Talking Baseball With John Cohen

It was to be a quick review of Bulldog baseball. But when recorders were finally switched off over fifty minutes of question-and-answer with John Cohen had touched all sorts of subjects about Mississippi State, the SEC and its Tournament, the NCAA game in general, bats, home runs, and the just-completed draft.

A lightly-edited transcript follows, thanks to recorder batteries that held up just long enough.

Q: What is your overall evaluation of the draft results? "As of right now we feel pretty good about it. William DuPont is obviously an area of concern, but we're optimistic we're still going to get him. Anything can change. I noticed the Blue Jays took several seniors with their early picks, which with the new rules of the draft is pretty concerning."

"I think in some ways as a head coach at this level the new draft is kind of intriguing and terrifying at the same time. We don't fully grasp all the ramifications of the new rules and agreements. But, I do think it is something that is in the best interests of college baseball, the draftees, and the professional clubs. But obviously the professional clubs would be a much better judge of that."

"We feel good about DuPont, we feel good about Robson. Certainly it's an honor for Kendall to get drafted but we're very hopeful we're going to get him back, obviously that would be someone very difficult to replace. But the fact that Kendall is such a huge part of our program from a leadership perspective; and the fact he is an engineering major which in most cases is a five-year program, we're very optimistic about him also."

"We're really pleased for Nick Routt, he just got his degree. The evolution of his changeup and velocity coming back throughout the year, I think he can pitch for a long time in the minor leagues."

Q: Are there any medial issues to address this summer? "Mitch Slauter is going to have a little procedure done on his knee, which we feel is not going to be a big, big deal. But we feel is going to prohibit him from probably playing summer baseball. We'll see in a month where he is and if he's doing well send him to the Cape."

"Daryl Norris, they're going to re-examine the knee and see where that is. There's been some discussion with Dr. Linton, he wants to see where that is. It is possible but unlikely at this point in time. Wes Rea is having his shoulder re-examined, re-MRI'd, and we'll see where that takes us. He was dealing with some pain during the course of the season and we wanted that taken care of. Does that mean surgery, don't know. But I think Wes is really sick and tired of having to deal with it and I think he'll do whatever it takes to get that fixed."

Q: Is there a final evaluation of Graveman's groin, was it a sports hernia? "The MRI said no, but it's not always conclusive. He'll rehab that and continue to throw and see where that is. Those things are really I've been told sometimes until you actually get in there and do the surgery they can't tell if the lining has been frayed or damaged."

Q: Will there be any players staying on campus or taking summer off to rest? "Yeah. Luis is going to be in summer school for sure and work our camps. That's not because his arm is tired or anything, we're just trying to get ahead academically. He is a very good student but sometimes the junior college player has a little more catch-up to do."

"We don't have many on campus, we have a bunch out there playing now. In fact, the summer coach from San Luis Opisbo who is a friend of mine sends a text and basically said that Will Cox was 93-to-95, his slider 84-85 in his first start. That's pretty encouraging. Nick Flair is out there also and has played in one game so far, they just got underway."

Q: Who all is going to Cape Cod this year? "We had five, but C.T. Bradford is obviously not going and Slauter is not going. Evan Mitchell and Brandon Woodruff are going. We think Jonathan Holder is going to the Cape now. I don't know where we left this but I think Adam Frazier is going to go for two weeks before going to Team USA. Originally it was Chris Stratton who obviously isn't going to go. It was seven, now it looks like four for sure."

Q: How beneficial is getting the game experience in summer now? "It's huge. It's just huge."

Q: Is it scary having so many arms out there, do you have to build relationships with coaches? "Yeah, and you work with those guys. A lot of those guys really know what they're doing. And the last thing in the world they want is to get a guy hurt because then they're going to struggle to get arms in the future. Mot of those coaches do a really good job spacing things out and providing a good environment for the work that needs to be done between starts."

Q: Will you get a chance to watch anyone? "Yeah, I'm hopeful I am going to get to go up to the Cape and see those guys. It's really neat to evaluate your kids when they are playing with other kids and get the opportunity to kind of run their own program for the course of the summer."

"It's really important for kids to have these summer experiences. I remember Pat McMahon pulling me in his office and telling me you're going to play in Alaska, you're going to be 2,000 miles from home, it's going to be a different culture. But no matter what happens you're going to stick it out because you represent Mississippi State. It doesn't matter if you get homesick, it doesn't matter if you're not playing well, you are going to stay there and represent all of us the right way."

"When we send our kids out that's pretty much the same script we give to them, because that's what we believe. It's just so crucial for them to be able to coach themselves and run their own program and kind of find themselves, and be around really good players. You do not have the appreciation for what you have at a place like Mississippi State until you go off and are around other people. You just assume that every place is like Mississippi State and certainly that's not the case."

