Butler begins his first season at Wichita State after serving the past eight years at Arkansas as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator.
“We walked into a very good situation with many returning players and many experienced players,” Butler said. “It is a physical team that had success last year by winning the tournament, winning 39 ball games and advancing to a regional. They know how to get there. The big thing is attitude and effort. They had a great attitude the entire fall. The effort has been there. The one thing that has stood out with this team is the energy at practice. The guys show up early and stay late, they enjoy being at the ballpark and you can see it in their play. They’ve listened and they try to implement the things we’ve been teaching, which are the same things that they’ve been taught in the past, the common fundamentals of baseball. So it’s been an enjoyable fall for us as a coaching staff and we are looking forward to the season.
“Strengths for this year’s team include experience, team speed, and many returning players from last year’s club,” Butler said. “We are looking for that third starter, trying to solidify the bullpen and looking for some freshmen to step up and fill some spots.”
Joining Butler on the coaching staff is first year assistant Brian Walker, who served as the volunteer assistant coach at Arkansas for the past two years and first year Director of Operations Scott Gurss who was an assistant coach at Neosho Community College last season.
Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz returns for his 36th season, while volunteer assistant coach Jon Coyne will begin his second year.
The 2014 pitching staff returns seven pitchers from the 2013 staff that posted a 3.55 ERA. WSU returns 67 percent of its wins from the 2013 pitching staff and six pitchers that earned a decision a year ago. Lost from the staff are relievers Brandon Peterson (3-1, 1.12), who earned Valley Newcomer-of-the-Year honors last season, Albert Minnis (3-2, 3.19) and TJ McGreevy (4-2, 3.99).
“We are excited,” pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “We have good upper class leadership and guys that are proven. I think we have a nice blend of new guys that are very moldable, so we are excited about the overall staff.”
The Shockers return their top four starters including senior Cale Elam (7-5, 3.17), juniors A.J. Ladwig (5-6, 4.54) and Kris Gardner (3-6, 3.45) and sophomore Garrett Brummett (4-0, 1.16).
“Cale Elam, who has been an all-conference pitcher for the last three years, gives us the leadership and stability,” Butler said. “He’s been a weekend starter and a reliever in his career and he’s going to be a starter for us this year.”
“Cale is proven and experienced and has an outstanding makeup,” Kemnitz said. “He has had an outstanding career and we expect a great senior year.”
“A.J. has three good pitches, fastball, changeup and a slider, and we really need him to make that big jump and increase his velocity and be a dominant guy on the weekend to join Cale,” Butler said. “We are looking for big things out of A.J.”
“A.J. made a jump,” Kemnitz said. “He finished strong last year, but was a little inconsistent after a great freshman year. He had an outstanding fall and we have big expectations for him this spring.”
“Kris has a great body, has a fastball and changeup and is working on the breaking ball, but he’s an experienced guy that has a chance to be a weekend starter,” Butler said. “He has a chance to be a role guy out of the bullpen, but we would really like him to take over one of the starting roles.”
“Kris quietly goes out and wins,” Kemnitz said. “He pitches in the true sense of the word and has a great feel for pitching. He has a great makeup. He is not overpowering, but has a great feel for the game.”
“Garrett was a Freshman All-American last year and he is a guy who can pitch,” Butler said. “His father helped WSU win the national championship. It’s in his blood. He takes great pride in being a Shocker and I’m excited to see how he competes during the season.”
“Garrett had an outstanding freshman year,” Kemnitz said. “He pitches in a true sense of the word. He just needs to stay locked in and stay focused and continue to do what he did his freshman year. He has a good makeup.”
Three other pitchers return to the Shockers from 2013 including seniors Aaron LaBrie (4-1, 0.83), Foster Vielock (3-0, 3.71) and Drew Palmer (0-0, 6.10).
“Aaron LaBrie is another sharp player on the mound that has the knowledge of pitching and I think he will be a big factor out of the bullpen for us,” Butler said.
