It has to be the least attractive position to play on a baseball field.
Who really enjoys being a catcher?
“I love it,” Alex Milazzo said.
So, do you love being part hockey goalie blocking 90 plus miles per hour fastballs thrown in the dirt that can leave a constellation of bruises? Do you enjoy being part linebacker blocking the plate and tagging out base runners barreling towards you like brahma bulls?
“You definitely got to be a little crazy to be back there,” Milazzo said.
Come on, do you actually have a passion for squatting for three hours in 90-degree heat?
“I love the toughness you’ve got to have to play the position,” Milazzo said.
Do you enjoy taking on and off a chest protector, shin guards and a catcher’s mask several times a game?
“When I was younger, it was pretty cool to put the gear on,” said Milazzo, a feisty sophomore who returns as LSU’s starting catcher for the 2021 season. “I felt like I was a Transformer or something.”
There’s nothing said, no argument made, that will sway Milazzo to think otherwise about the position he first began playing out of frustration and impatience.
“When I was 9, I was playing shortstop on a team and (opposing) teams just kept stealing bases on us,” Milazzo said. “Finally, I got back there at catcher and started throwing people out. It’s kind of been like that ever since.”
After LSU opponents were successful on 92 for 106 stolen base attempts in 2019, the highest success percentage (86.79%) in the SEC, Milazzo had managed to work himself into the Tigers’ 2020 starting lineup before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season after 17 games.
By that time, the former Zachary High star had already thrown out 5 of 10 base runners attempting to steal and fired pickoff bullets to erase a couple more baserunners who may have been a bit too relaxed.
It may have been a surprise to all who were thrown out, but Milazzo’s rep as gunslinger preceded him. As a high school senior, he had the fastest throwing time in the nation – 1.74 seconds which is the pitch in Milazzo’s glove to his throw in the infielder’s glove at second base.
No one stole a base on Milazzo as an LSU freshman in the 2019 fall practices. Teammate Cade Beloso accurately and immediately described the luxury of the Tigers’ benefitting from Milazzo as having “a blowtorch in your back pocket as catcher.”
There are several elements comprising why Milazzo is becoming a master craftsman behind the plate.
The first is his competitive spirit, someone who doesn’t care if he is a wee bit small for a catcher at 5-10, 196 pounds.
“(LSU) Coach (Paul) Mainieri jokes with me about my height but that’s one thing I love about baseball,” Milazzo said. “You can come in all sizes and be able to play this game. But it definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. I never really thought about my height, that I just go out there and compete.
“I take it very personally if somebody tries to steal on me. I play on edge when guys try to steal. My goal is to throw everybody out if possible.”
Also, Milazzo appreciates the fundamentals of being a catcher but understands what works best for him.
“When I was in high school, I liked to look at big league catchers to see the different ways they threw out guys,” Milazzo said. “I took some of what they were doing, did some things on my own and kind of created my own personal way of doing it.”
Which is understanding how to adapt to throwing from different angles and ball locations.
“It’s like being a shortstop,” Milazzo said. “Depending on whether a ball is up the hole to backhands or whether they’re going to charge the ball or turning different plays, shortstops are going to have different arm angles when they throw.
“I think being able to do the same things as a catcher gives me an extra edge when throwing guys out. You don’t have to throw a ball a certain way each time, so being able to throw from different angles helps a lot.”
Finally, Milazzo understands his goal every game to help his pitchers in every way possible.
“If a batter walks and you throw him out trying to steal, then the pitcher can take a deep breath and relax again,” Milazzo said. “And blocking (errant) pitches and keeping runners out of scoring position helps a pitcher.”
There’s also taking scouting reports and helping the pitcher apply it to game situations.
“Me and (LSU pitching) Coach (Alan) Dunn would meet last season before we started a series,” Milazzo said. “We’d review what pitches different batters liked to hit.
“And knowing which guys liked to steal is important. If a guy like that gets on base, you can go talk to your pitcher and remind him to be quick to the plate. You expect the guy is going to try and steal if we’re ahead in the count and they expect an off-speed pitch is coming.”
