It’s not like the Wichita State baseball team could go out and make a bunch of trades or sign a key free agent after last season’s 26-33 records. That’s not how college baseball works.
The Shockers and their coach, Todd Butler, are banking on new recruits, comebacks from injuries and added experience to overcome the worst record since Gene Stephenson resurrected the baseball program in 1978.
Wichita State has won one Missouri Valley Conference baseball championship since 2009. In 28 seasons from 1981-2008, the Shockers won 22, including 14 in a row from 1987-2000.
The 1989 College World Series championship seems like it happened a million years ago. WSU hasn’t been to the CWS since 1996.
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Yet thanks to all of Stephenson’s success — five CWS appearances during a six-year stretch from 1988-93 — the bar remains high. And Butler has to figure out a way to make a leap.
There is apathy that a shiny, big, new videoboard can’t resolve alone. This is a huge season for the team and the coach, who doesn’t need to check the new board to know the score.
Wichita State got off to a 3-9 start in 2015. The Shockers did win eight of their next 11, but then lost 14 of 17 to fall to 14-26. A 12-7 finish at least gave hope for a better 2016.
So does the return of pitchers Sam Tewes and Willie Schwanke, who missed most of last season with injuries. They’re WSU’s 1-2 starters so losing them caused a mad scramble that resulted in a cover-your-eyes team ERA of 5.10. Wichita State pitchers allowed 540 hits and walked 274 batters in 508 innings.
What has to happen for 2016 to be significantly better?
A lot, actually. But it starts with Tewes and Schwanke, whose health and effectiveness would allow everything else on the pitching side, theoretically, to fall into place.
The lineup has a nice anchor in first baseman Ryan Tinkham, whose 1.022 on-base plus slugging percentage last season lessened the suffering. Tinkham batted .333 with 10 homers and had a .446 on-base percentage.
The question becomes: Who else will step up to add fuel to Tinkham’s flaming stats?
The hope is that third baseman Chase Rader, who struggled with an inner-ear infection that hampered his vision and balance last season, is over all of that. He was 9 for 19 in the Shockers’ first five games last season before starting to slip.
Rader is 6-foot, 215 pounds. Tinkham is 6-5, 215. I mention this because Butler and his staff have recruited one of the largest college baseball teams I’ve ever seen.
Outfielders Travis Young (6-2, 210), Keenan Eaton (6-1, 215), Zach Redking (6-2, 220) and Dayton Dugas (6-3, 225) must be putting a dent in the athletic department’s food budget. So, too, must catchers Gunnar Troutwine (6-2, 225) and Noah Croft (6-3, 225) and the biggest of them all, freshman outfielder Alec Bohm (6-5, 240).
That doesn’t even include the pitchers, many of whom also stand big and tall.
Size doesn’t equal wins, necessarily, but the Shockers are imposing in their uniforms.
It’ll be interesting to see how many of WSU’s newcomers push veterans for playing time. The best thing for the Shockers would be for those returning players to feel some heat. Make that a lot of heat, because unless they do it’s difficult to imagine the kind of improvement Butler is hoping for.
The Shockers so many areas in which they must improve, but it starts with pitching. And, really, it starts with starting pitching, especially Tewes and Schwanke.
Tewes was a freshman All-American two seasons ago, when he was 8-3 with a 3.27 ERA. He was pitching even better than that last season before being shut down with shoulder inflammation.
Schwanke was sidelined after seven appearances, three of them starts.
If the pitching is better, the lineup must also be better. Of late, there have been too many weak links, too many opportunities for opposing pitchers to work around the best in WSU’s lineup. A key could be Troutwine, coming off an impressive freshman season behind the plate. He batted fourth in the opener, a spot behind Tinkham.
Finally, the Shockers have to be better defensively. They were not good in 2015, committing 69 errors in 59 games. Rader, Trey Vickers and Tanner Kirk, who started at third, shortstop and second in the opener, had 29 of those miscues.
Butler liked what he saw during the fall and again after the Shockers resumed practice in January. He thinks he has a team capable of challenging for a conference championship.
Considering where Wichita State is coming from, 35 wins would be a reasonable expectation. Anything more would be gravy. Anything less would be disappointing.