Welcome to “Out of The Box,” SEC Country’s weekly LSU baseball column with LSU beat writer Nick Suss. Today we discuss two major facets of LSU’s recent losing streak, plus a look ahead to this weekend, an update of our LSU baseball power rankings and more. Batter up!
Is there something wrong with LSU’s lineup?
The LSU baseball team isn’t hitting the ball like it should be. This is a team that averaged 7.5 runs per game prior to conference play, then opened up conference play with a 22-run shellacking of Georgia. But in eight SEC games since then, LSU’s offense has leveled out with 4.1 runs per game, including twice being shut out.
When a team is slumping, the natural thought is to change the lineup around. Move the guys who need more at-bats up and move the guys who are hitting worse down.
Of course, this is a flawed practice. All nine guys still have to hit, after all. But there is one minor lineup construction tweak that seems to make a bit of sense if LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri were to move things around: bump Greg Deichmann up into the first inning.
I get it: Deichmann looks and swings like a cleanup hitter. His bat is immensely valuable in the four hole. But right now, LSU baseball doesn’t have a reliable hitter to place in the fifth or sixth spots. Beau Jordan has been hot, but he’s still slugging worse than singles-hitters Cole Freeman and Antoine Duplantis. Jake Slaughter has been a no-name (more on him later) and Zach Watson looks comfortable in the nine hole.
That leaves freshman third baseman Josh Smith as LSU’s best option in the five hole, and Smith is still more of a contact hitter than you’d like protecting someone like Deichmann.
So what’s the simplest solution? Move him from the fourth spot to the second or third spot. Think about it: The reason that teams have traditionally put their strongest hitter in the four hole is to manufacture runs. The leadoff guy gets on base. The second hitter moves him over. Your No. 3 hitter tries to smack the leadoff guy home. And if he fails, the big bopper comes up in four.
But why waste those outs? Deichmann is slugging .638 this year, more than 100 points higher than any other LSU baseball player. Slide him into the three hole, where he’ll almost always have someone on base in front of him, and push Kramer Robertson back into the cleanup role. That way, Robertson and his .930 OPS can protect Deichmann, Deichmann can move runners around the bases and LSU doesn’t have to waste outs with sacrifices or risk double plays with groundball hitters.
Will this switch bring LSU back up from its three-run-per-game funk? Probably not. We’re talking about the difference of at most a one-at-bat per game increase for Deichmann. But if you could get Greg Deichmann to the plate an extra time every game, wouldn’t you?
Is it Newman or Gilbert?
Sorry to pick at a scab, but we can’t break down LSU baseball’s weekend series loss to Texas A&M without bringing up Saturday’s blown save.
Starting pitcher Eric Walker turned out his most effective start yet, shutting out the Aggies for seven innings. Senior Hunter Newman came in in the eighth and kept the shutout alive. Then closer Caleb Gilbert gave up four runs on three hits and the Tigers lost.
Naturally, this brought up discussions about who should really be LSU’s closer. Should it be Gilbert, who threw well when Newman was sidelined with an injury? Or should it be Newman, who has looked pretty good since returning from that injury last weekend?
And this might not be the popular opinion, but I think the Tigers should stick with Gilbert.
Prior to Saturday’s implosion, Gilbert had a 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings pitched. Counting this weekend, Gilbert still has a batting average against of .224. By comparison, Newman’s batting average against is a virtually-identical .222. And in twice the innings pitched, Gilbert has walked fewer batters than Newman.
Furthermore, Newman is probably more valuable to LSU as a non-closer. As MLB teams are finding, like the Cleveland Indians with Andrew Miller, using your best relief pitcher in non-save situations is far more valuable by win probability added than cuffing a closer to the ninth inning.
If Mainieri needs Newman to come in in the sixth inning with two runners on against the top of an opponents’ lineup, he should put Newman in. Get the important outs while they’re still important. Leave Gilbert – a more efficient pitcher – in the ninth inning to get the surer outs. But put Newman in whenever you need him to get the important outs.
Even though the outs in the ninth inning are the last ones, they aren’t always the highest leverage ones. So use your most electric, most-likely-to-get-outs bullpen arm in situations of leverage, not time.
Is first base a battle now?
