Catchers are one of the most underappreciated positions in sports. For the 18th-ranked Sun Devils, this stands true because Maddi Hackbarth is a coach’s dream. Hard working, ultra productive and one of the most coachable players there is.
“She’s just another coach out there,” said ASU head coach Trisha Ford on Hackbarth. “She just does a great job managing our pitchers, she manages pretty much the whole field. She’s kind of the conductor of everybody. She’s just done a great job of knowing when to give them some tough love, knowing when they need a hug. For me, to have someone like that behind the plate really managing all three, four different personalities is huge.”
Hackbarth, who transferred to Arizona State from Fresno State before last season accompanied by her twin sister, Kindra and outfielder Morgan Howe, at times falls behind the curtain of her fellow teammates. Kindra Hackbarth and Howe are the most talked about players on ASU, and for good reason, but Maddi Hackbarth has just been as important to the Sun Devils’ success the past two seasons.
Behind the plate, Hackbarth had to adjust an entire new pitching staff in her first year as a Sun Devil. The thinking behind the catcher’s junior year is that it’d be easier with continued chemistry with returners in the circle. However, due to two graduations and a pair of transfers put Hackbarth back into a position to start with a fresh new staff once again.
“It’s definitely been fun,” Hackbarth said. “Its had its moments for sure, but not knowing what we were going to have the last couple weeks of summer — it was just getting my mind wrapped around having this opportunity that I’m going to have to excel in my position and become a better person. Each one of them are so different.”
The ASU bats will put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard on just about every single night, regardless of the opponent. The Sun Devils have produced against the likes of Michigan’s Meghan Beaubien, Texas’ Miranda Elish and James Madison’s Megan Good, all of which are All-Americans. Nevertheless, for ASU to make a second consecutive trip to Oklahoma City, it’ll depend of how well they pitch.
That responsibility falls on Hackbarth. With two freshmen in Abby Andersen and Mikayla Santa Cruz, along with the two transfers, Samantha Mejia and Cielo Meza, Hackbarth has had to help groom them for the colossal duties of pitching in the Pac-12 conference.
“I always smile when I talk about her,” Ford said. “She’s a gamer, she wants to be out there, she wants to catch every pitch. She’s phenomenal for our pitching staff. I know for a fact we wouldn’t be where we are today on the mound, especially with Abby and Sam without Maddi.”
The two starters ASU used in their first conference series in Andersen and Mejia reiterated about the importance Hackbarth is to the staff’s battery.
“When I first got here, as a pitcher I wasn’t the most mechanically knowledgeable about things. I joke about it with Maddi, she knows more about pitching than I do,” Andersen said. “She can sit there and pick up on the little things that I can do when my pitchers aren’t moving the same way. She’s definitely helped me a lot.”
“I think her knowing how it goes and knowing transition going into Pac-12. Just talking about it and her motivating me, letting me know I’m good enough to be here,” said Mejia on Hackbarth’s help with her own transition from Fresno State this past offseason. “Maddi definitely has a huge impact with the arm that she has if we get runners on, she’s capable of doing. I don’t even know what I’d do without her.”
The entire pitching staff has needed time to adjust to the college and Pac-12 level depending on the certain ASU pitcher. Each one has had their troubles with giving up free passes, to answer, Hackbarth has gunned down runners trying to snatch another bag or simply getting too far off the base they’re on.
Defense and leadership traits demonstrated themselves last season as well for the catcher, but Hackbarth’s consistency at the plate dwindled for most of the season. After a hot start with an average of nearly .400 and five homers in the month of February, her season average finished at .175 and she only added one more blast from March to May.
Part of the issue at the plate was Hackbarth’s health. The catcher, as most are, was beat up and damaged behind the plate. Multiple foul balls nailed Hackbarth in the face that led to her battle with concussions for part of the season.
“[It was] very frustrating. It’s something you can’t control. That’s something I’ve had to learn from that and other stuff, but it was very difficult,” she said. “Each concussion I had was very different, some I had were very quick, some were longer rest time. The most frustrating part about it was like ‘catch the ball, Maddi.’ Some of them would be right off the bat at my head, but the other ones would tick off my glove. That was the most frustrating part, you couldn’t control it, but it just kept happening and happening.”
Being away from her team at times ate at Hackbarth. She kept telling herself all she could do was continue to get better once she got back to her teammates because the last thing she wanted to do was let them down.
At this moment, Hackbarth’s head is happy and healthy. A major reason behind her team leading 11 home runs and an average that sits at .312 before ASU’s series with Utah. The other contributing factor has been the common theme of most of ASU’s production within each hitter is the time spent with hitting coach Jeff Harger.
“I looked at a lot of film over the summer, just looked back at all of my at-bats. What I was doing wrong, then went to what I was doing right, what felt right. Coming back and getting back with Harger,” Hackbarth said. “Getting that extra work in and coming in on off-days, hitting of the tee and making sure I’m feeling what I’m supposed to be doing like a consistent thing to make it muscle memory.”
Most qualities in Hackbarth’s play are far from flashy, but after each home run she finishes it with a bat flip. A trend that begun after her first home run when she was younger. Following the earliest dinger she can remember, Hackbarth’s older brother teased her that she should’ve bat flipped. To avoid the badgering from her sibling, Hackbarth flipped the bat after her next homer and has continued ever since.
Hackbarth has found her place behind the dish at Farrington Stadium. A leader, a rocket-arm catcher and a bat flipper, she’ll do anything to make her coach and teammates happy. She’s been the essential piece to ASU’s puzzle over the past two seasons.