Pirtle Delivers Solid Swings As A Switch-Dog

The move raised some obvious eyebrows at the time. And goodness knows Brett Pirtle doesn't look the part of the classic ‘cleanup' hitter. Yet how this second baseman has been swinging the stick reminds that not all baseball wisdom is conventional.

The best part? Despite moving into this premier slot, Pirtle hasn't pressed for success.

"Sometimes they fall and sometimes they don't," he said. "But all you've got to do in this game is see how many balls you can square-up. And don't worry about the outcome. If you worry you're messed-up for the at-bat."

Obviously there isn't a lot of worry to Pirtle. As the calendar flips over to May, the junior infielder stands third in Bulldog batting at .308 after a superb April. In the month, to coincide with being moved to fourth in the order, he was 21-of-58 at the plate. That included an eight-game hitting streak. Interestingly, when the string was snapped Pirtle only got better, because in the next five contests he was 11-of-19.

Or take just last week as a more isolated example, with Pirtle batting 10-of-15 in the four games. He beat up on Memphis with a 4-of-5 evening, then hit Vanderbilt pitching 3-of-4 times in that series opener. Coach John Cohen simply sees a batter confident in his craft these days.

"He's finding barrel, he's hitting balls hard. And he's also somebody who holds his ground and can get a HPB. He gets to first base a lot." That's no exaggeration, Pirtle is fifth in SEC plunkings with 11 against 18 strikeouts all season. Only RF Hunter Renfroe and walks-machine 3B Alex Detz have better on-base rates.

Of course Pirtle's prowess and making it to first base with or without swinging has to at least partly be due to his matchup advantage. He's a switch hitter, not just on occasion but full-time. Well, full-time since he committed to switching.

"It's been a long time in development. Right now I feel the best I ever have."

By a ‘long time' the Tyler, Texas native means going back to high school. Yet now it seems to have been inevitable Pirtle would be able to swing effectively from either batter's box. His father and coach Mike was a switch-hitter himself, not to mention a second baseman. "He made me and my brothers bat left-handed," Pirtle reports. The youngest man of the clan is still a right-handed thrower, and boy can he ever throw it across from the whole right side of the infield.

In a further irony, those older brothers both became catchers. "But I decided to go a different route," said Brett, which has proven most fortunate for him and Mississippi State's defense. But back to the switch switch… "I just kind of fooled around with it, and started taking it serious in the tenth and eleven grades. In eleventh grade I started hitting games right-handed."

Hitting well enough, either side, to become Texas 5A All-State second team and play in the state's 5A/4A All-Star Game. Though the brothers had gone straight to senior college (Dallas Baptist and Vanderbilt), Brett opted for a venue just about as competitive in the Texas junior college baseball ranks.

"It was a learning experience. Going to a junior college helped me learn more about myself, what I needed to build and what I needed to keep doing. Also summer ball really helped out. So going to junior college and playing summer ball advanced me to where I am today."

Former Mississippi State assistant Lane Burroughs saw Pirtle playing there. The infielding spoke for itself (Pirtle was also considered as a potential catcher by the way), but what sold the Bulldog staff was how Pirtle simply swung at strikes and watched balls. Since this is the most intangible aspect of good hitting, Cohen figured the rest could be developed.

Now, that the junior transfer would find his way into the four-slot? Nobody could have imagined this. Yet, Cohen said, "We talk about traditional cleanup hitters, but I don't think there's much tradition to offense in college baseball right now. You've got much more of an on-base mentality, and in our foul-hole it's got to be a guy who can move it around." The ‘it' often being Renfroe of course. Other teams still tend to walk the biggest Bulldog stick if possible but having a percentage-hitter behind him makes this less attractive an option. Also, because Pirtle can switch sides of the dish, he leaves opponents tough choices in when and how to alter their pitching. Or, not.

Switch-hitting has its inherent challenges of course. Such as getting into the proverbial ‘groove' and suddenly having to shift sides. Just the price of the position, Pirtle figures.

"But it just depends. Sometimes you face a lot of righties, and then you feel good left-handed. Then all of a sudden you have to switch to hitting right-handed. So it just depends about consistency of the pitching." And, of the practice. Pirtle does what one would expect in the batting cage whether at workouts or pregame.

"I just try to take a consistent amount of bats on both sides. I just try to keep it going and not do too much, and stay consistent."

Speaking of consistent, Pirtle has met the fielding needs at second base. Mississippi State came into 2013 with a proven quantity there of course in Matthew Britton. Rookie Kyle Hann was a strong second-sacker signee for this year, and of course elder statesman Sam Frost knows the position well. What has given Pirtle the advantage naturally is his hitting…yet look at the right end of the stat sheet. In 197 total chances he's made just four official errors, with a whole lot more good, often impressive, and at times just plain great grabs. Not to mention both hands in most of this defense's SEC-leading double-play tally.

Pirtle and team are back on familiar ground this week after a painful trip to Vanderbilt, where the overall league leaders handed State three losses. It was all the more frustrating because Pirtle saw in the Commodores a comparable club. "They're a team like us, they play small ball and are fast and hit a lot of grounders and try to get on base." Though, Vanderbilt runs the bases more aggressively than the Bulldogs, not least because they play on an artificial field. Pirtle didn't mind that, the liked the high and true hops.

What he does care about is getting back on the winning fast track. "We've had a little ups-and-downs, but we can bounce back easily." Easy for him to say as Mississippi State (33-13, 10-11) prepares to host Alabama (27-18, 11-9). The Crimson Tide has snapped out of their SEC skid by salvaging a split against LSU, then taking a double-header from Texas A&M as that series was limited by weather.

The Diamond Dogs aren't deflated by losses to top-tier Vanderbilt as much as frustrated at the close-call nature of the series. The trick is to set it all behind, Pirtle knows.

"We play in the SEC, we've played the best. No matter win or lose you've got to gain from it. So we're going to gain from this for the rest of the season, we're going to come out positive and gain momentum going forward."

Game times are 6:00 (ESPNU), 2:00, and 1:30. The Bulldogs do not play any non-conference games as it is spring finals week on campus.

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