Jacob Campbell is a baseball junkie.
Since his junior season at Janesville Craig ended three weeks ago, the catcher has already been to camps in Florida and Chicago, and he’s presently in Atlanta.
When he’s not playing or practicing baseball, he’s probably watching it. He can probably recite the scene from Bull Durham when Crash Davis lectures Nook LaLoosh on cliches, and Campbell isn’t shy about using some of those cliches.
Sometimes, he can even be found reading about the game.
“Failure is an unavoidable part of baseball, and so is success,” Campbell said this week when discussing a topic he recently read about. “When you get out on the diamond and experience failure, it’s not about that, it’s about how you deal with it that determines how much success you’re going to have.
“When I’m up at the plate, I’m not worried about striking out or grounding out. Each at-bat is a new at-bat. That’s my mental approach.”
Whether crouched behind the plate, digging into the batter’s box next to it or running the bases this season, Campbell didn’t have to worry much this season in terms of failure.
He helped lead the Cougars to a third straight Big Eight Conference championship and was named first-team all-state by the coaches association. The University of Illinois commit’s dazzling season has earned him The Gazette’s area player of the year award.
“We were waiting to see if he would take the next jump, offensively, this year, and he truly went to the next level,” Craig coach Victor Herbst said. “I think baseball is what he reads about for his fun reading. It’s what he watches on his off time, he watches games. He works very hard to make himself better. I don’t know too many guys who play the number of games he plays throughout the year.”
Campbell took over the full-time starting-catcher role for the Cougars last year as a sophomore. Opponents quickly learned that attempting to steal bases against him was rarely going to be an option.
He was the backstop for a pitching staff that finished with a 2.32 team earned run average, and Campbell spent the high school season picking off runners that weren’t attempting to steal but strayed too far from their base.
“I’m just trying to be on the same page with a pitcher as much as I can,” Campbell said. “I’m back there so they can have success, and I’m along for the ride and there to do my job, to help make the pitches look good and call the right pitches.
“Luckily, we have really good infielders that I can throw to bases and pick guys off at first or second. That’s really fun when you have players that can help you out.”
Typically, especially at the high school level, coaches will lift their catcher for a courtesy runner if he reaches base. Catcher is not a position known for players with speed, and relieving them for a runner gives the backstop a break.
Campbell has no interest in such a luxury. Not only does he run for himself, but he makes other teams pay. He stole 16 bases—good for third on the team—this season and was not caught a single time.
“That’s a luxury to have at the catcher position,” Herbst said.
And Campbell was the definition of a cleanup hitter in the No. 4 spot of the Cougars’ lineup.
Jack Blomgren, Austin Kraus and Evan Spry—who join Campbell on The Gazette’s all-area team—set the table all year, and Campbell responded by hitting .463 with 37 RBI and 39 runs scored. He had four home runs and 10 doubles, which helped add up to a 1.267 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
“He did not waste a single opportunity,” Herbst said. “He doesn’t get cheated. He’s short and compact with his swing, which helps when you see off-speed stuff. I can’t remember a lot of times where, if he made an out, it wasn’t a hard out.”
“I’m obviously a fastball hitter. I get up there and that’s what I look for,” Campbell said. “I got enough this year to do damage, and that was my game plan.
“Patience at the plate is huge. I pride myself in getting deep in counts and working counts.”
While Campbell has enjoyed the individual success, he’d probably trade it all to make another run at a state championship.
He was a backup as a freshman on the Craig team that won the WIAA Division 1 title in 2015 and calls that his favorite season even though he’s started the past two seasons. In 2016, the Cougars returned to state and lost in the quarterfinals, and this year they were top-ranked for much of the season and top-seeded in their sectional only to lose to Beloit Memorial in a semifinal in Verona.
“That’s the motivation now, is to make it to Appleton next year,” Campbell said. “That’s what we’re going to be working toward.”
Campbell’s junior season has him set up as one of the state’s top prospects in next year’s senior class. He’ll be busy showcasing his talents this summer in hopes he might be selected in next year’s MLB draft.
But if Campbell is thinking about any of that, he doesn’t show it.
“I’m just trying to be the best baseball player and person that I can be, because it’s what I love,” Campbell said. “You grow up loving a sport or have a passion—maybe it’s a musical instrument or riding a bike; mine was baseball.
“I just love baseball. Hitting a line drive or winning games with your friends? I can’t think of anything better than that.”