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.

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