BATON ROUGE, La. — If there’s one new feature on the LSU baseball team you need to become acquainted with in 2018, it’s probably freshman Ma’Khail Hilliard’s curveball.
On the first day of practice this spring, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri couldn’t stop talking about it. Hilliard’s never thrown a pitch at the college level, but Mainieri was ready to anoint his curveball among the best he’s ever coached.
“There is a device that is called the Gametracker that is above our press box that can read exit velocity off the bat and the velocity of pitches,” Mainieri explained. “It can read all kinds of things. It also gives you the spin rate of the ball. A good curveball by a major league would player would be about a 3,000 [rotations per minute]. We only have one pitcher who has touched 3,000 and that’s Ma’Khail Hilliard. That means he can spin that thing even tighter which makes it break that much more. Even Alex Lange didn’t have that kind of a spin break on his curveball.”
There’s a certain elegance that comes with having a get-out pitch. Think Clayton Kershaw’s 12-6 curveball or Max Scherzer’s late-diving slider or the old stand-by, Mariano Rivera’s indistinguishable cutter. If you have a pitch like that, that’s what you’ll be remembered for.
So we at SEC Country decided to ask the question: If the LSU baseball team needed to get one out and only had one pitch to do it, whose pitch would you go with? We polled six players, from the pitchers used to watching their teammates to the hitters who have to face them to the catchers who have to receive the pitches.
Here are their choices for the most dominant pitch on the LSU baseball team:
Junior starting pitcher Caleb Gilbert
There’s just so many guys that have great pitches. But I’m really excited to see how people handle Ma’Khail Hilliard’s curveball. Apparently with the analytics, it spins a lot. I’ve talked to some of the hitters and they say they know it’s coming and they still can’t hit it. I think that’s the biggest compliment you have in a pitcher; when a hitter knows something’s coming and they still can’t hit it.
I know that’s the obvious answer. So I’ll give you an alternative too. Cam Sanders and Devin Fontenot have explosive fastballs. Cam can throw it a little harder, but Devin’s, his is like a bowling ball. I’ve caught it, because we have to do lead-ups and flat-grounds, and it just explodes in my hand. And it’s not even like he throws that hard. There’s just something with his ball. I’d say those three guys are definitely ones to look out for.
Freshman outfielder/first baseman Nick Webre
I have to say this fall I had trouble seeing Cam Sanders’ curveball. His curveball is very, very disgusting. Very nasty. It’s probably how hard it breaks. I think he’s going to devastate a lot of hitters. Gilbert, Hess, their sliders are hard to pick up on. They break hard. I would think those pitches are toughest to hit. And I forgot to mention Ma’Khail’s curveball too. His curveball is unbelievable. Curveballs are defined on how hard they can break. If it can fool you, it starts high and ends up in the dirt. That’s how it fools you. That’s kind of what those guys do to fool hitters. It definitely fooled me a few times this fall.
Sophomore centerfielder Zach Watson
The hardest pitch to hit on this time I’d say is Zack Hess’ slider or curveball or whatever he throws. It is gross. He throws hard. We know that. So he doesn’t slow up his arm to throw that. He throws it 86, 87, 88 [mph], somewhere in there. It looks like a fastball coming in and it tails away and it disappears. It’s just gross.
Caleb’s more looks like a fastball than Zack’s does. Zack’s you can tell it’s going to be a slurve. Caleb’s looks like a fastball and at the end it breaks out of the box. It’s nasty too.
Junior catcher Hunter Feduccia
Probably the hardest one to catch is Hess because he’s got good off-speed and good stuff. It’s a lot different. I’ve never caught someone like Hess before. It’s definitely someone you have to get used to. But it’s coming along good. I would just say his fastball movement. You really don’t know what he’s going for. Just the movement-wise and his off-speed has good stuff.
Junior right fielder Antoine Duplantis
I’d say for me, it’s Ma’Khail’s curveball. Analyticals, he just has that unbelievable spin rate on that curveball. He’ll throw it like it starts at your chest, but it’ll end up being right down the middle for the catcher. But it seems unhittable when you’re up there. It doesn’t matter if he leaves it up or down. It just bites so hard. It’s pretty incredible. I feel like it’s a different type [of curveball than Alex Lange’s.] I don’t know what the velo is, but I think it’s a little slower than Lange’s. It’s weird. It’s slower and it’s bigger, but at the same time it still bites just as hard, if not more. Lange’s started off straight and went down at the last second. His more, you just don’t expect it to keep going. You don’t expect it to keep going down and it just keeps going.
Sophomore starting pitcher Todd Peterson
I think my 2-seam has a lot of run to it with some good velo. Caleb’s got a lot of run to his ball. Hess gets a lot of run. His slider, you saw it last year in Omaha, it’s wipeout. Cam throws a heavy fastball. I couldn’t tell you one guy. There’s a lot of guys out here with some good stuff. This is LSU.
What’s next for LSU baseball?
The Tigers open up their 2018 season on Friday at 7 p.m. CT versus Notre Dame in Alex Box Stadium. The game will not be televised, but it will be available for stream through WatchESPN. Be sure to follow our beat writers Nick Suss and Alex Hickey on Twitter for live updates throughout the series and the season.
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