MSU catchers benefitting from a college baseball rarity

By Brett Hudson

Chris Lemonis sees the most value in Kyle Cheesebrough when he looks over and sees Cheesebrough fuming mad about something that isn’t immediately clear.

It’s happened more than once, and it’s exactly what Lemonis wants from Cheesebrough. Lemonis wants that specific set of eyes trained on the craft that he honed for years as a player and spent more years teaching others to practice: catching.

Cheesebrough may be listed as Mississippi State’s baseball camps coordinator/volunteer assistant coach, but in the practical sense, he is MSU’s catching coach. It’s a rare commodity to have — colleges can only have two full-time assistants and one volunteer, and with one assistant coach dedicated to pitching, it’s unlikely to have a former catcher on staff. But Cheesebrough is just that, and all involved expect that experience to pay off for MSU catchers.

“There’s not many staffs in the country that have catching coaches. I’ve been on staffs where I’ve had to coach catchers, even though I never caught,” Lemonis said. “I’m watching the hitters or the fielders, but he’s locked in on the catcher and it’s nice to have those eyes working with them. Our catchers have had a pretty good fall.”

The same can be said for the weeks leading up to Friday’s season opener against Youngstown State.

Not only does Cheesebrough know catching, but he knows catching for Lemonis, having played for him when he was an assistant at Louisville. Coaching was always Cheesebrough’s goal — he’s the son of a high school football coach — and all of his coaches at Louisville knew it. He landed a spot on the Louisville staff for three years, alongside Lemonis, and then followed Lemonis to Indiana. Cheesebrough was an assistant for Lemonis for all four years at Indiana and followed him to take the same set of responsibilities at MSU.

This is Cheesebrough’s calling: using all of his catching experience to develop young catchers.

“Catching is what I’ve done my entire life,” Cheesebrough told Matt Wyatt Media. “I’ve done it. I have the experiences of what they’ve gone through. I’m not some guy just throwing balls at you or throwing dirt balls at you, I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through.

“If I was a driver’s ed teacher and I’ve never driven a car, you’re not going to trust me. It’s the same thing. I try to give them as much experience as I can.”

All told, Cheesebrough wants to develop his catchers to become good professional prospects. They won’t be asked to do so at MSU, but he’d like for them to develop mentally to the point that they can call their own games. If any one player takes over and becomes the all-knowing veteran, Cheesebrough is not above incorporating that player into the pitch calling conversation.

Therein lies Cheesebrough’s ultimate goal for his catchers. He wants them to have a mental command of the game, then develop the confidence to let that command be known.

“I want to see our guys see the game as I see it. There are so many things — when a guy’s going to steal, when there might be a bunt — they have to see those things coming,” Cheesebrough said. “I guess expecting the game and what’s about to happen. When you have a mature guy and they understand that, they can put on their own bunt defense or they know the call I’m about to be making.

“For me, I could always tell when I was warming a guy up what he had: was his breaking ball sharp, was his fastball a little faster, if he’s not trusting it. The trust factor they have in each other and the trust they have to relay it to us. There’s a lot of things we all as a staff and as a unit, there has to be a high level of trust. Whether it’s (Dustin) Skelton, (Marshall) Gilbert, (Luke) Hancock or (Hayden) Jones, those guys have to trust what they see to tell us, ‘This guy’s not right,’ or, ‘This guy’s great today, let’s ride him out.’”

Skelton recognizes he was not an excellent defensive catcher early in his career, but feels much better about that part of his game going into this season and credits Cheesebrough for that. Skelton thinks he is a better thrower to all three bags and notices the blocking and receiving work Cheesebrough gets them while maintaining their bodies.

Cheesebrough’s subjects will need to feel good physically in order to live under his microscope.

As MSU’s practical catching coach, he sees the game through that lens. If a catcher doesn’t block a ball that allows a runner to go to second, then the pitcher throws a bad fastball hit for a RBI single, many would blame the pitcher; Cheesebrough will blame the catcher. In his mind, if his catcher had blocked that ball and stopped the scoring runner at third, maybe the pitcher gets back on track and retires the inning, preventing the run.

It’s a high standard, but it’s the one Lemonis wants Cheesebrough to hold. Cheesebrough said they like to call themselves Catching U with their run of success at the position, and Cheesebrough was brought to MSU to make that more than internal tagline.