BRAD LOCKE: Although better, MSU pitchers hit hard in ’11

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – There is ample evidence of Mississippi State’s improvement under third-year coach John Cohen, including the fact an NCAA Regional bid is a virtual lock. I’ve written many times about the strides made this season.
There remain plenty of weaknesses, of course, none so glaring as the starting pitching. I’m speaking specifically of SEC-quality starting pitching, and a strictly statistical study of this season compared to last season shows that only a little progress has been made.
In 2010, nine pitchers accounted for the 30 SEC starts, and they had a collective ERA of 8.56 in 1301⁄3 innings. Those pitchers allowed 186 hits, 77 walks and struck out 105.
There was a heavy reliance on freshmen, including Chris Stratton, who logged 57 innings in 10 starts and had an ERA of 6.16. Freshmen accounted for 19 of the starts and had a 7.90 ERA as a group.
The good news this year was that fewer freshmen were forced into such action, as they’ve accounted for only four league starts. The bad news is that the rotation experienced upheaval every few weeks, and Stratton did not show improvement; in fact, he seems to have regressed, with a 7.44 ERA in 46 SEC innings.
In 32 conference starts by eight pitchers – counting the SEC Tournament – MSU hurlers have compiled a 7.20 ERA in 1282⁄3 innings, with 183 hits, 53 walks and 108 strikeouts.
Sure, that’s an improvement in most categories – most notably walks – but nothing to get overly excited about. Speaking of walks, Devin Jones only walked three in four starts this year and couldn’t keep his job.
A big difference this year has been Nick Routt. No doubt MSU’s numbers would have been better last year had he not been injured on the first SEC weekend and missed the remainder of the season. And if not for him, this year’s numbers might well be worse.
Routt’s been the most consistent Bulldog starter, with a 4.28 ERA in 40 innings (10 SEC starts). He’s allowed 49 hits, walked 20 and fanned 39. And this stands out: He’s given up 19 earned runs and 10 unearned runs.
He’s done this slowly coming back from elbow surgery last year, and Cohen said Thursday that Routt hasn’t been able to “rip through his changeup,” which means he gets in trouble when hitters can work the count.

Reasons for hope
What’s encouraging is when you see a kid like freshman Evan Mitchell step on the mound against Florida, a national title contender, in the first round of the SEC Tournament and toss five superb innings. He gave up just two runs on five hits and struck out five against arguably the most dangerous offense in the league.
Cohen has said he still believes in Stratton, and he thinks Jones has plenty of ability but just hasn’t grown into it yet. It’s been a labor for Luis Pollorena since he was promoted from the bullpen, but given his past success as a starter, there’s reason to believe he could at least be serviceable.
One thing to consider: Cohen has signed quite a few multi-position guys, like C.T. Bradford, Darryl Norris and Hunter Renfroe. These players can pitch and play the field, but that dual role usually works best when the pitching role isn’t a starting one.
It can be done: Florida’s Brian Johnson is a DH when not mowing down SEC foes. He’s batting .312 on the season – and beat MSU on Wednesday with a grand slam – while posting an 8-3 record and 3.58 ERA.
MSU has other young arms with promise, like sophomore Chad Girodo, sophomore Kendall Graveman and redshirt freshman Brayden Jones. Many of this year’s sophomores have logged a ton of innings, and the entire pitching staff should return intact in 2012 – all of the seniors are position players.
The hope is that guys like Stratton and Routt will become more reliable starters next year and allow the youngsters to develop at a reasonable pace. Progress as a whole needs to be made, and on a much larger scale than this season.

Brad Locke (brad.locke@journalinc.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.