Q: Like in basketball when Kentucky was down and people said the SEC was not the same, did you hear that sort of thing when you talked about rebuilding Mississippi State baseball, that SEC wasn't the same? "I think it's a little different! I think the perception when I was away from Mississippi State of Mississippi State, is Mississippi State invented what now is normal in SEC baseball. People caring about the program, people in the stands, people really buying-into the sport."

"That was a norm at Mississippi State when it wasn't a norm at any other program in the Southeastern Conference. Not only has every other program in our league in bought into baseball in the highest levels, now when I talk about the program the thing that never comes into the conversation is Arkansas and South Carolina. Looking at some of our records and in the past wow, we played 24 conference games instead of 30. Those six games are now Arkansas and South Carolina, or a variation of that. And it is just different. The whole culture of Southeastern Conference baseball is different."

The only thing you know for sure is things are constantly changing. And they are so much different now than when I had the opportunity to play here."

Q: You know the expectation level now, that going into next year everyone will be talking about College World Series? "Sure. Which is exactly what we want. It's hard to have that conversation after 23-33! But that is exactly what you want. You want your players talking about it, you want your fan base talking about it."

"I said the minute I got here we have to produce top-ten-round picks to compete in this league. That we have to change some things in this program to get it where we want to be. The reason I'm going to say this statement, that it's never going to be the way it was twenty years ago is because nothing will ever be what it was twenty years ago. Our country will never be what it was 20 years ago! It's completely different now because all the parameters are different. A 65 game regular season twenty years ago, no Arkansas or South Carolina. Everything is different."

"I want us to be the very, very best we can be now and not look in the rear-view mirror. When you constantly look in the rear-view mirror of what it was you're making a huge mistake. Nick Saban and Bear Bryant? It's completely different. And that's kind of the level we want to be at. I guess I relate everything to college football! But you know, both successful but completely different."

"So I'm really pleased where we are, especially in the area of developing arms and the area of evolution of our players really buying-in and knowing we're just right on the edge of being able to do something special."

Q: Do you worry about next year the returnees getting lots of pats on the back and being told they're great when they still have a lot to accomplish? "Not worried about that. Because this is a game where confidence is everything and you want them to believe. Again, you rewind just four years ago."

"A guy (Frazier) coming off Team USA? I want that guy to have confidence. I just played with the best sophomores and freshmen in America. You want that. Again drawing comparison to my own playing days, our kids were extremely confident because we felt we had all these things that other people didn't have. Like fans! Like a stadium! I think confidence is a really important thing. And quite frankly we didn't have a lot of kids with great confidence when we got here because you didn't have a lot of reason to be confident."

"And we have a long way to go. There's no question offensively we have to be a much better club. It really cost us in the regional. But if you believe that everybody in your program is going to get better it can cause a tidal wave-type of effect."

Q: You talked about parameters changing, is coaching in the SEC tougher? "I think it has always been tough. I doesn't matter where you are or what your conditions are, it is the same degree of difficulty. Meaning when I was playing here, look at Coach Polk. He's coming off (post 1985) two first-rounders and a rightfielder that is going to become the best closer in the American League and a Jeff Brantley who is going to pitch in the big leagues for parts of eleven seasons. So if you're on Coach Polk's sthaff there you're thinking how do we re-create this?!"

"Everybody has challenges, they are just different challenges. You're sitting in the head coach's seat at Kentucky, it is tremendous challenges; it's just different. So I think that every coach in this league is going through the same thing. But every program in this league is going to be good, period. That is what separates the SEC. if you told me right now Tennessee is going to make the jump and make a run at Omaha next year I'd say OK, I can believe it; next, what have you got? Well, you know, Georgia is going to make a run next year too and be in the College World Series. I'd go, OK!?"

"If you take 20 years and say hey, Kentucky has a real good chance to get to Omaha, everybody in the room is going to start laughing. Hey, Vandy is going to make a run at Omaha, they're like hey, do you want some odds on that, I'll give you 50-to-1. (Now) Who is going to take 50-to-1 on anybody in our league not making it to Omaha?"

Q: Tim Corbin said he'd bet on you guys, at the SEC Tournament? "Well I'll get Tim for that one! He's probably intentionally trying to curse us!"

"But everybody is going to be good. Hey, here'e Arkansas playing in the conference tournament and I read people saying hey, Arkansas, huh? A week later they're paying as good as anybody in the country and here they come, I mean is it going to surprise anybody if they get to the College World Series and make a deep run there with the depth on their pitching staff and athleticism in their lineup? There is nothing surprising. I think twenty years ago there some shocks that could have happened. There's nothing shocking about our league at this point in time."

