If he’s wearing one during batting practice, LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs’ hat is usually tipped back on his head, the bill angled toward the sky.
He stands behind the netting of the mobile batting cage LSU sets up around home plate. Gibbs rests his thick forearms on padded supports behind the netting, one foot resting on the batting cage’s big Tonka truck-like wheel as his face is pressed an inch or two away from the netting — hence the hat’s unusual tilt.
As his players take cuts, Gibbs concentrates. He is looking for things most people wouldn’t catch on a second, third or 10th glance. As we all know, the best hitters in baseball fail seven of 10 times and call it a good performance. So the smallest thing can make a big difference.
Gibbs is a technician at heart. Like any good mechanic, he is curious about how things work on the micro level. He studies a thing until he has a feel for how to take it apart and put it back together again.
This season — Gibbs’ first as a coach at any level — has provided a good many data points for Gibbs to store in his analytical bank. He can recall these lessons and put them to use in the future. Perhaps his most important lesson, though, has been curbing that desire to tweak every single structural flaw he’s noticed.
“I know early on, especially in the spring scrimmages, I was wanting to go and look at everybody’s mechanics after every at-bat,” Gibbs said.
He sought advice in those early days, too.
Having been thrust into this role as the LSU hitting coach after Andy Cannizzaro’s surprise departure in November, Gibbs tried to soak up as much knowledge as he could to prepare for his first full season as an assistant at one of the nation's most powerful college baseball programs.
A hitting coach from his youth reminded Gibbs of this important lesson about mechanics.
“You can look in the big leagues, and everybody has a different swing,” Gibbs said. “There’s no one set of mechanics. But the approach and being on time and the mental side of it is probably 90 percent of hitting.”
The mental aspect has long been one of Gibbs’ strong suits. This season has been about learning to transfer that trait to his pupils. Gibbs has proven to be a quick study.
That’s part of the reason head coach Paul Mainieri didn’t wait long to plant the seed in Gibbs’ mind about the possibility of joining the LSU staff once his playing career was over.
“The thing that stood out to me about Micah when he played for us was that he was a real student of the game,” Mainieri said. “He was always inquisitive, asking questions and learning as much as he could — sometimes almost to a fault.
“Sometimes he hurt his chances of being successful because he thought so much instead of using his physical ability. But I thought that analytical mind would serve him well as a coach.”
During Gibbs’ professional playing career — he advanced as high as Class AAA in various minor league organizations — he often returned to Baton Rouge to train in the offseason.
It started to become clear that Gibbs' chances of making a big league roster were slim. Mainieri asked Gibbs what he wanted to do next. When Gibbs said he wanted to become a coach, the two started talking about the possibility of one day joining Mainieri's staff.
Mainieri told Gibbs he would likely start out as the coordinator of baseball operations — a non-coaching position, but a jumping-off point.
Gibbs had been exposed to the Rule 5 draft by the Royals — the second organization that essentially released him. Around the same time, LSU volunteer assistant Will Davis was about to leave, taking over his own program at Lamar. That opened up the operations position. Mainieri gauged Gibbs’ interest.
“About two weeks later, I saw him again,” Mainieri said. “I said, ‘Did you think about what I talked to you about?’ He said, ‘Only every day.’ ”
Gibbs spent one season as LSU’s coordinator of baseball operations. During that time, he said he declined a couple different opportunities to join a staff elsewhere as an assistant.
Part of the reason: Mainieri let Gibbs know he intended to promote Gibbs to a coaching position when there was a vacancy.
“There were a couple places that had reached out to me to do the volunteer role,” Gibbs said. “All of which I declined to stay here, just because I loved it here. This is where I played, and I knew what the intentions were. ...
“I’ve been very blessed in the way that everything has worked out. I couldn’t be more grateful and thankful for coach believing in me and allowing me to do it.”
It hasn’t been easy. Gibbs was a target of fan frustration early this season, when LSU’s performance at the plate didn't match its potential.
The easy number for those critical of his ability to latch onto was zero: as in his years of coaching experience.
It didn’t matter that the man he replaced, Cannizaro, also had no coaching experience before taking a job at LSU. Blame for Tigers' early inconsistency was falling on Gibbs’ shoulders.
Before the season even started, Gibbs had braced himself for that. He had experience with the demanding fan base.
“Having played here, I know that when things aren’t going great, people are going to be upset,” Gibbs said. “When things are going really well, everybody is happy.”
Gibbs kept a level head during those rougher stretches, using them as a tool for progress rather than focusing on the negative. His analytical approach kicked in.
He tuned out the noise and focused on the small things.
“You learn a lot in those games,” Gibbs said. “That’s the most important thing: When those games do happen, don’t overreact, but analyze it to see where we can tighten up the screws. What can we do to get better?”
That approach worked.
Of the eight teams in the College World Series, which gets underway Saturday, LSU ranks among the best in terms of overall offense. Only one team, Oregon State (.296), has a better batting average than LSU's .294. And only one team, Florida State (7.4), has scored more runs per game than LSU (7.0).
On the way to those numbers, Gibbs has refined his own technique. He notices mechanical flaws, but he’s learned to pick and choose when players need instruction.
“At the beginning of the year, he was really technical in his scouting reports,” senior second baseman Cole Freeman said. “He was so advanced he could recognize a pitcher in a 1-2 count would throw the backdoor slider. He would pick up on it and tell us that, but some people can’t deal with it as well as he could.
“I think he’s figured out there’s some people he can’t be as technical with. That’s part of coaching. ... That, I think, is something he’s grown with throughout the year — learning what type of player each kid is, learning what he can do for each kid and what he can’t do for each kid.”
Junior slugger Greg Deichmann has noticed. Sometimes Gibbs will ask how he’s feeling during batting practice. That means Gibbs is seeing something he can correct.
If Deichmann says he feels great, Gibbs will let it slide.
“But if you’re sitting there and you’re like, ‘I’m missing a pitch I don’t normally miss,’ he’ll find it, and he’ll make an adjustment,” Deichmann said. “He’s really good at doing that.”
It’s all part of the mental database Gibbs has added to throughout the year. Lessons learned and catalogued. The man described as a thinker has learned not to think so much when the situation doesn’t call for it.
“That was one of the first things I asked everybody: When you’re at the plate, what are you thinking about?” Gibbs said. “A lot of times, it’s nothing — which is great. You can’t think and hit. But some people, when they think, they’re thinking of their approach.
“That’s why I like standing next to a guy when he’s about to come up to bat. Make sure their approach is solid. Make sure what they’re trying to do fits their ability and what they do best.”