Mississippi State's irrepressible Jake Mangum was hitting for a .401 average coming into this week. He had stolen 20 bases. As a centerfielder, he uses sprinter's speed to catch balls others can't reach. He turns triples into outs. He is the heart and soul of a team that has won 42 games while losing 10.
Besides that, Mangum, as a senior, became the all-time hits leader in the Southeastern Conference, shattering the old record held by Eddie Furniss of LSU.
So, is there any possible way Mangum doesn't win the C Spire Ferriss Trophy to be awarded Monday, May 20 during the annual luncheon at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson?
Ordinarily, the smart money would say, “No, it's Mangum's. Come get it.”
But this is no ordinary year in Mississippi college baseball. The MSHOF announced the five finalists Monday morning: Mangum, his teammate Ethan Small, Grae Kessinger and Tyler Keenan of Ole Miss, and Matt Wallner of Southern Miss.
Mangum, who won the Ferriss as a freshman in 2016, has serious competition for the award that is decided primarily by the vote of professional baseball scouts and the state's college head coaches.
Small, a left-handed junior, surely will receive strong consideration. Small has been a college baseball version of Sandy Koufax at his best. Just look at the numbers. Small, who always faces the opponent's best pitcher in the nation's toughest league, has a 7-1 record in 13 starts. His earned run average is 1.73. He has struck out 132 batters in 78 innings, while walking only 19. I repeat: his strikeouts/walk ratio is 132/19. Opponents hit just .157 against him. He has allowed only 42 hits in those 78 innings, just 17 for extra bases.
Those are numbers the late Boo Ferriss, a Mississippi State pitcher himself and the namesake of the Ferriss Trophy, would appreciate.
And then there's Kessinger, grandson of Chicago Cubs great Donnie Kessinger, who has made himself so much future money this season. Money, you say? Anyone who can see has known Kessinger possessed Major League fielding skills at shortstop from the time he first appeared on campus at Ole Miss. He makes difficult plays look routine and makes sensational plays others can't make. But what he has done this year is greatly improve his hitting, both for average and for power. He is noticeably bigger and stronger, having added 20 solid pounds. That, together with a more aggressive approach at the plate, have helped him hit .355 with four home runs and a team-leading 17 doubles. Texas League singles have become gap-finding doubles. Most impressively, Kessinger has hit best in games that matter most against the best competition. He has hit .426 in SEC play. Surely, he has raised draft stock by several rounds and several hundred thousand dollars.
To this observer, those three – Mangum, Small and Kessinger – would appear the front-runners, but others have had banner seasons. At Southern Miss, junior slugger Matt Wallner has powered 15 more home runs, giving him 50 for his highly-productive career. Keenan has a .299 average, six doubles, a triple, 11 home runs and 55 RBI.
In another year, several others could be finalists. USM DH/catcher Bryant Bowen has hit .341 with nine home runs. Delta State second baseman leads the 39-12 Statesmen into the Division II tournament with a .333 average that includes 29 extra base hits, 11 home runs and 53 RBI in 51 games. Statesmen ace Hunter Riggins won 10 and lost 3. Jackson State's Jaylyn Williams has hit .394 with an on-base percentage of just over .500. Mississippi College's Blaine Crim hit .394 with 11 home runs, 21 doubles and 56 RBI in 44 games. There are others.
As always in these baseball award competitions, the pitcher vs. everyday player discussion comes into play. In this case, Small surely has been as spectacular on the mound as any position player has been in the field or at the plate. How to choose?
It's difficult, but history tells us that in the first 15 years of C Spire Ferriss competition, five pure pitchers, including Southern Miss's Nick Sandlin last year, have won the prize. Eight position players and two combo players (pitcher and position player) have won it.
This much is certain: Whoever wins it this year will have won over unusually strong competition.
Rick Cleveland is a Hattiesburg native and an award-winning sports columnist in Mississippi. Email Rick Cleveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.