By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
Luke Van Rycheghem is a different player than he was when he first appeared at Tournament 12.
Selected to the Futures roster for the inaugural tournament, the native of Kent Bridge, Ont., was playing third base, and even spending a little bit of time on the mound for his squad. Last year, when he returned for the second-annual event at Rogers Centre, Van Rycheghem had started his transition to full-time catching, though at the tournament he also spent some time at both corner infield positions.
In the 17-year-old’s third go-round at the country’s largest showcase, his focus will remain behind the dish for his Ontario Green squad, and he couldn’t be more ecstatic for another chance to participate.
“It is such a cool environment to be playing in,” Van Rycheghem said. “And to have some former MLB players there like Robbie Alomar [commissioner of the event], to talk to you and give you pointers, is great. I am really excited for another opportunity to go back and play at the Rogers Centre again …
“The first time I was invited to T12 I was most excited just to be playing in an MLB stadium. I was also pumped to see Gareth Morgan play [later selected as the highest Canadian drafted in the 2014 draft at 74th overall by the Seattle Mariners, a participant in the inaugural Tournament 12]. I had heard so much about him, but had never had the chance to watch him until then.”
This time, there will be plenty of eyes looking forward to watching Van Rycheghem, who turned a corner in his catching game after last year’s Tournament 12, and started to live up to the backstop potential his Ontario Blue Jays coaches had seen in him.
“My game has really grown over the last couple of years,” Van Rycheghem said. “I have been getting a lot of reps at the plate and behind it, and the more reps you get, the better. My family has helped me so much. My dad Mark, mom Rosie, brother Mark and sister Hilary are always there to support me and push me to be the best I can be.”
Along with the support of his family, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound catcher has spent a lot of his time over the last couple of years with Ontario Blue Jays catching coordinator Kyle DeGrace, who has had one of the best and closest looks at the young player’s development and has seen firsthand just how far he has come.
“It was one day after fall ball, we had Luke stick around and catch in our development program game,”
DeGrace said of Van Rycheghem’s start as a catcher. “Obviously you see his body type, along with how good his hands were, at the time playing third base. It seemed like a good place to try him out.
“To Luke’s credit, he has worked extremely hard at the position to improve. He wasn’t as good from Day 1. What was good to see was that each passing week, he improved. For me, it was one year later while in Jupiter at the Perfect Game [tournament], where I saw the biggest difference in his game behind the plate.”
It was at that event in the sunshine state where Van Rycheghem began to gain more confidence in his skills behind the dish and realize that not only could he keep up with the big boys at the position, but he could stand out amongst the crowd. With a plethora of eyes on him, the backstop played some of the best baseball he had ever played to that point.
“One of my best experiences so far was in Jupiter, Florida,” Van Rycheghem said. “It was so cool seeing so many scouts watching every game, and playing some of the best competition in the States.”
Added DeGrace: “He just looked really comfortable. He always had a good arm. He showed that from day one, but it was his receiving that impressed me. He has unbelievable strength in his hands and it shows with his ability to catch the baseball, the most important part of being a catcher. For a big, physical guy, he is very quiet behind the plate, which is a plus.
“The upside for Luke is very high. He’s a left-handed hitting catcher who hits for power, who can also catch and throw. He is a really good kid who works extremely hard at his craft. He knew it wasn’t going to be an easy transition, but he has continued to put in a lot of work. He is still very new to the position, so I can only imagine where he will be in a few years.”
Continuing to impress those around him, Van Rycheghem eventually earned a spot with Team Canada during this season, and is returning for the Blue Jays-hosted event fresh off of the 18U World Cup in Japan, where he was one of the Canadian Junior National Team’s two catchers.
“It has been such a great experience playing on Team Canada,” Van Rycheghem said. “My favourite part is putting on the uniform and just being around the guys. The competition and the compete level is awesome. I’ve learned so much from all of the coaches and even my fellow teammates giving me pointers on what I can improve on.”
While he’s had the opportunity to play at several high-level showcases and events across the globe, Van Rycheghem takes special pride in being able to represent his country right at home once more.
“The Tournament 12 experience is awesome,” he said. “It is a lot more fun playing here in Canada, since I pretty much know everyone I am playing with and against, and I get to do it in front of my family and friends.”