro is a good defender who could play an important role as a late-inning replacement. Freshman Walker Davidson is speedy runner with a good glove at second base.
With center fielder Kevin Hall and right fielder Ryan Jones, the Shockers own plenty of speed. Those two will track down most balls and Jones' arm keeps runners from getting too aggressive.
Hall (.256) started 12 games last season before a back injury sidelined him. He is back at full strength and learning to switch hit. He hit .320 in limited duty as a freshman
Jones, who hit .326 in 2008, is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing junior offensive season. He hit .277 and led the team with 51 strikeouts. Jones worked to become more selective at the plate during his summer in the Cape Cod League and in the fall. He led WSU with seven home runs.
Hall and Jones may need their range to help an inexperienced newcomer in left. Senior Travis Bennett, the 2009 Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year, hit .338 and drove in 43 runs for the Panthers in their final season of baseball. Coy played third base during the summer and for much of the fall.
Senior Bret Bascue (.247, 2 HR) started 25 games in left in 2009. Junior Ryan Engrav started 15 games in right and earned MVC Tournament MVP honors.
No. Name Pos. Yr. Ht. Wt. B-T Hometown
1 Walker Davidson SS-2B Fr. 5-11 175 R-R Tulsa
2 Bret Bascue OF Sr. 6-3 204 R-R Derby
3 Logan Hoch P Sr. 6-2 180 L-L Wichita (Hutchinson CC)
4 Tyler Fleming P Sr. 6-3 202 S-R Enid, Okla. (Cowley)
6 Remington Johnson P So. 6-0 198 R-R Goddard
7 Nate Goro INF Fr. 6-0 184 R-R Wildwood, Mo.
8 Travis Bennett OF Sr. 6-0 211 L-R Cedar Rapids, Iowa (N. Iowa)
9 Will Baez OF Sr. 5-10 180 R-R Dedham, Mass. (W. Okla. St.)
11 Jordan Cooper P So. 6-2 215 R-R Berryton (Shawnee Heights)
12 Tyler Grimes INF So. 5-10 190 S-R Wichita (North)
13 Ryan Jones OF Sr. 6-0 200 L-L Wichita (Carroll)
14 Ryan Engrav UT Jr. 6-0 219 R-R Tulsa
15 Tobin Mateychick P Fr. 6-5 184 R-R Enid, Okla.
16 Grant Muncrief 3B-P So. 6-3 217 R-R Farmington, N.M.
17 Justin Kemp C-P Jr. 6-3 211 R-R Baxter Springs
18 Kevin Hall OF So. 5-10 180 S-R Springfield, Ill.
19 Aaron LaBrie P Fr. 6-4 200 L-L Sioux Falls, S.D.
20 Mitch Caster OF Jr. 6-2 189 R-R Wichita (Goddard)
21 Chance Sossamon INF-P So. 6-2 185 R-R Webb City, Mo.
22 Chris O’Brien 3B-C So. 6-0 222 S-R Tulsa
23 Preston Springer DH-1B Jr. 6-2 216 L-R Denton, Texas (Odessa College)
25 Johnny Coy UT Fr. 6-8 204 R-R St. Joseph, Mo.
26 Josh Smith P So. 6-3 193 L-L Pleasant Hill, Mo.
28 Garrett Bayliff OF Fr. 5-11 181 L-L Tuttle, Okla.
29 Cobey Guy P Sr. 6-3 243 R-R Harrah, Okla. (Ark.-Fort Smith)
31 Clint McKeever 1B-P Sr. 6-3 250 R-R Oklahoma City (Oklahoma St.)
32 Micah Green OF Fr. 6-2 214 R-R Aurora, Colo.
33 Cody Lassley UT Sr. 5-11 208 S-R Wichita (South)
34 Taylor Gilmore INF Sr. 6-4 190 R-R Wichita (Cloud County)
35 Brian Flynn P So. 6-8 249 L-L Owasso, Okla.
36 Tim Kelley P Jr. 6-6 225 R-R Tulsa
38 Erik Harbutz INF Fr. 6-0 170 R-R Bakersfield, Calif.
40 T.J. McGreevy P Fr. 6-2 244 R-R Topeka (Hayden)
41 Charlie Lowell P So. 6-4 234 L-L Wichita (Northwest)
42 Ryan Hege C So. 6-2 219 R-R Maize (Cowley)