Catcher Eric Yang had never struggled like this.
It was April 2018, and the then-sophomore had just gone hittless in his two at-bats against UC Irvine, with Head Coach Andrew Checketts pulling Yang in the bottom of the seventh. In total, Yang hit .222 during the Irvine series — a remarkably low number for someone who hit .432 in high school.
That would be the last series he started during the 2018 season.
“I had never really had a rough patch like that before,” Yang said. “When I lost the job at the end of the season, it hurt, but it was good for me. It showed I can’t take anything for granted.”
In total, Yang finished the 2018 season with a .244 average and — more importantly — a chip on his shoulder heading into the offseason.
Yang’s belief in his own abilities never faltered; before this season, he stated that one of his goals was to be nominated for the Buster Posey award — given to the top catcher in college baseball. To an outsider, the thought of a recently-benched catcher becoming one of the top catchers in the nation would have seemed absurd.
But Yang worked at it, tinkering with his swing in the offseason. One day, senior and fellow catcher Thomas Rowan suggested that Yang use his legs more during his swing. Desperate to find anything that worked, Yang gave it a go.
The next day, Yang hit two home runs during the team’s scrimmage.
On top of messing with his mechanics, Yang also changed his approach at the plate, inspired in large part by new hitting coach Donegal Fergus.
“Our offensive style is a lot more aggressive this year than it was in the past,” Yang said. “In years past, the staff just wanted us to put the balls in play and not strike out. This year, they want us to hit it in the air and hit home runs. They want us to hit it as hard as we can and not get cheated.”
This change in approach has completely altered the way Yang hits the ball. Last year, Yang grounded out 33 times, with only 39 flyouts. This year, however, he has grounded out 35 times while flying out 62 times.
“A ground ball does nothing for me, because I’m not fast, so I might as well have my misses in the air,” Yang said.
This significant uptick in fly balls also directly correlates to an increase in power for Yang. After not hitting a single home run last year, Yang has gone deep seven times this season while contributing 45 RBIs. Even when he isn’t going yard, Yang has an uncanny knack for finding the gap, with the backstop tied for the team lead with 16 doubles.
Most impressively, Yang’s increase in power hasn’t coincided with a decrease in average, with the catcher hitting an eye-popping .383 out of the three-hole for the Gauchos.
Yang’s contributions to UCSB’s historic season go far beyond just his bat however. This year, Checketts has allowed Yang to start calling games behind the plate, and the junior has rewarded that trust by helping create one of the strongest pitching staffs in the country.
“I’m really close to all of the pitchers, and I even live with [Chris] Lincoln and [Jack] Dashwood, and I think we really bring that chemistry to the mound,” Yang said. “Because our pitching staff is so reliable, it allows me to focus more on hitting [instead of] babysitting the pitchers.”
Defensively, Yang has always been above average; this year the catcher sports a sparkling .995 fielding percentage, as well as an impressive 34.5 caught stealing percentage. Despite his numbers, Yang still believes he has room for improvement on the defensive end.
“I’ve always been able to throw, so that [caught stealing] number is honestly lower than I’d like it to be,” Yang said.
Of course, it is this drive to be the very best that makes Yang one of the best catchers in the entire country — something that his recent accolades reflect. Last week, Yang accomplished his preseason goal when he was selected as a semifinalist for the Buster Posey award, alongside 13 other catchers.
“Everyone on that list is a great player, so it was super cool to see my name on there as well,” Yang said.
Just yesterday, as if Yang’s season wasn’t already impressive enough, the veteran backstop was named the 2019 Big West Field Player of the Year, becoming the first Gaucho to win the award since Cameron Newell in 2015.
From getting benched halfway through the season to being named the best field player in the conference, perhaps no player in college baseball has improved as much as Yang.
Behind Yang’s resurgent bat, calming presence and consistent defense, UCSB looks poised to make a deep postseason run. And if Yang can keep up this pace, that run could end in a national title.