BATON ROUGE, La. — The LSU baseball team had unmistakably high expectations coming into the 2017 season, and, through 30 games, hasn’t quite met them.
After opening the season ranked No. 2 in a slew of preseason polls and starting off hot, winning 13 of its first 18 games, LSU baseball has leveled off, struggling as of late and losing its last two SEC series.
So, before the Tigers (20-10, 5-4 SEC) begin their fourth SEC series of the season tonight, a pivotal three-game set versus Arkansas, let’s take a look at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong for the LSU baseball team, complete with grades, midseason awards and more.
Grading the LSU offense this season depends entirely on what context you use. If you compare the Tigers to the rest of the SEC, LSU might have the most well-rounded offense in the best conference in college baseball.
LSU ranks second in the SEC in batting average (.301), fourth in hits (305) and home runs (28) and second in overall runs scored (217). But that offensive production is massively skewed because 81 of the Tigers’ 217 runs (37 percent) came in nine home games versus the service academies, Maryland and Wichita State. If you throw in LSU’s sweep of SEC bottom dweller Georgia, you bounce up to 53 percent of LSU’s runs coming in 12 games.
That leaves 18 other games, in which the Tigers posted a 8-10 record, where the offense posted 5.7 runs per game. That’s still an impressive number, but nothing compared to the 9.8 runs per game in LSU’s three series sweeps.
And it’s not just the offense as an aggregate that has slipped since conference play began. After the end of the Wichita State series, LSU had four players with batting averages north of .350, with Cole Freeman leading the way at .482. In the 14 games since – six of which losses – the team has dropped off to a point that Freeman is the only player who has an average better than .350, and his average has still dropped 26 percent all the way to .355.
There are bright spots. Kramer Robertson’s 37 runs scored lead the SEC. Greg Deichmann ranks second in the SEC with nine home runs and third in the conference with 32 RBI. And, oddly, LSU has three of the SEC’s four most frequent base-takers by hit-by-pitches.
Still, the team’s recent woes at the plate, especially in close losses to Florida and Texas A&M, overrule the Tigers’ hot start.
Just as was true of hitting, the LSU baseball team’s starting pitching hasn’t been as good in conference play as it was in non-conference play. But unlike the offense, the drop off really hasn’t been that big.
LSU’s three weekend starters: Alex Lange, Jared Poché and Eric Walker, have posted a combined ERA of 2.56 through 126.2 innings of work. Over that time, the trio has struck out 129 batters and walked 31, allowing a combined batting average against of .217.
Poché has led the way, injecting high drama into blowouts by opening the year throwing 32 consecutive scoreless innings. And he hasn’t dropped off too much, commanding a 1.15 ERA, a top 20 mark in the nation and the fourth-best in the SEC.
And for a freshman, Eric Walker has been pretty spectacular himself. Walker has a 3.03 ERA over seven starts, holding opponents to a .218 batting average in the process. The Tigers are 5-2 in Walker’s seven starts this season, with both of the two losses belonging to relief pitchers who allowed runs in the ninth inning.
Then there’s Alex Lange. Lange has received a bit of grief this year for how bad he looked against Georgia and TCU. And granted, those starts were pretty terrible. In those two games, he allowed 13 runs in six innings of work, an ERA of 19.50. But in his other five starts, Lange has been borderline untouchable, having allowed four runs in 35 innings (1.03 ERA).
As a whole, this has been LSU’s steadiest unit to date. Lange’s two bad starts notwithstanding, the bunch has been consistent, accurate and downright dominant.
Considering how many injuries LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn have had to work around in the bullpen, it’s honestly a bit impressive the unit has only struggled as much as it has.
LSU’s bullpen is responsible for six of the Tigers’ 10 losses. Included in that bunch are ninth inning blown games versus Texas Tech and Texas A&M, as well as midweek losses to McNeese State and New Orleans, twice.
It hasn’t all been bad. Freshman Matthew Beck has established himself as a viable middle-innings arm, allowing two earned runs on three hits in 12 innings of work. When he’s been able to play, senior Hunter Newman has looked great as well, posting a 0.93 ERA in 9.2 innings of work. And Austin Bain has been a pretty reliable long man for the Tigers, putting out fires and allowing five earned runs in 17 innings with 23 strikeouts.
Shining stars aside, this is a unit that needs more work. There’s a reason Mainieri has opted to move midweek starter Zack Hess to the bullpen. The group needs to get stronger, and it still hasn’t quite recovered from losing Doug Norman to injury early on. Newman’s return is a bright sign, as is Hess’ strong showing in his one inning out of the pen against Grambling.
But it isn’t enough to get this group to where it should be.
Defense has been a strong suit for LSU all season.
Aside from a handful of errors from Robertson and a few errant throws from catcher Michael Papierski, this team really hasn’t made too many defensive miscues on the year. Fielding percentage is about as skewed of a stat as you’ll find in baseball, but if you’re looking at it as a metric, Freeman, Deichmann, centerfielder Antoine Duplantis, left fielder Zach Watson and first baseman Jake Slaughter are all fielding better than 98 percent of their defensive tries. In other words, half of the infield and the entirety of the outfield has accounted for four errors and 417 putouts.
Beyond that, LSU’s catchers have caught 17 opposing base stealers on 27 attempts. Papierski has accounted for 14 of those gun-downs on 20 tries, an impressive 70 percent success rate. And the Tigers have turned 19 double plays as a unit, compared to committing 23 errors. That is also a pretty favorable ratio.
LSU baseball Midseason Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Greg Deichmann (.321/.415/.633, 9 HR, 32 RBI, 28 runs)
Pitcher of the Year: Jared Poché (1.15 ERA, .178 batting average against, 31 Ks, 10 BBs)
Offensive Game of the Year: Antoine Duplantis versus UGA (6-for-6, 7 RBI, 4 runs scored)
Pitched Game of the Year: Jared Poché versus Army (7 innings, zero hits, zero walks, zero runs scored)
Newcomer of the Year: Eric Walker (3-0, 3.03 ERA, .218 batting average against, 43 Ks, 10 BBs)