LSU junior pitcher Jaden Hill is not oblivious to what is being written or said about him.
From MLB.com to D1 baseball, the 21-year old right hander with a 95-mile per hour fastball is rated as a top five prospect for the 2021 MLB draft.
“Just from the pure eye test, Jaden carries himself and looks like a major league pitcher,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said.
It’s rather an amazing projection for someone who has thrown just 302 pitches to 81 batters in 21.2 innings spread over just six appearances including two starts in his abbreviated college career.
“I don’t know why Hill is in college, to be honest with you,” Texas coach David Pierce said jokingly after Hill threw three shutout innings on the Longhorns last season.
Because of a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm as a freshman and with the COVID-19 pandemic halting the 2020 LSU season after 17 LSU games, Hill has yet to pitch in a Southeastern Conference game.
“People still haven’t seen the full me, they haven’t seen my full potential,” Hill said. “It’s a blessing to be noticed, it’s cool to read that stuff for a little bit. It’s something that can be true, but I still need to work harder.”
There has been adequate sample size of Hill in the two games he started as a freshman (he struck out the side in his first college inning vs. Air Force) and in his four games as a sophomore reliever (especially those three hitless innings with six strikeouts against Texas) to legitimize his draft projections. His career stats, albeit brief, features an eye-popping 0.82 ERA with a 28 to 8 strikeout to bases on balls ratio.
But Hill will be the first to say he is a vastly different pitcher, physically and mentally, than he was when he arrived at LSU in the fall of 2018. Baseball emerged as a career choice following an honor-filled career at Ashdown (Ark.) High as a multi-sport athlete with 3.66 grade point average.
Without access to experienced high-level coaching or sophisticated training equipment, Hill was a starting football quarterback with college scholarship offers from Missouri, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and a pro prospect pitcher being chased by LSU, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Sure, some of his athletic talent was natural. But Hill’s dad, a former college basketball player at College of the Ozarks, made sure his son didn’t cheat his gift.
“When I started playing football and basketball in the fourth or fifth grade, we had a projector and a laser pointer and me and my dad were going over film,” Hill said. “He’d tell me, `Son, you have to do more than the next guy, you have to figure a way to separate yourself.’ ”
Hill was the Arkansas Gatorade high school baseball Player of the Year as a senior and a 38th round draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals. But once he visited LSU on a baseball game day, he knew breaking away from home and playing for the Tigers was his best bet for athletic and personal growth.
“I just wanted to do something different to show people you can do different things,” Hill said. “I wasn’t really an Arkansas fan growing up. My heart was telling me to go out of state. I found out later LSU was my Mom’s dream school.
“Once I got on campus for a game, I was like `There’s no way I don’t go to LSU.’ Once I came here, it was easy to commit.
“I think it’s the best place to be if you want to play at the next level. Coach (Paul) Mainieri and Coach AD (Alan Dunn) hold us to standards as if we were on a major league team.”
Mainieri is confident that Hill can transition from reliever back to the starting role he had two years ago.
“He’s the best athlete on our team and he throws strikes,” Mainieri said. “All the tools are there for him to be special.”
It also is a bonus that Hill is now physically equipped to handle the stamina and arm stress required as a starter. He went from 6-4, 210 when he arrived as a freshman to his current weight of 233.
“Jaden is just so much on a plan where he wants to get,” Dunn said. “He has the physicality to maintain the rigors of going deep into games. Then, he’s got the mental foundation, the right temperament and mindset, to perform consistently. He knows where he wants to go and what he wants to do for LSU.”
When COVID-19 ended the 2020 college sports seasons in mid-March, Hill stayed in Baton Rouge instead of going home to Arkansas where his mother, a nurse, was on the frontline of the coronavirus war.
“I just tried to stay out of the way,” Hill said. “I know the stories she’s told me of what she has witnessed or heard about it. I was nervous for her, but she just wanted to help.”
Hill used what would have been last season as a sophomore as time for physical and mental evaluation and growth. His main objective was simple – figuring out who is as a pitcher and teammate.
“I’ve had setbacks, I’ve had to change roles, I’ve had to deal with injuries,” Hill said. “Right now, I believe that I’m an athletic power pitcher. My stuff is power. I was definitely skinny when I first came to LSU, but experienced coaching here taught me how to train and develop my body.”
During the pandemic, Hill said he worked out at former LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo’s new F45 Training City Square facility on Bluebonnet.
“Before last season, I reached out to Anthony (because) I really liked his social media and the way he carries himself,” Hill said. “He became a mentor for me, he helped me train and helped me figure out a lot about my body. I did lot of work on stamina because I haven’t been a starting pitcher since my freshman year.”
Also, through Ranaudo, Hill befriended Matt Bahnick, a former college baseball player who founded the Positive Vibes Movement.
