Looking At The State Of Bulldog Baseball

Part 1 of this series focused on the need—the necessity really—for better Bulldog recruiting of baseball players. Our emphasis was on players who hit the ball well and score runs often. What of the other side to this pitch and throw proposition?

Well, ask any Mississippi State soul what this program prides itself on most and the instant answer is pitching. Or it was up to this just-finished season, when lack of quality mound work and a stunning collapse from the bullpen left Dog defense as the lone point of pride. And in Part 1 it was stated, purely as our opinion, that great defense offers less return-on-recruiting investment compared to great pitching or great offense.

The point being, popular impression is that Mississippi State emphasizes pitching almost to obsession. Is this fair, though?

Numbers can counter impression, prove it, or just leave everything still unsettled. Looking at Bulldog signings since 2010 doesn’t do a lot of settling either. The 2010 season roster is used for a starting point because when John Cohen and staff arrived in June 2008 the signing class for 2009 had already been finalized for them.

By the way, it says something about this coaching crew that they honored active and incoming scholarships. In retrospect, one wonders if cleaning house immediately might have been the right move for a faster rebuilding after all. Because in a case that is definitely not fair, this staff somehow was perceived as playing rough with the inherited roster. It was the other-way around, they were softer than events eventually justified, but again perception trumps history.

Regardless, seven seasons and six signing classes in the books, the current roster is entirely Cohen’s. How have those classes broken-down by priorities? And we stress ‘in the books’ because all numbers to follow come from that season’s media guide. Those are the official rosters as of January that year, so there are pitchers listed who never pulled on the uniform. There are also players unaccounted for who signed or walked-on in fall that did not make it to spring listing.

Confused? Don’t worry. Here is what needs knowing.

Of the 92 listed high school and juco recruits or senior college transfers, 49 were primarily signed as pitchers. There were a number of two-way recruits of course, particularly in the vital class of 2011. Those aren’t counted in the pitcher list.

Now while this comes out to 53% of State’s signees are pitchers, it surprises many. Ask fans and they would likely guess a rate of 60% or more recruits as pitchers. Popular perception, again.

Here is the full list of new pitchers on annual rosters 2010-15. Be prepared for a lot of ‘who was he?’ and ‘what happened to him?’ reactions. Also included are their career SEC seasons, games pitched/started and innings. Repeat, only SEC appearances and innings are listed, as league regular-season play is to our thinking the best gauge of a pitcher’s production over a career.

2010: 12 of 18 Luke Bole-1, 9/5, 20.0; Ben Bracewell-4, 30/3, 59.0, Corey Collins-1, 7/0, 6.0, Michael Dixon-0, Chad Girodo-4, 41/1, 42.1; Kendall Graveman-4, 34/24, 129.0; Greg Houston-2 11/0, 9.1; Trey Johnson-3, 6/1, 9.1; Matt Lane-1, 0/0; Jared Miller-0; Chris Stratton-3, 30/30, 180.2, C.C. Watson-1, 6/0, 3.1

2011: 9 of 18 Cody Abraham-2, 0/0; Andrew Busby-1, 6/0, 2.2; Victor Diaz-1, 4/0, 2.1; Jordan Faulkner-0; Tanner Gaines-2, 11/0, 0.2; Evan Mitchell-3, 18/7, 40.2; Ross Mitchell-4, 47/10, 143.1; Luis Pollorena-3, 26/13, 92.2; Tim Statz-1, 9/0, 15.2. (Does not count two-way players C.T. Bradford, Daryl Norris, and Taylor Stark as pitching signees)

2012: 6 of 13 Preston Brown-3, 17/16, 69.2; Will Cox-2, 8/0, 3.2; Trevor Fitts-4, 27/10, 68.0; Jonathan Holder-3, 36/0, 63.1; Jacob Lindgren-3, 30/9, 82.0; Brandon Woodruff-3, 9/1, 16.0

2013: 4 of 12 Tony Anello-0; Myles Gentry-3, 19/0, 20.1; John Marc Shelly-2, 0/0; Wes Stokes-0.

2014: 12 of 19 Jacob Billingsley-2, 0/0; Avery Geyer-1, rs, Zac Houston-1, 13/0, 22.0; Dakota Hudson-2, 12/1, 14.2; Ben Hudspeth-0; Glenn Irby-0; Lucas Laster-2, 10/7, 42.2; Levi Mintz-1, 11/0, 17.0; Austin Sexton-2, 10/8, 52.1; Vance Tatum-2, 14/5, 31.1; Paul Young-1, 2/0, 1.0; Trent Waddell-1, 2/0, 6.0.

2015: 6 of 12 Aaron Dominguez-rs; Daniel Brown-1, 8/0, 5.1; Logan Elliot-1, 4/0, 5.0; Andrew Mahoney-rs, Jesse McCord-1, 0/0; Paxton Stover-1, 0/0.

While signees for 2016 aren’t officially announced by State, of the 18 recruits Gene Swindoll lists ten are primary pitchers and three others throw regularly for their high school team. The eight non-primary pitchers are three infielders, three outfielders, and two catchers. Meaning, 2016 follows the same statistical signing-percentage trend of previous classes.

