If anyone knows how important it is to have a reliable catcher behind the plate, it’s FIU Baseball Head Coach Turtle Thomas.
“Catcher is the No. 1 defensive position on the field,” Thomas says. “Sometimes a shortstop might not catch a single ground ball in a game, but a catcher could potentially catch every pitch thrown his way.”
For the last three seasons, Thomas has been grateful to find someone as reliable as Aramis Garcia.
Not only did Garcia — a sports and fitness major – lead the Panthers this season in batting average (.368) and home runs (8), he was also named the 2014 Conference USA Player of the Year and he’s a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top Division I catcher.
Prior to the season, there was buzz surrounding Garcia’s chances of becoming a high draft pick in the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft in June. His performance this season has helped make an even stronger case.
“There’s a great chance that he is going to be the highest drafted player to ever come out of our program,” Thomas says. “He has grown in every respect – physically as a catcher and as a hitter – since he’s gotten here.”
Still, thoughts about the future did not keep him from focusing on helping the Panthers in the present.
“It’s going to cross your mind,” Garcia says of the draft. “But worrying about the draft is not going to make it come faster.”
Regardless of whether he decides to go professional or return for his senior season, Garcia has already paved the way for FIU’s catcher-in-waiting.
MAKING A SWITCH
J.C. Escarra primarily played third based at Mater Academy in high school, but his 6-3, 205-pound frame had college and professional scouts recruiting him as a catcher.
He was even drafted as a catcher by the New York Mets in the 32nd round of the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, but decided to go to college and play for FIU instead.
When he arrived on campus he began shadowing Garcia, who helped him learn the many intricacies of the position. Escarra quickly picked up on the importance of taking good care of his body in order to handle the rigors of playing catcher, staying positive and maintaining high energy even when things are not going well on the field.
“As a catcher, you’re the spark plug,” Garcia says. “Everyone is looking to you to set the pace and the tone.”
Though being a catcher is more physically demanding than playing most other positions, the hardest part of the transition for Escarra were the mental aspects.
“You have to know your pitchers and when the right time to go talk with them on the mound. You have to know when to slow down or speed up the tempo of the game,” Escarra says. “It’s the mental part of playing catcher that is most difficult.”
Escarra — who plans to major in sports management — made his way into the lineup quickly, mostly playing first base while also playing a handful of games at catcher and quickly developed a great friendship with Garcia over the course of the season.
“He’s like an older brother to me,” Escarra says. “We’re roommates everywhere we go and we’ve gotten very close.”
In late April, Garcia suffered an oblique strain injury, giving the freshman a chance to prove that he could handle the rigors of playing catcher on a regular basis.
“I knew I was ready. All the hard work I put in before prepared me for it,” Escarra says. “The coaches had confidence in me and Aramis told me I’d do a great job. So I went out there and I did.”
In 12 games behind the plate during Garcia’s absence, Escarra had a .292 batting average with six runs batted in before Garcia returned just in time to play in the Conference USA Tournament.
“He is the heir apparent at catcher,” Thomas said of Escarra. “Aramis did a great job teaching him the intricacies of the position and serving as a role model for him.”
The experience gave Escarra even more confidence that he can take over the reigns behind the plate whenever Garcia leaves FIU.
“Aramis is one of the best catchers in the nation and one of my goals is to be better than him,” Escarra says. ”And I’m doing it with the right help, the right work ethic and the right mindset.”