“It’s based on mental health,” Hill said. “I spent a lot of time with him (Bahnick). He takes everything and makes it a positive. It changed my whole perspective. There are negative things in the world, but there’s a lot of positives, too, just trying to make the best out of the situation.
“I want everything to be a smile. I want everyone to be happy. I try to bring that to the locker room because people feed off that. If your energy is good, the next person may be a bad day, but that picks them up to keep it going.”
Hill has also drawn inspiration over the years from Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders (who also played major league baseball for nine seasons) and NFL quarterback Cam Newton.
“Deion Sanders wore gold chains and was flashy,” Hill explained, “but he did it to show people where we’re from you can do these things without having to sell drugs, which is the route a lot of people take where we’re from. A lot of people don’t see the other side of the world where we grow up.
“And Cam Newton is just himself. He’s a leader, he’s passionate, he loves what he does and he’s dedicated to it.
“His life is football and that’s how I feel about baseball, the way I eat, sleep, don’t go out (to bars). I know what I want to do.
“Pitching is a process and the goal is to reach the full potential of that process. I don’t plan on stopping until I reach that. I’ve got to do whatever is necessary to reach it.”
PITCHING STAFF OVERVIEW
LSU pitching coach ALAN DUNN said fall practice was vital for the Tigers’ 20-man pitching staff. “We had more innings played, guys getting on the mound more often, more extended innings,” Dunn said. “We feel pretty good about the staff we have.
Barring injuries, LSU’s starting rotation is set with junior right-handers JADEN HILL, LANDON MARCEAUX and AJ LABAS.
Despite Hill (1-0 career record, 2 saves, 0.83 ERA) having just 21.2 innings in six appearances in his first two seasons – his freshman season in 2019 was shut down with an arm injury and last year was halted by COVID-19 pandemic – he’s projected as a possible top five pick in the 2021 major league draft. But he has yet to pitch in an SEC game.
“The lack of Jaden getting those reps, of taking the ball every seven days, all the in-between work that’s the routine of starting pitchers, is something you only get by doing it,” Dunn said. “It’s not going to be an issue for him transitioning into a starting role.” LSU coaches raved about Marceaux’s performances from last fall. “Landon began to understand more who is as a pitcher instead of trying to be someone he thought he had to be,” Dunn said. “Once he realized his stuff is good and he should use the pitchability that suits him, that’s when he took off.”
Marceaux has a 7-2 career record and a 4.09 ERA with 18 starts in 19 appearances. In his last nine starts dating back to his freshman season in 2019, Marceaux is 4-0 in 50.1 innings with 41 to 13 strikeouts to bases on balls ratio. Dunn said Marceaux is at his best when he’s “not afraid to throw any pitch in any situation.”
Labas, who missed the 2019 season with a shoulder injury, has a 7-4 career record and a 3.51 ERA with 14 starts in 17 appearances. “This guy has been so fun to watch pitch,” Dunn said. “When you look up the word `pitcher,’ that’s AJ Labas. He doesn’t throw every pitch. He pitches every pitch, which means he’s commanding. When you can command, you can win. He’s a strike-throwing machine who’s even keeled.”
The Tigers also have veteran options out of their bullpen, led by senior righty DEVIN FONTENOT (9-5 career record, 11 saves, 100.1 innings in 64 appearances). “Watching the transformation of Devin from his freshman season to now of how he embraces what it takes to pitch at this level is amazing,” Dunn said.
Senior righthander MA’KHAIL HILLIARD (10-9 career record, 4.31 ERA) has struggled with injuries since late in his freshman year, but his fastball velocity returned to the 90s in the fall. “You could see this fall he was a couple of ticks up in his heater,” Dunn said. “I saw Ma’Kahi’s fast twitch and confidence coming back. He was better in the fall than his freshman year.”
Then there’s senior righthander TRENT VIETMEIER, who’s 5-1 in his career with one save with 61.2 innings in 45 appearances. “Trent is just steady and sometimes steady gets lost in the fanfare,” Dunn said.
Sixth-year senior righty MATTHEW BECK (9-1 career record, 2.66 ERA) is taking advantage of the NCAA’s one-time COVID-19 related offer of an extra year of eligibility. “He’s such a huge factor for us in so many ways,” Dunn said.
NEXT MAN UP:
The true freshman from Pitkin (La.) High dazzled in fall workouts. “He opened our eyes this fall with his poise and his strike-throwing ability,” LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said.
5: Left-handed pitchers on the roster just two seasons after having just one lefty
6: Pitchers who are seniors including two graduate students
34: Combined career starts of LSU’s projected 2021 starting rotation of Jaden Hill (2) , Landon Marceaux (18) and AJ Labas (16)