Looking At Bulldog Baseball

Since a tithe of readership hasn’t time or temperament for detailed reports and in-depth analyses, we will do the courtesy of simplifying our state of Bulldog Baseball down to the barest, shortest paragraph. One which equally expresses the issues and the seeming solutions.

Sign better baseball players. Settle on the best and most competitive combination quickly. Keep them together as injuries and slumps allow for lots than just a game or a series; meaning, let them go play baseball without constant tinkering. Schedule pre-SEC games with an eye to post-season status. Add up the results next June and judge who needs cutting and what needs replacing.

There. Said in short is what we’ll discuss in much greater range, depth, and hopefully accuracy for a few days to come. Those of short attention span and patience should be satisfied and graciously excused without any offense taken.

Now. For the majority of us.

With the 2015 Diamond Dogs three days done the fiercest fuss had faded. Mississippi State fans who aren’t ready to stop watching college baseball will have our ire revived during this week’s SEC Tournament and for a few more weeks. Never mind annual Omaha dreams. Bulldogs are not playing post-season baseball at all.

It is a situation we’d thought was fixed for good. Instead all went ill and in ways beyond imagining. Mississippi State ends up in the SEC’s cellar at 8-22 and 24-30 overall. In ten tries this team won one conference series. There really isn’t a comparison here because the last State squad to win just one SEC weekend was in 1975, and that was an entirely different league and schedule. A different sport, really.

For sure what played-out this spring was different than anyone honestly anticipated. To be fair, folk whose baseball opinions I respect and many of whom are regularly in close contact with MSU coaches had February alerts. Comments from State’s staff and private party impressions—this group includes former Bulldog players by the way—said this would be the weakest all-around club John Cohen had assembled since the 2009-10 rebuilding job. So we were warned.

Nobody, though, forecast the Diamond Dogs would miss out on NCAA play entirely. And none imagined State wouldn’t make it to the SEC Tournament. It’s an event which in so many ways owes its current stature to kick-starts at Dudy Noble Field in 1983 and ’88 and the like. For Bulldogs not to be in Hoover just isn’t supposed to happen, or at least not any more. Surely as heck not when a full dozen teams play there and only two are left in outer darkness.

This series is not about gnashing-and-wailing. No staff scalps will be demanded, no Bulldogs thrown bodily under busses. It is meant to be as objective as possible, given how emotional all of us are about Bulldog Baseball. If this publication and its readers did not care enough to attack the touchy topics of what to think and do about Bulldog Baseball, well, we’d just get right to talking football.

Speaking of which, Media Days is now less than two months off…egad.

1. Players Not Process.

I’m also hoping that in the next couple of weeks Gene Swindoll can update the past season’s stats and honors and feats of the incoming players already known, if never to be announced by MSU directly. Reading their results would be a nice mood-changer…and increase anxieties about holding the class together during the expected June 8-10 draft assault.

The signing class and draft are mentioned first because we are going to approach an uncomfortable item first. Better baseball players win more baseball games. They win matchups, they win moments, they win everything more often than any other factors. It is a truth so blindingly clear that over the course of seasons we in the business do get, well, blinded.

During a post-game presser, I believe the home win over South Alabama, we got one of those coaching comments which are easy to miss-interpret in print. Yet John Cohen may have said more than he realized at the time. The question was about Reid Humphreys having a good game, two hits with three RBI and a couple of runs. Cohen agreed, adding he thought Humphreys’ best at-bat produced a hard line-out to the rightfielder, based on quality of contact. Which is true.

But then, Cohen continued with a thought. “You know, players get caught up in results, where we look at the process.”

OK. I know what he meant, you know what he meant. This in no way implies a coach so caught-up in his craft as to dismiss basics of baseball. Still…the thought behind the words reflects much of Mississippi State’s mindset. At the plate, on the mound, in the field. Process is emphasized and whatever results are or aren't they get charted, tabulated, and filed.

Please note, and this is vital: I’m not claiming they VALUE process over results. Results are, you know, hits and outs and wins. Process is important.

But, process comes into practical play when opponents are reasonably equal. A good team can use a well-scripted and practiced process to create edges on also-good clubs which wing it. When the teams aren’t as closely matched? Lesser club operating by process priorities can become rigid, think too much, limit the hot hands and pressure the cold kids. There's even the danger of process becoming a crutch for squads that just don't have enough guys able to bat a baseball regardless of script.

To his credit there were other games where Cohen critiqued in some sense State’s process emphasis. Like this quote. “Our process isn’t as clean and voluntary as we want it,” he said after a SEC loss. “Our kids will keep working hard and to be honest I think our kids are working too hard. They’re spending too much on the offensive side and working too hard on their swing. I think it’s biting us a little bit right now because they’re putting too much into it, trying too hard. We have to relax, take some deep breaths, and have better at-bats.”

To which a reader will reasonably ask, which is it? Process, or results? The obvious baseball answer is…both. This is not defending any process demanding so many mental and physical steps and stages, as well as help from the other team, to score that it will always produce limited results. While no realistic observer saw a Murderer’s Row from MSU this year, or any year since the late 80s actually, I am satisfied State had the personnel to be better offensively than the results. How much better? Hang on for a little longer, we’re getting there.

