Bob Lutz

Baseball reels in Shockers

Everywhere I go these days, I get this question: Think Gene will retire?

The Gene they're talking about has a last name, Stephenson, and a resume that includes 1,724 wins, the second-most in college baseball history. He has taken Wichita State to the College World Series seven times and won a championship in 1989.

Yet the question persists, and sometimes it's not even a question. It's a statement, something like this: "Gene needs to go.''

I'm mystified by the sentiment and my gut tells me it's just a minority that likes to rattle the cages. But the anti-Gene crowd is growing in numbers, fueled by a couple of lackluster seasons in a row.

The Shockers didn't make it to an NCAA regional tournament for only the third time since 1986 and some fans are restless. Again, it's difficult to determine how many.

Wichita State didn't have much of a case to make for getting to a regional this season, despite a 41-19 record that looks better than it was. Those 41 wins were fine, of course, but the 19 losses were ugly.

The Shockers lost games by scores of 13-5, 19-0, 7-1, 8-1, 14-0, 18-8, 10-3 and, against Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game Saturday at Eck Stadium, 17-8.

Wichita State was outscored 177-64 in its defeats, during which it batted .215 and had a 8.20 ERA. The cherry on top was some atrocious defense, some of the worst played by a Shocker team.

In its 41 wins, WSU batted .331 and had a 2.82 team ERA. The discrepancy is alarming because Stephenson's teams have historically not had such wild swings from good to bad and vice versa.

I was surprised at a quote I read from Stephenson in Tuesday's newspaper. Discussing the reasons for the regional snub, he said: "We lost a lot of mid-week games, frankly, because our pitching wasn't very good during that stretch.''

He's right. At times the pitching wasn't very good. The Shockers lacked their normal depth, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Finding reliable arms was a struggle, for sure, one pitching coach Brent Kemnitz never quite conquered.

But the hitters were just as much to blame, running hot and cold all season. Wichita State looked like the Shockers of old when they got on an offensive roll, but too often those rolls were interrupted by slumps and poor situational hitting.

WSU was a better offensive team this season than in 2009, when the Shockers were 30-27. Still, WSU batted only .296 as a team. The 4.45 ERA, meanwhile, was the worst for the Shockers since a 4.68 ERA in 2000.

Yet pitching remains a constant for this program, much more so than hitting.

The Shockers failed to hit .300 as a team for the fourth time in six seasons, finishing at .296. That's a telling statistic considering Wichita State batted .300 or better in 27 of the previous 28 seasons.

Offense was a constant for the Shockers, just as pitching was, for years. From 1980-89, WSU batted .335 and averaged 9.53 runs.

From 1990-99, the average was .328 and Wichita State averaged 8.99 runs.

But since 2000, the Shockers have batted .303 and averaged 6.95 runs. Those are significant drops and help explain why Wichita State hasn't been as successful, at least relatively, in the past 15 years.

The Shockers' pitching, meanwhile, hasn't suffered a long-term drop-off.

From 1980-89, WSU's team ERA was 3.78. It was a minuscule 3.47 from 1990-99 and has remained steady, at 3.59, since 2000.

Of course, it's all about wins and losses and the Shockers aren't as automatic as they used to be.

From 1980-89, which included a national championship at the end of the decade, Wichita State had a winning percentage of .770 (573-171). From 1990-99, a decade in which the Shockers made four College World Series appearances, they were 543-144, a .790 winning percentage.

Since 2000, Wichita State's record is 452-226 (.667), one most teams in college baseball would kill for but markedly down from where the Shockers had been the previous 20 years.

What does it all mean?

As has been stated many times, college baseball is a different animal now. More schools and athletic departments are pouring more and more money into facilities and budget. The southern schools have always ruled college baseball and their grasp has not loosened in the least.

It was once taken for granted that Wichita State would dominate teams like Kansas and Kansas State. That's not the case now; both schools from the Big 12 are taking baseball more seriously.

Eck Stadium still ranks as one of the top college baseball facilities in the country, but many schools have gained ground on the Shockers over the years. Wichita State, meanwhile, doesn't have any more deep pockets in which to reach.

Recruiting is more difficult for Wichita State. Before the days of high-level camps and traveling summer teams, the Shockers were great at finding players other schools weren't flushing out. Now those players are flushed out for everyone to see, often at an early age.

It's disappointing that Wichita State didn't make a regional this season, but not surprising. The Shockers lacked big wins, but weren't at a loss for demoralizing defeats.

You can put the blame where you want. I'm going with the notion that it's a lot harder for a school like Wichita State to be a baseball powerhouse in this day and age. Gene or no Gene.