Bob Lutz

Offense is Shocker baseball's top priority

In the 30-plus years I've known and written about Gene Stephenson, I know this: He loves hitters.

Stephenson built Wichita State's baseball program around bats. Those early teams could rake and it's a tradition he's embraced.

Pitching and defense are important, sure, and Stephenson has built some of his best teams that way. But he loves a team that hits.

Last season, the Shockers had a team batting average of .275. By college baseball standards, that's anemic. Only one regular batted .300 or better. The team hit 33 homers in 57 games and had a paltry slugging percentage of .387.

True, there were bullpen problems that cost WSU numerous games. But the reason the Shockers were 30-27, the worst record of the Stephenson era, was because their hitters didn't hit.

Enough of that.

There's a debate going on about whether the Shockers should go with big sticks at third base and left field this season, which begins Friday against North Florida in Mobile, Ala., or stress defense.

I think I know how Stephenson will vote.

Wichita State needs thumpers. Outside of first baseman Clint McKeever, who drove in 43 runs and had 25 extra-base hits last season, thump was almost non-existent.

That's why junior college transfer Preston Springer has been anointed as the Shockers' DH. He hits. He can leave his glove in his dorm room for all Stephenson cares.

That's why last season's Missouri Valley Conference newcomer of the year Travis Bennett is going to likely start the season in left field. He hits. The former junior college All-American batted .338 at Northern Iowa last season, then transferred to WSU when the Panthers dropped baseball.

Bennett probably isn't as good an outfielder as some others in the mix, but his bat can be a difference-maker.

That's why Johnny Coy is getting a strong look at third base and in the outfield. He has the potential to hit. The 6-foot-8 Coy is a mixed bag defensively, but he has pop and, thus, he'll get an opportunity.

"We got into a lot of problems last year because we didn't have very good players,'' Stephenson said. "We couldn't score enough runs to ever have a safe lead because we had no bullpen. We still had a winning season, we made the NCAA Tournament, but it was a struggle beyond belief.''

Stephenson likes this season's team because the offensive upside is higher. A lot higher.

So when he has to decide whether he's going to plug a plus hitter-minus defender into the lineup or go with a plus defender-minus hitter, he's pulled to go with offense.

But not always with the blessing of WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who likes the ball to be caught.

"As a pitching guy, you can't hide guys defensively,'' Kemnitz said. "The ball always finds you. So when you try to put those kind of guys in left field, at third base or at first base, that's laughable. The ball will find you when you try to hide somebody.''

The Shockers, the plan goes, have all-around players to man shortstop (Tyler Grimes), second base (Will Baez), first base (McKeever) and catcher (Cody Lassley or Chris O'Brien).

They're also set in center field (Kevin Hall) and right (Ryan Jones).

Third base and left field are the puzzles. Bennett will get the first crack in left while freshman Erik Harbutz, from Wichita Northwest, has separated himself just enough to be the guy at third base.

It's a compromise, of sorts. Harbutz has been outstanding defensively in workouts, though not as consistent offensively as some others. Bennett, meanwhile, has impressed the coaches mostly with his bat, not his glove.

Hitter vs. defender. It's a debate as old as baseball.

"I think it depends on how big a discrepancy there is,'' Kemnitz said. "If a guy is hitting .450 with 15 home runs, you're going to try and find a place to hide him defensively.

"It's the old plus-minus system. Is he going to drive in more than he lets in?''

Kemnitz doesn't fill out the lineup card, nor does he want to. But if he did, he said he'd go with the glove guy over the bat guy.

"Gene is more of a hitting guy,'' Kemnitz said. "It's his right to get with the offensive guy. But if I throw enough fits, it may sway him a little bit.''

Kemnitz also realizes his starting pitchers — again a strength of the team — need to have more run support. Last season, Jordan Cooper (2.78), Tim Kelley (2.86) and Charlie Lowell (2.95) had ERAs below 3.00, but were a combined 19-12.

The Shockers' issues last season were many, but two stuck out: lack of offense and a short bullpen.

Left-handers Logan Hoch and Tyler Fleming and right-hander Grant Muncrief have recovered from injuries and the bullpen is again deep.

Meanwhile, Stephenson has addressed the offense. Which means bats, where necessary, over gloves. Who can blame him?