Bob Lutz

Reality sets in for Wichita State baseball

I have heard the sky is falling out at Eck Stadium, that the baseball Shockers just don't have it anymore and that Wichita State's days as a powerhouse are over.

Then I think back to two seasons ago, when the Shockers were within a win of going to the College World Series and I figure out that the sky, after all, isn't falling. It's just a little darker than usual.

Something is amiss at Wichita State. How else do you explain the team's 53-41 record since the start of last season? Sure, injuries and academic issues have played a huge part this season. And several players the Shockers were counting on to replenish the roster after the 2008 season scurried off to professional baseball instead.

Those are all legitimate reasons why WSU has backed up a few steps in the past couple of years.

It's tougher in college baseball these days. The Shockers were able to catch recruiting rivals off guard back in the day and find gems that nobody else could uncover. More schools are paying attention to baseball, which means more schools are aware of the types of players who used to make WSU so formidable.

Gene Stephenson warned us of this when he took the Oklahoma job for a day back in 2005, that the glory days might be gone forever because of college baseball's changing landscape. He was right.

WSU will never have a run like the one from 1988-93, when the Shockers played in five of six College World Series. There's a more hit-and-miss feel to WSU baseball these days. Some seasons will be good, others not so much. And once in a while, the Shockers will have a team capable of making a deep postseason run.

It's simple, really. This is the way it is for almost every college baseball program nowadays because of parity. More schools are really trying to make it to Omaha, which equates to a drop-off in dynasty-like programs.

That said, I was curious to look closely at Wichita State's non-conference records over the years. In tracking records, I looked at the Shockers' legitimate Division I opponents. For instance, North Florida, Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast and South Alabama count on this year's schedule; North Dakota and Central Arkansas do not.

The Shockers are just 8-10 against such opponents this season after going 6-12 last season. Since 2004, Wichita State is 80-82 against this class of non-conference opponent.

Do such numbers have significance? That's up to you to decide, but I do think they shed some light on things, especially when you consider just how dominant the Shockers used to be against like opponents.

During its impressive stretch of CWS appearances from 1988-93, WSU was 166-65 against its best non-conference opponents, a .719 winning percentage. That's comparable, at least, to the .804 winning percentage the Shockers had against the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference in those seasons.

It didn't used to make a difference which teams WSU was playing, the Shockers were usually going to win. And give Wichita State credit for always playing a challenging, if not downright bare-knuckles-hard non-conference schedule.

The Shockers have never shied away from competition, but these days they aren't cleaning up in mid-week games they way they used to.

Wichita State's Missouri Valley Conference record since the 2000 season is 200-82 (.794). The Shockers record against their best non-conference opponents in that span is 138-124 (.527).

The difference is stark.

There are those who blame Stephenson and his coaching staff for what is perceived as the decline of WSU baseball. But I ask those who chide Stephenson: Who would do better?

Sometime — and it won't be long considering Stephenson is in his mid-60s — a change at the top will be made. But this isn't the time. Stephenson is the architect of Wichita State baseball and as the builder, he deserves every opportunity to fix the things that go wrong.

And over 30-plus years, things do go wrong. With one look at this season's team, it's not difficult to tell the Shockers don't have the talent level they've had in the past. That's not surprising, again, given the increase in competition for those players.

Kansas and Kansas State have dramatically improved because more resources have gone into their programs.

The explosion of Big 12 baseball has created a cutthroat competition not only on the playing field, but on the recruiting trails. The Shockers don't have the same cache they once had and it shows.

Wichita State will never have another run like it did during the late-1980s and into the early 1990s. Those were difference times. Great times, but different. And they're gone.