Here’s what’s legit and what’s just hype for Mississippi State baseball
Heading into the fourth week of the season, the Mississippi State baseball team returns to Starkville for a six-game home stand as a consensus top-10 team. State is ranked as high as sixth in the national polls after a 2-0 weekend in Frisco, Texas, that saw the Dawgs take down tournament team Sam Houston State and consensus top-10 team Texas Tech. MSU is 10-1 and playing as well as any team in the country, and even casual fans are starting to pay attention, as is the national media. For those that haven’t gotten the chance to observe the Bulldogs first hand, here is a breakdown of what this team does well and what it can improve on.
REAL: “Mississippi State has got to be pitching pretty well”
The pleasant surprise for State fans is how well State has pitched through the first 11 games of the season. Maybe surprise isn’t the right term, because insiders knew there were plenty of bright spots on this pitching staff. But even the most optimistic of MSU fans and savviest of media members probably couldn’t have predicted how good this starting rotation and bullpen was going to be, especially considering the losses of JP France, Zach Neff, Jacob Billingsley, and Konnor Pilkington from last season. But here the Dawgs find themselves 11 games into 2019 with a team ERA of 1.53. That’s an astounding number for a staff. The highest ERA of any pitcher on the staff is 4.50, and 6 pitchers have played without giving up a single run. State is yet to allow more than 4 runs in a game, and the 4 they allowed against Jackson State was in a game MSU won by 11. Not only have Ethan Small and JT Ginn been just as good if not better than advertised, but the bullpen ERA for MSU is hovering somewhere around a 1.00 ERA. The Bulldogs have 136 strikeouts in 100 innings (and are striking out themselves less than half that many times) This staff has been solid for MSU against some real teams, including UAB, Southern Miss, Sam Houston State, and Texas Tech. Look for Cole Gordon, Jared Liebelt, Colby White, Jack Eagan, Keegan James, Peyton Plumlee, Small, and Ginn to continue to limit baserunners for the Diamond Dawgs’ opponents. Even as warm weather picks up and offenses start to figure things out, State has laid a solid foundation off which to build dominating mound performances when SEC play approaches.
FAKE: “State must be knocking the cover off the ball to be wining as much as they have.”
The Mississippi State offense has been far from perfect. The top five guys in the batting order right now—Jake Mangum, Jordan Westburg, Tanner Allen, Elijah MacNamee, and Justin Foscue—have been extremely productive, both in terms of getting on base and extra-base hits. But a key weakness to the Mississippi State offensive attack has been a lack of timely hitting. They leave 7.5 runners on base per contest. This has nearly come to hurt MSU twice, in the final game against Southern Miss and in the Texas Tech game, and it did cost State in the first game against USM. The optimistic thought for MSU fans is the fact that offense usually comes on later in the season; this is especially true for Mississippi State historically. Also, State isn’t striking out a lot (only 61 times this season), capitalizing on other teams’ mistakes, and doing little things offensively to give themselves the best chance to win. One way State has supplemented an offense that has been effective but not electric is by running the bases with reckless abandon. The Dawgs have stolen three times as many bases as they had at this point last season, and are getting good jumps off of base hits as well. However, they have also run themselves out of opportunities, twice eliminating runners in scoring position with less than two outs against Texas Tech on Saturday. But the trade-off from taking additional bases vs losing a few baserunners seems to still favor the aggressive approach. All in all, despite what many may be saying, the Bulldog offense has room to grow. The individual talent and the coaching is there to lift this pretty-good offense to the monster levels this Mississippi State team is capable of soon.
REAL: “Those coaches John Cohen hired must know what they’re doing.”
The early returns from the hires that the Mississippi State athletic department made at the end of last season have been fantastic. The first victory State had was turning in a top 5 recruiting class despite a tumultuous coaching carousel all season long in 2018. Coach Lemonis managed to keep first-round draft pick JT Ginn in college for at least two years, and that decision looks to be coming up aces for both Ginn and State. Coach Scott Foxhall was another big hire during the offseason, coming from a consistently good program in NC State to coach the Bulldog hurlers this year. Foxhall has high praise from some Mississippi State royalty. Rafael Palmeiro’s son played at NC State, and Palmeiro was pleased with what he and his son observed from coach Foxhall. Foxhall commands a staff that has already shown to be a skilled and effective set of ball players; those stats speak for themselves. State also managed to keep hitting coach Jake Gautreau, a guy the players love and respect that could’ve easily left for a head coaching job. Gautreau got a lot of credit last season for turning around an offense that couldn’t put up runs behind good starting weekend pitching from Konnor Pilkington and Ethan Small. His return means keeping the glue that holds that batting order together. Mississippi State seems to be in good shape as far as the coaching braintrust of that team is concerned.
REAL: “Mississippi State is good at baseball”
So many times in baseball do fans and pollsters alike miss when it comes to their expectations for a baseball team. The 2017 State team that went to a superregional kind of came out of nowhere if you looked at the preseason, losing a huge part of that potent batting order from the previous year’s team and introducing a new and unproven coach, as well as having a piecemeal pitching staff. Then 2018 happened, and everybody thought the Bulldogs had nowhere to go but up, starting out ranked in all the polls at the beginning of the year. State would end up having a magical season, but would first have to come crashing down from those early-season rafters the polls and the praise had built for Mississippi State. This season, it appears that if anybody missed-read the Bulldog baseball team early on, it’s in labeling them as “pretty good” when they’ve crossed into territory that can only be described as “really good.” The 10-1 record speaks for itself, and the skillset of the teams State has beaten hasn’t been subpar by any means. Mississippi State is trending in the right direction across the board from an athletic standpoint, and baseball is no exception.
MSU faces off with another ranked opponent Tuesday, hosting East Carolina. Arkansas-Pine Bluff comes to Starkville on Wednesday. Both game times have been moved to 3 pm. State starts a three-game series with Maine on Friday at home.