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‘Noles 9: Starting pitching dominance, Wyatt Crowell’s potential and more

FSU's Parker Messick
FSU's Parker Messick(LARRY NOVEY 2021 | Florida State Athletics)
Published: Mar. 8, 2021 at 9:43 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Florida State was in desperate need of a spark heading into its weekend series against No. 16 Virginia. After being swept by Pitt at home the previous weekend behind a dismal offensive performance, the restlessness in Tallahassee was palpable. Florida State’s schedule would only get more difficult against a veteran Virginia team with an excellent pitching staff, so it needed someone to catalyze a quick turnaround.

Enter Parker Messick.

The second-year lefty was tabbed as the Seminoles’ Friday night ace to begin the 2021 campaign after an outstanding offseason, but the results hadn’t carried over to his first two starts.

On Opening Day against North Florida, Messick cruised through his first two innings but could get through just one out in the third before being removed.

The following Friday night against Pitt, Messick’s stuff much more closely aligned with his preseason form. He threw for five innings and struck out nine hitters. However, he also walked four batters and needed 27 pitches to get out of a fourth inning, in which he allowed two hits and the only run of the game. There was still another level for him to reach.

One week later, he finally broke through and was about as dominant as a starting pitcher can possibly be. The second-year southpaw carried Florida State to its most important win of the season to that point.

He pitched eight innings, allowing only three hits with zero walks and 11 strikeouts on 114 pitches. Of those 114 pitches, 78 of them were strikes. Messick decreased his ERA from 7.36 to 2.31 in just one night.

“He was everything, exactly what we needed until we get our offense going,” Mike Martin Jr. said following Friday’s game. “He’s super competitive…he pitches with energy, he pitches mean. He’s got good stuff. It’s a great combination.”

That competitiveness and ceaseless energy Martin Jr. mentioned was the spark Florida State needed to turn a disappointing sweep against Pitt to a series win against a ranked Virginia team.

On seemingly every strikeout or every good defensive play made behind him, Messick’s exuberance was contagious. Florida State just seemed to be lacking any kind of ebullience as it labored through the series against Pitt the prior weekend, but Messick singlehandedly restored it with his performance. He gave Florida State a much-needed boost over the weekend.

“The guy’s out there pitching his heart out and he’s still got enough energy to get excited and be positive, and all the stuff you need to keep the mindset right,” Martin Jr. said. He’s a great teammate. He’s special.”

“The rest of the team loves it,” said Hunter Perdue, who closed out Friday night’s 2-0 win in the ninth inning. “It’s kind of crazy that he can keep that energy up throughout eight innings, but, yeah, the guys talk about it all the time and we love it.”

This kind of outing from Messick was coming sooner or later. Last year as a true freshman out of the bullpen, he allowed just one earned run in 11.2 innings before COVID-19 shut down the rest of the season.

Following, his Florida State rookie season, Messick won the Florida Collegiate Summer League Cy Young Award.

By the end of FSU’s preseason fall camp, he had shed almost 40 pounds in order to get in better shape and build the requisite stamina to become a starting pitcher. FSU pitching coach Jimmy Belanger said he was nearly unhittable in the fall.

There is a reason he won the Friday night starting pitcher role amongst a deep and talented FSU pitching staff. Against Virginia, all of the time he invested in the offseason finally paid off.

There’s one more thing to note about Messick. Coming into Friday, five of his six his earned runs to that point came during the opponent’s second time through the order.

Messick vs. opponents 1st and 2nd time through the order first two starts

OpponentH-ABBB/HBPERK
vs. UNF - 1st time2-8112
vs. UNF - 2nd time2-3141
vs. Pitt - 1st time1-8105
vs. Pitt - 2nd time2-10314

Against Virginia, Messick was much more efficient the second time through the order. Furthermore, he made it all the way through the opponent’s third time through order for the first time this season.

Messick vs. Virginia each time through the order

Time through OrderH-ABBB/HBPERK
1st time0-8104
2nd time1-8103
3rd time2-10004

One of the ways Messick continued to keep Virginia hitters off-balance late in the game was his varying pitch usage. While exact numbers aren’t available for how many times he threw each type of pitch, Messick primarily used his fastball the first time each Virginia hitter faced him. During the second time through the order, he began incorporating his breaking ball a bit more, and by the eighth inning, Messick was throwing almost exclusively changeups.

The ability to mix up pitch selection with such exquisite control of the strike zone throughout eight innings of work creates the perception that the opponent is basically facing a different pitcher each time through the order. Messick was very difficult to hit Friday because of it.

He was named the ACC Pitcher of the Week Monday.

