(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
While Arizona State’s 4-3 record is better than it appears on paper, the team has yet to maximize its full potential.
That is largely due to a missing piece, junior center fielder Andrew Shaps, having served a five game suspension to open the season. He missed the entire series against Northwestern, Tuesday’s loss to Oklahoma State, and the first of the three-game set against TCU.
Having been named a All Pac-12 Honorable Mention last season, Shaps’ presence was understandably direly missed.
Shaps’ absence was because of a suspension to start the season due to a violation of team standards.
There are new faces coming in at just about every position, but it’s the outfield, led by Shaps, that appears ready to take the team to the next level.
The Paradise Valley, AZ native had an impressive 2016 season, as he batted .321 with a .433 slugging percentage. Shaps is also a solid defender, recording a fielding percentage of .977 last season. He primarily pitched during his freshman season, but has since moved to the outfield.
Shaps placed second on the team in batting average, hits, and triples and placed third in runs scored, with most of those categories being led by recently drafted David Greer.
Something ASU has missed this early season, is leadership. Junior Eli Lingos has done well early in the season but its clear that the team needs Shaps to establish himself back into that role.
“He’s the best player on our team and he’s definitely the mold that brings everybody together, not just outfield,” said freshman right fielder Hunter Bishop.
From left to right, Smith has used Ryan Lillard, Gage Canning and a mix of Bishop and Myles Denson to open up the season without Shaps.
Smith has been impressed with Lillard early on and has said the junior can definitely provide a solid bat in left field. Denson and Bishop have both platooned in right field with Canning assuming the spot in center while Shaps has been out.
Canning looks ready to move back over to right field where he played the majority of games a season ago. There are high expectations of what Shaps can do after the freshman slashed a .269 batting average with a .406 slugging percentage in his first season with the ASU program.
Canning has been impressed with the depth in the outfield and is confident in each outfielder.
“We have a really fast outfield, every guy is pretty much as fast as you’re going to see and we have good gloves out there some guys that can throw,” Canning said. “I think that’s huge, having all those guys out there. I mean six guys that are all fast that can all throw.”
With Canning moving over to right, left field will see some competition come as to who starts ballgames. Bishop, Denson and Lillard will all be competing for playing time and with Tyler Williams all of a sudden swinging a hot bat, with three RBI’s in three games against the nation’s highest ranked team, a lot will go into the starter.
“That’s a hitting slash defensive spot obviously, with hitting probably being at the forefront,” said head coach Tracy Smith. “Whoever’s swinging the bat the best will probably be out there.”
Williams wasn’t expected to be one of the core outfielders getting playing time going into Opening Day but the sophomore is batting .417 with two home runs and four RBI’s in four games.
“We have so much depth now in the outfield that it doesn’t really matter who we put out there because we know that each and every one of us will be able to get the job done,” Williams said.
Bishop echoed Williams’ sentiment, saying the feeling around the group is “healthy competition.” This mindset by Bishop’s illustrates one reason the outfield can be very successful. Unselfishness and belief in each member of the group is a crucial attitude for a team with several solid players that can play in the outfield. A group of outfielders that can go in and out whenever Smith needs will potentially be a big boost for this ASU team.
Shaps completes this group by being the big bat, the smart outfielder with a rocket arm and acting as the team leader. It’s obvious that the team is ready to get into the full swing of the season with Shaps as a veteran leader.
Having a player like Shaps back can give the team more confidence and help out the infield, who has all 10 of the team’s errors. The confidence boost of the outfield could spread to the whole team and eventually become an X-factor for this ASU team that has shown the ability to compete with some of college baseball’s best.
Shaps, who may be a bit rusty after missing the teams first five games and only playing two against TCU, will look to make his appearance felt during the entire upcoming 12-game home stand, starting against New Mexico State on Tuesday.
Rob Werner is a baseball beat reporter for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. You can follow him on Twitter @robwerner28