Casey Opitz Has No Regrets About Returning To Arkansas For Senior Season
Casey Opitz’s backup plan wasn’t really that.
When the 22-year-old catcher learned that last year’s draft was going to be limited to five rounds, he knew there was a chance he would be selected. He also knew he might have an opportunity to remain with the Razorbacks for another year, in the best baseball environment Opitz has ever known.
“When we were getting calls about everything and they didn’t meet up with what I wanted, I knew Arkansas was what I wanted to come back to,” he said. “If I didn’t get the offer it was going to be Arkansas. There was no need for me to take an offer I didn’t think was up to my standards because I was going to be able to go back and play for Arkansas, something people dream about doing.”
Opitz and his squad are now through 11 weeks of the season, haven’t lost a series, and remain at the top of the college rankings. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound switch-hitting backstop has a slash line of .256/.385/.347 with 25 walks and 21 strikeouts in 36 games, but his most significant contributions come behind the dish. Opitz’s own assessment of his tools has his defense ranked first, then his hit tool, arm, power, and finally the run tool. Before diving into his toolbox, it’s worth noting that his enthusiasm and overt support for his pitchers has earned him some additional attention this year.
“I didn’t even know I really reacted like that,” Opitz said. “It’s weird to see how I get so caught up in the moment and I'm just so excited for that pitcher. Whatever it is, when they hit that spot it gets me fired up. When we’re in an opposing crowd and they’re yelling at us all game and they’re fired up—that’s why I came back, for moments like that and to be able to be a part of that.”
To be able to be a part of what the Razorbacks have already done so far, and on the way to what Opitz is hoping is much more.
“We play better on the road against really high competition in hostile environments than we do at home,” the No. 185-ranked draft prospect said. “That’s something you don’t see a lot, guys who like to go on the road and have that adrenaline rush and the fans screaming at you. We love it. And that’s really cool to see because who knows where it’s going to take us at the end of the year. Hopefully it’s Omaha when a bunch of other fans are going to be there.”
Beyond Omaha, Opitz is looking to start on a path similar to that of his two older brothers, Jake and Shane, and continue his playing career professionally. He’s learned about the ups and downs that the minor leagues can bring from both of them, and with that knowledge, and an extensive Razorbacks baseball experience under his belt, he feels ready to embrace what’s next.
“Hopefully they start me off at a higher level and it’s sink or swim,” Opitz said. “I could see that happening, and if it happens, I’d love that opportunity, because I’m older, to … start at a higher level and see what happens from there. I feel like I’m pretty ready for pro ball, being here for four years and working on everything I have, seeing the competition we face each weekend. I’m ready for it.”
And in his own words, these are the tools that will help him get there.
“I started to catch when I was probably 10 and it was something I loved,” the Colorado native said. “I’d just get bored at other positions honestly. My brothers were middle infielders and they loved it, so that’s what I did, I played middle infield. And then we needed someone to catch and I took that over and I just loved it. I loved being a part of everything, I loved the mind games that go with it; the game of chess that people don’t really see go on between the pitcher, the batter and the catcher. And it’s evolved the older I’ve gotten. Catching has evolved so much in terms of receiving and blocking and things of that nature that it’s super fun for me to evolve with it.”
The best part about being behind the dish for Opitz is calling the games, and playing games within the game to help his pitchers succeed.
“I love trying to figure out what a hitter’s trying to do and go against that,” he said. “From what I’ve seen them do well and try to go with what my pitcher’s doing well, that’s my favorite part, that pitch by pitch that we’re playing. It’s something I’ve always loved; it’s something I’ve always worked on since I was little with my brothers, just being able to read the game and read the situation as it plays out.”
The majority of that work for Opitz is based on what he sees hitters doing in-game, and finding adjustments to make to counteract their adjustments, but he is bolstered by the knowledge his coaching staff brings to the table before every game.
“They put so much effort into scouting,” Opitz said. “We go through the scouting reports on the hitters of the team we’re going to play and … they tell me what they think is going to work so I have something to go off the first time through the order. From then on out, it’s what I saw in the last AB from each batter. If we did what we wanted to do and it didn’t work out, then what could work and what could we try to do this time? Or if it’s something that works the first AB, let’s keep going for that until they make the adjustment.”
“The approach comes with what the pitcher is trying to do, that’s a big part of it,” Opitz said. “Researching who we’re facing and what he’s trying to do. But the biggest thing is trying to stick to your strengths. My strength is being able to go the other way with the ball so I look for a pitch I can do that with and take my best swing at it. If I catch it a little more out in front, I’ll pull it. If I catch it a little deeper, I’ll go more oppo with it, or I’ll have more time on an offspeed pitch to be able to stay through it.”
Though he’s become much better at separating his roles now, Opitz used to find himself thinking through his own at-bats from the catcher’s point of view, something he found he needed to evolve away from doing.
“I think through what I would call, and that gets me in trouble sometimes because I overthink it,” he said. “So I try to kind of dumb myself down at the plate and just look fastball, be on time for that, and then adjust to anything else.
“It was harder to do at the beginning, but now I understand that I can’t overthink it because it makes it that much harder. There’s a time and a place, where if I have a feeling they’re going to do something because they’ve been doing it or I’ve seen something on video, I might change to that, but I try to stick with what I’ve been doing and my strengths as opposed to what I think they might do.”
“It’s huge, obviously catchers have got to have good arms to be able to hold runners and everything, but it’s something we don’t work on too much,” Opitz said. “We try to do it a couple times throughout the week before a big series. If we have midweek [games] you don’t want to overuse it so it’s worn down for the weekend. But the biggest thing is accuracy, how quick you can be and how accurate you can be with what you’re given.
“You could have a 1.9 but if it’s high or on the other side of the bag it doesn’t matter … I started working on it when I was little, really trying to throw as accurately as possible. My older brothers were middle infielders so they were always worried about accuracy. When I made the transition to catcher that was the biggest thing we focused on. No matter what we had to do, we were going to put it in the right spot.”
In addition to more than a decade spent working on his accuracy and honing his skills with his arm, Opitz also has a regular throwing routine to help him stay on track throughout the season.
“We try to play long toss probably three times a week, depending on how the arm’s feeling and how the weekend went or if we have midweeks,” he said. “But in the game, in between innings I work on throwing down to second twice, trying to stay as quick as I can and as short as I can while going straight through it, and then I’ll work on throwing to each bag each inning after that. So I’ll throw to third and then I’ll throw to first to try to keep everything pretty locked in and polished.”
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“It’s come along as I’ve matured and gotten older; since I’ve been here,” Opitz said. “And as I’ve gained weight and everything, the evolution of my swing, that comes with it. We’re not trying to do too much with it but the more work we put into it, the better the outcome is going to be.”
“Our strength and conditioning [coach Blaine Kinsley] is huge on all the tools and working with everything,” Opitz said. “So we work on that as much as possible through the offseason and then in season we try to keep building on what we have and maintaining everything. So it’s a lot of power work with the legs, a lot of explosive stuff.”