By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State is facing two key challenges heading into the upcoming baseball season: choosing a starting catcher and finalizing their starting rotation.
The Nittany Lions have a pair of talented catchers competing for one position, which is a problem any coach is happy to have, while the pitching staff is seeking to fill two vacancies in the starting rotation.
In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher are the core of the defense. Every play begins with a signal from the catcher followed by a delivery from his counterpart on the mound. Pitchers share a unique bond with their catcher that is critical to a team's success day in and day out.
When a pitcher is struggling, it's the catcher who speaks to him first. A catcher should know his pitcher's strengths and weaknesses, when to visit the mound and when to leave his pitcher alone and should understand what he can say to calm his pitcher down and what adjustments should be made in order to succeed.
"I think it's really important to be on the same page with your catcher and it's important to be able to communicate with them," said senior pitcher Steven Hill. "When I'm struggling, these guys are going to know the right thing to say or do and whether to talk to me or not."
"Being able to understand each pitcher is important," said junior catcher Alex Farkes. "They're all different. I have to say different things to different pitchers and understand them as individuals. Getting to know them is important for a lot of reasons."
The catcher is similar to the quarterback in football. Like a quarterback, the catcher is responsible for directing their teammates from behind the plate because they can see the entire field.
"We get to see everything," said sophomore catcher J.C. Coban. "It's one of those positions where you're in control of everything, but you don't have to be everywhere at the same time. Everybody's looking in towards you because that's where the ball's going to be."
Leadership is crucial as a catcher mediates between the coach and the pitcher, the coach and the umpire, and the pitcher and the umpire. The catcher is the first to visit the mound and settle the pitcher as well as the first to tell the coach when his pitcher's having an off game.
"Every single play means something when you're catching," said Farkes. "It's a leadership position where we're the ones looking out and surveying the whole field."
"They control the pitchers, the umpires and even the coaches," said pitching coach Jason Bell on the catcher's role behind the plate.
Penn State has two experienced catchers competing for the starting job. Coban edged Farkes in starts last year with 29 compared to 24, but both will play an instrumental role in the lineup this season. The plan is to have them switch between playing catcher and, at times, fulfilling the designated hitter position.
"One of them will probably catch, one of them will see some time at [Designated Hitter], so they'll both be in games often," said Bell.
The benefit of having two starting catchers lies in the ability to rest one of them between starts.
"The biggest thing in having two catchers is that we are able to keep them both fresh throughout the year," said Bell.
Both Farkes and Coban share a healthy, competitive relationship. They battle each and every practice to earn the right to start, but at the end of the day, they respect each other as friends and teammates.
"It's fun because we always go out there competing," said Coban. "We understand that there's only one sport out there, but at the same time, if he's out there, I'm going to back him up and if I'm out there I know he's going to back me up."
As for the pitchers, Penn State returns a veteran pitching staff, despite the loss of weekend starters in John Walter (MLB draft), Joe Kurrasch (MLB draft) and Mike Franklin (graduation). The bullpen, however, remains intact with a vast amount of potential, the only difference being that each pitcher has gained experience from last season.
The process for finding the next two weekend starters will be gradual as coach Bell searches for standouts among the current staff.
"Typically what you're looking for in a starter is a guy that can command at least three pitches at any time," said Bell. "He's got to be able to command off-speed pitches behind in the count, whereas a reliever can get away with if you have one or two pitches."
Bell has seen a lot of improvement from senior pitcher Dave Walkling and junior pitcher Greg Welsh, who each made significant contributions to the bullpen in 2012. Sophomore Patton Taylor, who started in one midweek game last year, has also proven himself in the offseason.
In the end, coach Bell will know when he's able to solidify a starting rotation. Until then, the catchers will continue to work with the pitching staff on forging bonds strong enough to withstand any potential challenges headed their way.