Homesickness opened the door for Kyle Schwarber.
After IU Coach Tracy Smith’s team lost catcher Wes Wilson to graduation after the 2011 season, Smith thought Ty Downing would step in to the starter’s role this season. But Downing, a Bowling Green, Ky., native, felt homesick and decided to transfer during the semester break.
Enter Schwarber. Though he was penciled in to start in the outfield, he has entrenched himself behind the plate. The freshman from Middletown, Ohio, has started all 40 games — 39 of them behind the plate.
“If Kyle can go, we’ll go with Kyle,” Smith said.
Smith said the tools were there. In the first game Smith went to see Schwarber play, Schwarber hit three home runs against one of the best lefties in Cincinnati, Smith said.
“It was at that point I knew that we liked him,” Smith said. “I’d heard good things about him. He was facing quality pitching and knocked three balls out. He possesses all the qualities you look for in a good catcher.”
Schwarber said the coaches wanted him to be an offensive force.
“(It was) kind of a weird recruiting process for me,” Schwarber said. “We had a good catcher in Ty Downing, so they were going to want me to try somewhere in the outfield. So I got myself ready in the outfield. Then Ty transferred. That’s how I ended up behind the dish.”
As a catcher, he’s adapted. He said he began preparing for catching duties in the fall.
“I was preparing for the outfield in the summer when I was back at home,” he said. “They had me working (on) catcher stuff during the fall season. In the fall, we had Downing. He was injured, so they were still working me behind the dish.
“I was working hard, trying to get better being a catcher and being an outfielder.”
Then Downing transferred. Schwarber said he felt mixed emotions when he learned of Downing’s decision.
To be successful as a catcher, one needs to have a good rapport with the pitching staff, Schwarber said.
“As a freshman, you’re coming in, and you don’t know any of the guys,” Schwarber said. “You have to try to build a personal relationship with all the guys. (At) practice, you just talk to them, ‘Hey, what would you do in this situation? What would you do in that situation?’”
Offensively, Schwarber leads the team in home runs and slugging percentage, and he is third on the team in batting average and on-base percentage. He is able to maintain that delicate balance due to his preparation, he said.
"You’ve got to have good pitch selection,” he said. “When you’re going in there, you don’t want to swing out of your butt. You’ve got to have a good eye, know what you’re looking for. You’ve got to look at the guy’s tendency, look at the scouting report, see he’s more of a fastball kind of guy, or this guy, his out pitch is a slider.”
Schwarber is listed at 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, but once he gets on base, which he does at a .391 clip, he is capable of wreaking havoc: He has successfully stolen a base in seven of his 10 attempts. He said after the game against Iowa on March 30 that, despite his looks, he finds himself “a little bit speedy, too.”
He leads the team in triples and said he loves when opponents underestimate his speed.
“The other teams, when you don’t get a good scouting report, they’re going to be ‘There’s kind of a big guy, you know? He’s going to be a slow runner.’ Once I hit a ball in the gap, I’m on three. It’s really fun to look at their reactions after and say, ‘Damn, you’re fast, you know?’”
In the first game of the team’s most recent Big Ten series, Michigan State starter Tony Bucciferro hit him with a pitch in the fifth inning. The ball hit his toe.
“It’s sore,” Schwarber said this past Friday. “The nail’s split. We don’t know if it’s broken. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s going to hurt, but there’s nothing you can do. I’m just going to have to play through it.”
Smith’s thoughts were a bit more blunt.
“‘Get up,’” he recalled saying. “‘You’re not allowed to be hurt.’ He’s a tough kid. He’s banged up, playing through some things. But I was like, ‘Get up!’”
Smith said Schwarber’s toughness has helped him carry a large role.
“We’re on him, not only the physical part of being tough but also mentally tough because there’s so much put on the catcher that they’re supposed to do,” Smith said. “It’s like the quarterback or the point guard. When things aren’t going well, who’s going to bear the brunt of that from me? He responds very well. He doesn’t make excuses.”
Sophomore pitcher Joey DeNato knew Schwarber was OK after he’d been hit.
“I thought he was fine,” DeNato said. “He’s a bulldog. I knew he’d brush it off.”
DeNato, in his brief IU career, has learned about durable catchers. Wilson started every game but two during DeNato’s freshman season. Schwarber’s durability is not to be questioned, DeNato said.
“Schwarber’s done a great job taking over the role,” DeNato said. “He’s a freshman. He’s learned a lot, and he’s had to learn fast. He’s done pretty well with that.”
When DeNato learned of Downing’s decision to transfer, he knew it was Schwarber’s time.
“I knew Schwarber was going to have to step up big time because Ty was a great catcher for us,” he said. “We were planning on having him be our starter. Schwarber’s been doing a great job of taking over the role.”
Downing’s transfer meant that Smith had only two catchers — backup Danny Sader is also a freshman. Schwarber said he picked up pointers from IU alumni Wilson and current AAA catcher Josh Phegley.
“I worked my butt off to try to start,” Schwarber said. “It’s just a little bit of a change — a little bit better pitching. But there’s not a big change there. It’s just being more competitive.”
Now that he’s there, DeNato described how Schwarber’s improved.
“Controlling the running game,” DeNato said. “His arm’s gotten a lot better. Also just being a leader behind the plate. He’s been a lot more vocal. He’s gotten a lot smarter behind the plate, too. He’s a good guy to throw to. He’s been doing a great job.”
Smith said Schwarber is gaining respect from opponents, as well.
“He’s earning respect even from other coaches,” he said. “At the end of the series, guys are saying, ‘Boy, I really, really like your catcher. That kid’s going to be a good one.’
“That’s a good thing for him. I don’t think he understands yet how good he can be. I want to make sure we keep him focused on that because truly he can be one of the better ones in the country.”
Freshman outfielder adjusts to catcher position behind plate
Homesickness opened the door for Kyle Schwarber.