In January, things do not seem to be too busy around Bill Davis Stadium, home of the Ohio State baseball team. With the first game of the season not until Feb. 17, when the Buckeyes face off against Kansas State in Osceola, Florida, the players are still participating in the occasional workout and batting cage session.
However, with every crack of the bat and smack of the catcher’s mitt, OSU is in the middle of one of the most integral parts of any season: creating a team identity.
Senior and returning captain Jalen Washington is familiar with having to help build a team chemistry. Now as he moves from behind the plate to the shortstop, the leadership aspect of his game does not seem to be going anywhere.
Ever since Washington first stepped foot onto the OSU campus, he felt he had something to prove.
“Like freshman or sophomore year, I wasn’t as much of a vocal leader,” Washington said. “I was one that was always pushing the envelope trying to prove myself, trying to make a name for myself and lead by example — working my butt off on the field and off the field.”
With work came reward for Washington who was named as a captain of the team heading into his junior season and even before he had played on a regular basis.
“He had never been a starter before,” OSU coach Greg Beals said. “That says an awful lot about what his teammates think about him and says an awful lot about his work ethic and what he does.”
This was not the only thing that made Washington stand out to his teammates and the coaching staff. It was also his ability to play all over the diamond if needed to.
“Pretty much in summer ball and in high school, they used to put me at different positions every year,” Washington said. “I feel like it has always been a tool that I have had and being able to show it off on this big a stage is a pretty cool thing.”
Washington’s versatility is what caused Beals to put him behind the plate to see what he could do as a catcher.
“I was really intrigued by the possibility, being a catching guy myself, of working with someone of that athleticism, somebody that really hadn’t done a lot of catching before, but was a good athlete, and see if we can teach him the skills of catching,” Beals said. “I also believe that the catching position is becoming more of an athletic, a quicker, lower to the ground type of guy as opposed to the bigger, big, sturdy, strong catchers that used to be the prototype.”
Washington started to perfect the art of being a leader behind the plate out of necessity.
“Being a catcher is more that just catching and throwing the ball,” Washington said. “You’re the leader of the team. Everyone is looking at you.”
Without ever starting a game at catcher going into the 2016 season, Washington had a .992 fielding percentage and threw out 27 percent of potential base stealers, while also being named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list, just the fifth time a OSU catcher has been named to this list. However, his offensive approach did not match the normal stereotypical catcher.
“The skill set of being an athlete is different because in that skill set, it also allows him to be a bunt guy and a run guy on the offensive side,” Beals said. “That’s very different than your normal catching prospect.”
Going into the 2017 season, Beals had a different idea for how to maximize Washington’s ability for this team. He will move to shortstop with sophomore catchers Jacob Barnwell and Andrew Fishel taking the reps behind the plate, something that is not a very common move in baseball.
“To go from catcher to shortstop, you don’t hear that very often,” Beals said. “It speaks volumes to Jalen’s athletic ability, his versatility as an athlete.”
Washington is very proud of his flexibility on the baseball field. His work around the diamond sets him apart from many other players at the college level.
“I think that it shows that I have more tools than the other guys do and I’m a little bit more versatile,” Washington said. “Being a catcher, you can show your hands and your feet, but being at shortstop, I can show more athleticism.”
With the move to the infield, Washington moves from having to lead the pitcher through his outing to leading the infield. Redshirt junior pitcher Adam Niemeyer said he believes Washington’s knowledge of the game will create a smooth transition.
“Last year, he did a great job controlling the game behind the plate,” Niemeyer said. “You know, being in sync with a pitcher is being on the same page. This year, moving to shortstop, really just shows how intelligent he is at the game of baseball and how he can kind of handle doing two totally different positions and do them both very well.”
Moving out of the crouch, Washington can now extend his offensive ability, especially on the bases. Last season, he stole 14 bases on 19 opportunities. With the move to shortstop, Washington feels as though that his base running ability will increase dramatically.
“When you are catching three, four games a weekend, your legs are pretty worn out,” Washington said. “I see myself as a base stealer, so I feel like I’ll be able to steal more bases, put our offense in better positions to have success.”
No matter where Washington will be playing for this OSU team, Beals said he believes Washington will be an integral part of where the Buckeyes will end up at the end of the 2017 season and why.
“Our cultural blueprint that we have for our team, one of the last sentences on it is, ‘work to earn trust every day,’ and Jalen Washington does that,” Beals said. “He works extremely hard and he has earned the trust of his teammates.”