K-State Baseball: The Turnaround, part 2

This kid is gone, as are several others... - PurpleKansas

After much delay, part 2 has finally arrived.

Well, part 2 has taken immeasurably longer than anticipated. Life got in the way, then a plan to wait until the College World Series was over got interrupted again by life. So, sorry folks, I didn’t plan to keep you all waiting this long!

So, with that out of the way, let’s look at the K-State Baseball team’s 2014 season.

What went wrong:

Well, there are many sides to that coin, so let’s break them down individually.

  • Lost Lettermen.
    Well, the losses didn’t seem so terrible before the season started. Jared King was gone, but Ross Kivett returned toting All-American honors. Several key pitchers were lost to graduation, but the young staff was returning guys with star potential. Well the losses in the outfield (all three starters in 2013 graduated or went pro) seemed to jeopardize the whole team on defense, forcing Ross Kivett to a multi-month stretch in centerfield. And the lack of senior leadership on the mound (one returning senior) created a confidence gap on the mound. The young arms were good, but seemed to lack focus at times.
  • Injuries.
    The Cats were beset by injuries before the season even started. The loss to Nate Williams hurt the pen hardest, as the Wildcats best reliever was key to the middle of the pen rotation. Losing Matt Wivinis hurt the starting rotation, forcing freshmen to start and removing another vet from the lineup. Finally, Jake Matthys faced an injury during the offseason that managed to shake his confidence pretty severely.

    During the season, the Cats faced a string of injuries to key players all over the field. Senior catcher Blair DeBord missed several games mid-season, and Kivett and Shane Conlon (among several others) played with nagging injuries throughout a majority of the season.
  • Youth.
    This was most apparent in the outfield and among the pitching staff. Three new starters began the season in the outfield, though at least Mitch Meyer had plate experience. Errors were common throughout the season, and oddly the guys never seemed to get it together. The pitching staff saw freshmen in the starting rotation, as well as lots of frosh innings in relief. Nate Griep pitched well and saw more starting time as the season wore on, eventually becoming a staple in the weekend rotation. Ethan Landon and Jake Fromson each saw the mound in over 20 games, and three other newcomers saw at least 10 mound appearances.
  • Coaching.
    Probably the most baffling aspect. The reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year never managed to get his team to gel and grow. Brad Hill made some questionable decisions regarding lineups and fielding positions, and tried to let the young pitching staff do too much at times.
  • Conference Schedule.
    The Big 12 was loaded this year. Second-best RPI in the nation, five teams in the NCAA tournament, four in the super-regionals (all hosts), and three in the College World Series. The Cats were 20-11 facing non-conference opponents, but a woeful 5-19 in conference play. A powerful Big 12 was just too much for this rebuilding squad to handle.

Any of those things individually shouldn’t have doomed the season, but together they turned the defending Big 12 champion into the worst team in the conference. It was painful to watch, only made worse by the glimpses of greatness scattered throughout the season.

Looking Ahead:

As soon as the season ended, casual observation would show that the Cats had a very bright future. Losses again would sting, but this time there were a lot of returning young guys with a bunch of game experience. Coach Hill would have been able to return this Wildcat squad to, at the least, the middle of the Big 12 standings without even much trouble.

But a good-sized group of young men have decided that they were not long for Manhattan. As of this writing, I can verify that five players have left the program, including four freshmen. Tanner DeVinny appears to be headed to Grayson Community College in Denison, TX; Tyler Stover to Cal State-Northridge; Jake Fromson to Missouri State; Ethan Landon to Michigan State; and Jake Matthys to Southwest Minnesota State. Three moves are obviously closer to home, but for Landon and Fromson, the changes are a bit stranger. All five of these guys played, all seeing action in at least 20 games. DeVinny was the starting DH most of the season and earned All-Big 12 Freshman Team honors, and Stover saw 23 starts most at DH and first base. Fromson and Landon were the most used relievers, and Matthys was the reigning (and first for K-State ever) Big 12 Freshman of the Year. These young mens' roles would have only expanded next season, so their decisions to leave have been mostly baffling.

Hill, much like Bill Snyder, has needed to build his team with blue-collar players scattered with the occasional MLB-quality player. But Hill, like Snyder at the end of Snyder 1.0, tried to use the success of his program to reach "better" recruits. Those recruits came, but at the expense of K-State baseball and the toughness needed for this league, much like football before. Look for Hill to get back to the "basics" in recruiting and roster management.

Three Wildcats were selected in the 2014 MLB draft: Ross Kivett in the sixth round by the Tigers, Mitch Meyer in the seventh by the Brewers, and Austin Fisher in the 13th by the Indians. Two incoming Cats were also drafted with Conner Goedert going in the 15th round to Houston and Ryan Lillard being picked in the 30th round by Kansas City. Goedert signed with Houston and will not be coming to Manhattan. Also, RJ Santigate signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Angels organization. Notably, Shane Conlon was not drafted this year after being a 10th-round pick last season.

Several Cats and incoming Cats are in summer leagues around the country, and K-State Sports has you covered on their going-ons.

***

What we can expect for K-State Baseball in 2015 is a significant improvement over what we saw in 2014. Coach Hill is too good, and this roster too talented, for a season like 2014 to happen again. As mentioned above, look for Hill to make some changes, tweaks really, to his coaching style, and look for K-State to get back to the things that have made them so successful in the last decade. I don't expect a drastic improvement, no riches-to-rags-to-riches story, but look for the Cats to compete for a solid mid-Big 12 spot next season.

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