MISSISSIPPI STATE, Miss. — Pitching coaches have always utilized different strategies to maximize the pitching talent they have on staffs.
No philosophy is more progressive than what renowned Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson does with Bulldog pitchers.
He utilizes two starting pitchers each game (one to start the game and another a few innings later) which is followed by a setup man and closer. If needed, he will insert another pitcher or two in games if he needs ground balls or strikeouts. He has specialists for every occasion in a game.
Under his system, Mississippi State averages 4-5 pitchers a game with unbelievable success and less stress on pitchers’ arms since they don’t overextend themselves in games. The Bulldogs finished second in the nation last year.
“No. 1, a pitching coach’s creativity is limited to the structure or format set up by the head coach,” said Thompson.
“John Cohen (head coach at Mississippi State) has a huge part in what we do. He also has a ton of creativity. His ability to think and look outside the box is not to put any parameters on us. That is a huge point.
“Daron Schoenrock was my pitching coach in college who now coaches at the University of Memphis. He said something that really resonates with me: ‘Whoever throws the next pitch for us is our No. 1 pitcher.’
“That really develops and rallies a pitching staff. So whoever throws our next pitch is the most important pitcher throwing the most important pitch at that moment.
“I love saying that enough so it becomes a mantra with our staff. You might have your No. 1 guy who starts on Friday with his chest stuck out. But what about two days later when you are trying to win a ball game the last three innings of a Sunday game? Those pitchers are every bit as important to winning as your Friday ace.
“All of the pitchers you utilize in games are vital to your success and should be treated with great respect.”
The system Thompson utilizes could be the future of baseball because pitchers recover quicker and are able to pitch more often to impact games.
Late in the year, they are more effective instead of suffering from dead arms.
“It is vital that every pitcher on the staff have a role,” said Thompson.
“There are places for strikeout pitchers and rollers who entice batters to hit ground balls. Kendall Graveman led the nation last year with 19 starts. But then Ross Mitchell was a bullpen guy who was 13-0. He was the only guy on our staff who won that many games with zero losses.
“Between those two, Ross manipulated 19 double play ground balls and Kendall had 18 last season. They aren’t big strikeout guys, but they are the type of pitchers who get hitters to roll over balls for ground outs. We feel Ross Mitchell is the best roller of ground balls in college baseball, and that’s his role.
“Some of our young pitchers have big arms with great breaking balls. But the strike zone has gotten smaller now that they are pitching at this level and in the Southeastern Conference. Maybe they can’t throw an inning yet. But they can be wipeout guys who strike out batters in key situations.
“If the game dictates that we have a pitcher on the mound who is able to strike out the batter, we will use him in this role. A lot of times in the past, I didn’t have a space for the young pitcher with a big arm who was a little wild, and you were forced to put him to the side.
“Now I want every pitcher to have a role on our staff. If you are a wipeout guy, go and wipeout the hitter you are facing with a strikeout. Usually this is what a young, wild, big-armed pitcher can do early in his college career.”
Other Effective Systems
Two seasons ago, the University of Arizona won the national championship as the three key starters combined for 16 complete games as they threw 5,675 total pitches enroute to the Wildcats’ fourth national title.
To put this in perspective, Arizona had the same amount of complete games as the entire Southeastern Conference made up of 12 teams.
In 10 regional, super regional and CWS games that season, Arizona’s trio of starting pitchers averaged 8.48 innings per start — an incredibly rare achievement because so many starters experience dead arms late in the season. Arizona won 10 straight regional, super regional and College World Series games to close the season.
During CWS games, Arizona’s pitching staff had an ERA of 1.12, the fourth best in CWS history.
UCLA won the national title last spring with a more traditional approach.
The Bruins utilized great starting pitching, a setup man and then a lock down closer in RHP David Berg who posted a record 24 saves last season in 51 appearances, both NCAA records.
UCLA was not only perfect with a 10-0 NCAA tournament record, but the Bruins accomplished this feat by allowing only four runs in five games at the College World Series. Only one national champion over the past 67 years (California in 1957) has ever allowed fewer runs during the CWS (3).
The future of pitching may lie in Thompson’s system.
Last season, 15 pitchers made appearances for Mississippi State. Of that group, 10 pitchers made 14 or more appearances. Ten pitchers threw 29 or more innings as the Bulldogs recorded a 2.79 team ERA.
The strikeout numbers were impressive as 588 were recorded in 71 games while only 234 walks were given up.
“Two years ago, we were second in the country in ERA. Over the last two years our pitching staff has given up four or less runs in 92 games.
“Our record is 77-15 during this 2-year span when we have given up four or less runs.
“That has been an 84 percent winning percentage for us at Mississippi State with many games being played in the tough SEC. We also have turned more double plays the last two seasons than anybody in America with 151. We have been first and second the last two years.”
To learn more about how Butch Thompson utilizes his pitchers and develop specialists, purchase the February 21, 2014 edition of Collegiate Baseball by CLICKING HERE.