Diamond Dog Seth Heck has been named the Southeastern Conference baseball Scholar/Athlete of the Year. The junior shortstop earned the honor based on his 4.00 grade average; and for his nearly straight-A performance on the field.
Posting a perfect GPA for his first full year in senior college is an achievement in any league. Yet Heck figures it is just his classroom job. "I know it's something I'm capable of doing. And now in my third year of college and dealing with baseball and school I have the whole time management thing down. I know how much work I have to put in both and it's worked out."
Heck is the fourth Diamond Dog to win SEC Scholar/Athlete of the Year in his sport, and second-straight after infielder Sam Frost earned it in 2013.
Coach John Cohen is justly proud of Heck's work in the classroom. He's just as happy to have the Washington native holding down shortstop this season. "There's no question Heck has been very impressive defensively, he's a great communication and positions himself well, and understands the game."
He certainly understands how to handle a baseball headed his way. Heck has been charged with only six errors this season, out of exactly 300 chances thus far. And he went on a stretch of 28 games without a gaffe, up to the fourth night of the SEC Tournament. It was a painful error too as a couple of Florida runs scored after the ball skipped off Heck's glove…though there might have been some distraction with a runner from second base crossing in-front of the shortstop as the ball bounced. Regardless, it is a fair measure how steady Heck has been that everyone was stunned to see him miss anything.
"Heck has been statistically the best defender shortstop in our league," Cohen reminded. And should bounce back just fine in time for NCAA play as well. He was named to the league's All-Defensive Team for 2014 as well as winning Scholar/Athlete.
Yet after a naturally-slow start in the first two months of his first big college campaign Heck has become a standout on offense. That, now, is something of a surprise. State signed him expecting he would win shortstop sooner or later; few figured he would be hitting .304, fourth-best on the squad; or second only to leading swinger Brett Pirtle in drawing HBPs and walks.
Sure, every shortstop earns his keep with the glove. Bringing a good bat isn't just a bonus to Heck though. "That's the beauty of the game, when one is not going well you've got the other to support it. So if I'm not swinging it really well I know I can go play solid defense. And if I make a couple of errors or what not I can go get maybe a couple of hits and that's the beauty of it."
Which brings us to the truly surprising aspect of Heck's offense: his slot. Or slots rather. Depending on the pitching matchup, State will put the shortstop at the top of the order…or fourth. That's right. A 165-pound middle-infielder is written in the ‘cleanup' slot almost every-other day once Cohen knows what the opponent will throw at State.
"And Seth is not a ‘cleanup guy'," Cohen admits. "But he's really swung the bat well." Or worked his way on with walks and plunkings. Now Heck does understand that his placement in the four-slot isn't too terribly strange at Mississippi State. He knows his middle-infield partner Pirtle batted fourth the second half of 2013, so there is a precedent. Or policy. Or something.
"Coach Cohen looks at it like if you've got a guy that can put quality at-bats together with runner in scoring position, you're going to have a lot of success and we're going to score a lot of runs," said Heck. The shortstop did his part in Hoover, batting 8-of-18 and scoring six runs himself while driving in a pair. And yes, two games he hit first and two others he hit fourth.
Moving around isn't an issue for this Dog. "I've been all over the order this year. And each day when you look at the lineup you see where you're at. Whether it's first or fourth or fifth, you have to just take on that role. Whether it's being a run producer or run scorer you have to take on that role for the team."
"I think wherever you are in the order you're trying to put quality at-bats together. And if you can do that it doesn't matter where in the order, you're going to have success."
As the Bulldogs tune-up for the post-season, inevitably the topic of offense arises. Not so much the hitting per se, though it probably surprises fans to read that State was the SEC's 7th-best batting club for conference season and only 14 points out of third place. That is actually more a measure of how hitting-challenged the entire league has been in 2014 and for that matter college baseball in general.
For that matter the Dogs were 9th in SEC-season scoring, probably also a surprise to a frustrated fan base which has gotten used to seeing bunches of Bulldogs left on bases. Heck agrees that scoring has been erratic even in series won, much less the games lost. "Definitely there's been some weekends that have been tough. And there's been some lights-out, really good weekends.
I think that makes us a better ballclub coming into the Regionals. And for me it's just been good to learn, when you're struggling what is going on, what needs to be fixed, what kind of work do we need to put in that week. And when things are going well the feeling of having success as a team, what it feels like."
The learning process has included plenty of road-trip experience, not just in the SEC itself but beginning back in March when State played four games in Arizona. Heck is convinced that contributed to the team's ability to win away from home, even win more SEC games away from home as well as split four contests in Hoover. This is a week to put those lessons into play on the NCAA stage.
"We get comfortable playing on the road and we can do it. Obviously we'd love to play in front of a crowd here but we're confident we can go on the road and be successful."
Which is something Heck already has enjoyed, with peer recognition both off and on the field and an excellent shot at All-American in 2015. Thing is, along with that ambition, he also intends to stay perfect in the classroom another year. By the way…what class this past year had the greatest risk of spoiling the 4.00?
"My closest class? Probably Spanish, surprisingly!"
Yes, we si.