Monday, November 28, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 — Catchers

This is the first installment in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. We begin at catcher.

To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.

Coming Friday: First basemen.

• Catcher — Colt Morton (2001-03)
NC State has been blessed with an abundance of excellent catchers over the years. I considered about a dozen of them, but always came back to Colt Morton. Blessed with a great name, movie-star good looks, upper-deck raw power and surprising athleticism and flexibility for a big man — 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds — Morton was the complete package behind the plate. The son of a personal trainer, his flexibility was especially noteworthy, and no doubt helped him to get into a low crouch, move around fluidly and set a nice low target for his pitchers. While there was a little too much swing-and-miss in his game (174 career K’s, including 76 in 267 plate appearances his freshman season), his power was a game-changer. Most of his home runs were moon shots, the kind of majestic, tape-measure bombs that demoralize opposing pitchers. Along with Brian Wright, he is one of just two NC State players ever to hit 10 or more home runs in three consecutive seasons (12 in 2001, 13 in 2002, and 19 in 2003). He was easily the most irreplaceable player on NC State’s first-ever NCAA Super Regional team, the 2003 squad, which went 45-18 despite playing just 10 games at Doak Field due to stadium renovations. He led the team in homers (19), RBIs (54) and walks (43) while guiding a talented but razor-thin pitching staff that featured three All-Americans. His game-tying bomb vs. Virginia Commonwealth at the 2003 NCAA Wilson Regional not only left Fleming Stadium, but also cleared the parking lot beyond the left-field fence, estimated by a Wilson Tobs official at about 500 feet. Morton belted 35 doubles to go with his 44 career homers, giving him a .520 career slugging percentage. Consistent from start to finish, Morton batted .260, .263 and .265 in his three seasons at NC State, not great averages, no, but he augmented that with 98 walks, giving him a .366 on-base percentage. He averaged a homer every 15.07 at-bats for his career, and upped that ratio to every 12.5 ABs in ’03. Defensively, he was a plus receiver, and fielded his position adroitly, blocking balls in the dirt, and vacuuming up bunts and dribblers in front of the plate. He had a plus arm and cut down the running game. He handled pitchers extremely well and was always — ALWAYS — the man in charge. On fly balls to the outfield with runners on base, Morton’s call to the outfield (“no tag” when the runner wasn’t tagging up, or the number of the base to throw to when the runner was tagging) was audible throughout even the loudest and most hostile stadiums. Most significant, at least to me, Colt Morton was the last NC State catcher to call pitches without prompts from the dugout. There are reasons why college coaches call every pitch, not the least of which is their tendency to be control freaks. The biggest factor, however, is the amount of skull work entailed in calling pitches. A catcher has to know his pitchers. He has to know the opposing hitters. As the game wears on, he has to remember how certain hitters were pitched, the exact pitch sequences, in previous at-bats. He has to understand game situations — the ball-strike count, the number of outs, runners on base and which bases, and whether those runners are a threat to steal or hit-and-run. And he usually has to boil all that down in a split second, pitch after pitch, before signaling the next offering from his pitcher. It’s not easy and it takes tremendous effort to learn. Morton was as smart behind the plate as he was physically gifted. His baseball IQ and understanding of game situations were unsurpassed. And all of that separated Colt Morton from the rest of a crowded field of NC State catchers.

• Second Team — Greg Almond (1992-93)

Greg Almond was NC State’s best defensive catcher of the last 36 years, and the Wolfpack, as mentioned previously, has had more than its share of great backstops. Catcher’s ERA is largely discounted by statheads. At some point, though, you have to believe the data and assume it’s not just a coincidence or luck. In the three years before Greg Almond arrived at NC State (1989-91), the staff ERAs were 4.54, 4.93 and 4.18. During Almond’s two seasons, that dropped precipitously, to 2.98 and 3.48. In the three years after he left, the staff ERA ballooned to 5.01, 5.08 and 6.95. To be fair, Almond wasn’t the only variable in the equation. In particular, the 1992 starting rotation may have been the best in school history, and the ’93 rotation wasn’t far behind. Still, behind every great pitching staff is a great catcher, one who can give a pat on the back or a kick in the ass as needed, who can be trusted to block that 0-2 breaking ball in the dirt, cut down the running game, and quickly field balls dribbled in front of home plate. That was Greg Almond. Wild pitches and passed balls both dropped by about half during his two years, and while the rules of baseball charge wild pitches to the pitcher, don’t think for a second that the catcher isn’t a huge factor. It was a rare sight, indeed, to see Almond chasing an errant pitch to the backstop. The running game slowed with Almond in the lineup, with the number of successful steals and total stolen-base attempts dropping by about 25 percent. And rather than risk running into outs, opponents tended to play station-to-station with Almond behind the plate. And if you didn’t believe the numbers, there was always the eye test. Almond was like a hockey goalie. Balls in the dirt got knocked down and smothered. Short-hop throws from the outfield or relayed from infielders never seemed to handcuff him. He set up a nice, low target and framed pitches well. Pitchers loved working with him. A good hitter overshadowed by several great hitting teammates and one extra-famous in-conference rival, Almond batted .251 with eight homers and 38 RBIs as a junior for the Wolfpack’s 1992 ACC championship team. A year later, he hit .315 with five homers and 31 RBIs for NC State’s 49-game winner, which was the school record for W’s until 2013. He posted a .281 career average with a .377 OBP and a .461 slugging percentage. Surrounded by the likes of Pat Clougherty, Tim Tracey, Vinny Hughes, Andy Barkett and Robbie Bark, standout hitters one and all, Almond’s offense was overlooked, even taken for granted. Then there was the presence of Georgia Tech’s Jason Varitek, an all-world catcher and future big league star who overshadowed everyone in college baseball those years. Varitek was genuinely great, especially with a bat in his hands. Behind the plate, however, Almond was better. In fact, Almond was easily the ACC’s best defensive catcher in both 1992 and ’93, no contest, and NC State’s best defensive catcher since 1981, hands down.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016

