8th-rounder Opitz a pitcher's best friend

July 13th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Casey Opitz let out a slight laugh when asked about his post-pitch reactions that are made for social media. Clips of his hard fist pumps or high-energy howls made the rounds and racked up retweets.

"I completely zone out. I honestly didn't know I was doing it," Opitz said on Tuesday afternoon. "I was like, 'Oh man, maybe I need to tone that down.' And I never toned that down, because I just lose myself. I'm just so excited for the pitcher."

That last comment gets to the heart of why the Cubs selected Opitz in the eighth round of the MLB Draft, which wrapped up on Tuesday. The way Chicago sees it, the organization just grabbed the best defensive catcher available in the 2021 class.

One of the tasks on the plate of Cubs vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz -- in his second year leading the club's Draft -- is trying to erase the franchise's reputation for struggling to identify, draft and develop impact pitchers. In Opitz, the Cubs believe they have added a building block for that process.

"When you get a catcher back there that's as advanced as he is, it helps the development of our pitchers," Kantrovitz said. "And for that reason, he might start at a little higher level than some of our other Draft picks. We want our pitchers throwing to him."

Opitz was the lone catcher picked by Chicago in the 20-round MLB Draft. Here is a breakdown of the Cubs' class:

• Kansas State lefty Jordan Wicks was picked in the first round (No. 21 overall) by a Cubs team looking to build up its inventory of impact arms.

• Over Days 1-2 of the Draft, Chicago leaned heavily on collegiate players (eight out of 10 picks), but it veered to the prep pool on Day 3 (seven out of 10). Part of that flip involved signability components.

• It was a relatively balanced Draft class for the Cubs, who selected 11 pitchers (five college and six high school) and nine position players (four outfielders, four infielders and one catcher).

When Opitz got the call from the Cubs on Tuesday, he was with his family, which includes a pair of older brothers with pro baseball experience. Shane Opitz was an 11th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2010. Jake Opitz was picked by the Cubs in the 12th round in 2008.

Jake Opitz -- currently the manager for the Rockies' Arizona Complex League team -- spent four years in Chicago's system and topped out at Triple-A with the Phillies. Shane also reached Triple-A (with Toronto and later Milwaukee) and currently serves as a graduate manager on the Arkansas baseball staff.

The collective experience of the older Opitz brothers has helped Casey prepare for this next step with the Cubs.

"I've known about Minor League life since I was 10 years old," Casey Opitz said. "They've been a resource my whole life, whether it's baseball or not. It's amazing to have one person to help you through it that's gone through everything I've gone through -- let alone two."

Opitz said his brothers have also helped his own journey by staying on top of the development trends for catchers, and by feeding info and training techniques to their kid brother. And over four years with the Razorbacks, Opitz has turned himself into an advanced catcher in every defensive facet.

"Oh man. You can't even begin to quantify his value," Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said. "You can't make it up how valuable he was from a bunch of different perspectives. Not only the receiving and getting strikes and those types of things, but intelligence, how he would call the game."

Hobbs estimated that Opitz called around 90 percent of pitches for Arkansas over the past three seasons combined. The coach said he and head coach Dave Van Horn would also consult with Opitz at times on in-game matchup decisions.

Beyond that, Hobbs noted that Opitz started to help with building the game plans. And then the pitching coach raved about the catcher's ability to switch things up in games based on reading swings or his pitcher's performance.

"That was really evident to us," Kantrovitz said. "Rarely do you see a college catcher have the sort of ability and just the cerebral skills to be able to do that. Usually, it's the coach calling pitches. He's calling his own game there. The coaches trust him. The pitchers trust him."

Kantrovitz pointed out that catching Arkansas' pitchers was also almost the equivalent of handling a low-level Minor League staff. To that point, six Razorbacks arms were picked in the Draft -- topped by third-rounder Kevin Kopps (Padres).

Overall, Arkansas' staff piled up 50 wins and had 657 strikeouts against 218 walks in 558 innings this season. Kopps led the way, going 12-1 with a 0.90 ERA, 130 strikeouts and 18 walks in 89 2/3 frames.

"We have the Kopps kid that had a wonderful year," Hobbs said. "But he doesn't have that year without Casey. I would even think it's not even close, how much he helped our guys and how much our guys benefited from having him back there."

The Cubs are hoping that Opitz -- a switch-hitter with a .716 OPS in his college career -- can have the same kind of impact once he joins Chicago's farm system.

And maybe there will be more GIFs coming of Opitz reacting to pitches as he climbs the Minor League ladder.

"There's going to be some guys that need less of it and some guys that need more," Opitz said of all those fist pumps and shouts. "Whatever they need at that time, I'll offer it to them."