Fall Report: Wichita StateFall Report
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing between a program and its skipper than Eric Wedge at Wichita State. Before his MLB playing and managerial career, Wedge was an All-American backstop for the Shockers and helped guide them to back-to-back College World Series appearances which included a national championship in 1989.
Since taking over the job in 2019 he has assembled an all-star coaching staff that includes another Wichita State All-American, pitching coach Mike Pelfrey, as well as recruiting coordinator Mike Sirianni, volunteer assistant Easton Herring and director of baseball ops Loren Hibbs. Hibbs was part of the five Shockers teams that advanced to the College World Series as both a player and a coach prior to spending 27 years as the head coach at Charlotte.
While Wichita State advanced to the NCAA Tournament 27 times in 30 years from 1980 through 2009, the Shockers haven’t made the postseason since 2013. That is something Wedge and his staff are determined to change, quickly. Considering they went 13-2 during the shortened 2020 season and 31-23 a year ago, including an 18-13 mark in the American Athletic Conference – good enough for third place – it’s clear their next trip to a regional isn’t that far off.
And when Wedge talks it’s hard not to be motivated by his message.
“We want people here that want to be here,” Wedge said of the type of players he and his staff target. “That’s pretty simple. When you come here it’s a great commitment as a student-athlete and it’s your job and it should be one of the most important things in your life. Learning is something we talk about a lot here. Mental toughness is something we talk about a lot here. Respect the game, playing the game the right way, being a good teammate, which is being unselfish. All of those are things that have to happen. It’s much more than talent and ability, intangibles for us lead the way.”
With every year that passes the coaching staff continues to put their mark on the program. The 2022 squad will have a distinct new look as two of the team’s weekend starters and three of their more productive hitters have since moved on. As a result, there are 20 news faces on the roster, 12 transfers and eight freshmen, and finding playing time for all of those players will be no easy task.
Wedge prefers not to bring up individuals and their importance on his own, instead emphasizing the values the team holds as a unit. Having depth holds veterans accountable and pushes everyone to reach their potential to avoid complacency while attaining tangible, on-the-field success.
“We’re a little bit tougher, a little more physical, a little more athletic and a little more open minded in regards to how we want to go about our business and work smart,” Wedge added. “It’s fun to see the progression.”
Kaminska Headlines Shockers Staff
Heading into the 2021 season the weekend starting staff was a projected strength as the team returned all three starters. Even though the team enjoyed season-long success, the staff didn’t work out quite as well as it was projected.
Two of their top arms, Liam Eddy and Preston Snavely, did much of the heavy lifting and had the strength and durability to sustain the rigors of starting. The performance numbers, however, didn’t necessarily reflect the kind of success that was expected, as they posted ERAs of 6.14 and 5.45, respectively. Their projected ace from a season ago, Jake Hamilton, never took the mound and has since transferred to Division II Oklahoma Baptist. Eddy and Snavely are also no longer with the program.
What did happen in 2021 was that a new ace emerged, then-freshman righthander Jace Kaminska, who showed rare confidence and comfort throwing strikes with a three-pitch mix that includes an upper-80s to low-90s fastball that peaks a few ticks higher. He was named a Freshman All-American by D1Baseball after going 8-1 with a 2.32 ERA. He made 12 appearances, 10 of which were starts and two of those were complete-game efforts. In 62 innings he allowed just 51 hits and 19 walks with 51 strikeouts and heads to 2022 as one of the American Athletic Conference’s most promising young hurlers.
Strong-bodied righthanders Ryan Stuempfig and LJ McDonough emerged as two reliable weapons out of the bullpen. Stuempfig has been with the program since 2018 and has posted a 2.78 ERA in 51 2/3 innings the past two seasons. McDonough has the best stuff on the staff with the ability to reach the mid-90s, and after posting a 36-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 1/3 innings a year ago, he had one successful, extended six-inning outing in the fall which suggests he’s being considered for a starting role.
“We expect them to take the next step, and we’ve talked to them about that,” Wedge said of some of his more accomplished returning pitchers. “Just because they had good years last year doesn’t mean the work is done. Development never stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are, especially at this level. We want Kaminska to go out there and get better and improve like we think he can. Same thing with McDonough, and Stuempfig and others. We have other people coming back that we feel strongly about as well.
“So, if you have success at this level that’s great, if you can help and contribute to us winning ballgames, that’s fantastic. But ultimately, if you want to be a true player, you have to keep getting better and developing and know that the work’s never done.”
Some of the other notable returners include righthanders Cameron Bye, Foster Gifford and Creighton Hansen. Bye (92-94 mph fastball) has slightly better stuff than Gifford (88-92) as both throw strikes and are in line to accumulate more innings after each made double-digit appearances a year ago. Yet another righthander, Jacob Lindemann, redshirted a year ago but posted a 4.20 ERA in 15 games during his last full season in 2019 and received several looks out of the ‘pen this fall. Lefthander Spencer Hynes brings starting experience to the table after serving as a swing man a year ago, and while his ERA (7.08) wasn’t especially pretty, he did prove capable at missing bats (52 strikeouts in 48.1 innings).
Of the 12 transfers, three are graduates and could immediately help fill some valuable innings: rigthahnder Grayson Jones (James Madison) and Connor Holden (Murray State) and lefthander Adam Ketelsen (Iowa). Jones and Holden each made four bullpen appearances in fall ball. Holden in particular could find himself in high leverage situations, possibly as the team’s closer, after posting a 2.10 ERA a year ago while recording eight saves for the Racers.
