As the LSU baseball team gears up for the start of fall practice Sept. 27, coach Paul Mainieri chatted with The Advocate about what he expects from the squad.
The Tigers lost all but one everyday starter from last year, and Mainieri will rely on several young players to step in at the vacated positions. The coach said finding a quality shortstop is the first priority and that the rest of the infield will fall into place once that’s accomplished.
LSU is also in need of a reliable third and fourth starting pitcher after it experienced inconsistency from those positions in 2014. Mainieri, however, speculated this year’s pitching staff might be the deepest he has ever coached.
Q: Do you like what you’ve seen from your players in individual drills?
Mainieri: The pitchers, all they’ve done so far is work with Alan Dunn in the bullpen. I do like what I’ve seen, I will say that. There haven’t been hitters in there, it’s not under a competitive situation. But all indications are that we’re going to have a very strong pitching staff.
Of course, they’re led by (Alex) Lange and (Jared) Poché. But the guys that are a year older seem to have a different aura about them. They’re more mature, more confident and lead you to believe that they’re gonna be better. I’m talking about guys like (Jake) Godfrey, (Doug) Norman and (Jesse) Stallings.
One of the encouraging things is thus far Jake Latz looks completely healthy. The ball has been coming out of his hand really good. He looks good. One of the main guys that we’ll count on in the spring, Austin Bain, is out for the fall. He had a procedure done on his shoulder, but we don’t think it’ll be a long-term effect on him. It wasn’t what people might consider major surgery on his shoulder — a rotator cuff or a labrum tear, something like that. He didn’t have that. He had something that just kinda needed to be cleaned up. We think he’ll be ready to go in January.
The pitchers have looked really good. The position players, the first two weeks of individual practice what we focused on was letting them all have time with Andy Cannizaro to look at their mechanics and try to impart an approach, a philosophy about hitting. Andy had a lot of good, quality individual time. The next two weeks, we’re doing more of team fundamentals. How to line up cutoffs, and things like that. So when we play the scrimmage game on the 27th, it won’t look like helter-skelter out there.
People will actually have an idea of what we’re doing. But up to this point, everything has looked good. The first four weeks before we can start practice is a very intense strength training and conditioning time with our new strength coach, Travis Roy, as well.
The guys look like they’re in good shape, very athletic-looking. But until we get started with practice and the scrimmages, you don’t know exactly what you have.
Q: What are some things you’re hoping to learn about your team and sort out during fall practice?
Mainieri: Our first priority is to determine the shortstop position, not just for the fact that Alex Bregman was one of the best players in the country and one of the best we’ve ever had at LSU. But the shortstop position itself is always so key.
It’s kinda your quarterback out there on defense. So we need to figure out first of all who’s going to be our shortstop. Once we figure out our shortstop, then we’re gonna figure out third base. Once we figure out third base, we’ll figure out second base. I believe the left side of the infield is the most critical because those positions are the most challenging to play. It takes a unique skill set to play on the left side of the infield. And we’ve had a tradition and history of really good left-side-of-the-infield infielders. That’s got to be our priority. It’s shortstop, then third and then second.
I think with our catching situation, we know who the top two guys are. We’re just gonna let those two guys battle it out all fall. But we’re gonna use two players there — Jordan Romero and Michael Papierski. The three shortstop candidates are Trey Dawson, Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson. Like I said, as it starts to narrow down one guy will slide to third, one guy will slide to second and get into the competition at those particular positions.
We have two other infielders in O’Neal Lochridge and Greg Deichmann that we’ll be taking a good look at at third base while we’re looking at the shortstop. And then we’ll compare the backup shortstop to how those guys are looking. It’s kind of a sequential thing.
The outfield, obviously we’ve got to replace two-thirds of our outfield. We’ll take a good, hard look at Jake Fraley in centerfield and see how he looks out there. But I’m excited about two freshman outfielders as well — Brennan Breaux and Antoine Duplantis, both boys from Lafayette. They both can run very well. When we get into the games and they have opportunities to make plays, we’re gonna see who can run down and give us the closest resemblance to Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson out there.
So we’ve got a lot of things that we need to do. I’m very high on our pitching staff. But to define roles with those guys, one thing we’re gonna do this fall that’s a little different than what we’ve done in past years is we’re gonna try to extend our pitchers a little bit longer in hopes that we can develop a third and fourth starter to complement Lange and Poché. Sometimes you can get a false positive in the fall because they’re only pitching an inning or two innings. Whereas, if you get to throw four or five innings and the lineup turns over a couple of times, do they have the repertoire to get the same hitter out three times with their repertoire of pitches? So we’ll get a better indication that way.
