John Nester Joins Pantheon of Great Wichita Wingnuts Catchers
As the calendar turns to late May in Wichita, there are three things that you can be sure of occurring in the Kansas state. It will begin to get unbearably hot, there will be a lot of severe thunderstorm watches, and the Wichita Wingnuts will have a dominant catcher behind the plate. This season it is no different, as John Nester has continued the tradition and helped to mold a pitching staff that has seen 27 different hurlers take to the mound, yet rank third in the American Association in ERA. A truly remarkable statistic.
Solid catching is a trademark of the Wichita Wingnuts. Manager Kevin Hooper always ensures that his team has four things: great pitching, solid defense, a good running game, and a guy he can trust behind the plate. Nester has been every bit of what the Wingnuts hoped for when he was signed prior to the season.
Over the past three seasons the guys who have handled the Wingnuts pitchers have made a name for themselves. Catchers like Jessie Mier, Cole Armstrong, and Chris McMurray helped to mold a group of hurlers into a pitching staff. Pitching coach Luke Robertson isn’t looking for pitchers who are mavericks on the mound. He wants hurlers who buy into the things he is teaching and he wants a catcher that gets the Wingnuts philosophy on the hill. Nester has fit that mold perfectly.
John’s love for the sport is one of his earliest memories, and embracing baseball was easy to do, because it was part of the Nester family tradition. “I was picking up a baseball bat from the time I could walk. It just ran in the family with me and my brother, and my dad always put it on us. My older sister played softball too. So, it was just the sport of choice for the family.”
John played middle infield during most of the early part of his younger years, but when he attended Riverside High School (Greer, SC) he was switched to catcher full time. Nester embraced the change and found that his new permanent position was a little more to his liking.
“I like being able to control the pace of the game. The wear and tear comes with it, but I still prefer being involved more.”
Upon graduating from high school, John moved onto Clemson University where he starred there as well. He played three seasons for the Tigers, having his best season offensively in his sophomore season, when he hit .304 with 5 homeruns and 33 RB n 51 games. His experiences at Clemson were some of the most fulfilling of his life.
“I was fortunate to play with some really quality teams. We were ranked No. 1 nationally at one point, got to play in some big tournaments. Our team was even fortunate enough to host regionals and superregionals and have a chance to go to Omaha. There was just a lot of fun times.”
At the end of his junior season the Oakland Athletics drafted the Clemson star in the 39th round and he was off to begin his professional career. He started at Short Season Vancouver in 2010, where he played in 22 games. The next two seasons he was at Mid-A Burlington where he struggled a bit to gain his swing.
In 2013 he found himself released and opted to play with Evansville in the Frontier League. It was an outstanding season for the catcher. He played in 86 games that season, hitting .287 with 5 homeruns and 28 RBI.
His performance caught the attention of the San Diego Padres organization, who signed him and placed him with their rookie league team to begin the 2014 campaign. John spent just six games there before moving to Mid-A Fort Wayne, and closed the season at Advanced-A Lake Elsinore. Combined he hit .236 in 56 games, but he showed that he had some real pop in his bat, hitting .300 at Fort Wayne.
He entered spring training in 2015 with the Padres organization, but was released and looking for a job. With many opportunities to find a new home, Nester found that there was really only one choice where he wanted to continue his career.
“I had a buddy that lives back home near me, Ryan Hinson, who pitched here (for the Wingnuts) a couple of seasons ago. He had nothing but good stuff to say about it. It took just one phone call from Hoop (Manager Kevin Hooper) when I was getting calls from other teams in the league. Just one call from Hoop and I knew that this is where I wanted to be.”
Nester joined a team that was coming off a magical season that saw them win an American Association record 73-games on their way toward the league title. That team found several players retire or move on so that just one of their starting nine players was returning from last season’s club. That meant that All-Star catcher Chris McMurray also chose to retire, and Nester had some incredibly big shoes to fill. He was not fazed by this one bit.
“I didn’t really feel any pressure coming in here. I know what was expected of me, and I could tell that Hoop and Luke had confidence in me. I just wanted to play my game and do what I could to help the club win.”
While offensively John may not have made his mark in the minors, he was always an outstanding defensive catcher that handled his pitching staff well. It is the part of his game that Nester is most focused on and takes the most pride in.
“That’s always the No. 1 objective whenever you come to a new city, a new team. As a catcher you have to come and learn the staff, learn the pitching coach and the manager and how they want a game to be called; how it would be run. That is always the thing I take great pride in right off the bat, and hitting is always secondary.”
