(Photo via Jackson Free Press, seen here)
It’s hard enough to turn down an MLB contract once, but Mississippi State centerfielder Jake Mangum has been drafted in each of the last two MLB drafts, and has declined his offer both times.
Two weeks ago, Mangum was selected in the 32nd round by the New York Mets, after being selected in the 30th round last year by the crosstown Yankees. Mangum is by no means a round 30+ talent – his slip this year was largely due to signability concerns.
The fans in Starkville are surely thrilled to have their spark plug at the top of their lineup back for another year. In a program that has gone through so much adversity this year, maintaining a stabilizing force in the lineup and the clubhouse is huge for the program.
The Bulldogs were thrown a big curveball when coach Andy Cannizaro unexpectedly stepped down in February. Veteran coach Gary Henderson, formerly with the Kentucky Wildcats, moved up from Pitching Coach to Interim Head Coach.
The team went through a brutal start to the season, and at the end of March they were 14-15 overall and just 2-7 in the SEC.
“It absolutely was a rough start, there’s no getting around that,” Mangum said. “We stayed true to the message that coach Henderson gave us. We stuck to our identity, continued to get better, and never gave up. We just tried to get better every day, and that’s all you can do in that situation.”
The turnaround began in April, and was spearheaded by Mangum out of the leadoff spot. He hit .328 through February and March, but took off in April, hitting .403. Against a brutal schedule, the Bulldogs managed some huge series wins against Ole Miss and Arkansas, and went 10-6 in April.
The Bulldogs got hot at the right time, sweeping Florida just before the tournament, then the postseason madness took over.
After losing the opener of the Tallahassee regional 20-10 to Oklahoma, the Bulldogs walked off Florida State to stay alive, then won three more games to advance to the Super Regionals.
In Nashville, the Bulldogs squared off against Vanderbilt in the super regionals and over the three-game series, 10 runs were scored in ninth inning. All games featured lead changes, blown leads, and walk-offs, capped off by an 11-inning thriller.
“It’s been a wild ride. It really has,” Mangum said. “That weekend in Nashville was a very accurate summary of our season. So back and forth. The lows, the highs, that really felt like this whole year.”
As a relatively small guy (5-foot-11, 170 pounds in high school), Mangum went undrafted out of high school, but burst onto the scene in his freshman season at MSU, hitting .408 at the top of a dangerous Bulldog lineup.
As a draft-eligible sophomore, Mangum had a down year by his standards. His average dropped to .324, his walks dipped to 2.9 percent, and just 17 percent of hits went for extra bases.
“After last season, I talked with a bunch of scouts and people around the game, and I asked them ‘What do I need to do to get better?’” Mangum said. “And the big thing was hitting for more power, walking more, and striking out less. I really took that in stride and did all of those things this year.”
Mangum showed more power than he ever had before, belting three homers and slugging .484, and rose his walk rate to 8.6 percent. Also, his strikeout rate dipped to 8.9 percent, showing Mangum’s ability to take feedback and apply it to his game.
A big aspect of Mangum’s improvement came over the summer, when he spent each of the last two years in the Cape Cod League. Over two years, Mangum compiled 253 at bats and hit .308 with 22 steals.
“It was an awesome experience,” Mangum said. “Seeing that type of pitching every day gets you so much better as a hitter. Now, we’re here in postseason play and we’ve seen some of these guys already. It’s just helpful in so many ways.”
Overall, Mangum is pivotal to the Bulldogs’ success, and college baseball will have one of its finer performers on the NCAA diamond for another season.
“I’m very thankful for those opportunities to go pro,” Mangum said. “But I love Mississippi State. It didn’t feel right to leave yet, and I’m excited to come back for next season.”