LSU has played all but three games this season without shortstop Josh Smith. This weekend’s series against Tennessee marks the third week without second baseman Brandt Broussard, the team’s leading hitter. Center fielder Zach Watson, catcher Hunter Feduccia and slugger Bryce Jordan have all also missed time due to injury.
And that’s just the position players.
Despite that laundry list of injuries, LSU (21-13, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) begins the weekend just two games out of first place in the SEC West.
The record isn’t what Paul Mainieri and Co. envisioned when the season began, and nobody is making excuses, but it’s somewhat remarkable that LSU has kept its head above water to allow at least the possibility of another late-season run as some of those key players return to the lineup.
The all-encompassing contributions LSU has gotten from Austin Bain in a myriad of roles have been documented at length, but here’s a thought experiment: where would LSU be right now if it didn’t have Hal Hughes to step in and play shortstop when Smith went down?
“Hal has saved our season,” Mainieri said Thursday, bristling at the implication that the freshman’s .212 batting average should suddenly be cause for concern. “You’re talking about a young kid who wasn’t highly recruited or a blue chipper on everybody’s list. I recruited the kid here because I thought he could play defense and would be an insurance policy for us.”
The fact LSU recruited a light-hitting, multi-positional infielder like Hughes in the first place speaks to LSU’s philosophy in roster building under Mainieri.
LSU doesn’t target versatile athletes by accident, and while it’s not the most ostensibly popular way to build a team, it’s certainly kept an injury-ravaged season from going completely off the rails.
“I know people sometimes get frustrated that we don’t have that Eddy Furniss-looking player at first base,” Mainieri said. “That imposing left-handed-hitting guy with power and all that stuff, but we’ve got to recruit versatile players because you have so few players with the way recruiting is done now.”
The coach is referring to the NCAA-imposed limitation that a baseball team’s 11.7 scholarships can only be divided up amongst 27 players.
The 11.7 scholarships has always been the case, but the 27-player limit, implemented in 2009, has drastically changed the sport. The talent has become far more spread out to the point where mid-major programs like Coastal Carolina can win a national championship.
Pitching is now the preeminent force in what used to be an offense-driven sport. Gorilla Ball was dead and gone even before the NCAA legislated that teams adopt the BBCOR bats before the 2011 season.
One example of how the sport has changed: LSU won the 2009 national championship with only two pitchers on the roster that threw 90+ miles per hour. There’s more than 10 on the current roster.
It’s never been harder to win games with offense alone in Mainieri’s estimation, so when it comes to constructing a roster and divvying out those scholarships, it’s only logical to allocate a majority of the capital toward signing arms.
“I don’t think you can compete at this level unless you have a really outstanding pitching staff,” Mainieri said. “So how many pitchers do you have to have to have a great staff? You’ve got to have 8-to-10 guys you can count on, but how many guys do you have to recruit to find those 8-to-10 guys?”
That’s the question, isn’t it?
Consider LSU’s pitching staff this season, which has been the somewhat-surprising strength of the team after losing its entire weekend rotation. The Tigers are tied for the second-fewest runs scored in the SEC entering this weekend but have grinded out wins with pitching and defense.
The staff has overcome its fair share of hurdles, too.
Eric Walker had Tommy John Surgery last summer after a fantastic freshman season. Blayne Enlow and Nate Pearson, LSU’s top two incoming arms, signed professionally. Nick Storz, LSU’s next highest-regarded signee, has pitched all of one inning after shoulder surgery. Midweek starter AJ Labas and lefty reliever John Kodros have dealt with injuries as well.
“You better have 15 or 16 pitchers to have 8-to-10 good ones,” Mainieri said. “Imagine if we’d only recruited 10 or 12 and all those things happened. Now we’re not even able to be competitive. The first requirement is being good on the mound, so out of my 27 scholarship spots, I’m probably dedicating 14 or 15 to pitchers. That only leaves 13 or 12 for position players.”
That means being judicious with those spots while trying to extract as much value as possible from each scholarship dolled out.
Projecting who can and can’t hit SEC pitching isn’t an exact science, so allocating scholarship money to a left-handed slugger who can’t run or play anywhere but first base is a hard gamble to justify making.
