(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
In its second year under Tracy Smith, Arizona State once again competed in the postseason. Alas, it found itself exiting in regional play, despite winning one more playoff game than last season and finishing at a slightly better 36-23.
There were a lot of positives from the team this season, such as it starting 4-8 in Pac-12 play and finishing 16-14 and tied for third in the conference.
We surveyed our reporters on some of the hottest questions from this past season.
What was your biggest takeaway from the offense this season?
Jacob Janower: My biggest takeaway from the offense is that even after all he did these past two season, David Greer may still be underrated. The junior hit .346 this season after posting a .314 mark last season, but he still didn’t seemingly get the credit he deserves. He also took his power up a notch, hitting eight home runs, which was tied for the team lead and four times as many as he hit last season. On top of that, he played five different positions in the field, including pitcher. It was fellow juniors Colby Woodmansee and Brian Serven who got all the attention, but Greer quietly put together one of the best campaigns of any hitter in the Pac-12.
Dominic Cotroneo: David Greer is a big league hitter. If he was ever in a slump this season, it would be resolved by the next weekend. He was a creator, a producer, a leader, and a team-player. His offense never suffered while bouncing around defensively. It has been incredible to watch his rise since Dalton DiNatale’s injury last season, which begs the question: what if DiNatale never got hurt?
Jacob Garcia: It wasn’t as big of a strength as I thought it would be, but there were some definite bright spots as well. David Greer had a monster season, like many of us forecasted here at Cronkite Sports. Despite the late-season struggles, Colby Woodmansee had a very acceptable year, and the same can be said for Brian Serven, whose final slash line of .293/.348/.423 looks better than many would have thought at the half way point.
Meanwhile, the question marks that surrounded the rest of ASU’s order at the beginning of the season showed definite promise. Andrew Shaps finished scorching hot and should be a doubles machine next year; Andrew Snow showed that his freshman campaign from an offensive perspective was no fluke; and Gage Canning proved he can be the sparkplug atop the lineup for years to come.
Bobby Kraus: That it has the ability to sustain itself for seasons to come thanks to big contributions from underclassmen. With outfielder Andrew Shaps hitting .321 for the year or true freshman Gage Canning finding a home in the leadoff spot, along with guys with big potential like Tyler Williams or Ryan Lillard. The Sun Devils could lose a big chunk of their veteran offensive players to the MLB Draft, such as Colby Woodmansee, Brian Serven and even David Greer. It will be up to the young guys to continue to improve in order to maintain the level of success Tracy Smith expects every season.
Colton Dodgson: During the offseason, all the talk surrounding the offense gave reason to believe that the unit would be Tracy Smith’s team’s biggest strength this season, this notion held true and then some, more so due to the fact that every other aspect of this team was far too inconsistent to be viewed as a strength. The Arizona State offense saw 298 runners cross the plate in 2016, and obviously guys like David Greer, Brian Serven, and before his slump at the end of the season, Colby Woodmansee, made major contributions, as they were expected to, but it was the cast of underclassmen that not only anchored the lineup this season, but provided hope for the future.
The trio of Andrew Snow, Andrew Shaps and Gage Canning all progressed in a big way toward the end of the year, with the exception of Snow who was more effective in the first half of the season. The trio batted .276, .321 and .269 respectively to accompany a combined 77 RBI and 40 extra base hits. There won’t be a definitive answer until after June’s MLB Draft, but with with rising stock of both Greer and Serven in addition to Woodmansee’s already high stock, there’s a chance that the trio of Snow, Shaps and Canning will need to comprise the ASU offense’s biggest threat next season.
What was your biggest takeaway from the pitching staff this season?
JJ: Just because you have a lot of pitchers doesn’t mean you are deep. The Sun Devils depth was tested early when Opening Day starter Hever Bueno went down with an injury early in the season. Smith tried many combinations of pitchers after Seth Martinez in the rotation, but struggled to find consistently reliable starters. While he did find somewhat of a solution with Eli Lingos and Zach Dixon towards the end of the season, a plethora of young pitchers struggled to find their footing after being thrust into bigger roles than initially expected. The large amount of pitchers on the team didn’t translate into success for the staff as a whole.
