When a coaching staff is on the recruiting trail filling its future baseball rosters, one of the hardest positions to come by is catcher.
Not only are you looking for a strong-armed and defensively-aware backstop, but a one who is capable of producing offensively in the middle of a batting order.
The 2012 Kentucky baseball roster is made up of two such catchers: junior Luke Maile and senior Michael Williams.
“Well we have one of the best catchers in the country, Michael Williams,” Maile said when asked about UK having two of the best catchers in the country. “I don’t think I would throw myself in that ring. Mike is really a lot of fun to watch catch. He has so many tools, is so talented and knows the game so well. I learn a lot from him on a daily basis. He is a guy that works as hard as any athlete that I have been around, at any sport or any level. The nice thing about that is it brings my work ethic to another level.”
The two make up one of the best catching duos in college baseball, with Williams boasting a reputation as a lock-down defender with a developing offensive game and Maile regarded as an advanced hitter with great power potential at the plate.
Having a pair of star catchers give the Wildcats a great luxury, as the two can share the position, allowing them to avoid the majority of the physical tolls of catching in the Southeastern Conference.
“It gives us an opportunity to be fresh,” Maile said. “It gives the pitchers an opportunity to have a guy that they can throw to that is on top of their game and not with heavy legs or is flat-out tired. That is a big confidence boost for our pitching staff. It also allows us to have a break to go swing the bat and not lose anything behind the plate. Our catching core is definitely one of the team’s strengths.”
A 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, Maile has been a key member of the UK lineup since arriving in Lexington as the 2009 Kentucky High School Mr. Baseball out of Covington Catholic High School.
As a freshman, Maile snagged the back-up catching role behind fifth-year senior Marcus Nidiffer. He appeared in 26 games with 12 starts, launching three homers, including a monster shot against defending NCAA Champion LSU as part of a series sweep against the Tigers.
“I was really lucky to be behind a guy like Nidiffer,” Maile said about his freshman campaign. “We had a bunch of older guys leading us my freshman year. They definitely showed a lot of maturity in how they handled everything, from how they treated their bodies to how they handled a first-round pitcher on the mound that day.”
The two catchers rotated in 2011, with Maile starting 50 games, including 23 behind the plate, 24 at first base and three as the designated hitter. For the majority of the season, when Maile was behind the plate, Williams manned first base, switching roles with Williams flashing the signs behind the dish. Such versatility provided UK a unique opportunity to keep its talented backstops fresh and capable of producing offensively.
A native of Crestview Hills, Ky., Maile led UK in homers as a sophomore, cranking nine roundtrippers to rank fifth in the talent-laden SEC. He finished with a .282 average, charting 10 doubles, three triples, and 36 RBI, stealing six bases with his good base-running instincts.
“The first thing that comes to mind about last year is that I struck out more in a two-month period than I had in my entire life,” Maile said. “But I did do some good things. SEC pitching was a big challenge for me in the beginning of the year and I handled it better towards the end. From an offensive mindset, I managed some rough times well. There was some times where I hit .200 for a month. That was a big challenge for me but as an offensive guy and someone who has to produce, you can’t panic. You just have to trust your skills and that it was going to get better and by the end of the year it did which was a great learning experience.”
A 43rd-round pick in the 2009 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox, Maile then went up to the Cape Cod League and Perfect Game League for summer baseball. After playing in 10 games in the CCBL, Maile sifted to the PG League, where he quickly became the most dominating offensive player in the circuit. Baseball America named him the second-best prospect in the league.
“The main thing was it gave me an opportunity to get some at bats and get some innings behind the plate,” Maile said about his smashing offensive summer. “The game started to slow down for me. The ball started looking a little bit bigger. Those big breaking balls didn’t seem quite as sharp and the fastballs seemed a bit slower. That really allowed some aspects of my game to take off during the summer, fall and preseason.”
During his 26 games in the PG League, Maile hit .378 (34-for-90) with seven doubles, eight homers and 28 RBI, with a .722 slugging and a .509 on-base percentage.
Following the summer, Maile returned to Lexington for his junior season and picked up right where he left off, leading UK in nearly every offensive category during the fall practice season and solidifying himself as a vocal, physical and emotional leader of the 2012 Wildcats.
“I always get a little uncomfortable calling myself a leader,” Maile said. “I just consider myself a baseball player who wants the best for the team. Hopefully the guys respect me and like how I handle my everyday business. It is a humbling and exciting deal and I couldn’t even imagine helping lead a SEC baseball team when I was young. Hopefully I can continue to get better at it. I definitely have some flaws and some strengths, so it is important to learn how to lead every day.”