Has Shocker baseball improved enough to stay on the Butler track?

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz on KSN

What should be done about Wichita State baseball?

Nothing? Something? Keep the coach? Move on to something, and someone, new?

The Shockers are likely to miss the NCAA postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons unless they figure out a way to win the American Athletic Conference postseason tournament in Clearwater, Fla., next week.

That’s on the heels of making the NCAAs 27 of 30 seasons from 1980-2009, a stretch that included seven appearances in the College World Series and a national championship in 1989.

Wichita State didn’t reach the postseason in any of Gene Stephenson’s final three seasons as coach and it looks like they will fail to do so in Todd Butler’s first five seasons.

Should, then, there be a sixth season for Butler?

This is where it gets dicey.

Yes, the Shockers are an improved baseball team in 2018, with a 32-18-1 record. They have a legit MLB prospect in third baseman Alec Bohm, who could be picked in the top three during next month’s draft.

The pitching is better, the hitting is better, the defense is better.

So, is the uptick enough to bring Butler back for another crack?

Tough call.

The Shockers are 25-5 this season against non-conference teams, but only 7-13-1 in the American Athletic Conference going into its final regular season series at Memphis.

Wichita State is a glistening 20-3 against teams with a losing record, but only 12-15-1 against teams that have winning marks.

The Shockers were a combined 3-0 against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State but lost earlier this week to a poor Kansas State team.

The AAC is a tough conference with three ranked teams (East Carolina, 9; Houston, 22; Connecticut, 23). The Shockers are 2-7 against those clubs.

Wichita State must figure out a way to compete in the AAC and that’s going to be a challenge. Is it one Butler can rise to?

The Shockers’ pitching staff, which started strongly but has faded some in past weeks, has a 2.99 ERA in non-conference games, but a 4.88 ERA in the AAC. WSU has won only one AAC series this season, getting two of three against Tulane.

Attendance at Eck Stadium is at an historic low with an average of only 2,015 fans. That’s alarming, considering the Shockers’ first season in the AAC should have been a draw.

Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright has a tough decision here. There are reasons, for sure, to bring Butler back for a sixth season. Another complication, though, is that it’s nearing the time for Boatright to decide whether or not to extend the seven-year contract Butler signed when he took over for Stephenson after the 2013 season.

Butler seemed like a fresh alternative to Stephenson when he was hired by then-AD Eric Sexton. The decision to relieve the legendary Stephenson of his duties was a bold one and it was criticized by many. But it was time for a change.

Butler had been a successful assistant at Arkansas during the previous eight seasons. He’s a former player at Oklahoma and looked to be the right fit.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Butler, though. His overall record is 137-144-1 and this is only his second winning season, following three consecutive losing seasons as members of the  Missouri Valley Conference.

The Shockers won 12 of their first 14 games this season and 19 of their first 23. But since winning a series-opening game at East Carolina on March 29, Wichita State is 13-14-1.

The pro-Butler crowd points to the improvement this season and the optimism for even better days ahead.

And anti-Butler folks say the Shockers aren’t making the progress their record indicates and that heavy losses from the roster this season could make it difficult for another winning season in 2019.

The question becomes: Has Butler done enough in five seasons to earn the faith of the administration and the fans?

And, again, the answers are mixed. The Shocker baseball fan base has dwindled in recent seasons, and that started during the last few seasons of Stephenson’s regime. A significant downturn in the program started in 2009, one season after the Shockers’ most-recent Super Regional appearance in Tallahassee, Fla.

There’s a feeling that Wichita State baseball is capable of so much more because for 30 years we watched it achieve so much more than anyone could have imagined.

Against that backdrop, the Butler years fall short of expectations. Against what has happened the previous four years, though, Wichita State has made strides in 2018.

Do those strides beget more strides? Or, does the Shocker administration decide that the improvement made this season is marginal enough to justify a change?

It’s a tough call. And one I’m glad I don’t have to make.

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