This process/results isn’t any chicken-and-egg deal, by the way. But when results don’t come, faith in process becomes…difficult. Nor is it new to ’15. Need we raise the frustrating subject of just how often in 2014 a Bulldog would get to third base with one or even no outs, and go no further? It’s worth wondering today if just a handful of ordinary sacrifice fly balls would have had State finish first in the SEC West for, need we really remind, ever, last year?

But this season only built on the same frustration with a seemingly-endless string of runners ending innings on second and third bases. In his radio show Cohen again said more than he likely meant, talking about how to score a run, just one run, State needed a couple of hits, a walk or HBP, and an error. Yet he was being truthful, something never to be doubted from this coaching staff. They may bend over backwards protecting the players, but they won't lie to you.

Sunday, I posted a culling of SEC stats as the league season ended. Using just SEC games seems a much more accurate compare-and-contrast since everyone schedules differently. To shrink-summarize, Mississippi State batting showed practically no change from 2014’s high seam baseball to 2015’s low seam version. Team average, on-base rate, slugging were essentially the same. State did not benefit a bit from a more hittable baseball.

Nor, it needs including, did three other teams. But Ole Miss and Kentucky, whose averages dropped 50 and 21 percentage points respectively, both graduated a bunch of great hitters. As for the ten teams which improved on averages, those that went up most are not only headed to the NCAAs but going to host Regionals. By the way, where the different baseball had the real impact was pitching, which most of us figured would happen. And yes, State was one of the three SEC teams with a staff ERA that exploded into the mid-5.00’s.

But I like most fans and media emphasize offense (meaning scoring mostly but hitting as well), for this reason. Rather I’ll let you figure out the reason. Which aspect does the most to not only improve a team, but to impact the opponents: great defense, quality pitching, or reliable offense? Yeah, obvious. After all, baseball is the sport where a defense can’t score off a turnover.

Put another way, I truly doubt any club spends more than minimal time talking about an opponent’s gifted gloves. They do certainly plan as best they can for the pitching matchups. But nothing unsettles the other team like knowing an error, a poor pitch, a bad break can and likely will bring good bats to life. Frankenstein-type life.

Now, other than Adam Frazier and Hunter Renfroe, has State’s opposition from 2008-present taken the field worried about getting beat-up by a Bulldog offense? Nope. Instead, SEC foes know that sooner or later a hole and more likely holes in the MSU order, any order, is due up. That the process will break down. Great pitching can carry an erratic offense only so far, and without great pitching, well…we get 2015.

I am not talking about home runs. That is completely outside this discussion until and if batters with blast show up in a Bulldog order. That would be the fastest and simplest way to change everything, sure. I just can’t count on it until seeing it happen. Here again maybe Gene can provide some reasons for hope in the signing class? Like maybe guys who instead of believing the daily refrain that Dudy Noble Field stops home runs, decide heck with that noise, we don’t let a ballpark define us much less scare us?

And another by the way related to longballs; am I being rude to point out that in the first SEC weekend an Alabama club playing its home games in Hoover walked into DNF and sailed a shot out every game? Or how about in the Florida series when a Gator who hadn’t hit a homer all season to then slugged a pair in the same Sunday game? But Bulldogs aren’t supposed to swing for their own fences?

Probably not, because most don’t have the pop or have been drilled so deeply about other sorts of contact. It is clear though Humphreys and Gavin Collins can go yard and should be the core of a competitive hitting order. Where big flies fit into the process, now, that’s another question.

Doubles, oh yes, they fit. Dudy Noble Field could have been designed for doubles hitters. Let's acknowledge too that Bulldog batters in ’15 seemed—this is sensation not statistical—to have more than their normal share of well-struck balls bound to be two-baggers lined right into gloves. Also, State did hit more doubles this year. The results were just further frustration as so, so many leadoff doubles resulted in Dogs left stranded in scoring position.

Remember mention of 1975 as last time State only won one SEC series? By odd coincidence that was the year the NCAA allowed college teams to use metal bats. It is not a coincidence finding that fact, it is worth bringing up here. I make no claim to ‘know’ the difference from bat brand to brand. I did speak a year ago with an adidas official who, while there to talk uniforms, confirmed that the company has its own engineers designing the bats which are produced to adidas specs by a metals manufacturer.

And I’ve heard State’s strong (cue a Hamlet reference) protests against criticisms of the current sticks. All I know is, they sound strange. That line drives off adidas bat do seem to leave quite sharply but fade faster than off what most SEC squads swing. Or maybe I’m just infected by non-player consensus that these bats stink. I tried looking up stats for other adidas schools, but a game photo on their school site shows that despite a $40 million deal with the company Louisville somehow gets to use (surprise) Louisville Sluggers. They were 127th in NCAA hitting through last week, 121 in home runs. State was 165th and 181st if you care to know.

Really, though, talking bats distracts from the real issue. Gifted batters and hitters (usually the same thing but often with different results, hitters are generally more clutch) can swing a sticks of firewood and drive the ball. Good ballplayers will take any NCAA-legal equipment and make baseball plays at the plate.

