LSU’s Dunn sends signals for success
“Every pitch matters. Every pitch of a game, the game is on the line.” ALAN DUNN, LSU pitching coach
Twice, Aaron Nola says.
In three years of taking pitch calls from LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn, the Tigers ace has twice wanted to shake off the sign.
He didn’t, of course. After all, no one wants to deal with the consequence of shaking off a pitch.
“We don’t shake off,” fellow LSU pitcher Alden Cartwright said. “He gives us the ability to do it, but he says, ‘You better have a reason if you’re going to do it.’ ”
Baseball’s version of an offensive coordinator, Dunn is buried in the shadows of the dugout flashing the next big pitch with a varying series of hand gestures.
The curve. The fastball. The changeup. The sinker. The slider.
Depending on who’s on the mound, they’re all at his disposal.
He’s the mastermind of an LSU pitching staff that enters the Baton Rouge regional Friday with the nation’s ninth-best ERA (2.42). He’s the man behind the scenes of a group of pitchers who have tossed a nation-leading 17 shutouts this year.
He’s the wizard behind the curtain, tucked in the dugout while sitting on a folding chair, his notes and pitch card resting on an upturned bucket on the dugout steps.
Stern is his face. Intense is his demeanor.
“Every pitch matters,” Dunn said. “Every pitch of a game, the game is on the line.”
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Dunn is in his office at Alex Box Stadium.
On his flat screen television is a still frame image. He’s paused a video of one of the teams LSU (44-14-1) might play this weekend in the four-team regional at the Box.
He’s preparing to call pitches, studying each opponent’s batter to identify weaknesses.
“He works harder than anybody else on scouting reports and what types of hitters they have,” catcher Tyler Moore said. “He works really hard at what he does, and he’s really good at what he does.”
So how does this work?
Using his fingers, Dunn flashes numbers to his catcher. Maybe it’s 2-3-1-2.
The catcher locates the sequence of numbers on a card on his wrist and flashes a different number to the pitcher. Moore said there are as many as 100 number sequences on one card, a way to keep the opponent guessing.
At that point, you throw the pitch.
“I give them the option to shake off,” Dunn said.
Dunn says he’s had pitchers shake off signs. Coach Paul Mainieri said it hasn’t happened yet this year.
“If you shake him off,” Moore said, “you know he’s going to come up to you, and you better be convicted on what you threw.”
Pitches aren’t the only thing called from the dugout. Pickoff attempts and pitchouts are also called by Dunn.
Dunn, the catcher and pitcher must form what the coach refers to as a triangle of communication. Tempo is of utmost importance. Things must move quickly.
Sometimes, the catcher and pitcher anticipate the pitch call from Dunn.
“That’s when we got it going,” Dunn said.
Most of all, though, the pitcher must have good command.
An offensive coordinator can look like a genius if a deep pass route turns into a touchdown. Dunn looks like a hero if a fastball is thrown on location for a swinging strikeout.
It’s not as much about his pitch calling, Dunn said, as it is about the pitch command.
“It’s about executing that pitch,” said Dunn, a former Alabama pitcher who spent years coaching professional ball before joining LSU in 2011.
“Sometimes the wrong pitch thrown with 100 percent of conviction has a chance to have success because hitting is hard,” he said. “The right pitch with 50-percent conviction, chances of success aren’t good.”
Has Dunn ever wanted a pitch call back?
Of course, he says. He has second-guessed himself after a game, wished for this call back or that one.
“Hindsight is always 20-20,” he said. “Sometimes you say, ‘Why did I do that?’ ”
Dunn wasn’t always this pitch-calling master. In fact, he rarely did it while serving as a pitching coach in the minor leagues and had to be convinced in doing it during his interview for the LSU job.
Most college teams have a coach call pitches. That’s not the case in the pros.
Mainieri said he had former LSU coach Skip Bertman explain the advantages to Dunn of calling pitches. Bertman convinced him.
“Now that he’s done it,” Mainieri said, “I don’t think you can take that responsibility away from him with a crowbar.”
It’s difficult to know just how many pitches Dunn has called in nearly three full seasons at LSU. But the digit is in the tens of thousands. Thirty-thousand, maybe, give or take.
Dunn treats every game the same. He hangs off every pitch. He prepares for the next pitch when he calls the last one, setting up hitters for the out.
A talkative person, Mainieri learned during Dunn’s first season not to distract the coach during pitch calls.
“The only time I can talk to him is between innings,” Mainieri said. “He’s so focused.”
Before a series, Dunn prepares for hours. He might take a rest before a Friday night game by stretching out on a couch and closing his eyes.
But he never stops calling pitches.
“You’re going over in your mind,” Dunn said, “how to attack them.”