Talking MSU Pitchers

Mississippi State pitching coach Russ McNickle, in an exclusive interview, talked about each member of his pitching staff, including how they performed this fall, their overall ability and stuff, and where they may fit on the pitching staff for the upcoming season.

What are some things you are trying to accomplish with the pitchers during fall practice?
"The main thing that I evaluate during the six and a half weeks that we practice is who has command. We always talk about 65%. Sixty-five percent is the percentage of pitches that are strikes."

How did your pitchers do in that regard?
"Out of the 17 guys that were healthy, 12 threw their fastball for strikes at least 65% of the time. In total pitches, we had 8 of the 17 who were 65% or better. I was a little troubled by that. But looking at last year's numbers and this year's number, they are very similar. We ended up throwing 5,656 pitches this fall."

What were you looking for from the new guys?
"The main thing for me is getting the new guys to understand our pitching system that's in place and understanding the tempo that I want. (MSU catching) Coach Hedges has also done a good job of educating the catchers as to what we are trying to do from a pitching standpoint."

This was your second fall as the pitching coach. Did you do anything differently this fall?
"I didn't call (the pitches for) as many games this year as I did last year. This year, I probably called 2 of the intersquad games. Last year I probably called half of the intersquad games. I won't make that mistake again. I did it last year because I wanted all of them to become familiar with my style of coaching."

Did your pitchers, as a group, fall short of any of your expectations that you had for them this past fall?
"We talk about trusting each other. The player has to trust me and I have to trust him. But the team also has to trust him. And we are still a long way away from my group understanding trust, effort, discipline...the things you have to do everyday from a pitching standpoint. I thought that last year's staff did a little bit better job of jumping on board right away. This year has been a little bit more of a struggle for them to understand that they have to repeat what they did last year. We can't live on the past. I tell my guys that they set a bar last year that I never thought we would set. Now people expect the same thing this year."

Now that the fall practice is over, what do you do with the pitchers from now until they come back for the second semester?
"During the six and a half weeks of fall practice, I evaluate and take a lot of notes and write a lot of information about each pitcher. We'll watch videotape and talk about their mechanics, talk about where I think they will fit in on the staff. The individual workouts that we now do are not only important for them to continue to work on their command, but also for them to understand certain sequences and certain things we will do during the springtime games."

Talk about how each of your pitchers did during the fall. (Coach McNickle talked about them in alphabetical order.-Gene)

Sophomore LHP Jeremiah Boling - "Jeremiah is a guy who can pitch with his fastball. I am disappointed that he still can't throw the breaking ball hard enough. His changeup is getting a little better. He was sore from playing summer ball. But his offspeed stuff has to get better for him to be a huge factor for us. Right now, I think he will be a long relief type guy for us, probably in the midweek."

True freshman RHP Ricky Bowen - "Ricky was hurt and didn't get to pitch during the fall. But the rehab he did was great. And he's been released by Doctor Linton. So now he's involved with the 4 on 1s. We are going to redshirt him due to his injury and his youth. He's a guy that throws in the upper 80's and has a real good feel for the changeup. We'll work on his breaking fall stuff his first year, but he has great command. That's the reason we signed him. I think he has a chance to be a long reliever and spot starter for us."

You mentioned long reliever or spot starter for Bowen. Do you think there is potential for him to be an SEC weekend starter if he continues to develop?
"Yeah, I think so. Jon Crosby started out the same way last year and ended up starting in the SEC. Ricky's frame and fastball command gives him that kind of potential. And he throws his fastball under the zone, which is something that we talk about all the time. When I signed him I thought that he had a chance, but that's projection. Will he project to be something you think he might be? The pros can draft 10 shortstops and hope that 1 pans out. But with 11.7 scholarships we don't have that luxury."

Sophomore LHP Jesse Carver - "I like his makeup and he works hard. He probably has the best lefthanded breaking ball on the staff. He also has a great changeup that he can throw to righthanded hitters. We expect him to be a short reliever. What I like about him is he has a mid- to upper-80's fastball that he can really spin. When we look at left on left matchups where a lefthanded hitter comes up who struggles with offspeed or breaking ball stuff, Jesse would be a great choice. The main thing for Jesse is to work on his command. At times he looks brilliant and there are times when he looks like he's trying to aim his pitches."

