(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
Nearly every freshman class is linked together, having gone through the same recruiting process and experiencing Division I baseball from the lens of a newcomer. But the 2016 freshman class at Arizona State feels as if it has a special bond between them–one that makes up only part of their success stories so far as Sun Devils.
Due to the large number of contributing players that left school last spring for either graduation or to sign with an MLB team, ASU came into the 2016 season with lots of holes to fill. Experience was hard to come by, and most of those roles had to be filled by untested freshman learning on the fly.
Gage Canning has been entrenched as Tracy Smith’s right fielder since Opening Night. Tyler Williams, the number one high school player in Arizona coming out of Raymond S. Kellis High School in Glendale, has been slowly but surely grasping the open left field spot as the season heads to a close. Don’t forget about James Ryan, who Smith has shown tremendous confidence in as a freshman reliever. He hasn’t disappointed, holding a 3.70 ERA in 24.1 innings.
Ryan thinks that having a strong group of companions to go through the learning experience of playing college baseball together is something that breeds success on the field.
“Normally freshmen are close because they live together, and they play together and work out together, but we hang out together,” Ryan said. “My best friends on the team are my fellow freshmen, and most of us are pitchers too so we pretty much spend every minute of every day with each other.”
Ryan believes that he has improved as a player tremendously since arriving on campus, but that his area of most growth has been the work put in after he releases the pitch to home plate.
“Being a fielder on the mound is what I’ve improved on most. I wasn’t the best fielder after I let go of the ball in high school, and now I feel confident in every situation,” Ryan said.
Canning has been a nice addition to Smith’s everyday lineup, mostly due to his speed (8-for-12 in stolen base attempts this year), but other aspects of his game have come through at the biggest moments. He hit his first collegiate home run on April 23 in the second of three-straight wins for ASU when it visited Stanford.
Canning thinks that his development as a player is going to depend solely on his ability to develop as a hitter.
“Coming from high school, facing high school pitching is just completely different,” Canning said. “And coming (to ASU) and facing this sort of pitching, you just have to get a lot better.”
Sun Devil pitching coach Brandon Higelin thinks that Canning’s desire to improve every day is something that will suit him well in the coming years.
“One thing he would like to improve on is getting on base a little bit more,” Higelin said. “One thing that really impressed me is that he comes ready to practice every day. He’s an incredible outfielder, shows off an arm and runs down balls in right field that look like base hits and he finds a way to catch them. So I think his overall demeanor and how he approaches the game has been tremendous.”
Williams has the skillset to be the most talented player out of this freshman class when it’s all said and done, but the first two-thirds of the season were a struggle for him to find his consistency. It all seemed to change for him in a three-game series against Washington starting on March 31. He registered a hit in all three games as the starting left fielder, and has continued to slowly produce more and more ever since.
Williams thinks that transitioning to college and perfecting his swing were the reasons for the shaky start.
“Honestly it was a little bit of both,” he said. “I got with (assistant coach Ben Greenspan) and I worked with my swing for a great amount of days and tried to get better at perfecting it to the best I can. It was just a lot of time in the cages… And it seems to be working.”
Williams echoed Ryan in that having such a bond with all the other freshmen on the team made the early stages of the process much more enjoyable.
“It made it a lot easier. It helped us settle in and just sit back and relax and not try to think too much about the baseball side of things,” Williams said. “When we’re able to have fun outside of baseball, then that transitioned to us being able to play great on the field.”