Joey Bart took the field at SunTrust Park alongside his Yellow Jackets teammates. He was where he wanted to be, and will be, for years to come: a major league baseball stadium.
He missed last year’s Georgia Tech-UGA rendezvous at the Braves’ park with a broken thumb. The catcher attests that sitting out that game tore him up. And while Tech left Tuesday with a 3-1 loss, he gained perspective.
“That was unbelievable,” Bart said. “When we were jogging out for warm-ups, it hit me. This is where I want to be, in a big-league stadium. There’s something else about it. Just that feeling, the rush you get. The excitement, the buzz, everything about it is second to none. That was a lot of fun.”
Bart, a Buford native, committed to Tech when he was 15, largely because of his relationship with coach Danny Hall, whose son, Carter, has played with Bart since they were around 12 years old.
The Rays selected Bart in the 27th round of the 2015 MLB draft. But he passed on the pros in favor of collegiate development.
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That proved wise: Bart has hit .320 across his renowned Tech career. He’s hit 26 homers, 34 doubles, 105 RBIs with a .531 slugging percentage.
“To see his development from 12- or 13-year-old to 21-year-old grown man, it’s been fun to watch,” Hall said. “Great competitor, hard worker, tremendous talent. I’m convinced he’ll be a major league catcher for a lot of years.”
In what likely is his final season, Bart has hit .362 with 12 homers and 31 RBIs in 48 games. He’s made statistical leap in near every category from his sophomore season to his junior season.
“I love every second I’ve been here,” he said. “And moving forward, if I’m here, who knows? But Georgia Tech is a great place. There’s a lot of opportunity here. Coaches let us play. Not a lot of college coaches give you the freedom these guys have. They really want you to progress and move forward, play in the big leagues.
“This is why I came here. It’s a steppingstone for me to make it in professional baseball. … The way these guys have set me up for the future, it couldn’t have worked any better.”
It’s not just the offense. Bart is a multi-faceted catcher, praised for his ability to call a game and throw out base runners.
Georgia coach Scott Stricklin saw it firsthand April 25. Bart picked off a runner at second and threw out Tucker Maxwell, who hadn’t been caught in 2018, at third with a right-handed hitter at the plate.
“He’ll catch in the big leagues,” Stricklin said of the 6-foot-3, 225-pound backstop. “Anytime you see someone do something that’s difficult and they make it look easy, you know they’re really talented. Joey, when you watch him, it just kind of looks easy for him, and it’s not. I was a catcher, I know it’s not easy, but yeah, he’s got a plus arm, big-time power and he’s athletic. He’s a good leader; he calls all the pitches. I think he’s going to be a first-round pick, and I think he’ll be in the big leagues within a couple years.”
As Stricklin alluded to, Bart is the consensus top catcher prospect in the nation. He’s expected to go top 10 in next month’s MLB draft, perhaps even top five.
If a team selects him within the first five picks, he would join Kyle Schwarber (No. 4, 2014) and Mike Zunino (No. 3, 2012), Tony Sanchez (No. 4, 2009) and Buster Posey (No. 5, 2008) as catchers with that distinction over the past 10 years.
Baseball America pegged him at No. 2 overall to the Giants in its latest mock draft, noting they’ve been keen on Bart for the past year.
Such a scenario might make Bart the heir apparent to his idol, Posey.
“I really like to watch Buster Posey play,” Bart said. “He’s a Georgia kid. He’s a right-handed hitter with some power. He’s pretty athletic. He can catch and throw really well. He’s extremely good and way better than me, but that’s the guy I like to model my game after. He’s just so good, and the way he goes about his business is first-class.”
Hall has seen no shortage of exceptional catching since taking over the program in 1994. He managed long-time major leaguer Jason Varitek, current Tech coach Mike Nickeas, Tech Hall of Famer Bryan Prince and Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, whom Bart has gotten to know and learn from during the offseason.
“He’s a lot more like Jason than Matt,” Hall said. “They’re built very similar, like middle linebackers. Joey’s got more raw power than both of them. Catches good, blocks good, runs a game good. But it’s good company for him to be in. And obviously they’ve played for a long time at the next level, and I know Joey would certainly love to do that.”
Hall also has seen Bart grow as a leader. He expects his teammates to have the same competitiveness and passion as him, and if they don’t, he’s always let them know.
“I’ve seen him grow to where he tries to get the best out of everybody,” Hall said. “If something needs to be said as a leader and captain of our team, he’ll say it. But he says it in a good way now as opposed to maybe just wearing everything on his sleeve when he was younger.”
If Bart slips, he’ll be in consideration for the Braves at No. 8 overall. He met with scouting director Brian Bridges and staff early in the spring semester. The team has studied him, as it has with every potential first-round pick.
Bart didn’t have a favorite major-league team growing up, but the Braves recently made an impression.
“Just from going to the park and some of the guys they’ve got like Dansby (Swanson) and Freddie (Freeman),” Bart said. “I’ve got to meet Dansby a few times. Once you have relationships with people, it’s different. You cheer for them and want them to succeed a lot more.
“I’m a Braves fan now, man. I like watching them play. I like Ozzie Albies, obviously Ronald Acuna coming up. It’s a great place to be with a brand-new stadium, a new team. Just the whole vibe around the city now with the Braves is awesome. I can’t wait to get to another game.”
The Braves aren’t strangers to taking local products, though that won’t have much significance under new general manager Alex Anthopoulos. If Bart is the best player on their board, he’ll join a system that has catching depth, but no clear-cut franchise cornerstone.
“Obviously I’d like to go first,” Bart said. “Who wouldn’t? But the Braves, that’d be sick. I grew up in Atlanta. To play for the Braves would mean a lot to me. But things happen. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. We’ll see how it all plays out.”