Q: This time of the year assistants are moving, could you have anything like that? "It certainly won't be surprising. Even after last year there were some things that happened as far as assistant to had some opportunities, for sure. I have a great staff and I'm very fortunate. I think all of them will end up being great head coaches."

"And I think that's part of my job. Part of your job is to develop young men and give them the best opportunity to get their degree and play professional baseball and have a great career in or out of baseball. The same thing with your assistant coaches, you want them to prosper. Again, that's another thing about Mississippi State, the great heritage or tradition of assistant coaches becoming head coaches."

Q: The last of the player you inherited are leaving, talk about their part in turning this around? "I'm really proud of those guys. You really wanted to find out when you got here who wanted to grind this thing out and really wanted be good. To buy into every part of what we're trying to do."

"We have these things in our practices called daily challenges and they're difficult. Brent Brownlee was reminding me we did some challenges prior to games, I'd forgotten about this; we bunting challenges and hit-and-run challenges, and he said they ran twelve down-and-backs in the Palmeiro Center before a game! And he was right, I remember that. It's kind of like basketball if you miss a free throw you go down-and-back. He was like Coach, that was the most difficult, because now when it is your time to bunt and you just ran down-and-backs your focus has to be ten times sharper when you're that tired."

"You know, those are the moments you say wow, Brent and others have been through some really challenging things. But there is no doubt in my mind they will gain through those experiences. I would do anything in the world for those guys because they have shown me at every level they want to be a part of this program then, now, and forever. I can't tell you the amount of pride and joy I have in reflecting on what those guys have accomplished."

Q: It's easy to say the offense must get better; how do guys become better hitters? "Well, as much as I disagree with a whole bunch of things that are in ‘Moneyball', the thing I agree with is they showed Kevin Youkilis, his benefit is he swing at strikes and takes balls. When you go off in the summer and face really good competition, as a hitter that is what evolves. The ability to recognize pitches. The mechanical part is really overrated, what is really underrated is the ability to evaluate the pitch quickly and to swing at strikes and take balls. And that is the part we have to get a lot better at."

"Even though we got a ton of walks and HBPs, the on-base was OK; there were moments we had to get the barrel in the right place at the right time."

"It's interesting, last night on Baseball Tonight they did a pseudo-scientific study of the guy who hit the home run. They slowed it down and said the handle of the bat actually wasn't in his hands at contact, that he threw the bat at the ball and hit a home run. The terminology that the scientist and engineer that was talking is using, everybody in the room kind of turned and looked at me! Because it was the exact language!"

"Because the engineer said the amount of force and bat-speed you are creating is not as half as important as the placement of the barrel. In other words have the barrel in line with the baseball at the right time. That is what I really believe our kids, after we pounded that in their heads, that you go off and they internalize some of the things we talked about and make it their own. And then come back better."

"Experience is everything. I probably said this way too much, but when you go into as season with guys who have never played Division I baseball and you expect them to face the breaking stuff and the velocity that the SEC presents or any high level of Division I baseball? It is mentally exhausting. It is draining. It is a grind. And you have to have gone through it. That is why I really believe all these guys will get better. Plus I think we have some pieces we are going to add to the mix that will make it better, too."

Q: How did the new baseball collective bargaining agreement effect the draft? "I think it's a great question. And I don't know if anybody can answer that question until two years down the road. The reason is we had a 16th round kid with the Blue Jays; for the first time ever I'm look at their first ten picks and saying OK, who is the ‘senior sign' here? who can they save money on? I don't know anything, the Blue Jays know their situation, I'm just guessing! Are they getting bargains out of the senior signing guys in that slot, how much are they saving? How much are they going to come up with for your guy?"

"I don't think I will even understand half of it until I get two years out, then I can reflect back on OK, here's what happened this year, so then you can go get your next kid. I tell you one thing, when I was at Florida I had a kid who was a 24th rounder out of high school that I loved, he was a lefthanded hitter. He was staring at $750,000 two weeks before school started. I think those days are gone. I hope!"

"I think you have to have data, and there's no data right now, you don't even know who is going to sign and who is not going to sign."

"You know what is interesting to me? And I don't know anything about any of this except what I'm seeing. Which is, nobody wants to use the word cap, but isn't that what this is? But they're saying it's not a cap!"

Q: With the likelihood of keeping your signing class, do expect some attrition from the 2012 roster? "There will be a little bit. I'm really pleased that our level of attrition is by SEC standards and by Division I standards is pretty low. But that's normal."

