Mississippi State softball starts their season this weekend by hosting the Bulldog Kickoff Classic which will feature Georgia State, Stephen F. Austin State, and Western Kentucky. A year ago, Vann Stuedeman’s team failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. The team obviously does not want to repeat that this season. The team isn’t as young as it was a year ago and features some considerable talent. Let’s take a look at the team before the season starts.
Who is gone?
Last year’s team was incredibly young, and the Bulldogs had their fair share of growing pains throughout the season. However, there is a benefit to having such a young team. You don’t lose much to graduation at the end of the season.
Kayla Winkfield, Mississippi State’s star short stop is gone, and that hurts. She was one of MSU’s most prolific hitters last season and was one of the SEC’s best infielders. Technically, she’s still here though. She’s accepted a position on the coaching staff to help the Bulldogs as much as she can.
The Bulldogs also lost long time contributor Loryn Nichols, who was a staple in the outfield and as a pinch runner throughout her career, and Cori Cooper, a freshman pitcher.
What will the pitching look like?
As I mentioned, Mississippi State lost a talented pitcher in Cori Cooper that was a solid contributor in the rotation with a 3.21 ERA in 43.2 innings pitched. However, Mississippi State still has a core group of pitchers that it should be able to build upon this season.
Regan Green had a phenomenal first year in Starkville. The freshman pitcher was arguably the best to take the circle for the Bulldogs last season, with a 1.88 ERA and a team high 92 strikeouts through 82.0 innings pitched.
Holly Ward took great strides in her sophomore season. Ward appeared in a team leading 34 games and made 13 starts, compiling a 9-9 win-loss record along the way. She threw 102.1 innings, the second most on the team and had a 2.74 ERA for the season.
Alexis Silkwood, though the most experienced name in this group and one of the best pitchers in MSU history, struggled last season. She didn’t get off to a great start a year ago due to injury and she never seemed to be herself when she got back to starting regularly.
She’s got a good chance to bounce back this season and end her career on a high note. Silkwood will have plenty of support around her when it comes to pitching and she won’t have to carry the entire load on her own which could help prevent her from struggling due to exhaustion. Silkwood has thrown 39 complete games in her career, has 447 strikeouts, 44 wins, 107 appearances, and 75 starts. She’ll have her shot to continue her climb in the record book this season.
Cassady Knudsen didn’t pitch much a season ago, only throwing in 37.0 innings, but she did enough to potentially earn more time in the circle this season. She only made 5 starts and had 19 appearances, but she compiled a 4-0 record and a 3.22 ERA in that time.
The Bulldogs will also likely look to Mackenzie Toler and incoming freshman Emily Mitchell to round out this group. Toler, as a utility player, has contributed in starts and appearances throughout her career. Mitchell had a 17-2 win-loss record in her senior year of high school and had a 0.90 ERA in that time.
Will MSU continue to play small ball?
One longstanding gripe amongst some fans has been that Stuedeman’s teams have struggled to hit with power while at the plate. Instead, bunts and stolen bases have been a staple of Studeman’s teams. The trend seemingly reached a peak a year ago.
Mississippi State hit a total of 18 home runs throughout the entire season. Their opponents hit 28 against them. In the entire conference, 705 home runs were hit for an average of 54.2 home runs per team. The Bulldogs clearly fell well below that average.
MSU was, in almost every category, the worst in the SEC when it came to hitting a season ago. A large part of that should be attributed to youth (though some fans will scoff at the notion that freshmen will struggle) and also a rigorous schedule. And though the latter factor can’t be removed heading into this season, the former can possibly be mitigated by a year of experience.
The Bulldogs were one of the youngest teams in the country last season, and though they still have 11 freshmen and sophomores, there’s also 13 juniors and seniors, including 2 transfers. I would be shocked if MSU didn’t improve at the plate this season, though the team will likely still play small ball.
I admittedly was a little too optimistic about what I thought this team could be last season, and this team had plenty of struggles due to youth last year. I would expect that the team should be able to bounce back a bit this year and will probably make the NCAA tournament. The team will likely go as far as the pitching can take it, and that is Mississippi State’s strong point.
The Bulldogs will need to find some more consistency and power at the plate for 2017. They cannot rely solely on pitching if they want to contend with some of the better teams in the SEC. While the pitching should be able to carry them pretty far, if the Bulldogs want to take a step forward this season, they’ll need to provide more run support.