Imagine being a head coach or pitching coach in the best league in the country and handing your livelihood to an 18-21 year kid.
On several occasions throughout the 2011 season, that’s what both of the coaching staff’s at Mississippi State and Florida have felt confident in doing with their catchers.
Both Mississippi State senior Wes Thigpen and Florida sophomore Mike Zunino have had their coach point to them and say it is on them.
“If I start out calling a game early, here’s our strength – I can go to Wes and say ‘take it,’” MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said. “Now the next time through the lineup is a different sequence because it’s a different brain.”
It is calling pitches, setting the defense and making sure the running game is controlled from behind the plate and then of course, four times a game they have to find a base hit or two with the bat.
“A lot of kids don’t want the responsibility and would rather not do it,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said.
On the other hand with the pressures that come from fans expectations in power conferences, coaches aren’t normally happy with the lack of control that goes along handing that role over to a young man half their age without knowing if he’s mature enough to handle the responsibility.
“A coach can't control the outfielder hitting the cutoff man (and) selecting pitches is one area they can control,” SEBaseball.com publisher Mark Etheridge said. “A lot of coaches just don't want to trust their careers to a college catcher.”
However, with several scouts and general managers expected to be in attendance for the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament this week, the first question people associated with professional baseball ask is: ‘Does he call his own game?’
“Obviously, calling pitches is a huge help for a catcher's development and professional prospects,” Etheridge said.
Zunino is certainly one of the best catching prospects in the 2011 draft class and his average at the plate (.383) is two points away from winning the SEC batting title currently being led by Bulldogs third baseman Jarrod Parks (.385). The sophomore was named the SEC Player of the Week after the regular season finale series against Kentucky and was 6-for-12 against MSU at Dudy Noble Field last month.
“You look at a guy like them and instantly think that he’s a fifth-year senior that’s been in the league forever but is just finishing his second season in the league,” Cohen said.
Zunino’s development been very similar to Thigpen as in his second year with the program has been given more responsibility with a young but extremely talented pitching staff.
“I feel the way I've handled the pitchers this year, I'm a lot more comfortable," Zunino told the Ashville Citizen-Times last week. “They're unbelievable this year.”
Throughout the final two weekends, Thompson said he noticed both his program and Florida have had pitches called from the dugout while both squads were trying to win each division in the league.
Thigpen can regularly be seen in the Mississippi State baseball office watching film with Thompson and working with what he calls “the triangle of pitching” that includes the pitching coach, catcher and pitcher throughout every day of practice.
“I can’t remember how many times he’ll voluntarily come up and go over and over stuff with us with his little notebook that he writes down notes on for every hitter in the league,” Thompson said.
Despite not being a highly-regarded college prospect, Thigpen may end up a late-round selection in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft due to his experience handling a pitching staff at the highest level of college baseball.
“This year Wes Thigpen is a better baseball player because he was given ownership in something,” Thompson said. “When a player leaves you, you’re going to develop your program, your recruiting, develop your players at a maximum if they learn to think for themselves.”
The transfer from Meridian Community College has actually seen his average with the less explosive bat jump from .225 to .250. Last season everything offensively and defensively was new for Thigpen leading Thompson to handle things with the pitchers.
“It’s a right and a privilege to get to call games at the college level,” Thigpen said. “It doesn’t just happen. You have to put the work in and I’m so thankful that Coach Thompson believes in me enough to do it.”
The Mississippi State gameplan on the mound depends on how the pitcher wants to work and his confidence at the given point in the season which can require a veteran like Thigpen to fill the role of pseudo psychologist from time to time.
For example, Thompson informed freshman right-hander Evan Mitchell earlier this week that he would getting his fifth career start at Regions Park against the Gators Wednesday afternoon. Suddenly, Thigpen has to get quickly get the 6-foot-2 right-hander physically and mentally ready to take on one of the best lineups in the country.
“I don’t think he’s nervous at all and he’s got a good stroke going right now,” Thigpen said. “He’s worked hard and he deserves this.”
Thompson said two starting pitchers in the MSU rotation (Chris Stratton and Luis Pollorena) try to maintain a rhythm on the mound from pitch to pitch and would rather not shake off but instead trust his battery mate.
“Every once in a while when I’m second guessing myself, I’ll look to him and say I need the call,” Thigpen said. “When I see games on TV, most guys are still doing it every pitch so I have no issue looking over there.”
When the eight teams arrive in Hoover, Ala., this week, it’s possible that Wednesday’s matchup between the Gators and Bulldogs will be a battle between the minds under the age of 23-years-old.
However, Thompson believes it’s a trend that could carry over.
“It’s rare but I think you’re seeing in college baseball a push back to pitches being called from the catcher,” Thompson said. “With the pitch clock and shorting the games, it’s now a shared responsibility and always will be.”