Wichita State is traditionally not in a position to need encouraging words from its rivals. This season was far from traditional, so the words of Missouri State coach Keith Guttin apply.
Look at where we were a year ago.
After Guttin’s Bears eliminated WSU from the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, he reminded Shockers coach Todd Butler his 2014 team went 26-31 and finished sixth. Most of the that team returned in 2015 and the Bears won the MVC, hosted a regional and advanced to a super regional.
Butler won’t promise that kind of improvement after the Shockers went 26-33, the program’s first losing season since 1970. Given reasonable health, he is confident the program is moving in the right direction two seasons after he replaced coach Gene Stephenson.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get to postseason,” Butler said. “I just want a healthy team next year. Stay healthy in 2016.”
The Shockers finished fourth in the MVC for a second straight season. They struggled early in 2015, with 26 newcomers and facing a schedule ranked No. 32 nationally by Boydsworld.com and No. 44 by warrennolan.com. Injuries robbed the rotation of starters Sam Tewes and Willie Schwanke in late March. A loss at Kansas on April 21 dropped them to 14-26.
“The last two years have been pretty tough,” Butler said. “The first month of the season, we weren’t a very good team. We didn’t play catch well. We didn’t play bunt defenses well. Then we had the setback with the pitching staff.”
On April 24, the Shockers started a sweep of New Mexico and a finishing kick that convinces Butler the talent and experience is now on hand to win. WSU went 12-7 to finish the season with 10 of those wins over teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. All seven lossses came to MVC opponents Missouri State and Dallas Baptist, both nationally ranked and regional hosts.
“We should have experience back,” Butler said. “We brought in a lot of new players. That was tough, but we ended up playing well at the end. Now the third year, hopefully, we’ll have experience and understanding.”
Players pointed to several factors late in the season when the Shockers improved. They praised coaches for staying positive and pushing. In mid-April, the lineup stabilized and players knew their roles. By early May, the starting pitchers began to consistently work later into games and help the bullpen. The mid-April return of junior second baseman Tanner Kirk, one of WSU’s most experienced players, from injury improved the defense.
“We turned it around and we’re playing like a real team,” outfielder Sam Hilliard said before the MVC Tournament. “We had leadership. People didn’t give up. It shows.”
WSU finished with a .274 batting average, up slightly from last season, and 40 home runs, the program’s most since 2011. The ERA of 5.10 is the highest since the 1978 team compiled a 6.20 ERA in the program’s first season under Stephenson. The stats over the final 19 games look closer to satisfactory. WSU hit .297 with 17 home runs and 26 doubles in those games to average 6.1 runs. The ERA dropped to 4.68.
Those aren’t vintage Shocker numbers, but they indicate improvement and the potential for more.
“We looked like a really good team,” Butler said. “We played clean baseball. We pitched it. We played good defense.”
The professional draft begins Monday and any further optimism for 2016 is on hold until those results begin to shape the roster. It doesn’t appear the draft will hit the recruiting class hard. WSU isn’t likely to lose any current Shockers in the first three rounds. After that, much is unknown and WSU’s pitching rotation is the key area of concern.
Butler expects to lose junior center fielder Daniel Kihle, who hit .301 with four home runs, and starting pitcher Isaac Anderson.
Hilliard, who led WSU with a .335 batting average and 51 RBIs and hit eight home runs, is likely more attractive as a hitter than a pitcher. His late-season surge — he homered in four straight games in May — may raise his profile with scouts. Three of those game against Dallas Baptist’s well-regarded pitching staff, always a lure for scouts. First baseman Ryan Tinkham hit .333 with 10 home runs and a .576 slugging percentage. If both return, WSU’s offense is in solid shape and Hilliard’s potential as a pitcher is also important.
Schwanke, who missed most of the season with a torn lat muscle, is expected to rest and rehab most of the summer. He may get drafted and, if he goes to the Cape Cod League later in the summer, might tempt a pro team to make a push.
Tewes will also rest and rehab this summer to continue recovering from shoulder inflammation that shut off most of his sophomore season. If both return and are healthy, WSU’s rotation is also in solid shape. Sophomore Chase Williams, who threw WSU’s lone complete game, is also draft eligible. Freshman Jeb Bargfeldt started 12 games.
“(Tewes) should be good to go (in the fall),” Butler said. “Schwanke, if he gets through the draft, should be good to go.”
WSU signed 16 players last fall and Butler expects most to suit up for the Shockers. Louisiana outfielder Dayton Dugas is the high school player most likely to go in the early rounds.
Three questions for WSU
1. What will coach Todd Butler’s third team look like?
While much depends on the draft, the 2016 Shockers could be Butler’s first swing at coaching experienced collegians that he recruited. Coach Todd Butler wants to allocate roughly two-thirds of his 11.7 scholarships to pitchers and if they stay healthy, WSU could enjoy a return to previous pitching depth. Ten of the 16 newcomers signed last fall pitch. Butler and his coaches assembled his first recruiting class, one ranked No. 2 nationally by Collegiate Baseball last fall, with about six months to prepare. It will be interesting to see how the next class of newcomers performs after coaches had more time to evaluate and recruit the class of 2015. While Gene Stephenson-era holdovers such as Sam Tewes, Tanner Kirk and Mikel Mucha will play large roles, the Shockers are almost entirely created by the Butler staff.
2. Who gets the ball?
The Shockers might not pencil in their starting rotation until July 17, the deadline for drafted players to sign. WSU needs Tewes to stay healthy and some good fortune in the draft. A rotation that includes Tewes, Willie Schwanke, Chase Williams, Jeb Bargfeldt and Sam Hilliard would go a long way to easing the pain pitching coach Brent Kemnitz suffered this season.
3. Who hits leadoff?
Butler tried six hitters in the leadoff position and junior Daniel Kihle was the only one who enjoyed success. He is likely to be drafted, opening up the job again. Mucha, who hit .313 for the season and .412 over the final 19 games, is the first candidate. Sophomore shortstop Trey Vickers, who compiled a .400 on-base percentage in the final 19 games, might be another.