Today’s challenge is to build a player. Drawing from the pool of Mississippi-born big leaguers, put together a Super Player based on the five tools scouts evaluate in a position player. Those are hit, hit for power, field, throw and run. Start with the latter, which might be the easiest call here. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, currently signed to a minor league contract with San Francisco, is one of the fastest to ever play the game, a modern day equivalent of Starkville native Cool Papa Bell, the Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Famer. Hamilton has 299 career steals in his seven MLB seasons and holds the all-time pro record with 155 bags in the minors in 2012. Check. Hamilton also is a standout defender in center field, but Jackson native Chet Lemon arguably was better. Lemon, who played from 1975-90, recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record. He had three more as a right fielder that year, and that 512 total ranks as the fourth-most all-time in a single season. Lemon ranked among the top 10 center fielders in putouts in a season seven times and among the fielding percentage leaders five times. No less an authority than Sparky Anderson called Lemon the best center fielder he had ever seen. Good enough. When it comes to throwing ability, one can’t go wrong with Grenada native Dave Parker. Anecdotal evidence: His throw from right field to nail a runner at the plate in 1979 All-Star Game is widely regarded as one of the most jaw-dropping ever. When players dared run on him, Parker made them pay. A three-time Gold Glover, he recorded 143 assists – 26 in 1977 alone — over a 19-year career from 1973-91, though he played little outfield the last four years. The best hitter, based on average alone, among Mississippi natives is Buddy Myer, the Ellisville native who played from 1925-41. A lefty-swinging singles hitter, Myer batted .302 for his career and won a batting title with a .349 mark in 1935. Gulfport’s Gee Walker, who played from 1931-45, batted .294, including a single-season best of .353 in 1936. Among more recent players, the best hitter is, surprisingly enough, Dmitri Young, the big (6 feet 2, 295 pounds) switch-hitter from Vicksburg who batted .291 from 1996-2008. He had more pop, with 171 career homers, than Myer or Walker, but for just pure hitting, Myer is the pick. When it comes to raw power, there are several great candidates, from Parker to George Scott to Ellis Burks to Hunter Renfroe. But, from many accounts, there was something special about the threat that Luke Easter brought to the plate. The 6-4, 240-pound Easter, from Jonestown, clubbed 93 big league homers in the 1950s and another 247 in a long minor league career. He hit some legendary bombs, including a 500-footer in Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium and a 477-footer in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. So, that’s Hamilton’s wheels, Lemon’s glove, Parker’s hose, Myer’s bat and Easter’s power. A star is born.
One of the new age measures of a good pitch is something called “expected weighted on-base average allowed.” By that measure, former Mississippi State star Brandon Woodruff’s four-seam fastball was among the best in the game in 2019, his .264 mark ranking behind only Gerrit Cole’s, according to the good folks at mlb.com. Woodruff’s four-seamer made their list of the top five “nastiest” in MLB, joining those of Cole, Josh Hader, Yu Darvish and Jordan Hicks. Woodruff was pretty good by the old-fashioned measures, as well, posting an 11-3 record and a 3.62 ERA in 121 2/3 innings for Milwaukee, with 143 strikeouts, 30 walks and a .240 batting average against. The big right-hander’s average velocity on his four-seamer, per mlb.com, was 96.3 in 2019, his third season with the Brewers and first as a full-time starter. Woodruff’s stuff has garnered attention since his days at Wheeler High, where, as a senior in 2011, he punched out 100 batters in 49 1/3 innings and was drafted in the fifth round by Texas. He chose to go to State, where he had trouble harnessing his stuff during an underwhelming three-year career. As a junior in 2014, he made 15 appearances, posting a 6.75 ERA with 29 strikeouts, 25 walks (plus four hit batsmen) in 37 1/3 innings. But the stuff was still good enough for the Brewers to pluck Woodruff in the 11th round, and in 2016, things started to click. Woodruff went 14-9, 2.68 at two minor league levels that season; at Double-A Biloxi, he struck out 124 in 113 2/3 innings with just 30 walks. After his “nasty” big league breakthrough last season, he may well have a Cy Young Award in his future.
