The biggest fight I had with former Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz was during the coaching search in 2013. I wrote that while keeping Kemnitz on to work with the next coach made sense in many ways, it also came with risks.
He disagreed, strongly. I should not have found that surprising, at a time when he was trying to keep WSU baseball running during its most stressful period since 1978 and negotiate a contract extension.
He yelled. I explained and yelled back. It went away soon, like most disagreements do with coaches.
Keeping Kemnitz made sense for the obvious reasons — he is good at his job and he could keep the Shocker part of Shocker baseball strong to help a new coach replace Gene Stephenson.
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The downside came into play if (1) his presence eliminated coaches from the search because they wanted to hire their own staff, or (2) if Kemnitz’s methods from 30-plus seasons at WSU didn’t mesh with the new guy.
Those downsides, while real, seemed minimal in comparison with the upside and that is the bet then-WSU athletic director Eric Sexton placed in 2013 when he kept Kemnitz.
“He is an important bridge to our past that allows us to move forward,” Sexton said in 2013. “We are going to look for the highest-quality coach to move us to that next chapter and I believe that Brent Kemnitz is a key component with any head coach that is going to come in here.”
On Monday, Kemnitz resigned to end the three-year experiment.
That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea in 2013.
It means it didn’t work and it’s unfortunate because Kemnitz departs with the pitching staff struggling and coach Todd Butler hasn’t operated the past three seasons with his staff running at peak efficiency. All head coaches, as interim athletic director Darron Boatright said Friday, must choose their assistants if they are to be given the best chance to succeed.
There’s been a lot said and written about the differences in approach between the two — calling pitches from the dugout, the emphasis on recruiting power arms who might need more mechanical tutoring than Kemnitz, who specializes in the mental side, typically groomed during most of his tenure. Regardless of all that, the bottom line is pitching suffered the past two seasons and it needs to get fixed for Shocker baseball to prosper.
▪ What will Butler look for in the next pitching coach?
He declined to get specific.
Judging by his other hires — assistant Brian Walker and director of operations Scott Gurss — he will go for a young coach with whom he has a relationship. That’s all obvious stuff. WSU needs someone who can get the most out a large group of inexperienced pitchers — six freshmen on the current roster and 10 newcomers (eight freshmen) in the recruiting class.
Returners Cody Tyler, a second-team All-MVC pick, Zach Lewis and Clayton McGinness all started numerous weekend games after injuries derailed Sam Tewes and Willie Schwanke (for a second season). The last time WSU had a solid weekend pitching rotation with Friday starters capable of winning 2-1 games was 2014, when A.J. Ladwig (1.54 ERA), Cale Elam (2.22 ERA) and Tewes (3.27 ERA) made all the Valley starts except one.
That’s the consistency needed to compete in the MVC. While the injuries to Tewes and Schwanke, both legit top-of-the-rotation guys, may have forever altered the future of Shocker baseball, injuries happen and teams recover.
“I’m going to take my time and try to find the right guy,” Butler said. “I’m in no rush.”
▪ WSU hasn’t had an MVC Pitcher of the Year since 2011 (Charlie Lowell). Lowell is the last Shocker pitcher drafted in the top 10 rounds (also in 2011). Ladwig (drafted in the 11th round in 2014) is the only Shocker starting pitcher named first-team All-MVC from 2012-16.
Lowell (2011) and Jordan Cooper (2009, 2010) are the most recent pitchers to land on All-America teams.
So the Shocker pitching resume could use some updating, and not all the decline came during Butler’s tenure.
▪ We will look back on the past four years and say that Stephenson and Kemnitz went out in ways consistent with their personalities.
Stephenson, true to his fiery and stubborn nature, went out fighting and his relationship with the program is zilch. It took that kind of guy to build a program out of nothing, while it’s unfortunate it came to such a bad end.
Kemnitz, true to his optimistic personality, wants to remain close to the program and is trying to rally fans around Butler.
That contrast fueled Shocker baseball for 30-plus years.
▪ If you’re interested in tracking possible candidates, here are three names for a pitching coach worth considering, all coming from sources outside the WSU program:
Marc Rardin, coach at Iowa Western Community College for the past 14 seasons. One of his son’s middle name is “Maddux,” which seems to indicate a familiarity with pitching.
Parker Bangs, pitching coach at Presbyterian College. Bangs coached Tyler and reliever Tyler Jones during the summer in Wilmington (N.C.) and Butler has spoken favorably of their progress there.
Jack Giese, former pitching coach at Oklahoma. He spent much of his coaching career in Texas and Oklahoma, both areas in which Butler enjoys many recruiting ties. Giese left OU in 2013.