MSU baseball junior catcher Matt Byars, like his game, is quiet. Much like his 6-foot-1, 188 lbs. frame, his numbers are not over-imposing. A ball off his bat has only left the park four times, he’s legged out a triple twice and he’s raked a double 15 times; but his game isn’t dependent on his bat going deep. Rather, his game is consistent.
Byars has delivered a constant offensive output worthy of keeping him in the middle of batting order. Heading into the final Big Ten series this weekend against Maryland, Byars is hitting .302 with a batting average that hasn’t dipped below .300 in more than a month, where even then it was .295.
“When we recruited him, honestly we weren’t sure what we were going to get offensively out of him,” head baseball coach Jake Boss Jr. said, adding they were looking to add Byars’ defensive ability to MSU’s lineup over his bat.
Byars, who has delivered the consistent performance at the plate and he wasn’t even a baseball player to begin with. In his hometown of Lodi, Wisconsin, he grew up playing soccer and football until his dad brought home a glove and a bat when he was 11.
“I always remember the first time he threw me a ball, he threw it at me and I ran completely out of the way,” Byars said. “After that I started taking lessons and taking the game a little bit more seriously, and my skills just kind of developed from there.”
From his first experience with a ball he grew to be a catcher, seeing the ball on every play on a direct line from the pitcher to the catcher. He excelled in high school ball, being named captain and winning a state title while batting .400 in his senior year. From there he wound up at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois, posting a .364 average with 28 RBIs in his final season for the school.
Byars’ presence behind the plate caught MSU’s eye first, so much so the prospective catcher received a text bright and early.
“Coach Meade is a big-time morning guy so he texted me about 5:45 in the morning,” Byars said. “I was like wow this guy’s something else.”
But the early approach worked, and Byars took a visit to the school weeks later getting his first taste of a Spartan experience at an MSU football game against Ohio State.
“After I saw that I was basically like where do I sign,” Byars said.
MSU soon added the defensively sound catcher who emphasized he enters the game with defense at the forefront of his approach.
“We did have a really good idea what we were going to get defensively out of him, and so that has rung true, especially with Chad Roskelly going down with a knee injury and not being back to 100 percent,” Boss Jr. said.
With Roskelly out for MSU, the weight of the catching duties shifted solely to Byars, who had yet to play a game at the Division I level. In nearly every sport there is a learning curve and the jump from community college ball to Division I ball can be a difficult leap depending on the school and the player.
“The work he put in the fall, he must have gained 15 pounds in the fall, working hard in the weight room, eating right,” Boss Jr. said. “I think when Chad went down with a knee injury, I think he understood that he was gonna have to shoulder a lot of that.”
Byars took it upon himself to make up for the hole and hasn’t missed a beat, grinding out a 47 game stretch — starting every one of them behind the plate.
Through those 47 games, only 10 have seen him go hitless, and he’s knocked in 20 RBIs while maintaining his .300 average. Something he contributes to the old baseball adage, just hit the ball hard.
“One of my roommates, Jordan Zimmerman, talking to him this year, he’s been telling me he just wants to hit the ball hard a couple times a game, and usually when you hit the ball hard good things happen for you,” Byars said.
Squaring the pitches up and staying within himself has made hitting all the easier for Byars this season. But the thing that might go unnoticed is his durability behind the plate.
“He hasn’t really broken down physically, which is not easy with the amount of games we play in a short amount of time,” Boss Jr. said.
But a little modern medicine is behind the catcher’s consistent and rugged ways.
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“The most games I think I ever played in junior college was 38-39, so we’re about 10 past that now,” Byars said. “Definitely takes a toll on the body, but you got to make sure you get your Advil before the game.”
His durability, too, has bred familiarity and trust with the pitchers he works with leading a successful season from the mound for MSU. With pitching as good as it’s been for MSU this season, it’s Byars who can share a little credit for it.
“We tell our catchers that they should shoulder a lot of the blame when a guy doesn’t throw well, and at the same time I think he should get some of the credit when the guy does throw well,” Boss Jr. said. “He’s a good target back there, he’s an outstanding receiver, guys like throwing to him. They’re confident in his ability to not only catch and receive but also to block. And when that guy is confident on the mound, good things are gonna happen. He deserves a lot of credit for how good our pitching staff has been.”
Even his other teammates have seen the upside Byars has brought to the pitching game.
“You can tell back there that pitchers have a really good feel for him and really trust everything,” first baseman Jordan Zimmerman said. “Our pitchers definitely have a trust in him to throw the curveball in the dirt, knowing he’s gonna block it or throw the runner out, so that’s huge for our pitchers to have that confidence.”
As MSU baseball makes its run toward the postseason and a possible trip back to the NCAA Tournament, Byars’ command at the plate and behind it will be a deciding factor in how far the Spartans go. His game will have to be just like it always is: consistent.