April 27, 2018 11:05:11 AM
STARKVILLE -- On a day where he was the hero, Luke Alexander was still capable of an admission. It was a matter of minutes after a walk-off double to beat Ole Miss that he said, "Jake (Mangum) is the best hitter in the SEC and he has been for three years now."
It's a bold statement but a relatively easy case to make, bolstered by the fact Mangum won the league batting title as a freshman. Somehow, Mangum had room to grow, and he's showing it as a junior.
Mississippi State's starting center fielder has built a reputation on constant contact; slugging was few and far between, but it wasn't much of a concern as he hit .371 over his first two seasons. This season, Mangum is still giving MSU (23-19, 8-10 Southeastern Conference) a team-high .335 batting average out of the leadoff spot, but now he's doing so with more extra-bases than ever before. He enters this weekend's series against Texas A&M (30-11, 9-9 SEC), beginning 6:30 p.m. Friday (SEC Network+), with 14 doubles in 42 games, after 12 in 62 games as a freshman and 15 in 65 games as a sophomore.
Those doubles are tied for first in the league and tied for the team lead, with Bulldog second baseman Hunter Stovall joining him in both ties.
"I think it was narrowing my stance a little bit, thinking more backspin line drives," Mangum said. "I'm getting my pitch to hit, being a little more patient."
Thus, Mangum's way to more power took two routes.
First, the setup change. He said it wasn't a big adjustment, but one he worked on through the summer with the Hyannis Harbor Hawks of the Cape Cod League and in the fall. As he started prioritizing backspin line drives, he thought the narrow stance would help him swing on a flatter plane, as opposed to coming down on the ball with his bat. He worked through most of the growing pains over the summer: after averaging a double every 17.1 at-bats as a freshman and 18.5 at-bats as a sophomore, he averaged one double every 37.6 at-bats in 27 games as a Harbor Hawk. Hitting with a wood bat and the elite pitching at the Cape account for some, but the adjustment surely plays some factor.
With the narrow stance, Mangum is now averaging a double every 12.7 at-bats. Yet, he can't hit every pitch he sees for a double, and that's where the second part comes to play.
In the first two years of his career, Mangum developed a reputation as a free swinger; first-pitch swings were more rule than exception. Swinging and hitting first pitches never negatively impacted Mangum's batting average, clearly, but other statistics suffered. As a freshman, Mangum struck out 20 times compared to 14 walks and his sophomore season was significantly worse, 35 strikeouts to nine walks.
This season -- with some encouragement -- Mangum is seeing more pitches and his ratio closer to even, 16 walks to 19 strikeouts. He's already set a career high for single-season walks.
"I sure hope so, we've talked about it enough," MSU interim coach Gary Henderson said. "He was about 4 to 1 last year, that ratio of strikeout to walk. You take HBPs and walks and we're ahead of the strikeout total, that's a tremendous improvement from him and we're benefitting from it.
"His game is still going to be line drives and getting on base, so the more he can walk and the more he can get on base, those are really positive things."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
1. Halter walks-off LSU with 17th-inning heroics COLLEGE SPORTS
4. MSU's tennis stars keep winning at NCAAs COLLEGE SPORTS
5. MSU wastes scoring opportunities in 1-0 loss to Vandy COLLEGE SPORTS