OMAHA, Neb. — Whenever an LSU pitcher throws a breaking ball in the dirt, thank Alex Bregman for the ball not hitting the backstop.
The former Tigers shortstop hasn’t put on an LSU jersey in almost two years, now spending his days with the Houston Astros as a rising star in Major League Baseball. But when he was still in Baton Rouge, Bregman would often coordinate extra team practices late into the night, when players would field ground balls under the lights at Alex Box Stadium.
The impromptu sessions were not mandatory, but players from all classes would show up for the additional work. Among those players was freshman catcher Michael Papierski.
There was never much discussion of Papierski moving out from behind the plate but, firmly behind No. 1 catcher Kade Scivicque at the time, Papierski wanted to get extra work wherever he could get it — even if that meant stepping into the field for the first time since Little League to field ground balls.
So that’s what he did, taking ground balls with Bregman and the others.
Two years later, Papierski is one of the best defensive catchers in the country.
“When I first got here, I took ground balls with Bregman a lot,” Papierski said. “Pretty much every night, we’d come to the Box and take ground balls. I feel like that helped with my soft hands behind the plate. Work ethic is big, and you’ve got to put in the work to be somebody good.”
Papierski is LSU’s not-so-secret weapon on defense. As coach Paul Mainieri says, he's the most valuable, underrated player on the field.
Shortstop Kramer Robertson and the 1-2 pitching punch of Alex Lange and Jared Poché get most of the headlines, but it’s Papierski who makes the defense go — or, more accurately, makes other teams stop.
With his quick, soft hands and willingness to throw his body behind anything that’s thrown at him, there’s no question for the Tigers that they wouldn’t be in Omaha this week if it weren’t for the man behind the plate.
“He is so good defensively that you don’t notice him back there,” Mainieri said. “You only notice you don’t have a great catcher when you don’t have a great catcher. When Micah Gibbs was our catcher, we had a bunch of superstars … and I used to stand in front of (the media) and say, ‘Micah Gibbs is the unsung hero of our team.’ He wasn’t hitting .400 that year or doing some other things, but catcher is your most important defensive position on the field.”
In Saturday night’s College World Series opener against Florida State, Papierski hit a no-doubt home run over the left-field bullpen at TD Ameritrade Park. But while many were celebrating his monster hit, Gibbs, now LSU's hitting coach, was praising his catching ability on social media, tweeting, “And @mpappy14 is the best defensive catcher in college baseball” in response to the official NCAA baseball account posting the replay of Papierski’s home run.
Gibbs, the catcher for the Tigers' 2009 national championship team, knows a little something about good backstops. During that championship run, he allowed only four passed balls in 71 games. Through Monday night, Papierski has allowed four passed balls in 60 games.
Only Florida catcher Mike Rivera has given up fewer passed balls (three) among SEC catchers; Rivera and Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman (two) are the only catchers from CWS teams to allow fewer.
Papierski is also a major factor in LSU holding teams to a 65 percent success rate on stolen bases.
“It’s a lot of stuff people don’t see, stuff that’s not in box scores,” Gibbs said. “His ability to receive — he takes so many pitches that are borderline or are balls and makes them strikes. What it really comes down to, that 1-1 count is so important, when he takes that 1-1 pitch and makes it 1-2 for Lange or Poché, and now (pitching coach Alan Dunn) is able to do more things with the pitcher — bounce the ball, elevate the ball, all that stuff. That stuff changes games (but) people don’t see.”
Mainieri said the ability to block balls in the dirt is a baseline requirement for catchers in his program, but he did say it’s a major advantage to have a player as good at blocking as Papierski.
Take, for example, Saturday night's game, when LSU scored against Florida State on a passed ball in the first inning during a game that was decided by one run. That hasn’t been a scenario LSU spent much time sweating this season.
Papierski said he has no problem with a pitching strategy that puts extra pressure on him, because it’s his responsibility to make the plays on the pitches Dunn calls. And no pitcher has taken advantage of Papierski’s skills more than Lange.
“It’s crucial,” he said. “He works his butt off back there and makes big blocks in big situations. You have to be able to trust he’s going to block the baseball when he needs to. … We’re burying the breaking ball. Pap’s done a great job all year blocking that up. It’s comforting knowing he’s going to do it and get the job done.”
Papierski said one of the biggest rules of catching is to not allow mistakes behind the plate to roll over into bad swings at the plate, and vice versa. But over the course of the past month, it seems the two have gone hand-in-hand — in a positive direction.
As Papierski’s confidence behind the plate grows, so does his confidence at bat. It’s a major factor of why Papierski, who was never known for an impressive bat beyond being a switch-hitter but remained in the lineup for his defense, is currently one of the Tigers' hottest hitters.
During LSU’s 17-game winning streak that came to an end against Oregon State on Monday, Papierski went 16 of 46 for a .347 average — 81 percentage points higher than his season total to this point. He also had five home runs, 18 RBIs, 19 runs and 12 walks.
Papierski credits Sean Ochinko — the LSU undergraduate assistant and former Tigers catcher — for helping him mentally prepare for the position.
“As a catcher, you’ve got to split your two games: hitting and catching,” Papierski said. “If you have a bad at-bat, you can’t take that behind the plate. And if you miss a block or you don’t throw someone out, you can't take that to the plate.
“Working with Sean this year has helped me a lot. He’s been through it. Went to LSU, won a national championship, got drafted, made it up to Triple-A, big league camp, and he's just helped me so much with the mental game of baseball. I feel like I’ve taken huge strides this year with that.”