December 12, 2013 7:45:27 AM
STARKVILLE -- If anybody knows about the worthlessness of numbers in the fall for college baseball players, it's John Cohen.
The Mississippi State baseball coach jokingly refers to his career at his alma mater when he calls himself a "Fall-American" in reference to his penchant for being a top player when the statistics didn't count.
"The older you get, the more you realize this game more than your opponent will just punch you in the mouth," Cohen said. "The fall doesn't count does it? The fall isn't a make-you, break-you situation. It is about learning to deal with success, and for some, learning to deal with failure. It's all part of a developmental maturity process."
This is why Cohen wants all of his players to use the fall to establish themselves as consistent contributors on the big stage.
"I'm really proud of how much our older kids lead in our strength and conditioning program, and we need them to continue to do that. I have no doubt they will," Cohen said. "I really like the way the later date worked out because of the individual work that was able to happen before team play began."
With these leadership elements being so critical, Cohen was happy the players have elected senior first baseman Wes Rea and senior pitcher Ben Bracewell captains for the 2014 season.
"We have that much leadership that their was lots of choices and votes by our kids, and that's a neat thing to see," Cohen said.
Rea, who hit just .154 in the fall, is an example of how fall numbers aren't an indication of a player's worth to the team.
"It's always strange to see how the fall numbers have to be looked at differently because guys are tinkering with things or young players are just trying too hard to impress," Rea said. "You have to take it as a learning experience and not let your numbers or your performance on a specific day in the fall help put you in a different mind-set for the next day."
For the newcomers, the numbers are used to gauge how the difference in the speed of the game could affect how much playing time they could earn in the new season that will begin at 4 p.m. Feb. 14 against Hofstra.
The fall season, which was two weeks later to accommodate weather issues and injuries, featured excellence on the mound with seven pitchers who had ERAs under 3.50.
"We had to learn how to communicate with a completely different pitching, catching, first base, and language issue with all those new pieces, so I think people that came and watched us were frustrated by the pace of play, but that had to happen," Cohen said.
Cohen hinted at the possibility of moving two-year starting pitcher Jacob Lindgren to the bullpen for the 2014 season. Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson hope to Lindgren in a role similar to the one left-hander Chad Girodo filled last season. Girodo was so effective he was drafted in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft earlier this year.
"We've really tried to tailor our fall around what your role will be in the spring with left-on-left matchups for one batter, and that's just one example with Lingo that worked," Cohen said.
Lindgren, who was 4-3 record and 4.18 ERA in 2013, failed to pitch two innings in three of his last five starts. The 12th-round selection out of high school by the Chicago Cubs was MSU's starting pitcher on Sundays in Southeastern Conference weekend series for the final six weeks of the regular season, but he failed to get a victory.
"He's in love with the role," Cohen said. "He envisions himself pitching out of the bullpen in the big leagues. A lot of guys make a lot of money doing that, and he's more of a sprinter than a marathon guy on the mound."
Cohen said he was impressed with Brandon Woodruff's recovery from shoulder surgery last year. He said Woodruff could fit in nicely in a rotation that includes Bracewell, freshman John Marc Shelly, and left-handed junior college transfer All-American Paul Young, who sat out the fall due after his team's national title run.
"Paul Young is a player I knew is frustrated because he wants to get out there and prove what he's capable of, but I think resting him was an intelligent decision for him and the ballclub," Cohen said. "Woodruff came back slowly, but I think his last three outings of the fall were just phenomenal."
Cohen said in his post-spring news conference that MSU may use a committee approach to replace starters at catcher and shortstop for at least the first month of the season.
Cohen and Thompson have taken long looks at senior Zach Randolph, redshirt freshman Daniel Garner, junior college transfer Cody Walker, and freshman sensation Gavin Collins at catcher. Cohen hasn't had three active catchers on his roster for a SEC series in the past two seasons, but he said he has tinkered with the idea this season because of Garner's potential to be a designated hitter.
"It's amazing because all four of them have something to offer the club," Cohen said. "Garner had the best offensive fall, Cody is a guy that no doubt has the best catch-and-throw skills, Collins has soft hands and all the tools, and Randolph manages the game the best right now knowing the pitchers best."
Shortstop and second base will feature competition between returnees Brett Pirtle, Kyle Hann, Matthew Britton, and junior college transfer Seth Heck. Pirtle could stay at second base or transition to shortstop like All-Southeastern Conference selection Adam Frazier made two years ago.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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