Since he joined the St. Helena varsity baseball team three years ago, Caleb Jeske has climbed the Napa Valley Register’s All-County baseball accolades.
He was a finalist Newcomer of the Year finalist as a freshman, before jumping up to Player of the Year finalist after his sophomore campaign.
Now, at the end of his junior season, the Saints catcher has reached the summit: 2019 Napa County Baseball Player of the Year.
“It’s definitely really cool,” Jeske said last week when he learned of the honor. “I can recall last year I was the runner-up for it and the guy who won it, Jason Brandow, got drafted. … Really big shoes to fill, but kind of a cool spot to replace.”
Jeske is the first junior from any Napa Valley school to take home Player of the Year honors since St. Helena’s Brian Begerow in 2011.
By all accounts, Jeske was more than deserving of the honor.
He paced a potent Saints offense that scored almost seven runs a game and finished 14-11 overall with a 10-4 record in the North Central League I.
St. Helena was also the only baseball team in the county that made the North Coast Section playoffs. Although the season came to an end in the first round against league foe Middletown, Jeske played a critical role in just getting his team to that point.
The 6-foot, 180-pound catcher led the team in batting average (.487), RBIs (23), runs scored (30) stolen bases (23), on-base percentage (.592) and slugging percentage (.697). He also hit two home runs and shattered the St. Helena single-season hits record of 32 that had stood since 1994. He finished the year with 37 hits and recorded 13 games with multiple hits.
“I know I had a great season to help my team out and to become a better baseball player,” he said. “This is just an added bonus.”
While this award is another high point, Jeske doesn’t want to stop climbing. He has his sights set on continuing his playing career in college, and is working tirelessly to get there.
It started with a cup
When Jeske was playing in low level Little League, his dad, Vern Jeske, always told him to be prepared. For 7-year old Caleb, that meant always wearing a cup.
Turns out, sometimes parents do know best. The regular catcher wasn’t available for a game early that season, so the coach asked the team if anyone was wearing a cup, a necessary stipulation to play catcher.
The only hand that went up was Jeske’s, and the rest is history.
“It probably would’ve happened eventually anyway, but he had the opportunity to get into that position right away and he liked it,” Vern said.
“Having that opportunity to start at such a young age with catching definitely grew my love for it to a different level,” he said.
That love for the position only grew over the years as Jeske progressed through Little League. By the time he was in middle school, he was one of the top players in the league and had caught the eye of St. Helena High varsity head coach Darrell Quirici.
“He was a 12-year old and it was like ‘Oh my god, this kid is really something else,’” Quirici said.
When he got to the high school, Jeske had to lobby Quirici to give him a shot on varsity his freshman year. Quirici was hesitant about letting a freshman play on varsity, even though he knew he was probably a varsity-caliber player. It didn’t take long to change Quirici’s mind.
“Once he practiced a couple of times, it was clear that he was ready to play at the varsity level,” he said.
Jeske has been a varsity starter ever since, and has won or shared the title of Team MVP in each of his three seasons.
He recognizes his talent and the position he’s in, but credits others for helping him reach this point. Without the help of people like Todd Smith, his hitting coach, or Austin Cia, the varsity catcher who mentored him when he was a freshman, he figures his career would look much different.
Jeske has worked with Smith constantly since the two were introduced years ago, and said he goes through “two shopping carts” of baseballs every session he has with the Fairfield-based instructor.
In Cia’s case, the assistance he provided was in the form of sacrifice and opportunity. When he was initially on varsity as a freshman, Jeske was playing in the outfield and Cia was behind the dish. But as the early season progressed, it became apparent that the team may benefit more from a change of roles. That’s where Cia stepped in.
“He really helped me, like a mentor, and said to coach ‘I want what’s best for the team, switch me with him. I’ll play outfield. It’s fine,’” Jeske recalled. “So that was really cool. He really set a great example for me.”
Jeske’s gaudy numbers are probably what you would expect from a team’s top hitter who holds a spot in the heart of the lineup. Except he didn’t bat in the third-hole, or even fourth at clean-up. He actually did most of his damage as the Saints’ leadoff batter, which make his RBIs numbers just that much more impressive.
“He lost a lot of potential RBI opportunities during the season batting leadoff, but he’s our best baserunner, highest on-base percentage,” Quirici said, “so we had to get him on base because he can spark things.”
