Just ask John Cohen how his program pulled off a genuinely historic and true worst-to-first and achieved the ’16 SEC Championship. He’ll say three things happened, including getting a few key veterans healthy and a strong recruiting class coming in. But neither does the coach mention first.
Instead, “Number one, we had some players go off in summer and get a lot better.”
So. Now that it is another summer, are the Diamond Dogs of 2017 going off and getting a lot better?
Offering the standard caveat that summer ball statistics aren’t the absolute measure of how a ballplayer is playing ball this time of year…some of the numbers so are pretty encouraging. For the full list of both active Diamond Dogs and trackable recruits, check twice-weekly for updates posted on the front page by Gene Swindoll.
The offensive stats which stand out most here in early July belong to two veterans. He might not have gotten the starts and innings he hoped last season; and he wasn’t drafted as an eligible junior either. That isn’t keeping Cody Brown from hitting it hard this summer. He’s swatting the ball at a .410 clip with eight RBI at Bethesda in the Cal Ripken League. If team and league sound familiar…well, that’s where Hunter Renfroe tuned-up for his final Mississippi State season. It seemed to carry-over nicely into 2013 as best we may recall?
Not far behind is fellow outfielder Brent Rooker at .400. Now, Rooker’s stay at Brewster in the Cape Cod League was interrupted this week for a high-profile appearance. He was invited to the College Home Run Derby at, of course, TD Ameritrade Park; the goal his 2016 teammates missed by two games. Rooker got to the second round and finished fourth overall at 29 longballs.
Ironically Rooker has yet to knock one out at Brewster. But his continued stay there for summer bodes well for his expected return to Mississippi State. A 38th-round draft of the Minnesota Twins, Rooker has the luxury as a redshirt sophomore of upgrading his underclassman-eligibility for ’17.
Also expected to pass on pro ball and return is catcher Jack Kruger, despite being a 20th-round draftee of Los Angeles and a ’16 junior. Kruger, who had to get healthy in the first part of the season, is taking a short break before joining the Conjo club in the California League.
The summer swinging surprises are a couple of outfielders who didn’t even make the ’16 roster, as redshirts. Junior Tanner Poole has slugged a couple of homers and leads Diamond Dogs in RBI with 13 playing at Waynesboro in the Valley League. He also has played the most summer games of any State player, 23.
Redshirt freshman Brant Blaylock is hitting .308 in the Florida Collegiate league, though he’s only played in eight games so far.
A newer name to track has yet to wear a Bulldog uniform. Late signee and incoming transfer Hunter Vansau has played in 19 games for Chugiak in Alaska. He’s hitting .343 with 70 at-bats.
As for summer pitching…he might not have gotten on the field as a ’16 freshman, but Logan Elliott is being given plenty turns at Green Bay in the Northwoods League. He’s had 13 short stints for a 3-2 record and while the ERA is 6.06 the righthander is getting his chances to develop. Which is what summer ball is about.
Summer stats are as noted not ideal indicators. After all, Keegan James is only 1-0 in just two turns, both starts, at Strasburg. But that’s enough to earn the rising sophomore a place on the Valley League All-Star team!
James is one of several still-young moundsmen who want to take an open rotation role for 2017. And they’re all called ‘open’ since the three starters in late May/June have all moved on to professional ball. But of course Konnor Pilkington should regain his weekend starting job he held much of SEC season. Playing for Brewster this summer he is 1-1 so far in two starts, three appearances, with 13.2 innings.
James is among 12 Bulldog varsity pitchers throwing this summer, and all of them have the same starting ambitions next year. One who probably doesn’t, but would like a chance at relief work, is first baseman Cole Gordon. He’s tossed an inning for Plymouth in the New England League, with two strikeouts. That’s his same total of RBI on a .293 average in a dozen games.
There’s also an new-for-’17 name making summer noise. Signee Peyton Plumlee is throwing at Strasburg as well alongside James. And the new kid leads all Dog hurlers as of today with 20 strikeouts; even better he is 4-0 with four starts and a 2.28 ERA.
Those scanning the stat rundown will realize one name has yet to throw a summer pitch, despite being forecast to join the relief staff in 2017. For now, Jake Mangum is settling for swinging at Bourne in the Cape. And only could a Mangum, the SEC’s 2017 batting champion as a true freshman, be disappointed with a .364 average. That’s 44 points lower than his league-leading .408, which at last count had scored Mangum seven all-America team honors.
All pitchers regardless of role want to follow the lead of Dakota Hudson. After limited appearances as a sophomore, Hudson went to Hyannis in the Cape last summer and blossomed into the league’s strikeout leader.
Then all Hudson did was pick up that pace in 2016 to earn first-team All-SEC, various all-America recognitions, and most of all first-round selection by St. Louis. His vault from struggling reliever to dominating starter began, yes, in summer baseball. It’s too early to tell if any of the next generation will duplicate this in ’17…but it’s also too early to say not.
Again, complete up-to-Monday statistics are available on this page. But Cohen has said he doesn’t look at the numbers for proof of progress. He checks with teammates who played with or against fellow Diamond Dogs; the team and league coaches, all of whom appreciate the chance to work with Mississippi State players; and of course Major League scouts for their special evaluations.
So far, the grades have to be good for individuals and program alike. But then the ’16 summer squad has a tough act to follow.
Because this past January the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball selected a school for the ‘Most Valuable Program’ award. It was a recognition based on how players from all colleges performed collectively, and there were no less than 845 institutions involved.
Mississippi State won. Then, those Diamond Dogs went on to win a much more tangible title, as 2016 SEC Champions.
So you see, summer baseball isn’t just about staying in a groove and getting healthy. The 2017 Bulldog Baseball ‘season’ is underway right now.