Senior RHP Brett Cleveland - "He will be one of our closers. We will be able to use him 25 to 30 times next spring. That's better than using him for 10 to 15 starts. As the fall went on, his outings got better. He ended up leading the staff in command this fall, throwing 70% strikes. That's phenomenal for a guy that will be a closer. His velocity increased as the fall went along. He got up to 93. We know that he will pound the zone, so you have to play defense behind him. He's not going to be a guy that will strike everybody out, but he will throw it in the strikezone and create contact. He's a guy that I trust and I think his teammates trust him (when he's on the mound). He works his tail off. And I'm expecting him to be a leader in the bullpen."

Junior RHP Jon Crosby - "Jon has some lower back problems right now. During the fall he topped out at 92. He has to get better with the breaking ball in the strikezone. Last year his outings got shorter and shorter as the season went along. Out of the three starters we used (in SEC play) he had the fewest innings per start. He also gave up a ton of doubles, but he always seemed to pitch himself out of trouble. Jon needs to learn discipline, both on and off the field. He has a great (pitcher's) body and a great arm. Right now he's one of 5 or 6 guys that we are considering for a starting job. He's probably on the verge of pitching Sunday or midweek."

Redshirt freshman RHP Chad Crosswhite - "Chad has electric stuff. He is a guy that I got excited about last spring, then he had a great summer. He has a chance to be a special starter on the weekends. His makeup is tremendous. He topped out at 93 during the fall. He's starting to get a better feel for his changeup. Chad's not afraid of anything and I think his teammates trust him (on the mound). He is going to start either Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday for us. He will pitch a lot this year. The biggest thing we are going to work with Chad on is command of his fastball. He got over the 65% percent (strike ratio), but that wasn't good enough for me. He also has to understand how to make adjustments on the move. One of the things that I wrote about him during the fall practices is the fact that he can't seem to correct something within 3 pitches. That drives a pitching coach crazy."

Senior LHP Brooks Dunn - "I've been with Brooks since he got here and this is my second year of coaching him. He and I have a pretty good relationship. He loves to compete. This is the best that I have seen him pitch, the best that I've seen him repeat (a good outing) everytime he goes on the mound. Last year his arm was bothering him. His elbow was a little tender last year. I knew it, he knew it. He took the summer off and his velocity came back. His top fastball velocity was 89. His breaking ball is back to the breaking ball that you like to see. And he's gotten a better feel for his changeup. I think, right now, he's earned that Friday night start. What's scary is Brooks has never started an SEC game on the weekend. He pitched against Ole Miss twice last year, once in Jackson and once in Hoover, And he was very good against those guys, but he has no Friday night experience in front of those crowds in that electric first-game atmosphere. One thing I need to work with him on is holding runners on a little better. As you know, the Friday night games tend to be close. And, from a starting standpoint, you have to keep the other team down. You can't give up 4 or 5 runs on a Friday night and expect to win. Brooks has also never had to rehab from start to start. A starter has something to do everyday before his next start. There is an effort that goes with that and Brooks never had to deal with that before. I think he will be fine with that, but the jury is still out due to him never having done that."

Sophomore RHP Trent Hill - "Trent is a third-year guy. This is his year. He either has to get it done or he will never get it done due to the youth we have and the guys we have coming in next year. We will probably use Trent as a long relief guy. I'm hoping for big things out of him from the bullpen this year. I am very pleased with his effort. His delivery has improved a lot since we've I've been with him the last two years. His strikezone percentage is better. He finished in the top 10 in total pitch strikes. I had Trent top out at 92. At one time I thought that he had a Jamie Gant type slider, but it's not as sharpe as I would like it to be. I think Trent is better the more he throws. He tends to get better as the game goes on."

True freshman RHP Drew Hollinghead - "We are going to redshirt Drew. His fastball topped out at 84. When we saw him at camp, his fastball was 85 to 87. And he was playing football and baseball. We felt like when he started playing baseball only he would be pitching 85 to 86 this fall. But he was throwing in the low 80's the entire time. He can spin a breaking ball, though. That is something that I liked when I saw him at camp. His breaking ball was a pitch he really liked to use. And with his fastball as slow as it was he had to use his breaking ball to keep them off his fastball. Hopefully, when he gets in the weightroom and gets some individual attention he will get that velocity back. He is a tough kid who will do everything that I ask him to do and more. If you ask him to do something 10 times a lot of times he will do 11. He's not afraid of hard work and he's very coachable."