2. Bryce Hubbart shines in first start. What’s next for Carson Montgomery?

Messick was the crème de la crème of the Florida State rotation against Virginia, but he wasn’t the only one who was outstanding over the weekend. Bryce Hubbart and Conor Grady (more in section 3) followed Messick’s night with tremendous starts of their own.

Hubbart made a compelling case to be inserted into the weekend rotation after tossing 4.2 excellent innings out of the bullpen in FSU’s 13-inning loss to Pitt one week earlier. Also helping his case was Carson Montgomery struggling in his start the previous day.

Martin Jr. rewarded Hubbart with a start Saturday against Virginia, and he looked even better than he did against Pitt. He allowed just one hit and two walks in six scoreless innings, along with six strikeouts.

All six of Hubbart’s strikeouts resulted from his sweeping breaking ball that seemed to always start at the batter’s head before sharply diving towards the lower part of the strike zone. He also forced several other swings and misses with high fastballs and frequently induced soft contact with his changeup.

“He was changing their eye levels, going up, going down,” Martin Jr. said after Saturday’s 9-4 win. “The big breaking ball has a way of doing that…you start changing eye levels instead of throwing the hard slider, a lot of guys can be really effective. You’ve got to pitch off of that same plane when it comes out of your hand with the fastball and he did a great job of that.”

A big reason for Hubbart’s early success in 2021 has been Belanger’s suggestion to move his setup position on the rubber more towards the right-handed batter’s box.

“I actually feel a lot more comfortable. It’s a lot more forgiveness on that side of the rubber, especially just from where I throw the ball,” Hubbart said after Saturday’s game. “I love working with (Belanger). I really could not have asked for anyone better for me as a pitching coach.”

Of course, Hubbart’s insertion into the weekend rotation prompts a question about the pitcher he replaced.

Martin Jr. answered that question following Sunday’s game, confirming Montgomery will start Tuesday’s game against USF.

After how well Messick, Hubbart and Grady all performed against Virginia, it would make little sense to change the weekend rotation anytime soon.

Some may see Montgomery’s early demotion to mid-week starter/weekend bullpen role as a red flag, but it’s extremely rare for a true freshman to be an impact starter immediately. The fact that he even made the weekend rotation before ever even pitching a game of collegiate baseball speaks volumes about his talent level.

Even the No. 1 rated freshman in the country takes time to develop though. Slotting Montgomery as FSU’s No. 2 starter right off the bat created enormous pressure on him to produce immediately. Moving him to a role where he isn’t as entrenched in the spotlight should aid his development.

In the bullpen, he can let his electric stuff take over in shorter spurts while not having the responsibility of eating innings. As he gains more experience throughout the season and continues to refine his command, he’ll be more equipped to be an effective starter.

3. Conor Grady establishing himself as elite Sunday starter

Martin Jr. has said all season that every time Grady steps on the mound, he knows what he’s going to get. Grady might not have the most overpowering stuff on the Florida State pitching staff and he may be prone to hits, but he does not give out free passes.

In his third start of the season, he looked overqualified to be a Sunday starter. He threw seven terrific innings, allowing just five hits, zero walks, and striking out nine batters on just 96 pitches. Sixty-nine of those pitches (71.9%) were strikes.

The fact that the two earned runs he allowed were the only earned runs Florida State allowed all weekend is indicative of how good the Seminoles’ entire rotation was all weekend.

Belanger said during the fall that Grady had increased his fastball velocity to the 91-93 mph range, as opposed to the 89-91 range he had regularly sat in during his first three seasons.

In his first two starts, the fourth-year right-hander rarely topped 90 mph, but against Virginia his fastball had some extra juice to it, consistently resting in the 90-92 mph range. Grady’s changeup generated a lot of soft contact as usual and his 83-85 mph slider spawned plenty of swings and misses throughout the afternoon.

“It was beautiful, probably the best I’ve seen him since he’s been here,” Martin Jr. said after Sunday’s 2-1 loss. “I love the fact that we were able to stretch him out a bit, get him to (96 pitches). He was holding his stuff in the seventh inning. I saw some 92s.

“That’s what you want to see out of those guys. Build them up and get to where they can be those workhorses when they’re really rolling like he was today. Three pitches for strikes. Beautiful baseball.”

Grady got better as the game progressed. All five hits he allowed were in the first three innings. In innings 4-7, he faced the minimum, retiring 12 consecutive batters to finish his outing.

Inning RangeBatters Faced# PitchesHERK
Innings 1-31444522
Innings 4-71252005

The veteran right-hander is going to give Florida State a chance to win almost every time he steps out onto the mound. The Seminoles just couldn’t muster up enough offense to get Grady a win Sunday.

