When Most Valuable Player awards are doled out at the conclusion of sports seasons, they often reward those who pile up gaudy statistics for winning clubs.
But, for consideration, another measuring stick: the abject terror a coach or manager would feel if that person was not a part of a team that particular season.
Here, a case is made for Hal Hughes, LSU’s light-hitting freshman shortstop, being near the top of LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s list of things he is thankful for this season.
“Hal has saved our season. He really has,” Mainieri said.
Yes, this is the same Hughes who has never been penciled into the LSU lineup at anywhere other than the No. 9 spot. The same Hughes who entered the Tennessee series hitting .212 overall and .135 against Southeastern Conference pitching.
If not for Hughes? Mainieri shudders to think of where LSU would be at this point. Because while the gaudy statistics may work for the big awards, they are not all that define a player.
Take, for instance, a glove, and its use at a premier position.
“If he hadn’t played shortstop the way he played it in 31 games, we wouldn’t have 21 victories to this point,” Mainieri said before the start of the Tennessee series.
This, of course, is not by design.
Three games into the 2018 season, LSU found out its opening day starter at shortstop, Josh Smith, would miss a significant chunk of the season after suffering a stress reaction in his back.
The timetable for Smith’s return was uncertain. All LSU knew was that he would not be able to do athletic activity of any kind for four weeks, and then it would re-assess him at that point.
Smith has been out for eight weeks. While he is nearing a return, the Tigers still can not commit to a hard return date.
“We lost maybe the best shortstop in the country after three games this year … and this young kid has stepped in there, and I think he’s done a magnificent job doing exactly what we hoped he would do: make the routine play,” Mainieri said.
Hughes was not a hot commodity on the recruiting scene, in part because his bat did not look like it would play, at least immediately, at the Division I level.
But Mainieri places a premium on defense, evidenced by some of the infield talent he has assembled in recent seasons. Just looking at team fielding percentage, the three best seasons in LSU history have all come since 2012.
Mainieri has also seen what poor infield defense can do to a team.
“I’ve had teams where the shortstop couldn’t make the routine play, and it was devastating to our team,” Mainieri said.
Hughes knows why he is at LSU, and that his path to the field would be dependent on his ability to consistently pick it with his glove. He did not know he would be forced into action at the most difficult position on the field because of an injury.
Hughes wants to be better at the plate — and believes that he will be — but his main focus is on being the best defender he can be.
“I know I’m in there because of my defense,” Hughes said. “That’s how it’s been since the day I showed up here. Hitting can be hard sometimes, especially for me.
“But the biggest thing I try to do is not let it affect my defense, because I know it is so important to this team.”
Value comes in many forms.