And that is what Mississippi State needs more of. Good baseball players with the emphasis on that which separates average from good: hitting SEC pitching for average, production, and in the current college game occasional power.

That is what Mississippi State doesn’t have enough of. Hasn’t for a very, very long time. Even in seasons where enough swingers got hot at the same tournament times, post-season streaks actually tended to disguise larger, systemic issues with the overall caliber of Bulldog rosters. I’m sorry if that angers or hurts. Every guy who has worn a MSU uniform in the last, say, 15 seasons earned his way to a college roster.

That’s not the issue. The issue is how many of those guys would have earned their way onto a championship roster, much less lineup? It’s nothing that can be calculated, just sensed. But for current purpose, apply this test which was first told to me by a team support staffer who’d worked all sports at two SEC schools. It works easiest with a small-team sport like basketball but can apply well to baseball, too.

Which is to ask: how many of the players on your team would start for almost any other team in the conference at the same position? The ‘almost’ is allowed since after all there are superstars who curve the scoring. Still it is a pretty accurate if subjective way to evaluate a team.

And in 2015 State’s case, the evaluation of underclassmen is…a healthy Collins, probably. If they ever leave him alone in a full-time position Humphreys maybe. That’s all for now. Loosening the standard to say ‘start for an average club in this conference’ doesn’t really change the grading much either. Which does make sense in that State did, after all, finish last in the league standings. As a baseball mind I respect often reminds, it was the NFL coach who said you are what your record says you are.

But is this roster really the last, or worst, in the SEC? I don't believe it. There are still intriguing players from ’15 who could yet become first-level league guys. Space runs short so all won’t be listed here, but besides Collins and Humphreys there’s evidence favoring John Holland certainly. I was surprised badly by Luke Reynolds’ defensive gaffes but the way the bat came on late was encouraging. It's a mystery why but yanking Cody Brown in and out of lineups in automatic devotion to matchup certainly didn't allow any rhythm. And if they'd known how things would play out, maybe Cole Gordon wouldn't have redshirted That's one kid who in the cage makes a MSU bat sound better, for what it's worth.

There are others who showed just enough to state State isn’t void of plate potential. Just, still too short on it to win a bare-minimum dozen league games next year. That is where the signing class comes in. Cohen says 19 are signed; Gene lists 18 of them on the baseball board. The coach also told media last week he thinks as many as 11 of them could be drafted.

It would only take say a third of that total signing contracts to devastate the class ranking. Though, to again be fair, I put no stock in baseball class rankings any more. State’s last few classes got high scores too. Yet the teams have been merely SEC-average in composite record.

Also, take the stars of that ’13 team. Frazier wasn’t rated much at all and Georgia did not try to keep him home. Renfroe, yeah, everyone saw raw talent but it took most of two college years for it to fall into place much less figure out his best position. And even some MSU staff argued against signing a juco infielder who’d been hurt and had bad stats. Fortunately one staffer stood his ground and Brett Pirtle was brought in anyway.

Meaning, most of State’s stars in recent years weren’t prime-rated recruits, beyond say Chris Stratton. Those who did have high ratings, well, there’s been an odd proneness to injury for several years now. We'll talk a little more about pitching tomorrow, where I posit that the day is coming college clubs who can afford it will pay to have multi-view MRIs done of pitcher recruits to look for developing issues in arms and shoulders. Too many kids come to college ready to break down and that is nothing to do with the college coaches. Anyway, the point for now is forget ratings. Look at results.

And lest any here suggest I'm greatly exaggerating the difference one signing class can make, might I hark you back to the freshmen of 1987? Two years later they were the core and for that matter most of the lineup for Mississippi State's SEC Championship squad; and yes I have to swallow hard and add the last league championship squad here. That is part of what will be the concluding piece in this series where we address the program's perception vs. place.

Somewhat more recently, look what became of the rookies signed for 1995 after the program had slid to what we thought at the time was low-ebb. They were core to back-to-back Omaha teams in 1997 and '98. So yes, one strongly-stocked and well-timed class can change everything. If enough survive the draft.

There’s something else though which can only be seen after-the-fact. Or in the act. Cohen said it best in his final post-game show. “As coaches we work on next year and start putting together the type of club we want to be. We need to bring some great competitors into our program. That is the hardest thing to figure out during the recruiting process.”

Indeed. There isn’t any ratings system for competitiveness. Only real games and real breaks reveal it. This sadly is something the ’15 team lacked. Cohen noticed it early himself, maybe as soon as the 13-0 streak to start the season ended. But this ball club didn’t handle adversity well, or often at all. By April in fact State faces showed it all; they expected something, somehow to go wrong and thus to lose the game. By May it was a self-fulfilling attitude. Something always went wrong.

Competitors don’t let bad breaks break them. But of course competitiveness is only worth anything if packaged in a ball player.

Process only matters when processed by ball players. Bring in enough of those, and better than most of the player/competitors already on the roster, and Mississippi State will have done the single most important deed in exiting the SEC cellar.

How far they can climb in 2016 and beyond? That is for the next and hopefully shorter chapters.

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