Junior RHP Josh Johnson - "Josh, who topped at 93, has the best stuff on the staff. He has the quickest arm, the most explosive fastball and a great breaking ball. And he learned how to throw a changeup. The summer in the Cape (Cod League) was huge for him because Coach Roberts, his summer coach, really forced the changeup on him. Last year, I thought that Josh was going to be the Sunday starter. I think the Arizona game, when we had a 12-0 lead and he couldn't throw a strike, was a turning point for him. We brought Crosby in and he held the ship. We decided to give Crosby a shot the next weekend and he held on to that job. But Josh is a guy that I would start on Saturday as of right now. The one thing I've talked to Josh about is the effort and discipline that it takes to be one of those weekend guys on a consistent basis. I think he now understands what it takes to hold onto it, but I want him to be a little bit more adamant about how he goes about his business. There are times when he just seems to coast. He will do the work, but he won't give the best effort. For a guy who has a chance to play pro baseball, I want him to give his best effort everytime. If he does that in baseball, that is a discipline that he can carry on to his family as well. When he learns to do that, then I will think that he will have turned the corner."

There were three or four straight outings where he was dominating. Then, in his last outing, he got hit pretty good. What happened?
"During those outings you are referring to, he was throwing the ball in the bottom three zone in the strikezone. He was basically pitching with an angle. Then in the last game the ball was up. That was basically mechanics. He was trying to overthrow. Josh and I have talked about that. In high school he could throw it as hard as he wanted and get away with it. In college everybody can hit 92 to 93 fastballs. He's starting to slowly learn that he can't do that here. When he's at an angle, it's over. I saw him pitch like that during Scout Day and in the first game of the Banana Split. It will be a great day for me in the dugout when I see angle from him everytime, because it's fun for him and everybody else. And our fans will be excited because he can be electric at times."

Sophomore RHP Jared Koon - "We call Jared JK. He has a chance to be a spot starter or a long reliever for this club. We signed him to be a starter on the weekend, but with the depth we have from the righthand side they all can't start. JK started out really good, then kind of went downhill. But that's not a big deal to me because most guys will go backward before they go forward. He has special stuff and was drafted by the Braves. His fastball, which topped at 92, has great movement on it. I have no problem with his fastball in this league because it has great run and good sink. That gets in that bottom three zone that we talked about earlier. And he's not afraid to throw a ball inside. He's a 4.0 student who probably thinks too much on the mound. I want him to put it in automatic pilot and not to think about it. He told me that in junior college he could just throw his fastball in and out and not have to worry about looks or picks or tempo. He loves being at Mississippi State, but he knows he has a long way to go if he wants to help this club this year. We need to improve his command. It should be an easy fix, though. We also have to help him develop a little bit better breaking ball."

Sophomore RHP John Lalor - "John didn't have a good fall. His back bothered him some during the fall. Last fall, he didn't pitch much because he got mono. The one thing that disappointed me about John was that his strikezone command was not the typical John Lalor. I think he was trying to overthrow in an attempt to prove to me and the other coaches that he can maintain velocity. That was the biggest knock on him last year. He would be great, velocity-wise, two or three innings, then the velocity kept going down and down as the game progressed. This fall, John topped at 91. And his breaking ball has gotten tremendously better. But I feel he has lost the command of his change. And that is something that he has to have. If he can pitch off the fastball, use the good changeup and add the good breaking ball, he can do a lot of things for you. He has a chance to be the Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday starter or we could use him in the bullpen as a long relief guy in the SEC. He is a guy that I trust. I know I can turn my back on him and know that he can get it done. He understands the effort that is required. I respect him because he listens and does what it takes to get better."

True freshman RHP Matt Lea - "Matt and (true freshman RHP) Aaron Weatherford are the two guys from last year's recruiting class that we want to build our staff around. Matt has a bright future here as a starter. There is not much mechanically I want to do with him. He topped at 90. The one thing that caught my attention about Matt is that his breaking ball has gotten much better. In high school it was ok. Matt is a guy that hasn't pitched as much as people think because his dad, Charlie (Lea), has done a good job of keeping him from being overused. Charlie's a guy I really respect. He had a great pro career in Major League Baseball. And he's done a great job with Matt. There are a few things that I want to do with his direction, but those aren't mechanical things, they are more understanding how to pitch with an angle. In high school you can get away with throwing the ball flat and up in the zone. In the Southeastern Conference you can't. The biggest thing I have to work on with Matt is his command. He was 15th out of 17 in command of his pitches. His strike percentage was 60%. What is exciting for Mississippi State is that Matt can swing the bat a little bit, too."

