Payton Tolle turned in a performance for the ages on Saturday. Pulling double duty as the starting pitcher and designated hitter against Oakland, he struck out a career high 10 batters, allowing just one earned run on two hits and a walk in the Shockers’ 17-5 win over the Grizzlies. But that’s only half the story. He also helped his own cause by going a perfect 5-for-5 at the plate with a double, a home run and six RBIs – another career high.
“I don't think I've ever had a game quite like that,” Tolle told D1Baseball. “I mean there've been games in high school where I'm pitching well, but I can't quite find the hitting or hitting well and can't quite find the pitching, but everything was just ticking on Saturday. I don't really know what happened or what I did to be able to get that going. In the moment, I was just taking one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time and good things just kept happening.”
Tolle made an immediate impact as a freshman last spring, going 4-6, 4.48 in the weekend rotation, while also slashing .317/.357/.471 with three home runs in limited action at the plate. He broke out at last year’s Frisco Classic, taking home MVP honors while navigating the Shockers through an undefeated weekend with standout performances on the mound and at the plate. Limited to just over 100 at-bats last season, Tolle didn’t hit on the days when he pitched and he platooned at designated hitter.
Interim skipper Loren Hibbs explained that he and his staff had a plan to increase Tolle’s two-way responsibilities this season and credited Tolle with his commitment to bringing the plan to fruition.
“We’re a lot better coaches when he's in the lineup as a pitcher/DH versus just being the pitcher,” said Hibbs. “We all saw that this weekend. With his work ethic, what he's done and the way he competes is top end. We just want nothing but good things for him moving forward. We're going to stay with the routine that's worked well for him to this point and keep running him out there and keep putting him in the lineup as a DH.”
Both Tolle and Hibbs appreciate that being a two-way player at this level requires a special level of commitment on behalf of the student athlete. Hibbs believes Tolle is up for the challenge.
“You've seen him in person, he’s huge” said Hibbs. “He’s a big kid; a strong kid. He's really committed to building his body up in the year and a half now that he's been here. It's a credit to him, his work in the weight room. It’s hard to do both. It's hard to be a two-way player at this level.”
Tolle attributes that willingness on behalf of the program to continue to allow him to develop on both sides of the ball as one driving factor in him choosing the school.
“Recruiting for me was different I feel like because there were some schools that were saying, ‘Yeah, we'll let you two-way,’ but it didn't seem like they really wanted it," Tolle said. "And then there are also schools that said, ‘Hey, you're going to be a hitter,’ and some schools said, ‘Hey, you're going to be a pitcher.’ Then whenever I started talking to Wichita State, they seem like they were super on-board with me being a two-way. I thought this was the best chance I’ve got. I believe that they want me to do this, I think they believe in me.”
Tolle went on to refer to Wichita State as one of his dream schools. He has family ties to the university as his mother is an alumnus, and it was close to home for the Yukon, Oklahoma native. For all those reasons, Tolle described the decision as a no-brainer, knowing it was exactly where he needed to be.
When asked if he prefers hitting or pitching, Tolle chooses all of the above.
“I love doing both on the same day,” said Tolle. “I have always said ever since I was in high school, middle school, whatever — I'm going to ride this two-way train until they tell me to stop. I'm not going be the one to pick what I do. Somebody's going to have to tell me; I won't be able to make that decision for myself.”
After last weekend’s standout performance, Tolle is – perhaps unfairly – drawing comparisons to former Wichita State two-way star and College Baseball Hall of Famer Darren Dreifort, who starred for the Shockers from 1991-1993 before embarking on a nine-year MLB career.
A veteran with more than 30 years of collegiate coaching experience, Hibbs recruited and coached Dreifort at Wichita State. While he stopped short of comparing the two players, he recognizes just how special the day was for the sophomore.
“I think [Payton] will tell you he's not to that level yet,” said Hibbs. “But if he keeps working and he's still doing what he's done at this point; he’s got a chance to do some special things like Darren did here.”
“There's one-of-one with Darren Dreifort, that's it,” Hibbs continued. “But what Payton did this past weekend is definitely Darren Dreifort-like. I’m just really proud of him; he’s a tremendous, tremendous young guy. He’s just worked his tail off and he loves to compete.”
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Tolle is an imposing figure on the mound as well. He employs a three-pitch mix that includes an 88-91 mph fastball, an improving breaking ball and he shows remarkable comfort in turning over his changeup. While he doesn’t blow hitters away with premium velocity, his length helps him get great extension toward the plate, allowing the fastball quality to play up and get on hitters in a hurry.
Tolle has been working with former Shockers great and MLB veteran Mike Pelfrey to refine his arsenal. The humble Midwestern young man that Tolle is, he was quick to credit his pitching coach and his catcher for his recent success.
“Talking to Coach Pelfrey this past week about my starts the first two weekends, we really just wanted to focus on conviction, believing in every pitch and throwing every pitch with confidence,” Tolle said. “That's something that I went into the game knowing that I wanted to do. Every pitch was going be the best pitch that I throw. I trust Mauricio [Millan] my catcher and he calls a great game. We’re starting to think a lot alike now. Whenever he throws down a sign, I believe it and he believes it. Whenever we're going together it's a great feeling when things are rolling.”
Offensively, the loudest tool in the shed for Tolle is his massive raw power from the left side. There’s bat speed to complement the sheer strength, resulting in the ball jumping off his bat. Moreover, he’s able to drive the ball to all fields. An aggressive hitter, Tolle is looking to do damage when he steps to the plate.
“Something that me and Coach [Mike] Sirianni have talked about is that I really just try to be in attack mode,” Tolle said. “Just seeing a pitch that I can hit and driving it right back up the middle. I feel like I can hit to all sides of the field, so that makes it to where I'm not just looking for inside [pitches]. I'm looking for heaters, I'm looking for hard stuff, I'm looking for stuff that I can hit and I’m always in attack mode.”
Even with the success he had as a freshman and the hot start in the encore, Tolle may just be scratching the surface of his considerable potential. Hibbs was complimentary of Tolle’s maturity, his budding leadership and his team-first mentality.
So how long will Tolle ride the two-way train? Hibbs has no plans to pump the breaks.
“I think he's realized that he's physically gifted enough, if he can get in the right spot mentally which he's really improved with that, that he can dominate the game at any time against anybody,” Hibbs said. “It doesn't matter who we're playing. I think he's realized that, and I think the more times that he gets out there and gets a chance to have success, the more confidence he's going to get. We're just trying to provide them the opportunity to be a baseball player because he loves playing. It’s really not too hard to write his name in the four-hole, trust me. T-O-L-L-E. That's pretty simple, I can do that.”
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