On what would have been Opening Day in the major leagues, here’s a few themed trivia questions to jog the memories of Jackson-area pro baseball fans. (Answers below.)
1. When the Jackson Mets played their first game 45 years ago at Smith-Wills Stadium, who was their starting pitcher?
2. What future big leaguer threw a one-hitter for the JaxMets in their 1982 home opener?
3. How many future major league players were in the lineup for the JaxMets in their 1984 home opener?
4. What future major league catcher hit a walk-off home run for the Jackson Mets in their 1985 home opener?
5. What former Ole Miss star hit a walk-off home run in the Jackson Generals’ home opener in 1995?
6. What former Tupelo High standout knocked in the winning run for the Jackson DiamondKats in their home opener in 2000?
7. What former Purvis High star was the winning pitcher in the Jackson Senators’ home opener in 2003?
8. Who hit the first home run in Mississippi Braves history in their season opener in 2005?
9. When the M-Braves played their inaugural home game at Trustmark Park, who scored their first run?
10. What three players hit home runs for the Atlanta Braves when they played a season-opening exhibition game in 2013 at the TeePee?
1. Greg Pavlick, who would go on to be a longtime major league pitching coach, beat Arkansas 6-4 with relief help from Joe Klenda, who threw four perfect innings. A crowd of 2,862 turned out on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
2. Jeff Bittiger beat Arkansas 2-0; the Travelers’ lone hit was an infield single by Jose Gonzalez with two outs in the eighth inning. Bittiger went 12-5 that season and led the Texas League in strikeouts.
3. Eight: Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Dave Cochrane, Randy Milligan, Al Pedrique, Greg Olson and Jay Tibbs. The OJMs, who would win the Texas League pennant in 1984, beat Tulsa 6-0; Dykstra was on base five times, scored twice, drove in a run, stole a base and threw a runner out at third base.
4. Barry Lyons, the ex-Delta State standout from Biloxi, went yard on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth to beat Shreveport 3-2. Led by Lyons’ 108 RBIs, the ’85 OJMs won their second straight Texas League crown.
5. Kary Bridges, the Oak Grove product now the coach at St. Martin High in Ocean Springs, belted a three-run bomb in the ninth to beat Arkansas 7-6. Bridges batted .301 that season but hit just two more homers.
6. Willie Gardner’s eighth-inning single scored Perry Miley with the go-ahead run in a 5-4 defeat of Alexandria, one of the rare highlights of the independent D-Kats’ lone season at Smith-Wills.
7. Kenny Rayborn cruised through five innings to beat Springfield/Ozarks in a 10-3 game. Rayborn, in the seventh of his 13 minor league seasons, went 10-2 for the Sens, who won the Central League title that year.
8. Jeff Francoeur went deep – very deep — at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium in a 9-8 defeat on April 7. Francoeur hit 12 more homers for the M-Braves before his July promotion to Atlanta, where he famously homered in his first game.
9. Jonathan Schuerholz, son of the former Atlanta GM, scored on an infield hit by Scott Thorman in the first inning of an 11-6 loss to Montgomery. The younger Schuerholz is now Atlanta’s assistant director of pro scouting.
10. Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis, a former M-Braves catcher whose three-run bomb in the seventh inning landed somewhere in the parking lot beyond left field. Gattis hit 21 homers for Atlanta that season, his rookie year.
The Major League Baseball amateur draft is in limbo. Players aren’t playing, so scouts aren’t scouting and cross-checkers aren’t cross-checking. There is chatter that the draft, slated for June 10-12 in Omaha, will be cancelled. That would throw all the players eligible for 2020 back into the pool for 2021. But if there is a 2020 draft, could players choose to defer to 2021? If players are drafted and signed in 2020, will they even have a place to play? It’s a little confusing. Way back in December, before the new coronavirus made its ugly appearance in the U.S., mlb.com listed five Mississippians among its top 100 draft prospects: Mississippi State’s J.T. Ginn (No. 36), Jordan Westburg (43) and Justin Foscue (58) and high schoolers Blaze Jordan (53) and Colt Keith (91). Presuming that there will be a draft, draftsite.com has done a mock draft (updated March 18) in which Ginn, a sophomore-eligible right-hander who was a first-rounder in 2018, is pegged as the No. 12 pick by Cincinnati. Considering that Ginn recently had elbow surgery, that seems a bit unrealistic. Foscue, a second baseman, would be the 28th overall pick by the New York Yankees, and Westburg, a shortstop, would go 30th to Baltimore. Jordan, a slugging corner infielder at DeSoto Central (and a State commit), is slotted by Draft Site at pick No. 35 by Colorado, and Keith, a pitcher/third baseman at Biloxi, checks in at No. 153 (fifth round), going to Washington. Ole Miss third baseman Tyler Keenan was pegged at No. 72, also going to Washington. All in all, these are just wild guesses about a draft that may not happen, but, hey, it gives seamheads something to chew on.
On this date in 2005, former Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro infamously wagged his finger during a Congressional hearing and declared, “I have never used steroids. Period.” Less than two months later, while playing for Baltimore, he failed an MLB drug test for steroids and was suspended. Though Palmeiro has steadfastly denied using steroids, that incident has stuck to him and is the main reason he is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame despite having 3,000 hits and 500 homers over a 20-year career that ended in 2005. … On a somewhat lighter note, it was also on this date in 2010 that Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee, pitching for Seattle, was ejected from a spring training game – and subsequently fined and suspended – for throwing a pitch over the head of an Arizona batter. The fine and suspension, which would have been for five regular season games, were later rescinded. That incident is largely forgotten and is definitely not the reason Lee isn’t in the Hall of Fame despite 143 wins, a 3.52 ERA and a Cy Young award in a 13-year career. Lee was on the ballot for the first time for the 2020 election and promptly dropped off the ballot.
The last college game in the state for the foreseeable future will be played Saturday at Millsaps College’s Twenty Field. The Majors hosted Berry College in a doubleheader today and will conclude the Southern Athletic Association series Saturday before a league-wide suspension goes into effect. Otherwise, college fields across the state are quiet on what would have been a weekend filled with the joyful sounds of a ballgame. Because of the coronavirus shutdown, there were no SEC openers in Oxford and Starkville, no C-USA games in Hattiesburg or Jackson, where Louisiana Tech was scheduled to play a displaced home game. Fourteen MACJC schools were slated to play conference openers on Saturday. All were postponed. The NAIA has suspended play. Some high school games are being played, but a statewide shutdown seems imminent. The minor league season set to begin in early April at Trustmark Park in Pearl and MGM Park in Biloxi will be delayed, as will the major league season. Spring training has been suspended. Baseball withdrawal symptoms may soon set in. Thank goodness there’s APBA and the Ken Burns films.
Has Delta State found its footing? Hard to tell just yet. The Statesmen whipped Arkansas-Monticello 10-5 on Wednesday at Ferriss Field, fueled by hot-hitting leadoff batter Chad Ragland. DSU – 90-9 all-time against the Boll Weevils — has won three of its last five on the heels of a five-game losing streak. Nationally ranked in NCAA Division II early in the season, the Statesmen are 13-10 overall, 6-6 in the Gulf South Conference, which they were picked to win by league coaches. Ragland, a junior college transfer from Florida, has been a major bright spot. He is batting .449 with 21 runs and six steals. Darek Sargent, who homered on Wednesday, leads the club with three homers and has 16 RBIs. Hayden White and Jake Barlow also have been producing runs. Hunter Riggins, a 2019 All-GSC and All-America pick, has been solid, per expectations, but the other starting pitchers have been inconsistent. Moreover, new coach Rodney Batts’ team is 1-7 on the road heading into a GSC series at West Alabama this weekend. … The state’s other D-II program, Mississippi College, went on the road for the first time last weekend and lost two of three to Shorter. The Choctaws, nationally ranked in mid-February, are 11-9, 6-3 GSC; they were pegged for a third-place finish in the league. MC has another road test this weekend at West Georgia. MC is digging the long ball, with a GSC-best 24 home runs as a team. Chauncey Callier, a .357 hitter, leads the way with six bombs. Caleb Reese has five and Ken Scott four. The tradeoff for that power: MC also leads the league in strikeouts. That can be a problem.
