OMAHA, Neb. — The LSU baseball team has faced and defeated some great pitchers in the College World Series, but tonight might be the Tigers’ most difficult task yet.
In the first game of the CWS finals (ESPN, 7 p.m ET), the Tigers will face Florida right-hander Brady Singer, a sophomore who was drafted in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft out of high school in 2015 and will almost certainly go in the first round next season.
Singer has a 3.18 ERA in 119 innings this season, but that number is a bit misleading. If you discard his one terrible start of the season — eight earned runs in one inning against Arkansas — his ERA drops to 2.59, among the best in the SEC.
Singer achieves his success in a different way than most dominant SEC pitchers. Unlike LSU’s Alex Lange and Florida’s Alex Faedo, who strike out batters at high rates with hard fastballs and even harder breaking balls, Singer relies on a sinker instead of a conventional fastball to induce ground-ball outs.
Singer averages 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, but his success is much more notable for the way he induces soft contact and ground balls. As a byproduct of the sink on his fastball, he has forced more than 10.5 ground balls per nine innings this season. A perfect example of this trend was his seven shutout innings against Louisville in his first CWS start, an outing where he forced eight ground-ball outs compared to four fly-ball outs.
LSU fans don’t have to remember too far back what Singer can do to a lineup like the Tigers’ either. Back on March 25, Singer shut down LSU, allowing one run in nine innings with four strikeouts and a whopping 12 groundball outs.
In a way, Singer’s approach compares to Dallas Keuchel, the Cy Young Award winner for the Houston Astros. Also a sinkerball thrower, Keuchel has induced ground balls at a 59.5 percent rate for his MLB career, using his sinker on between 45 and 50 percent of his pitches. But where Keuchel attacks with a sinker that averages a velocity in the high 80s and low 90s, Singer can groove pitches up around 94 and 95 mph.
Singer is a precise pitcher. He keeps the ball on the ground so well that he only allowed five home runs in 2017, three of which came in his Arkansas start. And when he needs to strike out batters, he can.
It’s a tough combination, but Singer is not invincible.
How LSU baseball needs to attack Brady Singer
Take a look at Singer’s three worst starts in 2017. There was his four-earned-run, 10-hit loss to Bethune Cookman in the regionals. There were the five earned runs he allowed in a high-scoring win over Alabama in the regular season. And there was his eight-run, one-inning drubbing against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament.
Break down what happened in these outings and you’ll find a pattern: Drive Singer’s pitch count up and you’ll find a less-effective Singer.
Over those three starts, Singer averaged 18.5 pitches per inning. Even if you discard the Arkansas game, he threw 16.5 pitches per inning. That’s compared to 14.4 pitches per inning in his CWS win over Louisville and a paltry 12.1 pitches per inning in his win over LSU.
Notice that Singer had a pretty high strikeout rate in two of those three outings. His 18 strikeouts in 14.1 innings is well above his season strikeout rate (11.3 per nine versus 8.8 per nine).
But strikeouts are a risk worth taking versus Singer. In order to get to this guy, you have to work deeper into counts, trying to force walks and being OK with the occasional strikeout.
Why? Because, Singer isn’t trying to strike you out. He’s trying to get out of the inning, and he trusts the infield behind him to make the proper plays.
Or as LSU catcher Michael Papierski, catcher put it:
“He wants you to hit the ball on the ground,” Papierski said. “You’ve got to see that sinker up and you can’t miss that one.”
Singer isn’t going to make many mistakes. Chances are, he won’t even make a mistake every at-bat. But the more pitches LSU makes him throw, the more chances they’ll have to make harder contact. And if that Arkansas start can teach LSU anything, it’s that a rattled Singer is prone to mistakes.
You’ve just got to pile on.
The LSU baseball team returns to action Monday night in the College World Series finals versus Florida. The game will be at 7 p.m. ET. Stay posted to SEC Country for more updates live from Omaha.