"In fact I was telling 320 kids at our camp this the other day, on Powerpoint I put a picture of a lineup card up. Here's a SEC lineup card, one-through-nine. You're going to put somebody in the nine-hole, it's human nature are they insulted by being in the nine-hole. If they are insulted by being in the nine-hole imagine how the people feel who aren't in the lineup?! It's human nature, kids want to play. You can only play nine, you've got 35 on the roster, 27 on aid; you have kids who aren't getting to play as much as they want. Sometimes they want to go do something else."

"And we support that. That's how it happened when I was a player here, it's happened everywhere I've ever been. But I feel really good, I don't think anybody really wants to leave our program at this point, I just think there will be a little bit of turnover because of their desire to play. And quite frankly It's hard to blame them."

"I think there might be a little attrition of kids who might end up playing professional baseball. That's going to happen because of the tools there. Yeah, I'm not prepared to name any names yet. Unfortunately that's the tough thing about how all Division I and especially Southeastern Conference coaches coach. Was that diplomatic enough?"

Q: Phillip Casey wasn't in the dugout, is he officially gone? "Not officially. But certainly Phillip will be one of those guys. I'm sure he wanted to play a little bit more, in fact I know he wanted to play more. It's exactly what I just described. Guys who get to play almost always love their experience, guys who don't struggle with it, especially when they've gotten to play their entire career. There will be some isolated incidents of that for sure."

Q: At catcher you are bringing in Garner, are you trying to find somebody so Slauter doesn't have to catch every game? "Nick Ammirati is going to be here and I think is a guy who is going evolve into somebody very capable. Our the thing about Nick our players love Nick, we love him as a staff. We just believe and for good reason Mitch just has this magical thing going on with our pitching staff."

"But I do think Ammirati is a guy who can improve in certain areas to give some relief. I also think Daniel Garner is somebody who is going to be. What we want to do with him is just handcuff him to Mitch and Nick, and say you're going to do everything these guys do. We trust these guys, you're going to watch Nick receive and block, he's textbook in some of those areas. And every single meeting Mitch is a part of with our pitching staff and with Butch Thompson you're going to be right there, you're going to take every bit of it in. That's an area of our program we have really moved forward in, that level of the game within the game; and getting situational, getting beyond mechanics. Especially at that position."

Q: The 2013 SEC schedule has no back-to-back home weekends, does that concern you? "No, to me it's five on the road and five at home."

Q: Do you have a permanent East opponent? "I do not believe they're going to go that route. I don't even know if this final, they said its final but there have been some extenuating circumstances in the past with final exams. And I can tell you this right now, there is no way I would want to be the guy at the Southeastern Conference who has to put this together. Whoever that guy is they need to pay him more! I know Larry (Templeton) is one of the guys but I can't even imagine who difficult that process is. When you're talking about final exams and Super Bulldog Weekends and Kentucky Derby, everybody has their own unique set of challenges. And the SEC is trying to make it work for everybody. It's just incredible. And it was difficult enough with twelve, now you add two others into the mix."

Q: Along that line, have you had much feedback from peers about the SEC Tournament's new format? "You know, it's funny. The people I talk to ask me, because the more games you play the more it has an effect on your club."

"I was talking to Dave Van Horn the other day, the minute you guys went two and out I was like well, they just won a super regional, they're into Omaha! I mean, South Carolina is 1-4 over a two-year period and back-to-back national champions. The Southeastern Conference Tournament really hasn't been a great indication of success in the NCAA Tournament."

"When we lost two in a row last year, I felt soooo good about what we were going to do in a regional, I was soooo confident about where our club was! And coming home and practicing for a week in-between, I just felt really good about and I can't even explain to you why. But talking to Dave, I was like you guys are going to end up in Omaha. He asked why, I said you can just tell. You had the two game deal where didn't play as well as you wanted to, got home and worked on what you didn't do well and bang here it is."

"So there is a little bit of that discussion of what helps you ,what hurts you. Certainly everybody wants to win the tournament because it means so much. But, six games is six games. I think the other thing about our club, it wasn't just six games. If we'd have been fortunate enough to have one of those days off, which it didn't work out for us and that's fair to everybody. If we would have just played one game at night instead of your guys losing four or five pounds in the middle of the day getting the one night game could have helped us."

"But it's just the luck of the draw, nothing is unfair. It is just the way it is. But I don't see how we can do it any other way. A ten team tournament is extremely difficult, I just don't see any other way to do it."

Q: What about 14 teams similar to the basketball tournament coming up, with double-byes? "I think the format is going to be revisited a little bit. When you consider Texas A&M is very deserving of hosting (a regional. And Missouri, their run."

