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2017 LSU Baseball Preview: The Bullpen (Pt. 1)

And if you don’t love me now, you’ll never love me again

Adam Henderson

That’s from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, which I think it a pretty damn good song. Of course, because I enjoy it there is sure to be somebody in the comments to tell me “actually, the song is bad” because that is simply how the internet works.

But it’s fitting for today’s topic, the LSU bullpen. You see the last two seasons LSU had their projected number three starter Jake Latz suffer some very untimely injuries that either put him out for the entire season or for a large part of it. This means that the bullpen has been forced to pick up some slack, and time after time after time after time after time again they spat out an arm that held firm, at times forming the bullpen Voltron called Taco Bell Anderson.

Between 2016 and 2017 LSU lost a considerable amount of arms, but thanks to the unexpected uptick in workload from the bullpen they also head into the new season with a considerable amount of experience. We’re going to be looking at those players returning first, starting with

Hunter Newman

SR RHP

2016: 28 APP, 38 IP, 2.13 ERA, .164 BAA, 2.67 K/BB (40/15), 9 ER, 8 SV

Alright, now that I’ve undoubtedly pissed off some music nerd, time to piss off some number nerds. As somebody who embraces numbers and statistics, I wholeheartedly embrace the save stat. I hear you, yes it is typically awarded for an inning pitched but to say that the last three outs of a close baseball game are not any different from any other outs leading up to them is not factual. If you have a pitcher who specializes in pitching to those three batters, should there not be a metric to record how good he is at his job?

Hunter Newman netted eight of those suckers in 2016, mostly because he split duties with Parker Bugg. Despite this, Newman was the best arm in the pen last year, leading the team in ERA, BAA (having one below the Mendoza line is extremely good), and holding the most K’s out of every pitcher not to make a start. He will be this year’s rock in the pen, coming in for saves yes but also to extinguish fires in situations where fires are not desired.

After two seasons of handcuffing SEC batters, Newman has built up a reputation among the conference, mostly for his ability to keep everything inside the zone. Newman has a good heater, but what frustrates batters the most is that they see the break of the ball and pull back, expecting it to move out the zone. It doesn’t. As you would imagine this has lead to a great deal of unhappiness from hitting coaches, of which I have observed in person several times.

Of course, what’s scary is that at anytime a batter can wise up to this and predict the break of the ball and take Newman long. Luckily for LSU, this tends to not happen often.

Russell Reynolds

SR RHP

2016: 26 APP, 35.1 IP, 4.08 ERA, .257 BAA, 2.30 K/BB (23/10), 16 ER, 1 SV

It’s really easy to see why Mainieri loves to use Russell Reynolds (26 appearances, the most outside of the Bugg/Newman combo): he’s disciplined. Reynolds is a good bullpen arm, but he’s not going to get a call in the first round of the MLB Draft. 10 walks in 35 innings isn’t going to get you into the hall but it will get you a call in high pressure situations.

Reynolds builds his pitches around his mean slider, peppering the zone with his 92 mph fastball, only venturing outside of the zone for chase pitches. He allows slightly more solid contact because of this, but most of time he has the upper hand on the batters. Because of his pitching style, he’s better suited for relief duty than he is going for long innings, and you’ll likely see him in the seventh and eighth innings to bridge the gap to Hunter Newman.

Doug Norman

JR RHP

2016: 23 APP (2 GS), 31.2 IP, 3.41 ERA, .230 BAA, 1.17 K/BB (21/18), 12 ER

Gonna be honest, as someone who watched every game of the 2016 season, I had no idea that Norman had that much work last year. LSU fans should be glad he did though, because he’s going to be a big piece of LSU’s pitching strategy this season.

The past two seasons I’ve kind of seen Norman as a work in progress. While he’s always been able to get by on mixing pitches, the actual pitches themselves could have used some work. Norman’s strongest pitch is his fastball, and while he possesses a number of other pitches in his arsenal, none of them are an established out pitch.

Norman will be a weekend middle to late inning reliever, but I have a hunch that we’ll see him in the wake of Jared Poche’ than we will anywhere else, just for the fact that Norman is a righty who challenges batters with a fastball and Poche’ is a lefty who has shown signs of emerging as a contact pitcher.

Austin Bain

JR RHP

2016: 20 APP (2 GS), 29.1 IP, 4.60 ERA, .250 BAA, 2.29 K/BB (32/14), 15 ER

While everybody listed above are guys that will probably be coming into high-pressure situations for an inning of two of work, Bain will likely sit as the committee’s long reliever. In a perfect world, starters can go seven innings each night and you can piecemeal six to nine outs to follow that, but that ain’t our world. If a starter enters a flatspin and needs bailing out, Bain will likely be the one with a bucket.

Bain doesn’t care much for this “give them something to watch” foolishness, his first pitch to a batter is probably going to be in the zone and he’s probably going to put all he has into it. He won’t venture far from that strategy, and to his credit he has a good reason for doing so: once he has put in enough fastballs to taste, he’ll drop a vicious breaking ball to hang batters that are looking dead red up. Of course, throw a lot of fastballs in the zone and you get rocked a lot. Last year Bain got a lot better at controlling the damage, and another year of such improvement can be terrible, horrible, no good for SEC bats, especially given the fact that he’s flirted with a transition to a starting role.

Cole McKay

SO RHP

2016: 8 APP (2 GS), 8 IP, 6.76 ERA, .324 BAA, 1.09 K/BB (12/11), 6 ER

Seldom used last year, McKay (Mick-High) got rocked in what little action he did see, subject to some growing pains.

Despite all of this, McKay is more of a project ala Doug Norman. We’ll definitely see him more this year, but in what role I’m not entirely sure. His ceiling for right now is a middle relief pitcher and at bare minimum he’s midweek cannon fodder, but I think Mainieri has bigger plans for the sophomore later down the line.

McKay can touch 95, but his command needed some work and he needs to fully develop a pitch to go to when batters start looking for it. This is poised to be Norman’s breakout year, but McKay can really make a name for himself with a solid campaign given how limited his role was last year.

Collin Strall

SR RHP

2016 (injured): 4 APP, 3.2 IP, 9.82 ERA, .412 BAA, 1.25 K/BB (5/4), 4 ER

2015: 22 APP, 18.1 IP, 3.92 ERA, .227 BAA, 1.70 K/BB (17/10), 8 ER

Strall missed of 2016 with a shoulder injury, but he posted strong numbers in 2015 and was a key cog out of the bullpen.

Strall is a rightie sidearm reliever who specialized in short relief, mainly existing to giver batters a new look. Usually a Strall appearance is preceded by a powerful lefty thrower because of this. As any good sidearm pitcher does, Strall has a deadly slide piece that is nigh impossible to see given his unorthodox release angle. Strall does an excellent job mixing his breaking ball with a changeup that he masterful command of. Strall doesn’t stray very far from home plate with his pitches.

However, that can be a problem. His fastball can’t seem to get out of the 80’s and doesn’t have much life to it. That’s not a death sentence, many pitchers can’t push 90 yet still make careers out of it (sup, Dan Haren?) But in order to take the next step as a senior, Strall needs to learn how to use the zone effectively. At any rate, a healthy Strall is a valuable asset for the LSU bullpen.