“Aaron had an off the chart year last year as a junior,” Kemnitz said. “He has a great makeup, is a great leader and has a great feel for pitching. We expect him to have an outstanding senior year.”
“Foster is going to be out of the bullpen and is another experienced player that’s been here and understands the league and the competition,” Butler said. “He’s really improved this fall with his slider and I think he is very confident going into the spring season and we are really excited about him.”
“Foster had an outstanding fall,” Kemnitz said. “He seems to have made a jump and has had a good career here and has a chance to have a great senior year. He just needs to continue doing what he did all fall.”
“Drew needs to have that great season and finish on a strong note,” Butler said. “He is an experienced guy that had success against some very good hitting clubs last season, but he really needs to show he can do it back-to-back weeks and keep improving.”
“Drew seems to be 100 percent,” Kemnitz said. “He had a good fall, he just needs to make a jump and consistently go out and view himself as a top Division I pitcher. He needs to mentally make the jump that every time he goes out there that he can be a difference maker.”
Eight newcomers will look to make an impact in 2014 including juniors TJ Looney and Ray Ashford and freshmen Sam Tewes, Reagan Biechler, Mitch McIntyre, Austin Gardner, Austin Bright, and Cody Tyler.
“TJ has great stuff,” Butler said. “We need to be able to trust him to be able to come in and do his job and handle his business. He has a chance to be a very high impact guy out of the bullpen.”
“TJ was a great pickup late in the summer,” Kemnitz said. “He has big time upside. He needs to stay focused and repeat his delivery. He has a chance to be an impact pitcher this spring.”
“Ray is a fierce competitor and a guy who will come out of the bullpen,” Butler said.
“Ray should be an impact pitcher out of the bullpen,” Kemnitz said. “He has a good three-pitch mix and has a great makeup.”
“Sam has a chance to be an impact freshman,” Butler said. “We are trying to get him past being a freshman and think of himself as a sophomore. He has very good stuff and we think his velocity will increase. He has a good slider and is a very sharp young man who is good in the classroom and on the field and we are looking for great things out of him as a freshman.”
“Sam has a great upside and an outstanding demeanor,” Kemnitz said. “He should have an impact as a freshman and has big time upside.”
“Reagan really came on in our Fall World Series and kind of took a big step forward and really pitched well and threw breaking balls for strikes,” Butler said. “It was really good to see him at the end make that step.”
“Reagan made big strides this fall,” Kemnitz said. “He needs to just continue to improve like he did the end of the fall. He was outstanding in the Fall World Series and we are excited about his future here. He pitches in the true sense of the word.”
“Mitch has a chance to be good,” Butler said. “He needs to keep improving. He is another sharp player that needs to keep growing.”
“Mitch had a good fall,” Kemnitz said. “He made some mechanical adjustments with his delivery that he needs to refine. He has an outstanding breaking pitch and has a chance to be a contributor as a freshman.”
“Austin Gardner needs to keep getting stronger and the velocity will keep coming,” Butler said. “I think he has a chance to help us.”
“Austin Gardner pitches in a true sense of the word,” Kemnitz said. “He needs to continue to gain consistency. Command is the key. He has ability to pitch, but just needs to gain consistency and confidence. He has a good makeup.”
“Austin Bright has a very good changeup and fastball,” Butler said. “He needs to continue to get the third pitch going and has a chance to be a good impact guy.”
“Austin Bright made a good impression his last outing of the fall,” Kemnitz said. “He still needs some work with his mechanics and needs to gain consistency. He finished with a bright spot his last outing of the fall.”
“Cody is a typical freshman, trying to feel his way through and build his confidence,” Butler said. “We need him to understand that he is very good and he can make an impact on the team in 2014.”
“Cody has a bright future,” Kemnitz said. “He made strides this fall, but needs to gain consistency. He finished strong in the Fall World Series.”
“We have experience coming back,” Butler said. “We have to replace Albert Minnis and Brandon Peterson who were big factors, but hopefully we will have four guys coming out of the pen and develop a third starter and a midweek starter.
