LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn is the subject of this On The Record, a Q&A with an LSU sports figure.
Dunn’s focus in this piece is on ace pitcher Aaron Nola, a junior All-American who enters this season as, arguably, the Southeastern Conference’s best pitcher.
LSU opens the season Friday at home against New Orleans and Nola will be starting on the mound. It’ll likely be his final opening day start. He’s eligible for the Major League Baseball draft at season’s end and most believe he could be a first-round pick.
In this Q&A – and our story in Friday’s Advocate – Dunn explains just why Nola has been so good over the past two seasons: his poise, demeanor, wicked fastball, etc.
The Advocate: What makes Aaron Nola so successful?
Dunn: If you want to start from the makeup is off the chart. What I mean by that is his work ethic, his concern for the team his mound presence. When I talk makeup, those are the things I’m talking about.
That’s a great start. When you have those things that he has and then combine that with the skill level, you have a pretty good pitcher. And I think we’ve seen what he’s been able to do because he has the skill level that’s obviously at a higher level than most.
The Advocate: What impresses you most about him?
Dunn: From a pitching standpoint, his ability to command the strike zone. You can take everything, all the stuff you want to look at: what does he do that’s special compared to other pitchers? His ability to command the strike zone sets him apart.
The Advocate: When’s the first time you realized just how well he can control the strike zone?
Dunn: Probably the first pen I ever saw when I got here. As a freshman, watching his delivery and watching how he repeated his delivery and watching him throw the fastball down and away. When you look at someone who’s a top-flight pitcher, they have the ability to command their fastball and they can usually throw that location – down and away – and they can hit that spot over and over again, I saw that as a young freshman kid pitcher, that he can do that.
The reason he can do that is you watch his delivery and the rhythm and timing of everything hitting at the right time, that gives you the ability to do that. That’s why he’s been successful.
The Advocate: Is the fastball his best pitch, the down-and-away one?
Dunn: He has the ability to really command the fastball throughout the zone and that’s why he’s special, because if you can’t command that fastball you can’t pitch. I don’t care if you throw 100.
When I say command, he commands the areas you need to be able to locate the ball, manipulate the ball in the strike zone and get hitters out in the strike zone, which is huge. There are some pitchers who can get hitters out out of the strike zone, which means they may have a great breaking ball that’s going out of the strike zone. You can get hitters to swing and miss. Well, when you face hitters that are very patient, they sometimes won’t swing at those pitches. He can get hitters out with his stuff in the zone.
When you do that, you keep your pitch counts down, you keep your defense playing defense, you keep the umpire in strike-calling mode. There’s a lot of things that throwing the ball in the zone leads to success.
The Advocate: Why does he command the zone so well?
Dunn: Obviously, he’s a guy that stays like this (holds open palm parallel to ground). There’s times you can’t tell if he’s up six or down six, which is another trait of the special type pitchers that have the ability to slow the game down. It’s about executing that one pitch and the next pitch and the next pitch and being able to stay within themselves and he’s able to do that.
There’s been a couple of different occasions in his career you look at … his freshman year Mississippi State jumped on him before, I think, we had two outs. Five runs in the first inning. That’s all they got and he pitched through six.
Last year, Sam Houston State came in here to play us in a regional. They scored five or six in the first inning. Five. He was at 42 pitches in that inning and they had five runs on the board. You look up, he pitches seven innings. That was the difference in where we went last year. That was the deciding game. Had he not been able to do that, now you’re in your bullpen. Who knows what could have happened? He had the ability to say, ‘OK guys, jump on my back. I’m going to do what I do.’ Those are special traits that, you know, he was just able to keep it like this (holds open palm parallel to ground) and you combine that with stuff and makeup and poise and all that stuff, you’ve got a special kid.
The Advocate: You mention his deception. Tell me about his deception.
Dunn: He’s just … how the hitters see the ball out of his hand and the angle he gets in relation to going from the rubber to the plate. He has a way of hiding the ball so hitters don’t get a good read on it and the angle he’s throwing the ball.
When you’re throwing the ball with his arm angle but yet still driving the ball to the bottom of the zone, that’s special. Sometimes guys like that, the ball gets flat. So instead of throwing below the knees, we’re talking thigh high. That’s not a good recipe for success when you’re throwing the ball n those areas of the plate. He has the ability to drive the ball to the bottom of the zone and it’s hard to do anything with those pitches.
The Advocate: Where is his arm angle?
Dunn: Guys have different arm angles. High three-quarter, low three-quarter, sidearmers, underneath guys.
He’s probably a mid three-quarter guy.
The Advocate: So he has a flatter arm angle but is driving the ball with a more vertical delivery than most flat-arm guys?
Most guys like that will, the ball will stay more this way (flat). He’s able to get the ball and drive the ball down at a good angle. That’s key to pitching.
The Advocate: How can he do that?
Dunn: He’s got good body awareness. He’s such an athlete. When you’re an athletic pitcher, you can do a lot of things. You’ve got to be able to control your body on the mound and he has the ability to do that. When you’re doing that, controlling that, that gives you the ability to not try to generate so much of, ‘OK, I want to try to throw the ball 100 miles per hour.’