There aren’t many teams in college baseball who have the luxury of trotting out a guy like Grady on Sundays.

Here’s a quick look at what Florida State’s three starting pitchers did over the weekend.

Florida State starting pitching vs. Virginia

StarterIPHERBBKPSS%
Parker Messick8.0300111147868.4%
Bryce Hubbart6.01026825162.2%
Conor Grady7.05209966971.9%
Total21.09222629219867.8%

Those are the kind of results everyone expected coming into the year. If that kind of production isn’t an anomaly, but rather a sign of what to expect for the rest of the season, Florida State is going to win a lot of games even when its offense isn’t operating at its peak.

4. Limited bullpen role: Wyatt Crowell’s potential, time to worry about Chase Haney?

Because of how efficient Florida State’s three starters were, the Seminoles only needed their bullpen for six innings of the 27 innings they played against Virginia.

Martin Jr.’s first call to the bullpen to start the eighth inning Sunday was intriguing with the Seminoles trailing 2-1. Rather than summon a more experienced arm in that kind of high-leverage situation, he handed the ball to true freshman lefty Wyatt Crowell.

The entire FSU coaching staff gushed about how impressive Crowell was all offseason, and he had a solid debut against Pitt last weekend. However, with almost every bullpen arm available, few would have guessed Crowell would be chosen in a one-run game in the eighth inning.

Crowell more than validated his manager’s trust in him, as he was magnificent in his two innings Sunday. He retired all six batters he faced and struck out four of them. In addition, after walking two batters in his 1.1 innings against Pitt last week, he threw 16 of his 21 pitches for strikes against Virginia. That is remarkable efficiency.

“I told a lot of you guys that he was as good as anybody we had. He literally performed the best in the fall,” Martin Jr. said after Sunday’s game. “I think you’re seeing what we saw in the fall.”

His fastball sat in the 91-93 mph range with some solid vertical movement that caused the ball to get under a few swings. His low-80s slider also produced several swings and misses, particularly against the three lefties he faced.

Martin Jr. added that Crowell is still working to regain all of his velocity, as a result of suffering a minor injury at the beginning of spring training.

When Florida State was recruiting Crowell, his fastball velocity rarely topped 90 mph, but he pleasantly surprised the entire coaching staff when his first pitch during fall ball clocked in at 95 mph.

The thought that he still could add a couple of ticks to his fastball velocity soon is a scary thought for opposing hitters. He was already unhittable Sunday without his full repertoire.

It’s very early in his career, but Crowell looks like a future superstar in the making.

Meanwhile, Chase Haney on Saturday surprisingly struggled in for the second time in a row. Last week against Pitt, he blew a save by allowing a two-run homer to tie the game at 7-7. In his first appearance since then, he allowed two runs and could record only one out before being pulled.

If you’re wondering when was the last time Haney allowed two runs in back-to-back appearances, you have to go all the way back to April 2 and April 4 of 2017. On those two days, he allowed two runs in 2.1 innings against North Carolina and two runs in 1.0 innings against Florida Gulf Coast.

Haney has never been a pitcher with overpowering stuff, but his sharp command of the strike zone and funky release point have allowed him to be so consistent for years. Over his last two outings, the command hasn’t been as precise, which is leading to harder contact and more hits.

SeasonXBH allowed# AppearancesXBH/Appearance
20168310.26
20179310.27
2019*8310.26
20203120.25
2021250.40

*missed 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Of course, two extra-base hits in five games is such a small sample that it’s almost irrelevant. However, the four hits that he’s allowed in his last three appearances (1.0 inning total) have all been hard-hit balls. Over time, that will lead to more extra-base hits.

It’s not time to panic yet, as his 2.96 career ERA over three-plus seasons suggests he will bounce back.

However, Florida State has a lot of talented arms at its disposal this season. Martin Jr. said two weeks ago that Haney will get the bulk of FSU’s high-leverage innings out of the pen, but that was not the case at all in the series against Virginia. Haney could plummet in the bullpen hierarchy if he continues to struggle.

5. Strikeout issues continue, Elijah Cabell losing playing time

Strikeouts will be one of the key issues talked about with this Florida State team all season. Last year, the Seminoles struck out in 37% of their at-bats. Believe it or not, after last weekend, that number was down to 34.7% for the 2021 season despite striking out 47 times in three games against Pitt.

For those hoping for linear improvement throughout 2021, prepare to be disappointed. After three games against Virginia, Florida State has not struck out in 39.1% of its at-bats. The team struck out 44 times in three games, which was only three fewer than the Pitt series. Keep in mind though the Pitt series lasted four more innings.

