By Jeffrey Lutz/The Wichita Eagle
WICHITA, Kan. – Catcher is becoming a more offense-oriented position, especially at the highest levels of college and professional baseball. Catchers who excel defensively are beginning to stand out.
It’s the perfect time, then, for Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner to come along. His offensive statistics, while impressive, might not have been good enough for him to win the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top college catcher, but his defense and game-calling abilities certainly were.
Stuart took home the honor, which has been given by the Greater Wichita Sports Commission since 2000, at the organization’s annual banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Thursday, which also honored local athletes and coaches and featured a keynote speech by baseball Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage.
Turner beat out Georgia Tech’s Zane Evans and New Mexico’s Mitch Garver, a two-time finalist.
Turner threw out 51 percent of attempted base stealers for the Rebels and helped guide a pitching staff that boasted a 3.07 ERA. Turner’s old-school approach to the position helped him get drafted in the third round by the Minnesota Twins earlier this month.
“Just being a catcher, you have to do it from an early stage,” Turner said of his elite defense. “I’ve just always taken pride on it. People say home runs give them thrills or striking out somebody gives pitchers a thrill. My thrill always has been throwing that guy out.
“Playing catcher is probably the only position I’ll ever be able to play. Luckily I can play that position defensively, and I take pride in trying to be the best catcher out there and help my pitchers.”
Turner batted .374 with five homers and 52 RBIs as a junior, his first season since transferring from junior college. Compared to the other finalists, Turner’s numbers weren’t quite as impressive as they appear standing alone.
Evans was perhaps the nation’s best power-hitting catcher, leading the Yellow Jackets in with a .361 batting average while clubbing 14 home runs with a .590 slugging percentage. Garver batted .390, and his 96 hits ranked seventh in the country.
Each finalist’s unique set of skills is a testament to the evolution of catching, as most major-league organizations value players who can balance the defensive aspect while also being a threat at the plate.
“Some teams (want) strictly defense and some teams are strictly defense, they just want a hitter back there,” Turner said. “Nowadays, it’s a big bonus if you have a little bit of both. …This has been a lucky year for me. The ball kind of rolled my way, and I got a little offense going. But for me, it’s still defensive pride.”
Eighteen of 35 past finalists have played in the major leagues, including 11 this season. That’s more than luck in picking potential recipients — drafting college catchers allows organizations to acquire players already far along in the development process who are natural leaders.
All three 2013 finalists were drafted in the top 10 rounds this month – Evans went in the fourth round to the Royals and Garver in the ninth round to Minnesota, where he’s a teammate of Turner for the Twins’ rookie-level affiliate.
“Me and Mitch have already been together for … two weeks,” Turner said. “Great guy, great work ethic, and I hope he motivates me and I hope I motivate him. One day we could be playing together in the big leagues, as well as Zane. We’ll see him down the road, and hopefully all of us will be in the big leagues looking back on this day.”