Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Captain Casey: Bulkier catcher leads Diamond Hogs into 2020
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz watches Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, during practice at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE You’ve heard of the “freshman 15,” but for some adding a little weight comes a little later in the life of a college athlete.
For Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz, it was more like the junior 25.
Development is the common theme for college baseball players. Sometimes it’s radical change, but often it’s just the natural maturation of a young athlete.
Opitz thinks packing some good weight on his 5-11 frame this past summer was part by design and also just a natural maturation process.
“I did change my eating habits and really went with good nutrition,” he said. “And, I worked hard in the weight room with Blaine Kinsley and our strength staff.
“But I think part of it was just a natural process of getting older.”
The result is obvious. He’s gone from 170 to nearly 200 pounds.
“I now float between 198 and 200,” Opitz said. “My legs are much bigger. I’m just thicker everywhere and it should help me through a long season. You are going to get fatigued catching every day and adding strength is going to help.”
Then, he paused and flashed that big smile, he said, “Now, I finally look like a catcher, not a middle infielder.”
And, Opitz is not just any catcher, perhaps the best catcher in college baseball.
That’s his reputation after he split time last summer with North Carolina State’s Patrick Bailey — another great player — on a tour with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
Told Opitz would be on the cover of this issue of Hawgs Illustrated, Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs approved.
“He ought to be on the cover of Baseball America,” Hobbs said. “He’s the best catcher in the country. He’s the best I’ve ever worked with. He makes my job easy.”
Hobbs said his first question asked to Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn when hired late last fall, “Who is behind the plate? Basically, he told me not to worry about it and explained everything about Casey.”
There are no questions about Opitz now. Hobbs loves his catcher.
Opitz is the one who said his 2019 body type compared to a middle infielder, but Hobbs went one step further in describing the play of the catcher.
“He’s athletic, like a shortstop behind the plate,” Hobbs said. “He gets to balls he shouldn’t get to as far as his blocking game. Our pitchers can bounce it in the dirt with a runner at second and Casey is still going to throw them out at third. People don’t try to run on us. I’m told Japan stopped running on him last summer.”
And, that’s saying something. Strategy in the Japanese baseball system starts with the running game.
“They just play a different style,” Opitz said. “They run early and bunt late.”
But both Opitz and Bailey put a halt to that.
“I threw out runners in the first two games and Patrick did the same thing,” Opitz said. “They didn’t run any more for the rest of the two weeks.”
Opitz said the trip overseas was a treat.
“It was the first time I’d left the country,” he said. “To travel like that and then to wear the uniform with 'USA' across my chest, that’s something I can tell my grandkids.”
There was a lot to take in, on and off the field. It started with watching Japan take the field for warm-ups.
“They were screaming, loud,” Opitz said. “We were cool and calm. I don’t know if it was scare tactics or what. They just do things differently.”
Opitz said the experience was just learning how the top players in collegiate baseball work on the trip.
Van Horn, with experience coaching Team USA, said it would benefit both Heston Kjerstad and Opitz. Both were standouts for Team USA this summer.
“I got good reports about both,” Van Horn said. “I know it helped them both, too.
“I’ve coached those teams and you just figure out eventually that they are all going to be major leaguers. I remember when I had that team and my shortstop was Alex Bregman and the second baseman was Dansby Swanson.
“They are both in the major leagues now and a bunch of those guys from that team are in the bigs.
“So when you get to 2025, these guys that Casey and Heston played with are going to be big leaguers.
“What I told them, watch them and see how they do things because they are the best players in their age group.”
It made an impression. Both have been spectacular since coming home.
Casey Opitz is shown on the cover of the 2020 Hawgs Illustrated baseball preview. To learn more about the magazine call 1-800-757-6277 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Photo by Ben Goff)
Opitz said, “You see how the best work and live and you make notes. Overall, it’s an incredible experience. It may be as simple as how they prepare their mind the day of a game. You see how the pitchers prepare. It’s seeing big league stuff and learning thought process.”
And, it can be motivation to kick preparation into another gear.
“Heston has really worked hard,” Van Horn said. “You can see what Casey has done with his body. He’s worked hard and is so much stronger.
“Heston had a great fall and he’s worked all the way through Christmas. His body looks better and his speed is up.”
Kinsley is in his third year as strength coach. Most have made gains, but none as dramatic as Opitz.
“Blaine got me eating right and my brothers reinforced that when I was home this summer,” Opitz said. “I know I’m stronger and I saw this fall a little more pop with my bat. That was motivation to continue to eat right.”
Van Horn sees the power.