"I would love it if it was twelve. Because I really believe I can see a format to where the 11th team overall has a 20 RPI, and are on the outside looking-in. And you don't want the (NCAA) committee to say well, they didn't make the tournament. The case study there of course is (2012) Ole Miss and (2011) LSU. Their situations weren't identical but were pretty close. Was Ole Miss deserving of being in the NCAA Tournament, absolutely and they showed it. Was LSU deserving of being in last year, absolutely, and with their pitching they could have sprinted through a regional and got to Omaha as the (SEC) #9 seed."

"It's just my opinion, but you don't want to give anybody the excuse they didn't make the conference tournament."

Q: It almost sounds as if you would want a single-elimination tournament? "I don't know how that would work. But I do think the SEC is put in a very difficult predicament. They have to create a product for fans. I wouldn't say it's about the money necessarily. I would say it's about making something that is competitive for the fans. Because SEC baseball is really all about the fans and the student-athletes too."

"But it is that competitive tournament, something great for the fans; and let's get as many teams in the NCAA Tournament as we can and not provide any roadblocks. That is a difficult chore. I've been going to the SEC coaches' meeting now for nine years, that is a topic of discussion for hours on hours every year, because it is just a difficult need to thread."

Q: Are there any new things in mind for Dudy Noble Field? We're discussing that. The great thing about Scott Stricklin and all our administrators is they are very open to different ideas. Scott doesn't run into any situation without getting a tremendous amount of information first. So we're in the process of many discussions."

"We've already had some professional architects on Dudy Noble Field to get their opinion. But our administration is all about constantly improving. We've gathered a lot of information about different ballparks in our league. There is nothing that is off the table. But don't think it is a secret that in 34 home games we had ten home runs? I know we gave up seven at Dudy Noble, which is a good feature!"

"Certainly the home run is a feature of the game. There are several factors there; the confidence level of your hitters. I think the fans like to see the ball leave the yard every once in a while, too. I've said this kidding with our staff, if you did a baseball tonight where they show every home run hit in the big leagues that night; if you're doing it with college baseball now there's going to be a little bit more airtime with pitching and great plays! Certainly nothing is off the table but I can't answer any questions about dimensions at this time."

Q: You have a unique feature you are built around? "I think there is a little bit of that, too. I think one of the unique factors about baseball stadiums in the SEC is what you have to adjust to. Adjusting to that facility is a factor, and no secret when you go to a place like South Carolina there is an adjustment."

"Certainly when you go to Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Auburn with their green monster, things like that, it is an adjustment. Having been on the other side coming into Mississippi State it is not as big an adjustment. Now having said that, I think we had great success this year especially with pitching and defense in our yard and you certainly don't want to move away from that. Kentucky comes in, I think they led the league in home runs, they play in a small ballpark. They come to our place and that was a little bit of an adjustment for them for sure. They hit some balls really hard and really far that ended up being outs."

"That is why nothing is off the table and you want to make the best decisions that help Mississippi State."

Q: Are there any more discussions about bats with the way some players criticize them? "The bat is a factor. I saw a release by the NCAA yesterday that they outlawed a couple more. Does it help the game, does it hurt the game? I'd like a longer case study."

Q: How closely do these bats simulate wood? "We use wood during fall, the one thing different these bats and wood is there is just an extraordinary number of infield pop-ups with these aluminum bats. More than wood, more than the old aluminum. One thing I get really upset with our guys when we go into a pop-up, it's not a very quality at-bat."

"I'm not talking about the brand, but there is something about all bats at this point there are so many infield pop-ups. With wood there are more ground balls and more line drives. I guess I'm not smart enough, I think you'd have to be an engineer to really be able to answer that question."

"It is a different feel than wood. I've heard our players say there is not as much pop as wood. I don't know the answer but certainly wood brings its own set of challenges also. I think that is one of those things fans talk about, using wood in the college game. In theory it is a great idea, in practice it would be extremely difficult to make happen. It would be very expensive."

"The thing is, the Easton bat we swing is the same Easton bat anybody in this country can get. It's not made for Mississippi State so if you're using Eastons you're using identical bats. If you're using wood it will never be identical. And the expense of that would really be a factor."

Q: You're saying coaches would be paranoid another coach has better bats? "For sure! No two wood bats, even the same make and model and type of wood, are the same. And there are so many factors. Even swinging wood when it's 46 degrees! There are so many factors."

"I have opinions but I'd hate to be the guy on the NCAA on the rules committee that actually has to enforce this and put the rules in. Because our game is just so different. I've always said to our players it's closer to golf because of the equipment and technical skills it takes than other sports."


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