Freelancer Everett Merrill caught up with four prospects—Jon Schoop, Steve Wright, Bryce Brentz and Jeff Kobernus—prior to the Double-A Eastern League all-star game held July 11 in Reading, Pa. You can find the game story here.
Kicking Soccer To The Curb
It literally took a slap to the head to convince the Orioles' Jon Schoop that baseball and not soccer was the right career path.
The Curacao native was 13 and just a few months removed from playing on the 2004 Little League World Series championship team. Schoop (pronounced Scope) had been playing baseball since he was 3 but felt he was a little short as a teenager, so he added soccer to his résumé.
"After we won the World Series, I changed over to soccer," recalled Schoop. "I saw a lot of soccer guys who were short and I thought that would be my future."
That's when Schoop's baseball mentor Frank Curiel interceded.
"He found me playing with some friends and said to me, 'Soccer's not your thing," said Schoop. "He even slapped my head to make me understand that."
Curiel's assessment was spot on. The Orioles signed Schoop in as a shortstop in August 2008, liking his soft hands and range. After appearing in 67 games at his natural position in the Dominican Summer League in 2009 and 55 games in the U.S. rookie leagues—mostly Bluefield of the Appalachian League—in 2010, Schoop tried out at second and third base in 2011.
The 6-foot-1 Schoop showed his versatility at all three infield positions and advanced to high Class A Frederick in the second half. He kept his focus at the plate, too, batting .290/.349/.432 in 511 at-bats across two Class A levels.
This season Schoop, 20, has settled in at second base with Bowie as Manny Machado's double-play partner. His on-base percentage is low (.309) for a player who lacks power (.382 slugging with eight homers), but he has supplied steady defense.
"I just want to be in the lineup. I don't care if I play second or shortstop," said Schoop. "I grew up a shortstop, but if you play there you can play anywhere in the infield. You don't see a third baseman move to shortstop.
"This is my job, (the Orioles) are my boss. They see something in me—that's why they move me around."
The 'Wright' Stuff
A chance meeting with a stranger at a golf course last fall brought Akron knuckleball pitcher Steve Wright a step closer to meeting the only other active professional member of a small pitching fraternity.
Wright was playing alone at Palm Valley Golf Club in Goodyear, Ariz., where his wife Shannon works. He struck up a conversation at the range with a retired sportswriter named Kirby Arnold, who covered the Mariners for a paper in Everett, Wash. The two new acquaintances started talking about pitching, specifically the knuckler, when Arnold mentioned to Wright that he still keeps in touch with R.A. Dickey from his days covering Seattle, where Dickey pitched in 2008.
Arnold graciously arranged an email exchange between Dickey and Wright, which led to an hour-long spring training tutorial by phone. Although the two knuckleballers have yet to meet, they text back and forth.
"What R.A. is doing is kind of giving the knuckleball more of the limelight," said Wright. "His strikeout-to-walk ratio has been remarkable. When people hear about the knuckleball they think of him, and maybe that gives me a little in. Right now I'm just trying to follow in his footsteps."
The 27-year-old Wright, selected in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Hawaii, started throwing the knuckler as a 9-year-old growing up in Southern California. He took pitching lessons from former Reds righthander Frank Pastore, who would throw knuckleballs back to Wright.
However, Wright didn't get serious about the flutterball until his career hanged in the balance. After being demoted from Triple-A Columbus to Akron in 2010, Wright recognized he needed an additional out-pitch.
"We were in New Hampshire and I started throwing it," said Wright. "At first I didn't want to be a knuckleball pitcher. I still had a good fastball. But (the Indians) brought in (retired knuckleballer) Tom Candiotti to spring training and he told me to keep throwing it.
"I wasn't necessarily 'one of the guys,' and I knew that. (Indians pitching coach) Scott Radinsky called me over in spring training and said, 'Look around. What do all these guys have in common? They're all 6-4, fastball, slider guys with great opportunity.' That got me thinking. Maybe this might be something. My goal is to go as deep into a game as possible—ERA and all that is great, but for a knuckleball pitcher you want to eat as many innings as possible and save the bullpen."
Wright went 6-6, 2.62 in 16 starts for Akron in the first half, finding much more success than he did last year when he registered a 4.58 ERA across four levels. He's averaging just under six innings an outing this season, throwing his knuckler in the 76-81 mph range. Wright estimates that he throws it between 65-85 percent of the time.
"I've been lucky enough to where I still have a fastball that's in the high 80s to low 90s," said Wright, who pitched a scoreless inning in the Eastern League all-star game. "I've still got a sinker. I've still got my cutter. And so it kind of gives me a little bit of a safety net if I'm not throwing as many strikes as I'd like with the knuckleball."
Plan Of Attack
When a player collects hits in eight straight trips to the plate, it's only natural to assume he has a supreme hitting approach. Maybe he deftly works the count, looking for a fastball to drive or maybe he disrupts the pitcher's rhythm by stepping out of the box.
That's not the case for Portland right fielder Bryce Brentz.
"I'm a free swinger—let's just call it what it is," said Brentz, the Red Sox supplemental first-round pick (36th overall) in 2010.
Those eight straight hits, which he racked up on May 13-14, have made Brentz realize what he's capable of accomplishing with a developed plan. He started working on getting into better counts and recognizing what pitch he was likely to see in a specific situation.
"Prior to that (hitting streak), I just went up there hacking," said Brentz. "In this league, you can't go up there without a plan or an approach. If you do, you'll pay the consequences. That's what happened to me early. I tried to do too much at the plate, and when you do that you get in trouble."
His new approach has been to "stay up the middle and to right-center and react to everything else."
"I've been able to stay on the baseball and find holes," said the 23-year-old Brentz. "I try to stay within myself. I sit back and let the ball come to me. I've learned a lot about my swing."
Brentz is hoping to shed strikeouts without sacrificing power. He's batting .289/.358/.461 through 304 at-bats and ranks among the EL leaders in homers (10) but also tops the circuit in whiffs (94) at the break.
"I'm always going to strike out," he said. "That's just part of the game. I just have to have more of an awareness of the strike zone. Last year in A-ball I'd go up there and take an offspeed pitch for ball one, and then get geared up a fastball and cheat on it, I guess. Here, I can't do that, because a lot of times I'll get a 2-0 changeup, a 2-1 slider."
Besides playing the same primary position, Harrisburg second baseman Jeff Kobernus has a few other things in common with the parent Nationals' utilityman rookie Steve Lombardozzi.
Kobernus and Lombardozzi each shares his father's first name, and each of their antecedents played professionally in the 1980s. Lombardozzi's father won a World Series ring with the Twins in 1987. Kobernus' father wasn't as fortunate, but he did spend five seasons playing minor league ball for the Athletics and Dodgers.
"I think it's an honor to be compared to Lombardozzi. He's a friend of mine," said Kobernus, a 24-year-old taken out of California in the second round of the 2009 draft. "I learned from him in spring training. It's kind of nice. He works hard every day."
That's also how Kobernus has built his game. A contact hitter with deceptive speed, he's a catalyst at the top of the Senators order. He led the EL in steals with 34 at the break, and he swiped 53 with high Class A Potomac in 2011, a total good enough to rank fifth in the minors.
"My dad taught me to play the game hard," said Kobernus. "He grew up around a lot of old-school players like Shawon Dunston. He's one of my neighbors, and I grew up working out with him. My dad expected me to play with a certain intensity level the whole game."