LAFAYETTE — When Steven Sensley thinks about what’s to come this season, his first in a Louisiana-Lafayette uniform, he hopes it looks a lot like what he was able to do last year with LSU-Eunice.
There, Sensley feasted on pitchers. He crushed 21 home runs and had 80 RBIs in 57 games while hitting a robust .374. He even caused his coach, Jeff Willis, to abandon his usual penchant for stealing bases out of fear of running into an out that could come home on a Sensley big fly.
Sensley hopes that’s what 2016 looks like for him, but he’s also not naïve. He knows the pitching he feasted on last year looks nothing like the pitching he’ll see playing Division I baseball.
So he hopes, but he’s also realistic.
“I want to be a big part of this team, but at the same time I want to do whatever I have to do to help the team,” he said. “Whether that’d be being a small part of something big, I’d do it. I just want to help the team win games. I would like to be what I was to LSU-E here, but if I’m not, then I’ll do whatever I have to do to help the team win.”
Sensley was the last piece of a fruitful Cajuns offseason to fall into place. Coach Tony Robichaux and the rest of the coaching staff sweated out his arrival after he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 38th round.
He almost certainly would have been selected well before the 38th round if it weren’t for his high asking price.
This is the way it works with the MLB draft: Teams avoid players in the early rounds if they feel there’s a chance the player may go to school, then take fliers on a player late if they think there’s a chance they can come up with enough money to change his mind.
Sensley was tempted. He looked at it as having two equally excellent options to choose from. He could come play for the Cajuns, or he could begin his career as a professional. He would’ve chosen the latter if the Rays met his asking price with a hefty signing bonus.
“That price wasn’t met, so I decided to come to UL,” he said. “But it wasn’t like I was settling to come to UL. I wanted to sign pro and I wanted to come here, so if I would’ve gotten what I was asking for I would’ve signed. If I didn’t, I would’ve came here. It was a win-win situation for me because I wanted to do both.”
Since he has been here, he has learned that the skill that made him so good at LSU-E and that made him a late-round pick of the Rays was not going to be enough to get by with.
Robichaux said Sensley can be a difference-maker this season, and one day down the line he may be a difference-maker in a major league lineup. But there’s danger here, too. Sensley’s raw power can be intoxicating, not necessarily for him but for those who are expecting it out of him.
“He’s got a presence at the plate. He’s got power,” Robichaux said. “But again, when you have power first, everybody looks at you as a power hitter. That’s dangerous, because they expect every ball to leave the yard and every at-bat to be a home run. That’s not the case. Coaches are really working with him to continue to concentrate on being a good hitter with power.”
It took Sensley a little while this fall to understand how to be a good hitter with power instead of a power hitter. He was overly aggressive in the batter’s box, getting fooled by pitchers who could throw any pitch in any count.
Those pitches also came in different shades than the ones he saw in junior college, where it’s all about velocity. Here, not only are there snapping curveballs and sweeping sliders, there are changeups that look like fastballs and fastballs that are thrown just a little softer to mess with a hitter’s timing.
It required an adjustment, Sensley said. Nothing big — just a minor adaptation.
“I just had to learn how to calm myself down and stop being so aggressive at the plate,” Sensley said.
He seems to have learned that lesson. Robichaux has said Sensley’s bat should be a staple in the Cajuns lineup this season, whether he’s playing first base, right field or designated hitter. (Sensley said he prefers right field.)
He just wants to help — and maybe, hopefully, do a little more.