Other notable transfers include righthander Matt Boyer, who posted a 6.88 ERA in 35 1/3 innings for Saint Louis a year ago and received a pair of extended outings in the fall. Will Stevens could get looks as a starter after going 4-0, 2.28 at the JUCO level last year and received a pair of starts in fall ball. Lefthander Austin Wallace received only three appearances in two years at Texas but struck out seven batters in six fall innings.
Of the freshman class, Robert Cranz opened eyes by striking out four over a 5 1/3-inning outing this fall and could be in the mix for a starting role. Skyscraper 6-foot-6, 235-pound righthander Ty Howry made three relief appearances and two-way player (lefthanded pitcher and first baseman) Payton Tolle really turned heads on both sides of the ball. In addition to hitting a pair of home runs during the team’s intra-squad world series, Tolle made a couple of pitching appearances including a six-inning start. Fellow first-year southpaw Jace Miner proved he can miss bats from the left side.
Strong Up-The-Middle Core Returns
Similar to the pitching staff, the offense has some key contributors it needs to replace, specifically its Nos. 3-5 hitters: Paxton Wallace, Hunter Gibson and Corrigan Bartlett. Conversely, the players the Shockers do get back represent the team’s up-the-middle defensive alignment, should the team choose to pick up where it left off in 2021.
The middle infield tandem of Jack Sigrist (second base) and Andrew Stewart (shortstop), catcher Ross Cadena, first baseman Garrett Kocis and outfielders Couper Cornblum and Seth Stroh (one of whom will play center field) are all back and offer a varying degree of talents.
Sigrist, who didn’t play in the fall, led off a year ago and was one of the team’s leading hitters, slashing .321/.390/.470 with 21 extra-base hits and 15 stolen bases. That productivity will likely find itself back into the everyday lineup. Cadena batted second as the team’s take-charge backstop, hitting .274/.359/.403 with 19 extra-base hits. Kocis provides some much-needed power in the middle of the lineup, hitting .286 with a team-leading 12 home runs. Stewart is a glove-first shortstop who hit only .201 with minimal power but also committed only two errors while playing 50 games.
“I’ve always felt strong about that. It’s not novel, everyone feels strong about being good up the middle,” Wedge said of his returners. “Obviously being a former catcher I’m very passionate about that position and what that position means to a ballclub. We’ve got a guy like that in Ross Cadena, he is the leader of our ballclub. He cares about the right things, he’s a really good player and he has that drive, that fire inside him that you love.”
Cornblum has really hit in each of his two years with the Shockers to this point in his career, batting .301 with a .399 on-base percentage. He also has 19 stolen bases with gap power and has proven to be a solid all-around offensive performer. Stroh is the more dynamic athlete of the two, a 6-foot-4, 207-pound lefthanded hitter who can really fly, both on the bases and in the outfield. While he hit for some pop his freshman year (15 extra-base hits, including three home runs), there’s some swing-and-miss to his game. He did steal six bases in as many attempts and didn’t commit a single error in the outfield.
A third sophomore outfielder, Chuck Ingram, has forced his name into the conversation as well with an especially loud fall. He hit five doubles and a home run through his first three fall games, and while he also has been prone to strikeouts in the past, it may be difficult to keep his extra-base potential out of the lineup after serving as a part-time player a year ago.
Second-year catchers Gage Williams and Cooper Harris provide depth behind the plate while Jordan Rogers is an option to fill the vacancy at third base.
Another similarity to the pitching staff is the number of transfers on the roster, making some positions especially difficult to project.
Four players from the JUCO ranks grace the roster and each posted big numbers a season ago. Sawyre Thornhill (.375-7-40) batted in the two-hole during the fall while playing second base. Brock Rodden (.353-13-39) batted third while playing shortstop. Janson Reeder (.415-12-80) and Drew Miller (.331-18-34) both played left field and may continue to compete for playing time at that position heading into the spring.
Another transfer, Will Carpenter, comes from Penn State and further muddies the infield picture playing second base in the fall while showing a line drive swing.
Of the freshmen position players, Tolle and Xavier Casserilla could be everyday fixtures in the lineup based on their polish and production in the fall. Tolle is a physical beast at 6-foot-6, 248-pounds and hit a pair of home runs in fall ball. With the presence of Kocis at first base, not to mention Tolle’s two-way exploits, he may best fit in as the team’s designated hitter as his lefthanded power will be hard not to have in the lineup regularly.
“I’ll be honest with you, that’ll be a first for me,” Wedge said about Tolle performing as a two-way player. “We’re going to do what’s best for the young man, he’s a special young player, very physical, strong. Good kid, good worker, has great aptitude. There’s a lot there to like.”
Casserilla was the team’s most dynamic hitter during the team’s fall world series, recording 13 base hits in 25 at-bats (.520 average) to go along with three doubles and a pair of home runs. He played third base exclusively and he may have locked up that position in the process.
Outfielder Will Stark and catcher Jackson Young could provide depth or might choose to redshirt based on the logjams ahead of them.
“From a position player standpoint you look at a Ross Cadena coming back, you look at a Jack Sigrist coming back, you look at a Garrett Kocis coming back, people that had choices,” Wedge said about his returning players. “I think it says a lot about our program and a lot about what our program means to them. Because they’re coming back to win. They look at what we’ve brought in – whether it be the freshman class, the JUCOs coming over or the grad transfers – I think they recognize we’re bringing in people to help them be better. Our bad’s better, which means our good’s going to be better, too.”