Last week we dove into Robby Martin’s uncharacteristically high strikeout totals and swing and miss issues. He struck out six more times over the weekend. However, he delivered Florida State’s only runs of Friday’s game with a two-out single in the third inning. He also did not strike out in five plate appearances Sunday, which suggests he’s close to getting back to his old self.

Conversely, Elijah Cabell had a brutal series, finishing 0-for-8 with six strikeouts. To be perfectly clear, Cabell is not the only problem. Martin’s issues have been noted. Reese Albert struck also out seven times in the series. Strikeouts have been an issue for the entire lineup.

After Florida State struck out 19 times against Pitt last Friday, Martin Jr. threatened to make changes to the lineup if the strikeouts continued to persist. Cabell seems to be the first notable victim of that statement.

He deployed Nico Baldor to pinch hit for Cabell with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth during that game against Pitt. When asked about the decision, he said he felt Baldor provided a more favorable matchup. That was an interesting quote considering Cabell is one of the elite power hitters in college baseball.

Then on Saturday against Virginia, Baldor took his place in left field in the top of the fourth inning after Cabell struck out for the second time.

Before he was removed Saturday, Cabell had gone 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in the series. He also whiffed on all nine swings he took.

On Sunday Cabell was better. He struck out looking in the first inning, but he had a very good at-bat in the fourth inning, fouling off four pitches before flying out to center field on the ninth pitch of the at-bat. He later grounded out to first in the sixth inning on a 3-1 count, stranding two runners. Baldor pinch-hit for him again in the bottom of the eighth.

Martin Jr. didn’t address the Cabell situation over the weekend. Cabell missed the opening weekend of the season while recovering from the hamstring injury. It’s possible he’s still not 100% or he may be just shaking off the rust still.

Cabell is always going to have some swing and miss to his approach, but the game-changing power he possesses has been nonexistent outside of the monster home run he hit against Pitt last weekend.

Hopefully, Cabell’s recent problems are just a case of him still getting back up to speed after the injury sidelined him for a few weeks. Florida State really needs him to rekindle the power stroke that propelled him to seven home runs in 17 games last season.

6. Garret Mathes providing good at-bats at DH

Dylan Simmons has not been productive at the plate to start the 2021 season after a promising freshman season in 2020. Through seven games he’s hitting just .231/.310/.269 with just one extra-base hit and 13 strikeouts in 26 at-bats.

On Friday against Virginia he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts at the DH spot. Martin Jr. made a change the next day, inserting the lefty Garret Mathes into the lineup at DH.

Mathes hitting 2-for-7 with a walk in the series is solid, but not spectacular. When looking deeper though, one will see that he had a lot of quality at-bats in his two games against Virginia.

His lone strikeout in eight plate appearances came after he fouled off three pitches earlier in the at-bat. Florida State needs more at-bats like that, where the pitcher has to work harder to earn the out.

Mathes also did a nice job of hunting good pitches to hit early in the count and producing solid contact multiple times. A couple of outs he made were hard-hit balls right at defenders.

The transfer from Mercer University in Macon, Ga. was primarily a pitcher before arriving at Florida State, but he’s now beginning to earn some at-bats.

His approach against Virginia was the antithesis of how most of Florida State’s hitters are. Martin Jr. is looking for more contact-oriented hitters to balance the power, swing and miss combination that is prevalent throughout FSU’s lineup. Tyler Martin (.583 OBP) at the top of the lineup is a great start, but perhaps, Mathes can help provide a little more balance too.

It would be a mild surprise if Mathes isn’t in the lineup on Tuesday against USF or next weekend at Virginia Tech after his play against Virginia.

7. Situational hitting better overall but still needs improvement

Florida State’s situational hitting against Pitt last weekend was, quite frankly, atrocious. Against Virginia, the Seminoles were much better overall in this department, particularly on Friday and Saturday.

  • Lead Off: 7-16 (.437)
  • Advancement: 18-41 (.439)
  • Two Outs: 2-17 (.118)
  • Runners on Base: 7-32 (.219)
  • Runners in Scoring Position: 5-15 (.333)
  • Runners on 3rd, less than two outs: 6-6 (.1000)
  • Bases Loaded: 1-2 (.500)

That is winning baseball. The two-out hitting could have been better, but all of those numbers were significantly better in the first two games against Virginia than they were at any point in the series against Pitt.

Friday was an overall pedestrian offensive output for Florida State, but with Messick throwing a gem, one good inning was the difference in the game. In the third inning, Tyler Martin and Mat Nelson both worked two-out walks and Robby Martin subsequently drove both of them in for runs.