You don’t have to do that. When you’re controlling your body, that allows you to get all of the rhythm and timing to hit so when you do that you’re letting your natural stuff work so you’re getting most of what you have.
By doing that, it’s like the maximum amount of stuff with the least amount of effort. That leads into the ability to command the strike zone because when you’re huffing and really trying to get on it, the ball’s going to elevate on you. You’re not going to have the real good snap on the breaking ball so you’re not as a efficient, but when you’re just being nice and easy … you’re able to locate. That’s what he does so well.
The Advocate: How’s his speed? Where is it and has it changed?
Dunn: He’s not going to, you know … if you look at Kevin Gausman … Kevin would routinely hit 97, at times 98. Aaron’s not going to throw that velocity but he’s definitely going to throw good enough velocity.
It’s playable velocity because of what he can do with the ball. If he’s 92, then his fastball can play harder than that because of where he’s locating it in the zone and the angle he’s getting. There’s some guys that I’ve coached before and the gun’ll say 98 and you look around and they’re not having a lot of success because they don’t have the deception, the ball’s flat.
Pure velocity will not make you win. You’ve got to combine the location with it. I think his velocity plays better than what the gun says. It’s still good enough velocity.
The Advocate: His numbers last year – 1.57 ERA, 12-1 – have you ever seen anything like that?
Dunn: They were obviously special numbers. I think he was All-American and … just when you look at what he’s done from his freshman and sophomore year with the number of walks he’s giving up per innings pitched. You don’t have to look any further than that. He walked seven guys as a freshman and I want to say it was in the mid-teens last year (18) in 129 innings.
So he’s walked less than 30 guys in 210 innings. That’s … I mean, that is … you don’t need to go any farther than that.
You look at what is pitching? Pitching is taking that ball and throwing it across that plate. If you do that, you have a chance to be very, very successful. And then you combine that with the skill level he has, that’s why we’re sitting here talking about a special young man.
The Advocate: Outside of the fastball, give me an overview of his other pitches.
Dunn: He’s a fastball, changeup, curveball. They’ve really … have progressed very well. I think he’s got a good feel for his breaking ball, of what it is we try to do with that pitch and how to manipulate the strike zone with it and what you want to do and certain counts with it. He’s really gotten a feel for how to do that.
I think that’s one area of his game that’s really progressed over the last couple of years, with really all of his pitches. I thought the breaking ball is a pitch that’s he’s been making really good strides.
The Advocate: He’s a fastball guy, right?
Dunn: He’s going to live and die by his fastball.
The Advocate: Is it fair to say that he throws the fastball seven of every 10 pitches?
Dunn: If you look at pitching in general, when you look down at any pitcher, you’re looking at pitchers throwing the fastball 60-70 percent of the time out of 100 pitchers. That’s a pitch you’ve got to be able to command.
The Advocate: Is he higher?
Dunn: I’d say probably … it depends on the game, the team you’re playing and what you’re needing to do, but he’s going to pitch off his fastball.
The Advocate: What’s he like away from the field?
Dunn: What you see on the field is what you get off the field. He’s just … he comes to the field and has a plan. Loves to play the game. Loves to compete. But, you know, it’s not a real … he’s just a laidback kid. He’s the same all of the time, which is a great attriute. Not too high, not too low.
(When) he crosses that line, that’s that internal drive that’s going. He’s able to maintain it. I think he’s like that off the field.
I know his brother and his makeup, just … they have very similar, the way they carry themselves. Tremendous family. Just raised to respect the game and teammates and that’s what they do. He’s the leader of his staff. I’m glad he’s pitching for us.
The Advocate: Guess you don’t expect him to return for his senior year?
Dunn: It’s just … his opportunities are going to be open to whatever he wants to do. He just continues to do what he’s done, pitch. I think he’ll have great opportunities at the end of this year to do what he wants to do.
The Advocate: How will he fit in in the majors?
Dunn: Great. It’s who you are as a person more than it is where you’re going to the next level. The game is the game. It’s who you interact and how you carry yourself and the things you do.
That’s what matters when you go to whatever level you’re playing in. He’s that guy. So whenever his opportunity comes in competitive baseball, he’s going to do fine because he has skill. But his personality and work ethic are not going to change so he’s going to do fine. He’s going to do great.
The Advocate: Following such a good season last year, is there some weight or pressure on him this season?
Dunn: All I want is Aaron Nola to be Aaron Nola. If we do that, I will take that.
Why does he need to do better? Just be you. Do what you can do. Don’t put any more pressure … I know that’s easy to say when everybody looks … everybody’s going to read this article and it’s going to be Aaron Nola. He’s heard it since last year. It’s not like the pressure … what is the pressure? Just go out and pitch. That’s the thing he does best.
If he does what he can do and goes out and competes and let’s things … why wouldn’t he be successful? He’s been that successful for two years because the stuff is the same, the work ethic is the same. He hasn’t changed.
Are teams … do teams know what to expect? Yeah, they knew last year too. It was no secret. They knew Aaron Nola was the top pitcher in the conference and so every Friday night they knew who they were facing. They got scouting reports. They knew what he was going to do and he went out and had a pretty good year. That’s not going to change and our approach is not going to change of how we get prepared weekly.
He’s just going to go out and do what he does. I think when you look at it in the end, it’s going to be good enough.