Mississippi State junior Matalasi Faapito is never sure what she’ll see when she gets to Nusz Park.
Will the New Mexico State transfer be slated to pitch for the Bulldogs? Will she be in the lineup — and if so, in what spot?
Faapito never knows.
“Whenever I get here, I just expect whatever,” Faapito said Wednesday. That evening, she hit in the No. 7 spot for the first time in maroon and white in a win over Southern Miss.
That’s because Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts is known for mixing things up. Batting orders, defensive positions and the makeup of the pitching staff are all under Ricketts’ control, and she’s nothing if not creative in her quest to keep the Bulldogs’ program on the cutting edge of college softball.
“It’s just fun to see the game grow and evolve and how we have to evolve and adapt to keep up with it,” Ricketts said.
Sometimes her changes are complicated. Sometimes they’re confusing. But Mississippi State’s players have bought into Ricketts’ machinations — the necessary step in making everything work.
“I think Ricketts does a really good job of continuing to try new things,” outfielder Chloe Malau’ulu said.
Mixing things up
Take an April 10 game against Missouri at Nusz Park, where Ricketts got to display her creativity to the Bulldogs’ benefit.
In Mississippi State’s original lineup, Faapito was listed as the starting pitcher as well as the “flex” player, meaning she would not be hitting. The Bulldogs’ best defensive outfielder, Brylie St. Clair, was listed as the designated player — slated to hit but not play the field; Addison Purvis, known for her bat, was MSU’s starting center fielder.
But once the lineups became official, Ricketts went to the umpires and made a switch. She moved St. Clair to center field, leaving Purvis to hit only.
And when St. Clair came up with a runner on base and two out in the second inning, Ricketts had the option of staying with her improving hitter or turning to Faapito. She chose door No. 2, and Faapito came through with a single. The Bulldogs scored a run in the inning; Faapito then returned to the circle, and St. Clair stayed in center field.
“I don’t even know the rules like that, but I really trust Ricketts that she knows what she’s doing,” Malau’ulu said.
Purvis, who had a hit and an RBI in the game, is often the beneficiary of Ricketts’ creativity. Mississippi State’s most common pinch-hitter, the Missouri native has reached base in 13 of 25 plate appearances off the bench through Wednesday’s game.
“She’s a hard out,” catcher Mia Davidson said of Purvis. “She walks a lot. She hits piss missiles everywhere. I think that’s one that really works really well.”
It’s just one thing Ricketts can do in hopes of providing her team an advantage.
She continually mixes up Mississippi State’s lineup, using 34 different batting orders in the Bulldogs’ first 49 games. The first 15 lineups were all different.
Ricketts didn’t even use the same lineup in back-to-back games until April 12, part of a stretch of four straight games with the same batting order.
Only two players have started every game at one position. Senior Jackie McKenna has batted everywhere from third to ninth in the order.
“I think it can be good,” Davidson said. “People don’t expect it, and then you put someone out there. They’re like, ‘Oh crap, what is the scouting report on this person?’ It can be (used) to an advantage, so I think it’s pretty cool.”
Ricketts has also turned to technology to set her lineups. It’s her first year using a software called SEQNZR (pronounced “sequencer”) that uses players’ statistics to come up with a model for the batting order projected to score the most runs.
That’s not to say the Bulldogs go entirely off what the numbers show. Ricketts said the “human factor” plays into it — the tech is just a way to inform Mississippi State’s decisions.
Early on, MSU even made a game of it — “us versus SEQNZR.” The Bulldogs would “win” if they scored more runs than the model predicted.
“Obviously, numbers don’t lie, but at the same time, it’s fun to see them lie sometimes,” Malau’ulu said.
Spreading out the staff
Mississippi State needed a series win.
Back in 2017, when Ricketts was the Bulldogs’ hitting coach, MSU used numbers to edge South Carolina 5-2 in a key rubber match at Nusz Park. The Bulldogs looked at potential matchups between their pitchers and the Gamecocks’ hitters, making a game plan to attack the Carolina lineup. MSU used three pitchers, sending Holly Ward in to get the game’s final out; it also shuffled its pitcher, designated player and right fielder on offense.
