INDIANAPOLIS — Only one time was he not put into the bottom third of the batting order.
Jacob Stallings was a major-league caliber catcher behind the plate during the 2016 season but a liability with a bat in his hands.
He spent a majority of that season batting in the No. 8 spot, with the pitcher oftentimes taking up the final spot of the lineup.
A lot has changed over the past two years.
Stallings is arguably one of the most consistent hitters Indianapolis has had dating back to the beginning of last season.
He put together a solid month to open the 2017 season. But lots of players have done that only to slip back into past struggles.
With the exception of a small stretch in June, that never came close to happening. He got a hit in his last at-bat of the season to finish with a .300 batting average.
Stallings has opened this season with a .319 batting average and a .781 OPS. But those struggles aren’t quite a distant memory.
“It doesn’t feel that long ago from my first year in Triple-A and I struck out all of the time,” Stallings said.
Stallings struck out multiple times in 11 games during his rookie Triple-A season in 2016, including four games with three strikeouts.
Something clicked last season. Stallings joked that his offensive improvement coincides with the birth of his son, which could have some validity. He credits confidence for his improvements and becoming a father for the first time can provide a different perspective on life.
“Confidence has been a huge thing,” Stallings said. “My teammates build me up a lot and they probably don’t realize it but that does a lot for a guys’ confidence when your teammates make comments like that. It’s been fun and it’s fun to get better and have confidence.”
Indianapolis hitting coach Ryan Long remembers seeing Stallings play in instructional league several years ago. An increase in professional at-bats has played a role in Stallings’ success, but it also goes into what he does away from games.
“It’s his approach to work that has helped him,” Long said. “We see a guy that is committed to what he wants to do everyday in terms of his work. He doesn’t drift and doesn’t change lanes, he’s very consistent on his approach. I think that’s what he has honed in on and it’s paid off for him.”
Stallings is playing like a major league catcher, but stuck in the minor leagues due to being behind Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz. Andy Barkett, Indianapolis’ manager last season and now an assistant hitting coach with the Boston Red Sox, estimated Stallings could have been the backup catcher for about half of the teams in the major leagues.
If the past is any indicator, there’s a good chance Stallings will be in the major leagues this season. The catcher’s position can be a rough one to make through the season uninjured. Stallings made it up to the major leagues last season due to multiple injuries, working as the second option in Indianapolis behind Diaz.
But this season Stallings is the No. 1 catcher in Indianapolis and would be the first called up if Cervelli or Diaz is injured.
“I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say if I know if someone goes down I’d be the next guy,” Stallings said. “It’s in your mind as you prepare and go about every day as you try to get better in case something were to happen tomorrow, I need to be ready to go.”
While some players have been prone to injuries, Stallings has never had a major injury as a professional. He broke his hand in his freshman year at Vanderbilt and missed about four weeks. Otherwise, Stallings has been dependable.
A decent amount of luck goes into that, but Stallings also puts in the necessary work off the field. Nothing fancy or out of the ordinary, as Stallings labels himself an “old-school” player, one who likes to use the cold tub. The work is done to remain fresh as battling fatigue is typically his biggest issue.
“I try to stay strong and its important to me to try to get two lifts in each week, even if they are quick and maintenance type of things,” Stallings said. “I always try to get in there and stay strong. Then on days I don’t play I try to be smart about the amount of work I do.”
Stallings is playing at a major league level offensively and defensively. He’s long been lauded as a player that is fantastic at handling a staff and calling games, but his offense was the bugaboo for his long-term potential.
But after a full season of producing in Indianapolis, followed by hitting well in a small sample size with Pittsburgh; and an even better start to this season, offensive struggles are less of a concern for Stallings.
He’ll likely get a chance in Pittsburgh this season as it’s unlikely too many teams go a full season without having a catcher get injured. The worst-case scenario would be Stallings gets a promotion when the rosters expand late in the season.