This could be the year LSU develops a consistent Sunday starter in its weekend rotation.
And, if things really go to plan, the Tigers of 2017 might develop a midweek starter, too.
After a 2016 signing class that was rich in able pitching prospects, LSU feels it might finally have the surplus of arms to completely fill out its rotation. But there is another side of this, too.
When the 2018 season rolls around, LSU will definitely be without expected Saturday starter Jared Poché, and will almost certainly be without ace pitcher Alex Lange, an expected first-round pick.
“This year I think it's virtually essential to (develop starting pitching),” Mainieri said. “I don't want to go into the 2018 season with nobody with any starting pitching experience.”
The two candidates most likely to get the first crack at starting roles are freshmen Eric Walker and Zack Hess.
Mainieri said he would use the nonconference schedule as a gauge for how to proceed once the conference slate rolls around.
“I think what we'll do is start one of them on Sunday in the nonconference games and one of them in the midweek game, and then after about three weeks, we'll kind of reanalyze the situations and say, which one are we best starting on the Sundays in the SEC schedule,” Mainieri said.
Aside from the fact they’re both right-handed, they couldn’t be more of a contrast in styles.
Walker is slightly built — at least compared to the rest of LSU’s freshman pitchers — at 6-feet and 172 pounds. He does not possess a fastball that will blow college hitters away.
What he does have is feel, what baseball aficionados refer to as “pitchability.” He counters his relative lack of velocity — his fastball regularly in the high 80s — with an advanced approach to pitching itself.
LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn doesn’t like to throw around heavy comparisons, but admitted Walker reminds him of another wiry freshman right-hander from not too long ago.
“I was just talking to Aaron (Nola) today and he was asking about the staff,” Dunn said. “I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got a young guy that has come in here as a freshman and showed some good things that you showed when you were a freshman.’ Strike-throwing ability and poise, things like that.
“That’s a hard label to put on a kid; Aaron Nola is maybe one of the best of all time. But when you compare guys, you want to compare them to people that have been successful. Can they be that guy? Time will tell.”
Walker was a highly successful high school pitcher at Arlington Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, but that wasn’t the only thing that caught the LSU staff’s eye.
He was also the starting quarterback for three years at the 6A school, throwing for 41 touchdowns in his career and dealing with the pressure that comes along with being a big-school quarterback.
“You’re thrust into some pretty big environments,” Dunn said. “So he’s handled expectations, he’s handled crowds. His ability to keep things even bode well for him on the mound, not letting situations get away.”
Walker said, “You get the ball every play, you’re controlling the game as a quarterback. In a large crowd like that, it helps you calm down and create that poise. I think it will definitely carry over here.”
Hess, on the other hand, fits the physical prototype of a dominating pitcher. He stands 6-foot-6, and his mid-90s fastball suits his aggressive demeanor on the mound.
What LSU is looking for Hess to do is to control that aggressiveness so he can tap into it when it’s needed.
“A lot of what I did in high school was to go out there and have that football mentality: I’m just going to shove this down your throat, let’s go, push the tempo of the game as fast as you can go,” Hess said. “In college, talking with (Dunn), you kind of have to do the opposite of that. You have to slow the game down, not let things get too fast to where you lose control of the situation.”
Dunn said Hess has been an apt pupil so far. While he had some rough spots in the early portions of fall practice, he made big strides toward the end.
“He was understanding that we’ve got to be able to use all of our pitches,” Dunn said. “Slow the game down somewhat, but I don’t want him to lose who he is. That’s him, that’s why we got him here, because he’s a power guy.
“We’ve got to temper that a little bit, and he’s shown some really good signs of doing that. I really like his potential.”