February 2, 2013 11:03:52 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State University baseball program plans to use the buddy system on the mound again this season.
The plan for the first two months of non-conference play is to use two starting pitchers to get through seven to eight innings, and to hold both pitchers to pitch counts to avoid excessive work.
The system is similarly to how professional organizations manage their starting pitchers in spring training games. The plan gives pitchers an order they will face, a number of pitches they will throw, and an idea what they will showcase that day.
"What are you going to get, 80 pitches, maybe 90 pitches out of somebody in a start?" MSU coach John Cohen said Friday. "You're going to have to kind of cobble the whole thing together a little bit. (Last season), we were really trying to see who Chris Stratton was going to be, (and) he certainly emerged, so they kind of flip-flopped roles with your normal reliever going first. Early on it just has to be that way."
Last season, Ben Bracewell worked the first three or four innings of a game before giving way to Stratton, who went on to earn SEC Pitcher of the Year honors. The strategy enabled MSU coaches to monitor Bracewell's injury issues and to keep Stratton's workload light. Stratton's low pitch count early helped him open Southeastern Conference play with a 17-strikeout performance in 8 2/3 innings at LSU.
The two-man system also allowed young pitchers to get work, as 12 pitchers started a game last season. The plan proved key for freshman Brandon Woodruff, who had time to progress and to make his first start in the opening game of the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., nearly five months into his first season.
Cohen referred to Woodruff as a "wild card" Friday because of the elbow tenderness he has experienced. Woodruff is scheduled to make his split-squad debut today. The Wheeler native, who was an Under Armour All-American and a fifth-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers two years ago, mixes a 92-93 mph fastball with an overhand curveball. He and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson are trying to get his changeup down the strike zone.
"He is one of the few guys on our club who has dealt with some arm tenderness," Cohen said. "If he comes back strong, he's a great candidate as well."
In 2012, Evan Mitchell teamed with senior left-hander Nick Routt. Routt was drafted in the 16th round, 502nd overall, by the Cincinnati Reds. He will report to the Reds' spring training facility in a few weeks.
"(Evan) has really pitched well in the fall and the spring," Cohen said. "You kind of hope he makes the same jump Chris Stratton made. He's run some balls up there 94-96, he's got a great breaking ball, and his ability to control the running game has really matured."
Mitchell's issues have been finding the strike zone when he loses command of his fastball. That continued to be a concern Friday night in a split-squad scrimmage, as he walked two in the first inning and allowed two earned runs in less than three innings despite throwing 92-93 mph in near freezing temperatures at Dudy Noble Field.
"He's eliminated a lot of what I call BM -- big miss," Cohen said. "When you miss big, it causes a whole variety of problems for you, and he's really eliminated a lot of that, and I think he's got a chance to be one of those three guys. We're a better team if he ends up being one of those (weekend) guys."
Mitchell, who also hopes to earn a weekend role as a junior after he made just four starts in 2012, likely will be paired with sophomore southpaw Jacob Lindgren. They have faced each in consecutive weekend scrimmages.
"Jacob Lindgren has maybe the best left-handed slider in America," MSU senior right-handed starter Kendall Graveman said.
Last year, it wasn't certain what Graveman's role would be until the start of SEC play. He was left out of the two-man buddy system in 2012, going an average of seven innings in each of starts in the first two months. Graveman kept his pitch count low by pitching to contact with a power sinker that created an average of 15 groundball outs in his 16 starts.
"Kendall Graveman is somebody we're depending upon," Cohen said. "His two bullpens prior to his last start Tuesday were just phenomenal. He'll be a mainstay. Any time you're talking about the SEC or college baseball, for our club, Saturday's going to be the biggest issue in terms of a starter."
Cohen and Thompson feel Saturday is critical because they are comfortable using relief pitchers two times a weekend. Ideally, the staff would like to have a day of rest in between games one and three to stay fresh.
"On Fridays and Sundays we can afford to cut a starter a little short because I feel like we have so much bullpen support," Cohen said. "There's so much prowess attached to the Friday night guy, but every one of those games is just as important as Friday night. I really don't put as much stock into the Friday guy."
Graveman, who was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 36th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft, had sports hernia surgery last summer to correct a late-season injury that occurred before NCAA Regionals. Left-hander Luis Pollorena usually came in for Graveman, a right-hander from Alexander City, Ala. Pollorena, a 5-foot-9 control pitcher, is a unique choice to pair with Graveman because their styles are similar save for the fact they throw start from opposite ends of the rubber.
Graveman, who allowed two runs early in his only split-squad scrimmage appearance Tuesday night, spoke highly of the buddy system because last season he felt it allowed him to game plan with another pitcher, Thompson, and catcher Mitch Slauter for that day's opponent.
"You can even sit in the dugout with somebody and say, 'Hey, this guy is flailing away at breaking balls, so I think you should go slider or hook here,' " Graveman said. "It's nice to have somebody to bounce ideas off of and to communicate with because maybe while you started the game he was in the bullpen for two innings not seeing what your sequence was in a given situation."
After several years of arm injuries, inconsistency late in the season, and an inability to keep pitch counts down, Cohen hopes the buddy system can help produce another rotation that is ready to dominate in the SEC when LSU arrives March 15. Last year, MSU (40-24) led the SEC in ERA (2.58) and runs allowed (219) and was third in opponent's batting average (.239).
"You'll see some arms this year that are just as good as Chris Stratton and Caleb Reed," Graveman said. "There are tools out there for us. Trust me."