There was only ever one choice to fill the pitching coach vacancy at Wichita State.
Mike Pelfrey was always the No. 1 choice for baseball coach Todd Butler. Not only was he a former two-time All-American at Wichita State, but Pelfrey also pitched 12 years in the major leagues.
But most importantly, Pelfrey was a bridge to Wichita State’s storied past. From 2003-05 with Pelfrey, the Shockers won 149 games, three Missouri Valley Conference championships and played in three NCAA Regionals.
For a program still looking for its first postseason berth since 2013, Pelfrey’s experience could be invaluable.
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“The big thing for me is becoming one,” Butler said Tuesday as Pelfrey’s introductory news conference. “I think today with Mike Pelfrey joining Wichita State that we are finally one.”
Butler is charged with the monumental task of following Gene Stephenson’s 36-year, Hall of Fame career. But instead of trying to pretend to want to forge a new identity, Butler has made it a top priority in the past year to embrace the past as much as possible.
That’s why he invited Stephenson back into the fold last spring and why Butler wanted Stephenson and former pitching coach Brent Kemnitz in attendance for Tuesday’s news conference. Pelfrey was developed by Stephenson and Kemnitz and it was important to Butler to have someone like that on his coaching staff full-time.
“Who would not want to come to Wichita State to work with Mike Pelfrey to prepare for the next level?” Butler said.
“I have chills right now because I’ve never been with a guy in our dugout that has 12 years of major-league experience. He was around when it was knowing you’re going to win, instead of hoping you’re going to win. I think he’ll bring a big part of that back.”
Pelfrey referenced his time with Kemnitz and how he was a master at the mental side of the game for his pitchers. That’s something Pelfrey will try to replicate in his new role at WSU.
“Maybe some players here are unsure of themselves or not quite totally confident in themselves,” Pelfrey said. “That was the thing Brent was so good at: bringing a young player in here, building him up and making him believe he was a world-beater.
“This team is extremely talented and when you have that ability and you buy in and you start believing in yourself, you can do anything in this game. When you believe in yourself, you can do anything in this game. I’m going to build these guys up and tell them how good they are and these guys are going to take off.”
Seeing Pelfrey become a coach after his playing career doesn’t surprise Kemnitz. Even before he mentioned to Kemnitz two years ago about his interest in becoming a coach one day, Kemnitz knew Pelfrey had the make-up of a coach.
“As a pitching coach, you’ve got to figure out what makes each guy click,” Kemnitz said. “Everybody is different and it takes time. It’s every day and you’ve got to figure out which buttons to push. The difference-maker for Mike is he has a great feel. He gets along with people. He’s a great communicator. Even though he’s a 12-year big-leaguer, he’s grounded.
“I always felt like he had a special talent and he needed to stay in the game, so I’m so happy for him and for Wichita State. This is a slam dunk.”
Butler only had one stipulation for Pelfrey before he took the job.
“He cannot stand next to me for the national anthem,” Butler joked about Pelfrey’s 6-foot-7 stature.
For Pelfrey, he doesn’t care where he stands for the anthem at Eck Stadium. He just wants that electric atmosphere that was present when he was on the mound in Wichita to return.
“That’s what Wichita State deserves and that’s what the Wichita community deserves,” Pelfrey said. “I remember growing up and this was the place to be. Hopefully we can get that back here, the support back here, the alumni back here and get this thing rolling again.”