There is a name not listed but much in this week’s news. James McMahon was signed for 2011, then stayed near home to enroll at Southern Mississippi in fall. Never listed in any MSU guide, on Monday he won the Ferriss Trophy as the state’s top collegian after an outstanding senior season. His only real season, to be sure, due to several high school football injuries that slowed the college career. Still his case causes a few cringes if only for timing this 2015 week.

Now. That is a lot of names and numbers. What does it all say about the current state of State pitching and in general Bulldog baseball?

Well for one thing, a great irony of 2015 is how close State came to having a regular rotation for the first time since…when? The mid-2000s maybe? Certainly there was nothing resembling a classic SEC rotation for this regime from 2009-14. Class counts show it wasn’t for lack of recruiting attempts.

Yet to-date there are only three signees who were, or are, what can be fairly called rotation regulars. Chris Stratton, who averaged a now-amazing 6.0 innings per SEC start; Kendall Graveman, a late bloomer who also won a pro career; and Preston Brown who goes into 2016 as State’s most established starter.

Otherwise? The search for a real rotation has seen lots of wheel-spinning. Or it has up to now, maybe? Austin Sexton showed enough ’15 innings to raise real hopes for his junior year alongside Brown. That’s if Brown delays entering medical school a year. Should he return for a senior year two rotation spots should be in good shape. Certainly there won’t be a lack of pitchers to test this fall after their summer league play.

It also must be said, just because State hasn’t had weekend rotations under this coaching staff does not reflect lack of effort. Just the opposite; almost any arm, every option imaginable has been put together and run out to the mound the last six-plus seasons. The cynic could say something has to be wrong with the approach; the optimist figures sooner or later State will throw down a winning hand. It’s definitely taking the latter attitude to suggest that 2016 really does have a chance. And a chance really is progress, right?

However, we must carefully edge up to health. No, carefully isn’t the right word. To paraphrase that line from ‘Shooter’, pitching injury talk at any level is baseball’s version of plutonium: fast death to anyone broaching the subject.

It is even more complex because, just like say knee injuries in football, fans generally only know what is happening with their team. There are no stat sheets on arm, elbow, shoulder ailments around the SEC or NCAA. All we can cover here is what happened to Bulldog pitchers before and during 2015. Hopes Paul Young would by a SEC season factor faded fast with 1.0 total inning tossed in his second year here. His presence on the roster can’t be criticized though; any program would have taken the chance on signing Young in 2013 knowing he would certainly miss all of 2014 and be unsure for ’15. For that matter it is no certainty for ’16 now, a topic coming up towards the end of this epic.

Jesse McCord is in a way the more curious case. It certainly said something about stock placed in a true freshman that he started the fourth game of the season. That and two more starts resulted in 8.2 innings, nine strikeouts and seven walks, eight runs, all earned. Insiders say McCord never got over his first outing, shocked by a shelling if you will. April surgery prevented any further tests, and the way the season developed the kid surely would have other chances.

But based on fall ’14 outings the stuff is there. And McCord can be a case of injury doing unintended good; not just by correcting a condition but making ’15 a mental mulligan. It sounds good, at least.

How this season’s rotation would have shaken-out without those two health setbacks is impossible to project. And as noted, Young was something of a dice-roll already so that case can’t honestly be held against any coaching account. There are other what-ifs as far as possible starters or long-relief Dogs though; John Marc Shelly and Will Cox did not make it to fall with their injuries/rehabs situations.

Given State’s overarching reliance of late on relief pitching though the larger ’15 trouble was loss of bullpen Bulldogs. Myles Gentry, one of those workhorse guys used to set up closing acts for years now, went down mid-season with a shoulder. And after being projected as a closer candidate in fall, redshirt Jacob Billingsley was abruptly sidelined by surgery before the season.

As all know now loss of numbers forced changes in roles, put more demands on starters which they just weren’t able to deliver, and turned what was the league’s standard-bearer for bullpen pitching into a disaster. Without reviewing the exact numbers, it still is not exaggerating too greatly to say more leads were lost and saves blown in 2015 than the previous two or maybe three seasons before. Combine that with an erratic at-best offense and the larger result was finishing last in the conference.

But has faith in State’s pitching program evaporated? It shouldn’t be so. So much of what is perceived as plan, or philosophy, or whatever has really just been necessity. It has come about from frustrated attempts to develop a real rotation for all sorts of reasons, including injuries. For examples, for all the successes of 2011-14, how much farther could those clubs have gone had Ben Bracewell, Brandon Woodruff, and others been unscathed?

Now, if not dead yet we are likely glowing as if having vacationed at Chernobyl. It’ll save on the light bill. Meanwhile a little illumination may also come from looking at the SEC seasons statistics. Yesterday it was pointed out the new low-seam baseball had practically no impact on Bulldog batting, though the better conference clubs by record usually also showed improved batting averages, power, etc.

