Brett Austin is a catcher because he fit the profile.
"I was a big fat kid – it was like your typical ‘put the big fat kid behind the plate,’" Austin said.
So his Little League coaches threw him behind the plate in a game, but the young Brett Austin wasn’t really prepared for his position.
"I went back there and didn’t actually have a cup on. The umpire asked me if I had a cup and I told him no and he made me run back and get a cup," Austin said. "That’s how it all started."
Austin doesn’t really fit the part anymore, but he’s never left the position. He thinned out as he grew up. "Thank God for puberty," said Austin. But he still crouches down behind the plate every game, using his athleticism – he’s stolen at least six bases every season with the Pack – to save breaking balls in the dirt or frame pitches to get a borderline call.
"I get beat up. I’ve got bruises on my arms, a few on my legs now," Austin said. "That just comes with the territory. You never really get used to it – it kinda sucks but you learn to deal with it and just wear it I guess."
Despite the abuse he took behind the plate, Austin morphed into a tremendous hitter during his high school career. He hit .537 as a high-school senior, and drew the attention of colleges everywhere as well as getting noticed at the highest level. While he committed to the Pack in the fall, Austin was selected in the supplemental first round of the 2011 MLB Draft as the 54th overall pick.
"He was recruited by everybody across the country – sometimes I thought underhandedly so – people went to great lengths to try to get that kid to come to their program," Pack head coach Elliott Avent said. "We did it the right way and we got rewarded. I never felt good until about 12:01 midnight when he told the San Diego Padres he wasn’t going to be a Padre."
Austin put together a respectable freshman season, getting on base at a .350 clip and starting in 62 of 63 games. He took a step back in 2013, going through a horrid hitting slump towards the end of the year and finishing at just .251/.333/.361 by the end of the College World Series. Austin caught 95 percent of the team's innings, started behind the plate in 62 of 66 games and clearly wore down by the end of the season. It was a problem that both Avent and Austin recognized going into the year, and as a result Austin has started ‘just’ 27 of 35 games at catcher.
"Looking back last year, catching every game just about I was definitely exhausted," Austin said. "Even after two weeks off before going up to the Cape [Cod League], that still wasn’t a long enough break for me. It’s good this year that [John] Mangum is helping out a little bit and that’s saving my legs and I definitely feel fresher than I did last year."
Austin’s two workmanlike seasons for the Pack tended to fall in the long shadow cast by his classmates Trea Turner and Carlos Rodon, who quickly became superstars in Raleigh with record-setting performances. Austin has gotten comfortable being the guy behind the guys. He called Turner and Rodon "the face of the program." But now in their junior seasons, Austin has become the most consistent of the trio. While Mangum has taken some of his workload behind the plate, Austin has still started every game and is hitting .341/.412/.452, leading the regular starters in on-base percentage. He’s also the only player on the team to be named to the most recent Golden Spikes award watch list, one of five catchers to make the list.
"He’s been our steadiest player from start to finish. He hasn’t had a bad moment," Avent said. "You make small changes but it’s a perseverance game, a persistence game – if your work ethic stays constant you’ll be rewarded. And he’s done that."
The biggest change for Austin from his sophomore campaign to this year has been in his contact rate. Last season Austin struck out in 22 percent of his official at-bats, but he’s turned more than a fourth of those at-bats into contact this season by slashing his strikeout rate to just 15 percent. That, along with more luck in his batting average on balls in play, has resulted in his best offensive season with the Pack.
"My overall attitude – my approach has changed a little bit," Austin said. "Last year I kind of got caught up in the pressure. The last few years has been good for me just learning how to deal with failure, I’ve never really gone through that."
"I’m just kind of taking it pitch to pitch, which is so cliche but just staying in the present and not worrying about the past. You just have to learn to deal with it and control what you can control."
But his success offensively is just one of the reasons that Austin is so highly regarded inside his own clubhouse and by scouts. In addition to his defense, and his hitting, Austin also has to work with the pitching staff to make sure he understands both how guys approach batters and their repertoire. While he has all fall to work with guys, it’s impossible to tell how a pitcher will react in a game situation until he actually faces the pressure of live competition.
"You handle Carlos different than you handle Jernigan," Austin said. "It’s a matter of catching bullpens and getting to know what they like to do. It changes a little bit because they get nervous, just like me, and [some] are freshman and you have to understand that and go out there and calm them down as best you can."
Catching remains the most difficult, and under-appreciated, position on the diamond. But Austin has learned in three years with the Pack to treat failure the way he treats a foul ball off the catcher’s mask – take a deep breath, shake it off and get back in the game.
"He is one of the best catchers in the country – if I was a pitcher and got to throw to him – just the way he blocks, the way he receives, the confidence he gives," Avent said. "He seems to know when to go out there and talk to him. His whole game has been elevated this year."
Not bad for a big fat kid.