Talking 2020: The Arms
Digital Media Reporter
Note: This is part one in a three-part series looking ahead to the 2020 LSU Baseball season, after Paul Mainieri met with local media in his office on June 13. Read part two on the infielders here and part three on the outfielders here.
Paul Mainieri pointed at the clock on Thursday, as he did in every exit meeting with his players and coaches in the days after LSU’s 2019 season finished.
“The one thing I know about life,” Mainieri said, days after the Tigers fell to Florida State in the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament, “is that clock’s not going to go backwards.”
So it is that less than a week after elimination, Mainieri and his staff are already moving on to the 2020 season.
It’s been the three worst days of Mainieri’s year, an annual tradition that attends the end of every season. He sits down with every player and coach, says goodbye to the ones who won’t return, and gives the ones coming back things to work on for the season to come.
On Thursday, Mainieri met with reporters for more than a half hour, talking in general at times and specifically at others on the future of the program.
With so many bases to cover, we’ll split up Mainieri’s talking points into three sections: pitching, infielders, and outfielders.
Today’s edition: the pitching staff. (Stay tuned for parts two and three on the infield and outfield, coming next week).
One of the unfortunate peculiarities of the 2019 season was the Tigers’ ill-fortune with pitching injuries.
None will pitch competitively this summer, Mainieri said, as they all look to get right for the fall.
Henry, a Freshman All-American who posted a 4-2 record and a 3.39 ERA in 58.1 innings, missed a month with arm soreness, and he pitched just two innings in Game One of the Super Regional before leaving with more arm issues.
The good news: Mainieri believes Henry might have been able to pitch in Omaha, had LSU advanced. An MRI revealed no damage to his arm, and the thinking among doctors is that Henry was feeling discomfort related to an injury suffered his junior year of high school.
Henry missed that season with a stress fracture in his arm, and while that injury is fully healed, some scar tissue interfered with his median nerve, causing his arm to feel discomfort, his father told NOLA.com.
Rather than throw this summer in a collegiate league, he’ll focus on strengthening and lengthening this offseason.
“Henry possibly would be capable of pitching, but there’s no reason for him to do that,” Mainieri said. “He needs to get stronger, more physical, and hopefully his endurance will be ready as well.”
Hill, meanwhile, dazzled in two starts early in the season, giving up two earned runs in 10 innings of work and striking out 11. But he would miss the rest of the year with his own arm soreness.
The freshman fought to get back on the field in 2019, but with time to recover now that the season is over, Mainieri is hopeful he’ll get back to throwing this summer and be good to go for fall baseball.
“The loss of Jaden Hill was huge for our team this year,” Mainieri said. “He was outstanding in his two starts early in the year, and he was just never able to get back. Now, there’s no rush to get him back. Hopefully, he’ll be at 100 percent, full strength by fall practice.”
In Storz, LSU has a 6-foot-6 flamethrower with big league stuff, but injuries have limited him to only three scoreless innings in two seasons on campus. Mainieri is hoping to see him in full health before next season.
“I pray one day we see Nick Storz out there on the mound, doing something for us,” Mainieri said. “There’s no finer young man in our program than him and no one who feels he’s letting people down more than him, but he just can’t do anything about the injuries he’s having to deal with. Hopefully he’ll be back.”
Walker endured an up and down 2019 season, his first back from Tommy John surgery following his Freshman All-American campaign. At times, he was dominant, including a seven-inning shutout of Mississippi State on March 30 and a six-inning two-hitter against Auburn on May 16. In those games, Mainieri said, Walker was touching 90 miles per hour on his fastball and had movement on his offspeed pitches, including his lethal change up.
End 7 | Cool as the other side of the pillow … @EricWalker_8 works around the two-out walk by recording his third K of the day! #GeauxTigers— LSU Baseball (@LSUbaseball) March 30, 2019
It’s 8-0 LSU!
: https://t.co/CiYiKKd1po pic.twitter.com/3Yjk5OaCr9
Other games, Walker was less effective. His fastball fell into the mid-80s, and his curve and change “sort of floated,” Mainieri said.
Walker will rest this summer, and Mainieri believes he’ll fall into a baseball aphorism – that players are better in year two after Tommy John surgery than in year one – to see him return to All-American form in 2020.
Fontenot, meanwhile, enters the offseason on the heels of an epic outing against Florida State. His 6.1 innings of two-hit, 11 strikeout pitching was the stuff of legend, and it was the culmination of a season that saw one of LSU’s best bullpen arms discover his potential.
“I’ve said it all year about the potential for Devin Fontenot,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s realizing what his capabilities are as well. He’s an outstanding young man. He cares about the right things. He works extremely hard.
“Now, this last thing he did, God, I can’t believe how great he was that night. It’s just a shame we weren’t able to win the game, because that’s about as heroic you can see a person be. He put the team on his shoulders, and he was awesome. That should give him so much confidence going into next season.”
Mainieri said he’s not ready to assign roles to pitchers any time soon. Closer, weekend starter, and all the other roles will be determined in the fall and spring. He’s not closed off to the idea of moving Fontenot into a starting role, but he does believe his two-pitch repertoire is better suited for the bullpen.
Balancing the Roster
All in all, the plan, Mainieri said, is to dedicate two or three fewer spots to pitchers in 2020 than this season, when arms comprised 20 roster spots. That left just 15 spots for position players, a number Mainieri would like to see increased next year.
“I think this next season, there’s going to be a little bit more of a balance, which means I hope we’d be able to put a little stronger lineup out on the field. I hope that taking away a couple of the pitchers’ spots doesn’t hurt us, but we have a few more veterans coming back for our team that if they can stay healthy, if we have 17 or 18 pitchers instead of 20, it will be enough.”
Health will remain the key. Mainieri admits dropping two to three roster spots in the bullpen could be costly if the injury bug comes biting again, but his thinking is the combination of veteran arms the team will bring back plus, he hopes, a better dose of luck will make the move worth it.
“We are analyzing everything we do,” he said. “For six years, since Alan (Dunn) came here as the pitching coach, the first six years, we hardly had an injury. He hasn’t done anything different with the program over the last two years. The last two years, we’ve just had a barrage of it.”