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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Baseball

Practice makes perfect: Kyle Lovelace’s work ethic paying dividends


Junior catcher Kyle Lovelace has emerged as one of the top catchers in the country, being named to Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Watch List | Courtesy of UH athletics

Junior catcher Kyle Lovelace has emerged as one of the top catchers in the country, being named to Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Watch List. | Courtesy of UH athletics

On Feb. 28, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s Brendan Ryan, Scott Hastings and Justin Taylor all learned a valuable lesson: it’s not a good idea to run on Kyle Lovelace.

In the bottom of the second, Ryan took off from first but never had a chance, as the ball went from the back of Lovelace’s glove to being applied to Ryan’s jersey in the blink of an eye.

Two batters later, Hastings tested his luck on the basepath, but the result was the same: gunned down by Lovelace.

Taylor did not seem to learn from his teammates’ failed steal attempts as he took off for second an inning later. But to no surprise, Lovelace threw him out.

From throwing out anybody who tries to run on him, to being a human wall and blocking every ball in the dirt, the 5-foot-10-inch junior catcher has drawn national attention for his work behind the plate.

While Lovelace’s natural athletic abilities certainly help him, the biggest thing that has made him one of the top defensive catchers in NCAA Division 1 baseball is his work ethic. The Hudson native puts in countless hours of hard work every day to ensure he is prepared for any situation he might face behind the dish. 

For one thing, Lovelace takes an interesting approach to work on his arm strength and accuracy that is different from most catchers.

“I like to do pitchers throwing programs,” Lovelace told The Cougar. “Because if those guys are getting ready to throw seven, eight, nine innings or whatever it is, there’s no reason my arm shouldn’t be in shape if I’m doing the same thing.”

Junior lefthander Robert Gasser used the words “electric” and “a rocket” to describe Lovelace’s arm, and that speaks volumes since it’s coming from a guy who pounds the strike zone with 90-plus mph pitches every Friday night. 

But it’s not just Lovelace’s cannon that makes him stand out, as Gasser also emphasized how impressive Lovelace’s catch-to-release time is.

“The arm’s great, but the one thing that separates him is the transfer,” Gasser said. “From catching the ball to releasing it, it’s unreal how quickly he does it.”

Lovelace’s lightning-quick pop time was on full display in Houston’s series against Texas. The Longhorns came into the series a perfect 10-10 in stolen base attempts, but that didn’t faze Lovelace as he gunned down four out of the five Longhorns attempting to steal over three games.

“I think (Lovelace) is the most underrated catcher in the country,” Lovelace’s head coach Todd Whitting said after UH’s series against Texas. “I’d like to see a better catch-and-throw catcher in Division I baseball.”

It was not only against Texas that Lovelace has had success catching runners on the basepaths, but in every series the Cougars have played, having thrown out seven of the 12 runners attempting to steal in 2021.

To put Lovelace’s 58.33 caught stealing percentage into perspective, the top caught stealing percentage for an MLB catcher with 300 or more innings caught in 2020 was St. Louis Cardinals’ future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina’s 45.5 caught stealing percentage.

Lovelace’s mere presence behind the dish lifts a huge weight off the Cougars pitching staff, knowing they have one less thing to worry about if there is traffic on the basepaths.

“In some instances, you have to worry about runners all the time,” Gasser said. “But with Kyle, you look over at the dude (on base) and are like, ‘I’ll lift my leg and if you want to go, good luck to you,’ cause I know I got Kyle back there who’s going to block every single ball and likely throw you out if you try to run on him.”

Another aspect that separates Lovelace from other college catchers is that nothing gets past him as he blocks every ball, even the ones he should have no business stopping. 

This is a direct result of Lovelace’s mindset, which is that there is no such thing as a wild pitch and it is his responsibility to block everything. This has led to Lovelace always working on different blocking drills, many of which are rarely done by catchers today.

“You don’t see a lot of catchers these days that practice blocking pitches that aren’t supposed to be blocked,” Lovelace said. “And I did. I worked on blocking pitches that you’re not supposed to block because why not.”

All this hard work and extra preparation have paid off and Lovelace’s fielding stats back it up. After posting a perfect fielding percentage in the shortened 2020 season, Lovelace once again has a 1.000 fielding percentage in 2021 and has not committed an error since April 6, 2019.

Even with all his success and flawless defense, Lovelace continues to grind day in and day out because of his competitive nature and desire to always be improving as a catcher.

“Will is a powerful powerful thing, and that kid’s got a lot of it,” Whiting said.

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