Coach Todd Butler and assistant Brian Walker knew they needed to earn Casey Gillaspie’s trust. They knew they needed Wichita State’s best player in their camp. They knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Their strategy: Challenge him. Wait him out.
“ ‘The toughest guy to get on our side will be Gillaspie,’ ” Butler told Walker last summer. “He’s smart. To gain trust from a good player takes time.”
Butler and Walker, then coaching at Arkansas, got their first look at Gillaspie a year ago in the NCAA Manhattan Regional. Gillaspie homered off Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek, soon to be a first-round draft pick. Two weeks later, WSU hired Butler to replace Gene Stephenson and he knew he started the job with one of college baseball’s premier hitters.
Entering Thursday’s series opener at Illinois State, Gillaspie, a junior first baseman from Omaha, is hitting .398 with 14 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .707 slugging percentage. He is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick in June and the only obstacle to national postseason honors is WSU’s .500 record. The Shockers (26-26, 10-8 Missouri Valley Conference) are tied with Illinois State (30-18, 10-8) for fourth place. Regardless of how the series goes, the likelihood is strong that they will meet again Tuesday, one as the No. 4 seed, one the No. 5 seed, on the opening day of the MVC Tournament.
Butler coached 16 seasons in the SEC, at Arkansas and Alabama, and he ranks Gillaspie, a switch-hitter, on par with the best from that conference: Todd Helton, Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta and others. When scouts ask, he tells them he expects to see Gillaspie in the major leagues within a few years.
Gillaspie worked hard to make this spring about WSU, not his future. He wanted to focus on winning, on his teammates and on enjoying college. Roommate Dayne Parker says Gillaspie rarely mentions pro ball or the draft. In the fall, Gillaspie stopped by Butler’s office to ask how he could improve as a teammate.
“He never gives up on his teammates,” Butler said. “I watch him in that dugout cheer on each and every player every day. He does not play to the scoreboard.”
He was the first player to register for classes next fall, Butler said, although there is little chance he returns to WSU.
“He wants to be prepared for anything that might happen,” Parker said.
A college student that organized and disciplined isn’t going to easily hand over influence on his baseball skills. Butler and Walker knew they needed to let the relationship develop on Gillaspie’s terms, most of the time. Coach and player talked by phone over the summer while Gillaspie raised his draft stock in the Cape Cod League. Arkansas players in the Cape gave Butler positive reviews.
When school started, the relationship started for real. Gillaspie had to figure out if his new coaches could help him get to the major leagues. The coaches needed their star to believe in them. In an early conversation, Butler told Gillaspie he needed to improve his footwork at first base.
“It was something I planned,” Butler said. “Casey, he took it as an insult, but if you challenge a player like him, he’s going to move on it. Great players want to be challenged.”
Gillaspie wasn’t prepared for that blunt assessment early in the relationship.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, man, I don’t know how I feel about this yet,’ ” he said. “When you first meet somebody, you don’t expect them to criticize you. Obviously, I started to mature more and realize this guy knows what he’s talking about. I took his advice and really started working at it.”
Gillaspie earned his right to skepticism through his play the first two seasons and his summer performance in the Cape. He earned it through his advanced understanding of hitting and his work ethic.
“Casey, he’s a hard-nosed kid and he’s done what he’s done,” Parker, a senior shortstop, said. “He kind of fought it a little bit early. Him and Walker have a really good relationship and their relationship, in general, got that started and got Casey’s trust. That didn’t take long.”
It didn’t take long, because Walker didn’t rush it, didn’t want to overcoach. It took three or four hands-off weeks before Gillaspie came to him in the fall.
“I kind of left him alone at first,” Walker said. “One day he came in and asked if we were ever going to hit together. I said we can hit whenever he wanted.”
That approach worked for Gillaspie. Walker knew, early in the relationship, that Gillaspie tested the coaches to see what they knew. Gillaspie told Walker he didn’t know anything about him. Walker said the same went for him.
“I would offer advice and his response would be, ‘Why?’ ” Walker said. “That’s when I knew he knew a lot about himself. I took a good month or so before I passed the test.”
Like most baseball relationships, this one flourished around the batting cage. The coaches helped Gillaspie with small things, simplifying his swing in RBI situations. He and Walker came up with cues to keep his swing true. They talked about family and other schools and Gillaspie shared his happiness with good grades as he fought through chemistry and biology classes.
“(Butler) kind of gave me my space, which I liked,” Gillaspie said. “He knew I was pretty good ballplayer and he wasn’t going to say much at first, until I went up to him and asked for advice. As soon as I started trusting him more, I started going in for help.”
He didn’t need much. He entered the season with a career .287 average and 19 home runs. His understanding of the strike zone and refusal to swing at bad pitches (and a lack of threats around him in the batting order) allowed him to walk 96 times while striking out 78 times in 125 games. Last summer, he led the Cape Cod League with eight home runs. He knew that some juniors falter under the pressure and expectations of the draft.
Conor Gillaspie, his brother, was too talented and too focused to let scouts in the stands distract him on the way to the first round in 2008 as a third baseman at WSU. Casey Gillaspie wanted to enjoy his final season of college baseball and knew the best way to do so was to put the pro game out of his mind as much as possible.
“It’s an awesome experience,” he said. “I’ve worked with Coach Butler and Coach Walker a lot. I’m enjoying playing for Wichita State and enjoying the process of being where I was at my freshman year until now.”
The losing does grind on Gillaspie. The Shockers struggled through a similar inconsistent season in 2013 before winning the MVC Tournament and playing in their first NCAA regional since 2009. Gillaspie hopes a similar outcome is in store over the next 10 days.
“I want to win more,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get hot at the right time this year.”