Image credit: Arizona slugger Jacob Berry (Photo courtesy of Arizona)
Jay Johnson first saw Jacob Berry’s swing on his phone.
Berry was not yet a sophomore in high school, and Johnson had little more than one cell phone video to work with on a prospect less than 100 miles from his campus.
“My instinct was, ‘Let’s get this guy right now.’ That doesn’t happen very often,” Johnson said. “You could just see the strength, the bat speed and really advanced fundamentals, which we hold a high bar in our programs for what that is for a hitter.”
The recruitment began immediately and was heavy. It lasted for more than a year before Johnson finally secured Berry’s commitment.
That was at Arizona. In their one shared season as Wildcats, the two made it to the College World Series.
Berry is the most notable player so far to take advantage of recent changes to the transfer rules in college baseball. Beginning last offseason, thanks to changes in legislation made by the NCAA Division I Council, players were given a one-time transfer exception, which would allow them to transfer from one Division I program to another without having to sit out a season.
It’s actually a return to form for college baseball, which operated under largely these same rules until the 2007-08 academic year, when it became necessary for a player to sit a year after a transfer.
Now, after Johnson was hired to replace the retired Paul Mainieri as head coach at Louisiana State and Berry followed him as a transfer, they’ll try to do it again as Tigers.
Berry was a revelation as a freshman at Arizona. He was a second-team All-American after hitting .352/.439/.676 with 17 home runs and 19 doubles. It made him, in Johnson’s estimation, the most sought-after player in the transfer portal over the summer, the kind of player who can make an immediate impact for a LSU team with reasonable Omaha expectations in Johnson’s first year in Baton Rouge.
“He’s a special hitter,” Johnson said. “I think the biggest piece of his success (is that) he has incredible belief in himself. When you watch him move in the on-deck circle, to the plate, between pitches, he carries himself in a way where you go, ‘That’s what a hitter looks like.’ ”
Berry also behaves the way hitters behave, and has since he first picked up the game.
Johnson said Berry has “kind of lived with high expectations his whole life,” in no small part to his lineage.
His father Perry played for Louisiana-Lafayette and then spent four years in the Astros’ farm system. As soon as Jacob started showing an interest in the game, on the Little League fields of Page, Ariz., Perry thought it would be a good idea for Jacob to pick up switch-hitting. He made sure every swing Jacob took from his natural righthanded stance was met with one as a lefty.
Jacob Berry didn’t truly commit to switch-hitting until right around the time Johnson first saw him. Perry noticed whenever Jacob came upon a critical at-bat in higher-level travel tournaments, he would hit righthanded, regardless of the pitcher’s handedness.
Perry and Jackie Tucker—the father of Cole and Carson Tucker, first-round picks by the Pirates and Guardians, respectively—assured him that switch-hitting was not something to dabble with. Either entirely commit to it or entirely abandon it. Jacob chose to commit.
“From that point forward, through high school years, he faced a lot more righthanded pitchers, and then his lefthanded swing became more polished than his righthanded swing,” Perry Berry said. “He was way more confident. He felt more comfortable failing lefthanded.”
Perry Berry thinks Jacob has a “low-maintenance swing, not a lot of wasted movement,” that makes switch-hitting easier for him. It also makes it easier to bust out of slumps, as infrequently as they have come so far in his college career.
One came with maddening timing in the Tucson Regional, the Wildcats’ first time hosting one since 2012. Berry doubled in the first game against Grand Canyon but went hitless in all nine at-bats in two games against UC Santa Barbara. The Wildcats swept the regional anyway.
“You win a regional on a Sunday night, that’s a huge accomplishment,” Johnson said. “We’re all excited. We’re going to host a super regional and all that. I got a text message at 7 a.m. the next morning (from Berry). ‘Hey, can we hit today?’ I said, ‘For sure, when?’
“ ‘Right now.’ I remember walking out of the cages that morning going, ‘This is going to be good, this weekend.’ ”
It was. Facing Mississippi, Berry hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning of Game 1 to give Arizona its first lead of the game. In Game 3, he drove in four runs, including a second home run, to send Arizona to Omaha. All told, he went 5-for-13 against Ole Miss with a double, two home runs and six RBIs.
In Arizona’s first game at the College World Series, Berry had two hits in a 12-inning loss against Vanderbilt.
“My standard as a hitter is very simple: My goal every time I go to the plate is to barrel the baseball,” Berry said. “I’m not really too worried about results in that regard. The results are cool and everything, but my goal is to barrel the baseball, and when I barrel the baseball, good things happen the majority of the time.”
Berry barreled more than his fair share of baseballs last year, at a rate any coach would want to add to their team if given the opportunity. They had that chance when Berry entered the transfer portal.
Berry entered the portal the day after Johnson’s introductory press conference at LSU. He said he was genuinely looking at other options and did not enter the portal just to continue playing for Johnson. By his own admission, that’s why he is at LSU over others who pushed him, but Johnson never saw it as a guarantee.
He felt the same for the two other Arizona players who transferred to LSU, pitchers Bryce Collins and Riley Cooper.
“In terms of my three guys from Arizona, it’s pretty simple. Jacob’s one of the best players in the country. If we didn’t get him, he was probably going to Vanderbilt, who we play against,” Johnson said. “Riley Cooper, if we didn’t get him he was going to go to Ole Miss, who we play against. If we didn’t get Bryce Collins, he was going to go to Texas A&M, who we play against.
“In recruiting those guys, it was two-fold. It was adding those guys to our team, but I certainly didn’t want to look across in the other dugout and see three of my former players that are capable of helping you win.”
Johnson added three more players from the portal to his first LSU roster: catcher Tyler McManus from Samford and pitchers Eric Reyzelman from San Francisco and Trey Shaffer from Southeastern Louisiana. In discussions with Mainieri, Johnson knew catcher and lefthanded pitching were questionable areas that needed some help, so he found it.
The transfer portal has allowed Johnson to reshape his program’s roster quicker than first-year coaches could have hoped to in a previous era. It also allowed him to create one of the most dangerous lineups in Division I.
Berry is entering a LSU team that is returning all of its top five in hits, all three of its double-digit home run hitters and all five of its double-digit doubles hitters. Berry may have been an attractive transfer portal recruit for his power, but it won’t be his power that makes him stand out in an LSU lineup with no shortage of thump.
“Doubles, home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits—he was one of the premier guys in the country relative to all of those things,” Johnson said. “But if you’re going to have a championship offense, it really comes down to your ability to take quality at-bats and move the offense and do what the game calls for.
“He’s incredibly advanced in our system in that regard, so I think he’s going to add a lot more than just hitting the ball over the fence.”
Brett Hudson is a freelance writer in Tuscaloosa, Ala.