Tigers evolve with the changing college game
By Luke JohnsonPosted Feb 20, 2013
For two full seasons now, the iconic ping associated with college baseball has been replaced by a duller and less melodic thwack.
But LSU, the champion of the live bat era, has adapted well.
After dominating the college baseball landscape with feats of strength for almost two decades, LSU Baseball underwent a paradigm shift and is now built on a foundation of speed, dominant pitching, and opportunistic hitting.
Former LSU All-American Blake Dean has been a part of both eras. His 56 career home runs rank fourth all-time at LSU, and he now serves as a graduate assistant on the coaching staff.
“People ask me about both teams and I don’t even think they can compare,” Dean said. “The teams I played on, guys were a lot bigger, hit more home runs, and the bats had a lot more juice in them. Now guys are smaller and quicker than us. It’s completely different.”
LSU Coach Paul Mainieri says it’s not a novel concept, that he’s always attempted equilibrium but an NCAA rule change altered his philosophy.
“It’s not like this is new to me,” Mainieri said. “I’ve always wanted to have a balanced team – some players that could really run and some players that could really hit. If you had a player that could run and hit, you had yourself a real find.”
Before the 2011 season, the NCAA imposed a rule diminishing the impact of aluminum bats on the college game. The new bats would perform more like wooden bats, which in turn would limit the number of home runs hit by collegiate batters.
Former LSU third baseman Brandon Larson’s single-season LSU record 40 home runs will likely never be approached. The famed Gorilla Ball era of Skip Bertman, one that churned out an NCAA single-season record 188 home runs in 1997, met its maker in a pile of paperwork and official signatures.
“You’re not going to wait until the eighth inning to pop a home run anymore like we used to do,” Dean said. “Your overall goal is to hit the ball on the ground and work from there.”
The rule change may have killed one of the more fun aspects of the game, but it didn’t kill the game itself.
Under Mainieri, these Tigers are circling the bases swiftly. Instead of finding the left field bleachers, balls are finding the left field gaps or are triangulated deftly between the pitcher, catcher, and third baseman to sacrifice an out for a runner in scoring position.
Did Mainieri’s recruiting strategy change after the new rules were implemented? “No question,” he said.
Call it guerilla ball. And once again, LSU looks to be at the leading edge.
The Tigers hit 42 home runs last season – 36 fewer than their team total in 2010, the last season under the old bat standards, and the third-lowest team total since their first championship season in 1991.
But LSU led the Southeastern Conference in the most important category last season: runs scored.
While plating an SEC-best 397 runs in 2012, the Tigers were also tied for the conference lead with a .980 fielding percentage, committing the fewest errors in the league, and posted the fifth-best team ERA.
The results? LSU’s 15th SEC title in a season that ended one game shy of the College World Series.
As LSU starts its third season with the new bats, Mainieri’s lineup is stocked with gap hitters rather than mashers. More importantly, those hitters are capable in the field behind the Tigers’ deep pitching staff.
“If you don’t make a change and do something else, then LSU would’ve sank,” Dean said. “You can’t just keep doing the same thing you did in the past; it’s not going to work for you. Certainly [Mainieri] had to go a different route, and he obviously has.”
Power was at a premium for LSU recruits in the bygone live bat era, but that’s less of a concern today.
Now when Mainieri recruits, he’s looking for balance. How many things can one player do well?
While LSU’s recent haul included a trio of speedy outfielders, he’s not simply looking for track athletes. Mainieri pointed out junior third baseman Christian Ibarra as an example.
“Christian Ibarra is not a great runner, but he’s a super defensive player and he’s a pretty good line drive hitter with a little pop as well,” Mainieri said. “So you can’t say you’re not going to recruit anybody unless they run like the wind, but having guys who can run allows you to scratch runs across when you’re in a low scoring game and you’re up against a great pitcher.”
Mainieri said his recruiting philosophy has been an adaptive one.
“The Air Force Academy was a hitting environment, so I had sluggers there, but when I was at St. Thomas or Notre Dame it was a lot like it plays now,” Mainieri said.
“When I was at Notre Dame, it was cold most of the season and you had the north wind blowing in off Lake Michigan, so you couldn’t ever live and die by the home run there. We had a big ball park.
“We dominated on the mound, we played defense, we scratched runs across and occasionally popped the big home run. It was kind of the same formula here.”
Powerful sluggers like Eddie Furniss and Brad Cresse were the Gorilla Ball era gold standards, but players like senior outfielder Raph Rhymes represent the prototype of the new era.
Rhymes went on a much-ballyhooed chase for a .500 batting average last season, maintaining pace all the way until May of last season. It was the way Rhymes did it that stood out.
Rather than overpowering pitchers, Rhymes used every part of the field and found his way around them. While capable of hitting the long ball, only four of his 100 hits last season left the ball park.
“You still have guys like Mason [Katz] and guys around the SEC that can hit them out, but the majority of the guys have had to evolve,” Rhymes said. “Maybe from home run hitters to line drive hitters.”
“It definitely took some getting used to. Those other bats had so much pop, and they’ve slowed these down a little bit. You had to evolve.”