Baseball: Changes have paid dividends for Chris Stratton

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s Chris Stratton’s show now, and a lot of people are tuned in.
Every time the Mississippi State right-hander steps on the mound, he is a picture of calm and control. The way he sees it, the game belongs to him. His numbers illustrate that.
Entering today’s series opener at Alabama (6:35 p.m.), Stratton, a junior from Tupelo, is an SEC-best 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA, 95 strikeouts and 17 walks in 751/3 innings. After beginning the season in the bullpen, he moved into the Friday night starter’s slot after Ben Bracewell hurt his elbow.
Stratton is on the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the best player in amateur baseball. The trajectory of his career has Stratton headed straight for the first round of the 2012 Major League Draft. Scouts and national writers have descended upon Dudy Noble Field – and wherever else he pitches – to get a look.
Those scouts really want to talk with Stratton, but he’s not even thinking that far down the line. He’s too busy dominating hitters and trying to get MSU (27-17, 10-11 SEC) back to an NCAA regional.
And this time, he hopes to be a big part of a postseason run. Last year, Stratton struggled and lost his starting job toward season’s end. He logged only 12/3 innings during NCAA play.
“I was like, man, I really let my team down,” he said. “I felt like if I was there at the super regional, if I was there like I am now, I feel like we could’ve gone to Omaha and really make some noise.
“I guess that’s something that kind of propelled me to do good in summer ball and really compete hard and get to where I am right now.”
‘Whole new person’
Changes and adjustments were made. Stratton began standing up a little straighter when pitching from the stretch. He developed his slider and learned how to control it, and the same with a two-seam fastball. He’s now got four pitches, including a two-seamer and a changeup.
Stratton took his bullpen work more seriously. He gained arm strength in the weight room. He heeded his coaches’ urging to attack hitters instead of nibbling around the plate.
When Lee Stratton saw his son pitch during fall ball, he was stunned.
“I said, ‘Chris, I don’t know what water you’ve been drinking, but just keep guzzling,’” Lee Stratton said. “It’s just like a whole new person.”
Stratton became a more efficient pitcher, and the numbers bear that out. As a freshman starter, he averaged 17.1 pitches per inning. That number dipped to 16.8 during 2011 starts, and during seven starts this year it’s down to 14.3.
“That’s a huge difference. That’s dramatic,” Cohen said.
Stratton tossed 104 pitches in last week’s complete-game shutout of Ole Miss. The week prior, he threw 117 pitches in nine innings of a no-decision against Tennessee (MSU won in extra innings).
“He’s got the deal where if he feels comfortable throwing a pitch to a certain location, and that’s not the pitch that’s called, he’s going to get what he wants,” Cohen said. “And that’s something that we’ve really preached and wanted out of him, that type of personality.”
During Cohen’s few visits to the mound, Stratton’s response each time has essentially been, “I’ve got it.” The show must go on.
That attitude is borne of several things, including newfound confidence, a stronger arm, and the better pitch efficiency. Stratton is three innings shy of matching his career high for innings pitched in a season, which he recorded as a freshman.
He credits MSU’s strength and conditioning staff for helping him get stronger.
“My freshman year I was a little toast,” Stratton said. “I feel like we’ve been training for this for a long time, and I feel great.”
Cohen pointed to a pitch Stratton threw to Ole Miss second baseman Alex Yarbrough, who’s second in the SEC with a .417 batting average. It was a 95-mile-per-hour fastball on the inside part of the plate for strike three. Yarbrough didn’t swing.
“When you’re doing that kind of stuff, you’re at an elite level,” Cohen said.
Always poised
Being a Friday night starter in the SEC, and being one who can go deep into games against the likes of LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina, requires a great degree of composure. That’s something Stratton has always had.
Lee Stratton, who coached high school basketball for 23 years – including a successful run at Tupelo High School – before moving into administration, taught his son from an early age to remain emotionally steady.
At least on the outside.
“Just my dad, when I was younger he said, ‘Don’t let anybody know any emotions that you’ve got going on. If you’re up 20 or down 20, you need to have the same demeanor on the mound.’”
That persistent calmness can sometimes belie Stratton’s fierce competitiveness. Lee Stratton said it runs in the family.
“He hates, with a passion, to lose,” Lee Stratton said. “He can’t stand it, I can’t stand it. It breaks our heart.”
Obviously, Stratton hasn’t personally lost a game this season. He said going undefeated the rest of the way would be great, and it would of course only increase the attention he’s already getting.
As it is, it’s quite an entertaining show he puts on every Friday night. He loves to soak up the atmosphere, the bright lights, the scrutiny, the challenge of facing other top SEC pitchers. Showtime is Stratton’s time.
“There’s confidence, there’s an aggression – it’s just a different guy,” Cohen said. “I saw it this past summer in the Cape (Cod League), and now we’re seeing it in the best league in America, in the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s really a bunch of things, but one of them is Chris kind of deciding who he wanted to be.”
brad.locke@journalinc.com

LIGHTS OUT
Chris Stratton has been lights out in
seven SEC starts:

AT LSU: 8.2 IP, 1ER, 4H, 17K, 2BB

VS. ARKANSAS: 7.0 IP, 2ER, 5H, 9K, 2BB

AT AUBURN: 7.0 IP, 2ER, 8H, 8K, 1BB

VS. VANDERBILT: 6.0 IP, 3ER, 6H, 6K,
1BB

AT SOUTH CAROLINA: 7.2 IP, 5ER, 9H,
11K, 2BB

VS. TENNESSEE: 9.0IP, 1ER, 4H, 10K,
0BB

VS. OLE MISS: 9.0 IP, 0ER, 5H, 7K, 1BB
TOTALS: 54.1IP, 14ER, 41H, 68K, 9BB

On the Hill
TONIGHT: Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton (8-0, 2.39) vs. Alabama RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-3, 4.54)

SATURDAY: Mississippi State RHP Kendall Graveman (3-3, 3.04) vs. Alabama LHP Jon Keller (1-4, 4.37)

SUNDAY: Mississippi State TBA vs. Alabama TBA

Other SEC Baseball

Rebels get division-leading LSU at home