Opportunity doesn’t always knock. Sometimes it lands in your inbox on a random winter morning in the heat of a job hunt.
Former Tiger Sean Ochinko woke up to a text message from LSU coach Paul Mainieri earlier this month asking if he could come into the baseball offices for a meeting. Naturally he did, and Mainieri asked him if he’d like to take over as LSU’s new hitting coach.
“We sat down and obviously I was excited, shocked and happy,” Ochinko told Tiger Rag at LSU Media Day Friday. “But the first thing before any of that was making sure Micah was ok.”
Mainieri informed him that Micah Gibbs would be physically unable to do the job this spring after suffering a catastrophic knee injury during a pickup basketball game. Surgery and the subsequent rehab process would render Gibbs unable to hit fungos, throw BP or coach third base.
Ochinko was on staff last season as the undergraduate assistant, meaning he’d worked closed with Gibbs and the rest of the staff. But once the season ended, he spent the subsequent months looking for work as either a professional scout of a minor league hitting coach.
It’s a good thing Mainieri didn’t hesitate to reach out when he did. Ochinko was in the process of landing a hitting coach job in the Chicago Cubs organization thanks in part to a ringing endorsement from current star Anthony Rizzo.
“There were other opportunities out there, but I always wanted to be here at LSU as the hitting coach,” Ochinko said. “This place has always been really important to me, so once this came about I was really excited about it.”
There could be trepidation about breaking in a new hitting coach three weeks from Opening Day, but neither Mainieri nor Ochinko expressed concern.
For one, Ochinko was on the staff last year, so he’s worked with all of the returning starters from the 2017 club. He also served as a guest coach for the Purple and Gold World Series, the annual fall scrimmage, so he’s worked with most — if not all — of the newcomers in some capacity.
“I don’t feel behind the eight ball at all,” Ochinko said. “Being here last year and knowing 90 percent of the players that are coming back really gave me a head start. I learned a lot last year and I feel like I’ve hit the ground running with where I’m at.”
Mainieri said Friday that he was “heartbroken” for Gibbs to sustain such an injury after an outstanding first year as hitting coach, but Gibbs is taking the staff shuffle in stride. He sees his transition to Director of Player Development as a promotion that could open a lot of doors down the road.
Gibbs and LSU video coordinator Jamie Tutko now share an office inside the video room that the program constructed within the players’ lounge at Alex Box Stadium last offseason. There he and Tutko will spend much of the next five months breaking down film.
All Gibbs asks is everybody calms down with all the condolence texts.
“Honestly I love it,” he said. “This is something I’ve always liked doing when it comes to analytics, scouting reports and research. I think that was one of the big things I brought to the table last year, that preparation phase. So being able to do that combined with Sean’s ability to motivate and the energy he brings, it’s a really good combination.”
Mainieri feels the same way. The reason he hired Gibbs in the first place was to be a “modern day hitting coach” who brought a more analytical element to the program than his predecessor, Andy Cannizaro.
The game plan moving forward is for the two friends of 10 years and teammates on the 2009 National Championship team to work in concert.
Gibbs will compile scouting reports on opposing teams and analyze practice and game video of LSU’s hitters, then filter as much information as possible to Ochinko, who’ll utilize it as he sees fit and handle the hands-on work with the players themselves.
“It’s two-way street,” Gibbs said. “Sean knows plenty about hitting. He’s a great hitting guy. It’s one of those things where I try to almost overload him with information and then we figure out what we actually want to use and what’s beneficial.
“It’s actually a pretty easy transition since we’ve worked together before.”
Gibbs sees his new role as one that could catch on across at least the highest level of college baseball. It’s already a full-blown trend within the professional ranks, with analytics working its way into a pivotal role in every organization.
The data side of things has been a passion of Gibbs’ since before he retired from playing and joined Mainieri’s staff in an operations director role. He initially wasn’t sure if wanted to make a career in coaching or the front office, and this new role gives him a chance to get a taste of both.
“I like the fact with this role you’re almost a liaison of sorts. It’s a little bit of coaching and a little bit of player development,” Gibbs said. “I’ve talked to a lot of Pro Ball people and they’ve talked about how important it is to be in that role because you can go both ways. There’s kind of this divide now between the baseball guys and the analytics guys in the front office as opposed to somebody who can speak both languages. That can definitely open up some doors when it comes to the pro ball side and honestly I hope this job sticks on the college side.”
LSU is banking on the combination of Gibbs’ mind and Ochinko’s infectious energy striking the proper balance to keep the Tiger lineup among the nation’s best in 2018.
“There’s been a lot of great hitting coaches to come through LSU,” Ochinko said. “Whether it was Cliff Godwin, who I had, or Javi Sanchez or Andy or Micah. We’ve done a really good job here of hitting the baseball, and now I’m just the next guy in line to continue the tradition.”
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