Dig Baton Rouge

Series Preview: LSU vs. Kentucky

By Trey Mongrue
@TreyMongrue

Before this season began, I was very hesitant on giving a prediction on how far of a postseason run LSU could make. Yeah, they had the veteran position players returning, but there was still a lot of unknown with the young pitching staff.

I’m still not ready to hand Paul Mainieri a second ring just yet, but I’m close… like REALLY close.

Actually, the only thing holding me back from all out believing that the top-ranked Tigers are the best team in baseball is the fact that there is still a lot of games left to be played. However, there aren’t many teams right now that have the potent combination of speed, power and pitching.

Kentucky certainly isn’t one of those teams, especially now do-everything-man A.J. Reed now plying his trade in the minors.

But even so, the Wildcats do have the bats to make do some damage. That starts with JUCO transfer Ka’ai Tom who, thus far, has posted a line of .402/.474/.567 with a team-high 25 runs batted in. Behind him are a handful of other guys that are hitting above .300.

It’s on the mound where the Wildcats coach Gary Henderson misses Reed. The UK pitching staff as a whole has a team earned run average of 4.29, which is only ahead of Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference.

Still, we’re getting to the point in the season where the RPI begins to make some sense (no more Ivy League teams at the top) and UK currently has a projected RPI of 51 and that could jump easily jump into the top 50 just by playing more SEC teams. It may not seem like that big of a deal now (and it largely isn’t), but because LSU’s out of conference schedule was weak, taking advantage of home games like these are nice to store and revisit come May when the national seeds and tournament field are announced.

The (not-so) Luck of the Bregman
Here’s a hypothetical situation to chew on.

One out, bottom of the ninth, game three of the College World Series. LSU is down by a run with a runner on third. In this make believe world, you are Paul Mainieri and you have the choice of any hitter on the current Tigers roster to send to the plate and the get the tying run in.

Who do you choose?

Considering that LSU leads the nation with a .332 batting average and is third in slugging percentage at .491, you have a full cupboard to pick from.

Kade Scivicque makes a lot of sense, right? He is hitting .417 with an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.083. Conner Hale would be another option. After all, he has recorded a hit in all but two games this season. If you’re going for experience, Mark Laird leads the team with 38 hits and a .433 average in 30 at bats with runners in scoring position – pretty impressive from your two-hole hitter.

If it were up to me though, I would feel extremely confident in sending Alex Bregman to the plate in that pressure packed situation. In fact, I’m already assuming the game is tied.

Wait, what?

Last weekend at Arkansas, Bregman tallied just two hits in 10 at-bats over the series, dropping his average down to .327, which is sixth among Tiger hitters that have registered 65 or more at bats. But that number is largely insignificant.

This is one of those eyes vs. statistics things and if anyone saw Bregman in Fayetteville, they know that he is hardly struggling. His two hits were a homer and a double, which led to 4 total RBI for the series.

My favorite plate appearance from the LSU junior shortstop though came in the ninth inning of the Tigers’ 16-3 beat down on Friday. Before ultimately walking, Bregman fouled off five pitches and all of them were crushed. He was seeing the ball as good as anybody, but the hits simply weren’t falling for him.

He wasn’t lucky.

Yes, even something as intangible as luck can be quantified in baseball and that is shown by Bregman’s batting average on balls in play. For those unfamiliar with it, a player’s BABIP measures how often balls put in play aren’t outs. The “luckiness” factor is established because home runs (balls that an opposing fielder can’t make a play on) aren’t included in the equation.

A “normal” BABIP usually hovers between .300 and .330. Meanwhile Bregman currently has a BABIP of .284 – by far the lowest among LSU’s everyday players. For comparison, Scivicque has a BABIP of .403, Stevenson leads the team at .461(!!!).

Either Bregman is breaking mirrors and walking under ladders before every game or this will all even out soon enough. Even if it doesn’t though, an argument can be made that he is still LSU’s most productive player at the plate. At least that’s what his team-high 24 RBI and 25.6 RC (runs created) say.

But lets be real here, it will even out. Not only because the law of averages say so, but also because Bregman has the best plate vision and discipline on the team.

