On a day that saw a handful of football coaches leave, ASU fans were introduced a second time to a new coaching staff, just about a mile north of the football facilities at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. First-year manager Willie Bloomquiest, his staff, and a large selection of players all spoke Friday at the Sun Devils’ annual Media Day ahead of an intrasquad scrimmage and its Alumni Day on Sunday.
Here are House of Sparky’s four major takeaways from Media Day:
Fall ball was bumpy, but there have been significant strides over the winter.
It is not smart to judge a baseball team based on its preseason affairs, but there were few positives to take away from the Sun Devils’ fall scrimmage against Long Beach State. The pitching struggled to find the zone, the defense did not hold up to the high expectations set in 2021, and the hitting took a while to gain momentum.
Bloomquist, first-year pitching coach Sam Peraza, and company were not pleased with the performance, but reiterated Friday how far they have come since the October scrimmage.
“We are in a much better place now than we were at the end of the fall,” Bloomquist said. “We had some things we had to learn about each other, which we expected. We are changing the way we do things a little bit from a mentality standpoint. We knew there was going to be some growing pains with that, and there has been.”
Peraza added, “Our first intrasquad we had like 12 walks. Those same guys that walked that many people have a different mentality when they are taking the mound right there.”
Which leads to the next big takeaway…
Everything surrounding the pitching staff remains a question mark.
The walks are a huge issue. Against Long Beach State, the staff walked nine batters in the first four innings. Peraza says they preach mechanics and fundamentals, along with the “let your defense work” mode of thinking for strike-throwing therapy.
As for the starting rotation, nothing is set. Presumed ace Boyd Vander Kooi is almost eleven months removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, and Bloomquist is hopeful Vander Kooi can make an opening day appearance.
“We’ll be very very cautious of easing him into things and making sure he’s more than ready to jump out there,” he said. “And certainly [we will be] limiting his pitch count as he continues to set up arm strength.”
Boyd Vander Kooi threw his first flat ground a week ago, says it felt good. He will throw a bullpen today. Hopes to be ready for opening day. pic.twitter.com/kC4023ORW9— House of Sparky (@HouseOfSparky) January 28, 2022
Bloomquist also said they are not afraid to take a committee approach, using starters for fewer innings in order to keep them available in subsequent games. He mentioned that it may become a part of their identity, and he is fine with the criticism that comes with that approach.
Outfielder Kai Murphy is working with the pitchers to have his arm ready by opening day, but slugger and potential All-American Ethan Long will not be expected to work many innings, if any, on the mound.
“He had some arm problems in the fall, he has a future here that we do not want to compromise,” Esperaza said. “If it ever comes down to it, we will prepare him the right way.”
The 2022 campaign will include a dynamic and aggressive offensive attack.
The heart of this lineup is dangerous. Long went ballistic his freshman year at the plate, launching 16 home runs on a .340 batting average with 54 RBI. While the expectation is that he will improve, even 80% of his success from last season will do this spring.
Sixth-year infielder and clubhouse captain Conor Davis returns for his “senior” season following a torn ACL last fall. Davis, a favorite amongst coaches and teammates, will be positioned in the middle of the lineup alongside Long.
Nate Baez also plans to make noise at the plate, and be a reliable asset as the team’s starting catcher. Baez came on strong towards the end of 2021, launching all eight of his homers over the last 14 games of the season.
“It’s certainly nice having a couple of power bats in the lineup,” Bloomquist said. “[We have] some guys that are able to hit the ball in the gaps and steal some bases. On paper, it should be a fun lineup to watch”
Outfielder Joe Lampe said he plans on being the everyday leadoff hitter for the Sun Devils. In addition to his bat, he claimed that he wants to steal 30 bases this year as another form of added pressure on defenses.
“A great point that [assistant coach Mike Goff] made was that Ricky Henderson stole the most bags in history, and has also been thrown out the most times,” Lampe said. “You have to be a thief on the bases. In my eyes, I want to be as aggressive as possible, and as sneaky as possible.”
Infielder Sean McLain also returns to the lineup following an impressive .322 average in 2021, along with Murphy, and third-baseman-turned-shortstop Hunter Haas.
Left Field, first base, and designated hitter spots in the starting lineup are TBD.
Conor Davis should start immediately. The question is whether it is at first base or at DH. Whichever one he leaves empty will be up for grabs. Freshman Jacob Tobias was widely applauded by many coaches and teammates at Media Day, and he can play third base or corner-outfield. Expect him to be on the lineup card opening day against Dixie State.
Sophomore Kade Higgins is the only remaining true-outfielder with experience, but do not be surprised if a freshman or sophomore infielder gets reps in the outfield.
Pitching emphasis will be on throwing strikes, and pitching with tempo. Those who control the zone will get critical innings. https://t.co/vZuMWkhDv5— House of Sparky (@HouseOfSparky) January 28, 2022
Extra, Extra (miscellaneous).
- Bloomquist says he did not truly comprehend the hours the manager job would take, and that he misses his free time with his four daughters. He says while it does not feel like work, it was more than he expected. He has since taken the lead in recruiting, a great sign for a first-time college manager, per Peraza.
- In addition, Bloomquist and co. welcome any Cactus League followers to flock to Phoenix Municipal Stadium if MLB continues its lockout. “Come on down,” he said with a smile.
- Hitting coach Travis Buck is excited to take a hands-on approach in his new role. Buck, who previously worked as a volunteer assistant, was widely complimented amongst those who spoke Friday.