BRADENTON, Fl. – Within the walls of the Pirates’ clubhouse this spring, there seems to be a consensus from each and every player to focus strictly on the elements they can control, rather than let external matters clutter up their preparation, demeanor, and mentality. One player who has seemed to embrace that message — not only this season but since joining the Pirates organization in 2012 — is catcher Jacob Stallings.
The Pirates drafted Stallings in the seventh round of the 2012 draft, but he wasn’t considered a seventh round talent at the time. The team was trying to save slot money to sign first round pick Mark Appel, and in the process they drafted guys in rounds 6-10 who would sign for well below slot. Stallings, who was a college senior with no negotiating leverage, ended up signing for $10,000, which was well below the $148,000 slot price.
From that point forward, Stallings was mostly considered a “backup” in the minors, or at least not the focal point at each level he has been placed within the system. Last season, he began the year as the backup to minor league free agent Sebastian Valle in Altoona. In 2014, Stallings was held back another year in Bradenton as Elias Diaz made the move to Altoona, and he lost playing time to newcomer Jin-De Jhang, who made the jump from Jamestown.
This year, Stallings finds himself as the little known backup again in Indianapolis to the highly touted Diaz. This time, however, Stallings has begun to make a name for himself, and he could easily find himself on the short shuttle to Pittsburgh in 2016 or 2017 as a Major League backup catcher.
So, how did Stallings work his way up through the Pirates’ organization as catcher that may have originally been known as minor league depth?
FOCUS AND CONTROL
Let’s go back to the beginning.
“I just try to focus on myself and get better everyday,” Stallings said in the Pirates clubhouse before their first Spring Training game in Lakeland against the Tigers. “I try not to worry about playing time, or even if I’m a backup or a starter, because it is out of my control. I just try to do my best when I’m in the lineup, and I try to help the pitcher do his best anytime I’m back there with him. I want to help the team win. I think that mentality has helped me tune out the clutter and not worry about the stuff I can’t control.”
Defense has always been number one to Stallings, including how he calls a game and works with the pitching staff. The latter was the most impressive thing when he entered the system. Stallings was the primary catcher for State College in 2012, and immediately took over a pitching staff that included players from high school and college in the US, along with players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Honduras, and Lithuania. Within a week, Stallings developed a relationship with every pitcher from every background, learning their tendencies and what they threw.
“My goal is to be the guy that every pitcher likes to throw to,” Stallings said. “I want to be the guy that they feel comfortable with, and any offense I can bring – as I’ve been told my whole career – is just a bonus. That’s how I view it. It kind of helps to take the pressure off of offense, to be honest. I really take pride in my defense, and in trying to call the right pitch and learn from my mistakes, as well. I really do try to be the best I can for the pitcher, whoever is on the mound that night.”
Stallings has always been known as one of the best defensive catchers in the Pirates’ system. Not only does he frame pitches extremely well, but his ability to work with a pitching staff is almost uncanny. His strong defensive skills, large frame, and quick move to throw to second all add up to a player that the Pirates have noticed.
“I take pride in everything back there,” Stallings said. “If I drop a pitch, I get mad. If I miss a block, I get mad. If a runner steals, I feel like it’s my fault. If a guy gets a base hit, I feel like it’s my fault.”
He stops there and laughs, “unless a pitcher shakes me, then it’s his fault.”
“I feel like I really made strides last year in calling the game and game management — the game within the game. Last year, that was what I had a lot of fun learning about. We would game plan with the pitchers and coaches, then take that into the game and execute it the best we could.”
BRING OUT THE LUMBER
The defense is there, but his hitting always left more to be desired. Even with the strong defense, there was doubt that the glove alone could get him to the majors. Last year in Altoona, Stallings made an effort to change that.
In April, Stallings was fighting for playing time behind Valle, but he broke out in May and June, hitting .330 with a .871 OPS. He had an ISO of .155 with 10 doubles and two home runs along the way. Stallings did benefit from an increased BABIP in the summer months (.438 in May and June), but the stroke was there, and you can just sense the confidence of the young man skyrocketing.
Stallings almost forced the Curve’s hand to play him everyday, and he performed down the stretch last year. Playing almost everyday, he hit .308 with a .798 OPS in the last 15 games of the season. Stallings also played extremely well in the playoffs, with the exclamation point being the game-winning, walk-off hit in Game 1 of the Western Division series.