“Opitz hit 30 to 40 homers in batting practice this fall,” Van Horn said. “He’s got more explosive power with that added strength.”
It was more evidence to the team in the fall that Opitz was the right leader. He was voted captain, along with junior Kevin Kopps.
“We had 12 to 13 getting votes,” Van Horn said. “With Casey it was about unanimous.”
Van Horn wasn’t surprised. Opitz was like a captain as a sophomore.
“I told him before last year that to go ahead and lead like a captain, because he was ready to (lead),” Van Horn said. “He was a team captain last year to me.
“It’s perfect since he’s a catcher. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, your catcher as a captain. It’s been like that in our program.
“We’ve had great catchers leading us like James McCann and Grant Koch. We’ve had the kind of catcher you can trust to call pitches.”
Hobbs was comfortable letting Opitz call pitches last year. The SEC allows earpieces for catchers to speed up the process of bench communication, but it was probably not needed with Opitz.
“Casey probably called 90 percent of the pitches,” Hobbs said. “He might look over on some big pitches, but I knew two weeks into fall intra squads he could call a game.
“In conference games, I might help him to remember the scouting report the first time through the batting order. Then, I might remind him what pitch they hit or what we got them out on the second time through.
“The catcher ought to be calling pitches. He can see things I can’t from the dugout.”
It takes heavy preparation leading up to a series.
“Coach Hobbs and I got close last year with the time we spent on scouting reports,” Opitz said. “He’s a great leader.
“He wants me calling the game, but he’s a great lifeline. If I get stuck, I ask him for help.”
Opitz is more than good behind the plate. He’s a good clutch hitter, too. He provided key hits in big victories over Missouri, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and in the NCAA super regional against Ole Miss.
“There were a lot of big hits,” said Nate Thompson, the hitting coach. “Casey is one of my all-time favorites with all the different things he brings to the table.
“He’s smart, savvy and coachable. He switch hits and is a tough out. He’ll take pitches and foul them off. And, he’s not one side dominant as a switch hitter.”
Opitz said there is a family argument over who pushed him to be a switch hitter.
“My oldest brother and my dad both fight over who started me,” Opitz said. “But I do remember I was 8 when I first was a switch hitter.
“I don’t know who made the decision, but both told me that I’d have a lot more opportunities as a switch hitting catcher.”
Both brothers, Jake and Shane, played pro baseball as middle infielders. Jake was a four-year regular at Nebraska and played in the College World Series. Both are still coaching.
“I just grew up in baseball,” Opitz said. “I remember our entire family loading up in a Suburban for the drive from (the Denver area) to Lincoln for Jake’s games. That’s when we started hearing about Dave Van Horn. Those eight-hour drives to Nebraska got our family close.”
Opitz is a glue guy who helps make the Hogs a close bunch and a threat to make a third straight CWS trip. He’s animated behind the plate with constant feedback to pitches. Teammates say he’s that way behind the scenes, too.
“Character,” said Casey Martin. “He’s street smart, book smart. And, he’s the guy who is going to tell you when you mess up.”
That might not be on-the-field mess ups.
“No, you can say something (pop culture wise) and he’s going to be the one to correct you,” Martin said. “He’s at the other end of the room and he’ll hear it and he’s coming at you.
“It’s fun, too. Like I said, just a character.”
Kjerstad said, “I’m going to say what sets him apart is style, not the best. He just throws on anything. He might have on tennis shoes that don’t match. I roomed with him as a freshman and I’ve seen that.”
Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander, probable weekend starters, love their catcher.
“Yes, that dude is a character, but he knows how to handle each pitcher,” Wicklander said. “He’s got antics behind the plate. Instant feedback, but he can talk you through stuff. He’s definitely our leader.”
Noland said, “He’s funny and also a little ornery. He holds you accountable and if you need it, he’ll get into you. I love it because I’m a competitor, too. I want that.”
The feedback comes on every pitch. Opposing coaches commented on it in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional. Both Central Connecticut coach Charlie Hickey and TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle praised Opitz for the way he handled his pitchers.
“That got back to me and that was much appreciated,” Opitz said. “Those are well-respected men.
“I do want to provide instant feedback to my pitchers. If they hit their spot, I want them to know it. I want to reward them, encourage them. If a pitcher needs confidence, he can look to me.
“So providing feedback with a fist pump or a thumbs up or an attaboy is what I feel is part of my game. It was awesome those coaches noticed.”
It’s all thumbs up for the 2020 Razorbacks. There are veterans along with great veteran players from the last two recruiting classes.
Martin at shortstop and Kjerstad in right field are preseason All-Americans and predicted to be first-round draft picks. Opitz might be a second-round pick.
