Ray Anderson knows baseball. The Arizona State athletic director enjoyed a successful college career playing at Stanford.
But his recent decision to bring back his head baseball coach for another season directing the Sun Devil program requires more than a dose of baseball savvy.
It requires a long jumper’s leap of faith.
Anderson hired Tracy Smith in the summer of 2014, just his second major hire after taking over as Vice President for Athletics in January of that year. Under Smith, the tradition-rich baseball program posted a couple of mediocre seasons in which the Devils finished tied for third in the Pac-12 both years.
But things took a turn for the worse the last two seasons.
The 2017 squad won just 23 games, the first time in 55 years an ASU baseball team finished a season with fewer than 30 victories. The .418 winning percentage that year was the lowest in program history and the 23-32 record was just the second losing season ever, and earned the team a tie for last place in the conference.
It got even uglier this season. A second straight losing season put this year’s team in the school record books since never before has an ASU baseball team suffered back-to-back losing seasons — with identical 23-32 records, no less.
The only statistical sign of improvement came in conference play where the Devils went from eight wins last year to 13 this season. That was enough improvement to be able to climb out of the Pac-12 cellar the year before to a seventh-place finish this season.
But all four seasons under Smith have been very disappointing in the postseason. The first two years, the Sun Devils lost in the regionals, and the last two years didn’t even make it into the postseason.
This is a program that made four appearances in the College World Series from 2005 through 2010.
To say there is fan unrest would be putting it mildly. And that puts even more heat on the AD.
But Anderson is looking past the disappointing numbers and trying to focus on what lies ahead. He’s had to base his decision to stay the course based on the potential he sees for the future, and his confidence that Smith is the guy who can make the most of that potential.
Smith has brought in recruiting classes the last two years that have been ranked among the top five in the nation. That speaks well for Anderson’s decision to hire Smith, who was recognized as one of the better coaches in the country when it comes to evaluating and developing talent. His recruiting success during his 18 years as a head coach before taking the ASU job was a major consideration in his hire.
But with that talent acquisition has come the downside of taking time to develop it. And while those youngsters are getting up to college speed, the growing pains are reflected in the statistics.
There were times last season when the ASU starting line-up included half a dozen freshmen. There has been an abundance of freshmen and sophomores in the line-up the last two years and it takes time to blend that many newcomers with the veterans and create a clubhouse chemistry that moves the team forward, rather than impedes its progress.
Progress in the field also takes time. This past season, ASU led the conference with 78 errors and its pitching staff posted an anemic 4.70 ERA, ranking ninth among Pac-12 teams.
But Anderson and Smith are both banking on what these youngsters will be able to accomplish with some experience under their belts. And hopefully there will be a gem or two among those in the incoming recruiting class, which looks like it will once again be rated among the better classes in the country.
Anderson sees the future developing with the talent that Smith has been bringing in. He wants to give it another season to bloom into a program that could return ASU to national relevance once again.
But his patience has limits. “We expect significant improvement, and Tracy knows that,” Anderson said a couple of weeks ago when announcing his decision to return Smith to the bench next season. “2019 is a big year for us to show significant improvement moving forward.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)