You can see it in those quick looks back to the coach after each swing, or in the “How was that round?” walking out of the batting cage or in that extra long stare from the plate to make sure they got the signs right.
It happens every year, freshmen LSU baseball players taking longer to feel comfortable. There’s a timidness. They were the hot shot prospects and now they’re just one of many.
Daniel Cabrera didn’t lack confidence. His mechanics were almost flawless. His swing was fluid. He was immediately one of the best hitters in the LSU lineup.
Cabrera just needed to slow things down.
“With him, it was just reassuring him, ‘Hey, you’re one of the best hitters that’s ever come into the facility,’” director of player development Micah Gibbs said.
He started poorly, going 11 at-bats without a hit and 1-for-12 against lefties to begin his LSU career. After months and months of hype, the freshman outfielder was taking longer to find a groove.
But watch Cabrera now. Watch the way he takes his time in the batter’s box. Watch him flip the bat into the on-deck circle after a walk. Watch the swagger in his slow strut after crushing a walk-off home run against Tennessee.
“Some people see it as cockiness, but in baseball and sports that’s comfortability,” Gibbs said. “That’s the ability to slow everything down.
“You saw that right at the beginning of SEC play. You’d see the way he’d run off the field or jog or take a walk. That’s when you started to see him evolve into a comfortable, confident player.”
Because as LSU goes into the 2019 season as a consensus top-two team in the country, Cabrera’s the sophomore Paul Mainieri calls maybe the most important player for the LSU offense.
He’s the guy who hit cleanup on Team USA last summer between Adley Rutschman and Andrew Vaughn, the top-two college prospects in the 2019 MLB Draft. He’s a sophomore who only came into his own the final two months of his freshman season, and now he’s the big bat at the core of the LSU lineup.
“I believe he’s capable of being one of the greats this school has produced through the years,” Mainieri said.
Gibbs was LSU’s hitting coach when Cabrera first joined the program before a knee injury put Gibbs into an off-the-field role.
He said Cabrera came to LSU as one of the most natural freshman hitters he’s seen. In the fall, Gibbs had hitters use weighted bats during practice one day. Some bats were more weighted at the barrel. Others were heavier at the hands. It’s a way to see which hitters struggle more with which bats to show which aspects of their swing need to be worked on.
With Cabrera, it didn’t matter. He found a way to put the barrel on the ball with each type of bat.
“The only person I can remember that day one had the ability to hit balls the other way, hit everything, was (DJ) LeMahieu,” Gibbs said.
The funny thing was Cabrera’s biggest flaw early in his career was that innate ability to put the bat on the ball.
He chased pitches outside the zone, simply because he knew he could hit them. Most hitters would swing and miss or foul it off, but Cabrera could connect with them well enough to put them in play, but that led to a lot of outs.
“I think I tried to do a bit too much,” Cabrera said.
He sat down with Gibbs, hitting coach Sean Ochinko and recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain, studying videos of his at-bats. His swing was a little too big. His pitch selection was poor. He swung at inside pitches against lefties that blew up his hands, causing Mainieri to sometimes take him out of the lineup against left-handed pitchers.
Cabrera said he needed to learn not to swing at pitches just because he could hit them. When it’s a 2-0 count and he’s looking fastball, don’t swing. It doesn’t matter how good it looks, he joked, just leave it.
The goal was selective aggressiveness, being disciplined enough to wait for your pitch but aggressive enough to attack when you see it.
“Because of your ability to put the bat on the ball, you should — especially early in the count — have a very small area you should swing at,” Gibbs said.
Cabrera started to find it by mid-March and truly turned it on by April. After beginning his career 8-for-38 (.210), Cabrera ended the season hitting .315 with a team-leading 54 RBIs.
Maybe his most impressive stretch was going 21-for-70 (.300) with 20 RBIs in 18 games from May 4 to May 27 through the end of the SEC Tournament.
At one point during this May run, his coach called him one of the most feared hitters in the country.
“What a hitter he’s turned into,” Mainieri said in May. “… I shudder at the thought of what he might become.”
By the end of this freshman season, he was the confident hitter Gibbs said walks around with swagger and confidence. The game slowed down for him, and he was named a Freshman All-American.
Mainieri told him during exit interviews last June he’d be a member of the USA Collegiate National Team — that Mainieri coached — if any of Antoine Duplantis, Zach Watson or Zack Hess went pro. All three returned to LSU, but when Duplantis hurt his shoulder in a wall collision Cabrera got the call.
He wasn’t just some freshman courtesy invite. He hit clean-up between Rutschman and Vaughn, batting .300 with two home runs and six RBIs through 14 games.
Cabrera got giddy talking about his experience with the team, his eyes lighting up discussing the company he joined.
“Some of those guys, they might be Hall of Famers one day,” he said. “Adley and Vaughn, they could be the first overall pick. So it was pretty cool playing with those guys and picking their brain.”
But where can Cabrera make another jump in year two? Mainieri said he hopes to see him turn into a mid-.300s hitter with more home runs and RBIs.
He’ll have more help in the lineup this season with Josh Smith returning from injury, newcomer Saul Garza potentially bringing a massive bat and stars like Watson and Duplantis rounding out a much-deeper lineup to protect Cabrera.
Cabrera’s defense wasn’t natural at first, but Mainieri raves about the work he’s put in to improve. The biggest challenge Cabrera might face this year is simply being more of a known commodity.
“I think it’s just knowing how they’re gonna pitch to me this year it’s going to be a little different than last year,” he said. “I might want to sit a certain location this year instead of a certain pitch. I may want to sit off-speed. Whatever we have on the pitcher, I need to use that in a plan.”
Cabrera has a chance to become the offensive star of a College World Series level team in 2019. He has a chance to jump from being a breakout freshman to one of the top bats in the country.
Coaches like Mainieri and Gibbs see even greater goals for him.
“When you watch this guy swing,” Gibbs said, ‘it just looks like a big-league swing.”