LAFAYETTE — Here’s a number that ought to make all the stat heads out there look twice: The Louisiana-Lafayette baseball team’s current ERA of 3.41 would qualify as the squad’s lowest since the Ragin’ Cajuns went to the 2000 College World Series with a 3.31 mark.
Here’s another: Nine pitchers have logged more than 20 innings for the Cajuns this season, and seven of them weren’t with the team a year ago.
Here’s one more: All three members of the Cajuns’ current weekend rotation are 19 years old, meaning their combined age (57) is just four years greater than their coach’s age (53).
The months leading into this season were some of the most challenging of coach Tony Robichaux’s career. He lost the overwhelming majority of both his pitching staff and his offensive lineup to graduation and the MLB draft.
He would at least have some experienced bats returning, but his pitching staff was threadbare.
To avoid the dreaded “R” word — rebuilding — Robichaux and his staff had to get a youthful group prepared faster than usual.
But who said you can’t teach an old dog — or a young pup — new tricks?
Baseball, in Robichaux’s estimation, is a game of failure, but it’s also a game of percentages.
The coach is ridiculously fond of reminding anybody with a pulse that hitters fail 70 percent of the time. And it doesn’t just apply to all hitters; it’s the good hitters who fail with such regularity.
So imagine the sinking feeling in Robichaux’s gut after the last of his underclassmen signed to play professionally last summer, when he crunched the percentages he’s so fond of.
The Cajuns limited opponents to a .242 batting average last season. They struck out more than twice as many batters as they walked, and their 3.50 ERA was their second-lowest in more than a decade. That was the good part.
Ten of those pitchers would not return for the 2015 season, and those 10 pitchers accounted for more than 80 percent of their wins and innings. That was the frightening part.
“We brought back a lot of not knowing where we were,” he said.
But that fear of the unknown laid the groundwork for what is suddenly looking like a brilliant future for the Ragin’ Cajuns pitching staff.
When hitting coach Matt Deggs left in the offseason to become head coach at Sam Houston State, taking volunteer Lance Harvell with him, Robichaux evaluated his staff and saw an opportunity.
With those percentages in his mind, he sought a volunteer assistant to help him handle an inexperienced staff, someone who could always be there when the main pitching coach, Robichaux, is attending to his head coaching duties.
But finding a volunteer coach is a tricky business because of the word that precedes coach in the title. They aren’t on the university’s payroll, so their only source of income is through baseball camps. That usually eliminates candidates who, for example, have a family to support.
Robichaux found his guy in Daniel Freeman, a former Houston Astros farmhand who had spent his previous three years coaching the pitchers at West Monroe High School. Freeman plays a vital ancillary role. If Robichaux is the father figure to the pitching staff, he’s the older brother.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Freeman said. “They can go to him and he’ll be real tough on them, then they can come to me and I can kind of relate to them. I’m a younger guy and I’ve been there recently. It helps having both of us; we work well together.”
With Freeman on board, the Cajuns’ young pitchers went to work in the classroom.
Robichaux is a man who likes his analogies, and he chooses to base this one off some common baseball phrasing. A pitcher who paints the corners is an artist; one who grasps the complexity of widening the strike zone by using all its parts understands the science of pitching.
“Art and science are taught in the classroom,” Robichaux said. “For 29 years, my big teach is to start out in the classroom. It’s kind of like a chemistry lab. Chemistry is taught in a classroom and a lab. That’s for a reason. You’ve got to go experiment. If you mix two things and they blow up in your face, when you go back to class, you’ve learned a valuable lesson.”
Robichaux’s teachings were more about physics and biomechanics than anything. The pitchers started with nailing down the basics of Robichaux’s pitching system, which relies on deception and using the batter’s own eyes against him.
“He’s big on changing speeds in a linear path and trying to keep every pitch out of the same tunnel, working ahead in counts, knowing which hitters to attack and honestly learning how to watch hitters hit,” Freeman said.
The goal is to make every pitch look the same until the moment just before it reaches the plate, where it then falls off in one direction or another. To make this lesson hit home, Robichaux offered a visual aid.
“If you had a hula hoop right by the plate, keep everything in the middle of the hula hoop and let it fall off to the corner of the plate,” said Friday night starter Gunner Leger, who has been the Cajuns’ most consistent starter this season.
The pitchers also had to learn how to study hitters in real time, then use the cues the hitter was showing against him. This is, in Robichaux’s words, “the hardest teach.”
“Every swing provokes the next pitch,” Robichaux said. “That’s what takes the longest for me to teach them: how to work off what you just saw.”
The key, in this instance, is to work quickly. Robichaux said each pitch, and the corresponding result, stays in a hitter’s head for 13 seconds. So if a hitter dives across the plate for a low-and-away curveball, that motion will carry through to the next pitch, where an inside fastball could incapacitate him.
The first few weeks spent grasping the pitching system were a challenge for most of the new pitchers. Each found something that proved tough to learn. For Evan Guillory, it was learning to keep the ball down, a lesson that was helped by a couple of his pitches being deposited in the bleachers.
For junior-college transfer Colton Lee, it was commanding his pitches to a precise zone of the plate, not just inside and outside. For closer Dylan Moore, it was learning how to pitch on a hitter’s hands.
But, judging by the results, they seem to have picked it up nicely. Not only are they on pace to finish with the second lowest staff ERA in Robichaux’s tenure, nearly 80 percent of the Cajuns’ innings pitched this season have come from pitchers who were throwing in junior college or high school last season.
And here’s the truly scary part: They’ll all be around next season, possibly with a couple of stud recruits thrown into the mix as well.
“Here’s the thing: You supposedly get better,” Robichaux said. “You know that old ‘10,000 hours makes an expert’ rule? I think that’s what makes guys better. Once they get good at what they do, the more they go do, it the better they get.”