“Every single time, our players have an opportunity to go out there and show a brand-new staff who is capable of winning a starting job and helping Mississippi State win the SEC Championship.”
This is not mere coach-speak, much less first-time-head coach-speak. This is the theme Cannizaro stresses as Diamond Dog preseason works into the next preseason stage. What each player does, or doesn’t, during practices and scrimmage games factors into who does, and doesn’t, see his name on the Opening Day lineup card.
Intense? Indeed. Demanding? Absolutely.
“And I think that’s a good thing,” the new Mississippi State skipper said. “The best thing you could do is create a culture where guys every day want to show up and practice and bring it, because they have the opportunity to grab their glove and run out on the field opening night.”
Cannizaro’s competitive culture continues to percolate and the preseason pace picks up. Team practices began Friday, and Cannizaro was talking Tuesday ahead of the fourth working day. ‘Working’ meaning playing baseball with another scrimmage.
Mississippi State didn’t ease into preseason but got right into intrasquad action with three weekend games. Much like the predecessor who hired him upon becoming athletic director, Cannizaro echoes a John Cohen philosophy that the best way to teach and learn high-level baseball is to play the game for real.
Meaning, that trying to beat a batter or pitcher in one-on-one settings does more to develop skills and expose weak points than all the instruction allowed under NCAA off-season schedules up to now. This is more urgent for Cannizaro than Cohen, though, for obvious reason.
Cohen was preparing for a ninth season in the Diamond Dog dugout as coach when Dr. Mark Keenum tabbed him to take over all State athletics. Fall baseball was over half-done by then. Fortunately Cohen had enough anticipation of his pending promotion to quickly accumulate and evaluate candidates; then named his successor the same day he was presented as athletic director.
That only left Cannizaro a short stretch of fall intrasquads. So the new coach is cramming as many intrasquads into three weeks as practical. There’s another over-riding reason to stress competition, too.
Though come Opening Day the 2017 team will be rightly presented as reigning SEC Champions, this isn’t the squad which won a program-record 21 conference games en route to the 2016 crown. That team set another record: a dozen of them signed professional contracts to go with graduations.
“Last year’s club lost so many guys,” Cannizaro said. “We’ve got a really young, inexperienced team. So this is probably the perfect time in terms of a new coach establishing the culture and day-to-day expectations every guy needs if they want the privilege and honor of putting on a MSU jersey every day.”
Just how much of a rebuild/restock job has Cannizaro inherited? The potential lineup and order does have most of the established experience…and all of the proven star-power.
OF Jake Mangum was both the league batting champion and top freshman in the entire SEC last year, and is a consensus all-American going into the sophomore season. OF/DH/1B Brent Rooker comes back for a senior season of power hitting somewhere behind Mangum. The middle infield has proven performers in SS Ryan Gridley, SS/3B Luke Alexander, OF/IF/C Hunter Stovall.
There are SEC-seasoned starters and alternates behind the plate and in the outfield as well. Still the stat sheet is short a lot of numbers. The returning players accounted for 42% of runs scored last year and 46% of base hits; 44% of the RBI and 43% of stolen bases. Extra-base punch was hit, so to speak, harder as only 20% of doubles and 38% of home runs are returning.
But the pitching staff was ravaged; the rotation gutted. This spring’s veteran and healthy arms recorded 25% of victories and 21% of starts. They also handled 31% of innings pitched and 32% of strikeouts. It wasn’t just the draft doing the damage. Surgeries are taking a pre-season toll as Keegan James, expected to take over a rotation job, went ahead with another Tommy John procedure.
Add to that a new hired-by-Cohen pitching coach in Gary Henderson, and the mound team is almost entirely open for ’17. Almost. “We’re fortunate enough to bring back a Konnor Pilkington,” Cannizaro said. “He’s an innings-eater type of guy.”
