DIGGIN' IN Baseball Preview: Catchers
Pabst and Co. have it all handled behind the plate
Feb. 6, 2015
DIGGIN' IN PREVIEW SCHEDULE:
Outfielders: Monday, Feb. 2: Story | Podcast
Infielders: Thursday, Feb. 5: Story | Podcast
Catchers: Friday, Feb. 6: Story | Podcast
Bullpen: Monday, Feb. 9: Story | Podcast
Starting Pitchers: Wednesday, Feb. 11: Story | Podcast
By Jon Cooper
There's a great tradition at Georgia Tech of producing great catchers.
You've heard of former Boston Red Sox great Jason Varitek and current Baltimore Orioles superstar Matt Wieters, of course, but they're only two of 11 guys in that caught under current head coach Danny Hall and moved on to play professionally.
Class of 2014 Georgia Tech Hall of Famer Bryan Prince was another, as are former pro (now undergraduate student assistant) Mike Nickeas, while on the horizon are prospects Cole Leonida (Washington Nationals) and Zane Evans (Kansas City Royals).
Arden Pabst, Georgia Tech's projected starting catcher for 2015, may be next to join the group.
As a freshman, Pabst was outstanding fielding his position. His .991 fielding percentage ranked second amongst all Yellow Jackets regulars and his 16 runners caught stealing tied for second in the ACC. Pabst threw out 16 of 39 potential base-stealers, a superb 41.0 percent rate -- also second-best in the ACC. Runners apparently got the message. Nine ACC catchers were run on more than the 39 times Pabst was tested.
"Arden is very experienced catcher," said senior A.J. Murray, who is one of at least three candidates listed on the depth chart behind Pabst. "He's very knowledgeable back there. He helps me in some regards."
Pabst points to the experience, gained from Murray, from last year's co-starter Mitch Earnest and from getting on the field so much in 2014 as a key building block heading into 2015.
"Experience is so important. I'll be able to go back and look at things from last year, big situations and it's not going to be new to me," he said. "It'll be more business and less learning. So it'll be something that I'll be a lot more prepared for than I was last year."
He's also better prepared to handle the pitching staff.
"It's a process, like anything else," he said. "I try to jump in and catch flat-grounds whenever I can, catch bullpens. But I know this staff pretty well, especially, since we didn't gain too many new guys and a lot of my class is coming back. I feel very comfortable with them and that makes me feel comfortable back there. I know their tendencies, i know what they like to do and that just gives me so much more confidence in our team overall.
"I want to be the guy that the pitchers trust and they want to throw to," he added. "I want to make them feel as comfortable as they possibly can up there. So it's really nice for me to hear those guys tell me and tell other people that they feel confident throwing to me. It's a big confidence-booster for me. It's my job, though. That's what I expect. I expect every pitcher on the staff to say `I like throwing to Arden.'"
Pitchers will like throwing to him even more in 2015, as he now has a book on ACC hitters -- a scary thought, considering the Jackets were 25-14 in games Pabst started behind the plate as a freshman. It's a much more thorough book than last year and is seen through a more discerning and less-wide-eyed and mentally tougher mindset.
"It's not going to be as an amazing an experience," he said. "That first year you're playing D-I baseball you think every hitter is amazing. But really, when you're playing ACC baseball everyone's about the same. It's about the mental game. It's about the toughness of our guys and so I won't be overwhelmed by the hitters now. I know them. I'll know the big names and how to pitch to those guys. We'll be in good shape I think."
It's on the offensive side that Pabst would like to shape up his game. He batted .217 (.219 in ACC play), with a homer, a triple (recorded on Opening Day, in his first collegiate at-bat) and 17 RBIs. However, what his average did not show was his superb bat control. Pabst put down seven sacrifice bunts, third on the team behind only Ryan Peurifoy's 10 and Thomas Smith's nine, and he put the ball in play, as his 26 strikeouts were third-fewest on the team.
He used the summer to sharpen his craft, playing in the Cape Cod League, where he helped the Hyannis Harbor Hawks reach the playoffs. He concentrated primarily on improving his approach.
"This summer I was definitely focused on consistent approach at the plate, staying level-headed," he said. "I had some struggles last year but it's all about dealing with them professionally and focusing on all the positives. At the plate it's going to be ups and downs. That's baseball. So I'm really just trying to focus on having a calm, cool, collected approach and trying to take the ups and downs as professionally as I can."
Handling the ups and downs will be a must, as Pabst expects to shoulder a much greater workload in 2015. Last season, he caught 44 games, making 38 starts, but Coach Hall carefully rationed Pabst, never starting him more than four games in a row, something he did only twice. Expect those reins to be loosened this year.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Yellow Jackets catchers is who will take those rare games Pabst doesn't. As with just about every position on the Jackets, the possibilities are many and intriguing.
Murray was drafted as a catcher in the 48th round of the 2012 Draft by the Houston Astros, and has been "like a big brother" according to Pabst. Wruble played in 16 games (four starts) in 2014, and had a superb summer in the Great Lakes Summer League, batting .281, but he also spent some time playing corner outfield, a role he might play for the Jackets this season.
Craport may also get a look. He swung a big bat in the White-Gold Series, hitting .444 (4-for-9), with a homer and two doubles, driving in three runs, scoring four and amassing nine total bases. The doubles and runs tied for Series highs, while the total bases ranked third overall in the series and the RBIs tied for fourth.
I feel really good about (our depth) at catcher," said assistant coach Bryan Prince, who works the the catchers. "Arden is our guy and works very hard at his craft, but A.J. and Grant have really put the time in to get better back there. We're very blessed to have those guys we can put in at any time and trust they can get the job done back there."