It would be disingenuous to describe Antoine Duplantis’ freshman season at LSU anything less than a success.
Starting all 66 games in right field, Duplantis earned freshman All-Southeastern Conference and freshman All-America honors. The center fielder was second in the league in hits with 89 and second on the team in batting average at .327. The Lafayette native was dependable in the outfield, too, credited with a .987 fielding percentage on 148 putouts, nine assists (most among Tigers outfielders) and only two errors.
On top of that, LSU coach Paul Mainieri is pleased with how Duplantis has handled the transition from right field to center field, a natural position for Duplantis that allows him more room to get to balls in the gap. He handles the sun and wind well in the outfield, Mainieri said, and a year of his experience has given him the confidence to be more vocal.
But when asked about any worries of Duplantis falling into the proverbial “sophomore slump” in 2017, Mainieri was quick to remind: Duplantis wasn’t immune to failures at the plate last season. In fact, the second half of his season — still statistically well above average, especially for a freshman — wasn’t as consistent as the first.
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“I don’t think it has anything to do with it being his sophomore year,” Mainieri said. “I just think this game is a difficult game to play. Your swing comes and its goes, and your confidence comes and it wanes. And he’s fighting it a little bit right now.”
Duplantis led LSU in batting average for almost the entirety of the 2016 season. He started the year on a 19-game hitting streak, third-longest by an LSU freshman, and his averaged peaked at .422 in the SEC opener against Alabama on March 19. Though his hitting streak came to an end three games later and his average later dipped to .340, it climbed back up to .372 by the McNeese State game April 12.
But after that, Duplantis couldn’t maintain the same level of consistency. His average never steeped below .317, but he finished second on the team in that category to Cole Freeman.
Friday starter: RHP Alex Lange (Jr.)
“I think it had to do with a long season and, of course, some better pitching as season went on,” Duplantis said. “So I kind of started to question stuff. You know, ‘All right, I need to start doing this instead of this.’ I think that’s what I’m trying to get away from right now is changing a bunch of things. I just need to do what I do best and just (be rhythmic) at the plate and just fix my approach.”
Then Duplantis went to the Cape Cod League for the first time and turned in “just average” results, Mainieri said, after starting the summer strong. During a 32-game stint with Harwich Mariners, including the Cape Cod League playoffs, Duplantis hit .269 with seven RBIs in 112 at-bats. He also had 19 strikeouts, only six less than what he had in 272 at-bats as a freshman with the Tigers.
Mainieri said LSU’s fall practices weren’t much better to the Lafayette High product either. It’s part of the reason why — at least before Bryce Jordan’s season-ending knee injury and Greg Deichmann’s facial injury that may force him to miss time — Mainieri didn’t have Duplantis pegged for one of the top spots in the Tigers’ batting order to begin the season.
“I’d like to see him get back to being there, but I think it puts a little too much pressure on him right now until he gets his full confidence back and swinging the bat the way we know he can,” Mainieri said Wednesday. “There may be a day when I can do that, but I don’t think initially you’ll see Antoine at the top of the order.”
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Even Mainieri’s high expectations don’t distract him from the fact that Duplantis is still a young player, and restoring his confidence is critical. And when it comes to the corrections Duplantis is making with first-year hitting coach Micah Gibbs, it all comes down to doing what the speedy outfielder knows best.
“That’s hitting balls (for) low line drives and not trying to lift balls, not trying to hit it out the park. That’s what me and Micah were just talking about. We were just talking about getting on time, feeling (rhythmic) and just getting that top hand to the ball and keeping the ball low.”
As for any concerns of a “sophomore slump,” Deichmann said he thinks his teammate’s playing style will prevent that from possibly happening.
“I think Antoine’s game is going to be the same,” Deichmann said Wednesday. “He’s going to be the guy that’s going to get on base a bunch, steal some bases, make every catch in the outfield. He’s got a really consistent game, so it’s going to be hard for that (to be) a so-called ‘sophomore slump.’”