In baseball, managers call to the bullpen for their next pitcher to enter the game. However, this season, head coach Steve Sanfilippo made the call to the bullpen to find his starting catcher.
As a freshman, Max Kemp served as the bullpen catcher for the MSOE baseball team. Games and at-bats proved to be tough to come by for the third catcher on the roster. By season's end, he'd totaled just six plate appearances.
"I was the walk-on guy," Kemp said. "We had two guys returning ahead of me, so coach told me that I would be there to learn the college game versus the high school game and be the bullpen guy and out there for moral support."
In December, Sanfilippo notified Kemp that he would continue his bullpen catcher duties as now the number four catcher on the roster.
"I told him, 'Max, you keep working hard, I see some improvement," Sanfilippo said, "but you know the situation, we brought two freshmen in and our other catcher is a senior. As of right now, you likely won't be playing in many games.' The reason why I like Max and kept him on the team is the positive impact he has on the pitchers and his consistency on a daily basis."
Kemp accepted the news, put his head down and did what he did as a rookie: get pitchers ready. And, that, is what got him to where he is today as the starting catcher on one of the most successful teams the program has had since before Sanfilippo was born.
"It didn't really change anything, honestly" Kemp said of being told I would be the bullpen catcher again. "I listened to what he said and I took it as an opportunity to give myself the chance to play. I continued putting in the work I did last year, grinding it out, and taking advantage of my opportunities to play."
Kemp began the season as more than the bullpen catcher, seeing time in somewhat of a rotation behind the plate. Then, after the season-opening trip, the job was essentially his.
He has started 26 of the 30 games he's played in this season, including starting 18 of the 20 league games. He's collected 15 hits and scored 13 runs, but his defense has truly set him apart. He leads the league with 13 runners caught stealing, throwing out just over 23 percent of would-be base-stealers, and is third among players that have only caught with a .987 fielding percentage.
"(After we talked) Max did just what he always does," Sanfilippo said. "He remained consistent, working well with the pitchers and played his way into a starting role. The way he was working behind the plate, we knew we had to get him more opportunities to play and it's been great for him and for our pitchers."
It's that bullpen experience that got him to this point. His rapport with the staff, his pitch framing and his effectiveness in slowing down the opponent's running game have made him the top choice for many pitchers on the roster.
"Last year he was our bullpen catcher and he caught everything you threw and would make it seem like it was the perfect pitch," sophomore Michael Boehmer said. "He never says anything negative and when you leave the bullpen you go into the game feeling (confident) like you can throw anything by the hitter. This year, he's in the game, calling pitches. He really knows what to throw in what situation and sets his pitchers up really well."
The pitching staff response has been phenomenal. The Raiders have the second-best staff earned run average in the league at 4.38, on pace for just the second team ERA under 5.00 in over 20 years. Individually, Boehmer, for instance, has seen his ERA drop over three runs from his freshman season to a team-best 2.56 this season.
"Max can frame a ball, he's great at framing pitches," Sanfilippo said. "He's outstanding at keeping the ball in front of him on balls in the dirt and runners on base. He's also gotten better on his throwing, throwing out runners at third base on huge jumps. He's done that in some big games for us down the stretch. Some of these things don't show up in the box score, but they are the things you need your catcher to do."
"Based on last year, I didn't get the opportunity to hit as much because I was the bullpen guy," Kemp said. "Defensively, I got the opportunity to work more. (Our pitchers) liked the way I received the ball, whether I call the pitches the way they like, blocking pitches and framing. They've liked it."
At 1 p.m. on Thursday, the Raiders will take the field for their first NACC Tournament game since joining the conference in 2008. Kemp will prepare for the game in a familiar position, warming up the pitcher in the bullpen. But, things have changed, and now he'll take his place behind the plate for game one.
"I thought (last season as the bullpen catcher) was awesome," Kemp said. "Going through high school, I didn't think college baseball would happen. Then, I came here and college baseball was one of my dreams, so this has been great."