As his team trudged through a rough 2017 season filled with issues on and off the field, Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith kept to the usual script. He admitted that he expected the third year of his tenure in Tempe to be rocky, but kept saying the best was yet to come.
Fans received a glimpse of that as a few freshmen from Smith’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class played key roles and showed continued progression throughout the season. The program now adds a fourth-ranked recruiting class to the fold, further proving Smith’s recruiting prowess as he continues the rebuild.
While Smith is proud of the work he and his staff have done on the recruiting trail, he maintains this: Rankings are nice, but meaningless if the results don’t transfer. He thinks they will, though.
“You trust your eyes in recruiting, you look for players that possess to me at least, what I would call Major League-potential skill,” Smith told reporters following Game 2 of ASU’s Maroon and Gold World Series on Wednesday. “If you don’t have that, we’re not going to recruit you.”
Talent — though necessary and important — is only one part. Since taking the ASU job, Smith has worked to create a more team-centered environment in the locker room.
It’s easy to say, but difficult to do. It takes time. Coaches spend hours with recruits and their families and they try to get a sense of who the kid is, where he comes from and how he was raised.
Smith feels like he and his staff nailed that, too.
“This team is very, very close, but you can feel it when you walk into that locker room, it’s a different feel,” he said. “It takes not just talent, but everybody buying in together to have a good baseball team.”
Smith often points to junior outfielder Gage Canning as a program model, someone he wants younger players to emulate. Not only is Canning a man of few words, but Smith always says the score never dictates the Ramona, California, native’s effort.
Along with the team’s five seniors, Canning has stepped into a leadership role and wants to ensure there’s no repeat of last season. Not only on the field but off it too.
So far, so good.
“I think the guys that have already been here, we realized what happened and that stuff kind of can’t happen again,” Canning said Tuesday following Game 1 of the Maroon and Gold World Series. “Everyone is on the same page and we know that’s not going to be tolerated, that kind of stuff. As long as everyone is doing what they need to do and what they’re supposed to do, I think we’ll be fine.”
It doesn’t appear Smith’s words are propaganda, at least not from the outside. There are new faces all over the field for the Sun Devils. Smith’s latest recruiting class seems to have a unique depth to it, especially in the infield and on the mound.
One of them is Drew Swift, a local kid from Hamilton High School. Swift finished his high school career by winning back-to-back state championships with the Huskies, who have won six since 2003.
Swift, whose uncle played football at ASU, grew up rooting for the Sun Devils. He remembers watching the baseball team play at Packard Stadium, the program’s home until it moved to Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 2015.
Now, Phoenix Muni is his training ground, the spot where he looks to develop and stay ahead of the freshmen learning curve. His days don’t start on the diamond, though.
“I’ll start class at 9 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “I’ll have two classes, I get done at 11:45 or 12. I usually go pick up a sandwich somewhere or I’ll make something at my place, then come over here to start practice.”
Practice is where Swift and his fellow freshmen have honed their craft. Thus far, they’ve looked promising.
They’ve even earned praise from the man Smith often jokes can do no wrong — on and off the field.
“A lot of the freshmen, they’re really good,” Canning said. “And I’m not saying they can’t be because you know they can be, but it’s like they’ve been playing college baseball for a while it seems like.”
But where are they compared to where Canning was his freshman year? That should be an appropriate measuring stick considering Canning was ASU’s best performer a year ago.
“They’re really good at hitting and being disciplined,” Canning said. “Maybe that’s something it took me a bit longer to figure out, is to stay disciplined in the zone, and they’ve been pretty good at that.”
He conceded it took time, but he’s figured it out — just look at the numbers. Last season, Canning led the Sun Devils in batting average (.332), doubles (12), triples (8), home runs (6) and runs scored (37).
The batting average is impressive, but Canning is known as a contact hitter. The power numbers are what seem to jump off the screen.
“I never see myself as the guy that’s going to hit a lot of home runs or anything, and I know it’s going to happen sometimes, but it’s kind of surprising to maybe see that sometimes because you don’t even expect it from yourself sometimes,” Canning said.
It seems ASU will have plenty of pop at the plate this season, but on the mound is perhaps where it needs to improve most from last year. That, too, begins with a fresh face.
Enter Mike Cather, the program’s new pitching coach who comes with over a decade of professional coaching experience at different levels. He’s worked with former ASU baseball coach Pat Murphy, and twice with Theo Epstein — once with the Boston Red Sox organization and once with the Chicago Cubs as the Triple-A Iowa Cubs pitching coach.
“If those guys aren’t learning something, there’s something wrong with them,” Smith said of his pitchers.
Smith said he’s allowing Cather to do whatever he sees fit with the pitching staff. After all, Smith took on the challenge last season when his team didn’t have a pitching coach and it proved to be a difficult dual-role.
Cather is now imparting his wisdom on Sun Devil pitchers, including freshman right-hander Boyd Vander Kooi, a Mesa native and the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017.
“They’ve helped me a lot on the mental side,” Vander Kooi said of Cather and Smith. As you know, pitching is mental and you got to stay positive and they’ve really helped me out with that. With the mechanics, they’ve helped me out with that a little bit here and there, but they don’t like to change a lot.
“Basically, just forming yourself to get to the big leagues. (Cather) knows the pro ball side of it, so he basically just helps you, not only from the college side but the pro guys, they have a different mentality of it.”
Vander Kooi said he’s sure Cather’s influence — and its results — will draw recruits.
“I’m assuming during the season, we’ll be pretty good, so it’ll intrigue a lot of guys,” said Vander Kooi, who was rated the No. 1 righty and No. 2 overall player in the state out of high school.
ASU posted the lowest winning percentage in program history last season. Its streak of 54 consecutive seasons with at least 30 wins ended and the Sun Devils missed the postseason for the first time since 1999, not including the postseason ban in 2012.
Smith’s message to the team: Close the book on all of that.
New faces and a different feel are making that easier by the day as fall ball progresses and the Sun Devils look forward to the spring. Smith said he feels this group is close-knit and wants to let its on-field play do the talking when the season arrives.
“Just having everyone on the same page and going in the same direction, that’s what we need,” Canning said.
It seems ASU finally has that.