TUPELO – Kirk Presley has been down the path upon which Chris Stratton is about to embark.
Nineteen years ago, Presley was a 6-foot-3, 195-pound hard-throwing right-handed pitcher out of Tupelo High School who was drafted by the New York Mets with the eighth overall pick.
Monday, Stratton – a 6-3, 198-pound hard-throwing righty who also played at Tupelo High – was taken by the San Francisco Giants with the 20th overall pick. The Mississippi State junior is the first Tupeloan since Presley to be selected in the first round.
That alone makes for a strong connection between the two.
“I hope to see him (in the majors) ASAP,” Presley said. “It couldn’t happen to a better kid, honestly. I don’t know if I know a kid that is better prepared mentally to handle it.”
Stratton is 21. Presley was 18 when drafted out of THS, and he was one of several Mets prospects whose careers were hampered or derailed by arm injuries. Presley never made it past Class A ball and hung it up in 1998.
Spending three years at MSU gives Stratton a leg up over high schoolers.
“You take a guy out of college that’s a lot more polished, three years in the SEC under his belt, it doesn’t seem like they go in and try to break down those guys much as they do an 18-year-old that just gets into the organization,” Presley said.
Still, there will be a lot for Stratton to navigate, both on and off the field, as he works his way up to the top level. It’s a heady experience being a first-round pick. It’s still a fresh memory for Presley.
“It was mind-boggling. It didn’t really seem real,” he said. “And even though the talk started a year or so before, when you actually get that phone call that you have been drafted by a professional baseball organization, it’s a very surreal moment in your life.”
Presley and Stratton also share a personal connection, the former having coached the latter for two years on the Tupelo 49ers American Legion team. Presley still lives and works in Tupelo and knows the Stratton family well.
“I owe a lot to that man,” Stratton said. “He’s really helped me out, especially in the summers before I got to Mississippi State.”
Presley saw the potential in Stratton back then. Good velocity, good control, a strong mindset – he had the right makeup. Stratton always took well to coaching, but what made the difference for him this season was becoming, in essence, his own coach.
That’s a concept Butch Thompson, MSU’s pitching coach, drove home in the fall. Stratton had a strong summer in the Cape Cod League and had gained the confidence to be more of a take-charge guy during games.
“You’re always your own best coach, and that’s something that coach Thompson has always said,” Stratton said. “You’re never going to make it far if you always rely on somebody else, because everybody has their own opinion.”
Stratton will face mental and psychological obstacles along the way. He’ll be a richer man – the slot value for a No. 20 pick is $1.85 million – and will carry the heavy expectation that comes with being a first-rounder.
“Certainly I went through it, and I understand what he’s going through now,” Presley said. “He’s older than I was at the time and probably – not probably – he’s definitely ahead of where I was physically and mentally. And probably a little better prepared for it.”
‘Soak it in’
Presley has been in constant contact with Stratton, sending him congratulatory texts throughout the season. Stratton went 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA and was named SEC pitcher of the year.
As he tries to make his way, Stratton has a good support system in place, from family to the MSU coaches to friends and teammates. But nobody can really identify with him like Presley can.
The best piece of advice he could offer Stratton: “You have to learn to be a little selfish, to make sure you have that me time and that Chris time. It does get crazy, and it can be overwhelming if you let it.”
And it will go by fast.
“One of the messages I sent him was to soak it in and enjoy every minute of it. It doesn’t happen to a lot of people,” Presley said. “It’s an unbelievable experience, and enjoy it.
“You’ll wake up 20 years from now wondering where the time went, I can assure you of that.”