Florida State just might have found the perfect fit in pitching coach Mike Bell.
The Seminoles' pitching staff, for a long time, was guided by Jamey Shouppe. However, he and the 'Noles parted ways at the end of the 2011 season, leaving FSU a vacancy to fill on its coaching staff for the first time in years.
As you might imagine, Florida State head coach Mike Martin had some impressive resumes to sift through. But each time he thought long and hard about the hire, he was always taken back to Mike Bell, a former Seminoles player who helped guide the program to a pair of College World Series appearances during his collegiate days.
Bell also established himself as a solid pitching coach well before arriving at Florida State. He spent the last four seasons at Oklahoma, helping lead the Sooners to the CWS for the first time since 1995, and developing some solid pitching staffs along the way.
The Seminoles expected to see some improvements in their pitchers with Bell in charge this season, but we're not sure anyone thought they'd be as successful as they have been thus far, sitting pretty with an impressive 19-2 overall record and solid 3.15 team earned-run average.
"When you look at this year's staff, we had some legitimate holes to fill with the departures of Sean Gilmartin and Daniel Bennett," Bell said. "I was trying to take the fall and evaluate the older guys, while also infusing some of our younger guys in there."
Bell could've had some predeterminations when it comes to FSU's older pitchers. All it took was a look at videos from some of the biggest series of the year last season, or just a quick peek at the Seminoles' 2011 statistics, some impressive, others not so much.
The first-year pitching coach did nothing of the sort. He didn't want to have opinions on pitchers before seeing them perform in the fall. That attitude displayed by Bell created a culture of confidence amongst the pitchers in the fall, all feeling like it was a fresh start.
"Basically, we pretty much went back to square one during the fall," Bell said. "I told the older guys, whether you've had a good or bad career to-date, that doesn't matter anymore. You were getting to start everything from scratch. I didn't have good or bad memories of those guys. I wanted to build and grow with each one of them with a clean slate."
With the departure of Gilmartin, the Seminoles originally were expected to rely on veterans such as Brian Busch and Scott Sitz, perhaps even Hunter Scantling, to assume at least a couple of the spots in the weekend rotation.
Instead, the Seminoles surprised everyone by going young, very young. The Seminoles have a starting rotation consisting of freshmen Mike Compton and Brandon Leibrandt and sophomore Peter Miller.
All three are doing an admirable job this spring.
"Those freshmen are just one piece to the puzzle," Bell said. "Their jobs are to go out there and get the weekend started on the right foot. We need them to get us through the sixth or seventh innings with a chance to win. We've been in good shape in being able to turn the game over to our relievers in good situations."
The freshman duo of Compton and Leibrandt are particularly intriguing. Compton has the best earned-run average of any starter with a 1.82 ERA in 29 2/3 innings. Teams are hitting him at a .173 clip, and he has struck out 18 and walked 12.
Compton, a right-hander, is a sinker-baller with his fastball and does a good job of pounding the zone. He also has a sneaky delivery with a heavy ball. He's a steady 87-88 with his fastball so far this season.
Meanwhile, Leibrandt, a left-hander, has the impressive bloodlines. He also has good stuff. He has started five games and has a 4.03 ERA in 22 1/3 innings of work. He has also struck out 22 and walked 11, while opponents are hitting him at a .274 clip. Leibrandt has a great baseball IQ with a solid three-pitch mix including a fastball, slider and changeup. He locates well, but is not an overpowering guy with a fastball that consistently is 84-87, occasionally touching 88 mph.
There's also Miller, who had a 2.70 ERA last season, but only in four appearances. This season, he already has appeared in five games and has a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings of work. He also has struck out 20 and walked 15, while teams are hitting him at a .239 clip. Miller obviously could improve his command, but has a lot of upside with a fastball sitting 89-91 most of the time. For Miller, the biggest obstacle is just putting all the pieces of his arsenal together on a consistent basis.
While the young arms in the weekend rotation have been impressive, the most noticeable improvements are in the bullpen, particularly with relievers such as Robert Benincasa, Hunter Scantling and Mack Waugh.
"The big question mark we had before the season was who was going to be our closer," Bell said. "Benincasa has really settled into that role and done well, but overall, we have six or seven guys that really go out there and pitch well."
Benincasa has appeared in 10 games, recorded seven saves and has yet to allow a run in 12 innings. He also has struck out 17 and walked one, while teams are hitting .105 off him.
"The big thing with Robert has been his confidence level. He's gotten more mature since last season," Bell said. "He was tested as a freshman and sophomore, then tested at the Cape last summer. He came back in the fall and really grew up a lot. He didn't necessarily make huge strides physically, but he did mentally. He understands the game of baseball a bit more now."
Bell's imprint is most obvious with Scantling, a big, burly, right-handed pitcher, who has had upside in the past, but had issues putting all the pieces together. The righty has been fabulous so far this season, appearing in eight games and having a 2.50 ERA in 18 innings. Opponents are hitting him at just a .269 clip.
"The biggest thing with Hunter is that he worked hard on his conditioning during the offseason," he said. "We've worked real hard with him on repeating his delivery and not tipping off his slider so much. We want things to look the same. We think he's more effective in shorter relief roles because he's a big 6-foot-8 guy coming in there in that situation. He definitely gives opposing teams a different look."
Gage Smith (1.54), Mack Waugh (2.40), Kyle Bird (2.79) and Scott Sitz (2.76) are other pitchers who have impressed so far this spring, while Brian Busch, Bryant Holtmann and especially Luke Weaver, have the potential to be dominant in their roles.
Moving forward, the Seminoles don't expect to be flawless every time out from a pitching standpoint. Bell knows better than anyone this unit is work in progress.
But just a month into Bell's first season with the Seminoles, the improvements with many of FSU's arms are quite evident.
That simply reinforces the idea FSU made the perfect hire.
"We're starting to see that we can win games 1-0 or 3-1, and that's huge," Bell said. "When hitters see the pitching staff do that, and when other pitchers see their fellow pitchers having success, it breeds confidence. This is a very confident team because of that."
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org