Georgia Tech baseball sophomore catcher Joey Bart has become a monster at and behind the plate
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It’s a bad idea to challenge Joey Bart.
Junior second baseman Wade Bailey did so last week.
“Joey and I were tied with hits about a week ago and I told him it was going to be a boat race for whoever had the most for the season,” said Bailey. “I was trying to challenge him a little bit with that.”
The hulking 6-3, 220-pound sophomore catcher took the challenge on and proceeded to take it out on Georgia State pitchers on Tuesday and on Belmont hurlers over the weekend.
Bart hit .529 (9-for-17), slugged 1.471, had a .600 on-base percentage, scored eight times, drove in 11 runs, had three multi-hit games and three multi-RBI games and extended his hitting streak and on-base streaks to eight -- one away from his career-long hitting streak and two shy from his career-long on-base streak. The offensive onslaught earned him National Player of the Week, ACC Player of the Week, and Perfect Game/Rawlings Player of the Week.
“My approach was pretty locked in. I was just going up there every time, like I do every time, looking to do some damage,” said Bart. “I got some pitches I could do some damage and it worked out well.”
His season-long answer to opposing challenges, which had him entering ACC-opening weekend at Miami batting .447, slugging .957, with an OBP of .500, with 21 hits -- a third of them homers -- and 19 RBIs, earned him a place on the Johnny Bench Award Watch List.
“It’s an honor to be recognized as one of the top catchers in the country,” he said. “I know we had a catcher last year, Arden Pabst, who was mentioned twice. It’s definitely an honor to be on it. There are a lot of good catchers out there and it’s cool to see how I stack up with the rest of them.”
Last week Bart was at the top of the stack, one that included catchers AND non-catchers. It was just one of those special weeks. Yet as happy as he sounded, he is anything but satisfied.
He’s looking to inflict even more damage this weekend and keep things going well for the No. 16 Yellow Jackets (9-2) when they head to Mark Light Stadium for a weekend series in Coral Gables against the defending ACC regular-season champion Miami Hurricanes. Bart, who was Freshman All-ACC, Freshman All-America and Gainesville Regional All-Tournament last year, has learned to put personal accolades aside. That includes all of last week’s honors.
“That stuff’s cool but it’s basically a week award,” he said. “We have our hands full coming up this weekend in Miami. This is where it starts and this is where it matters. We’re going in 0-0 in ACC and this is where the big boys come to play. So I’m really looking forward to this weekend.
Miami comes in 4-8, last in the Coastal, batting a league-low .172 on the year. Bart’s not ready to feel sorry for the ‘Canes.
“I don’t care what their record is or how bad they’re hitting right now,” he said. “Those guys have a lot of people returning and they can play. We can’t take these guys ANY sort of lightly at all. I’m expecting three hard-fought games.”
Bart has been hard on pitchers this season. He has seven home runs, which rank him second in the nation, second in the ACC (Virginia Tech’s Sam Fragale has eight), and would rank him 10th amongst TEAMs in the conference -- he has three more than the entire Hurricanes team.
He’s become quite a treat to watch.
“Joey’s a very special player,” said Bailey. “When you’ve got a guy with that much talent doing what he’s doing right now it’s fun to watch his at-bats because you never know what’s going to happen. Last week was unbelievable. Usually when he gets one I pretty much know right off the bat that it’s gone so I just start jogging right away. I look back to see how far it’s gone over the fence.”
Bart’s power doesn’t surprise assistant coach Bryan Prince, who calls Bart’s one-homer freshman campaign the aberration.
“Last year was like a strange year for Joey,” said Prince. “He hit .300 with one homer and that homer was a big homer in the Regionals in Gainesville (a three-run blast against UConn in Tech’s 7-5 win last June 5). He’s a big, strong, physical guy. He’s put in the time in the weight room. He’s an all-around special player and it’s fun to watch him every day.”
Bart credits his getting the ball up and out to a change he made during the summer in the Cape Cod League.
“I struggled early and I just changed some things up,” he said. “I freed my swing up a little bit and was looking to hit the ball in the air. Hitting the ball on the ground for me doesn’t do much good. If I can put it up in the air every time that’s my goal. I’m hitting them in the air and they’re riding out. It’s going good right now but I want to keep it going.”
Bart started 0-for-12 with three strikeouts for the Wareham Gatemen, but would go on to play in the league’s All-Star Game and finish hitting .309, third on the team, while cutting down dramatically on his strikeouts (23 over his final 81 at-bats). He’s continuing to be more selective in 2017, as Bart came into the weekend with only five K’s in 47 at-bats. That’s two fewer strikeouts than homers and only one more strikeout than walk. His numbers are up all around, as his .957 slugging average is 575 points higher than last season, while his .500 on-base percentage is up 149 points from last year, and his .447 batting average is a 148-point jump.
Not that he notices, unless, of course, Bailey brings it up.
“I usually try to stay away from the stats and stuff like that,” he said. “Wade messes with me. He keeps up with that stuff and he always tries to throw it by me knowing I don’t like it, just messing with me.”
Joey’s been as smooth with the glove on his hand as he’s been rough with the bat in it. Tech’s staff has loved throwing to him. He comes into the weekend without an error or a passed ball.
“He really helps the pitchers out,” said Saturday starter Jonathan Hughes, who has been throwing to Bart since the two of them were 10 years old. “He receives the ball really, really well. He gets the calls that some catchers might not get.
“Of course he has a good arm but it’s deceptively really, really strong,” he added. “You wouldn’t notice it unless you’re putting radar on it.”
As with the offensive side, Prince is not surprised by Bart’s excellence handling pitchers.
“I think that goes back to his make-up and the type of person that he is and the type of player that he is,” said Prince, a four-year starter at catcher for the Jackets and a Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Famer (Class of 2014). “He has the trust of the pitching staff and he has the trust of the coaching staff.
“We kind of talk daily but I don’t take ANY of the credit,” he added. “Joey has put in the time in the bullpen with the pitchers, he’s gotten to know each and every one of them, he’s gotten to know their personalities and he’s worked extremely hard with that. We’re very lucky to have him back there with some of those young guys on the mound.”
The Jackets and their fans can consider themselves lucky to be able to watch Bart work and continue the long line of Yellow Jackets headed for the Majors (he was already drafted on the 27th round in 2015 by Tampa Bay).
“I think Joey is going to be one of those guys when we look back 10 years down the road you’ll say, ‘That guy played at Georgia Tech and now he’s playing here,’” said head coach Danny Hall.
“Joey is a WAY better catcher than I was,” said Prince. “We do have a long lineage of catchers that we’ve been very blessed with and Joey’s put the time in and we’re fortunate to have him. He’s a leader, he’s a worker and he does everything right. He works hard in practice, he leads the groups, he leads the team and he takes charge during the game. We’re very fortunate to have a player of his caliber and make-up behind the plate for us.”
For his part, Bart is enjoying being a part of one of the nation’s most potent lineups and one that hopefully will enjoy blowing into and through South Beach.
“One through nine, all of our guys can really swing it,” he said. “There’s not a hole in our lineup and there won’t be this whole season. We’re going to swing the bat. That’s what we do and I’m looking forward to these guys getting better and better as well as myself.”