Alika Williams, ASU baseball have major expectations for the 2020 season
TEMPE – Alika Williams was not considered a top-tier baseball recruit when he arrived at Arizona State.
He was the 32nd-round draft pick out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego in 2017, but he chose to postpone turning professional and instead decided to attend ASU.
At the time, Perfect Game rated him the 39th best shortstop and 219th overall college recruit in the country.
As Williams begins his third collegiate season, major college baseball sites D1 Baseball and Baseball America predict that he will be an All-American this year. D1 Baseball put him on its first-team as the best shortstop in the country.
“I see this stuff on Twitter, but I just want to play hard,” Williams said. “We have all these preseason accolades and stuff but we haven’t done anything yet. We need to go out and win.”
Williams’ progression and expectations have mirrored the team’s since his arrival.
As a freshman in 2018, it took him a while to get going and he finished with a lackluster .666 OPS. He was a young piece on a young team that had three other freshmen starting in the infield, and it showed. ASU finished with a 23-32 record, but that season was a stepping stone to better things.
“Looking back, it was tough, but we didn’t know anything else,” fellow 2018 freshman infielder Gage Workman said. “That year really helps us and helps us show the [current younger players] how to do things.”
Williams was a good defender at second base and shortstop in year one, but his hitting needed work.
He got 49 at-bats in the Cape Cod League the following summer, and although he did not hit much better, he blasted a home run, something he did not do his first year at ASU.
Then came a performance spike.
Williams got a hit in 12 of his first 13 games to start the 2019 season. In one of those outings, he belted a three-run home run at Cal State Fullerton, his first of four long balls that season.
He generated more power with better leverage, and with a couple of power hitters, Hunter Bishop and Spencer Torkelson, batting ahead of him, Williams had lots of chances to drive in runs. He finished with 53 RBIs in 57 games.
His slugging rose from .333 to .471 in 2019, and the Sun Devils improved with him. ASU posted a 38-19 record and could have reached its regional final had it not blown a six-run, eighth-inning lead to Southern Mississippi.
Williams earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention and All-Pac-12 defense.
The rising junior played for USA Baseball over the summer of 2019, where he shredded baseballs. In 14 games, he slugged .545 with a home run.
The experience stuck with him.
“It was a dream come true,” Williams said. “In high school I had a couple friends do that (play Team USA). I really wanted to do that in college. To have the opportunity was awesome.”
ASU coach Tracy Smith sees a great benefit to playing at Team USA, and not just for the extra reps.
“It gives them another level of confidence,” Smith said. “When you play against the best in the world and look around and say ‘I belong here’ and in some cases ‘I’m better than these guys,’ I think it gives you a unique perspective. I think it helps make them more comfortable and confident.”
Williams played over the summer with fellow Sun Devil Spencer Torkelson, who despite being placed No. 1 on several mock drafts for 2020, was outhit by Williams.
Perhaps the confidence Williams gained by hitting so well in international play has set up another spike. When he returned to the Valley in the fall, Smith noticed that Williams’ hitting reached new heights.
“Physically the ball is jumping off his bat differently this fall,” Smith said. “I’m encouraged to see what he does. He’s always been a good hitter with good contact. When I say power it’s not only home runs but doubles and I’m excited to see it.”
Williams will be a major factor in how far ASU goes in 2020. Torkelson is expected to be the leader on offense, but ASU needs Williams along with Workman and fellow junor Trevor Hauver to round out a potentially potent lineup.
Several baseball news sites have the Sun Devils in the Top 10 in their preseason rankings, with Baseball America placing them at No. 3. For the first time in Williams’ college career, he is on a team with expectations to make a run at the championship.
“It’s cool to see how far we’ve come since freshman year,” Williams said. “To be where we are now is incredible. It’s fun to take a step back, but we haven’t won anything yet. We’re in the conversation, but now we have to go do it.”
That expectation is a new challenge for ASU.
Five players were on Baseball America’s top-100 draft prospect list. Accolades, higher draft stock and future money are all things on the line for Williams and several Sun Devils, but Williams said that everything revolves around winning the championship.
If the Sun Devils are good enough to win, then their players will get the accolades naturally.
“It’s good to see guys get recognized. We have not had a lot of that around here recently,” Smith said. “The business plan years ago we laid out was being in the conversation for the national championship. So we talked about it with the team. If you’re ranked then you’re in the conversation, which is good. But it doesn’t mean anything yet.”
ASU’s quest for Omaha begins on Friday, Feb. 14, at Phoenix Municipal Stadium against the Villanova WIldcats.