“Coach Kemnitz has been a big help,” Butler said. “He has had so much success here at Wichita State with all of the great pitchers that have played here before and pitched in the big leagues and all the All-Americans. I have total confidence and faith in Coach Kemnitz that he will get these guys moving in the right direction.”
Junior Tyler Baker returns after earning first team all-Valley honors in 2013. Last season, Baker hit .328 with 15 doubles, three triples, four home runs and 46 RBI.
“Tyler Baker is an excellent receiver and thrower,” Butler said. “He has a very good bat, a very promising bat for a catcher. We expect him to hit in the 3-4-5 spots in the order. You can count on him and he has done a very good job of working with the pitching staff. He has also done a good job of working with Coach Walker, our catching and hitting coach. He is probably the front-runner for the position.”
Backing up Baker will be sophomore Parker Zimmerman and juniors Brandon Kimbrel and Bob Arens.
“Parker Zimmerman was injured all fall, but he is back healthy,” Butler said. “He is a much improved hitter and a very good receiver and thrower. He is another experienced player that will be an impact for this season.
“Brandon Kimbrel is really learning,” Butler said. “He has a great work ethic, is very teachable, and is a great listener, as far as coaching. He is a player that has improved this fall.
“Bob Arens has improved offensively,” Butler said. “He had a very good fall driving the ball. He was set back with some arm issues this fall, but is an improved player that I’ve enjoyed watching play the game.”
Second team all-Valley selection Casey Gillaspie returns to the Shockers at first base. Last season, Gillaspie hit .299 with 16 doubles, one triple, 11 home runs and 46 RBI.
“Casey Gillaspie is as good a first baseman as there is in college baseball,” Butler said. “He has surprising power and is a big man with great balance in completeness for a first baseman in the fact that he is a left-handed thrower and switch hitter. He has a tough mentality, a fierce desire to try to be the best and he is a tireless worker. He will hit in the three-hole.”
Junior Cody Bobbit and sophomore Tanner Dearman both started at second base last season for the Shockers. Bobbit hit .294 with nine stolen bases before breaking his hand and Dearman hit .301 with 23 RBI and 12 stolen bases.
The position looks to be very competitive after the fall with junior college transfer Zair Koeiman joining Bobbit and Dearman as possibilities.
“Zair Koeiman is a very sure handed, strong armed second baseman that is really working on completing his offense,” Butler said. “He is a wonderful young man that has improved and works hard at it.
“Cody Bobbit is more of a running type middle infielder,” Butler said. “He’s got very good speed and is a left-handed hitter. He is a good defender and works hard.
“Tanner Dearman is a prototypical leadoff guy,” Butler said. “In the fall, he walked more than he struck out and he can really steal a bag when you need it. He is a very, very tough out when you are pitching against him.
“Someone needs to go ahead and grab second base and take it over,” Butler said. “We will see how that goes.”
Seniors Erik Harbutz and Dayne Parker split time at shortstop in 2013. Harbutz hit .280 with 13 doubles, 32 RBI and 14 stolen bases, while Parker hit .243 with 16 RBI.
Both could see playing time at shortstop along with sophomore Tanner Kirk and freshman Wes Phillips. Freshman Michael Burns could also see time in the middle infield or in the outfield.
“Dayne Parker is a very knowledgeable baseball player,” Butler said. “He did not throw this fall due to an arm injury, but is a sure-handed shortstop. He knows everything that is going on in the game and is a very savvy baseball player.
“Erik Harbutz is a local player and switch-hitter that has really bought in here at the end,” Butler said. “He has been a fantastic player in the fact that he can play third, short, second and first. He can play everywhere. We are very impressed with Erik. He will have a chance to play shortstop, third or second base.
“Tanner Kirk is a tough minded player that has all the tools to play shortstop,” Butler said. “We are just trying to refine him and slow him down a little bit. He has great makeup and he is going to work at it until he gets it.
