BATON ROUGE, La. — For the next three days, LSU baseball will face the best hitter the SEC has seen in 20 years. And it will do so without fear.
Mississippi State first baseman Brent Rooker is on pace to join former Bulldogs player and MLB legend Rafael Palmeiro as the only SEC players to win the conference Triple Crown, leading in batting average, RBI and home runs for a season. Rooker leads the SEC in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, RBI, home runs, doubles, total bases and stolen bases. He’s also third in the conference in hits and fifth in runs scored and triples.
But Alex Lange, the LSU ace and Thursday starter, isn’t fazed, and neither are his teammates.
“He’s human,” Lange said. “I’m not scared of anybody. He’s had a good year; he’s a good player. He hits mistakes. But if you execute pitches, hitting is hard. If you look at the big leagues, the best hitters are hitting .280 with 35 homers. That means they’re getting out 72 percent of the time. If you make pitches, hitting is hard enough as it is.”
While the best players in the bigs might make outs 72 percent of the time, Rooker is getting out only 49 percent of the time. His .514 on-base percentage isn’t just the tops in the SEC, it’s the best mark of any player in a power conference this season.
And it’s not just the fact that he gets on base. It’s the way he gets on base. Rooker has 78 hits this season for a .406 batting average. Of his 78 hits, 49 were for extra bases — 26 doubles, 3 triples and 20 home runs. Rooker’s power is so impressive that if none of his singles counted as hits, he’d still be batting .255.
The impulse is clear. You can’t pitch to Rooker. You have to walk him.
Well, not so fast, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri says.
“The thing about it is you can’t just walk him because he’ll steal bases, too,” Mainieri said. “If you walk him, it’s like giving up a double sometimes.”
Rooker’s 18 steals don’t just tie for the SEC lead. He has 18 steals on 22 tries for a success rate of 82 percent. To put that into perspective, MLB stolen base king Rickey Henderson had an 81 percent stolen base success rate in his career.
If you pitch to Rooker, he makes you pay. If you don’t pitch to Rooker, he finds a different way to make you pay. But as fun as the peripheral stats are, Rooker’s most potent asset is his ability to hit home runs. And no one knows that better than the man who’s chasing Rooker atop the SEC leaderboards: LSU right fielder Greg Deichmann.
“I talk to him a lot,” Deichmann said. “I keep in touch with him since we did the home run derby together this past summer. We talk almost every week. We’ve been talking. It’s been fun to watch him. We actually talk hitting a lot, too. We try to pick each other’s brains and see what each other do. We’ve got a good relationship going, and it’s fun to have that.”
Deichmann is second behind Rooker in home runs with 17, and third behind Rooker in RBI and total bases. But in case you’re wondering, losing to Rooker in the home run chase wouldn’t be a first for Deichmann. Rooker beat him in the college home run derby last summer, too, pounding 16 to Deichmann’s 13.
If possible, that’s a defeat Deichmann wants to avoid in the future.
“I’m messing with him all the time saying I’m coming for him,” Deichmann said. “I say, ‘I’m gonna get 3 this weekend and pass you up.’ We play around, but it’s fun.”
In any other year, Deichmann’s season would make him a front-runner for the SEC’s Player of the Year. But even Mainieri had to concede that Rooker will be a “runaway winner.” His numbers are great in a vacuum, but even greater when you consider that Rooker has driven in 23 percent of Mississippi State’s runs and scored 16 percent.
No matter who you ask, everyone seems to concede to Rooker’s dominance.
Well, except for Lange.
“He’s a good hitter, but good hitters get out,” Lange said. “Greg gets out. We’ve got some good hitters on our team, but they’re going to get out way more than they get on. That’s just the way the game is designed. If we go out there and execute our pitches and don’t let him beat us with guys in scoring position, we’ll pick our spots to go after him and see what happens.”