By Brett Hudson
STARKVILLE — The dream season that was for the 2018 Mississippi State baseball team wasn’t much of one for Jared Liebelt. While the Bulldogs were pulling countless episodes of improbable heroics on the way to Omaha, Liebelt was along for the ride as a pitcher who dreaded the act of pitching.
It was more than just the 13.15 ERA the junior righty allowed in his first season out of Waubonsee Community College (Sugar Grove, Illinois). It was the process that got him there: paralysis by analysis, unable to relax mentally and enjoy the act of pitching as he had in years prior.
“I wasn’t having fun at all,” Liebelt told Matt Wyatt Media. “It got to a point where I was dreading pitching, having to go out there, because I had lost all confidence and I didn’t know what to think when I went out there.”
Liebelt had to find a way out of that mental rut. He had a spot with a team in the Minnesota Northwoods League, a collegiate wood-bat league, but instead he went home to more or less drop baseball completely. Time previously spent thinking about baseball and working on baseball was spent playing video games with friends.
After months away from the game, Liebelt came back to Starkville and immediately established himself as one of MSU’s best relief pitchers.
That’s what Liebelt has been through 38 games in 2019: 26.1 innings in 17 appearances with a 2.73 ERA and a WHIP of 0.949. The same man who hit as many batters as he struck out last season (seven) has now logged 15.2 innings against SEC teams with just four earned runs allowed (2.30 ERA).
Liebelt’s secret to baseball success was coming face-to-face with life without baseball.
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It was near the end of last season — when Liebelt’s performance had more or less taken him out of the game, only pitching once after April 18 — that he diagnosed his issue. As his sophomore season at Wausonbee CC continued, MLB Draft attention came his way and scouts followed, he started pressuring himself to an extreme. He wasn’t playing the game to enjoy it; he went through every motion trying to impress someone.
“It led to me putting a lot of pressure on myself, and then coming here where it’s a big environment, big history, huge expectations, in my mind, I put even more pressure on myself,” he said. “It was just a mental thing last year; physically, I don’t think anything changed, I didn’t change my mechanics at all.
“When I got out there, I was in my head with my mechanics. I was thinking about my mechanics while I was out there, and that’s never a good thing. Is my leg lift too high, am I drifting, am I getting to the right position, is my arm dragging behind, and I was doing that every pitch. It was terrible. It wasn’t fun, at all.”
Liebelt had made peace with his results as a new coaching staff was evaluating them. His meeting with new head coach Chris Lemonis came with the news he was expecting — he was no longer on scholarship. Liebelt even told Lemonis he was not surprised.
Liebelt asked Lemonis if he would have a spot to come back and make the team; Lemonis said yes. With that, Liebelt went back home to Aurora, Illinois, where he would rehab a minor knee injury to be 100 percent for the fall. In his first week or two back home, he assured his parents he wanted to return to Mississippi State — “If I’m going to play college baseball, that’s where I want to be at.” — and a call with assistant coach Jake Gautreau set the plan in motion.
Liebelt knew he could call the hitting coach — the one holdover from the previous staff — for a straight answer. Liebelt told Gautreau he would understand if the new coaching staff wanted its hand-picked players in the fold and asked him a simple question: if I perform well in the fall, will I be on the team? Gautreau assured him he would, and assured him of his belief that Liebelt can return to that.
From there, Liebelt went full-speed into the most casual offseason any college athlete has ever had.
“I didn’t think about baseball at all,” Liebelt said. “I wasn’t working out or throwing, thinking about getting ready for whatever, I was just doing it. When the time came to come back to school, I was like, “Alright, I’m ready to go enjoy this. If it goes like last year, I don’t really want to be playing baseball anyway.’
“It was comforting that I had come to terms that if that’s where my skill level is at, it’s not something I’m interested in doing anyway.”
He played Xbox with friends. He would make the two-hour trip to St. Ambrose University in Iowa to see his girlfriend. He travelled to see family in Wisconsin. Occasionally he would play catch or workout with his friend Jake Smith, a pitcher for Madison College rehabbing from Tommy John, but it was for accompaniment with a friend more than the baseball activity.
By resetting his mindset on the sport completely, he freed himself of the pressures of the next level. If the upcoming senior season were the last baseball he would ever play, he was prepared for that.
“I’m just going to try to enjoy it, whether it’s my last year of baseball or not,” Liebelt said. “I think that helped a lot, too, feeling like I was here to enjoy it, I wasn’t here to make it to the next level or impress people. I was just here to have fun, and that kept snowballing in a good way to gaining a lot of confidence and feeling like I can dominant whenever I’m out there.”
