STARKVILLE — The statistics have supported the claim that the Mississippi State University baseball team has the best pitching staff in the Southeastern Conference this season.
The Bulldogs received some validation to that argument Tuesday when junior right-hander Chris Stratton, of Tupelo, was named the SEC’s Pitcher of the Year by the league’s coaches.
“I guess hard work pays off,” Stratton said. “It’s finally coming to a close.”
Stratton likely will start at 11 a.m. Friday when No. 14 MSU (39-22) faces Samford University (39-21) in its first game at the NCAA tournament Tallahassee Regional hosted by No. 3 national seed Florida State University. Stratton, a 6-foot-3 first-round draft prospect, is fourth nationally in wins (11), fifth in strikeouts (123), and first in the SEC in ERA (2.21). He has been the team’s Friday night starter on a staff that has a league-best 2.58 ERA.
“Nobody wants to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs right now, and
that’s just obvious,” said ESPN college baseball analyst Ben McDonald on Monday on the NCAA selection show on ESPNU. “They’ve got one of the best pitchers in the country in Chris Stratton, and with that pitching depth is one of the most dangerous teams in all of college baseball.”
Stratton’s transformation is even more significant considering a lack of confidence and inconsistency in his delivery limited his time on the mound at this time last season.
“We weren’t even going to let him on the mound at this time last year,” MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said. “He’s one of the best in the country now.”
Scouts, who have flocked to Dudy Noble Field to see the likely first-round pick, have noticed a difference in Stratton’s mechanics and attitude since the middle of last year when he struggled so badly.
“The work Chris and Butch have done is incredible because I remember talking with Butch last year about how screwed up Chris was,” Colorado Rockies area scout Damon Iannelli said. “His mechanics were so badly mismanaged with his head going every which direction, and now he’s on plane and straight as an arrow in his delivery. It’s amazing the work they’ve put in.”
MSU coach John Cohen has seen a much different pitcher take the baseball every first game in a SEC series this season. A year ago, Cohen saw a scared and worried sophomore who had an ERA above 5.20 in his first two seasons. Last year, Stratton pitched 1 2/3 innings in the NCAA tournament.
“When Chris went to the Cape Cod League, I went up there to see him pitch once this summer and I had scout after scout walk up to me and ask, ‘Why wasn’t this kid in your rotation down the stretch and are you nuts?’ ” Cohen said. “I told every one of them ‘that kid didn’t pitch for us last year’ because that Chris Stratton is a different and much more mature person in every way.”
Stratton also learned Tuesday he moved one step closer to becoming the second MSU player to win the Golden Spikes Award when he was named one of 30 semifinalists for the award that is recognized as the Heisman Trophy for college baseball. Former Bulldog and Major League Baseball All-Star Will Clark won the award 1985.
“He’s flat out unbelievable, and the fact is I get to catch the best starting pitcher in college baseball right now,” MSU junior catcher Mitch Slauter said. “I think it’s awesome that I’ll get to tell my kids one day that I caught Chris Stratton in college because there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be a big leaguer real soon.”
Stratton is one of six semifinalists from the SEC. Earlier this year, Stratton received the C Spire/Ferriss Trophy, which is given annually to the top college player in the state of Mississippi.
For the first time this year, fans will be able to vote for the 35th Golden Spikes Award winner through online balloting at www.GoldenSpikesAward.com. The player who leads in the online fan voting will receive a vote that will be added to the final tally of more than 215 voters. Fan voting will close at 4 p.m. June 1.
The list of Golden Spikes Award candidates will be narrowed to three finalists June 5, with the winner announced July 6 in a nationally televised awards presentation on MLB.com.
Stratton was one of three MSU pitchers named to the All-SEC teams by league coaches. Junior right-hander Kendall Graveman, MSU’s best groundball pitcher, was named to the all-defensive team. Freshman closer Jonathan Holder, who has thrown 27 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, was an all-freshman selection.
Holder led a bullpen that is a major reason the pitching staff has a 1.58 ERA in its past 24 games.
“We held everybody to a limited amount of runs and that really boosted our confidence,” Holder said after the SEC tournament final Sunday. “It gives us a ton of confidence. It lets us know we can beat the best of the best and compete with everybody. If we just keep the same mentality we’ll be good to go.”