DC: Eder Erives’ arm was indispensable this season. He pitched in more stressful innings than anyone this season when he wasn’t projected to be the closer this season. He did was he was told and always gave the Devils the confidence they would need whenever he was on the mound.
JG: That it continues to be a work in progress, and the minimal impact of Hever Bueno was a substantial blow. Not only did Bueno’s mere 6 1/3 innings pitched this season deprive ASU of a bonafide Friday night starter, but it shortened the length of ASU’s entire staff. Combine that with Andrew Shaps expected to be the team’s closer, and then not being the team’s closer, and it’s actually pretty impressive that ASU was able to put together the record that it did. The bright spot going into next season for this unit is that while it issued the second-most walks in the conference, it also struck out the most batters. Loosely, this may signal that ASU has some of the best “stuff” pitchers that are command adjustments away from taking big leaps next season.
BK: That it has the potential to take a huge step forward in 2017. Hever Bueno, a top-100 draft prospect prior to the season, will most likely return for his senior season after pitching only 6 1/3 innings due to injury in 2016. There’s no telling yet if Seth Martinez will depart early after the stellar season that he put up. If they both come back, the Sun Devils could have one of the most power-packed weekend rotations in the country. Add that with the possibility of Eder Erives coming back, along with young guys like James Ryan, Zach Dixon and others could lead to a stellar staff in 2017.
CD: The staff was sporadic all season – a pitcher who started just two games no-hit eventual Pac-12 champion Utah, a freshman threw a complete game shutout, but there were still just three pitchers, Seth Martinez, Jordan Aboites (!) and Eder Erives, who were any bit of consistent this season.
There will always be the question of where the staff would be had Hever Bueno not strained his forearm in his first start of the season against Xavier, but regardless, Bueno’s absence paved the way for Martinez to step up and prove he could be an ace (9-4, 2.75 ERA and 94 SO) and made forced Smith to thrust Aboites into a more prominent pitching role (7-3, 3.69 ERA and 40 SO). It also didn’t help that Andrew Shaps, Smith’s projected closer in the offseason, wasn’t healthy enough to pitch. Expect him to be back in the fold next season.
The Bueno mystery will likely continue through the offseason, but with Aboites gone, Smith is going to need someone to step up in the offseason to fill that void behind Martinez.
How have your thoughts on the team’s talent changed from pre-season to now?
JJ: My thoughts are not much different than they were before the season. I expected ASU to perform slightly better than the atypically low expectations placed on them, which they did. It was a struggle at first in the Pac-12, but once the offense started to take off and the rotation took shape, the Sun Devils became the team I thought they would be, which was one that would compete for the Pac-12 title. I just didn’t think Utah would be the team that would beat them for it.
DC: Offensively, it’s exciting to watch the underclassmen develop that were question marks, most notably Andrew Shaps and Gage Canning. They could be a dangerous 1-2 or 9-1 combo in the lineup next season. While the question marks in the pitching staff weren’t all answered, the unit took a collective step forward.
JG: Not really. I forecasted it to finish with a slightly better record in 2016 than it did in 2015 and it turns out that was accurate, even if it was by the slimmest of margins (36-23 this year, 35-23 last year).
But while the ultimate forecast was correct, the manner in which I arrived at the conclusion was wrong. ASU had a negative run differential this year—something they did not have last year—predominantly because the offense was not as explosive as I figured it to be. So, why didn’t this result in a worse record? Look no further than a 12-1 mark in one-run games. This fueled ASU’s incredible late-season push, but may have also been the reason for two losses in the Fort Worth Regional, when ASU was facing different and tougher (in TCU’s case) competition.
BK: Not much. While the team definitely had some surprise performances over the course of the season, Arizona State will always field a talented team every season. There are some players to watch for in 2017 given the experience they gained in 2016, but I believe that the team reached its ceiling in terms of where they finished the season given the roster it had to work with. Now the task will turn to taking Smith’s first big recruiting class and start building a national title contender in Phoenix.
