My sense is that Wichita State baseball fans, many of them at least, want to at once pat Gene Stephenson on the back for a career well done but at the same time kick him in the pants for a run of mediocrity that will almost certainly keep the Shockers out of the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.
WSU lost a 7-0 snooze-fest to Missouri State on Wednesday afternoon in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at Springfield, Mo. The Shockers were unceremoniously dumped out of the double-elimination tournament in two games. Two miserable games during which nothing went right for WSU, especially its offense.
You’d be right to point a stern finger at Shocker starting pitchers Josh Smith and Kris Gardner, both of whom suffered through difficult first innings and helped dig Wichita State’s hole. But this offense continues to baffle.
The Shockers scored three runs against Southern Illinois during Tuesday’s 6-3 loss, all in the sixth inning. In 17 other innings, Wichita State was held scoreless and failed to produce an extra-base hit in the tournament.
Going into Wednesday’s game, Wichita State ranked 163rd nationally in on-base percentage and 107th in slugging percentage. There were 125 teams with a better batting average. After being two-hit by Missouri State, WSU’s offensive numbers sunk lower.
I know offense all over college baseball has been marginalized because of new bat restrictions, but everybody is playing by the same rules and with the same bats. The ranking of Shocker hitters in these categories cannot be ignored.
Neither can Wichita State’s won-loss record, which since getting to within one game of a College World Series appearance in 2008 is 145-97. Considering the Shockers had won in the neighborhood of 75 percent of their games in the 30 seasons previous, a .599 winning percentage isn’t so hot.
I wrote a few weeks ago that a change is needed, and that’s something I still believe. I think the Shockers have gotten stale and that much of the fan base – a far larger chunk that WSU administrators should be comfortable with – has started to question Stephenson for a variety of reasons.
Is it time for a change at the top?
I don’t think it’s blasphemous to consider. But, obviously, it’s a tricky dynamic because Stephenson was at the forefront of the tremendous success enjoyed by the Shockers for three decades, including seven trips to the College World Series. Stephenson built Shocker baseball from the ground up.
But that ground is less stable now. There has been no CWS for Wichita State since 1996. College baseball has changed dramatically since then; more universities are pumping up their baseball budgets and building new facilities. Eck Stadium, once one of the top three or four facilities in college baseball, has probably fallen a few spots.
Still, though, WSU treats baseball well, from facilities to salaries for the coaching staff. No doubt, it’s tougher to recruit these days. But “tougher” doesn’t mean impossible, and there’s no question that the Shockers’ recruiting, especially when it comes to position players, has been less successful.
Brent Kemnitz’s pitching staff remains a constant, despite some iffy moments in Springfield this week, especially from the two starters. The Shockers have always been able to pitch, though, and while there have been seasons in which that pitching has been a little up and down, it has been amazingly consistent.
Hitting is and has been the Shockers’ major bugaboo for a while now. And while it’s easy to blame the bats, the difficulty of recruiting and the growing popularity of baseball in the Sun Belt and the SEC specifically, it’s also fair to blame the Wichita State hitters and those who are coaching them.
Even with bats that restrict the kind of hit-crazy game that college baseball used to be, there’s no shortage of offense in the game. According to NCAA statistics, 27 teams are hitting .300 or better. It’s not like you can’t do damage with these bats.
During the past four seasons, Wichita State’s team batting averages have been .275, .296, .280 and, this season, .277. And if you take away a robust four-game offensive explosion against North Dakota in March, when the Shockers scored 62 runs in four games, the team’s batting average falls to .266.
Something is wrong here and instead of pretending it isn’t, Stephenson needs to figure out what to do about it. The time for business as usual has passed.
There are other issues with the Shockers. Base running and fundamentals in general have become shoddy. While the defense was better this season than it was in 2011, there is still improvement to be made. And the pitching staff isn’t without fault, either. The Shockers lacked dominant starting pitching this season, which is a rarity.
Mostly, though, Wichita State’s issues are about a lack of offense. This team just doesn’t hit.
Through all of the muddle and different theories about what’s wrong with Shocker baseball, that simple fact cannot be denied.