Which player leads LSU in on-base percentage against Southeastern Conference pitching? Take a guess.
It’s not Nick Coomes, who leads the Tigers with a .340 batting average in SEC play.
Nor is it Greg Deichmann, even though the SEC's most talented pitchers do their best to avoid him.
Cole Freeman, Antoine Duplantis, Kramer Robertson or Josh Smith — all of whom have spent time in the leadoff position — aren’t even in the same ZIP code as the team leader.
Nope. Through 70 percent of the conference schedule, the man who leads LSU in on-base percentage is the one batting .239 with more strikeouts (17) than hits (11).
That would be junior catcher Michael Papierski, owner of a .453 OBP, 30 points higher than the second-highest mark on the team.
Only nine SEC players have an on-base percentage of .450 or better, and seven of them have a batting average of .314 or better. Papierski’s is far and away the lowest of the bunch.
So what gives?
Better yet, who takes? The answer is Papierski, who takes pitches with the best of them, meaning he doesn’t take pitches just to take them; he takes pitches with purpose.
“He’s realized whenever he’s a little more patient and gets his pitch, he ends up driving more balls, too,” LSU hitting coach Micah Gibbs said.
Here are some more numbers to illustrate the point: Papierski was hitting .200 and was reaching base at a .265 clip when Georgia came to town for LSU’s first SEC series. Both were the worst numbers on the team.
Since that point, Papierski has made a concerted effort to work the count — something the lifelong catcher always had a knack for.
“That’s one of the benefits of catching: You’re spending half the game behind the plate with the umpire getting to know his zone,” Gibbs said. “There’s some guys that call the low pitch and won’t call the high pitch or vice versa. Some guys give a little off the plate, some give a little bit in — all that stuff.”
So Papierski will look for the pitch he can handle early in the count. In Gibbs’ estimation, he’s one of the better power hitters on the team not named Greg Deichmann.
“He’s got some pop in there,” Gibbs said. “It’s one of those things he’s starting to realize: He’s driving the ball in (batting practice), he’s having success in the games. It’s kind of knowing who he is as a player. When he gets up there, we want him to get his money’s worth, swing the bat, hit a double, hit a home run.
If he doesn’t get it and gets to two strikes, he will battle, his good eye at the plate his premier weapon.
“That’s when he can lean back on what he’s best at, and that’s strike zone judgment, fouling off tough pitches, getting a pitch he can hit, fouling it off or drawing a walk,” Gibbs said.
Since March 17, that SEC opener, Papierski’s numbers look like this: a .241 batting average (41-point improvement), 20 walks in 18 games (compared to four in the first 15), and an on-base percentage of .461 (a nearly 200-point improvement).
That second-half improvement was never more evident than it was against Alabama, where Papierski turned in what was inarguably his best series this season.
He reached base in nine of his 15 plate appearances. The times where he wasn’t relying on the other team to put him on base, he was punishing mistakes.
He hit a booming double to lead off the eighth inning of what was a tight series opener (and, in the ninth, drew a bases-loaded walk). He drilled a laser of a homer into the wind to give the Tigers a cushion in Game 2, then drilled a 3-0 pitch past the first baseman to score the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of the series finale.
That last base hit actually came on a hit-and-run — the first time in LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s decades-long coaching career he could remember calling a hit-and-run in such a situation.
“I didn’t want Pap to walk,” Mainieri said. “I wanted him to swing.”
Though Papierski’s recent string suggests he’s going to the plate looking for the walk, Mainieri said that hasn’t been the case. In fact, it’s been the opposite.
Mainieri had to work with Papierski earlier in his career to be more aggressive at the plate. The hitter he saw this weekend was one who “earned his walks.”
“He was up there ready to hit, he just showed a good eye at the plate,” Mainieri said. “If he can start doing some good stuff for us offensively, it’ll help us down the stretch.”