You’ve heard the plot by now.
Arizona State Baseball head coach Tracy Smith’s job security is living on a short thread after back-to-back losing seasons, coming out to be the two weakest in program history. Can 2019 be the year he unlocks a resolution, equating to the Sun Devil Baseball of old? Or are we nearing the end of his tenure in Tempe?
If he is to find an answer, it will revolve around two components of the program – both reflective of on-field performance – that have been the Achilles heel of ASU since the beginning of 2017 and will need to shore up in a hurry when the Sun Devils open up their season Feb. 15 against Notre Dame.
Pitching and Defense
Smith has preached quality pitching and clean defense as an X-factor to winning baseball games since 2017. Given how the Sun Devils have fared on paper in those facets over the last two seasons, his logic is more than supported.
On the bump, Arizona State could not find any rhythm to say the least in 2017. They posted a team ERA of 5.53 (second to last in the Pac-12) and allowed 262 walks (tied for second to last in the Pac-12), playing musical chairs with their weekend rotation for what felt like each individual series. 2018 was an improvement, but they did not turn over a new leaf, either.
There was slightly more certainty in the rotation as the year went on, but it was a group of arms that helped combine for just a 4.70 team ERA (8th in conference) while still conceding 228 base on balls (9th in conference). The rotation found a groove in the early going of the 2018 campaign (outside of Spencer Van Scoyoc), but injuries and fatigue wore everyone down as the season progressed.
Defense has also been no smooth sailing the last pair of springs. After Smith’s club finished tied for last in the Pac-12 in fielding percentage during the 2017 season (.967), an inexperienced 2018 squad, that featured an all-freshmen infield, made a combined 78 errors, the most by a landslide in the conference (19 errors, to be exact).
“This game is about catch and throw. The team that catches the baseball and makes the routine plays, doesn’t give the free 90 feet usually wins,” Smith said.
Position changes seemed to be happening in the blink of an eye, resulting from repeated inconsistency from the young core. Drew Swift, once poised to be the stalwart at shortstop Smith had been searching for, was moved off his natural position and over to second base at the tail end of 2018. Meanwhile, Carter Aldrete, once rated the No. 3 shortstop in all of California, found himself manning six different positions, only once touching shortstop during a fraction of a lone game.
If there is one piece of this team that has stayed consistent throughout the last two years, it’s the roster turnover. It was no secret that there was bad turmoil looming in the first base clubhouse at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 2017 when six players left the program midseason. While team chemistry was improved in 2018, it was clearly not all the way up to par, similar to the pitching staff.
Alas, a handful of players from last year’s roster announced they left the team in the fall, and a couple weeks after the new year struck, it was announced that Arizona State’s roster would consist of just 27 players, the smallest roster in the Pac-12 conference.
Many on the team, however, see this as a positive action.
“The way we turn it around, basically, is just getting rid of so-called cancers,” sophomore pitcher Boyd Vander Kooi said. “I think we have a pretty small team, but the group is pretty close.”
Now, the roster will only continue to shrink with redshirt junior infielder Cole Austin expected to be sidelined for all of 2019, and sophomore RHP Colby Davis reported to be unavailable for the start of the season. This comes out to 25 available players for opening weekend against the Fighting Irish, equal size to an active MLB roster.
Smith, however, sees quality over quantity.
“Everybody here has a role,” Smith said. “If every year I could do 35 guys in the fall and reduce it to 27, I would do it.”
Lyle Lin started every game for the Devils last season and was behind the plate for 49 of them. He put together another strong offensive season hitting .312 and finishing second on the team in hits (72). But the defense was lackluster at times, as Lin was the victim of six errors at catcher, and the wear-and-tear on his body started to show at the end of the year.
Reinforcements have now arrived, forcing Smith’s hand to move Lin into the primary DH role to start the season. Redshirt sophomore Sam Ferri was once the team’s starting catcher in 2017, but injuries during his freshman campaign and a torn UCL last fall has yielded much of his collegiate career to this point. Now that he is fully healthy, expect to see his name be recurring in the ASU lineup.
“Sam makes the pitching staff better, he’s like having another coach on the field,” Smith said. “He understands what we’re trying to do and he’s able to communicate that, very mature.”
Ferri not only handles pitchers admirably, he plays plus defense, something that this team is in desperate need of.
The same quadrant of infielders that started last season around the diamond will return for 2019, now all in their sophomore campaigns (Gage Workman, Alika Williams, Drew Swift, Spencer Torkelson from left to right).
Offense is without a worry for this group as a whole, and it centers around Torkelson. The sophomore is coming off a historic freshman season, which included belting a nation-high 25 home runs, while racking up the National Freshman of the Year honor (per Perfect Game) and being named a semifinalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award.
“When you’ve done something that nobody else has done in the history of Division I baseball, that does kind of set a standard,” said Smith on Torkelson’s 2019 outlook. “He just needs to be him and that’s plenty good enough, whether he goes out and has that type of year again or even close to that, that’s a tremendous season.”
Williams and Workman both found themselves to be staples in the Devils lineup for a majority of the season, each turning in impressive freshman resumes at the plate. Williams had the second highest batting average of all the qualified freshman (.280) while sporting a .303 clip in his final 19 games. Workman finished just a couple notches behind Williams in average (.276) and strung together 20 extra-base hits. He finished second on the team in triples (7) behind only Gage Canning.
Swift’s bat is the one area of slight concern, as he struggled to stay above the Mendoza line, finishing the year hitting .201 with 46 punchouts, the second highest total on the roster.
But there is optimism for a sophomore surge with his offseason work and massive swing change.
“Soaking wet I think he was 150 lbs. last year, he’s stronger this year,” Smith said of Swift. “(Hitting coach) Mike (Earley) has done a really good job of breaking some things down with him and Drew’s done a phenomenal job of buying in and working on it.”