“It’s tough to go out of state when you’re just recruiting a bat,” LSU recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain explained. “A DH or a first baseman, you want those guys to come from within your state because you’re trying to balance 11.7 (scholarships) and 27 (scholarship spots). When you click on a Mason Katz or a Raph Rhymes, it makes your program for three or four years. It’s like finding a stellar shortstop. It transforms your program.”
LSU has recruited few true first baseman under Mainieri since Matt Clark joined the program in 2008. Since then LSU has filled the position with a mix of catchers (examples: Micah Gibbs, Chris Chinea, Nick Coomes and Bryce Jordan) and infielders (examples: Jake Slaughter, Conner Hale and Greg Deichmann).
And as far as home run power, LSU places a premium on recruiting quick-twitch players like Watson who is also a premium defender with plus speed as opposed to a one-dimensional slugger.
But Skip Bertman did it, replies every LSU fan who yearns for a return to the Gorilla Ball days.
Bertman also didn’t have to deal with the 27-player limit, so he could offer partial scholarships in the forms of textbook money to as many hitters as possible in a given year knowing some of them will click. It was easier for the juggernaut programs to hoard all the talent.
“Let’s say we go out and recruit that big left-handed bopper of a first baseman,” Mainieri said. “He can’t run from here to there in a day or play any defense, but man can he hit. Well in high school he hits against 83 miles per hour. All the sudden in the SEC he’s hitting against 93 mph, so what if he doesn’t hit? He can’t contribute and you spent one of your roster spots on that guy.”
He continued: “Back then you could sign 40 guys for 0.02 percent scholarships, and somebody is bound to hit. Now you don’t have those roster spots, so you’ve got to get versatile guys because things happen like this season where you start having injuries or a couple of guys transfer in the middle of the year. All that scholarship money you spent on the pitchers will be wasted if you can’t catch the ball behind them.”
Aside from occasional issues behind the plate, LSU has caught the ball just fine this season. Despite missing 3/4 of its opening night infield, LSU is tied for the second-fewest errors committed (21) in the SEC and tied for the third-highest fielding percentage (.983).
“Look at how we’ve kept our heads above water this year,” Cain said. “We’re pitching it really well and we’re defending really well, and if the bats come around it could be a special year.”
It’s Cain’s job to go out on the recruiting trail and find the players who make Mainieri’s vision for the program into a reality.
Cain spends more time on the road scouting prospects than most of his predecessors because he doesn’t pull double duty as a hitting or pitching coach. That’s why he’s occasionally not at LSU’s midweek game during open contact periods.
However, generally speaking, he’s only watching at a couple of players on a team at a given game or showcase.
Setting aside pitchers, which are a whole separate entity, Cain says he looks at the shortstop, the catcher and the center fielder on a given team because those are the best athletes on the team.
The thinking is a good high school shortstop will be able to play second base, third base or left field at a high level if somebody better is already in the fold. Of the current roster alone, Smith, Watson, Hughes, Bain, Slaughter and Chris Reid were all high school shortstops.
“That’s the principles of recruiting here,” Cain said. “You’re just trying to find versatile, athletic, fast players that are physical.”
According to Cain, players that’re good enough to play at LSU tend to stick out like a sore thumb on a high school field. The tougher call when viewing freshmen and sophomore is if they’ll be too good by the time they reach their senior year and MLB teams begin to set their draft boards.
“You have to ask yourself ‘Ok, this guy is a stud. Is he too good?’” Cain explained. “You can’t sign 10 draft risks because you’d never make it through the draft and you’d never know what you’re going to end up with. So you take your chances on a few guys that have a real love for the program that’ll show up here if they don’t get what they want.”
The growing emphasis on power arms and versatile position players is evident in LSU’s 2018 class.
The Tigers presently hold commitments from six right-handed pitcher whose fastballs been clocked in the mid-90s, according to Perfect Game: Landon Marceaux of Destrehan, Cole Henry from Alabama, Levi Kelly and Chase Costello from Florida, Preston Gunter from Texas and Jaden Hill from Arkansas.
LSU’s other commitments are a mixture of versatile infielders like Drew Bianco from Mississippi and Brice Turang from California and explosive outfielders like Elijah Cabell and Giovanni DiGiacomo from Florida.
“I’m really excited about this class we’ve got coming in,” said Cain, who can’t comment on specific prospects. “There’s a few draft-risk guys, but it’s a really deep draft, and we’ve got a lot of kids locked in that are for sure coming to school. If we get those kids and one or two of the other ones, it could be a tremendous class.”