That was evident during league play, when Jeske did most of damage offensively. Of his 23 RBIs, 20 came during the 14-game NCL I slate, as did 14 of his 23 stolen bases and 18 of his 30 runs scored.
Those numbers also helped him earn a first-team spot on the All-NCL I team.
“I think that really helped grow me as a hitter in terms of being better to hit late in counts, being better at working counts and it probably improved my plate vision in terms of balls and strikes,” Jeske said, adding that he would often use his leadoff at-bats to scout out opponents pitchers and would return to the dugout detailing what he saw.
What also made him so dangerous was his speed, not a common trait for most catchers. He’s always been fast – Quirici said he’s been successful on 55 of his 60 career stolen base attempts – and he partially credits that aspect of his game to being a dual-sport athlete.
Jeske held a key role on the Saints’ varsity basketball team last fall and was one of the team’s best rebounders.
What’s more, his arm is as dangerous as his bat and his skill on the base paths.
“He has a rifle of an arm and he really makes the opposing coaches think twice about sending guys,” Quirici said. “When you see him throw the ball down, it’s a laser.”
All these are reasons why Quirici calls him a “five-tool player.”
Jeske is currently in the midst of the circus that college recruiting has becoming. He has videos and scouting profiles posted online and he’s been attending national showcases and invitationals since December and plans on doing more to get on college coaches’ radars this summer.
One event marked on his calendar is a trip to the Dominican Republic he’s taking in July with the head baseball coach from Arizona State University. Jeske, along with 14 other high school players from around the country, will travel south for a week of games and outreach opportunities on the island where baseball is king.
“It’ll also be neat to see the culture there because baseball is such a big thing on that island,” he said. “It’s a pretty impoverished place and for so many of those kids, it’s their way out. So to see that level of competition and play against guys who are like ‘This is my life,’ it’s going to be a good experience.”
In the meantime, Jeske will play about 40 to 50 games this summer with NorCal Baseball Club, a traveling summer team comprised of some of the best players from the South Bay Area all the way up to Shasta.
It’s heightened level of competition, but that what he’s come to crave. It’s also what college coaches are looking for and his dedication and skill have not gone unnoticed. Caleb said he’s been in communication with several colleges including UC Santa Barbara, San Francisco State, Stanford, Arizona State and a handful of other smaller programs.
“He wants to get better,” Quirici said. “His head is in the right place and I think he has the ability and opportunity to go on and play at the next level somewhere.”
The next step
Jeske has month to make a decision on what he wants to do next. But he got a stark reminder about his approaching reality last week as he watched Vintage grad Jared Horn and Maria Carrillo grad Andrew Vaughn get taken in the MLB Draft.
“I’m just thinking to myself, ‘OK, a year from now I’m going to be graduating, and am I going to get drafted?’ I mean you watch these guys getting draft and it’s their dream, it’s what they’ve imagined their entire lives since they were little kids in their backyard, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs – It just keeps you driven,” he said.
“It keeps you focused on what you want to do. … To reach that point, with the draft,” he said, then paused. “Man, that’d be so cool.”
Before decisions need to be made, Jeske’s focus remains on getting better and helping the Saints build on a productive season.
After their final regular-season game, a 14-1 win over Willits on Senior Night, Jeske said he and his team were as confident as they had been all year, and for good reason. The win that night was their fourth straight and the team had scored in double digits in each contest. Everything seemed to be clicking as they headed into a postseason game against a team they had already beaten once that season.
And yet all that confidence and optimism met a brutal end in a narrow 3-2 loss to Middletown, ending the Saints’ season in the first round of the playoffs.
Like other great players, Jeske is turning that loss into motivation.
“For me, it’s just, go out and work that much harder between now and then. If what we were doing wasn’t enough, then we have to do more,” he said. “I think next year, yeah, we’re losing a bunch of guys, but we’re also bringing up a bunch of guys and the leadership group that we’re going to have is going to be great. I don’t want to gloat too much about my class, but the group we’ve got is pretty special. … I’m really excited.”
If his linear progression as a player continues, too, there’s plenty for the Saints as a whole to be excited for as well.
“When he gets going, it’s a thing to behold,” Quirici said. “There’s been a steady progression through his first three years and I hope it doesn’t stop. I hope he just keeps getting better.”