The Wichita Wingnuts staff quickly responded to the way that John called a game. He has been behind the plate for 12 different starters and yet has quickly built a rapport with the group. It is something that he made a priority when he first arrived.
“You start out wanting to learn what each pitcher throws individually and over the course of the season you try to learn them better and better as a person so you learn how to communicate with them, and how to manage the game for them to help them to do the best that they possibly can.”
The philosophy has been a winner all season long, as Nester has made himself adapt to the pitching staff and not the other way around. Many catchers feel that they have a plan that the pitcher should adapt to and lose the confidence of their hurlers in the process. For John, it is all about having confidence in his pitchers and then using what he has learned about them to get hitters out.
“Any time you are catching pitchers who have a clue about how they like to pitch, you have to adjust the way you call a game based upon how they like to attack hitters. It can make it easier to call a game once you figure out how they like to work. It’s really more about working together to use their strengths to attack their weaknesses and that is what we talk about in the scouting meetings before the series. It’s nice having guys that have some experience and know what they want to do, but it is a day-by-day process on how we attack each team.”
The philosophy was a success from the start, but with the large number of changes that the Wingnuts manager has been making of late, Nester has had to learn pitchers on the fly and prepare himself for starts with very little, if any preparation at all.
This was clearly on display earlier in August when the Wingnuts travelled out east to start a 10-day road trip. Due to some visa issues, the club was looking for a starter to make two starts in Canada. They invited Eddie Medina to join the club, and he gladly accepted. Medina joined the club one day and started the next. For Nester, he only had the chance to learn about the new starter and what his stuff was like in the bullpen prior to his start, yet Medina came out and pitched a gem, allowing just 4 hits and 1 unearned run in 5.2 innings. It was an amazing performance, but Medina credits Nester with how well he pitched.
“The guy is really smart, and you can have a lot of confidence in him. He really listens and calls such a good game. I think in the four starts I have made with the team now I have shook off his call maybe three times. He blocks everything and really helps you feel confident on the mound.”
This is a sentiment that former starter Anthony Capra echoes. “I have a lot of confidence in Nes when he is behind the plate. He calls a great game, and I know that even when I don’t have my best stuff he helps to find ways to get guys out.”
His ability to gain the confidence of his pitchers and his coaches is the most important thing to John. He wants those who have entrusted him to call a good game to feel that their trust was properly placed.
“I want to leave my mark wherever I go with the coaching staff and with the guys that I play with. I like to be known as a leader, and get the guys respect that way, and help the team win. It’s not about me. It’s about what I can do to help the team win.”
If confidence is what John is looking for he has clearly earned it from his manager.
“John is such an incredible leader on the field,” Hooper explains. “He really gives us a lot of confidence as a coaching staff that he can call a good game and get the best out of our pitchers. He is the leader on the field and has really earned that respect.”
While performing at a sensational level behind the plate this season, John has been a key piece to the club’s offense this year as well. Earlier this season the Wingnuts were really struggling offensively, and Hooper shook up the lineup. That meant moving John from seventh in the order to the cleanup spot. Even when the Wichita manager has changed the lineup around, John has found himself hitting no further down the batting order than sixth.
He has proven that he has earned those precious extra at-bats that come with hitting higher up in the order. In 73 games this season, Nester has hit .279 with 5 home runs and 39 RBI. He has 24 extra base hits and has even stolen a couple of bases. His performance helped the club weather the storm through late June and July, and with some additional pieces in the lineup the club is now pushing toward a chance to compete for the American Association title again. John is one of the primary reasons that this team is in first place in the South Division, but he isn’t patting himself on the back for that.
“I try not to pick certain things that I think I have accomplished or that I think I am doing good at. I try to stick to a routine and be a guy who just tries to get a little better at each thing each day. I think that as soon you find a part of your game that you are comfortable with and think you are doing well at this game it will turn around and slap you in the back of the head.
“It takes 22 guys to get here, and I am just one of those 22 guys. I hopefully am doing my part to help us to win. To me I just want my teammates to have confidence that I am giving my very best every night. It’s really about showing the guys that you will play hard and play the game the right way; earning their respect that way. Then the rest falls into place from there.”
Thanks to John Nester the Wichita Wingnuts have been seeing the rest fall into place on a regular basis this season. The Wichita catcher has quickly established himself as a leader on this team and a guy that his teammates can count on. It is tough to say that he has played beyond expectations, because the club expected much from John when he was signed. They expected him to join that list of outstanding catchers the club is known for, and that is exactly what he has done.
There are four things that Wichita Wingnuts manage Kevin Hooper makes the foundation of his club each year. With John Nester behind the plate, clearly this team is going to stand strong.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA