STARKVILLE — It’s no secret that Wes Johnson loves velocity.
Mississippi State baseball’s former pitching coach – now in the same position at Arkansas, his alma mater – has his calling card in that approach. His replacement, Gary Henderson, has a different outlook.
“Velocity’s a great thing, but what you’re really pursuing with pitchers is command and competitiveness,” he said. “If they’ve got command of two or three pitches and they’re really competitive people, than you can make that velocity work.”
Henderson is applying his holistic ideology to MSU pitchers for the first time this season, which opens at home Friday against Texas Tech at 4 p.m. The timing of Henderson’s arrival is perfect, in the eyes of MSU coach Andy Cannizaro, who sees his approach as one that fits the current staff.
“I think this year, as a whole, I don’t think we have the same amount of sheer velocity across the board that Mississippi State had last year; all of those guys are in professional baseball now,” Cannizaro said. “One of the things that Gary Henderson does is he’s one of the best pitching coaches in America in terms of delivery, arm action, calling pitches, helping young kids pitch.”
Bringing Henderson to Starkville was not Cannizaro’s doing – John Cohen made the hire before taking the job as the athletic director – but it was one he would’ve made if given the opportunity. Cohen and Henderson coached together at Kentucky, Cohen was the head coach and Henderson was the pitching coach, from 2004-2008, when Cohen left for MSU. Henderson was promoted to head coach and held that position at Kentucky through last season, after which he resigned.
“If I had shown up without a coaching staff, Gary Henderson would’ve been one of the first guys I made a call to because his reputation is that great as a pitching coach,” he said. “One of the very first thoughts of coming here to Mississippi State was knowing that Gary Henderson is the pitching coach here. You’re talking about a guy that has more guys in the big leagues from University of Kentucky baseball than most people even realize.”
Henderson’s knowledge – a product of his 18 seasons in the Southeastern Conference, 24 in collegiate coaching – is what has endeared him to his players.
“He’s full of knowledge, and to be able to learn from somebody who has that many years of experience coaching, it’s amazing to sit there and listen to how he talks and how he explains the game,” freshman pitcher Riley Self said.
Catcher Elih Marrero has noticed a change in pitchers under Henderson: “It’s all about their attitude. Coach Henderson has them on a great schedule, he has them confident and works them very well every day.”
Even those that are moonlighting in pitching – as reigning SEC batting champion and preseason All-American outfielder Jake Mangum plans to this season – are enjoying Henderson’s tutelage. Players are not alone in that sentiment.
“Having his office next to mine every single day,” Cannizaro said, “Gary’s been a tremendous sounding board for myself when different things pop up on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s something on-the-field, off-the-field, time management, those type of things.”
Henderson’s presence in Starkville brings an interesting juxtaposition between a well-respected pitching coach and an offensive-minded head coach. Cannizaro’s aggressive leanings, predicated on early-count fastballs and contact as a whole, have a way of benefitting Henderson, too.
“Andy’s approach has forced us to deal with the same type of approach we’ll see when the league gets here,” Henderson said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson