By Trey Mongrue
Mid-week games are constant potential pitfalls for even the best college baseball teams.
LSU learned that much a few days ago with a 6-3 loss to Nicholls State, sobering the natural high from a series sweep against a power-5 conference opponent in Kansas to open the season. But while those Tuesday and Wednesday games are persistent thorns in the side, they can be largely harmless as long as the ensuing series is taken care of.
Paul Mainieri’s Tigers will look to do that as they welcome a Boston College squad that somehow escaped record snows to come down to Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field this weekend.
While a member of the always baseball-strong (at least in the regular season… I couldn’t resist) ACC, the Eagles look to be one of the weaker teams in the league. They opened their season with a pedestrian 2-2 showing against the murderer’s row of Wofford, South Carolina-Upstate and Xavier at the Spartanburg Classic in South Carolina.
Coming off of an opening week of some positives and a few negatives, Mainieri will have a chance to see what trends continue from these first four games and what changes, all the while still trying to figure out what guys fill out the lineup and the middle of the bullpen.
Leading Off with the Lead Off
Coming into the year, there was some debate on who would replace Sean McMullen at the top of the Tigers’ order. Ideally, the mold is set for someone who sees a lot of pitches, gets on base and is quick around the bases.
I will admit that, before the season, I was in the Andrew Stevenson camp for the job with Mark Laird staying in his two-hole. After all, Stevenson posted a higher on-base percentage last season (.393) and, because of that, was second behind only McMullen in runs scored with 41.
But, here is the thing that I overlooked in the Laird/Stevenson debate and feel completely stupid for doing so.
Stevenson’s OBP was only 27 points higher despite Laird living around a .280-290 batting average for much of the season (finished with .291). Stevenson, on the other hand, arose from the Mendoza Line ashes and hit .335 – the best among LSU hitters that registered at least 180 at-bats. Laird found other ways to get on base and, through these first four games in the leadoff spot, he’s doing it again.
He has the highest OBP (.471) among the everyday players, having reached base eight times on 15 at-bats. And then when he does get on base, the bats behind him (more on that in a bit) usually cash in, considering that Laird leads the Tigers with 5 runs scored.
That number is pretty impressive considering LSU has just six extra base hits, but that’s what speed on the base paths does – whether it’s swiping bags or, against Nicholls, taking advantage of wild pitches, Laird has at least made it to second base every time that he has reached base.
But besides being a guy at the top of the order who averages nearly 4 pitches seen per at bat, Laird is seeing the ball as well as anyone on the team despite his slap-hitting ways. Again, his speed makes so much of a difference – I’m telling you nothing new there.
Despite not getting a hit until the Sunday win over Kansas, Laird ties with Conner Hale and Chris Chinea for the team lead with six hits. All six of Laird’s hits have gone to the opposite field. Actually, every ball he puts in play is going that way. (It should be pointed out that what happens in four games should not be classified as a trend just yet, but that’s all we have to work with for now.)
That’s because Laird may be the only hitter on LSU’s roster who is actively looking to go for the opposite field. Any time he sees a pitch away, he has shown the patience to get his hands out in front and slap it the other way. Just take a look at his heat map for average balls that he has put in play. Again, take all of this with a huge shaker of salt considering that we’re only working with four games worth of data.
Looking at that swing rate, you see a lot of red inside the zone, which of course is normal. Only problem though is the blue in the inner corner on the other chart. Because Laird is often looking to go the other way, he is having a tough time making contact on pitches inside and at the letters or higher. In fact, both of Laird’s strikeouts ended with from whiffing on pitches that were up and in.
It’s something to keep in mind going forward as I’m fairly sure Boston College’s staff will look to challenge there. Then again, the Eagles’ have issued 23 walks in four games.
Looking for the Clutch Gene
It’s no secret that a big reason for LSU’s loss to Nicholls was the inability to put the ball in play with runners in scoring position. You just look at the first two innings and see that the Tigers had runners at second and third with no outs in the first innings followed by bases loaded with one out an inning later.
In the at-bats that immediately followed those two scenarios, LSU hitters went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and no runs.
More alarmingly, however, is that 0-for-5 came from your hitters two through six in the lineup. All credit to the Colonels for coming into the Box and leaving with the ‘W’, but you have to think that if LSU plates 3 or 4 runs in those first two frames, the end result is drastically different.
It was a particularly tough night for Hale who went down looking in the first and then grounded out to end the inning in the second.
Was it just a bad night at the dish for the senior first baseman? Who knows? After all, in the Saturday and Sunday games against the Jayhawks, Hale came through with three hits in his five opportunities with runners in scoring position, leading to five RBI.
But even if Wednesday night was nothing more than an aberration for Hale, Mainieri will continue to tinker the order. It was announced on Thursday that Alex Bregman will move down a spot and take over the three-hole, which was his in 2013 and for the first half of 2014.
I’m not sure if the move is as much an indictment on Hale, who has posted a .333/.333/.389 (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage) and a .889 contact rate in a team-high 18 at-bats – Mainieri mentioned that he’ll likely move Hale to fifth. Rather, it seems like a move to reinvigorate the middle of the order.
It’s sorely needed considering that the three, four and five spots in the lineup have notched 14 hits in 46 at-bats and of those hits, Hale’s RBI double against Kansas is the only extra base hit. And while Bregman’s line is only at .235/.300/.294 through 17 at-bats, he has had a couple of hard hit outs as of late and you have to feel like those will eventually find free grass.
‘Blow the Lock Off the Cage, Watch the Children Come of Age’
Three freshmen starting pitchers made their LSU debuts in the first week of the season, as Alex Lange and Jake Godfrey took the mound on Saturday and Sunday, while Doug Norman made the start on Tuesday, and regardless of the macro results, i.e. two wins and one loss, it was promising.
We’ll start with Lange because it would be criminal to not start with a guy who fanned seven opposing hitters and only allowed one runner past first base in five innings of work. Whether it was the fastball that sat in the 93-95 MPH range, or the low-eighties curveball (seriously, how unfair is that?), Lange had everything working for him on Saturday.
What may have been most impressive was how he moved his placement in and around the zone, particularly when he was ahead in the count. Of the 18 hitters he faced, Lange reached two strikes in the count 10 times with only three of those not ending in a punch out.
Just look at his two-strike pitch frequency heat map and notice how he constantly covered the edges.
Lange may be a freshman by classification, but that is next level control. He’ll have a hell of a time trying to put together a suitable encore when he comes back out for the second game of Friday’s double-header.
As for Godfrey and Norman, they were largely peppering the zone with strikes as well. Godfrey tallied 48 strikes of his 87 pitches while Norman placed 51 pitches in the zone out of 70. But unlike Lange, when they found themselves in a two-strike count, they both served up quite a few pitches over the heart of the plate.
Godfrey largely lived to tell the tale with only six of the 12 two-strike counts he faced ended with a ball put in play, and only one of those six being a single (two did reach on errors by Bryce Jordan and Hale). But Norman against the Colonels, on the other hand, got to 11 two-strike counts in which seven were put in play and four were for base hits. The problem was exacerbated considering the first hit was a two out RBI double in the first inning and the next three were singles to start the second, fourth and fifth innings, leading to three runs.
With a fastball and sinker combination that roughly sit in the mid-80’s, hitting that much of the plate is not often going to lead to a good result.
On Thursday, Mainieri was asked about Norman’s rough night and mentioned that sometimes throwing too many strikes can be a bad thing, referencing the similar struggles of a freshman Aaron Nola in 2012. Alan Dunn quickly remedied that.
Now, neither Norman nor Godfrey, or even Lange for that matter, are Aaron Nola, but they all showed some degrees of promise going forward. We’ll see Godfrey on Saturday to close out the series with Boston College and Norman on the following Wednesday when LSU hosts Southeastern.