Arkansas State baseball did not finish in last place this season, concluding the season ahead of Marshall and ULM and just bellow South Alabama – whom the Red Wolves swept in the last series of the season. For the effort, A-State standout first baseman Brandon Hager earned the Sun Belt Conference’s final Player of the Week (.556/1.222/.750) of the season, and the team concluded play 9-19 in conference and 20-31 overall.
Nine conference victories is a four game improvement over last season. Also better, the team’s fielding percentage, which skyrocketed from an SBC worse in 2022 to right there in the middle in 2023. Team pitching continued to be terrible with a 7.35 ERA, worse than any SBC team save Appalachian State. No Sun Belt baseball team hit fewer dingers (41) than Arkansas State. Only the Mountaineers’ pitching staff surrendered more walks. On a positive note, Arkansas State’s 51 errors was significantly better than the team’s 84 errors in 2022.
While the team made some statistical improvements in 2023, the result between this season and last is exactly the same – no SBC tournament appearance, an honor served to the conference’s top ten programs. In fact, the Red Wolves have missed post season play four of the last five seasons, falling farther and farther behind in a sport for which the Sun Belt is recognized nationally as elite.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State baseball is far from elite – the farthest planet from. Facilities are second-rate. The operating budget is comically small. The program continues to be an after-thought behind football and basketball. While that may have been acceptable (if unfortunate) in the Old Sun Belt, the gods of New Sun Belt demand more offerings – and perhaps even sacrifice.
There are signs of life. The before mentioned Brandon Hager batted .348 this year with 55 RBI (9th best in the Sun Belt). Sophomore infielder Will French batted .318 with the Sun Belt’s 12th best OBP (0.455). Pitcher Kyler Carmack turned in the conferences third best ERA (3.23) while compiling a 5-3 record. Though no players were named to the SBC first and second teams, the program is not without some talent.
But maybe not enough talent, especially on the mound and particularly in mid-and-late relief. How many times did we see leads squandered by ineffective pitching this season? As a result, Arkansas State’s 231 RPI was the conference’s second worst. The team’s biggest win was probably an 8-7 home win over Missouri State.
So what do we do now? The program’s leadership has resided with the much-respected and well-liked Tommy Raffo for 16 seasons now. His record is 360-418-1 with zero conference championships and zero NCAA tournament appearances. Working with a heroically small budget and minimal resources haven’t helped Raffo, but perhaps everybody could use a change of perspective, including the hall of famer from Mississippi State.
The most significant change the program can make, however, is for the A-State Athletic Department to make baseball a priority. Of course, we can do our part by chipping into the Red Wolves Foundation and the ImPACKt Club, but donations are best spurred when we know that have a horse in the race. We’ve seen renderings of ball park improvements. We’ve heard rumblings and rumors and whispers. What’s missing is commitment. Jeff Purinton’s sans-Dionysus approach to football and basketball appears to be paying dividends for those programs.
Perhaps baseball, at last baseball, will be next.