Illinois baseball’s Goldstein calls the shots


Austin Yattoni

Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein throws the ball back to starting pitcher Quinten Sefcik during the game against Eastern Illinois at Illini Field on Tuesday, April 5. The Illini won 9-7.

By Cole Henke, Staff writer

In a college baseball game, the actions between pitches can take a while.

By the time the ball gets back to the mound, the catcher looks to the dugout. The coach takes his time to figure out the next pitch, then signals to behind the plate with numbers. The catcher checks his elbow guard and then passes the signal to the pitcher.

According to Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson, this process can take up to 20-25 seconds.

But Illinois baseball doesn’t have this problem.

Catcher Jason Goldstein doesn’t look to the dugout between pitches after he throws the ball back to his pitcher. Instead, he immediately throws down the next sign.

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    “Me and Jason are always on the same page,” Dickinson said. “We are talking all the time. The kid is crazy smart in terms of coaching. He is like a big league catcher behind the dish, but he is in a college game. There is a total trust there.”

    Dickinson will call some pitches himself, but it varies from game-to-game. Sometimes he will call 40 pitches in a game, sometimes he won’t call any pitches.

    Even when Dickinson decides to call a pitch, Goldstein said it is often the same pitch that he was going to call.

    Decisions behind the plate are anything but random for the Illini captain. There are numerous factors that Goldstein takes into account before he shows his pitcher the signal.

    “Before the weekend starts, the team gets a scouting report on our opponents for the weekend, and that is probably the biggest piece of information that I get,” Goldstein said.

    The report goes out Thursday night when the Illini are on the bus traveling to the games, and Goldstein will look at it for about fifteen minutes, and then the next day he will give it a quick review

    That’s all the time he needs to learn how to dismantle the opponent’s lineup.

    Goldstein uses that scouting report as a baseline for the first few at-bats. If it works, he keeps using it; but if it doesn’t, then he will start changing things up.

    “I observe from behind the plate,” Goldstein said. “For instance, if we call a pitch and he is late on that pitch, then maybe the next pitch we throw will be further inside, or maybe we will elevate it. I will change things based on what I can only see from behind the plate.”

    While the scouting report serves as Goldstein’s foundation, it doesn’t take him long to make it his own.

    A senior in Engineering, Goldstein has been balancing his school work and baseball career exceptionally for four years, but Dickinson is still blown away by Goldstein’s baseball IQ.

    “We are dealing with a kid who just has a great mind,” Dickinson said. “I will give that kid a scouting report, and literally the next day he will be able to recite back to you everything that he has seen. That, in its own right, is a skill. I don’t know if he has a photographic memory or what.”

    Keeping in rhythm

    As a pitching coach, Dickinson likes to instill the same values he had as a collegiate pitcher into his players.

    Dickinson is a graduate of the University of Illinois, and is known as one of the best pitchers in Illinois history. He earned third team All-American honors and was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2001.

    The most important thing Dickinson likes to pass on to his players is the ability to work quickly. Goldstein’s ability to call pitches keeps the pitchers in their rhythm.

    “Hitters can’t get comfortable if the pitcher works quick,” Dickinson said. “If you can get a guy to swing at a bad pitch, and then come at him in 15 seconds with another pitch, his mind hasn’t had time to wipe that clean. You can use that against him.”

    Trust in Goldstein

    Goldstein, the undisputed captain of the Illinois baseball team, has seen it all.

    He has started 168 games for the Illini in four years and was a big contributor to the 27-game winning streak and the Big Ten championship last season.

    As such, when he throws down the sign behind the plate, it is more than likely going to be followed. Dickinson said the Illini pitchers will hardly ever shake off Goldstein, and if one does, it is probably
    an upperclassman.

    Illini closer and senior classman Nick Blackburn is one who admits to shaking Goldstein’s sign off, but even he said that it is only under special circumstances.

    “I do not shake him off very often,” Blackburn said. “If he thinks I should throw a fastball in a certain situation, but I really like how my slider was feeling in the bullpen, that is the only time I will shake him off. If I do, he will immediately understand why I did it.”

    However, if one of the younger players shakes off Goldstein, the man behind the plate said he won’t be as understanding.

