Stan Stolte oversees UNLV’s pitchers, and he won’t hesitate to single out who has made that staff so effective.
Junior catcher Erik VanMeetren.
UNLV trusts VanMeetren, who went to Bishop Gorman High School, like few programs do with their catchers, giving him the authority beginning last season to call the team’s pitches.
Don’t discount how valuable that has been for the Rebels, who play UC Irvine at 2 p.m. Friday in the regional at Corvallis, Ore. By taking out the coaching middle man, the direct work between VanMeetren and pitcher speeds up the process and creates a better rhythm.
“He’s just a smart kid back there,” junior right-hander John Richy said. “He knows how to judge the hitters or remember what they’ve done in the past. He’s really smart knowing what hitters struggle with, and just taking control back there.”
The proof is in the numbers.
UNLV’s 3.19 team ERA is easily the Mountain West’s best. The next closest is San Diego State at 3.70.
Four of the conference’s top nine pitchers in ERA are from UNLV, with Erick Fedde’s 1.76 mark leading the league.
“I think that’s a fun part of the game, trying to out-think the other people,” VanMeetren said. “I think I’m pretty good at it. Plus, we’ve got some good pitchers to make it a lot easier for me.”
Handling pitchers is the often overlooked part of gauging a catcher’s defensive effectiveness.
At 6 feet 4 inches, VanMeetren has had trouble preventing base stealers, having thrown out only 12 in 66 attempts. But he has worked hard on that part of his game, too, shortening his long release.
That difficulty is one reason why VanMeetren could switch positions when he plays professionally, whether that’s beginning this summer or next year if he returns to UNLV for another season.
His ability to hit and his athleticism also might prompt a switch at the next level to save his knees. VanMeetren is batting .297, and he has stolen seven bases in nine attempts.
Whether a playing career works out or not, he could find himself eventually staying in the game as a coach or manager. Many catchers have made the successful transition to running teams, and they often are considered the best teachers.
“I wouldn’t mind doing that some day,” VanMeetren said. “I like the strategic aspect of the game. It’s kind of like a chess match with the other team, doing certain things here and there, calling certain pitches here and there.”
VanMeetren scored 2,100 on the Scholastic Achievement Test, so no one questions his intelligence, but he also brings a fiery personality to a dugout loaded with players who often don’t lose their cool.
He didn’t like the umpire’s wide strike zone in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament final, resulting in the strikeout of one of his teammates. So VanMeetren let the ump know about it when he went on the field to take his position, and Chambers had to rescue the catcher from a potential ejection, which would have forced VanMeetren to also sit out the game against Irvine.
There is no one else the Rebels would prefer to have back there, and VanMeetren has started all but three games this season and played in all except one.
Chambers said it takes watching VanMeetren play every day to appreciate what he brings to the team, how he handles the staff. That’s why VanMeetren, rather than the coaches, call the game.
“I’ve never done it (that way) till last year, 26 years,” Chambers said. “I’ve always called pitches from the dugout. Stan talked to me and said, ‘Hey, I think we should let him go.’ I said, ‘All right, let’s try it out.’ We’ve never turned back from it.”
■ NOTES — Third baseman T.J. White was diagnosed with a broken bone in his left hand, but was cleared to play. ... Richy will start the regional opener. Chambers had thought about changing the rotation so his ace could be available should UNLV face Oregon State on Saturday. ... Fedde will undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Tuesday in Los Angeles. Doctors from the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic will perform the procedure.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.