Here are some other numbers from him to back that up:

  Walk/Strikeout Ratio 3/1
  Contact Rate .970
  Swinging Strike Rate 2.2%

 

In those categories, Bregman leads all LSU hitters not named Kyle Bouman.

The contact rate is obviously what jumps out first, which in picture form looks like this:

Bregman Contact Rate

Yeah… have fun trying to pitch to that 16 or so times over the course of a weekend series.

Which leads me back to the hypothetical scenario I posed at the top. I’d still ride with Bregman because he puts the ball in play and he does it a lot – too much for him to continue this string of hard luck line outs to the deep parts of the field.

Hello… Newman
Continuing with the theme of luck, you could say that Hunter Newman was pretty unlucky last year.

Yeah, you could say that about any pitcher that needs labrum surgery on their throwing arm, but it was particularly heart-wrenching for Newman because he was set to compete for a weekend starting job heading into the 2014 season after a strong finish to his freshman campaign.

Finally healthy, Newman has been kind of a quiet assassin out of the LSU pen. He is just one of three Tiger relievers that still have an unblemished earned run average. The other two with the goose eggs in the ERA column, freshman walk-on Ryan May and injured senior Brady Domangue, have combined for just one inning pitched. Newman, on the other hand, has logged 10.2.

Because there were still questions about his recovering stamina heading into this season, Mainieri said from pretty much the beginning that he wanted Newman to be a guy who he could count on to come on in the middle of an inning and get out of a jam.

It’s something that the redshirt sophomore right-hander has excelled at and he continued that last Tuesday when he came on for Russell Reynolds in the third inning against Tulane and went on to pitch three scoreless innings.

Now with seven appearances under his belt, Newman has faced 10 batters with runners in scoring position – seven of those were inherited. Yet still, he hasn’t allowed a run.

His “stuff” isn’t anything eye popping, though. He has a fastball that can touch 90 MPH but really sits in the high 80’s to go along with a solid curveball. But just as was the case back in the 2013 SEC Tournament when he got the surprise start and no hit Arkansas for four innings, what makes Newman so dangerous is the pinpoint command on his pitches.

Among LSU pitchers that have logged at least 10 innings, Newman leads with a 64.4% first-pitch-strike rate and with an overall strike rate of 66.9%.

Newman RISPBy pounding the strike zone and working side to side, he gets ahead in the count and forces the opposing hitter to swing defensively.

From there, he relies on the players behind him to do the rest. Of the 37 batters he has faced, 24 balls have been put in play, but only three for a base hits.

There’s little doubt that Newman is capable of doing great things on the mound in big situation, but now the question becomes when will he get that opportunity. Since the Tigers’ competition ramped up with the trip to Houston, Newman has only seen one appearance on the weekend. That was two weeks ago against Ole Miss where he retired the one hitter he faced.

‘He’s Having Fun, Fun, Fun…’
A few weeks ago, I did a piece on LSU senior outfielder Jared Foster who explained how he is “just having fun” this season. That much was evident after the Tigers’ win over Tulane when Foster stayed on the field afterwards and gladly took a multitude of selfies (I just cringed from typing that) with players on a middle school softball team.

As for the fun that he’s having on the field, Foster currently boasts a .348/.423/.725 line. Just in these two weeks, Foster is slugging .839 thanks to three doubles, one triple, three home runs and one gnarly bat flip.

It’s safe to say that he is a completely different player from what he was a year ago. Look no further than what he is doing against right-handed pitching. Yeah, the guy who couldn’t tally double digit hits against righties last season is now hitting .385 against them (10-for-26).

But beyond that, what’s impressive is just how strong he is at the plate.

Check this out:
Jared Foster HitsThe guy is a pull-hitter, but most of his hits come on pitches that are tailing away from him.

Standing in at just six-feet, I often forget that Foster originally came to LSU to play quarterback or that he is a freak athlete, but then you see him muscle an outside fastball and send it about five rows deep into the left field bleachers and you quickly remember.

Foster has been LSU’s most potent hitter at the dish in recent weeks. He’ll look to continue that fun this weekend against a Kentucky pitching that isn’t anything to write home about.

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