There’s really no way to determine how many pitches Bob Arens has caught during his career at Wichita State.
Most of them, though, have been out of sight.
He’s spent the bulk of his five years with the WSU baseball team — Arena redshirted in 2013 — as the Shockers’ bullpen catcher, warming up starting pitchers, relief pitchers and pitchers who are throwing on their off day.
“I’ve probably caught 500 bullpens here,” said Arens, a senior who played high school baseball at Northwest.
And like any other player coming out of high school and into college, Arens thought he would eventually be the starting catcher for Wichita State.
But he ran into Chris O’Brien early in his career and O’Brien couldn’t be budged out of the starting catching role. Ditto for Tyler Baker.
Arens planted himself in the bullpen and made the best of things.
“Your job down there is to get those pitchers ready to go into a game and ready to throw strike one,” Arens said. “You’re probably a little bit of a coach in the bullpen.”
Finally, though, Arens has gotten an opportunity to do something other than squat and throw warm-up pitches.
He’s started 14 games for WSU this season and made the most of it, batting .280 with a pair of homers, five doubles and 11 RBI in 50 at-bats.
Consider that in Arens’ previous four seasons he had 36 at-bats, and this is quite a work load.
Arens hit the first two homers of his Shocker career during a 14-4 blowout over Indiana State on April 5 in Terre Haute. One was a two-run shot, the other came with two runners on base.
“The first one didn’t really feel like anything, just a line drive that kept going,” Arens said. “The second one was pretty much a no-doubter, I feel like.”
Arens had been waiting so long for a day like he had in Terre Haute. The only people happier than Arens were his teammates.
“Bob is the ultimate team guy,” Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “He caught bullpens for four years and even some now. So he’s been down there trying to get guys better and he’s never complained. He has the same mind-set every day. You catch bullpens for four or five years and that’s pretty painful.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Arens said his knees held up well the first four years, but that he’s started to feel some pain in them this season. Now that he’s getting to play with some regularity, though, it’d take a lot more discomfort than he’s feeling to get him off the field.
“Finally getting to play has been rewarding, unbelievable,” Arens said. “It’s such a great feeling to be out there and to be able to help the team. The team may not be doing great (the Shockers are 14-25 going into Tuesday’s game at Kansas) but if I can just help these guys win one or two games, that’s what is important.”
Arens hit .470 as a senior at Northwest with lots of power. The Shockers recruited him hard.
“I saw myself eventually being the every-day (catcher),” Arens said.
He was sort of right, it just took a lot longer than he anticipated. Even now, Arens is splitting time with freshman Gunnar Troutwine, who looks like a future standout.
“Bob’s getting a chance in a tough season but he’s making the most of it,” Kemnitz said. “He’s getting a lot of time and our pitchers love throwing to him. I’m sure there were times over his career where he’s thought maybe he needs to get on with something else, but he’s hung in there. And he’s been very coachable, very loyal.”
Arens admits the thought of not returning to the Shockers for his senior season did cross his mind. There are only so many bullpen sessions a guy can catch before the novelty wears off.
“It was really only like a 20 percent thing for me that I’d be leaving and 80 percent that I would come back,” Arens said. “I know playing baseball isn’t going to be my profession or my career. And my parents have blessed me with helping me through college and I was thinking that maybe I could have started helping myself and provided for myself a little bit more.”
But baseball is addictive. I’ve never known a player yet who didn’t want to play until he absolutely couldn’t. Even if they weren’t playing very much.
“You can go on and on about all the great catchers we’ve had here,” Kemnitz said. “And a lot of those guys had to catch a lot of pens their first year and even some in their second year. That was a grind, but the carrot was that they would be the starter probably the next year.
“But with Bob, there’s never been a situation where he was going to be the guy.”
So he’s spent most of his Wichita State career squatting in the bullpen, getting pitchers ready to take center stage while remaining out of view.
Until this season.
Arens has come out of hiding just before he has to leave for good.
WICHITA STATE AT KANSAS
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Hoglund Ballpark, Lawrence
Records: WSU (14-25), KU (16-24)
TV: Cox 22
Radio: KNSS 1330-AM