Experience is the best teacher, as it is said, but experience also makes the best teachers. As Mississippi State closes in on the start of its first season under new head coach Andy Cannizaro, it’s the experiences of his career that are helping to make him a talented teacher.
His lessons already learned are particularly helpful for his infielders, as they are taught by someone who isn’t terribly far removed from his own playing days as a shortstop in the MLB. Cannizaro’s prowess in high school, college and the MLB led to a lengthy career as a baseball player, and now that he’s transitioned to baseball coach, the next generation of players is happily taking his cues.
Cannizaro shared the expected starting lineup for his team last week, and while a battle is ongoing at first, the initial crew for third, second and short appears to be set for the time being. That trio of athleticism-reliant positions – the infield arc, if you will – appears set to be an incredible strength for Cannizaro’s club, and thanks to his experiences, they’re a group with which he can be consistently hands-on.
Talking to the players involved, that’s exactly how they want it.
“It has helped a lot,” second baseman Hunter Stovall said. “We talk about first steps. We talk about foot placement. I caught all my life, really. It’s good to pick up and get a feel from somebody that’s been there, somebody that’s made it. It makes it a lot easier to listen to him, too, because you’re sitting here talking to an ex-major-leaguer.”
Stovall joins Ryan Gridley at shortstop and Luke Alexander at third base as the expected starters to begin the season, and between the three of them, they’ve developed not just chemistry, but extreme confidence. Those, along with others, routinely show up to practice early to get extra work in together on everything from the basics to acrobatics.
What makes them so confident, however, isn’t just the time spent practicing, but the combined talents of the group, as Stovall went on to explain.
“As a unit, we’re gonna turn a lot of double plays,” he said. “We’re going to be very fundamentally sound. The athleticism is unreal between us three. All three of us are going to make crazy plays. We communicate really well. Our chemistry in the infield is really good. I think we’re going to be very successful.”
Just how successful?
“We’ve talked with Coach Cannizaro a lot,” Stovall shared. “Our goal is to be the best infield in the nation this year.”
“A lot of confidence in the infield,” Gridley unabashedly confirmed. “I just want to continue to stress how much confidence we have going into the season.”
The confidence seems to be warranted, too. It’s certainly been evident in preseason scrimmages, when balls hit low or on the ground have an extremely low survival rate in the infield, very rarely reaching the grasses of the outfield. The athleticism of that infield arc has effectively put up a low wall around the infield where anything not hit high or hard enough is immediately snagged and quickly dumped to first base where the duo of Cody Brown and Cole Gordon have provided consistent gloves.
In fact, the confidence in the group is so high that many of MSU’s pitchers have even worked on getting more sink in their pitches, trusting in their infield to cash in on the groundouts and double plays.
“I feel really good about our infield right now,” Cannizaro said. “I think we have three guys that have the ability to play shortstop. Anytime that you have that, you feel great. As a coach, you feel great because you know they’re going to pick the ball up and throw the runner out. That’s one of the biggest things that we talk about every day.”
As for the individuals making up the infield, Cannizaro shared a breakdown of each, and it’s Gridley, the junior and veteran, who he is counting on for leadership and who he expects to have a breakout season.
“Ryan Gridley has been sensational,” Cannizaro said. “I was really impressed with Ryan last year when I was at LSU and we played Mississippi State. He’s a guy that can really defend at a high level. He has leadership ability. He’s a consistent defender and very accurate throwing the ball. He keeps on getting better and better. I’m really convinced that Ryan Gridley is going to be one of the surprise baseball players of the SEC this year. He’s got range and he comes and gets the baseball as well as any college baseball player I’ve ever seen.”
At third base, it’s the man who was competing with Gridley at shortstop – the sophomore Alexander – who appears set to take over the starting job.
“He defends at a really high level for us, as well,” Cannizaro said. “He’s new to the position over at third base, but already in the first week and a half he’s made plays that I don’t think anyone else on our team was capable of doing.”
Meanwhile, at second base, Cannizaro has yet another young player with breakout potential in the sophomore Stovall.
“Hunter is a grinder and a gritty player,” Cannizaro said. “He loves to play the game. He’s the first guy on the field every day and the last guy to leave. I think he’s kind of a table setter type guy that can bunt, run and play the short game. Reminds me a lot of the guy we had playing second base last year at LSU, Cole Freeman who was an All-SEC player last year. I think Hunter Stovall could be that type of player for us. He’s only a sophomore so I think the more playing time Hunter gets, the better he’s going to get. He’s a really high-energy type of guy. He brings a really good presence to the field for us.”
It’s that first-to-arrive, last-to-leave mentality that’s helped shape not just Stovall, but the entire infield as a whole. Their key word has been opportunity. Extra time before practice is an opportunity to improve. The practices themselves are opportunities to simulate games.
Even batting practice before games, Stovall shared, is an opportunity to make themselves better.
“I believe if you’re gonna stand out there during BP, you can’t just let balls go that you would normally go to in a game,” he said. “I love preparing myself for every moment that can happen in a game. So if there’s a ball I need to dive for – I mean, you ain’t gonna make the play in the game if you ain’t done it.”
“Every day,” Alexander confirmed, “we’re out there doing early work just competing with each other and trying to make each other better.”
As Cannizaro made sure to emphasize, nothing is set in stone. Competition remains at every position on the field, and no one is guaranteed to keep their starting spot. On a team with a great deal of young talent, anybody could make a jump at any time. There are always surprise players in college baseball, and MSU is sure to have one or a few of its own.
But even if the names change, the confidence in the infield is the same. They not only want to be the best, but they expect to be the best. Starting this weekend, they get their chance to prove it.
“We have to live up to it,” Stovall said. “That motivates us because we know that we are really good and that we have to prove it to people and prove it to ourselves. It makes it fun, makes it challenging.”