After losing 10 players to Major League Baseball’s amateur draft last summer, Wichita State coach Todd Butler was asked what he’s most encouraged with on his young team for this season.
Before answering, Butler corrected the question.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a young team,” the Shockers baseball coach said. “We might not have the third pick in the draft or a second-rounder or five top-10-rounders, but you have to remember it took time for those guys to work to get to those spots. Now we have guys who have worked behind those guys, so they’ve seen it. This is our second group that’s coming up now.”
So the Shockers take a next-man-up mentality into this season, which begins this weekend in Phoenix at the Angels College Classic. WSU plays Grand Canyon on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m., then meets No. 5 Stanford at 8:30 p.m. Their final game is against Pepperdine on Sunday at 11 a.m.
WSU, which was picked to finish seventh in the nine-team American Athletic Conference’s preseason poll, must replace the production of six of its top hitters and six of its top pitchers.
“We might not have the superstar who is 6-foot-4 or 6-5, but we have a lot of 6-1 guys who we think can put up similar numbers,” Butler said. “Those guys are gone, so now the torch is being passed.”
WSU’s lone established star is 6-foot infielder Luke Ritter, who decided to return for his senior season after being drafted in the 37th round by the Minnesota Twins. He led the team with a .341 batting average last season and earned first-team all-conference honors in the American.
After being part of an upperclassmen-heavy roster last season, Ritter is one of just four seniors and 10 upperclassmen for WSU this season.
“It was a tough decision because playing pro ball is my dream,” Ritter said. “But the situation with the Twins just didn’t work out. We could never find an agreement. I’m happy with where I’m at and I’m happy to come back and get my degree and how everything worked out. Now I’m focused on helping this team win and maybe I’ll get drafted a little higher next time.”
On a team stocked with talent — if unproven talent — Ritter’s consistency is crucial. After playing mostly second base last season, he is moving to third base this season as Butler looks to solidify his infield with the best gloves.
“Luke Ritter is pound-for-pound the most complete player we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Butler said. “He does everything. If you ask him to bunt, he gets it down. If you ask him to hit and run, he hits it on the ground. The game just comes natural to him. He’s so important to this team and I have to talk to him to make sure he’s not trying to put the whole team on his shoulders. He just needs to keep being the same Luke Ritter.”
Senior Jordan Boyer returns to shortstop, while junior Alex Jackson is moving to second base. Junior Noah Croft and sophomore Ross Cadena will split time at catcher, while senior Mason O’Brien and sophomore Garrett Kocis will do the same at first base. Butler is excited about the improvement of junior Jacob Katzfey in center field; sophomore Paxton Wallace has moved to right field and freshman David VanVooren has played well in left.
It’s unlikely WSU repeats its home-run numbers (57) from last season with the bulk of that production graduated, though Ritter, Wallace, O’Brien and Croft have some pop. Instead, the Shockers will look to capitalize on a much faster lineup this season.
“This year we’re very athletic,” Ritter said. “I think this team is going to steal a lot of bases. We’re very good defensively. We have tremendous speed in the outfield with good arms, then we’ve got some good gloves in the infield with Jordan and Alex up the middle.”
Pitching is likely to decide if WSU can move up in a conference that has finished as Division I’s fourth-strongest in back-to-back seasons. Last season, the Shockers’ pitching staff had a 4.86 earned-run average in conference play, which ranked seventh in the American.
Senior Clayton McGinness will start opening day for the Shockers. He’ll be followed in the rotation by junior Preston Snavely, freshman Ryan Stuempfig and junior Tommy Barnhouse. McGinness, Snavely and Barnhouse all pitched for WSU last season, while Stuempfig was recovering from Tommy John surgery in a redshirt season.
Junior-college transfer Mitchell Walters will be the team’s closer, but he is currently injured. Sophomore Alex Segal is likely the first out of the bullpen with a trio of freshmen, Aaron Haase, Connery Peters and Calvin Marley, throwing the later innings. Sophomore Liam Eddy, freshman Cal Carver, freshman Miller Pleimann, sophomore Jacob Lindemann and sophomore Tristan McCraw will also be in the bullpen.
“Pitching is the No. 1 key in this conference,” Butler said. “We were better last year, but if you look at conference play, we kind of dipped off. We have to be better and I think (pitching coach and former major-leaguer) Mike Pelfrey has been doing a fantastic job so far. Not many players get to work with a guy with his accolades. Mike is going to be a great attraction for pitchers to come here in the future.”
WSU hasn’t been to a NCAA Regional since 2013, a five-year drought that Butler and his payers are very much aware of. As always, that’s the focus for how they want this upcoming season to end.
“Making the postseason has been our goal ever since I got here,” Ritter said. “That would mean so much and we’re doing everything we can to get back there. That’s what we’ve been working toward for four years now.”
WSU Baseball Roster
WSU Baseball Schedule
Note: all times are p.m. unless otherwise noted
Friday — *Grand Canyon, 7
Saturday — *Grand Canyon, 5; Stanford, 8:30
Sunday — *Pepperdine, 11 a.m.
22 — **Stephen F. Austin, 11 a.m.
23 — **UT Arlington, 11 a.m.; Stephen F. Austin, 3
24 — **UT Arlington, 11 a.m.
1 — Creighton, 3
2 — Creighton, 2
3 — Creighton, 1
5 — at Oklahoma State, 4
8 — at Texas Tech, 6:30
9 — at Texas Tech, 2
10 — at Texas Tech, 1
12 — Oral Roberts, 6
15 — Rhode Island, 6
16 — Rhode Island, 2
17 — Rhode Island, 1
20 — Kansas, 6
22 — Memphis, 6
23 — Memphis, 2
24 — Memphis, 1
26 — Omaha, 6
27 — Kansas State, 6
29 — Bethune-Cookman, noon
30 — Bethune-Cookman, 2
31 — Bethune-Cookman, 1
2 — at Kansas, 6
5 — at Tulane, 6:30
6 — at Tulane, 6:30
7 — at Tulane, 1
10 — Oklahoma State, 6
12 — Houston, 6
13 — Houston, 2
14 — Houston, noon
18 — UCF, 6
19 — UCF, 6
20 — UCF, 10:30 a.m.
23 — Oklahoma, 6
26 — at Cincinnati, 5
27 — at Cincinnati, 3
28 — at Cincinnati, noon
30 — Missouri State, 6
1 — at Kansas State, 6
3 — at Connecticut, 6
4 — at Connecticut, 1
5 — at Connecticut, noon
7 — at Missouri State, 6:30
10 — East Carolina, 6
11 — East Carolina, 2
12 — East Carolina, 1
14 — at Oral Roberts, 6
16 — at South Florida, 6
17 — at South Florida, 5:30
18 — at South Florida, noon
21-26 — AAC Championships in Clearwater, Fla.
* Angels College Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
** UT Arlington Classic in Arlington, Texas