Sometimes, one good sequence of situational hitting is all it takes to win a game, especially with a pitching staff that’s as good as Florida State’s.

Now for the bad news. The situational hitting on Sunday was about as bad as it could possibly be.

  • Lead Off: 1-9 (.111)
  • Advancement: 8-18 (.431)
  • Two Outs: 0-9 (.000)
  • Runners on Base: 2-13 (.154)
  • Runners in Scoring Position: 0-11 (.000)
  • Runners on 3rd, less than two outs: 0-3 (.000)
  • Bases Loaded: 0-5 (.000)

Florida State did a nice job advancing runners when they got on base, but it stranded 11 runners and had plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. In a 2-1 loss, the Seminoles needed just one person to come through with a clutch hit like Robby Martin did Friday, but that didn’t happen.

“We missed some opportunities, no question about it, didn’t execute,” Martin Jr. said after Sunday’s loss. “On a couple different occasions, we had to have contact and we didn’t get it.”

The strikeouts and situational hitting are somewhat related. The more contact that is made, the more opportunities to drive in runs a team will convert.

Florida State struck out only 11 times Saturday, which was its best situational hitting game of the season. The Seminoles struck out 15 times Sunday, which was maybe its worst situational hitting game of the season. That is not a coincidence.

It’s also not a coincidence that Florida State won the two games it was better situationally and lost the one where it was not.

This area will be a work in progress all season. With how good Florida State’s pitching can be, situational hitting might be the single greatest x-factor that determines how successful FSU is in 2021.

8. Improving defense

Coming into the season, Florida State’s defense was the area in which the team needed the most improvement.

So far so good through nine games. Now, Florida State isn’t all of a sudden an elite defensive team, but the improvement from last year with the exact same collection of players has been a welcome sight.

  • Through nine games in 2020: 21 errors
  • Through nine games in 2021: 8 errors

That’s nearly a 62% decrease from last season.

Florida State’s defense was error-free in two of the three games against Virginia, but it wasn’t perfect. On Saturday in the seventh inning, Albert and Robby Martin miscommunicated and allowed a routine flyball to right-center field to drop in between them. That play jumpstarted a four-run frame for Virginia. Had the Seminoles not already led 9-0 in the game, that play would have been absolutely demoralizing.

Then on Sunday in the first inning with two outs, Virginia’s Brendan Rivoli popped one up to shallow left field in between Cabell and Nander De Sedas. The two miscommunicated and De Sedas couldn’t come up with the catch, allowing a run to score.

The play wasn’t ruled an error, but De Sedas clapped his hands in frustration afterward, knowing that he probably should have made the catch. That play was critical in a 2-1 loss.

De Sedas deserves a lot of credit though, as he’s been an integral part of Florida State’s defensive improvement. Despite all of his athleticism, he had a fielding percentage of just .877 in the abbreviated 2020 season, and he particularly struggled with his throwing.

Through nine games this season, De Sedas has made just one error at shortstop. He’s making both the routine plays and some tougher acrobatic ones, while displaying improved accuracy to his rocket arm.

Martin Jr. mentioned after Friday’s game that the former top recruit’s improvement in his third season has been infectious, and that he’s allowed the rest of the group to take a step forward.

9. Key injuries will test depth

Two FSU starters both left the game Saturday with hand injuries. 2B Logan Lacey left in the fourth inning and was replaced by Jackson Greene for the rest of the weekend.

Then in the seventh inning, Nelson was clubbed in the left wrist on a pitch from Jack Anderson that caused him to miss the rest of the weekend. It looked like Nelson was expecting a splitter to be thrown, but Anderson threw a fastball, which caused Nelson to misread the pitch and get hit.

Martin Jr. said at the end of the weekend that both still have swelling, so it’s unclear how long they will be out. He added that both are questionable for next weekend at Virginia Tech, as of now.

That means FSU will need to test its depth a bit Tuesday against USF and potentially for as many as three games against a tough conference opponent.

In the infield, Greene will likely head back to second base. However, he’s been nearly unplayable offensively, hitting just .158/.333/.158 in seven games.

That also means freshman Vince Smith will continue to see an increased role. His .115/.303/.269 slash line so far leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s showcased some tantalizing potential on both sides of the ball.

With Nelson out, Colton Vincent, the transfer from College of Central Florida, will be the primary catcher, but the coaching staff is unsure who his backup will be.

Freshman catcher Sebastian Jimenez is out for the season and Doug Kirkland is out with an arm injury. Martin Jr. said Greene has played catcher before and can be used in emergency, but the Seminoles don’t have any other viable options right now.

Nelson is already a huge loss, but if Vincent gets injured somehow, Florida State will be in a heap of trouble.

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