Coach John Cohen and his revamped assistant staff put the whole Diamond Dog roster on Dudy Noble Field this Friday to open team practices. Tentative times for the weekend, with projected high temperatures, are: 4:30 Friday (61), 3:00 Saturday (66), and 1:30 Sunday with a splendidly-optimistic 70 degrees forecast. And, each day’s practice-and-play will have sunshine.
The Diamond Dogs have been getting another sort of sunshine this month from pre-season pollsters. Four national outlets which cover college baseball have released their initial rankings and Mississippi State is a consensus top-twenty team.
Collegiate Baseball, the elder-member of the tribe, has State #11 while younger outlets D1 Baseball and Perfect Game project #15 and #17 respectively. And the authoritative Baseball America checks the Dogs in at #20.
Maybe once upon a time top-twenty status was taken for granted here. But Mississippi State is coming off a struggling 2015 that ended with the regular season and saw a four-year NCAA Tournament streak snapped. Those Dogs ended 24-30 and a last-place SEC finish. These are right back in the polls.
So clearly close observers of the college game see an immediate and dramatic turnaround because Bulldog baseball is the only program in the consensus top-twenty that was entirely unranked last June.
Which should signal it’s back to Bulldog business as usual for Cohen’s eighth season in charge.
Support for resurrected expectations is strong. For all the frustrations it was obvious the 2015 team did not play to their individual abilities and the club was capable of better. The most common starting lineups return largely intact and at most recent report position player health is good.
While the pitching staff lost a lot of innings and starts, the upside of 2016’s staff and projected rotation is far higher. Not least because Cohen came out with an upgrade, it seems, in changing pitching coaches. This is no knock on beloved Butch Thompson who finally gets his over-due opportunity to be a SEC head coach, at Auburn.
The thinking now though is new pitching coach Wes Johnson arrives at an unintendedly-ideal time. Where Thompson’s forte was teaching location and movement, Johnson is about velocity. And he inherits a staff well-stocked with arms that regularly deliver in low- to mid-90s stuff.
One of them, righthander Dakota Hudson, is a pre-season All-American in two national projections. Things clicked for the hard-thrower last summer as he led the Cape Cod League in strikeouts and ERA. Hudson (1-1, 4.32) only threw 16-plus innings as a sophomore, all in relief; but now is over health issues and well-rested to become a SEC ace as a junior.
Classmate Austin Sexton (4-4, 3.77) could just as easily throw the first pitch on opening weekend. Junior lefty Vance Tatum (3-2, 5.50) started eight of 15 appearances himself. Still there are 24 primary pitchers listed on the pre-practice roster including eleven true freshmen and two transfers. And while rotation roles get most attention, the bullpen is maybe a greater concern in pre-season. Righty Zac Houston and lefty Daniel Brown did not get to save a lot of games last year, obviously, but they had strong strikeout-to-walk ratios for a struggling squad and should have plenty confidence pitching on an improved team.
Also, MSU reports 21 of these moundsmen have been clocked by the baseball staff touching at least 90 mph, most of them higher.
Defensively, only three Dogs who started 30 or more games graduated and none were drafted. In fact, this was the first draft since 1976 no Mississippi State player was picked, upper- or underclassman. So there’s not much for Cohen to work with, right?
Wrong. Not if what those playing summer league ball has been brought back to campus. The 13 Bulldog players/batters combined for a .316 average with 241 RBI. Of the 463 base hits recorded, 130 were worth extra-bases including 31 home runs and 86 doubles. For their part the underclassmen or recruited pitchers had a collective 2.13 ERA with 251 strikeouts. A group overseeing summer baseball named Mississippi State their ‘Most Valuable Program’ for 2015.
One of these players, outfielder Jacob Robson, was picked for the Cape Cod League all-star game and hit .318 with the wood bat. Robson is easily the leading returning offensive Dog after a .324 average in ’15 and 41 runs scored. A junior, Robson is practically penciled-in at centerfield again for 2016.
The corner jobs do have veterans of varying experiences contending. Based on fall scrimmages, State really would like for junior Reid Humphreys and sophomore Brent Rooker to claim the left- and right-field assignments and have their bats in every lineup. Junior Cody Brown can’t be forgotten though, a .309 hitter last season and able to field all three positions. He like Robson is a lefthander, too.
It would be easy as well to put returning starters in three infield spots. Ryan Gridley was an All-SEC Freshman at shortstop with 47 starts. And after some early-season struggles, senior John Holland came on strong at second base with the best-ever MSU fielding percentage at that position. He’s clearly a better hitter than his .246 average showed, too.
Third base is already expected to be very competitive in spring scrimmaging. Junior Luke Reynolds hit .304 in 35 games but struggled with the glove. So catcher Gavin Collins, coming off an un-healthy soph season, is getting his shot at third base with the goal of having him able to hit daily.
Wes Rae’s big glove will be missed, as he was the ultimate insurance for the rest of the infielders. Still State should not mind giving up a few ground-outs to get more consistent hitting. Juco Nathaniel Lowe is seen as the heir here, with redshirt Cole Gordon expected to back-up and DH. Both are lefthanders and both have power.
Moving Collins is a show of faith in the new catchers, and while Elih Marrero brings a big high school reputation to campus—and he can switch-hit—juco Jack Kruger concedes nothing in this battle. And Alabama prep player of the year Hunter Stovall can contend at either catcher or middle-infield, and will.
Another reason for State’s pre-season status is how Cohen’s recruiting class came through the draft. There were losses, such as a couple of righthanded pitcher prospects and a big bat. And drafted shortstop Delvin Zinn transferred over the winter to junior college. But Marrero did not sign, nor did lefthanded pitcher and rotation prospect Jared Padgett. He is already being tabbed a top-round draftee in 2018! Also, Stovall and southpaw pitcher Kale Breaux were undrafted.
There are many more on the roster right now. Too many more in fact, as State must trim at least five Bulldogs off the current list before opening day. That’s what pre-season scrimmaging is all about, as well. And it starts this Friday afternoon, leading up to February 19’s first pitch.
Also on the upcoming calendar, Fan Day is February 13 from 10:00am to noon.