New ASU football coach Herm Edwards’ arrival in Tempe wasn’t greeted with much applause from national observers. The New Leadership Model, which is turning Arizona State into a NFL-style program, was scoffed at and mocked.
The same can be said for the ASU baseball team, too, only the laughs are directed at the Devils’ play. But, the correlation seems to go further.
Sun Devil head coach Tracy “Skip” Smith leaned up against Arizona State’s dugout on the Phoenix Municipal Stadium first base line Wednesday afternoon. Looking through black Adidas sunglasses, Smith stared at the trio of media members holding phones in front of him.
As the fourth-year ASU skipper started to explain how the Devils got to where they are now — holding an 18-25 record and on the verge of missing the postseason — Smith echoed things, and philosophies, that many professional general managers have said and done to put a bad team back in contention.
“We’ve chosen to take the growing pains early, we did it,” Smith said. “Did it cost us some wins? Absolutely. Does it cost us a chance at postseason play? Probably. But, we’re building towards that (while pointing to the National Championships placard in right center field), and I keep saying, being relevant in the conversation for a National Championship — that’s our ultimate goal.”
The Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros – the last two World Series Champions – endured numerous dreadful losing seasons while stocking up talented, young prospects until they, eventually, turned the corner into contention.
Now, you may say that those teams were able to gut a roster and stash prospects until they are ready to contribute – something a college team wouldn’t be able to do because they only have each player for a maximum of four years.
But college teams develop a very detailed plan for the future in recruiting. Smith said that he and his staff made the decision to stick with the freshman this season three years ago.
“We said this is how we’re going to build this thing, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it and you’re going to take (the results),” Smith said.
Smith doesn’t fully believe that he is building a team in, sort of, an MLB format, but he did say that he has confidence in it because he’s done it before.
He looked at the three reporters asking him questions and challenged them to go back and look at his 2012 team at Indiana. The Kyle Schwarber, Spencer Torkelson comparison has been made before, but he said that the two seasons – Indiana in 2012 and ASU in 2018 – have followed a very similar path thus far.
“Look what our record was then. It’s really almost scary how similar the timeline is,” Smith said. “Schwarber, (Sam) Travis, All-Americans galore and we were well below .500. Finally, it, about now, started to click in and played.
“Unfortunately, by the end of that season – 2012 – that team was a Top 25 team, no doubt, and playing that way.
The former Indiana head coach said that the Hoosiers’ shot themselves in the foot that season with early losses -- something ASU has done as well. But let’s see how the comparison really shapes up.
The Devils often start four or five freshmen – Torkelson at first, third baseman Gage Workman, shortstop Drew Swift, second baseman Alika Williams and Trevor Hauver sometimes in left. The Hoosiers, too, would often send out their own quintet of youngers with catcher Schwarber, first baseman Travis, outfielders Chris Sujka and (redshirt freshman) Will Nolden and infielder Chad Clark.
Indiana’s five main freshman finished the season with a combined .278 batting average – 11 points higher than ASU’s (.267) current mark. And despite Torkelson boasting the current NCAA lead for home runs this season with 21, Workman is the only other Sun Devil to go yard, doing it twice.
Indiana’s group of youngsters hit a combined 25 dingers in 2012, led by nine from Travis and eight from Schwarber.
Both teams relied on youth to win, but Indiana’s freshman were able to quickly develop over the course of the season, something the Devils haven’t fully accomplished. But, numerous times over the course of this season, Smith has sat at a post-game press conference and told the media that his team is going to turn the corner because they’re “special.”
The fourth-year Sun Devil head coach wasn’t just throwing that out there hoping it sticks. It’s likely that he saw the similarities of his 2012 Indiana team and figured the same would happen with the Sun Devils. So far it hasn’t.
The Hoosiers got off to a treacherous 7-13 start in their first 20 games (ASU had an 11-9 record after 20 games this season) but eventually turned it around.
By May, Indiana was 22-13 (ASU is currently 18-25 without having played a game in May) and finished out the season in a way that Smith and ASU could only dream of. The Hoosiers concluded the final month of the season with a 10-5 record, including a seven-game winning streak.
That’s Smith’s hope for the Sun Devils. Fans will criticize him for his plan, for how he managed this season, for how the past two seasons have played out, and he knows that. But Smith had precedent to believe the 2018 Sun Devils would be 2012 Indiana Hoosiers.