When he returned to Starkville, mentally refreshed, he came upon a pitching coach with a perfect plan for him.
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The new pitching coach, Scott Foxhall, saw the numbers. He admits they were, “not pretty”; luckily for Liebelt, they aren’t the only stop Foxhall makes when he takes over a new staff.
Next, he went to Liebelt’s video from the 2018 season, where he saw Liebelt’s arm slot: it’s low, almost low enough to be considered sidearm. Foxhall likes having right-handers with different arm slots, and that was a plus for Liebelt in Foxhall’s mind.
The last step in that information-gathering process also helped.
“I try to get some anecdotes, and (Gautreau) is the one you go to for the anecdotes since he was here,” Foxhall said. “I go to him and his first impression was, I think a (fall) scrimmage game and (Gautreau) said he turned around and said, ‘Who is that guy? I think he’s going to be really good.’ Jake was impressed.”
Liebelt came back to MSU in the fall with a fresh mind and did so to a pitching coach eager to find his potential. Then Liebelt, possibly unwittingly, gave Foxhall the keys to unlocking that potential.
“One of the things with Jared’s personality is he’s very organized in his mind and he’s very routine-oriented, and he was not shy about telling me that,” Foxhall said. “We probably put together the most comprehensive routine for him than I did with anybody else on the staff. He wanted that and he followed it. There were a couple of times where it was raining, I called and he said, ‘I’ll find a way to get it in.’ He programmed himself, this is what I’m going to do every day.
“That’s what Jared is, he’s a perfectionist scientist. He builds his throw up from the first exercises that he does every day. Some of the drills concentrate on lower half, some concentrate on hand break, some concentrate on the finish. It’s probably about five to 10 minutes worth of drill work he does. He throws the plastic balls against the wall and each drill he does serves as a checkpoint for his mechanics. It allows him to be more mindless about his mechanics when he’s throwing on the mound.”
All the pieces came together pretty quickly in the fall. Foxhall started throwing him one inning at a time, testing his theory of Liebelt’s usefulness as a change-of-pace arm slot guy. In his experience, pitchers with lower arm slots recover quicker from outing to outing, so Liebelt pitched more frequently than most. Each one-inning outing built the coaching staff to its conclusion: Liebelt is far more than an odd arm slot guy.
“Over the course of the fall he showed that he wasn’t just a different look guy, that he was a real pitcher,” Foxhall said. “He had real command, he has a real slider and a real changeup, so he has a three-pitch arsenal: by my definition, a pitcher.”
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Of course the Brewers fan in Liebelt goes straight to Josh Hader.
There are other examples of this role, brought to popularity by Andrew Miller in his postseason run with the Cleveland Indians: the role of the reliever used whenever the high-leverage situation presents itself. It bucks the trend of the closer, the best bullpen arm saved for the ninth inning; if a more important situation arises before then, why not go to the best arm?
Liebelt’s usage has shades of that Hader/Miller role, even if it doesn’t have a traditional name.
“I don’t think I really can define the role. I do remember him saying that he liked having defined roles. At the beginning of the year it was more I would be the seventh inning guy, Barlow or Colby (White) gets eight and (Cole Gordon) gets nine, but as the year progressed it’s kind of turned into whenever I’m most needed. It’s been a whole variety of different situations.
“I like feeling like I’m that guy, whenever I’m needed is when I’m going in. Just based off of how they’ve used me — we haven’t really had a conversation about it — but how they’re using me gives me that feeling that they have that trust in me to get it done in big situations.”
One of his more popular roles is immediately following Ethan Small. Foxhall likes the difference in delivery with those two, forcing batters to go from Small’s overhand left-handed delivery to Liebelt’s nearly sidearm right-handed pitches. That one-inning change-of-pace is still used in those cases, but Liebelt has also finished games, gone long or both: he has three saves this year, two against SEC foes, and all of those saves spanned at least 2.2 innings. He closed the final 2.2 innings of the Florida win that clinched series and the final 3 innings of the rubber match at Tennessee.
This is the product of Liebelt loving baseball again. The game consumes his life once more — this time in a good way, like it did when he was bursting onto the scene at Waubonsee, hitting 90 mph for the first time, then hitting 94 for the first time on the way to the JUCO World Series. The summer away from baseball has Liebelt in a good place if baseball ends for him when MSU’s season ends in June, but why would it?
“Obviously I’m not performing like (last year),” Liebelt said, “and I’m enjoying it a lot more.”