THE PITCHER WHISPERER
Jacob Stallings is an expert at building relationships. It’s a little more challenging during a lockout
By Jerry Crasnick
At 6-foot-5, Jacob Stallings is rangy by catcher’s standards. But he’s adept at squeezing himself into an overhead-compartment-caliber space to frame pitches and block sliders in the dirt.
Stallings knows what it means to devise a game plan from an awkward point of view. All that practice is serving him well this offseason, as he transitions to a new life with one foot in and one foot out.
It’s been a little more than two months since the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Stallings to the Miami Marlins for pitchers Zach Thompson and Kyle Nicolas and outfielder Connor Scott. While some big leaguers have had to revise their workout routines during the lockout or wait until transactions resume to know where they’ll be playing in 2022, Stallings is navigating a different type of challenge: He’s settling in with a new team amid a state of limbo that makes him feel he hasn’t completely left the old one.
“I told one of my buddies the other day that it doesn't feel totally like I've been traded yet, because I only talked to (the Marlins’) people for two days and I haven't talked to anybody since,’’ he said. “It’s certainly been an interesting offseason.’’
Stallings, 31, was attending the MLBPA executive board meetings in Dallas in his capacity as the Pirates’ player representative in late November when he received a call from teammate Bryan Reynolds asking if he had seen a Twitter report that he had just been traded to Miami. Moments later, Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington called to make it official.
The next two days were a blur of union activities and bargaining sessions interspersed with phone calls to his agent, Bo McKinnis, and conversations with Marlins officials welcoming him to Florida. Stallings was on the phone with a Marlins statistical analyst moments before MLB owners declared a lockout and all interactions with his new team ceased.
Stallings has a reputation for building relationships and digging deep to get the best out of his pitchers. He’s reached out to Trevor Rogers, Anthony Bass and a few others in an effort to expedite the bonding process, but the results have been mixed.
“I’ve started to build a few connections, but not as many as I’d like given the lockout,’’ he said. “I’ve had to rely on video to watch the pitchers and do some of that stuff. It’s been unique.’’
Stallings’ former teammates can attest to the time, effort, sweat and empathy he puts into the role. After signing with Pittsburgh as a seventh-round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina in 2012, Stallings moved painstakingly through the Pirates’ system. He was a .250 hitter with a solid arm and pitch-blocking skills, but something was missing. He worked to upgrade his game calling and reinvented himself as one of the elite pitch framers in baseball.
The ability to earn the trust of teammates and communicate with pitchers is an attribute he’s honed over time.
“When you throw to Stallings, you know you’re the most important part of his day,’’ said former Pirates starter Jameson Taillon, now with the Yankees. “He’s flipped the page from yesterday and he’s not thinking about tomorrow. He's thinking, ‘How can I get Jameson through six or seven qualities tonight? How can we attack this lineup?’ And when his day is done, he moves onto the next guy.
“He’s thoughtful about what pitches he throws down. He knows your personality. He knows your tendencies. He can read your body language. It’s just a special feeling knowing that when he’s behind the plate, you’re his focus point. He wants to get you through the best outing of your life. And he doesn’t just feel that way for one or two guys. He feels that way for the whole pitching staff.’’
Stallings’ coach-on-the-field persona is a family inheritance. His father, Kevin, coached Division I college basketball for 25 years at Illinois State, Vanderbilt and the University of Pittsburgh. After breaking in as an assistant under Gene Keady and Roy Williams, he went on to win 479 games and reach nine NCAA tournaments and seven NITs.
Jacob was in middle school when disgruntled Vanderbilt fans posted a “Fire Kevin Stallings’’ website on the internet. The site was removed after the Commodores reached the Sweet 16, but the experience gave him an education in the fickle nature of fandom. He learned much more through the years by watching his father scout opponents, break down film and interact with players in practices and games.
“I saw what he looked for in his players and what attributes his best players had,’’ Jacob said. “Basketball might not carry over to baseball much on the field. But the mentality and desire to get better and to work hard certainly made an impact on me.’’
Stallings spent parts of four seasons with Triple-A Indianapolis before finally sticking with the big club in 2019. In September, he was named the Pirates’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. When owner Bob Nutting pulled him aside to share the news, Stallings said his initial reaction was, “Did I do something wrong?”
In November, Stallings won his first Gold Glove Award and received a Fielding Bible Award for defensive excellence. If his tenure in Pittsburgh is any indication, Miami pitchers can look forward to lots of empathy and plain talk from a catcher who’s invested in every pitch.
“This sounds like a cliché, but through the ups and downs, he’s the one dude you want back there,’’ Taillon said. “When things aren’t going well, he’s going to be honest with you. He’s not going to sugarcoat things. But he’s also a guy you want to celebrate with, because he’s right there with you. He’s on your team no matter what.’’
While Stallings looks forward to his first Grapefruit League bullpen, he’ll continue to work out in Nashville in a group with fellow big leaguers Adam Duvall, Phil Gosselin, Bryan Reynolds and Adam Frazier. Kevin Stallings, Jacob’s best friend and the best man in his wedding, throws a pretty mean batting practice.
Family life rolls on, with little regard for lockouts. Stallings and his wife, Amy Beth, have two sons, Emmitt, age 4, and Micah, 2, and they’re expecting another boy in late March. They have an obstetrician lined up in Nashville and another one in Jupiter, Fla., depending on where circumstances take them.
Through it all, Stallings receives strength and guidance from his faith. In December, right after the trade, he took Amy Beth and the boys to south Florida for a conference hosted by Pro Athletes Outreach, a Christian leadership training ministry. A little fun in the sun was all it took to awaken the family to the possibilities.
“It was at this really cool hotel and it was a great conference,’’ Stallings said. “My wife took Emmitt for a walk on the beach and she texted me while they were out there. She said, ‘All right, I could maybe get used to this.’’’
Getting to know … Jacob Stallings
Not known for his foot speed, Stallings has one big-league stolen base. It came in 2016 – against Yadier Molina and the Cardinals.
“It was a delayed steal and he didn't throw, but I’ve still got a stolen base off Yadier Molina. A Gold Glove is pretty high on the list, but stealing a base off Yadi might be a little higher in terms of career achievements.’’
It didn’t take him long to learn that catcher was his natural position.
“I played third base and outfield as a kid growing up, and not many balls are hit to third base or the outfield. One day in the outfield, I was just sitting down picking grass off the ground. After the game my mom told me if I ever did that again, I couldn’t play baseball anymore. I’m definitely grateful that the catcher is more involved in every pitch.’’
His favorite book is “More Than A Carpenter,’’ by Josh McDowell.
“Outside of the Bible, it's the most impactful book I have in my faith journey. My mom grew up Catholic and her mom made them go to Catholic school and church on Sundays. That got ingrained in me, and as I got older in high school and college I matured and came to understand everything that believing in Jesus encompasses. It was always, ‘Sunday school and be at church on Sundays.’ I'm really grateful that even though there were Sundays that I didn't want to go, my mom still made us go. It's worked out for the best, for sure.’’