During his January drives home from the office, Paul Mainieri’s mind churned.
He had to replace an All-America closer, the SEC’s home run leader and a left fielder who set the school record for batting average. He had to follow up the best regular season in the illustrious history of the school. He was in the midst of dropping 25 lbs.
None of that ate at him most.
“The two weeks, three weeks leading up to the season, every night when I was driving home, my most dominant thought was Jake Fraley,” Mainieri said. “Can you believe that? He wasn’t even going to be in the starting lineup, but the change, the transformation, from the fall to early January to February was so dramatic.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘can this kid really be this good?’”
As the calendar turns to May and the weather and conference race heat up, Fraley is answering that question for his head coach.
The freshman earned a chance to play every day and has since secured his lineup spot with a vice grip. He’s clubbed his way to a .348 batting average in 33 games, but it’s been the timing of the hits that has forced Mainieri to stick with his rookie.
In the conference opener, a showdown of potential first round draft choices in Aaron Nola and Tyler Beede, LSU found itself down 2-0 in the eighth inning up in Nashville. With two men on and two out, Mainieri turned to Fraley and told him to grab a bat.
In his first ever conference game, Fraley dug in against flamethrowing right hander Brian Miller. After fighting off multiple two-strike pitches and working the count, Fraley slapped a hard ground ball to the third baseman who mishandled it and fired wide of first base. Fraley had extended the inning so that Andrew Stevenson could spank the game-tying single up the middle.
LSU would push two more across to win the game.
A month later in Oxford, Ms., Fraley would push an RBI single through a drawn in Ole Miss infield to give LSU a one-run lead over the Rebels in the eleventh inning.
Just this weekend, Fraley’s line drive RBI double to left center tied the Game 1 against Tennessee, another game LSU would eventually win.
Though he’s started just 15 of LSU’s 46 games, Fraley is tied for the team lead in multiple RBI games, and he’s currently riding a team-best six game hitting streak. Last week after Fraley picked up three hits in a 6-0 win over Tulane, Mainieri gushed far more than usual—especially after a midweek game.
“This kid (Fraley) has had an awful lot of big hits for us in his limited playing time,” Mainieri said. “I honestly believe we’re watching the evolution of maybe the next great LSU baseball player.”
But to comprehend the rise, you have to first understand the start.
LSU assistant coach Javi Sanchez first saw Fraley prior to Fraley’s junior season at Caravel Academy in Delaware. The physical tools were evident early on, but it was how Fraley put those physical gifts to work that intrigued the Tiger assistant.
“In the summer the kids swing the wood, and he just had a propensity to put the barrel on the ball,” Sanchez said. “He’d go deep into counts. He didn’t strike out much. He was a spark plug. He’d get on the bases and end up at third with less than two outs. Defensively we felt like he was a difference maker.”
Sanchez reported back to Mainieri, and the decision was made rather quickly to extend an offer. By that time the professional scouts started to find their way to Bear, Md., to observe. That, in turn, caught Fraley’s eye.
As just about any high schooler would, Fraley shifted his determination and goals from becoming a better ball player to impressing scouts.
“They call it Draft-itis,” Mainieri said. “You know you’re eligible for the draft, and you try to start doing things to an extraordinary level to impress pro scouts…He spends the fall bulking up, getting stronger, going to a hitting instructor to teach him to try to hit the ball out of the ballpark more frequently. And he became a player that he wasn’t.”
Though he earned All-State honors and had a tremendous season by pedestrian standards, the big money buzz cooled, and Fraley’s name fell on draft boards. By the time the 2013 draft rolled around Fraley had contacted the teams and informed them of his intention to play at LSU.
He went undrafted.
Free of the professional pressure, Fraley arrived in Baton Rouge as perhaps the most highly touted freshman on the roster. But the same poor habits he overcame to a degree in high school were readily exposed in the fall.
“When he came to school his swing was just messed up,” Mainieri said. “He was jumping at the ball. It was a new environment. Everything, it was just like a snowball on the backside of the mountain picking up as it was going down. He just couldn’t get out of it.”
As the days passed, the struggles worsened. Bad batting practice sessions turned into overmatched intrasquad at bats. Looking back, Fraley can take the positives, but there were very few in the moment.
“It was a great learning experience,” Fraley said. “A lot of people are going to go through it at all levels. I was changing my swing, and while I was changing it I was seeing 94-95 miles per hour from (Aaron) Nola and Cody Glenn with every kind of movement you can put on a baseball.”
After giving such a glowing pitch to Mainieri, Sanchez could have questioned whether or not he made a mistake signing Fraley.
“I did a little bit, but I was more frustrated for the kid,” Sanchez said. “I could only imagine what he was going through, a kid from Delaware, first time away from home. I could see it in his eyes. He had that overwhelmed look in his face.”
After fall practice concluded, Mainieri called Fraley into his office and assessed the situation, roster and travel squads. At LSU there are more quality players than roster spots at times. Though Fraley was never in jeopardy of losing a scholarship, his prospects of making the travel roster weren’t good.
Sanchez also met with Fraley and offered him some advice. Instead of swinging the bat on a flat plane through the strike zone, Fraley was using an uppercut to dip in and out of the zone on a quick, jagged angle. His margin for error was almost none.
“Three or four weeks before the fall ended me and Coach Javi sat down and looked at (high school) footage of what got me here,” Fraley said. “We just started putting the pieces together, working on something new every day.”
Then Fraley went north to Delaware for the holidays and stayed the course.
He and his father went to work in the only place possible during a Delaware December—the garage. Fraley flattened out his stroke and sent the video back to Sanchez via text message.
Sanchez could tell, though the garage cell phone footage was grainy, that the strides were being made.
Upon Fraley’s return in January, the results showed up. He was swatting line drives all over the field in batting practice and collecting hits against the same pitching staff that carved him up months earlier.
“Once I came back here, I got those first few at bats under my belt, and I was just able to realize that the fall was just a learning experience,” Fraley said. “I knew I belonged here.”
Now Fraley belongs in the middle of the Tiger order, an order finding its stride at the right time.
Every season LSU brings in impact freshmen. How quickly they become a force in the lineup is unique to each individual. Last season Alex Bregman started the season’s first game at shortstop and in the three-hole.
A year older, the Tiger shortstop was able to watch Fraley and support “the next freshman starter” through rough times.
“He didn’t have the best fall, but he still did everything the right way,” Bregman said. “He showed up every day and worked hard, and you could tell he was going to come out of it. It was just a matter of time.”
Bregman is the exception to the rule. More often players have to ease their way into college baseball. Mainieri has stayed steadfast in his comparison to Fraley.
“I couldn’t help but think of Mikie Mahtook,” Maineiri said. “That’s how Mikie was. He had so far to come, but when got there, it was awesome.”