Mainieri decided to bench regular first baseman Jake Slaughter for the last two games of the A&M series, marking the first two games of Slaughter’s career that he didn’t start or play in. Instead of Slaughter, Mainieri opted for fellow freshman Rankin Woley, who went 2-for-8 in his opportunities.
Was this just a wake-up call for Slaughter, or is Mainieri actively testing his options at first? Well to me, it looks like the former.
Slaughter is in a rough patch right now. He’s striking out at an unsustainably high volume (31 strikeouts compared to five walks), he has one home run in his last 26 games and he hasn’t driven in a run since LSU hung 22 on Georgia back on St. Patrick’s Day. But Slaughter’s defense is rather commendable, he still hasn’t been credited with an error this season, and Mainieri can’t afford to keep him off the field for too long.
He just needs to straighten out his swing. Whether he’s chasing bad pitches leading to strikeouts, or he’s hitting too many balls directly at people, leading to impatience, something needs to change. And slumps usually do correct themselves. But for now, expect Slaughter to go back to the basics and try to course correct by just getting one hit.
From there, everything can snowball. Sometimes all you need is one.
How important is Arkansas?
The Tigers, who dropped to No. 13 in this week’s D1Baseball Top 25, face off against a surging Arkansas squad, up to No. 15, this weekend in Fayetteville.
How much is on the line this weekend for the Tigers? Plenty. I can think of three things LSU baseball needs to prove that it can show against the Razorbacks.
Thing 1: LSU can show it can hit on Fridays again
The last two SEC Friday starters LSU has faced have limited the Tigers to one run. Arkansas’ Friday starter Blaine Knight will be another tough task, sporting a 2.23 ERA and an insane 48-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio. If the Tigers can light him up, it’ll go a long way to bringing back some offensive confidence against major opponents.
Thing 2: LSU can prove it can play on the road
LSU has been downright bad away from Alex Box Stadium this year. The Tigers are 17-4 at home, 2-6 everywhere else. Arkansas has played great at home this year – 16-1 to be specific – so if LSU can string together two or three wins, that should get the monkey off its back, at least a little bit.
Thing 3: LSU can set a tone
Things don’t get that much easier after Arkansas. The Tigers play Louisiana-Lafayette in a neutral location after Arkansas, followed by SEC series against Ole Miss and at No. 8 Kentucky. This might be the toughest stretch of the season for the Tigers, one that they can start fresh with if they show up strong against the Razorbacks.
Your weekly LSU baseball player power rankings
The offense might be slumping, but there still are plenty of players to stick at the top of heap. Here are my picks for the top five players on the LSU baseball team this season.
No. 5: SP Alex Lange (Last week: Not Rated)
It’s a tough sell to put Lange on here, especially when it means I’m leaving Antoine Duplantis and his team-high 41 hits off the list. But Lange has been downright phenomenal in five of his seven starts this year. If you take away his two bad starts, which I know you can’t, Lange’s ERA for the year is 1.03. Plus he’s struck out 55 batters in 41 innings. That merits inclusion. No doubt about it.
No. 4: 2B Cole Freeman (Last week: No. 3)
Freeman still leads the Tigers with a .355 batting average and a .462 on-base percentage. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Freeman is fourth on the Tigers in runs scored when he’s been on base more than any other player, but that’s the only thing keeping him out of the top three.
No. 3: SS Kramer Robertson (Last week: No. 4)
Robertson broke out of his slump this weekend with four hits, two home runs and five RBI Friday and Saturday. He’s gotten his slugging percentage back up above .500 at .504 and is creeping toward Deichmann’s lead in extra-base hits. Speaking of whom…
No. 2: RF Greg Deichmann (Last week: No. 1)
It’s hard to be No. 1 when teams don’t give you anything to hit. But Deichmann’s 21 walks and 27 runs scored this year are every bit as valuable as his nine home runs and 32 RBI.
No. 1: SP Jared Poché (Last week: No. 2)
Poché returns to our No. 1 slot after briefly falling out of it last week. He made one mistake against Texas A&M Friday night and was that mistake away from pitching his fifth shutout in seven starts. Six earned runs in 47 innings. That’s just insane. Remember: Lange has given up that many runs in two separate starts this year. Poché’s done it for a season.
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The Tigers host Grambling State Tuesday night from Alex Box Stadium. The game is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. CT and can be found via stream at WatchESPN.
Thanks for reading “Out of The Box.” Come back next Monday for more LSU baseball news.