    He will immediately throw down the same signal to make sure they know he is running the show. He said it doesn’t take longer than one time to get the message across.

    Blackburn is pitching much more frequently and spending more time throwing to Goldstein during
    games. This has made him realize he has taken Goldstein’s presence for granted.

    “It is unbelievable having him back there,” Blackburn said “The way he thinks about the game is unbelievable, and it is one less thing I have to worry about when I head out there. Every time I go out there, it always seems like we are on the same page. The way he thinks takes him to the
    next level.”

    Blackburn said he really starts to miss Goldstein during summer ball. He has played with many great catchers over the past few summers, but said none of them compare to Jason.

    As much as Goldstein helps him, Blackburn said he helps the younger players even more. The freshman feel more comfortable on the field with Goldstein out there with them.

    “I don’t think we would have close to the numbers we’ve had the past couple of the years without Jason,” Blackburn said.

    Hartleb’s policy

    Having a catcher call the shots on the diamond is a rarity for a lot of college baseball teams – Goldstein said probably 90 percent of the teams Illinois plays on the season do not let their catchers call pitches.

    However, it is not a rarity under Hartleb’s Illinois squad.

    In Hartleb’s 10 years as head coach of the Illini, every catcher has ran the show from behind the plate.

    This isn’t a coincidence. Hartleb played catcher himself for two seasons at Southern Illinois, and his coach let him call pitches during games. As such, he knows first-hand how a catcher sees the game differently than coaches from the dugout.

    “I think there are things that you can see from behind the plate that you can’t see in the dugout,” Hartleb said. “You can see if a hitter makes a slight adjustment in the box. You can tell if a pitcher is starting to
    gain a pitch or lose a pitch. It is our job to help our catchers understand our pitchers and how to attack certain situations.”

    Before committing to Illinois, Goldstein knew of the long-standing tradition of great catchers at Illinois, and if he chose Illinois, he knew Hartleb’s pitch-calling policy.

    Goldstein didn’t have a huge list of schools to pick from. He was sought after as the No. 4 catcher in the nation leaving high school, but his list was built around the academic standards of his choices.

    The Illini’s custom of letting catchers run the show coupled with Illinois’ academic standards made the choice easy for the Highland Park native.

    Goldstein started in 42 games for the Illini as a freshman, and while he had yet to completely build the coaching staff’s trust, he was still calling pitches.

    For most freshman, that would be a daunting task. But not to Goldstein. He said he started calling pitches in high school, so it did not take him long to fit into the Illini system.

    “My high school coaches were catchers,”Goldstein said. “They understood the importance of developing the mental aspect of the game.”

    Hartleb said he sees the process of pitching as a “feel thing.” The player-to-player relationship is more different than the player-to-coach relationship, and he knows a pitcher will feel more comfortable shaking off a sign from a teammate rather than a coach.

    “I would rather have a pitcher throwing a pitch with conviction rather than a pitcher going out there thinking, ‘I am only throwing this pitch because coach told me to,’” Hartleb said.

    Advantage at the next level

    Hartleb said Goldstein’s experience calling pitches in high school was not a big part of his recruiting process compared to other aspects of the game.

    However, that is not the case when it comes to Goldstein’s prospective future as a professional.

    Goldstein’s exceptional ability to direct the game makes him stand out among the crowd, and that is exactly why Hartleb lets his catchers add this skill to their repertoires. Every starting catcher who has ever played under Hartleb during his tenure as head coach or assistant coach has been drafted into
    the minor leagues.

    Goldstein was drafted last summer in the 17th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He decided to return for his senior year at Illinois, but he said his knowledge of the mental side of baseball was a big reason for getting drafted.

    “(My experience) was huge,” Goldstein said. “A lot of scouts like me because I am advanced defensively and on the intellectual side defensively. There are a lot of catchers who can really catch and really throw,
    but they struggle with being able to dissect hitters and dissect swings.”

    He added that there are catchers entering their third or fourth years in the minor leagues, and all they have been doing is learning how to call pitches. Goldstein would bypass that step in the minors.

    Dickinson said Goldstein is great at “taking ownership of the pitchers.”

    “The kid is a rare breed,” Dickinson said. “Pitchers are going to love him in pro-ball. He will move around because pitchers will want to throw to him.”

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