ASU coach Tracy Smith speaks to the media after the Sun Devils’ 3-1 loss to Arizona, which sealed ASU’s first losing season since 1985. Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports
For some, nothing less than firing Tracy Smith will suffice to pay for the worst season in Arizona State baseball history.
For Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson, the decision maker, to stand behind the coach he hired in 2014 further inflames those who believe ASU’s most successful men’s team should never suffer a 23-win season, the first below 30 in 55 years.
Anderson has not backed away from comments May 6 about Smith made during a weekend when center fielder Andrew Shaps was dismissed and several other players left for varying reasons.
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“Our head coach is doing everything the right way and has this program on the correct trajectory,” Anderson said. “We expected rough spots, and those are occurring. We are going to continue to navigate our way through to a very bright future with Tracy as our head coach.”
That faith is being severely tested given that program results have plunged since 2010 when ASU won 52 games, was the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and last reached the College World Series. Anderson fired Tim Esmay, with a year left on his contract, after a 33-win season and brought in Smith from Indiana, where he was national Coach of the Year in 2013.
Low marks for Sun Devils in 2017
- First losing season since 1985 and just the second in school history
- 54-year streak of at least 30 wins ended
- Missed postseason for first time since 1999
- Tied for last in Pac-12
- Won one conference series
- Finished season on six-game losing streak
- Swept at home by Arizona for first time since 1989
‘It’s just a bad season’
The Sun Devils advanced to an NCAA regional in 2015 and 2016 before this season falling to 23-32, the lowest winning percentage (.418) in school history and second ever losing season (31-35 in 1985 was the other). They won just one of 10 Pac-12 series, finishing tied for last with an 8-22 record.
“It’s just a bad season,” Smith said. “It’s not the level of play or the result anybody would want. We knew we were going to have a challenging season based on elements of our roster. I have no complaints the way the guys competed. They played hard.
“We’re human beings and wired to have hope. You wouldn’t want to go into a season and say it’s going to end this way. But I was concerned what might happen once adversity hit, and I was pretty sure that was going to happen.
“I take full responsibility for this year. I’ll wear this gracefully then move this program forward. It’s part of a systematic approach to building our roster for 2018.”
‘Nothing is going to change people’s perception other than wins’
Smith was given time to build success at Miami (Ohio) and Indiana, schools where he had nine-year runs and won a combined 604 games. He is 94-78 in three seasons at ASU, a record that is acceptable at most schools but here at minimum creates unease that Smith knows he can’t calm with words. “The reality is nothing is going to change people’s perception other than wins.”
Smith initially received a five-year contract that was extended by one year after each of his first two seasons. So he has four years left through 2021. His second full recruiting class enters in the fall and combined with the 2016 class will determine Smith’s fate at ASU.
“I’m more than comfortable being judged on wins and losses from this moment forward,” Smith said. “Our first full (recruiting) class was ranked No. 1 in the country and I honestly think the 2017 class is better. The challenge is holding that class together,” following the major league draft, June 12-14. “One of the most appealing things for the 2017 group is they’re going to have the opportunity be part of something special quickly. They want to come here and be part of getting ASU baseball back on the map.”
Players to keep an eye on
Half of ASU’s 14 signees are infielders, an area hit hard by the 2016 draft and unsettled all this season (ASU finished last in Pac-12 fielding). Jake Holmes of Phoenix, Trevor Hauver of Chandler and Alika Williams of San Diego are among those who could make a significant impact if they choose the minimum three-year college route.
Smith took on pitching coach duties this season after firing Brandon Higelin, now Arizona director of player development, before the season began. Results were not good — ASU was 10th in Pac-12 earned run average (5.53) — but pitching was going to be an issue no matter what because of a talent drop-off since 2015 and youth.
Smith is close to hiring a pitching coach he said will come with a “wow factor” and “proven track record.”
Boyd Vander Kooi of Mesa, Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year, and Brendan Murphy of Mundelein, Ill., are among pitching signees who would help to stability roles, again provided they are not won over by pro offers. Drake Davis potentially could be a closer in the mold of Ryan Burr, who like Davis is from Highlands Ranch, Colo.
ASU’s top returning players are All Pac-12 outfielder Gage Canning, who will be a junior, and rising sophomores Lyle Lin (catcher), Hunter Bishop (outfielder) and Carter Aldrete (middle infield). Catcher Sam Ferri missed much of his freshman season with a wrist injury and is another key piece, either platooning with Lin or at designated hitter. Canning was the lone member of the 32-team All-Pac-12 Baseball Team, announced on Thursday.
It’s uncertain if any of ASU’s six juniors will be drafted, but there could be interest in draft eligible sophomore pitcher Connor Higgins. The school low for draft picks is one in 1970.
“We have guys that don’t want this to be the way they leave ASU,” Smith said. “Connor’s excited to reap the benefits of the new pitching coach and if he gets his secondary stuff down could be a starter and (Ryan) Kellogg type of durable strike-throwing lefty.”
Chaz Montoya, Spencer Van Scoyoc and Zane Strand, only able to throw once before season-ending injury, are important pitchers from this year’s freshman class.
Through summer ball in the Cape Cod and Northwoods leagues and elsewhere, Smith hopes to see the kind of development that Canning made last summer to where “he’s starting to separate himself as an elite player.”
‘We’re not that far off’
ASU is missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 (ineligible) and before that 1999. Not that it makes anyone feel better but for some perspective, Miami (31-27) also failed to qualify for the first time in 45 years. Conversely, Oregon State did not make the 64-team NCAA field last year and now is the No. 1 national seed.
“That’s how close the line is between average and great,” Smith said. “We’re not that far off. It can be done in a hurry.”
Not fast enough to suit fans and perhaps save Smith’s job beyond next season.