CD: I wasn’t sure what to expect this season, partially due to the fact that there wasn’t any one aspect of this team that shrouded in questions this offseason. The offense was expected to be okay, but at the same time, Tracy Smith was trying to replace three outfielders. The pitching staff lost two weekend starters and Smith’s closer, Andrew Shaps, never actually threw a pitch. The fact that this team still finished with a 36-23 record means my expectations were shattered.
It looked as though all the offseason questions that never seemed to be completely answered were catching up to the Devils after they started 1-5 in the conference. Yet, somehow, they ultimately finished third in the Pac-12.
With all of the turnaround this season, any success was going to come by way of some unheralded guys stepping up. Players like Gage Canning, Andrew Shaps and Zach Dixon (at times) all made the turnaround possible and helped exceed not only my expectations, but the expectations of many others.
In your opinion, what was the main factor that turned the Sun Devils season around?
JJ: Smith and the entire coaching staff did a great job, but a lot of the credit has to be given to the entire offense, from the veterans such as Greer, Woodmansee, and Serven to the freshman like Gage Canning and Tyler Williams. During the peak of their surge, everyone in the lineup from top to bottom was producing on any given night, making it easier on the rocky pitching staff. Over the course of a nine game span that included series wins over Stanford, Cal, and Oregon, ASU averaged about 5.5 runs per game.
DC: Tracy Smith. There’s a reason he was a two-time Big Ten coach of the year, and if it wasn’t for a worst-to-first Utah team coached by brief Sun Devil Bill Kinneberg, Smith probably would have added the Pac-12 version of the award to his trophy case.
JG: It has to have been coaching. Tracy Smith, Brandon Higelin and Ben Greenspan pulled a bit of a Houdini act, completely maximizing the potential they had on this roster. Whether it was something overt, such as using Eder Erives in a very creative fashion, or something less appreciated, such as concealing the designated hitter until his at bat came around, the coaching staff exploited every possible competitive advantage.
BK: The series win over California April 15-17. The team was 4-8 in conference play going into that weekend and going nowhere fast in the Pac-12. After an extra-inning loss in game 2 of the series, a complete-game shutout by Dixon in his first career start provided a spark for the Sun Devils that catapulted them to a sweep on the road against Stanford the next weekend. The team was able to carry that momentum throughout the remainder of the season and turn it into a berth the NCAA tournament.
CD: Well from a broader perspective, it was the attitude that Smith emphasized responsible for salvaging a lost season. Game after game, Smith would stress that his team was good enough to win at least two games a weekend and that anything less would be unacceptable. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Arizona State rattled off six-straight conference wins, almost like what Smith had been saying week after week was a bit of foreshadowing. It was the attitude that propelled the team, but from an individual perspective, Gage Canning seemed to break out right around the time of the team’s turnaround. In the second half, he was almost untouchable and played an instrumental role in Arizona State’s resurrection.
What was the biggest surprise this season?
JJ: The biggest surprise has to be Andrew Shaps. Outside of the fact that he was someone I thought would mostly be seen pitching in the ninth and yet didn’t pitch a single inning all season, he became one of the best hitters on the team. Shaps was relatively quiet to start the season, but once Pac-12 play came around he really found his stride, batting .320 and slugging .470, which was above his mark of .443 for the entire season. He also provided highlight reel plays seemingly everyday in centerfield.
DC: Colby Woodmansee’s massive slump to end the season came out of nowhere. The timing was also confusing; Woody’s slump began when the Sun Devils began their six-series winning streak. His batting average started at .362, but his glacial-paced slide ended his season at .265.
JG: ASU finished 12-1 in one-run games.
How does a team that scraped together a bullpen for much of the season, and relied heavily on underclassmen, become so successful at winning close games? Some good fortune was definitely involved, but intestinal fortitude and creative coaching were also at play. Consider this: Eder Erives saved a team-high 10 games and was also second on the team with 76 1/3 innings pitched. There are Major League closers who don’t get to 76 innings in a season… And they play 162 games! This speaks directly to how Tracy Smith maximized every bit from his talented reliever, whether it be high-leverage, late-inning situations or in important middle innings when his starter failed to get through the order once. Tracy Smith’s wizardry as well as ASU’s high level of play in important situations bode well for the seasons to come.
