The journey back to the top of the college baseball world has been a circuitous one, and probably slower than anticipated, for Wichita State.
They’ve been to just one regional since the 2009 season, in 2013, Gene Stephenson’s final year as head coach, but technically speaking, that trip was later vacated. Three of the last four seasons of Stephenson’s tenure were void of postseason appearances, and the first four seasons of head coach Todd Butler’s tenure at the helm have ended without trips to a regional.
The Shockers’ road to being a national power once again will continue beyond 2018, but there is plenty of reason to suggest that 2018 might, at the very least, mark a return to postseason contention for the program.
The two biggest reasons for this type of optimism around Eck Stadium are named Greyson Jenista and Alec Bohm, a couple of productive veteran players who will be the cornerstones of the Wichita State lineup.
The former is a career .323/.421/.493 hitter with 22 doubles, 14 home runs, 73 RBI, and nearly as many walks (63) as strikeouts (73) in two seasons. Primarily a corner outfielder and first baseman to this point, Jenista is looking to add center field to the list of his positions in 2018, giving him uncommon defensive versatility. The latter is a .304/.368/.506 career hitter with 26 doubles, 17 home runs, and 70 RBI over two seasons.
One of the two led the Shockers in just about every major offensive category in 2017, and nothing they did over the summer suggests they’re going to slow down. Each enjoyed a star turn in the Cape Cod League, with Bohm finishing second in the league in batting average at .351 and Jenista being named the MVP of the league.
For all of the reasons above, the pair also happens to be the kind of elite MLB prospects that WSU got very used to producing once upon a time, but hasn’t produced with nearly as much regularity of late.
Together, they give the Shockers the best one-two punch they’ve had in the lineup in several years, and combined with some of the other returning starters, it shapes up to be the most explosive lineup the program has had in recent memory. Also back are Trey Vickers and Jordan Boyer, who hit .296 and .295, respectively, in 2017, Dayton Dugas, who has incredible power potential, and veterans like Gunnar Troutwine and Luke Ritter.
Of course, offense hasn’t really been the biggest issue for Wichita State recently, as the pitching has backslid more in recent years. After putting up a 3.43 team ERA in 2014, the staff had a 5.10 ERA in 2015 and a 5.97 ERA in 2016, with 2015 and 2016 becoming the two highest team ERA years since 1978, Stephenson’s first season on the job, and WSU’s first season playing baseball after an eight-year layoff.
But after the 2016 season, Butler made a change and brought in Mike Steele to be the team’s new pitching coach, and the results were impressive from the jump, as the team ERA dropped by more than a run, to 4.75, in 2017.
There are pieces to replace on the pitching staff, most notably workhorse starting pitcher Zach Lewis and top reliever Reagan Biechler, but with what he’s already accomplished at WSU and with his previous stint as the pitching coach at Long Beach State, Steele is considered one of the best in the game at what he does, giving the team reason for optimism on the mound, even with the attrition.
Making things a bit more interesting is the fact that the 2018 season will mark the program’s first as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
The downside to that is that it’s a much more competitive conference from top to bottom. The MVC has a couple of marquee programs in Missouri State and Dallas Baptist, but the depth in that league isn’t nearly what it is in the American.
Take 2015, for example. That was a banner year for the Valley, as they had MSU and DBU hosting regionals, and a third team, Bradley, inside the top 25 of the RPI. One other team, Indiana State, was inside the RPI top 100. That same season, the American had all but one team, Cincinnati, inside the top 100 of the RPI. They had just one, Houston, inside the top 25, but there was much more depth.
That means the Shockers can’t expect many off-weeks over the course of the season. There might have been some soft spots in the schedule in the MVC, but there won’t really be now.
The flip side of that, though, is that it puts the Shockers into much better position to secure an at-large bid by virtue of putting together a quality season from start to finish.
In conference play in the Valley, you could only count on a couple of series per season being real positive game-changers as far as RPI goes, and there were several more series that could potentially affect you negatively if you slipped up.
It should be the inverse in the American. You might have one or two series that could serve as RPI land mines if you lose them, but for the most part, you’ll get nothing but RPI-positive weekend series in league play. In a system where avoiding bad losses is just as important as collecting quality wins, that’s a huge difference.
If Wichita State’s considerable offensive talent plays up to its potential, Mike Steele continues to work his magic with the pitching staff, and the team is able to pile up wins, the schedule will be such that the Shockers could very well find themselves in the postseason discussion come May.
It’s premature for the Wichita State faithful to start making plans to go to Omaha for the first time in more than two decades, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that the 2018 season will mark a decided step back in the right direction.