Born To Catch: WVU’s Ivan Gonzalez
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Ivan Gonzalez was born to be a catcher.
West Virginia’s senior stalwart behind the plate has been catching pitches and directing the game since he first started playing, and it shows when he discusses performing in one of the most underappreciated positions in sports.
“My dad used to catch and that was the first position he taught me how to play. I love it,” he exclaims, his face lighting up as he does so. “I love catching. I love taking control and calling the game.”
He’s been working in that role ever since coming to West Virginia as a freshman in 2016, but has also been able to take some breaks from the physical demands of the position. In that first year, he elbowed his way into the starting lineup, recording eight at catcher, but also notching 20 at third base and nine as the designated hitter. The numbers reversed in 2017, with 40 starts behind the plate, complemented by six at third and four at DH. Last year it was more of the same: 43 at catcher, eight at third and one as the DH.
His value behind the plate is undeniable, both in handling pitchers and defensively. He threw out 20 of the 41 runners attempting to steal against him in 2018, and was charged with just one passed ball. His ability to work with pitchers, get into a similar mindset and help them work through rough patches, isn’t something that shows up in the box score, but is just as valuable.
“It’s honestly just talking with them and hanging out with them, and figuring out what kind of pitcher they are,” Gonzalez said of the process of getting to know each individual hurler, and what works with them. “If you can scream at them, or if you just talk with them. It’s knowing what cues help them get back in the strike zone, or to get comfortable and not be nervous.”
Scream at them? Yep.
“It’s usually AK (Alek Manoah),” Gonzalez said of a player he might yell at from time to time. “He’s a big motivator and a big energy guy, so if you scream at him he gets locked in and gets focused.”
Part defensive whiz, part psychologist, part motivator — it all comes together for Gonzalez, who is without question one of the backbones of the the Mountaineer team. If that was everything, it would certainly be enough, but he’s also a solid hitter. As season ago he hit .255, with an OPS of .965 while driving in 25 runs on 51 hits, including 11 doubles. That was a downturn from a sophomore season in which he hit .317, and a freshman year which saw a sky-high .381 average.
Some of that might be attributable to the wear and tear of the catching load. While his love for that work remains paramount, he also sees the advantages of being able to play a few games at third or at DH, so as to keep himself more healthy.
“It really saved my legs a lot, and it really helped me mentally and physically,” he said of the few breaks he’s gotten at other positions the past two years. “We have a lot of catchers this year. We have Paul (McIntosh), we have Chase (Illig) back, and C-Ham (Connor Hamilton) behind the plate too. I think we can split time and be well rested.”
That could be a contributing factor in West Virginia’s drive to return to the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers bookended their lone recent trip to the field in 2017 with narrow misses in 2016 and 2018, and Gonzalez thinks that the pieces are in place to record another bid to the field.
“We have speed, we have power, we have guys that can hit. We are really looking good,” he said. “We have it all this year. I am really confident with the guys this year. We tell them all the time about going to the NCAAs, because they want to know about it. Literally it’s just about putting the work in, grinding it out. When it was so close, we want to taste it again. It’s a big motivator.”
WVU opens the season on Friday, Feb. 15 with a road game against Kennesaw State. That’s part of a six-game, two-weekend road swing through the Atlanta area.