Sunday, January 26, 2014

2014 Dirtbag Position Preview: Catcher

If Dirtbags fans are looking for reasons for optimism entering 2014, then it's fitting to start with the catcher position. After having to make due with converted-pitcher Royce Murai and defensive stalwart but light hitting Kellen Hoime (with some decent patchwork from utility man Mike Marjama) Long Beach State enters this spring with arguably their best catching depth since 2008; which just so happens to be the last time they made a regional appearance. With no seniors, and three underclassmen, in the mix it's reasonable to hope the backstop remains solid for the 'Bags for the next couple season. The 2014 group includes a returning starter that has the potential to be one of the better catchers in the conference, a JuCo transfer who should have an impact on this year's squad, and a freshman that will likely be groomed to eventually hold the starting position.

Alex Bishop – Junior; Bats: Right; .435/.480/.602, 39 games (College of the Canyons)
After going virtually unrecruited by Division 1 programs out of high school, Bishop comes to Blair Field for his junior year to begin his NCAA career. A star quarterback and catcher in high school, the undersized Bishop would have to go the junior college route before getting people to take notice to his talents (this story on him paints the picture of a player that was born to be a Dirtbag). After having a modest freshman year playing for Moorepark College, Bishop saw his prospect status take off last year at College of the Canyons.

Bishop would wind up claiming SoCal player of the year honors after leading the state of California in batting, tallying 11 three-hit games, and notching 97 total bases despite hitting just one home run. Though he drew only 14 walks on the season, he amazingly fanned just six times in 182 plate appearances. He was nearly as likely to hit a triple as he was strike out whenever he stepped into the batter's box.

Last season's starter, Eric Hutting, is back for his sophomore year so it'll be interesting to see what role Bishop plays for the Dirtbags in 2014, and how well his amazing 2013 numbers can carry over against D1 pitching. It's possible he'll share playing time behind the plate, having thrown out 23% of base runners last year, though Designated Hitter is also a possibility.

Eric Hutting – Sophomore; Bats: Right; .270/.326/.325, 40 games
In 2013, Hutting provided Long Beach the arguably most production at the plate they've seen from a backstop in six years; though much of that can be attributed to the offensive black hole the catcher position has been for the Dirtbags. Hutting's true freshman season started off strong, singling in his first collegiate at bat against eventual 2nd round draft pick Kevin Ziomek of Vanderbilt for the Dirtbags' first base runner of the season. By the end of the second weekend of the year, Hutting was 6-for-16 and showed his offensive versatility with 3 walks, two doubles, two sac bunts, and a bunt single. However, Hutting's hot start was short lived. He would draw only one walk the entire month of March and at one point was in a 5-for-44 slump.

The start of his defensive career was almost the exact opposite. Through his first eight games (seven starts) Hutting had already tallied five passed balls and by March 22 had 22 steals against. As his hitting slowed, however, his defense picked up. Hutting allowed just one passed ball the rest of the way, at one point going 24 straight games without letting a pitch go to the backstop. He ultimately finished with a respectable 33% caught stealing mark.

He finally got his bat back on track in Stockton, going 5-for-9 against Pacific's weak pitching to open the month of April. That would spark a hot streak he would carry for the rest of the season which included two seven-game hitting streaks. Aside from an 0-for-7 series against Cal Sate Fullerton, he would reach base in every game he played for the rest of the year.

Though Hutting ultimately earned the lion's share of catching duties, he split a considerable amount of time with Zach Miller and Royce Murai. The rookie Hutting would start on consecutive days only three times entering the final weekend of the year. On the final Friday of the season, Hutting, who had actually seen his playing time decrease slightly has the season dragged into it's final month, was brought in in the fourth inning of a blow out game against UC Irvine. Miller had started the game and allowed four steals to the Anteaters. Hutting would go on to finish the game and start the next two, catching the final 24 innings of the year for the Dirtbags.

In the summer, Hutting joined the Wenatchee AppleSox of the West Coast League where he managed to get in another 100 at bats. Playing irregularly, Hutting never found his stride in the summer. His average peaked in the .260 range before fading for a final slash line of .220/.262/.300. Playing over 60 games behind the plate between the two seasons may have caused some fatigue to set in by August.

Hutting figures to be more of a role player in the Dirtbag lineup than a piece to build around, but his ability to bunt and line drive swing make him a versatile option for Coach Zepeda. Hutting figures to bat in the latter half of the lineup for most of the season, but if he can continue to hit at the clip he closed the 2013 Dirtbag season with (23-for-66, .348) he could see time in the top two spots as well.

Daniel “DJ” Jackson – Freshman; Bats: Right
The fact that a solid freshman like Jackson will probably begin his Dirtbag career as a third-string catcher shows just how far this position has come for Long Beach State. The lanky rookie has a line drive swing and could become a “middle of the order hitter” as he gets older, according to coach Buckley; although Jackson could make a push for playing time this year on his arm alone. Jackson has a very good poptime behind the plate (1.89 in 2012, according to Perfect Game), and an arm strong enough to make scouts wonder what kind of pitcher he would make.

Albert Perez – Freshman; Bats: Right
There's little information available on Perez other than what can be found on the Long Beach State website (“three-year letterwinner... hit .485 as a senior”). It's probably safe to assume Perez is a walk-on. With Bishop, Hutting, and Jackson already in the mix it's unlikely Perez will see much playing time behind the plate this season. It's worth mentioning he was also listed as a first baseman and outfielder in high school.