It wasn’t that long ago that LSU catcher Michael Papierski was a scuffling hitter on an underachieving team.
Through much of the season’s first 42 games, He hovered somewhere near the Mendoza line — a paltry .200 batting average. He was part of an LSU team that started 10-8 in league play.
What a difference a month makes.
As LSU has turned its season on its head, going 12-2 in its final 14 regular-season games, so has Papierski at the plate. The junior switch hitter has been the LSU lineup’s catalyst during that turnaround.
“He’s been massive,” LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs said. “It’s not a coincidence that since his hitting’s come along we’ve gone 12-2.”
Papierski showed signs of an offensive turnaround when the Tigers traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but he still entered Crimson Tide territory hitting just .211.
Since then, Papierski has compiled a .357 batting average (15-42) with four homers and 12 RBIs. He has walked more times (12) than he’s struck out (nine).
“Obviously the last few weeks have been good, but the biggest thing is we’ve been getting a lot of wins. ... It was big, not just for my confidence but for the whole team’s confidence,” Papierski said. “We’ve all been doing well.”
Papierski has executed when he needed to. He drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th inning against Alabama on a hit-and-run play, and also brought home the go-ahead run against Auburn with a squeeze bunt.
Hehas also shown off some prodigious power. Gibbs believes it will help Papierski become a big-league catcher one day.
Papierski’s four homers in the final 14 regular-season games led the team.
“Whenever scouts are talking to us, they’ll call me and I’ll talk to them about that,” Gibbs said of Papierski’s power. “There’s pop in there, and it’s going to develop. That’s one of the last things to come.
“You see that with a lot of guys in pro ball, where they get on that power surge later in their career when they really learn how to hit and they really learn how to drive the ball. The fact that he’s doing it now already is pretty impressive.”
This isn’t Papierski’s first time turning it on down the stretch. It's not the first time LSU has followed his lead.
Last season, Papierski batted .286 in the season’s final 13 games — including a .364 average in the NCAA tournament.
“He did this last year, too,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “As the team got hot, so did Papierski. You think that’s a coincidence? I don’t think so.”
It’s been a bit of a weird 12 months for Papierski as a hitter.
He has spent most of his baseball life as a switch hitter, then ditched it last May to work strictly from the right side during LSU’s postseason run.
He resumed switch-hitting in the summer, then again abandoned it after a trial run in the fall, starting this season exclusively from the right side.
After seeing a steady stream of sliders from right-handers earlier this season, Papierski decided once more to go back to hitting from both sides.
The move seems to have paid off. Papierski has also been more selective, hunting for more fastballs at the plate.
“Early in the year, when his confidence wasn’t as great, he would just go up there and whale away at the first thing he saw,” Mainieri said. “If it was not a strike, he ended up getting into a bad hitter’s count, and he ultimately couldn’t overcome it.
“But when he lays off the bad pitches, he’s getting more advantage counts, and he’s able to get more fastballs.”
At the start of conference play — right around the time Papierski resumed switch-hitting — the LSU catcher had only drawn four walks in 49 plate appearances, and his on-base percentage was a team-worst .265.
Though he was not in danger of losing his job — his superb defensive ability kept him in the lineup — Papierski was not even a tough out at the plate.
Gibbs noticed something from Papierski’s freshman year. It was a limited sample size, since Papierski’s action was limited to spelling All-SEC catcher Kade Scivicque, but he saw that Papierski had drawn 16 walks in 62 plate appearances.
He told the catcher his eye at the plate could be a weapon.
“I reminded him, ‘Hey, that’s one of your strengths. Use that,’ ” Gibbs said. “Be the guy — especially with the power he has — be the guy who waits for his pitch and gets his pitch and is aggressive to the fastball.”
Since the start of SEC play, Papierski has drawn more walks (27) than everyone except Greg Deichmann (33), who surged ahead by walking 10 times in last weekend's series at Mississippi State.
His selective approach has resulted in more pitches for him to drive, causing his slugging percentage to rise almost 100 points since the start of SEC play.
“Stay on the fastball and get in positive counts,” said Papierski, summing up his approach. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Gibbs has also had Papierski add a leg kick to his left-handed swing, in order to get Papierski’s 6-4 frame more in rhythm. Gibbs said Papierski’s righty swing is more compact and consistent, while his left-handed swing can get long.
It has also kept Papierski’s weight back, keeping him from lunging at pitches and making poor contact.
“It’s been working out lately,” Papierski said.
Indeed it has.