But Pilkington is more than a workhorse. He’s got ace potential which is why Cannizaro is already calling him the Friday night guy. The coaches are increasingly confident with a lot, a lot of bullpen options also. Scrimmages are structured to get them on the mound often as possible to find exactly which relief roles suit them best.
Other than that? “Everybody is getting equal mound time right now, so everybody has the chance to earn the opportunity to take the baseball on opening weekend,” Cannizaro said. Specifically when? Wait and watch.
The same holds for most of the lineup of course. In fact Cannizaro makes it clear that whoever does earn Opening Day duty…is promised nothing for day-two. Or -three, and on.
“Inevitably, it doesn’t matter who runs out there Friday. The lineup is going to be different in the next few weeks. It’s an ongoing battle for at-bats and innings. But it’s one our guys are embracing.”
They’d better. Some coaches push competition and aggression to sharpen a squad. Cannizaro does it because it is the only way he knows to play the game. Especially so at the plate. All Diamond Dog fans need know of his offensive approach is in the very first scrimmage game everyone brought their bat meaning to swing.
Then, they did it.
Some may see this is a high-risk attitude with a largely-rebuilt order. Cannizaro sees it as high reward when it works. For that matter the ball needn’t necessarily be struck into open green.
“Aggressiveness is what I believe in. And it forces kids to handle the baseball.” Which raises the odds of a defensive gaffe, or even just a tick slower response. With how Cannizaro is already telling his team to get down and around the paths that can be enough.
“We’re going to run. We’re going to put pressure on the defense. We have guys that can run.”
That is already on display in scrimmages. What fans might not notice though is by pushing the pace Cannizaro and Henderson and Will Coggin aren’t just emphasizing offense. State’s pitchers know their teammates are coming up swinging, going for extra bases, outright stealing, all of it. This hones their own skills in handling the running game.
And yes, the pitchers and catcher(s) are expected to be aggressive too. “Our pitching staff knows we’re running which allows those guys to be quicker to the plate. Our catchers know we’re running so it allows them to lock-in, and impress my head coach.” Which a trio of backstops Cannizaro named, in no order, has done with Josh Lovelady, Dustin Skelton, and Elih Marrero. All are taking scrimmage turns with the whole staff before real season arrives.
Mostly though Cannizaro’s offensive aggression is about hitting one’s way on base. He isn’t as focused on “aesthetics” of individual swings now as he is the mentality of find a good one and hit it hard. “You have to create a gameplan for everybody’s swing,” Cannizaro said. Though, he’s not adverse to a free base. In fact, “For me walking is a by-product of being an aggressive hitter.” Think about that a moment.
How hard is Cannizaro stressing this preparedness. If during BP a Bulldog gets up and lazy-fouls-off the first pitch, or swings late, meekly tops the ball, anything like that…out he goes and to the end of the line. “Because you’re not ready to hit.”
Mangum showed he was ready to hit, slapping a single to center in the first at-bat of the first day. Some shows of preseason power have perked up fans too. Rooker no-doubted a shot that day, too, as did junior transfer corner-infielder Harrison Bragg.
And the Dog trying to take first base, or at least a daily DH duty, had a huge weekend. 1B Cole Gordon crushed three homers in two days. “Three majestic bombs. He’s been outstanding,” Cannizaro said. Though, earning that lineup spot is still a battle. Keeping it will likely prove tougher for everyone.
“There’s going to be different guys in the lineup every day,” Cannizaro said. “There’s going to be matchups, there’s going to be pinch-hitters. There’s going to be guys that are better defenders. So it’s going to be a top-to-bottom offensive gameplan, of being aggressive, playing fast, putting pressure on defenses, not striking out.” That last item might be the most important of all, in fact.
The scrimmage schedule will be posted and updated as necessary on Genespage.com’s baseball board. All intrasquads are open of course.
State opens up the weekend of February 17-19 hosting Texas Tech and Western Illinois two games each. Fifteen of the first 18 games will be played at Dudy Noble Field, around an early-March series at Oregon.
The 2017 league schedule begins March 17-19 at Arkansas.