Jacob Stallings was barely hanging on with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the spring of 2019.
Designated for assignment in May, there was a chance another team might claim the former Brentwood Academy star.
None did and nine days later he returned to the Pirates after a short stint in the minor leagues.
Stallings’ luck changed at the end of the season when he started 30 of Pittsburgh’s last 53 games.
The former third-string catcher became a starter this season after last year’s starter, Francisco Cervelli, was released in August 2019 and the Pirates parted ways with backup Elias Diaz in December.
“I feel like I’ve played pretty well and hopefully I can finish these last couple of weeks strong,” Stallings said. “I just focused on getting better and wherever that got me would be great. If it was a backup in the big leagues, if it was a minor leaguer, I was going to play as long as I felt like I was getting better.”
Stallings is the only BA player in the nearly 50-year history of the program to make it to the major leagues.
Jay Ray, Hal Garrett, Wyatt Allen, Sam Dove and Bryce Jarvis were all drafted, but didn’t or haven’t made it to the big leagues yet.
It’s been a strange season in the major leagues with no fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Yeah, it’s been weird, for sure,” Stallings said. “I think for me it’s more weird when I’m not playing or before the game and you just kind of walk out and stretch and there’s nobody there. During the game you’re just kind of focused on what you’re doing.”
Catchers are arguably the most vulnerable players to COVID-19 due to their proximity to opposing batters and umpires.
“It was (a concern) at first, but not as much anymore I think as we’ve learned more about the virus,” Stallings said. “I’m trying to keep my distance from those guys as much as possible. I do feel safe and we’ve done a lot of things to ensure that. I think our team and MLB have done a good job with the protocols and all that.”
Stallings isn’t the only Pirate from Brentwood. Former Brentwood Bruins/Vanderbilt star Bryan Reynold is a left fielder for Pittsburgh.
“Bryan’s a good buddy of mine and our wives are good friends, so it’s been fun having him here,” Stallings said. “I was excited when he got traded over. Yeah, probably not very common having two guys from a town like Brentwood on the same team.”
San Francisco traded Reynolds to Pittsburgh in 2018. Stallings, 30, is 5 years older than Reynolds and they didn’t know each other very well until the trade.
Reynolds was fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting after posting the league’s seventh-best batting average at .314 in 2019.
“He was fantastic and just really impressive all the way around,” Stallings said. “It was fun to watch and be a part of.”
Sign stealing by Houston and Boston has been a controversial story in baseball recently.
“I was not surprised,” Stalling said. “I was certainly aware that teams were doing some things to try and steal signs. I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I had heard things that different teams did different things.”
Stallings said the Pirates change their signs regularly to prevent teams from knowing what pitch is coming.
“I think everybody is paranoid about it now, so we have things in place that we can switch them mid-inning or mid-at-bat or something like that,” Stallings said.
Stallings’ father, Kevin, coached Vanderbilt basketball from 1999-2016 and Pittsburgh from 2016-18. Father and son both live in Nashville.
“I think he is enjoying the out-of-coaching routine,” Jacob said.
The elder Stallings golfs a lot and watches all his son’s games.
The Pirates have been hampered by pitching injuries this season.
“It’s been tough,” Stallings said. “We’re starting to get some guys back, but we’ve definitely had a lot of roster turnover with the injuries. And it’s been a tough year, obviously, from the win-loss perspective.”
Pittsburgh (15-37) was last in the National League Central Division, 16 games behind first-place Chicago through Saturday.
Stallings held lead BA to a Division II-AA title during his senior year in 2008. He scored the winning run in the state championship against Baylor.
“That was definitely something I’ll never forget,” Stallings said. “That was one of the highlights of my life, for sure.”
D.J. Luna’s two-run double down the right-field line brought in Mason Graham with the tying run and Stallings with the game-winner in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Three years later when Stallings caught for North Carolina, the Tar Heels lost to Vanderbilt twice in the College World Series while his dad was coaching the Commodores.
That ended North Carolina’s season at 51-16.
“I did not want to have to face them,” Stallings said. “It kind of stunk because I wanted them to do well and I wanted us to do well, but it happened. People didn’t really expect much out of us my junior year and we had a great year, and made it to Omaha.”
His favorite catcher growing up was Mike Matheny, who won four Gold Glove Awards during his 13-year career.
“I was a Cardinal fan, my dad grew up right outside St. Louis,” Stallings said.
At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Stallings is one of the bigger catchers in the major leagues.
“I would say me and Matt Wieters probably are the two tallest that I can think of,” Stallings said of St. Louis’ 6-5, 235-pound catcher. “It’s definitely against the norm, but luckily I’ve stayed flexible and I haven’t had too many problems yet.”
Stallings is hitting .267 with 16 RBIs. Pittsburgh drafted him in the seventh round in 2012 and he made his MLB debut six years later.
“I would be hard-pressed to say that anybody’s caught better in baseball,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton, a former minor league catcher, told the (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Review at the 30-game mark. “When you start to talk about Gold Gloves and handing them out, if he’s not at the top of the list, I think people are missing it. I don’t think anybody’s caught better. I don’t think anybody’s blocked better. I would be hard-pressed if anybody’s thrown the ball better, and I think he’s carrying that consistency into his at-bats.”
BA coach Chandler Ganick isn’t surprised that Stallings made it to the major leagues even though he was one of the slowest runners Ganick has ever seen.
Ganick described him as a defensive catcher who could hit, not a hitter who could catch.
“He had a big-league arm back then,” said Ganick who was an assistant coach when Stallings played for the Eagles. “He probably had one of the best arms we’ve ever had behind the plate and we had a really good run of catchers. Thomas Lundsborg was really good, we had Will Haynie right after him.”
Ganick said opposing base runners had to stay close to the bag when Stallings was behind the plate.
“There were several years where people just didn’t run against us and it was because of people like Jacob, Thomas and Will,” Ganick said. “But Jacob was a different catcher than those guys because he could throw to any base at any time without much warning and did that pretty regularly.
“Ánd there wasn’t much any of the runners could do. If they got off or they were being lazy, he was going to get them.”
One play at Battle Ground Academy during the 2008 postseason stands out in Ganick’s memory.
“(Jacob) came up kind of casually like he was throwing it back to the pitcher and he had signaled to D.J. Luna, our second baseman at the time, and D.J. just kind of casually walked to the bag,” Ganick said. “Nobody knew the ball was going to second and he put it on a line. The runner just was walking back and the next thing you know the ball is standing there right in front of him.
“I still tell that story any time anybody asks about him. He didn’t have to rear back, he didn’t have to set his feet to throw. He just kind of stood up and just flipped his wrist, and it was a missile on point. And that was pretty regular for him. He could flat-out catch.”