Sophomore LHP Mitch Moreland - "Mitch has a very heavy fastball that topped at 90. He throws two types of breaking pitches. Mitch will be a short reliever who could be a lefthanded closer. He could also be a setup guy. What he did this summer at Danville was close for them. And he did very well. We changed his delivery last year in an attempt to speed him up, and he's starting to feel comfortable with that change. We've also got to get his breaking ball going a little harder. It's a little too soft for this league. He has developed a slider that I like. Mitch is like Crosswhite in that I trust him and know that he will give me everything that he has. He may be getting hit hard, but he won't quit on you. I think his teammates see that, too. You want guys like him at the end of the game. I also really like him at the plate. He hits the ball hard."

What do you mean when you say heavy fastball?
"It has some sink to it when it gets to the batter. It's not an explosive thing. It kind of bores into you. Josh Johnson's explodes at you, it jumps at you right at the end. Mitch's either comes into you or goes away from you."

Sophomore LHP Justin Pigott - "Justin's fastball topped at 87. JP will be one of those guys that we use in middle relief. He is a guy who will pitch a lot of SEC innings for us. He got tons of experience last year and did very well. He's the type kid you root for because he understands the discipline and effort that I'm looking for. He's probably the hardest worker that I have. He does it the right way. Even though he doesn't have the best stuff he gets the mileage out of it because he trusts it. He's going to compete. And he loves wearing the Mississippi State uniform. He can throw a fastball, breaking ball or changeup anytime during the count. His breaking ball has gotten better. I was excited when I saw him this summer and saw how his arm angle had changed. He understands how to make a quick adjustment on the mound if something is going wrong."

Senior RHP/INF Brooks Tinsley - "I put Brooks on this list because we may use him this year. He probably has the best righthanded breaking ball on our staff right now. His fastball topped at 94. He kind of reminds me of Charlie Anderson when he was here. We have definitely talked about using him in short relief because he's the kind of guy who could go out there for 3 to 5 outs and just dominate. He's got no changeup, though. So, we have to work on that."

Junior RHP Mike Valentine - "Mike topped at 86. He's going to be a short relief/closer type guy. He had some tendinitis in his shoulder and knee. Because of that, he didn't get to throw that much this fall. He throws a heavy fastball that is down in the zone. Because everything he throws moves and sinks, he's a ground ball type guy. If you look at his stats last year, you see that he got a lot of ground ball outs. And he has some swing and miss stuff, but that's really not what he is designed to do."

True freshman RHP Aaron Weatherford - "His stuff can be electric. Weatherford's fastball topped at 94. Our catcher, Edward (Easley), told me that his ball gets in on you really fast. He has a huge upside. He's a guy that has really jumped on board and done what it takes effort-wise and discipline-wise. He understands effort. I love his makeup. Due to him getting hurt early in the fall I had the chance to work with him during his rehab assignments. That was a blessing because we were able to clean up his delivery. When he first got here, he threw as hard as he could and as fast as he could. He is very, very coachable. We changed his arm angle a little because, when he first got here, he was right over the top. Now, he's throwing at a high three-quarter angle, which will help his movement pattern. He is very mature for a freshman. He kind of reminds me of Edward Easley's maturity. So, I don't think the crowds will affect him very much. He's also very smart and very focused on what he wants. Right now, Aaron is trying to learn his delivery and what we are trying to do with his arm angle. He really did a good job while he was hurt to learn the looks, picks and tempo. Early on we will probably use Aaron in the bullpen so that he will get some experience. Eventually, he will end up being a starter here. That's why I signed him. He could actually win a starting job his first year here."

Can Aaron, who is about 6-0 to 6-1 and not 6-3 to 6-4, continue to improve his fastball velocity or is it pretty much as fast as it's going to get?
"I think he can improve his fastball once we get him in the weight room. Billy Wagner, who is a closer for the Philadelphia Phillies, is a pitcher who I had in the Cape Cod league. He wasn't throwing as fast as he is now. I had another pitcher who pitched for me at Georgia Southern and he went from 88 to 94. So, it can happen."

Sophomore LHP Andy Wilson - "He's a guy that we will probably use in short relief during the midweek, mainly as a matchup type guy. We'll use him against lefthanded hitters who aren't very good against lefthanders. Andy topped at 84. He's a smart guy who can do those intangible things you want when you bring him in to get a couple of hitters out. He's a guy who we redshirted last year. And to be honest with you, it probably hurt him. But he wanted to redshirt. Then, he wound up getting hurt. And he struggled with that during the spring. He finally went to a specialist and got it identified. But we feel like it's starting to bother him again. I'm concerned about that."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by emailing

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