By JOEL COLEMAN
At first glance, Mississippi State pitcher Dakota Hudson doesn’t look all that different this year than he has in the past. The junior hurler still boasts his impressive frame at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. He’s still humming fastballs in the mid-90s and flashing his Craig Kimbrel-like pose on the mound, something Hudson says he adopted after teammate Gavin Collins suggested the move last year as a technique to help boost the right-handed flame-thrower’s confidence.
Yet for all that’s stayed the same, the results this year are drastically different than anything that anyone in Starkville has seen from Hudson in the years prior. In his first two years on campus at MSU, Hudson combined to post an earned run average of 4.50. He walked 19 batters in only 34 career innings coming into this season.
Now, as Mississippi State prepares to host Ole Miss in a three-game series at Dudy Noble Field beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m., Hudson has evolved into not only the Bulldogs’ Friday night ace, but arguably the best pitcher in the Southeastern Conference.
“I feel like my presence is different,” Hudson said. “When I go out there, I know that I’m a leader of the team and that’s what I have to do. I know I have to go out there and compete and give it my all and hopefully it works out.”
Hudson’s transformation from promising arm to a potential first-round pick in this summer’s Major League Baseball Draft didn’t happen overnight. The Dunlap, Tennessee native took his fair share of lumps over the first two seasons of his career. As a true freshman in 2014, he was immediately plugged into MSU’s weekend rotation. He made five total starts that year but didn’t stick as a weekend option.
In 2015, Hudson was used exclusively out of the bullpen. It was easy to see Hudson’s promise as he struck out 26 batters in only 16 2/3 innings, but control issues plagued him.
The difficulties weren’t for naught though. Hudson says the man he has become on the mound now was forged through the flames of those early struggles.
“I feel like a lot of it just came through experience,” Hudson said. “I’m able to say that I’ve been through almost every situation as a collegiate pitcher and being able to take a deep breath and know that I’ve been through it all before, it’s just huge knowing I can take care of things from there.”
Hudson’s rise can also be attributed to time spent outside the realm of the maroon and white of MSU. Last summer, Hudson played in the Cape Cod Baseball League and gave early indications a breakthrough season at Mississippi State was coming. Hudson was named to the CCBL Year-End All-League Team with a 1.43 ERA in 56 2/3 innings of work. He struck out 54 batters and, perhaps more importantly, harnessed his control as he walked just 14 in that span.
Hudson was suddenly opening eyes. Out of high school, Hudson was a 36th-round draft choice by the Texas Rangers, but ultimately decided to come to MSU. Now, the big righty was planting himself firmly on the radar of several MLB clubs and stating his case that he was finally putting all of his pieces together.
“I think it was (Hudson’s) third or fourth time pitching in the Cape and a good friend of mine who is a cross-checker for a major league organization called me up and said ‘Hey, I just saw your guy pitch and has he been throwing this cutter and I saw this and I saw that,’” MSU head coach John Cohen said. “I think when you’re allowed to go off on your own and play against very good competition and have a great experience in the summer, I think you can really find yourself and I think Dakota is a classic example of that.
“I think there was no question in our minds that he needed to go out and find some things out about himself this summer and that’s exactly what happened.”
Shortly after his time in the CCBL, another development helped shaped Hudson’s future. His pitching coach at Mississippi State, Butch Thompson, was leaving to become the head coach at Auburn. To replace Thompson, MSU hired Wes Johnson, a man with a reputation for developing pitchers with big-time arms like Hudson’s. Though Hudson says he had a good relationship with Thompson, Johnson’s tutelage and new perspective has been a boon for MSU’s star hurler.
“(Working with Johnson has helped) just from the aspect of being able to develop as a pitcher in general, not just stuff-wise but with the mental aspect and being able to take my game to another level,” Hudson said. “I’ve just been able to see a lot of results.
“Both (Johnson and Thompson) are competitive on their own turf, but I feel like me and Coach Johnson do kind of mesh a little bit better based on how we are.”
Hudson’s summer ball experience and the new voice of Johnson set the stage for the 2016 season. Coming into Friday’s game against the Rebels, Hudson is sporting a 1.13 ERA. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 21 2/3 innings. Included in that stretch is a pair of dominating starts against SEC foes Vanderbilt and Georgia. If Hudson wasn’t confident in himself before, his recent exploits have solidified his faith in himself.
“Being able to face the completion in our league and knowing that Georgia and Vanderbilt are both pretty good ball clubs and to be able to do what I did, that was huge for me personally,” Hudson said.
Ole Miss would seem to present a new challenge for Hudson. It’ll be a rivalry game. Dudy Noble Field will be packed. Emotions all around will be high, but the man on the mound Friday says it’ll simply be business as usual.
“Honestly, I’m just taking this like any other game,” Hudson said. “You go into a big series like this, I realize it’s a big rivalry game for us, but I feel like our team is prepared the same way we’ve been for every other game this season. I feel like that is comforting knowing that we’re just all staying on the same path.”
Whatever happens Friday and in the weeks to come, it seems almost inevitable that an MLB club will be clamoring for Hudson’s services following the season. You don’t have to look far to find analysts who think Hudson will be MSU’s first first-round draft pick since outfielder Hunter Renfroe in 2013.
Hudson doesn’t deny he’s determined to one day pitch on a big-league mound, but he says all that will work itself out. For now, he’s got a murderer’s row of SEC teams just looking for the chance to ruin what he’s got working, so pro ball can wait its turn.
“I haven’t really been looking at anything,” Hudson said. “But it’s definitely a dream of mine to be able to play professional baseball. That’s an option that, if it’s there, I’m going to do my best to try and get there, but right now, I’m just taking care of the season.”