Pitching, that is where the ball made more difference. Only Missouri, Auburn, and Texas A&M—who just happened to be the most-improved clubs in the conference for 2015—had better staff SEC-season earned run averages than in 2014. All other staffs got hit harder though by varying degrees. It won’t surprise that the nation’s premier pitching program Vanderbilt barely budged in league ERA. It might surprise that Kentucky was not too much worse though the skeptic will say given their cozy park pitchers would get hit hard throwing BBs.

Tennessee and Arkansas were hit markedly harder than in 2014. But the biggest (i.e. worst) jumps were Ole Miss +2.36, Mississippi State +2.56, and South Carolina +2.75. The Rebels and Gamecocks did lose some good starters, though they replaced enough to still make both the SEC and in-turn NCAA Tournaments this year.

State’s downfall obviously began at the ending (of games) with Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder leaving. One wonders how their hard breaking stuff would have functioned in college ball with the low-seam ball of course. We certainly saw the complete difference it made to Ross Mitchell in delivery and location, and the mandated change was (no pun intended) beyond his control. Moving Trevor Fitts to the pen and changing his delivery totally looked smart for a few weeks; by mid-season reality arrived. In retrospect leaving Fitts in starting duty would have been better though it would have left the relief staff even shorter.

However, through all the lost leads and lost games and lost everything, there were jusssst enough flashes from a few hurlers to tantalize. It is worth suggesting that 2015 exposed both the strengths of Dogs like Dakota Hudson, and Daniel Brown to build on; and their flaws to fix. Those flaws aren’t in stuff, either. What lacks is something that goes by many labels. The most printable of which are guts, grit, the competitiveness Cohen referred to in his final post-game radio show.

It’s only an observation but Zac Houston seemed to show he had it under late-season pressures. Maybe he can become a starter, maybe more so a hard-throwing bullpen Bulldog for multiple short stints. Then if Hudson and Brown develop that competitiveness, the velocity and variety only increases. We’ve seen it happen before under this regime of course, of pitchers blowing-up as juniors to become SEC stars and MLB draftees.

Shortening space prevents running through all returning and incoming arms. However, indications are there won’t be as many returning as the ’15 roster lists. There is reason to expect at least a couple of pitchers will choose not to come back; and maybe a couple others won’t be asked back. Gossip isn’t necessary to claim this either.

Remember, ten primary pitchers are in the recruiting class. There were 15 underclassmen arms on the ’15 roster. While Mississippi State always has a pitching-heavy roster, there is absolutely no efficient way 25 of them will be on the fall roster. And we aren’t even counting expected and possible walk-ons.

Meaning, look for attrition by choice or by chop. Or, in worst-case, by draft. The funny thing, already referred to yesterday, is somehow State has a reputation for being tough on players and quick to cut. Just the opposite is true, yet just like injuries fans only know about their own team’s travails. Or, hear from cut-ees unhappy family and friends.

Story time. It was late-2011 season, I was heading to the field gate with one out in a ninth inning of a non-conference home game. En route I passed an unhappy fan who usually stationed himself on the concourse, and I believe he was fond of one player who had lost regular status to a younger Dog. Remember, this was when State had gone three seasons without Hoover trips and to that point ’11 was not a sure thing either.

Well, the fan grumped aloud as I passed about what was wrong with the lineup and that State wasn’t loyal to the veterans. I said, quickly, the younger guys were just more talented baseball players. He stared, said very loudly ‘you’re crazy!’ and never spoke to me again. In fact I haven’t seen him at games since, though I’m pretty much confined to the press box as it is.

As things played out, youth was served and better players emerged just in time to make the SEC Tourney, earn a NCAA bid, and go on that upstart-tear of ’11. Yes, feelings got hurt along the way. As the short guy used to say, that’s baseball.

This is not saying State should swing the blade recklessly. I suspect most situations will solve themselves in summer and fall ball. But State should be decisive, and to be blunt more so come February 2016. There are legit reasons why setting a rotation has been such a struggle.

But there is also a whole lot of early-season experimenting, testing, and evaluation that in theory goes into setting the SEC rotation. The reality? State has reached league play with more questions than answers, often short some counted-on arms due to injuries, and roles still to be established if ever.

Without going so far as to pretend a rotation should be named in November, there should be the right (and left) quality of pitchers for next year that fall evaluations can carry over into the season much more smoothly. Simply, this pitching staff is not nearly so far away from falling into place as all the ’15 falling-apart would make one think.

But then lining up the arms sooner and smarter is impacted by scheduling. Which is a big part of the next in this series.

UPDATE: Mississippi State published a listing of known summer baseball assignments Tuesday. The key isn't so much who is going where. It is who is not listed as playing this summer, whether because they have not found a team yet or are injured or might not be returning in 2016.

Healthy players not assigned are P Paxton Stover, OF Joey Swinarski, IF Matt Spruill, P/IF Trent Waddell, and most interestingly P Preston Brown. Recovering from injuries and surgeries are P Paul Young, P Jesse McCord, P Jacob Billingsley, P Myles Gentry.

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