There is a file on LSU recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain’s computer that serves as a sort of championship blueprint.
The basic premise is simple: What were the common traits among recent teams who ended their season with a dogpile at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska?
Considering the rules college baseball must operate under, the answer is not so surprising: The teams that have won it all have largely done it by playing strong defense behind strong pitching.
That, in turn, drives LSU’s recruiting philosophy: “Pitching, elite defenders, athletes and runners,” Cain said.
It’s LSU merely trying to keep up with the times, a pill that hasn’t always been easy to swallow for those who began following the program during its glory years.
LSU entrenched itself as part of the college baseball elite by winning five College World Series titles in the span of a decade through overwhelming power. The name of the game was Geauxrilla Ball, and LSU did it better than anybody else, leading the nation in home runs for three straight seasons (1996-98), with two national titles (1996 and '97) in that span, with the first of those coming on Warren Morris' two-run, two-out home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat Miami.
Those days are gone.
The 2011 season marked the first time the bats used by players were defined more by their deadness rather than the iconic ping of the Geauxrilla Ball days. In 2010, Auburn led the country with 131 home runs. In the first season with the new bats, East Tennessee State led the country with 86.
A year before, new rules were implemented placing stricter guidelines on how rosters could be constructed. Teams could now only have a maximum of 35 players on their roster, and 27 of those players could be on scholarship. Each scholarship player also had to receive a minimum amount of scholarship money.
This has changed the type of player a program could target.
For example: Let’s say a hypothetical high school player has shown tremendous ability to hit high school pitching, including a knack for hitting tape-measure home runs. But he hasn’t shown that same ability on the base paths or in the field.
Do you offer that player a scholarship? Perhaps LSU would have in the 1990s or the early 2000s. Now, it’s not so likely.
“If he’s a below average runner, he doesn’t have a position, but man he’s a whammer, he can really hit — you’ve really got to vet that,” Cain said. “You’ve got to see that kid hit as many times as possible, and you’ve got to see that kid hit as many times as possible against big (velocity).
“You don’t go see that kid face 83-84 (mph). You need to find out what arm he’s facing that day, and if it’s an elite arm, you go see him play. We want hitters in our lineup, we want hitters in this program, trust me. You can’t miss on them, though.”
LSU coach Paul Mainieri laughs when he catches himself referring to “the old days,” because it wasn’t that long ago when such a player would have found a home at LSU. The Tigers might have carried four or five of them on their roster in the hopes he would eventually develop into a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Now, though, Mainieri does not feel it a wise allocation of limited resources. With limited rosters and bat potency, it does not make sense to seek one-tool players — or players who can only impact the game in one way.
In the old days, Mainieri said, “you could have 50 players on scholarship. You could take a chance on a big, strong guy who might be able to hit. But if he doesn’t end up hitting, you’ve covered yourself. You might have a half dozen of those kinds of guys, and maybe one of them ends up being outstanding for you.
“Now, you take a chance on a couple, and if they don’t turn out to be impact-making hitters, and they don’t play defense or they can’t run?”
Mainieri left that question unanswered, but his point was clear. There is no longer room for one-trick ponies on modern college baseball rosters, or at least ones like at LSU, where the demand is to compete for a championship every year.
It’s not as if LSU can just sign players who can hit mammoth home runs as well as play premium defense, either. Because LSU is not just competing with other schools for their services.
“Out of high school, the guys who can hit, run and defend, you know what they’re called? They’re called first-rounders,” Cain said, referring to the Major League Baseball draft. “Those guys are never going to come to school.”
LSU, like everyone else, adapted. It constructs its roster differently now than it did a decade or two ago. Some of its recruiting philosophy has been based on its failures.
Had Stony Brook not chased down seemingly every fly ball between Nicholson Drive and Gourrier Avenue in eliminating LSU in the 2012 super regionals, maybe players like Andrew Stevenson, Mark Laird and Zach Watson don’t wind up at LSU.
“I honestly thought the difference in the teams was Stony Brook’s speed in the outfield,” Mainieri said. “They were running balls down on us in the super regional that were falling when we were on defense. We didn’t have the speed in the outfield.
“We made a conscious decision to get guys like Stevenson and Laird and (Jake) Fraley and so forth that played better defense out there.”
There’s a reason why, since the change in bats, LSU has turned in its only two seasons in school history with a .980 fielding percentage (2012 and 2013) and is on pace to hit that mark again.
“It’s no mistake we’re leading the league in defense,” Cain said. “I would be willing to bet we’re the best defensive team in the country, and we’ve made more big-time game-saving, game-changing plays this year on defense.”
That defense needs to work in tandem with pitching, and while LSU has missed on some of its more prized pitching recruits — Alex Lange has been the only member of the ballyhooed 2014 LSU pitching class who has truly blossomed into a star — the Tigers have put a clear emphasis on stockpiling their roster with as many top arms as they can get.
On Monday, Lange became the third LSU pitcher since 2012 to get drafted in the first round. From the time Ben McDonald was drafted No. 1 overall in 1989 to Anthony Ranaudo being selected in the first round in 2010, LSU had just four pitchers taken in the first round.
“My thought is to make sure we’re competitive day in and day out, and you do that with pitching and defense,” Mainieri said. “Then let’s see if we can find some guys who we can either teach to be better offensive players. ... You just try to say, ‘OK, what do we need as a basic foundation to be competitive?’ Then, ‘Let’s see how we can add to that.’ ”