Mississippi State’s pitching staff in 2016 will be a mix of familiar and fresh faces.
For the first time in eight years, John Cohen will be without pitching coach Butch Thompson by his side. Thompson left in late October to be the head coach at Auburn and Cohen hired Wes Johnson from Dallas Baptist as his replacement.
“I think our kids have bought in to what he is teaching,” Cohen said. “How can you not buy in? Almost every one of our guys increased their velocity almost instantaneously. He has done a great job. Our kids have had the benefit of working with two of the best pitching coaches in the entire country – Butch Thompson and Wes. I think they are excited. Both of those coaches are different in the way they go about it, but they are both very good coaches. Our kids have benefited from both of them.”
Last year, the Bulldogs sported a 4.51 staff earned run average with 395 strikeouts and 199 walks in 482.2 innings. Their opponents hit .269 against them with 39 home runs.
Johnson inherits a staff with several juniors such as Austin Sexton, Dakota Hudson, Vance Tatum, Daniel Brown and Zac Houston in the spotlight. Sexton and Tatum combined for 20 weekend starts last spring and all five enjoyed stellar summers in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
“I think this has the potential to be one of our better pitching staffs,” Cohen said.
Hudson will draw the start on opening night. The 6-foot-5 right-handed junior made five starts as a freshman but regulated to 17 relief appearances last year. He went 1-1 with a 4.32 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 11 walks in 16.2 innings of work.
Hudson posted a 1.43 ERA in 13 outings (seven starts) during the Cape Cod League over the summer and has been picked as a Preseason All-American.
Sexton will draw one of the starts this Saturday. He led MSU in innings pitched at 76.1 last year sporting a 4-4 record in 13 starts. The 6-foot-1 righty had a 3.77 ERA with 24 walks and a team-leading 61 strikeouts.
Sexton is MSU’s most experienced hurler with 16 career starts and 99 frames of work.
Brown will draw the other start in Saturday’s doubleheader. He started one game in 2015 and made his other 15 appearances out of the bullpen. The 5-foot-10 southpaw was 1-0 with a 4.87 ERA, 28 strikeouts and a dozen walks in 20.1 innings.
The Diamond Dogs have not settled in on its fourth and fifth starters. Tatum and Houston are both candidates for that role but could also be used in long relief out of the bullpen as well.
Tatum made eight starts last season and 15 appearances overall. The 6-foot-4 left-hander went 3-2 with a 5.50 ERA, 42 strikeouts and 20 walks in 54 frames. He has made nine starts during his career.
Houston is trying to break into the starting rotation after two years as a reliever. In 21 outings out of the bullpen last year, he was 0-2 with a 3.66 ERA, 41 strikeouts and 24 walks in 32 innings.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander has benefited under Johnson, increasing his fastball up to 98 miles per hour this spring.
“I think Zac is much more comfortable in the starting role for now,” Cohen said. “I think he is open to help our ball club in any capacity. He might be throwing better than anybody on our whole team. Is he a starter on Saturday or Sunday, or do we start him on Tuesday? We have some options.”
State has some of its bullpen back as well in junior righties Paul Young and Logan Elliot. Young made two appearances last year while Elliot was called on six times. Both had an ERA of 9.00.
Jacob Billingsley and Myles Gentry are both returning from injuries. Billingsley, a redshirt sophomore right-hander, missed all of 2015 and has yet to pitch in college. Gentry was limited to only one inning of work over five outings.
Gentry is a redshirt junior righty and the only remaining pitcher from the Bulldogs’ 2013 College World Series squad.
Southpaw Trent Waddell got in six relief appearances as a two-way player last season. The 6-foot-1 senior logged 10 frames with six strikeouts, three walks and a 5.40 ERA. He is only expected to pitch this spring, giving up his spot as a back-up first baseman.
Junior Reid Humphreys as well as freshmen Cole Gordon and Jake Mangum are all three expected to be two-way players this spring.
“We have as good of arms one through 22 as anybody in the country,” Cohen said. “If you throw a Reid Humphreys in the mix, or a Jake Mangum who plays in the outfield and also pitches, I think we will have a good pitching staff.”
For Humphreys, it will be his first time on the mound since his junior year of high school following Tommy John and nerve surgery on his right pitching elbow.
“I think Reid can be a one inning save guy,” Cohen said. “He has a really good slider and has a great arm. We have waited for his arm to come back for three years. In his senior year of high school, he really could not throw. In his first two years here, his arm was still coming back. Now his arm is where he wants it to be. He is smart enough to know how to take care of it.”
The rest of Mississippi State’s staff will be made up of a dozen new pitchers.
“Very few of these arms have done it at the Division I level,” Cohen said. “They are fully aware of that. They are aware that they haven’t gone out and done it yet. They are optimistic about it.”
Right-handers Ryan Rigby and Blake Smith transferred in from junior college with the other 10 are true freshmen.
Those freshmen include righties Keegan James, Ryan Cyr, Parker Ford and Noah Hughes and left-handers Jared Padgett, Kale Breaux, Ethan Small, Trysten Barlow and Konnor Pilkington.
Padgett was a 26th round pick by the Chicago Cubs and Breaux was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana.