CORVALLIS, Ore. — When it comes to hitting, Austin Bain is much more of an artist than a scientist.
The surprise star of LSU’s season does just about everything in the batter’s box that your little league coach told you not to do. He steps in the bucket — meaning toward the third base dugout — on most pitches and has a follow through that looks more like a golfer than a hitter.
It’s plenty remarkable in itself that Bain went from not swinging a bat for three years to being a key cog in the middle of LSU’s batting order. It’s indisputable that the Tigers would not be preparing to begin NCAA Tournament play if it wasn’t for his surprising contributions.
Bain begins the Corvallis Regional as LSU’s third-leading hitter at .307 and is also third on the team with 47 RBI. He ranks fifth in terms of both total bases (95) and slugging percentage (.448) among players with enough at-bats to qualify — otherwise Todd Peterson would lap the field at 2.000 in the latter.
“The bottom line is you can overcome a lot of mechanical deficiencies with excellent hand-eye coordination,” LSU hitting coach Sean Ochinko said. “Bain has that.”
Simply put, Bain is a natural athlete with a knack for getting the barrel of the bat to the baseball despite going years without taking so much as batting practice cuts.
Quantifying hand-eye coordination isn’t an exact science in its own right, but by delving deep into the advanced metrics tracked by LSU’s data analysis staff, it becomes apparent that Bain has skills that simply can’t be taught.
Nobody on LSU squares up the ball as often as the multi-talented senior. Going off of measured exit velocity, an astounding 52.4 percent of the balls Bain puts in play leave the bat at 95+ mph.
LSU measured 34.5 percent of the balls he put in play at 100+ mph, which grades out to about a 75 on the 20-80 professional scouting scale.
That places him among the likes of Aaron Judge in college in terms of hitting the ball hard with regularity. And as a testament to his consistency, Bain’s maximum exit velocity recorded actually ranks among the middle of the pack on an LSU team that’s not exactly littered with sluggers.
“All of these guys have a higher top end, but he’s doing it more consistently,” LSU analytics guru Micah Gibbs said. “Every time he squares the ball up, it’s 100+ mph, it seems like. Statistically, that’s happening on more than one out of every three balls he puts in play.”
The director of player personnel continued: “It’s about being explosive and having hand-eye coordination, and he has those things. You don’t have to be mechanically sound to see ball, hit ball.”
So how does Bain do it? The answer to that question can be found in his unconventional spray chart.
Of Bain’s 63 hits this season, 23 went to the opposite field (36.5 percent). That in itself isn’t nearly as unusual as the fact that most of Bain’s hardest hit balls have gone to right field.
Here’s what the data says: an amazing 15 of Bain’s 24 extra-base hits have gone to the opposite field. He led the Southeastern Conference with 21 doubles during the regular season despite hitting the ball in the air to left field on just nine percent of the balls he puts in play.
This is where those unorthodox hitting mechanics factor into play. Despite stepping toward left field, Bain has done his damage by letting the ball travel deep in the hitting zone and exploding on pitches toward right field. Half of his extra-base hits have been directed toward the right-center field gap.
“When you look at it video wise, you see he steps in the bucket so to speak when he opens up his hips, but he still drives the ball the other way,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to say these are all balls he’s late on, but he kind of is. Based on the pitches he’s hitting, most guys would be lining out to right field and he’s hitting doubles.
“It’s almost like if you throw him a fastball, it’s a double to right center, and if you throw him a breaking ball, he’s going to try to hit a ground ball single to left. You never see anyone with that consistent of a spray chart like that.”
Gibbs has a theory on why that’s the case, too.
By all accounts Bain is a master ping pong player. It’s just one of his many skills to go along with pitching, defense, Frisbee, video games and golf — the way he holds off his follow through at the plate looks more like that of a golfer than a baseball player.
Bain understands how opposing pitchers try to attack him because of his own mound experience, but his approach at the plate is more like a ping pong player returning a serve than a hitter sitting on a specific pitch or location.
No matter where the pitch comes in, Bain simply trusts his quick hands and coordination to hit it hard wherever it’s pitched.
“He’s really good at ping pong,” Gibbs said, “and when you’re returning in ping pong, you’re not thinking about what a guy is going to hit you, you’re just reacting. Just see it and hit it.”
“I just kind of see ball hit ball, and I’m not out in front,” Bain said. “I kind of hit balls back in the zone a little bit, so it kind of forces me to go that way. I’m actually trying to get back to that because I’ve strayed from it a little bit.”
After months of wearing out the right-center field gap, the scouting report on Bain has started to make its way around the SEC.
Teams have begun to pound Bain inside to prevent him from getting his hands extended and using all that opposite-field power. That was apparent during the SEC Tournament, during which Bain was held to 3-for-18 as he saw a heavy diet of fastballs and off-speed pitches alike in on his hands.
“I’ve hit so many balls the other way that teams have stopped pitching me away and started pounding me in, so I’ve had to adjust to that,” Bain said. “I can’t go the other way with balls in on my hands, so I’ve been trying to get out in front and use the left side of the field too.”
That’s a tougher adjustment than meets the eye. For conventional right-handed hitters with power, it’s more natural to turn on inside pitches and drive the ball to left field.
But for Bain, who for all his success is still relatively inexperienced at this level, the result has been a loop in his swing that robs some of his bat speed. It’s the last hurdle in him becoming a hitter capable of driving the ball to all fields.
“One of the hardest things to do is learn how to hit for pull-side power in games because it’s hard to get the extension and catch the ball out in front and not pop it up,” Gibbs explained. “For him right now, that top hand is so strong that he’s rolling over everything, but they’re power ground balls.”
Can Bain make that adjustment in time with LSU’s season on the line this weekend at the Corvallis Regional? Word travels fast in baseball, and you can bet Oregon State and San Diego State have seen the same spray charts described in this story.
It’ll take some doing, but the improbability of his overnight rise to stardom is a reminder that it is unwise to count out Bain when he sets his mind — and lightning-quick hands — to doing something.