Defense will be their largest area for improvement, as the core contributed 38 combined errors of the team’s 78 total, with Swift leading the roster committing 12 of his own.
The single reserve this group has will be freshman Marc Lidd, whose 6-foot-4, 210 pound frame projects to be more of a corner infielder. In a pinch regarding the middle infielders, Aldrete still has the ability to play the infield.
Replacing a player of the magnitude of Gage Canning is no small feat. The former outfielder had back-to-back seasons hitting over .330 with more than 25 extra-base hits while garnering All-Conference honors.
But this new-look Maroon and Gold outfield may add a new element to the team, one that Smith has not yet experienced with his outfield core in his time at ASU: a plethora of power.
That involves junior Hunter Bishop roaming centerfield, a position he is not unfamiliar with after beginning 2018 as the everyday man at the eight spot. Now free of injury after being bothered by a hamstring for a good portion of last season, many are expecting sizable numbers from him. So far, he’s off to a red-hot start as he hammered 10 homers during the fall season.
“If your plan going into the weekend is ‘okay I want to make someone else beat you’ there’s some other guys that can beat you. Bishop’s been doing it ever since he’s been back on campus this year,” Smith said.
Bishop hit .250 with 5 home runs in 2018 after batting .301 and receiving a Pac-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention as a freshman.
“You can always learn from your past. I’m just kind of focused on starting the season off right and taking it an at-bat a time,” Bishop said.
Aldrete seems to have found a constant defensive position as well, currently being penciled in as the ballclub’s right fielder. The junior spent this past summer playing his fair share of right field in the Cape Cod League, and now the former shortstop looks to run with the position as ASU will be turning to Aldrete to be a model of consistency this upcoming season.
“If infield isn’t in the picture for me this year, that’s okay,” Aldrete said. “Whatever this team needs from me I’m willing to do and it’s always fun watching those young guys play the infield too.”
His on-base percentage took a massive upwards trajectory last spring, skyrocketing from .302 in his freshman season to .370 in 2018. And if you have been paying attention to the way he’s been swinging the bat compared to Torkelson both last July in Cape Cod, and just a couple weeks ago at Phoenix Muni, Sun Devil fans can expect more than three long balls from Aldrete in his third year as a Sun Devil.
That leaves left field, with sophomore Trevor Hauver ready to fill the void. Hauver started the first 21 games of his freshman season with his shining moment coming on defense when he made a miraculous diving catch – with multiple runners on base – to secure ASU a 1-0 win at Long Beach State. Offensively, his season started to take a turn for the worse just after the start of conference play, finishing with a .227 average.
But he turned heads for the entirety of the fall and winter season, particularly with the power in his bat.
“He’s shown some power. What I love about what he’s done is he’s just worked, worked, worked. Nothing’s given to him, but he’s made as significant improvements from last season to this season as much as anybody that we have,” Smith said of Hauver.
Hauver hit three home runs in the annual Maroon and Gold Scrimmage Sunday, Feb. 10 and his power is starting to come into play, especially with the help of the fences being moved in during the offseason at Phoenix Muni.
With only 12 arms on the roster, and five being freshman, there is little mixing and matching Smith and pitching coach Mike Cather can do with the staff. But this reverts back to the quality over quantity mentality Smith has brought to this team.
“Guys that are ready to play at this level showed and guys that aren’t ready to play at this level showed,” Smith said. “We’re not as deep as we maybe want to be on the mound, but the quality that we have through eight or nine guys is pretty good.”
The weekend rotation is locked with Alec Marsh, Boyd Vander Kooi and RJ Dabovich to be the opening Friday, Saturday and Sunday starters, respectively.
Marsh, the most proven arm on staff, took a large leap forward in his sophomore season after playing a minuscule role in 2017. He inserted himself into a weekend starter role once Pac-12 play rolled around, spinning five quality starts in that time, and almost always kept the Sun Devils in games when the ball was in his hands.
“He’s earned that spot,” Smith said of Marsh as the Friday starter. “His work ethic is unmatched by anybody. It’s good to see a guy that not only has the talent but works hard and is having good results.”
Vander Kooi gave the rotation a shot in the arm in the early going of 2018, but a strained forearm derailed much of his freshman season. He found himself in a mop-up bullpen role late in the year in an attempt to build up a few more innings.
Dabovich may be the most intriguing of the bunch. He hurled in dominating fashion in his one season in community college, going 9-3 with a 1.81 ERA at Central Arizona. He has overpowering stuff in his repertoire highlighted by a fastball that can touch as high as 98 mph.
The bullpen could be more of a question mark, similar to the last couple seasons.
Freshman Blake Burzell, expected to open as the team’s closer, brings significant value to the back end of the bullpen. He has shown the ability to hit 99 mph on the radar gun, adding firepower to a pitching staff along with Dabovich, something Smith has not had in recent years much like the outfield.
“If he’s doing what he has shown at times during our preseason, that’s exactly what you want back there,” Smith said of Burzell. “It has the chance to be elite, but as we’ve learned it takes guys to get a little bit of feel at this level.”
Sam Romero, Brady Corrigan and freshman southpaw Erik Tolman, figure to be the other frequent relievers.
1. Trevor Hauver (LF)
2. Spencer Torkelson (1B)
3. Hunter Bishop (CF)
4. Carter Aldrete (RF)
5. Lyle Lin (DH)
6. Gage Workman (3B)
7. Sam Ferri (C)
8. Alika Williams (SS)
9. Drew Swift (2B)
Friday – Alec Marsh (RHP)
Saturday – Boyd Vander Kooi (RHP)
Sunday – RJ Dabovich (RHP)
Closer – Blake Burzell (RHP)