With the close of another baseball season at Mississippi State, MSU's baseball staff now looks toward the future. And what a future it can be. With five or six freshmen (true and redshirt) on the field at one time during the recently completed NCAA regional held in Starkville, expectations will be high next season.
After a 23-3-1 start at the beginning of this year, most MSU fans, me included, thought this year's team would easily earn a spot in the College Worlds Series. However, the second half of the season, which included 21 of 28 games against SEC competition, proved MSU wasn't quite as ready for all those accolades as we had earlier thought. The freshmen who were hitting so well early in the season, started to see their stats slide after SEC pitching began adjusting to them. Pitchers such as true sophomore Alan Johnson and redshirt sophomore Todd Nicholas, both of whom pitched well early, became inconsistent down the stretch, Todd due to the pressure of playing in the high-pressured SEC and Alan due to lack of stamina and strength.
The good thing is all of these youngsters will be bigger and stronger next year and will have that year's worth of experience under their belts. That means they all should show great improvement.
Let's look at the different positions and see what improvements are in store for MSU next season.
This could turn out to be the one weak point of next year's team. MSU is expected to lose SEC Friday night starter Paul Maholm and relief closer Jonathan Papelbon to the pros after both were drafted high in last week's MLB draft. Also, SEC starter Todd Nicholas was drafted and will sign. Four seniors are also gone, Jacob Blakeney, Brian Owens, Joey Collums and Steven Dowe. There is also a chance little-used reliever Robby Goodson might transfer. That leaves SEC starters junior Alan Johnson and senior Jeff Lacher, late season relief ace sophomore Jamie Gant, middle inning reliever junior Saunders Ramsey and spot starter sophomore Brad Corley. After that, you have pitchers who didn't pitch much last season. sophomores Brett Cleveland, Brooks Dunn and Jacob Ociesa. This is an area where the young guns now on campus will have to come through and signees such as juco Eric Ebers and freshmen Taylor Bennett and Trent Hill will also have to produce early. Sophomore Les Dykes could also factor in here if his rehab puts him back to where he once was. There's also a chance MSU may sign at least one other big-time pitching talent who could produce immediately.
Backup catcher J.B. Tucker is transferring, which leaves the catching duties in the very capable hands of sophomores Craig Tatum and Thomas Berkery, a catcher-turned-second baseman this past season. This should be a strong point on the team.
This is another case where MSU will lose a lot of experienced players. Shortstop Matthew Maniscalco has graduated, while first baseman Matthew Brinson and third baseman Steve Gendron were drafted. Brinson has or will sign a pro contract. I also feel it is likely Gendron will do the same. That leaves MSU with one returning starter in the infield, sophomore second baseman Thomas Berkery.
While that doesn't sound good when you first read it, there is no shortage of talented youngsters to fill the positions. Because of the talent, it wouldn't surprise me to see Berkery move to third and highly-touted redshirt freshman Casey Hamilton, a player who was injured last fall and had to redshirt, earn the second base position. First base could wind up in the hands of senior Brent Lewis, sophomore Brad Jones or redshirt freshman Brian LaNinfa. Shortstop could wind up going to sophomore Jo Jo Haney or junior Daniel Tackett, although MSU is bringing in three outstanding freshmen who very well could win that job, Bunky Kateon is an outstanding hitter who has played shortstop all his career. The Braves liked him so much, they were ready to draft him in the 4th round, but Bunky and his family told them they were headed to MSU. Jeffrey Rea is a middle infielder who was voted the top player in the state of Mississippi this past season. Like Bunky, he is a tremendous hitter. Then you have The Birmingham News 2003 State Player of the Year Michael Rutledge, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound, power-hitting shortstop-third baseman (14 homers this past season) who was drafted in the 40th round of the MLB draft. With MSU's power shortage, he might work himself into the lineup somewhere, possibly at DH, if not in the infield. And don't forget redshirt freshman Ben Grisham, a third baseman who impressed the coaching staff with his hitting prowess last fall. Also, you have senior Tyler Scarbrough, another player who can play second and third.
Depending on how the young guys develop, this will be an area that is either strong or weak. If the freshmen are as good as the MSU coaching staff believes they are, it will be a strength early on. If not, then it could be late in the year before it becomes a strength.
Without a doubt, like catching, this is a potential strong point of next year's team. You have starters Joseph Hunter and Brad Corley, both sophomores, back. You also have sometime starter Jeff Butts, another sophomore, coming back. If he doesn't sign a pro contract, you also have junior Jon Mungle returning. That gives you a solid nucleus. Plus, redshirt freshman Tyler Jones, a player the MSU coaches think highly of, will be ready to bid for playing time. Tyler, an outstanding defensive outfielder, may be the fastest runner on the team. Redshirt freshman Brian LaNinfa, a 1B/OF, could also factor in here due to his outstanding bat.
All in all, there is a lot of talent at catcher, infield and outfield, although almost all of it is freshmen and sophomore talent. Pitching, after Johnson, Gant, Lacher and Ramsey appears to be a position that will have to count heavily on some talented but young and inexperienced players.
About this power hitting thing.....
So many folks are asking why doesn't MSU hit more homers? Is it because MSU doesn't recruit power hitters? Is it because MSU hitters are instructed to hit down on the ball and not hit up? Or is it another reason entirely?
Let me throw out some stats that may not only answer your question but surprise you in the process.
During the past four years (2000-2003), MSU's hitters have hit 85 home runs in 133 home games. During the same period, MSU's hitters hit 124 home runs in 107 road games. In other words, at home, MSU's hitters hit 39 less home runs, although they played in 26 more games. Big difference.
Ok, I know some of you may still be sceptical, so let's look at how opposing teams have done during the same period. At Dudy Noble Field, opposing hitters have hit 62 home runs in 133 games while hitting 83 in 107 road games. That's a difference of 21 more home runs in 26 less games played on the road.
Another stat to throw out at you: In all the games during that four-year period, MSU's hitters have hit 209 home runs compared to 145 home runs by opposing hitters. That's a difference of 64 home runs. MSU may not hit a lot of home runs, but they hit a lot more than their opponents.
Now, am I saying home runs don't matter? No, not at all, because they do. All that I'm saying is our hitters hit in a park that is not conducive to hitting a lot of home runs. Even during the Will Clark/Rafael Palmerio years, that was the case. During those three years, MSU hit 72, 83 and 74 home runs.
Something else that might surprise you is in MSU's history, only 9 teams have hit 70 or more home runs in a season.
Folks, it's not the lack of power, it's the field our team plays on and good pitching. Stats appear to prove that.
Have a great Bulldog week!
Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.