July 7, 2018 10:19:51 PM
STARKVILLE -- J.T. Ginn is the commonality in Stacy Hester's six years as Brandon High School's baseball coach. Over all that time, it became more and more clear to Hester that Ginn was a special player, a player destined for a lengthy professional career and a stop in Major League Baseball. The only thing left for Hester to do in recent weeks was wonder if that career would include a stop at Mississippi State.
Hester and MSU fans joined in celebrating Ginn's decision to go to Starkville.
Ginn was drafted 30th overall in the Major League Baseball Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, a pick with a slot value of $2,275,800, but he chose to forgo his immediate professional career and play for MSU. Hester had a up-close-and-personal look at one of the nation's most touted prospects for six years.
"I'll be honest, I'm thrilled that he's staying close to home and I can go watch him play for several more years," Hester said. "I'm surprised he didn't take the money, but he has always told me he wanted to go to Mississippi State. With their success this year, I think that kind of sealed the deal for him. He's already got some good friends on the team and I think J.T. feels like he's going to miss out (if he doesn't play college baseball.)"
Ginn's route to this height -- a prospect good enough to make this choice -- contained its tests.
When Hester took over at Brandon, Ginn was showing so much early promise he decided to put Ginn at shortstop as an eighth-grader. He came back for his freshman season with a noticeably stronger arm, forcing Hester to give serious consideration to putting him in the starting rotation. Ginn would have had a spot in it if not for a growth plate issue that kept him out for health reasons.
Hester has been in baseball long enough to know that some players never come back from growth plate issues like that, but Ginn came back stronger than ever, throwing 92 miles per hour from the mound as a sophomore. He ended up as the closer supporting a strong starting rotation, amassing 10 saves before a junior season that featured 16 home runs and 66 RBIs.
As opponents kept pitching to Ginn as a junior, it made Hester wonder, "Do these people not check MaxPreps?" It also made Hester clearly aware of the talent he had on his hands.
"He got into a zone where he could not miss a baseball. As a junior, I realized he could be a special kid," Hester said. "J.T.'s going to be a big leaguer one day, whether it's two years or three years at Mississippi State or whatever it takes."
As a senior, he served as both a starting pitcher and closer for Brandon while hitting well enough to end his high school career with a batting average greater than .400. His high school performance was good enough for Under Armour All-American honors and a spot on the USA Baseball U18 team that won a gold medal. The USA team used Ginn as a pitcher exclusively, but as he watched the games, Hester thought it was clear Ginn was good enough to make the team as a position player, as well.
The opportunity to continue showing that prowess might be one of the biggest reasons MSU will reap the rewards of his services.
"He's always been a hitter, and I think when (new MSU coach Chris) Lemonis told him he could be a dual position guy, I think that was the final nail in the coffin for him to forget that pro contract right now," Hester said. "I think he's up for that challenge and I think that had a part in him going because they were going to take it easy with him pitching this summer and I think he felt like he may have been bored, you know? I really do think that. He's always played shortstop, he's always hit and came over to pitch. He's always been involved and it may have had a part in wanting to be involved in all of baseball."
With at least one position in the infield coming open thanks to roster turnover and a pitching staff in need of help, Ginn is already projected to be of significant help to MSU as a freshman. Last year's Bulldogs never found a solidified closer in the run to the College World Series, and Ginn could be that, but he could also be used for more innings in a middle relief role. He could also fill the shoes of Colorado Rockies signee Hunter Stovall at second base, among other possibilities, or possibly fulfill both position player and pitcher roles at the same time.
The expectations are high, and Hester knows it. He also knows Ginn well enough to think he won't falter in them.
"People are going to expect him to walk on that pond behind the softball field. They're going to expect him to walk on water now that they have the savior coming to Mississippi State," Hester said. "There's so much pressure on him, but J.T. has always handled pressure as good as I've seen. He had all the scouts coming to watch him to mess him up; he gave up two earned runs in his first start and didn't give up another earned run the rest of the season.
"I don't see many flaws in his game and being around better people is going to push him next year."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson