Mississippi State's Chris Stratton Transformed On The Cape




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STARKVILLE, Miss.—Chris Stratton's transformation from a talented enigma into one of college baseball's most dominant pitchers reached a crescendo last summer in the Cape Cod League.

Stratton, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound righthander, had flashed overpowering stuff in his first two seasons at Mississippi State, but he posted ERAs of 5.29 and 5.21 as a freshman and sophomore. After his 2011 sophomore campaign ended in super regionals, he headed off to join the Harwich Mariners, where he began working with a pitching coach he knows only as "Big Sexy." (His actual name is Jason Blanton, but Stratton couldn't tell you that).

"I got there the first day," Stratton recalled, "and the pitching coach was like, 'Two-seam inside.' I said, 'Coach, I don't throw a two-seam.'

"He was like, 'I said, two-seam inside.' So I just tried to fill one out, and it ended up working for me. The slider, he kind of taught me—just throw it off your ear. Just little things that helped me."

By the time Mississippi State coach John Cohen saw Stratton later that summer on a trip to the Cape, it had become "a powerful pitch" and "a difference maker." His two-seamer and changeup were also making strides, but the biggest change was in his mentality.

"A year ago, he was a little bit of a mystery to us," Cohen said. "But I think his summer in the Cape really changed who he is. I'm just a big advocate—I got that opportunity as a player to go up to the Cape. I think when you go up there you go, 'You know what? Those guys up there are good, it's an elite league, but I'm pretty good too.' I think it helps you take your game to the next level."

Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson had been working to refine Stratton's repertoire and make him a more confident pitcher since he arrived in Starkville out of Tupelo (Miss.) High. Stratton showed up with a curveball, which gradually morphed into a cutter and finally a slider that has become his signature pitch.

"When I was a freshman, I had a four-seam fastball, a curveball and a straight change, so everything was down and everything was straight," Stratton said. "I had to go out and get some side-to-side movement. So I've got the slider and a two-seam now, and a changeup that really falls off . . . I love the two-seam in, especially against people that are real aggressive, just getting the two-seam under their hands, let them beat it into the ground and get themselves out."

Stratton began his junior year in the bullpen, entering in the middle innings on Friday night and airing it out until the end of the game. He said it gave him confidence to know the coaching staff trusted him to take a game and carry it to the finish line on Fridays, and that's all the coaching staff was waiting to see from him. Once he showed that he had no fear, the coaches gave him a chance to be the Friday guy, as anticipated Friday starter Ben Bracewell was lost for the remainder of the year.

"Our biggest goal for him in the fall was for him to run his own show, for him to have the kind of confidence to say, 'If you don't call the kind of pitch I want, I'm going to call the pitch I want,' " Cohen said. "To his credit, when the door opened for him, he said, 'I want to be the guy, and I'm taking over.' That's the side of the personality we had never seen from Chris Stratton, and it's exciting to watch."

Stratton was electrifying in his first start of the year against Kevin Gausman and LSU in the Bulldogs' March 16 SEC opener, striking out 17 over 82⁄3 innings of one-run ball in a no-decision.

Since then, teams have resolved to neutralize Stratton's strikeout weapon by trying to make more contact early in counts, and Stratton is content to let them put the ball in play—another sign of his maturity. But he still misses plenty of bats. Through 13 appearances (nine starts), Stratton was 9-1, 2.22 with 107 strikeouts and 19 walks in 89 innings.

His draft stock has soared as he has continued to carve up the best conference in the country. Stratton is very likely to be selected in the first round this June, with a solid chance to go in the top half of the first round.

Cohen is convinced the best has yet to come for Stratton.

"I was looking at his velocity chart the other day—it was mostly 90-92, several 93s, but it's funny: the 94-95 shows up on that pitch on the inner half," Cohen said. "That's special, that's elite. The young kid is going to throw that over the backstop. That, to me, says there's a lot left in that tank. The kid's 21 years old, and he's not even one of those guys that's fully developed. He's not even gone through that maturation stage where he's shaving all the time. When he gets those legs underneath him and he's a man, there's no telling how good he can be."