State of the Hogs: Koch gets help behind the plate

By: Clay Henry
Published: Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Arkansas catcher Zach Plunkett returns to the plate Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, during fall practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas catcher Zach Plunkett returns to the plate Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, during fall practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Grant Koch is coming off a great summer with the USA Collegiate National Team. He was the starting catcher on a tour against teams from several countries, including Japan and Cuba.

The bat came alive over the summer. Koch played in all 20 games for Team USA this summer, one of only three players to do that for the select squad that won the world title. He led the team with a .372 batting average, after batting .260 for the Hogs.

That's great news for the catcher likely to be the best in the SEC. The better news is that he doesn't have to be the catch every game for the Arkansas baseball team next spring.

Koch started 63 of the 64 games the Hogs played last season. Alex Gosser, his backup, was nursing a sore throwing shoulder. There wasn't much of an option to get Koch from behind the plate.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn't want that kind of wear and tear on the Fayetteville junior this season. And, he doesn't think it will be necessary.

“We've got great competition at that spot this fall,” Van Horn said Tuesday just minutes before putting his team through the first practice of the school year.

Indeed, Zach Plunkett is one of three other catchers who went through the school year's first workout on Tuesday. Plunkett caught in 39 games for TCU over two seasons before sitting out last season after transferring to Arkansas.

“Zach is a great defensive catcher and I don't say that often,” Van Horn said. “Zach can flat out catch and throw. His bat is coming on, too.”

It's no secret, either. Van Horn said pro scouts are interested to see Plunkett hit this fall. They know he can make it at the next level behind the plate.

“Believe me, people are watching Zach,” Van Horn said.

They'll get to see him behind the plate in the spring, unless one of the other bright prospects jumps ahead on what is a deep Arkansas roster at that position.

Freshmen Casey Opitz and Brady Disher both got some turns in infield practice Tuesday. Opitz, who hails from Centennial, Colo., was highly regarded when he signed with the Hogs. He was a top 400 prospect in the MLB Draft but fell to the 27th round because of sign-ability concerns.

“We'll see how they do, but I do know they are going to get some valuable experience this fall,” Van Horn said. “That will help Casey and Brady out down the line.”

The experience Koch gained over the summer was huge. Some thought he was due some time off after such a busy season with no time off. Koch said he wasn't tired or ready to take a seat this fall.

“I'm excited,” he said. “I got to see a lot of different things this summer. I saw different baseball cultures. I built some great relationships.”

Van Horn said it's always worth it to play for the Team USA squad.

“You learn how you stack up,” Van Horn said. “You learn from different coaches. The four he had were all from the West Coast. That's a different style. He talked about that when he got back.”

It's more small ball, with different systems on holding runners, fielding bunts and pickoff plays. And there was learning about the Japan system.

“Yeah, that was a lot different,” Koch said. “They pitch different. They spin the ball a lot more. They play the running game different. It's much more different than even the West Coast.

“I learned things that will be of benefit down the road. The strategy is much different. They rely much more on the running game. The way they play the bunts is much different.”

Pitcher Blaine Knight said those were the things Koch came home talking about.

“The spin rate from the pitchers was different,” Knight said. “He said there were some pitches that he'd never seen. It was just a whole different baseball culture, just great competition.”

Koch said he improved his hitting over the summer, relying on his legs to help an already quick bat through the hitting zone.

“Maybe that's what I did more this summer,” he said. “But one thing I thought happened, just more of my hits fell in. I thought I ended the year hitting it hard, but didn't get much out of it.”

Van Horn had the same take.

“I thought Grant was a bit of a tough luck hitter late in the year,” Van Horn said. “For instance, in the regional there were a lot of balls he hit hard. He just didn't have much to show for some good at bats. That changed this summer.

“I talked to his coaches (at Team USA) about that. You know what, he wasn't guaranteed a spot on that team. They brought in three catchers for two spots. They sent one home. They liked Grant a lot.”

While Koch was playing every day, Knight put the baseball on the shelf for the summer. He didn't throw one pitch after making the decision to return for his junior season. He was draft eligible because of an early birthday but his asking price was too much for pro teams.

“I just thought I was worth more than they did,” Knight said. “I just decided to come back and try to get bigger and stronger.”

The goal is to add some weight to his 6-3 frame. Knight was listed at 165 pounds last season, but might have been below that by season's end. He beams about adding some pounds this summer.

“I'm up to 172,” he said. “That's the most I've ever weighed, absolutely.

“In this league you have to be bigger and stronger. I can tell you that 172 is not my goal. When the season starts I want to be 180 to 185.

“It's just hard for me to gain weight. It's just not easy. I'm eating anything and everything. I'm lifting heavy. I'm lifting often. I'm putting on muscle.”

There were weeks of just lifting this summer.

“I put the ball down for the bulk of the summer,” he said. “I started throwing again three weeks ago. I can tell you that was pretty weird. I'd never done that.

“It was like my arm was confused when I started throwing again. I had no arm slot.

“But I've got it back. I'm throwing great. It's good to get started. The season starts today. We've got some unfinished business.”

It's back to the grind. The goal is to get to the College World Series in Omaha. The Hogs have added a catcher who has been there. Plunkett was on two CWS teams at TCU.

That's the kind of help Grant Koch and the Hogs are glad to add.

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