Even with the recent success, Stallings recognizes that he needs to continue to make improvements to his hitting to keep progressing as a baseball player. He has held a consistent strikeout rate around 24% over the past three years, which isn’t the greatest, but a team can live with it if he could get on base otherwise. However, Stallings has seen a steady decline in his BB% over the same amount of time, going from walking 14.7% of the time in 2013 to only 5.1% last season.
Although he would love to strike out less and walk more often, as would anyone, Stallings doesn’t quite see it as a terrible sign of his performance dropping. He credits a more aggressive approach at the plate as the reason for his better batting numbers, and that aggressiveness tends to also lead to strikeouts and minimal walks.
“I would definitely like to strike out less, like any player; but, to be honest, I don’t mind walking as much, because it showed I was a lot more aggressive last year. In the past, I was kind of waiting for that perfect pitch. I enjoyed being more aggressive. I was ready to hit every pitch.”
Stallings does know that his two-strike approach needs to improve, stating that his aggressive nature may have hurt him at times. A big thing that many players have talked about is cutting the plate in half and looking for your pitch to drive, and Stallings echoed that sentiment.
“I’ve talked with some of the hitting coaches,” Stallings said. “There isn’t anything different swing-wise. I will hope to just tweak my approach and tone down the aggressiveness with two-strikes. I found myself chasing some pitches that I didn’t want to chase last year, but I want to continue to stay in my zone and make the pitcher come to me, even with two strikes.”
Ultimately, staying aggressive before two strikes is something that he wants to continue.
“Pre-two strikes, I want to be the same hitter as I was last year — ready to hit as soon as the ball enters my zone. I enjoyed hitting more last year, because I was more aggressive. I was confident. I believed in what I was doing.”
BORN TO COMPETE
It has been instilled in the mind of Jacob Stallings since being a little boy that he needs to “maximize his potential every day.”
Stallings is the son of Vanderbilt University’s men’s basketball head coach Kevin Stallings. The elder Stallings has been coaching college basketball since 1982, when he was an assistant with Purdue. He has since been an assistant at Kansas and the head coach of Illinois State before taking the job at Vandy in 1999. As the head coach of the Commodores, who happen to be on a four game winning streak in the SEC, K. Stallings has won two SEC Coach of the Year honors (2007, 2010) and has coached his team to win the SEC Tournament in 2012.
Jacob Stallings says that he communicates with his dad, one way or another, every day. He even had his father as the best man in his wedding. The relationship that he has with his father has helped him become the competitor he is today.
“Ever since I was little, I think he has helped shape my mentality as an athlete and as a baseball player,” Jacob Stallings said of his father. “I remember in elementary school, I’d play soccer, and if it was cold and rainy, he’d say to not let the elements affect how you play. I was like 5 years old when he was telling me this.”
Kevin Stallings has coached multiple players that have moved on to play in the NBA, including current Golden State Warriors’ center Festus Ezeli, who was a 1st round pick in 2012. He also played against Isiah Thomas while in high school.
“Obviously, he a coach, so he knows what it takes,” Jacob Stalling said. “He knows what the elite athletes do and what separates good players from great players. There are some freaks out there that are extremely talented and have a great mentality to go with it. Then again, there are guys that aren’t as talented, like myself, that need to be elite mentally, and that’s what I try to do. I try to maximize my potential every day.”
FROM FUTURE COACH TO FUTURE CATCHER
Stallings has received praise for his ability to work with a pitching staff and his defense behind the plate since day one. However, most of the early praise came with a prediction that he would one day be a future coach, with his defense not being enough to make the majors. That has since changed.
“Jacob Stallings is a wonderful story about his development,” Clint Hurdle said. “He’s just persevered, stayed in play, and continued to move up in our organization.”
Stallings now looks like a future MLB backup catcher. A big part of that was his offense increasing enough to justify having him in the majors. He projects as a Chris Stewart clone, due to his tall, lean frame, agility and strong defense behind the plate, and an ability to hit for average with not much power. Stallings might still have a future as a coach, but if the Stewart comp holds up, that would have to wait until after a long MLB career.