Q: Who do you see out there at first and second base?
Mainieri: Again, second base is gonna be after we’ve figured out short and third. It could be any of those backup shortstops or one of those third basemen that’s getting over at second base. The top infielders, in no particular order are Kramer Robertson, Greg Deichmann, who are returning players, and then three new players: Trey Dawson, Cole Freeman and O’Neal Lochridge. Those five guys are the candidates for all three positions. But I’ve already narrowed down shortstop to three of the five. Once it gets narrowed down to two or to one, now that other guy or two guys will slide over to third or second. We’re gonna utilize the best three of those five guys and then figure out who the utility infielders will be.
At first base, now there’s two guys working out over there: Bryce Jordan and Bryce Adams. But we can always put somebody at first base, as well. First base, quite frankly, is the easiest position to play on the field. You could take third baseman or and infielder and teach him to play first base and do a pretty good job, I think. If you take infielder skills and put them at first base, they’re going to be fine over there. That’s a position that is important defensively, but it’s not important enough defensively that we can sacrifice offense.
It may end up going to the guy who produces the best offensively and is adequate enough defensively. We could also throw a kid named Brody Wofford into the mix there. He’s a freshman that we’re looking at first and then the outfield as well.
Q: When you go into the fall, do you have an idea of who will be hitting where, or is that something you let play out throughout the fall?
Mainieri: The first thing you have to do is figure out who your best nine players are, and then figure out what the order may look like. But there are certain guys that you go into it thinking, ‘These are potential middle-of-the-order guys. These are potential table-setters.’
I didn’t mention a kid named Cody Ducote nor did I mention Beau Jordan. Both of those guys are candidates for left field or DH, but also candidates to hit in the middle of the order. A kid like Greg Deichmann, if he hits, is a candidate for the middle of the order because he’s a powerful guy. He’s probably got the most power on our team. But I don’t spend too much time worrying about the order of the lineup until I figure out what names are going to be in the lineup.
Q: As a coach with so many first-year guys who will have to play some really big roles on this team, do you coach differently?
Mainieri: We’ve spent the first 10 minutes of this interview talking about personnel. The biggest decision we’ll have to make is which personnel are gonna be the guy we’re going to count on. But part of counting on certain personnel is how do they play the game, as well.
Take ‘the LSU way,’ so to speak. As the leader of the program, I have to establish a philosophy about a style of play and so forth. Basically my attitude about the style of play is defensively, we want to force the other team to earn everything they get. We want to play very steady defense. We want to make the routine plays, hit the cutoff man, be able to throw base-stealers out with our catchers, not throw wild pitches and block balls in the dirt, turn the double-plays when we have a chance. Then offensively, I like to attack, attack, attack. Put the pressure on the other team, and hopefully they succumb to the constant pressure that we put on them offensively. That’s just my basic coaching philosophy.
Part of fall practice is evaluating the personnel, but also the second part is to teach them how to play in a style that we want them to play. What is important to us as the coaching staff, we have to impart that on the players and make it important to them, as well. They have to take pride in their defense. They have to be aggressive, confident hitters. They have to learn to steal bases, that kind of stuff. So it kinda works together.
As you’re evaluating the personnel, you’re coaching them and teaching them. The ones that can take the coaching and then apply it, plus they have the talent, they’re the ones that eventually emerge and become your everyday players.
Q: Have you ever coached a team that’s this young?
Mainieri: I don’t know. I’d have to think back because this is my 34th year of coaching. I can’t recall having to replace eight starting players from one year to the next. It may have happened somewhere along the line, but I can’t recall it. But at the same time, I do recall very vividly playing as many as three freshmen in the starting lineup.
We did it in 2013 and went to Omaha with Bregman, Stevenson and Laird. We did it ‘09 with Tyler Hanover, Austin Nola and Mikie Mahtook, and we went to Omaha there as well. So I’m not overly concerned about playing young players. I kinda laugh when I hear coaches around the country make an excuse about the team being so young. Well, what do you expect? You don’t get to sign the players for 10-year contracts. You’re gonna have turnover.
