Clarke committed to perfection

Photo: Perfect Game

Blake Dowson
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2016

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Certain baseball players go through stretches at the plate when the nine-inch circumference of the ball looks more like that of a 16-inch softball, and it seems like the pitcher is serving it up in about the same fashion.

During the 18u Memorial Day Tournament at LakePoint earlier this summer, Philip Clarke multiplied that feeling seemingly triple fold, leading the Dirtbag All Black team to a tournament championship game win and taking home tournament MVP honors in the process.

Clarke hit .438 during the tournament, bringing in an event-high 11 RBI all while taking care of the catching duties for his team. He also finished in the top-three in runs scored and hits, none bigger than the two-run double he hit in the title game.

“It’s really just different stepping into the box when you’re in the zone like that,” Clarke said. “It’s a lot of fun in the dugout with the team, there’s kind of a different energy when you’re hitting that well.”

Clarke has shown out at many Perfect Game events, including being named to the all-tournament team at both the WWBA World Championship and the 17u WWBA National Championship, two of the biggest travel ball tournaments of the year.

Those tournaments, along with the MVP performance at the Memorial Day Tournament and an impressive showing at the Perfect Game National Showcase have earned Clarke, the top-ranked player in his home state of Tennessee and the No. 4 catcher in his class, a spot in the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego on Aug 14. 

After all of the hard work that went into putting himself in a position to be selected, Clarke said there was a lot of satisfaction when he got the phone call saying he had been chosen to travel to San Diego.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” he said. “It was my goal for the summer, and I’m really happy with the work I’ve put in to be able to do it. And to be the only one from Tennessee to be playing in the All-American Classic, it will be really cool to represent my state.”

Clarke will continue to represent his home state after the PG All-American Classic and after he graduates high school, as he has signed on to play for coach Tim Corbin and the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The ‘Dores are getting a good one in Clarke, who grew up in their backyard in Franklin, Tennessee. A physical presence in the lefthanderd batters box standing at 5-foot-11 and 190-pounds, his slightly open and tall stance that allows him to hit to both gaps with power might make you mistake him for Chipper Jones. Not so coincidentally, the former Atlanta Braves third baseman was Clarke’s favorite player as a kid.

With Jones hanging up his cleats after the 2012 season and Clarke emerging as one of the best catching prospects in the 2017 class, he’s moved his focus to major league catchers, trying to pick things up from a couple of the best in the business.

“Chipper Jones was always my favorite player growing up, but right now it’s definitely Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina,” Clarke said. “I try to model my game after those guys, because they’re the best. I’m always watching YouTube videos of them playing to try to learn things.”

Watching video on major league players is pretty advanced for a player not yet at the top of the totem pole at his high school. But according to Andy Partin, the founder of Dirtbag Baseball, that’s just how Clarke operates. Always one step ahead, soaking in as much about the game as possible.

“[Watching video] isn’t something that we practice with what we do, but he’s always mentioned that’s something he does,” Partin said. “That’s just the type of kid he is.”

It’s pretty obvious that the eight-time Gold Glove winner Molina has rubbed off on Clarke when you speak with him. With as much success as he’s had at the plate during his young career, it’s his work behind the plate that he speaks most fondly of. You don’t get to be rated a top-50 player and a top-five catcher in your class if you’re a liability behind the plate, after all.

“I take the most pride in my defense, and controlling the running game,” Clarke said. “That’s something I can really take pride in because there are certain catchers you see at tournaments and you’re like, ‘Okay, there’s no way we can run on him,’ and I always want to be that guy.”

The heady sense of the game seems to fit Clarke’s profile well; he’s a 4.0 student at Christ Presbyterian Academy and seems pretty set on getting an education at Vanderbilt, one of the top academic institutes in the country. The hard-hitting, gun-slinging catcher could be earning money playing baseball as soon as next summer, but that prospect isn’t really a point of conversation for him.

“I’ve thought about [the draft] some, but it’s not really on my mind at all,” Clarke said. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m really happy with my commitment to Vanderbilt.”

And Vanderbilt should be happy too, as Corbin and the rest of his coaching staff watches Clarke in San Diego on Aug 14.

There isn’t much flash about his game, besides his gaudy numbers. His swing is controlled, his decision-making behind the plate is calculated and he’s turned himself into one of the best players in his class.

“I think Philip can be really special,” Partin said. “His bat is just electric. Some kids are just born to hit, and he’s one of those kids. The ball just sounds different coming off of his bat. It sounds like a shotgun going off. He has always shown that power, which is important at the catcher position.

“And he’s better than I thought he’d be behind the plate. I thought he was good, but he’s made a big jump behind there.”

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