The polls are out, camp is open, and first pitch is just days away. To briefly recap, the softball off-season was pretty uneventful. The Tigers were not immune to transfers, but did take in a great recruiting class, No.2 nationally according to FloSoftball.
LSU enters this season a contender, but one with flaws. What isn’t flawed and what makes LSU one of the best teams in the nation, and the unit that will likely carry the Tigers back to Oklahoma City, is its pitching staff.
The staff totals from a year ago are quite impressive: 3rd in the SEC in ERA (6th nationally), 3rd in opponents batting average, 3rd in strikeouts and 3rd in wins. The Tigers were also a more pedestrian 5th runs allowed and 6th walks issued. Both of those totals could have been slightly lower had the LSU defense not been one of the worst in the conference. On the flip side, Tiger pitching was still awesome even with limited defensive support. The hurlers tasked with keeping LSU in championship form are:
Carley Hoover (Jr, RHP)
Hoover was awesome in 2016, setting career bests for strikeouts, opponents batting average and innings pitched. She lead the Tiger pitching staff in most major categories and became the first Tiger pitcher since 2012 to win 20 games. Hoover came on especially strong in the later part of the season, yielding more than three runs just once in her final six starts.
It wasn’t a perfect season for Hoover. She hit a rocky patch in the mid season allowing four runs or more in five her nine appearances from March 18 to April 15. The runs coincided with some command issues, where, in three of those nine games, Hoover posted five or more walks. By season's end, Hoover’s ERA did take a half run upswing from 1.78 in 2015 to 2.27 in 2016. Her walks per seven also worsened slightly allowing 2.99 BB/7 in 2016 after posting 2.89 BB/7 in 2015. Despite those declines, her strikeouts per seven improved from 7.2 in 2015 to 8.1 in 2016 and her hits per seven improved from 5.7 in 2015 to 5.5 last season.
2017 should be more of the same for Hoover. She has the power pitching to get batters out at the plate, and while that might lead to a few more free passes, it should also lead to more strikeouts. If there is a concern for 2017 it would probably be fatigue as Hoover led the Tigers in innings and appearances, by a lot, for a second straight season. Managing those innings will likely fall on Beth Torina to distribute the workload around the staff.
Allie Walljasper (Jr, RHP)
If momentum is only as good as next day’s pitcher, momentum should be with the Tigers frequently throughout the season. Walljasper went out in 2016 and performed close to identical to what she did in 2015. Even with an innings increase, she still lowered her ERA from 1.83 in 2015 to 1.78 in 2016, good for 34th nationally.
If there is a knock on Walljasper it’s less her results and more how she gets them. She pitches to contact, which for a Tiger team that struggled with defense, wasn’t ideal. Her strikeouts per seven declined from 5.21 two seasons ago to 4.71 last season. Waljasper also was a little more prone to giving up the extra base hit, surrendering surrendering 24 last year up from 16 two years ago. Even with a shaky defense, her H/7 only went from 6.07 in 2015 to 6.49 in 2016. Despite allowing more hits, Walljasper still produced results at a high level. She allowed just one earned run in her first 25 innings pitched and just three earned runs in her final 25.1 innings, including a complete game shutout against James Madison in the Super Regional.
Statistically, Walljasper doesn’t have a ton to prove from the circle. Maybe the coaching staff works on some stuff to increase Walljasper’s strikeout totals, but with her game being more ground-ball oriented, those changes will probably be minimal. Depending on how others on the staff perform, Walljasper could see her role as a starter reduced. Torina won't hesitate to use Walljasper in relief (Walljasper led the Tigers in saves) so diminished starts doesn’t necessarily equate to fewer appearances.
Sydney Smith (SO, RHP)
Smith showed dominance early in her LSU career. She became the fourth pitcher in program history to record a perfect game, with five innings and eight strikeouts against Tennessee Tech. Including that performance, Smith yielded just one earned run in her first 24 innings pitched. She finished the year third in the conference and 7th nationally with a 1.16 ERA and spent most of the season with a sub-one ERA.
Smith did hit a bit of a wall late in the season. After surrendering just six earned runs in her first 17 appearances, she allowed 10 earned runs in her final six appearances of the season. Despite Smith's dominant outings early in the season she seldom pitched the weekends even as the Tiger pitching had some rough stretches. Perhaps the final rough stretch for Smith, which took place mostly during the postseason, explains why Torina was hesitant to use the freshman against the better teams. However that late season stretch also saw Smith shutout the Washington Huskies and start the Super Regional clincher against James Madison.
2017 will be all about usage. She logged just 96.1 innings last year, almost 40 fewer than Walljasper. Now that Smith has a season of experience, Torina may opt to give her the ball for more weekend starts, potentially platooning with Walljasper for the mid-week games. Like Walljasper, Smith pitches with command and for contact (5.68 H/7, 1.74 BB/7). If she puts up totals in her sophomore year that simply match her freshman year, the Tigers rotation should dominate the circle most of the season.
Maribeth Gorsuch (FR, RHP)
The newbie on the staff is Gorsuch, who comes to LSU after a decorated high school career. She was was named a Junior All-American after going 24-5 with a 0.90 ERA and 343 strikeouts. Gorsuch’s Lewisville team was ranked 15th entering last season and took her team to the 6A Championship game as a senior.
Getting work for the freshman is going to be difficult. Last year, Torina relied almost exclusively on Hoover, Walljasper and Smith, using the now transferred Baylee Corbello for just 34.1 innings. To be clear, Corbello was a very capable pitcher but she was clearly the fourth option and one seldom used. All that said, Torina hasn’t been shy about giving her freshman lots of work. Both Walljasper and Smith became key parts of the rotation by the end of their respective freshman seasons. In theory, Gorsuch could do the same.
Gorsuch should get some action early in the season. Even if she isn’t a midweek starter, Gorsuch could get some relief appearances, just so the coaching staff can get a sense of where she stands against college competition. If by season's end Gorsuch has put up big innings, it either means something catastrophic has happened to one of the veteran pitchers or, and much preferably, she has pitched so well that it would behoove the Tiger staff to provide the freshman with a heavier workload.