We were really young on the mound last year, and before the season I made a correlation to my 2002 Notre Dame team. Three of our top four pitchers were freshmen, and we went to Omaha with that team with a veteran in lineup. Well, in 2015 we went to Omaha with a young pitching staff and a veteran lineup. Yet if you gave me a choice, I’d rather have veteran pitchers and young lineup. You’re never gonna hear any excuses uttered out of my mouth. We’ve just got to get these guys ready to play and ready to play quickly.
Q: What’s the biggest thing you look for from guys during fall practice. Is it consistency?
Mainieri: When you have so many new players, you have to see what their skills are on a consistent basis. Can a shortstop make the routine play on an extremely consistent basis? He has to make the routine play almost all the time. When that pitcher makes a good pitch and gets a weak ground ball to short, we’ve gotta have the shortstop make that play. It’s gotta be an out. They seem so routine to the people in the stands, but believe it or not, a lot of teams don’t have a shortstop.
We’ve been spoiled here at LSU with DJ LeMahieu, Nola and Bregman for the last eight years. But that’s not anything I ever take for granted. I know how difficult that position is to play. The first thing you want to do is evaluate their skills, but the consistency of their skills is part of that evaluation. You’ve gotta figure out which guy looks like he can hit the ball in the gap or out of the ball park. Which guy can hit in the clutch, which guys are good baserunners and base-stealers. You want to evaluate their skill set and what they apply consistently.
Also, with two players of equal ability, I’ll take the smarter players every time. The guy that can think on his feet and his instincts for the game and applies the coaching that you give to him so you know what you’re gonna get when you put him out on the field, that’s another big factor that you look at. When you look at the pitchers, you want to see which guys are going to throw the ball over the plate with a high degree of consistency. Which pitchers have out pitches that could be in the role coming out of the bullpen where we need a strikeout. Can you bring this guy in in the middle of an inning?
The first thing is to establish a starting rotation, but you’ve gotta have a pitcher that has at least three quality pitches, and he’s got to be able to stop the running game fielding his position and have some endurance. When you look for a closer, you’re looking for a guy that has at least one, if not two, dominant pitches to be able to shut down the other team at the end of the game, but also has the poise and composure. They don’t have the pressure that they’re gonna have on them in the spring because you’re not filling the stadium and playing the other teams in the SEC where the stakes are high, so as coaches we have to try to create the pressure by different means. And hopefully you see how the players react when you put pressure on them.
Q: You haven’t handed out roles yet and are still looking for your third and fourth starters, but do you have an idea of who will those key guys coming out of the bullpen?
Mainieri: I think the first thing we need to do is figure out that third and fourth starter. But the closer, the end-of-the-game pitching is just as important as those starters. But I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out the guys who did some really good things for us out of the pen last year. You look at guys like Hunter Newman, Parker Bugg and Jesse Stallings in particular, I thought those three guys were real mainstays for us out of the bullpen.
Obviously Stallings was pretty much a one-pitch pitcher, albeit that one pitch was pretty good. A 95-mph fastball. But he has to develop his secondary pitchers, and it has been shown that to get through SEC hitters at the end of the game, you’ve gotta be able to mix up your pitches a little bit. But Hunter Newman was terrific last year in his role. Parker Bugg was terrific last year in his role. You assume that as long as they’re as good as they were last year or have improved from that, they’re probably gonna be guys that we really count on.
And then you look at the other returning pitchers I mentioned before. Godfrey, Norman, Latz — though he didn’t pitch last year, he’s a returning guy — Austin Bain, of course I’m not even mentioning Lange and Poche’ because they were such mainstays for us. But you look at those four guys and then you think about guys like Cole McKay, John Valek. Could they be guys that could step in?
I can tell you already from just watching bullpens, we already are getting pretty high on a kid named Riley Smith and another kid named Caleb Gilbert. These guys have thrown the ball extremely well in the side sessions, with good velocity and strikes. Knock on wood, but I’d be surprised if this is not the deepest staff I’ve ever experienced in a long time, if ever. Deep and quality, too. Not just numbers. Deep, power arms, guys who can throw strikes.
I saw this all the time, but we have the greatest pitching coach in America working with these kids. You can see every time they go out there, they just continue to improve with each passing outing. Their confidence grows, and their secondary pitches get better. It’s really exciting to think about how good our pitching staff is. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said a thousand times: if you have a great pitching staff, in order for the results to be great, you have to play great defense behind them. So that’s the first goal, to figure out how we can put a good defensive team out there behind these pitchers.