As major league clubs begin to make cuts, there are a handful of Mississippians on 40-man rosters who are out of options, which essentially means they can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers and possibly being snatched by another club. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the player. Of particular interest is the case of ex-Petal High standout Anthony Alford, a longtime outfield prospect in Toronto’s system. Alford, 25, who has had limited big league time (33 games from 2017-19), has been inconsistent and injured over much of his minor league career. He is batting .167 in 24 at-bats with four steals this spring. Per milb.com, “(H)is plus speed and ability to cover plenty of ground on defense would be assets to the back end of the Blue Jays roster.” Alford is competing with several others for a backup outfield job. Three veteran pitchers are also on the roster bubble: Former Mississippi State standout Chris Stratton (Pittsburgh), Ole Miss alum Mike Mayers (Los Angeles Angels) and Northwest Mississippi Community College product Cody Reed (Cincinnati). Mayers has been the most effective this spring, with a 4.76 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. … Former George County High star Justin Steele was optioned out by the Chicago Cubs last week. The oft-injured Steele, 24, had allowed six runs on two hits and six walks in 2 2/3 innings this spring. He was 0-6, 5.59 at Double-A Tennessee in 2019, his sixth pro season. Those numbers notwithstanding, the Cubs reportedly really like the left-hander’s upside.
It’s a Welcome to the Big Time moment for Mississippi State junior left-hander Houston Harding. For sure, Harding pitched in some big games for Itawamba Community College over the previous two years – winning 19 times and setting a record for career strikeouts – but he’s up against a different animal tonight at Biloxi’s MGM Park. Texas Tech is 16-1 and ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. Harding has pitched just once this season for the 10-4 Bulldogs, a four-inning outing vs. Alcorn State on Feb. 26. He allowed three earned runs and punched out seven batters. Tech is hitting .338 as a team. Its most dangerous hitter might be Nate Rombach at .345 with six homers and 27 RBIs. The Red Raiders will start lefty Mason Montgomery (3-0, 1.93 ERA) in Game 1 of the two-game series and right-hander Hunter Dobbins (2-0, 1.29) in Wednesday’s contest. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs, who have struggled to push across runs at times, are batting .255, led by Justin Foscue at .340 with two homers and 15 RBIs. There’s nothing make-or-break about this series, but it should be a good barometer on where State is as a team heading into the SEC opener against Arkansas this weekend.
Of all the wins racked up by Mississippi colleges over the weekend, none was more significant than Millsaps College’s conquest on Sunday of nationally ranked Birmingham-Southern. The Majors, coming off the worst season in coach Jim Page’s long tenure, were 5-7 heading into their Southern Athletic Association opening series on the road against the No. 8 team in NCAA Division III. BSC is the defending SAA champion and D-III College World Series runner-up. The teams split a doubleheader to begin the series, setting up Sunday’s rubber game that the Majors won in blowout fashion, 12-7. Behind home runs from Fritz Walker III and Chris Hart, the Majors bolted to a 10-1 lead. Erstwhile football player Walker, batting .362, leads the team with four homers and 18 RBIs. Hart, a Northwest Rankin High product, entered the game just 5-for-45 on the season. He banged out three hits, including a grand slam that was his first homer of the year. An unsung hero for the Majors was freshman Brady Davis, who recorded the last five outs to snuff out any BSC comeback hopes. … Meanwhile, tough times continued for Mississippi Valley State, which was swept in a home SWAC series against Alabama State to fall to 0-13. Two of the Delta Devils’ six SWAC losses were by one run and two were by two runs. Valley hasn’t scored more than four runs in any game and has managed that total only twice.