Wicklander and Noland lead another standout pitching staff. There are four or five good candidates to join them in the starting rotation. The bullpen is deep.
“We’ve got a few weeks of practice to figure out the identity of this team,” Opitz said. “We can hit, pitch and field. We have the tools.”
They will play one of the nation’s most ambitious schedules.
The schedule includes a trip to Houston to play Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor. There are also road series at Troy and Michigan State, along with an attractive midweek game against Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
“You have to go on the road to get home games returned,” Van Horn said. “You find out about your team on the road. We will get these teams back here the next year when our arms are younger.”
As far as this team, Van Horn said, “There are more good arms than last year. We have more depth as far as position players, more options.”
As far as last year’s team that went 46-20 and shared the SEC West at 20-10, Van Horn said it was a matter of staying healthy.
“Our team had to evolve a lot from the start,” he said. “And, we just didn’t lose pitchers. We’d have one down for a week or two like Jacob Kostyshock or Cody Scroggins, but not at the same time. And, we had everyone ready at the end.”
As far as starting pitching rotation, the Hogs return Noland and Wicklander as weekend starters. Juniors Kopps and Kole Ramage will likely get chances to start.
“The key man could be Caleb Bolden,” Van Horn said of the redshirt sophomore out last year after Tommy John surgery to his elbow.
“He’s 13 months out from surgery and going pretty good. He’s shortened his motion and has a good mound presence.”
Both Van Horn and Hobbs also mentioned lefty returnee Caden Monke and hard-throwing freshman Blake Adams as candidates to start.
“We are building up (pitch counts for) all of those guys right now as possible starters,” Hobbs said. “You see how they perform.
“As far as what I saw in the fall, you might argue that Monke and Adams were the best in the fall of all of them.
“Bolden was really good at the end of the fall and we shut him down on December 8 until we came back. He’s had no setbacks. He’s got three pitches and has been good. He’s a plus strike thrower.”
Some will settle in middle relief, annually a strength for Van Horn teams. The closer is still up in the air.
“We still have that to evaluate,” Van Horn said.
Returnees Zeb Vermillion, Elijah Trest and freshman Peyton Pallette are among the options to replace flame-throwing closer Matt Cronin.
Vermillion has always been a hard thrower, but he lacked a top off-speed pitch. That has changed.
“Vermillion has developed a great pitch, maybe a change-up-type slider,” Van Horn said. “In the fall, our hitters went back to the dugout shaking their heads because they didn’t know what it was. They didn’t hit it.
“Trest throws 94-95 with sink and just needs a secondary pitch. Pallette has a really good breaker and throws 92-95. He can throw it with serious spin.”
As far as the position players, it starts with Opitz. There is healthy competition between Dominic Tamez and Cason Tollett for the backup spot.
“Tamez and Tollett will both get some time,” Van Horn said. “Both have right-hand power and both could get in as a DH.”
There are options around the infield, but Martin will be the shortstop. Matt Goodheart would play first, but he’s unable to throw because of shoulder surgery.
“When Matt is 100 percent, he’ll play there,” Van Horn said. “But he’s behind where Trevor Ezell was this time of year with the surgery.”
Cole Austin and Jacob Nesbit both could play first or third. They shared third in the fall. Both are solid defensively.
“It could be a rookie at second base,” Van Horn said.
And, the rookie might be 17-year-old midterm arrival Robert Moore from Leawood, Kan., son of Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
“We could play Moore or Nesbit at second,” Van Horn said. “Moore could be Casey’s backup at short.”
Moore is a switch hitter and that provides a lot of options, too.
Returnee Zack Gregory blossomed in the summer after redshirting last season. He can play outfield, third or second.
Kjerstad anchors the outfield in left. Christian Franklin moves from left to center where Dominic Fletcher was among the nation’s best defenders.
Braydon Webb can play in the infield, too, but is likely the starter in left field.
Van Horn is usually slow to praise newcomers, but not with Webb, a First-Team All-America pick at Grayson (Texas) Community College.
“He’s a real athletic, quick twitch guy,” Van Horn said. “He has a bunch of bat speed. He can play all three outfield positions and on the infield.
“He’s strong and could also hit leadoff. He’s 200 (pounds), a big version of Casey Martin. It’s his fourth year in college since he was hurt one year and was three years in JC.”
Thompson said, “Webb has a chance to be pretty special. He has great tools. He can run and hit with power.”
That’s really the look at a lot of places with the 2020 Razorbacks. Even the catcher who used to look like a middle infielder fits that mold. It keeps getting better for Arkansas baseball.
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