Milazzo is anxious for the 2021 season to begin. Unlike most of his LSU teammates, he didn’t get a chance to play in a summer collegiate league because he was in a six-week rehab after he had some fascia removed from the ulnar nerve of his throwing arm.
“My ulnar nerve would get tight because a bunch of fascia built up in there,” Milazzo said. “The doctors went in and cut some of that fascia out. It really loosened up my arm and it has come back a little bit stronger than last year.”
Now, that really is Transformers-type stuff.
HEADLINE: YOUNG, INEXPERIENCED TALENT ABOUNDS AT EVERY POSITION
There’s a good chance LSU’s entire infield could technically be all freshmen with two true first-year players and three 2021 sophomores who can be re-classified again as freshmen because of the COVID-19 pandemic influenced NCAA one-time offer of an extra year of eligibility. “None of our freshmen last season never got the chance to play in an SEC weekend,” LSU coach PAUL MAINIERI said.
True freshman TRE MORGAN of New Orleans’ Brother Martin was so good in fall workouts that Mainieri moved veteran CADE BELOSO to left field. “The last thing you think you’re going to talk about with a first baseman is their defensive skills,” Mainieri said. “But Tre Morgan is not only a good defensive player, he’s also one of best hitters. This fall, he was arguably the toughest out in our lineup. He hit all the best pitchers we have. But he’s so good with his glove, he’s going to save a lot of errors by our infielders because they don’t need to make a perfect throw for him to come up with it.”
Sophomore CADE DOUGHTY’S bat was just beginning to heat last season as a true freshman when the NCAA canceled the rest of the season after 17 games right before SEC play started. “He’s a line drive hitter who initially had a lot of bad luck hitting the ball hard at defenders, but he finally some balls started to fall for him,” Mainieri said of Doughty, a former Denham Springs High star who raised his average to .278 and 12 RBI when the season was halted. His defense has improved dramatically.
Three Tigers – true freshmen WILL SAFFORD and sophomores COLLIER CRANFORD and ZACH ARNOLD – are battling for three starting spots on the right side of the infield. Ex-Zachary High standout Cranford (.286, 6 RBI, 0 errors in 40 chances last season) is a returning starting shortstop who batted .538 during LSU’s five-game win streak to end the season with two doubles, five runs and five RBI, but he’ll fight returnee Arnold for the job. The loser of the shortstop fight takes on Safford for a chance to start at third base. Safford is just 5-8, 165, but Mainieri loves the toughness of the former starting safety for two-time state champ University High located just across the LSU campus from Alex Box Stadium. “Safford is a strong little cookie, there’s a lot of muscle in that small frame,” Mainieri said. “He can also play outfield or slide over to second base.”
Sophomore catcher ALEX MILAZZO of Zachary certainly had his offensive struggles last season as a true freshman when he batted .186 with 6 RBI as he started 13 of 16 games. But his penchant for throwing out base runners made him one of the Tigers’ most valuable weapons. He threw out 5 of 10 opponents who attempted to steal and picked two more off base. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the SEC better than Alex throwing out potential base stealers,” Mainieri said. “He’s not a great hitter, it’s not a picturesque, consistent swing, but he’s a grinder who will battle and will surprise you at the plate in key situations.”
Other infielders to watch juniors GAVIN DUGAS and DREW BIANCO, true freshman JORDAN THOMPSON and sophomore catcher HAYDEN TRAVINSKI, who may get a look as a designated hitter.
NEXT MAN UP:
After missing his high school senior season with a throwing arm injury, this incoming freshman first baseman has wowed observers with his fielding and hitting.
2 Run-homer last season for LSU second baseman Cade Doughty in his first college at-bat, last done by Beau Didier in February 2009
5 Runners caught stealing last season in 16 games by Alex Milazzo, half of the 48-game total by LSU’s 2019 starting catcher Brock Mathis
40 college starts of experience for LSU’s 2021 projected starting infielders