April 12, 2012
Eric Smith wasn’t planning to catch for the Stanford baseball team this season. After spending the last two years playing as a backup infielder, the junior from La Canada, California, figured it would be more of the same in 2012. Especially with starters returning at every position except catcher and designated hitter.
But that all changed following last year’s loss at North Carolina in the NCAA Super Regional. Mark Marquess, the Clarke and Elizabeth Nelson Director of Baseball, summoned him on the plane trip home and floated the idea of Smith moving behind the plate. Aside from catching in a few mop-up innings in summer ball, Smith had virtually no experience.
“I kind of looked at him like, 'Okay.' I just thought it was a good opportunity, having played and had a little bit of success my freshman year, mostly as a designated hitter,” Smith said.
Said Marquess, “He had a funny look on his face.”
Smith started eight of the last nine games at designated hitter as a freshman and also saw time at second and third base. He batted .286 with three doubles, two triples, and 12 RBIs.
As a sophomore, he saw action in 14 games and received five starts—three at second base, one at shortstop and one as the designated hitter. Notice the word "catcher" wasn’t mentioned? Smith hit .250 with two doubles and two RBIs.
So although the idea of converting to catcher came out of the blue, Smith didn’t mind, as long as it translated to more playing time. Thus far, Smith has made the most of it, becoming the team’s starter. He has exceeded early expectations and has done a nice job handling the talented Cardinal pitching staff.
“I probably didn’t see myself playing this much so early,” said Smith, who had big shoes to fill with the graduation of defensive standout Zach Jones. “I was actually kind of surprised to see my name on the opening day roster because we have a couple other veteran catchers back. But I had a good fall and winter. Once I saw my name on the opening day roster, I never looked back.”
Entering the week, Smith leads Stanford with a .345 average and batted .538 last week. He ranks third on the team in RBIs with 21 and has already collected 29 hits. In his first two seasons combined, Smith had 28 hits.
Smith made a great first impression in the season-opener against Vanderbilt when he delivered an inside-the-park home run. Such plays are rare, and even more uncommon by a catcher.
“The right-fielder misplayed a ball and they mishandled the relay and somehow I made it all the way home,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘Okay, I’m tired, I’m tired.’ I think Coach (Dean) Stotz kind of held me up for a second. After sliding into home I was just exhausted.”
Defensively, Smith has also excelled. He has yet to make an error and has thrown out four of nine opposing base stealers.
“We were in dire straits,” said Marquess. “I think he’s been the most pleasant surprise we’ve had this year. He’s really been the difference maker.”
What has been the toughest transition moving from infielder to catcher?
“Mainly it’s the physical toll it takes on your body every day,” said Smith. “One of the big adjustments I had to make was to get more flexible with my hips so my legs wouldn’t tire as easily. I worked on that pretty much all summer and fall and improved the strength in my legs.”
The mental adjustment was equally challenging.
“You’re basically learning a new position,” said Smith. “Just the little, small catcher rules. On a bunt you go to third not toward second. Just different situations where, playing infield, that becomes second nature. Now, I have to learn all the different situational aspects of catcher.”
That includes getting to know what the pitchers like to throw and when to throw it. Fortunately for Smith, he’s good friends with Cardinal aces Mark Appel and Brett Mooneyham.
“It’s awesome working with all those guys,” Smith said. “Being with them two or three years, we already had this good relationship and all the guys were so willing to help me. They never give me guff. When they’re going good, I don’t have to do a lot of work. I just put up my glove and they hit it.”
Mainly because he has earned their trust.
“He’s proven to the pitching staff that he can handle them,” said Marquess. “He’s gotten better and better. He’s got the respect of the pitchers and that’s put everybody at ease.”
A political science major with professional baseball aspirations, Smith has also learned a lot from Marquess.
“I don’t think he’s changed much in the 3 years I’ve been here or the 35 years he’s been here,” Smith said. “One thing that is truly remarkable about 9 is that every day, whether we’re going good or going bad, whether it’s cold, rainy, or hot, whether we’re running, lifting, or having an intra-squad game, he’s by far the most enthusiastic person on that field. You can really tell that he loves going on the field and he loves coaching baseball at Stanford. I just have a ton of respect for that.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m really happy for him,” said Marquess of Smith. “It doesn’t always work out.”
-- Mark Soltau, Buck/Cardinal Clubhouse