By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa senior catcher Tyler Cropley is a shining example of reloading at its finest.
The Iowa baseball team had to fill a key hole at catcher after Jimmy Frankos and Daniel Aaron Moriel both used up their eligibility in 2016, and Cropley was there to fill it.
After watching Cropley play for two years in junior college, Iowa coach Rick Heller was convinced that Cropley could excel on a much bigger stage.
Heller raved about Cropley at Iowa’s media day event in 2017, saying that he brought a new dimension with his uncommon speed for a catcher and with his versatility.
Heller also thought Cropley could be a solid hitter, but that is where Cropley has far exceeded his head coach’s expectations.
Cropley leads Iowa with a .351 batting average heading into Wednesday’s game against Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, Neb. He also leads the team with 50 RBI, 20 doubles and a .460 on-base percentage.
Combine those offensive numbers with Cropley’s top-notch defense and it’s easy to see why he is a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate catcher, and why Heller was so excited to sign him out of junior college.
“We recruited him primarily because we needed a real good catcher and he brought that right away,” Heller said of Cropley. “He can throw. He can block. And he can receive. He’s really improved even in those areas. But he has improved so much with his swing. His swing has continued to get better and better and his confidence is there.
“He hits fast balls. He can hit the breaking ball.”
Cropley has made the most of his limited time at Iowa. In just two seasons, the former Sioux City Bishop Heelan standout has developed into one of the top catchers in program history.
From his ability to stop wild pitches to his ability to hit for power and for average, Cropley is the total package as a catcher. He also excels as a base runner, thanks to his speed and quickness.
And he makes life easier for the Iowa pitchers, especially the freshmen, who rely on Cropley’s experience and knowledge to work through jams.
“Just having him out there helps you relax,” freshman pitcher Jack Dreyer said earlier in the season.
Cropley showed Heller that he was ready for the big stage by hitting .403 as a sophomore at Iowa Western Community College.
Cropley then made the transition to Division I baseball look easy, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades last season.
He has combined to start 110 games over the past two seasons, including all 51 games this season.
Heller trusts Cropley enough to have let him start a few games in left field, but Cropley is at his best while behind the plate for Iowa.
He is an energizer and a stabilizer at the same time. He knows what to say to the pitchers and when to say it.
And he performs, one game after another Cropley embraces the grind and often delivers as shown by his two-run walk-off home run that defeated Michigan earlier this season.
Some catchers are easy to spot just from their physical appearace, but not the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Cropley. He looks like a shortstop or outfielder as much as a catcher, and his athleticism is rare for a catcher.
Cropley finished third in the Class 3A long jump as a senior in high school.
He moves quickly in either direction behind the plate and uses his athleticism to block wild pitches.
Cropley was overshadowed last season by fellow junior college recruit Jake Adams, who led the nation with 29 home runs in his only season as a Hawkeye.
But from the moment he walked on campus, Cropley has been a key piece to what is known as "Hellerball."
A native of McCook Lake, S.D., Cropley isn’t your typical catcher in terms of size or playing style. He brings more speed to the position than girth.
But don’t let his size fool you because Cropley can hit for power, too. He is currently ranked second on the team with nine home runs.
Cropley made second-team all-Big Ten last season and gave Iowa instant credibility at a key position.
So if the definition of reloading is to carry on without suffering a drop in production, Iowa certainly has reloaded in the case of Tyler Cropley.
He has been the perfect fit at the perfect time for a program that has risen steadily under Heller.
Iowa has won at least 30 games in each of Heller’s five seasons as head coach and has played in the Big Ten Tournament title game in each of the past two seasons, winning the tournament last season for the first time.
Iowa enters the 2018 Big Ten Tournament riding a five-game winning streak and with a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons under Heller.
"It's something that we overcame last year and there are a lot of returning guys that played in it and will know what to expect," Cropley said of the Big Ten Tournament. "For me personally, it's just a lot of recovery after the games. It's going to be a long grueling week and you've just got to get through it one day at a time."
Heller would be the first to credit players like Cropley for Iowa's success because coaching only goes so far.
At some point, talent, poise and competitiveness usually prevail and Cropley has plenty of each.
Heller knew that when he recruited Cropley from junior college and now the rest of the Big Ten knows it.
Tyler Cropley by the numbers
.351 batting average
43 runs scored
9 home runs