“Wes Phillips is an extremely fast runner and he is becoming a sure handed middle infielder,” Butler said. “He had a fantastic fall and he kept getting better as the fall went on. We are very pleased with him.
“Michael Burns is a middle infielder that is a fast runner and a very tough out that has really impressed us as the fall has gone on,” Butler said. “He might move to the outfield this spring, but he could move back to the infield as the season goes on. He seems more comfortable in the outfield right now and he had a very good Fall World Series and is a very tough out.”
Junior Chase Simpson looks to take over the job at third base after sitting out last season due to transfer rules.
“Chase Simpson is a physical third baseman, switch-hitter and good defender who sat out last year because of the transfer rule,” Butler said. “He has really worked hard and is a serious player. He will hit in the 3-4-5 order for us and we are expecting big things from him along with Gillaspie and Baker in the middle of the order.”
The Shocker outfield returns three starters in 2014 including seniors Garrett Bayliff and Micah Green and junior Mikel Mucha. Bayliff earned second team all-Valley honors and hit .379 with nine doubles, one triple, 39 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Green hit .286 with nine doubles, two triples, two home runs and 27 RBI, while Mucha hit .281 with nine doubles, two triples, one home run, 22 RBI and nine stolen bases.
“Garrett Bayliff is probably the best outfielder we have on our team as far as defending and arm,” Butler said. “He is a no nonsense player that will probably be a two-hole type player. He will be at the top of the order and is an extremely tough out and a very sharp player.
“Micah Green is as physical of a centerfielder as you can have in college baseball,” Butler said. “We think he has the confidence to have the season he has been looking for. He can change the game with one swing and is also a plus runner and plus defender. He had a very good fall.
“Mikel Mucha is a very good athlete,” Butler said. “He can run, is a good outfielder and has a good arm. He had a good fall and has made some adjustments and we think he is a much better offensive player than he has been.”
Other players that could see time in the outfield include sophomores Tanner Dearman, Daniel Kihle and Joe Haddox, freshman Michael Burns and junior college transfer Jerrik Sigg. Sophomore Conner Knight also returns after having Tommy John surgery last year.
“Tanner Dearman might be one of the fastest guys on the team,” Butler said. “He can play any position in the outfield or second base. I think Tanner could be the leadoff hitter. He is the perfect type of leadoff guy. He can take pitches, knows how to get on base, walks more than he strikes out, puts the bat on the ball and he can really run. He is an igniter to our offense and we are excited about him in that position.
“Daniel Kihle was injured the second half of the fall,” Butler said. “He is one of the fastest runners on the team and has surprising power in his bat. He has a chance to be an outstanding player.
“Joe Haddox is a good outfielder that will have an opportunity,” Butler said. “He needs to keep coming on and improve over the break and come back ready to go. He is another athletic runner and we are looking for big things from Joe.
“Michael Burns can run, has a very good arm and showcases his ability in the outfield,” Butler said. “He is a tough out that had a very good fall. He is very tough minded and strong mentally for a freshman.
“Jerrik Sigg is a good runner and hard worker that has a chance to be a role type guy,” Butler said. “He needs to improve, and he is as he is still learning and hopefully he will continue.
“Conner Knight has been injured all fall and we haven’t really had an opportunity to see him perform,” Butler said. “Hopefully he will be able to practice in February. We haven’t been able to make an evaluation because he’s been injured.”
The Shockers will be looking for a new designated hitter after the graduation of Johnny Coy. Last season, Coy hit .275 with 11 doubles, one triple, three home runs and 36 RBI. With most of the power guys in the field, Butler expects the designated hitter to hit at the top of the order.
“For the DH spot there’s Tanner Dearman, Erik Harbutz, Parker Zimmerman, Daniel Kihle, among other guys,” Butler said. “We have some options so it is just depending on who the pitcher is or depending on how our lineup is performing. I’d like the DH to hit in the top of the order.”