East’s Shull a fine catch for Crusaders

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 23, 2009

By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY ó Mooresville leadoff man Nathan Abraham jockeyed a foot too far down the line Wednesday night at Staton Field.
An instant later, East Rowan third baseman Noah Holmes was slapping a tag on the surprised runner to extract pitcher Corbin Shive from a first-inning jam.
The masked man who delivered the ball to Holmes with confident precision was senior catcher Austin Shull, who has committed to Belmont Abbey.
Shull does what he did against Mooresville once a week. He’s struggled offensively, but he’s helped East win ballgames.
“You can’t find a better defensive catcher than Shull,” East Rowan coach Brian Hightower said. “You also won’t find a more unselfish kid. There have been games we’ve used the DH for him even though that’s tough to because he’s earned his ABs.
He’s handled it well. He’s still given us everything he’s got catching. He’s gotten a bunch of pickoffs, and he pretty much halts the running game.”
East’s forte is defense. Shull is the most important part of that phase besides the pitchers.
A catcher performs a laundry list of silent duties ó framing pitches, blocking balls in the dirt, barricading the plate against sliding runners, pouncing on bunts, pursuing popups and keeping his batterymate calm and focused.
Shull is fine at all the little things, but he really stands out when he springs and fires the ball to a corner for a pickoff or rifles the ball to second base to wreck a steal attempt.
That throw from the catcher to the second baseman or shortstop covering the bag is longer than it looks from the bleachers ó it’s 127 feet.
For backstops, the critical number isn’t their 60-yard dash clocking or batting average. Instead, it’s the time it takes them to handle that 127-foot throw. Scouts and coaches call it “pop time” because it’s the interval between the ball popping the catcher’s mitt and his throw to second popping the infielder’s glove.
A “Pop Time” of 2.0 seconds is considered solid even at the big-league level. Shull’s “pop” is usually in the 1.9-1.95 range. That’s as big a reason as any he’ll be playing college baseball.
“Back in November, I went to camp at Belmont Abbey with a ton of people ó probably 100 prospects,” Shull said. “I took 10 swings for the coaches, but the big thing was I had some of my best catching times. I had the best ‘pop’ in that camp. Shortly after that, I started hearing from them.”
Shull’s 4.0 GPA helps his recruitability. He’s also retaken the SAT to raise a nice score to an exceptional score in order to qualify for extra scholarships. Belmont Abbey, a Division II school that plays in Conference Carolinas, is $33,000 a year. Shull isn’t an accountant ó at least, not yet ó but he figures academic scholarships and baseball will handle about 80 percent of the burden.
“I know if it wasn’t for my academics I wouldn’t get the chance I’m getting,” Shull said.
The road to college has been long. He’s been a catcher every step of the way. Catching is the position Little Leaguers run away from because it’s the most demanding and least glamorous, but Shull didn’t have much of a choice.
“My dad was my first coach,” Shull said with a chuckle. “He told me to put on the equipment. After that, I never played another position. It was definitely a match.”
Shull said his coaches at every level helped him, but unofficial coach Ross Steedley, a teammate who graduated in 2007 and became a Charlotte 49er, may have been the most important.
“I owe my dad for pushing behind me, and I owe a lot of coaches,” Shull said. “But just about everything you see me doing now is what I’ve taken from the things Ross gave me.”
Shull first made an impact at East as a varsity sophomore. When Steedley pitched, Shull caught him.
As a junior, Shull hit the ball with authority. He batted .290 with four homers and 15 RBIs for the Mustangs. Last summer, he was the top catcher for the Rowan County American Legion team and batted .276 with two homers and 19 RBIs.
“All last year was a highlight for me,” Shull said. “To catch on a high school team that played for a state championship and then to catch on that Legion team. Just to be in those shoes was a responsibility I’m proud of.”
Shull’s offense has always been gravy on top of the meat and potatoes of his defense, but he has surprising power for someone who is 5-foot-9, 155 pounds. He smacked homers against Mooresville and Lake Norman in 2008 NPC contests and launched two longballs in a game at North Iredell.
“He has some pop in his bat, and he’s always been pretty good in clutch situations,” Hightower said. “We’ve just got to be patient. He can be an offensive plus, a .280-.290 guy.”
Shull went 0-for-3 on Wednesday to fall to 7-for-39 (.179) for the season, but many good hitters have slumped this spring. It’s been tough to find a groove with the cold and rainouts.
“I’ve had so many ups and downs,” Shull said. “But I’m taking extra swings, and I’m coming around. I’m feeling more like I did last year.”
Even if the hits don’t fall, Shull will be an asset. He’s able to separate offense from defense, and if his bat’s quiet, his mitt’s still gold.
Especially on those timely pickoffs. Neither Shull nor Hightower knew the exact number, but he must have connected with either Holmes at third or Shive at first a half-dozen times this spring.
“It’s tough to get a pickoff ó you’ve got to make it where it’s not even close to get ’em to take that guy off the base,” Shull said. “But Shive and I have sort of a secret code. When we’re on the same page, we get ’em.”