It has been a building process over the last six years but Mississippi State skipper John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson have established one of the nation’s most complete pitching staffs.
The Bulldogs hurlers feature a strong mix of veteran starters along with a deep bullpen. MSU returns nine pitchers from a team that finished national runner-up at the College World Series last spring.
“I’m just thankful for where we are with our pitching staff and knowing that we have the pieces we need,” Thompson said.
In 2013, the Diamond Dogs posted a 2.79 earned run average with 588 strikeouts and 234 walks in 642.1 innings of work.
Although Mississippi State returns seven pitchers with starting experience, the Bulldogs strength lies in its bullpen.
“I’m very comfortable with our bullpen,” Cohen said. “A lot was made that we didn’t go deep with our starting pitching. I don’t necessarily say that’s a weakness of our starting pitching. I would say that’s probably a strength of our bullpen. When you have a strong bullpen you have to use it and certainly we’re going to do that again this year.”
Thompson too likes this mix of starters and relievers that he has in his arsenal.
“With us training eight guys to start I think that gives us some flexibility and allows us to foresee and compete against some troubles coming up,” Thompson said. “We’ve trained eight starters which kind of covers us. John’s done a good job in our intersquads making us use our bullpens like we would in a game and I think that helps the guys develop.”
Among the returnees are All-American junior relievers Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder.
Mitchell appeared in 34 games a year ago setting a school record with a perfect 13-0 mark on the mound. The southpaw is 16-0 for his career and holds a 1.43 ERA. Last season he logged 94 innings out of the bullpen for State.
“I’ve only had one start here, so I don’t really have a starter’s mindset,” Mitchell said. “It’s awesome being able to throw everyday possibly. It’s kind of cool; you get the benefits of being a starter, but you get to sit and watch the game and predict the outcome and as a reliever you’re always available.”
Holder established the single-season saves record in 2013 closing out 21 games. He enters his junior season 23 saves shy of the national record. The Bulldogs are a perfect 80-0 when leading after the eighth inning since he arrived on campus.
The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder also led the team in strikeouts last season with 90 in 54.2 innings. Holder maintained a 1.65 ERA and was 2-0 in 34 appearances.
“Jonathan Holder is your closer and the majority of college baseball might move him to a starter’s role,” Thompson said. “But we wanted to keep him there because we think that’s his identity.”
Professional scouts and Mississippi State fans alike are excited for the return of junior right-hander Brandon Woodruff to the rotation. An arm injury limited the promising prospect to just seven appearances in 2013.
Woodruff took the mound for the Diamond Dogs in the SEC Tournament Championship game as a true freshman in 2012 where he tossed three shutout innings against Vanderbilt only allowing one hit.
“I think Brandon has already made a huge jump,” Cohen said. “I think he is unbelievably talented. I think he does some things better than Chris Stratton. He’s got a little more on his fastball. I think he has a chance to be that guy who makes the third year jump. We’d love for him to be that guy that gets 90 to 110 innings. He’s a really good athlete but he’s matured in a way that you believe he’s going to make big pitches when it matters the most.”
Senior righty and team captain Ben Bracewell returns for his fifth year in the program. Bracewell has battled arm troubles during his time in Starkville winning just one game in 47 appearances. He has made five career starts and also has five career saves.
“The obvious personal goal is just put together a full healthy year,” Bracewell said. “I kind of want a little more than that, not just be healthy but set a specific number to reach. Coach Thompson always jokes about the 100 inning mark, but I have taken it from a joke and tried to turn that into a reality.”
Fellow senior C.T. Bradford has also battled injury throughout his career. Being hurt as well as his responsibilities in centerfield has limited Bradford to just 17 outings on the mound in his career and is averaging a strikeout per inning pitched.
Junior Trevor Fitts came on strong as a starter at the end of last season. The right-hander started a game in the Charlottesville Super Regional and logged two starts in the College World Series. Fitts finished the year with a 3.03 ERA with 26 strikeouts and nine walks.
Junior Jacob Lindgren was State’s Friday night starter for much of last season but will take on a new role out of the bullpen this season. The lefty started 14 games going 4-3 with a 4.18 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 18 walks.
“Jacob Lindgren is going to come in for us and get a left-hander out or maybe in a close or setup type situation,” Cohen said. “I think he’s been phenomenal out of the bullpen for us.”
Amory native Will Cox has had a variety of roles during his first two seasons with the Diamond Dogs. This year the junior right-hander will be called upon out of the bullpen in middle relief. Cox has appeared in 25 games during his career holding a 5-2 record with a 3.38 ERA, 52 strikeouts and just 13 walks.
Sophomore right-hander Preston Brown received Most Valuable Pitcher recognition in the fall and has carried that improvement into spring practices. The six-foot, 190-pounder is vying for a starting spot in the rotation after making eight appearances out of the bullpen a year ago.
“He’s been consistent and has the movement pattern and reminds you of Kendall Graveman,” Thompson said. “With Kendall gone it’s given Preston more opportunities to be that sinker, change-up guy to fill those shoes. We’ve got it set up to where one exits and another comes in. I’m thankful we still have that style of pitcher.”
Side-arming sophomore Myles Gentry made 23 relief appearances in 2013 going 4-1 with a 3.69 ERA, 30 strikeouts and 13 walks in 31.2 frames.
Righty John Marc Shelly is the only other pitcher to appear as a true freshman last year. Shelly saw action in six games pitching 7.1 scoreless innings with five strikeouts and scattering five hits.
MSU adds 11 newcomers to its pitching staff this season including MLB draftees Dakota Hudson (36th round, Rangers) and Paul Young (21st round, Indians).
“We have some young guys who have really thrown the baseball well,” Cohen said.
The newcomers include junior college transfers Young (who has three years of eligibility remaining), Ben Hudspeth (Tupelo High School/ Itawamba Community College) and Lucas Laster. Freshmen hurlers are Hudson, Jacob Billingsley, Avery Geyer, Zac Houston, Glenn Irby, Levi Mintz, Austin Sexton and Vance Tatum.