BK: The emergence of Gage Canning. The true freshman was Smith’s starting right fielder from day 1, but started off slow offensively. By season’s end he found himself entrenched in the leadoff spot, led the team in stolen bases with 10, and was a defensive force in the field, particularly with his arm.
CD: Going back to my previous statements regarding the pitching staff, I was most surprised by the way Jordan Aboites, Eder Erives and Seth Martinez comprised the, and I use this term loosely, weekend rotation. It was the opposite of constant, as there were times where Aboites or Erives didn’t start in a series, but when the Devils needed a win, it always seemed as though one of the three earned the decision. The trio combined to win 22 out of ASU’s 36 total wins and cushioned the blow of losing Hever Bueno on opening night, which was an impact the team never really felt thanks to these three.
How can Tracy Smith and his staff build off of this season with next season’s incoming recruiting class?
JJ: There are a lot of question marks with ASU’s recruiting class, which as of right now is the No. 1 ranked class in the nation. The top draft prospect among the high schoolers seems to be Gavin Lux, who also seems to be the surest bet to sign with an MLB team. LSU transfer Jake Godfrey will immediately bolster the rotation and fill the void left by Martinez. It will be up to Smith to work the same magic he did this season and mix and match his players well enough to override the inexperience.
DC: First he has to find out who is actually going to make it to campus. While the number one ranking for incoming recruiting class is nice, he might have recruited too well. Meaning, the recruits that bolster the ranking, could be signed to professional teams. That being said, Skip will have a majority of players that he recruited on his roster for the first time since coming to Phoenix in 2017.
JG: Well, with the exact same phrase that accompanied Tracy Smith’s arrival to ASU in the first place: “If he can win at Indiana, imagine what he can do at ASU!” The subtext here is that ASU is a much more attractive destination for recruits. The incoming recruiting class exemplifies that perfectly, even if many of them ultimately end up signing with Major League clubs. The fact of the matter is Tracy Smith proved he could win when the talent wasn’t elite. He did it continuously at Indiana and he did it in year one, and even more so in year two at ASU. Year three is an important step. While the rebuild probably isn’t completely finished, the toughest year is now behind. The emphasis now is on moving forward.
BK: This incoming recruiting class is the first of most likely many top-rated classes that Smith and his staff will bring to Phoenix Municipal Stadium. While the high-profile names of the class such as shortstop Gavin Lux will probably not even make it to campus, there are still plenty of high-caliber players that Smith will be able to use to continue the success of this season.
CD: It never hurts bring in some reinforcements, but the Devils still won’t know who is going to be donning the Maroon and Gold until after the MLB Draft. In the same respect, the fact that ASU’s recruiting class is likely to be picked apart by MLB clubs is a testament to Tracy Smith and his staff’s ability to recruit, regardless of if they end up on campus or not. Should one of Smith’s star recruits choose to forgo professional ball and come to play at Phoenix Muni, it’s not like he wouldn’t fit in with what the team is trying to accomplish. When a team that is supposedly rebuilding finishes with 36 wins, it’s an indication that said team is close to getting over the top. Smith and his ability to bring top talent to the desert will only expedite that process.
JJ: David Greer
DC: David Greer
JG: David Greer
BK: David Greer
CD: David Greer
Pitching Staff MVP:
JJ: Eder Erives
DC: Seth Martinez
JG: Co-award goes to Eder Erives and Seth Martinez
BK: Seth Martinez
CD: Seth Martinez
JJ: Andrew Shaps
DC: Andrew Shaps
JG: Andrew Shaps
BK: Andrew Shaps
CD: Gage Canning
Most Impressive Freshman:
JJ: Gage Canning
DC: Gage Canning (Honorable Mention Chris Isbell)
JG: Gage Canning
BK: Gage Canning
CD: Gage Canning with an honorable mention to Zach Dixon
Player with most to prove next season:
JJ: Andrew Snow
DC: Andrew Snow
JG: Tyler Williams
BK: Tyler Williams
CD: Tyler Williams/Ryan Lillard