Ahead of Mississippi State baseball starting its 2016 season in a few days, the team had its preseason media day on campus over the weekend. Among many of the interviews was a particularly enlightening one with junior pitcher Austin Sexton.
The righty from Alabama led MSU in strikeouts and innings pitched in 2015 and returns this spring after being one of a record eight Bulldogs selected to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League over the summer. Starting eight games for the Cotuit Kettleers, he notched a 0.77 ERA in his final three starts, only allowing two earned runs in his last 23 1/3 innings of work.
The following is a transcript of our chat on Saturday morning, including brief nuggets from head coach John Cohen and thoughts from Sexton on new pitching coach Wes Johnson, as well as former pitching coach Butch Thompson.
Question: Talking to Coach Cohen about the rotation, you’re one of the few guys, out of so many options, he said definitely has a starting spot. That’s sort of been your story, your consistency and dependability. Where does that come from?
Answer: I think I struggled a lot as a freshman and that taught me a lot. I’m glad I did. I was able to go out in the summer and work on a lot of things and I think I developed as a pitcher. That freshman summer is so big for you. I went out there and worked hard and I came back and I took it into the fall of my sophomore year and I just kept building and building.
I went to the Cape this past summer and had a blast up there, a great group of guys. It was a lot of fun and it helps build you as a pitcher. That’s one thing you need to be as a pitcher: consistent.
Q: The idea of that has always been funny to me. Baseball is the one sport where they say ‘Alright, let’s send all of our players away from our coaching staff and they’ll get better without us.’ What is it about the summer leagues?
A: It is. It’s just, you grow and you learn from all aspects. You play with kids from California and Canada, the northeast. It’s just kids from all over the place. You take something that they’ve learned all the way over here, then something that they’ve learned from all the way over there and you just kind of combine everything. You share, you learn and you grow. I think that’s what makes baseball so special.
Q: I imagine, as a pitcher, the more batters you can face the better. You end up with this mental encyclopedia of types of batters.
A: Absolutely. It’s just reps, allowing pitches to take place, get work, see how they react to hitters. See how hitters react to pitches. It’s all of that stuff combined.
Q: One thing that’s interesting, and Cohen was talking about it a few minutes ago, is that he considers Wes Johnson and Butch Thompson to be the two best pitching coaches in the country, and you guys have had the opportunity to work with both of them this offseason.
A: I’ve told people that. For whatever reason, Mississippi State baseball, the pitching coaches, we’ve got it. Coach Thompson was a phenomenal coach and an even better person. Then, Coach Johnson is the same way, except he’s the complete opposite coaching-wise. Coach Thompson was a little more laid back, let you figure it out on your own. Don’t get me wrong, he’d still help you, but it was more where you go out there, you figure it out, you struggle, then, ‘Hey, let’s talk about it.’
Coach Johnson is with you every step of the way. He’s way more intense. We do a little workout before we even throw. I mean, we’re pushing sleds, jumping hurdles, lifting weights, doing shoulder cuffs. It’s just two aspects of the game that you get to blend in. Like I said, it’s two of the best minds in baseball pitching.
Q: What have you taken from Coach Johnson so far?
A: I think the big thing I’ve taken from him is just the intent. For instance, when we strike someone out, he wants us to stare them down and walk off the field. And I love that. I think that’s awesome. ‘We’re gonna be here for nine innings. There’s no one else you’re gonna face except for me, right here.’ That’s something I take away. Baseball, they say, is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. I think that speaks volumes to what he’s talking about.