About four years ago, I was talking with a major league scout — a cross checker for an American League East team, I believe — who asked who my favorite NC State player of all time was. He then started asking me about the best NC State players I’d seen at each position on the diamond. Our conversation was interrupted when other scouts arrived and changed the subject, but that conversation stuck with me and got me to thinking about which players I would choose for my own personal all-time NC State all-star team.

Not to boast, but no one is more qualified to choose such a team. I started working NC State baseball games in 1981 and have worked and/or covered Wolfpack baseball pretty much continuously ever since, serving as radio broadcaster, reporter, public address announcer, official scorer, and baseball SID. While I don’t consider myself an historian, NC State baseball was my primary occupation for about three decades, and I still follow the program closely. I feel quite safe in saying that I’ve seen more Wolfpack baseball games — somewhere just south of 2,000 and counting — than anyone alive, and I dare say I know more NC State baseball history than anyone, alive or dead. I know where the bodies are buried.

Four years after my conversation with that AL cross checker, I sat down at the computer and began to put this thing together, figuring that if nothing else it would be a pleasant way to pass some time during a long, boring offseason. It was hard work at times, but it also was a blast. For about six weeks, it was all I did. By summer’s end, to give myself some perspective and to let my thoughts percolate on low heat for a bit, I had to force myself away from it for a few months before returning to it in November. The time away helped. Once I got back to it the remaining entries came together quickly.

A huge thanks to Cavan Fosnes for allowing me to plunder and pillage the records in the NC State Athletics Communications office, which gave me some substance, numbers and verifiable detail to fill in the gaps that exist in my memory. In particular, going through the old box scores and scorebooks helped me determine who played which positions, especially in the outfield. I’m doing left, center and right fields as separate positions, and some of those distinctions had grown a little fuzzy over the years.

My choices here are based on both objective analysis and subjective opinion. I tried to be completely objective at all times, but I had to break a few ties and personal opinion came into play a time or two. I had no axes to grind with any individual player or players. I rooted hard for every guy who ever wore that uniform. Still do. I have my favorites but I also have well-informed reasons why they’re my favorites. I saw all of them play. Most of them, I saw every game of their college career. You can disagree with my choices and you won’t necessarily be wrong, but please understand that I’ve taken painstaking care to make sure I considered everyone who is worthy. With that said, it’s certainly possible that someone fell through the cracks. If I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent.

Some choices were easy, others quite difficult. I used a few loosely applied criteria to sort out some of the tougher calls, but there were no hard rules or tiebreakers. I didn’t rule out anyone who played just one year at NC State, a group that includes such standouts as Greg Briley, Tony Ellison, Jamie Wolkosky, Mark Wells and Adam Everett. Longevity and peak performance were the two factors I most frequently had to weigh against one another. Each case was different, and some of these choices were subjective. It’s my blog, after all.

All-America and All-ACC honors definitely played a role, but they were not be-all, end-all either. I reserved the right to use those honors as I saw fit. If a player was All-ACC twice, for instance, that didn’t necessarily break a tie with another player who was All-ACC just once, or even never. Ditto for making an All-America team. Two of NC State’s greatest players, Brian Bark and Jake Weber, never made All-America, not once between them, which says more about the people naming All-America teams than it does about Bark or Weber. I took extra care to remember the seven NC State players who were chosen to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team. Six of them were eligible for this team, including Bark and Weber.

This All-NC State team includes players who played between the years 1981 and 2016. There’s no question that Mike Caldwell, Chris Cammack and Steve Martin from the 1968 College World Series team would be included on just about any list of the greatest NC State baseball players. I fully acknowledge that, but other than a few games I attended when I was in high school, I never saw them play. This is about players who were active while I was working the games. Current players were not eligible. Those stories are still being written. Players who began their college career prior to 1981 but finished in 1981 or later were eligible. I saw them for at least one year, and what I know of their pre-1981 exploits were considered and grandfathered in. This affected only a few players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

Some surprises popped up the deeper I delved into this. Some players had far better careers than I remembered, while others weren’t really as good. Some I remembered as being good but I was surprised at just how great they were. I was surprised at how little depth there was at some positions, such as the two outfield corners. Stunned, in fact, but part of that had to do with coaches moving players around and not settling them into one position. Because of that, several players qualified at utility-DH, more than I’d expected or intended, while left and right field were left a little thin. On the other hand, I was equally taken aback at how deep several other positions were, such as catcher and second base. NC State has had some great catchers and second basemen, and because of that, some players who were more than good enough to make this team at another position wound up in the honorable mention list. So it goes.

First up will be catcher. Stay tuned.