Garrett Stubbs has always packed a big game into his 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame.
There’s more to come before Stubbs leaves Southern California, where he’s been a four-year starter, mostly at catcher. The Trojans are back in the regionals for the first time in 10 seasons, Stubbs is a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award and he’ll most certainly be taken in the amateur draft.
Stubbs has a ball autographed by Bench, courtesy of a teammate. His step-grandfather and former USC player Fred Shuey once played a minor league season with Bench.
“To win that award would be great on a personal level, but nothing like winning a national championship,” Stubbs said.
Stubbs wouldn’t have gone high enough in last year’s draft to merit leaving after his junior season. Besides, there was more to accomplish.
“My freshman year, the guys came in and said we’d change the program,” said Stubbs, who graduated from San Diego’s Torrey Pines High. “My junior year, we fell short of that and did not make it to regionals. We had our first winning season, but that doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment. We wanted to come back and do what we said our freshman year, change the program, and this year we finally did that.”
The Trojans (37-19) are in the Lake Elsinore regional, hosted by UC Santa Barbara, and will play Virginia (34-22) on Friday. UCSB (40-15-1) faces San Diego State (40-21).
Stubbs did his part to help USC break a long postseason drought, both at the plate and behind it.
He was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year on Wednesday. His caught-stealing percentage of 53.8 (28 of 52) is the best among the 20 Johnny Bench Award semifinalists. In 1,108 chances during four years, he had only five errors for a .995 fielding percentage.
Stubbs was among Pac-12 leaders with a .330 average, 47 runs scored and 19 stolen bases.
“If there’s a better catcher in the country, I haven’t seen him,” USC coach Dan Hubbs said.
The Johnny Bench Award finalists will be announced Tuesday.
“He has the ability to do a lot of different things on offense as well as defense,” Hubbs said. “I haven’t seen that combination with anyone else. Defensively, I just think he’s an elite, elite catcher. You know that when every coach of a team we play against talks about him, and every umpire tells me late in a game how great he is to work behind. He has the respect of the other coaches, teams and umpires.”
Stubbs makes up for his small size with a strong arm and almost acrobatic play behind the plate.
“I think it defines the kind of player I am,” Stubbs said. “I think it really is a part of my game. Behind the plate I try to be as athletic as possible. I try to use size to my advantage. … I’m not necessarily saying I have a chip on my shoulder, but let’s say I have a chip on my shoulder. I’m not out to prove people wrong, but to prove myself. Every day I’m working hard for my pitchers and to have the team come out with a win. It’s my size that has driven me to be a hard worker behind the plate. If it didn’t, then I wouldn’t be the catcher I am today.”
Shuey, who went to San Diego High before playing at USC with Tom Seaver, had Stubbs begin working with former big league catcher Ed Herman when he was nine. Because of his even smaller size back then, Herman taught Stubbs to one-hop his throws to second base. His high school coach, Matt Chess, encouraged him to keep doing that to keep the same arm slot. Now, Stubbs’ worst throw is a one-hopper.
“I think it starts with the people above me, both coaches and players,” said Stubbs, who at 13 was catching high school and college pitchers who were working under the tutelage of Tom House. “I’ve walked into every situation with open eyes and understanding I had a lot to learn. I tried to learn something every day.”
Shuey, who played outfield at USC and in the minors, had Stubbs work with Herman because “I knew the fastest way to the big leagues is being a left-handed-hitting catcher.
“Garrett’s earned everything,” said Shuey, who has attended almost all of Stubbs’ college games along with his grandmother, Maxine Gellens.
Stubbs received his degree in policy planning and development, with an emphasis in real estate. His little brother, C.J., is a senior at Torrey Pines High and will play at USC.
Stubbs received a call during last year’s draft from the Houston Astros before the seventh round, but decided to stay in school.
Agent Scott Boras, who is not representing Stubbs, thinks the catcher could be drafted anywhere from the fifth to 15th round.
“He’ll definitely be playing pro baseball in a matter of months,” said Boras, who saw plenty of Stubbs while his son, Trent, was playing at USC.