That was when Ricketts started to gravitate toward what she now excels in.
“I’m going to master this,” she decided.
That’s included the pitching side of things, too. Since Ricketts took over as head coach in July 2019, the Bulldogs’ staff has seen a paradigm shift.
Under previous head coach Vann Stuedeman, Mississippi State typically relied on a few pitchers with one carrying by far the biggest load. Emily Williams was that pitcher in 2019, throwing 171 2/3 innings — no other MSU pitcher pitched more than 80 1/3.
It’s the same approach Ricketts saw during her playing days at Oklahoma, when it was essentially a “one-horse show.” Three, maybe four, pitchers appeared all season, but one carried the weight.
“Back when I played or even when my sister (Keilani) pitched, you could kind of ride the one pitcher all three games over a series,” Ricketts said.
That’s no longer the case. Hitters have gotten better. Technology has improved. And Ricketts has adapted.
In her first year as head coach, the Bulldogs used seven pitchers. Three of them — Williams, Annie Willis and Grace Fagan — all pitched between 40 and 55 innings before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season. Williams and Willis both went over 100 innings in 2021 with help from Fagan, Aspen Wesley and Alyssa Loza.
This season, Willis, Wesley and Kenley Hawk have all pitched between 74 and 83 innings. Only Southeastern Conference pitchers to lead their teams in innings pitched, only two — Kentucky’s Miranda Stoddard and Ole Miss’ Catelyn Riley — had fewer than Willis’ 81 2/3 through Wednesday.
“It allows us as a staff to rely on everyone, and it’s not just, ‘One person has to do it all,’” Willis said. “We specifically know that we’re going to have each other’s back.”
‘The beauty of it’
In that April 10 game against Missouri — not long after Ricketts used the rules to the Bulldogs’ advantage — a change cost the Tigers a key run.
Missouri had its go-ahead score in the sixth inning wiped off the scoreboard after review. Ricketts had been alerted by a team manager that the Tigers had listed the wrong player as a pinch-runner. She consulted the umpires, who called the runner out and removed her run from the ledger.
It was an example of the risk inherent in any changes — whether as simple as the Tigers’ miscue or as complex as some of Ricketts’ innovations.
That’s why three people in the dugout — the manager keeping the scorebook, pitching coach Joshua Johnson and assistant Tyler Bratton — check Ricketts’ moves at all times. Players, too, are on guard.
“The girls are used to it now, too,” Ricketts said. “They know, so they’re going to make sure that I’ve reentered them before they go up or that I’ve reentered the hitter that they ran for, whoever it might be.”
It doesn’t always work perfectly, though. During one 2022 plate appearance, Ricketts told Faapito, “Make sure I reenter you,” but the Bulldogs coach got caught up in a conversation with another player. Faapito’s at-bat began before Ricketts realized her mistake.
“Luckily, she had not swung yet,” Ricketts said. “I had to run out there and enter her before she put a ball in play.”
Risks like that — among other reasons — have some teams still hesitant to be as creative as Ricketts. But plenty of others embrace it.
Apart from the staff approach Kentucky shares with Mississippi State, the Wildcats’ pitchers all hit, and coach Rachel Lawson uses the same DP/flex rule Ricketts did against Missouri. Alabama pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl and LSU pitcher Shelbi Sunseri are also skilled hitters for their position.
“That’s really kind of the beauty of it: It’s so different the way every team, every staff approaches the game and the way they either choose to utilize or not utilize the analytics and the data involved with all of it and allow that to help either create some of these decisions or lead them or double-check what we might want to do,” Ricketts said. “You have some coaches who have done it so long and they know it works for them and they’re comfortable in that role as well.”
Mississippi State, meanwhile, is trying to do something brand new for its program. But the Bulldogs can’t accomplish that without their players buying in.
That’s where the coaches come in. Ricketts, Johnson and Bratton are sure to take players aside, explaining the reasoning behind the moves and reminding them the changes are made in the interest of winning.
Only then can what Ricketts does best be at its most effective.
“Everyone understands it,” Malau’ulu said. We trust the process, so that’s been really helpful when Ricketts does that.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.