O'Brien Powers His Way To Top Of Catcher Class

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COMPTON, Calif.—Peter O'Brien, the top college catching prospect for the 2011 draft, did not move behind the plate until his senior year of high school—and even then, it was almost by accident.

"My freshman year I was a shortstop, then my sophomore and junior years I was a third and first baseman," said O'Brien, now a junior at Bethune-Cookman. "A couple guys got hurt, and they put me behind the plate. I always thought it was cool to put the gear on when I was a little kid, so I went back there, and a couple guys said, 'You should stick back there.' So I went back there and started catching."

Now O'Brien is a Team USA veteran who was voted a first-team preseason All-American by major league scouting directors. He's still not a finished product behind the plate, but he has improved to the point that he stands a good chance to be drafted in the first round this June as an offensive backstop.

That's a far cry from where he was three years ago. Despite playing on the same Braddock High team as heavily scouted future Miami star Harold Martinez, O'Brien went undrafted in 2008—and it stung.

"I loved baseball, that's really what I wanted to do: go play pro ball," O'Brien said. "When I didn't hear my name called, I kind of knew it wasn't going to happen, but it really lit a little fire in me. I said, 'Next time the draft rolls around, I want to make sure my name is called.'"

O'Brien dedicated himself to getting stronger, spending countless hours in the weight room, with the team and on his own. He said he has gained about 15 pounds of "good, solid weight" since arriving at B-C.

He's worked on his flexibility and his hands behind the plate, as well as his blocking, footwork and game-calling. He said he believes defense is the area of his game that has improved the most. He still works on his catching every day, even spending 15-20 minutes working with coaches before games. O'Brien considers himself a natural leader, and he said he loves being involved in every play and taking charge of the action behind the plate.

"He's gotten better, without a question," Wildcats coach Mervyl Melendez said. "When he first came here, he had a lot of passed balls during the fall, then during the year he got better and better. Now you see that his receiving is as good as anyone in the nation. So he has improved drastically at that part of the game, and that's come with a lot of work. I'm not going to tell you that it's an overnight thing—he works every single day. He has grasped the knowledge of the game very quickly—he understands his strengths and weaknesses. And his work ethic is unlike anyone that I've ever coached."

Scouts might not agree that O'Brien is an elite receiver, but they all seem to agree that he can stick behind the plate. And his bat has a chance to be special.

"I don't know if he'll ever be a plus receiver, but it looks like he'll be at least average back there," an American League crosschecker said. "The arm is above-average, but the transfer isn't always clean so it doesn't always play to plus pop times. But he hits the ball out of the ballpark—he's got huge raw power. It might be 70 raw power (on the 20-80 scouting scale). I don't know how much average he'll hit for, but he's a power-hitting catcher with arm strength. If he hits the ball out of the ballpark, he's got a chance to be an all-star."

O'Brien hit the ball out of the park a lot as a sophomore in 2010. After hitting a modest .314/.353/.482 with four homers in 137 at-bats as a freshman, O'Brien blossomed as a sophomore, hitting .386/.445/.748 with 20 homers and 56 RBIs in 202 at-bats. Over the summer, O'Brien led Team USA with four homers, hitting .306/.350/.694 in 36 at-bats with wood.

One scout said last summer that O'Brien, Connecticut's George Springer and Rice's Anthony Rendon looked like they could take batting practice with the elite major leaguers.

"The ball just jumps off his bat—to watch him hit BP is crazy," Melendez said.

Though he's gotten stronger, O'Brien is still lean and wiry at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds—big for a catcher—and he has not fully tapped into his massive raw power potential. He got off to a decent start this spring, but not a great one, hitting .278/.409/.722 with a team-best two homers and seven RBIs through five games.

"I don't know if he's putting too much pressure on himself, but he just needs to go out there and relax," Melendez said. "He's good enough, he's been on the big stage with Team USA this summer. He needs to relax a little more at the plate, not take on the burden of having to get it done every single time, and just go out there and enjoy the game. If he enjoys the game, he can continue to be successful in this game."

And O'Brien loves the game. He started playing when he was 2 years old, and soon his uncle and father would throw him tennis balls and he would hit them over the house. Baseball was in his blood: His father, Terry, played baseball at Western Michigan, and his mother, Mercedes, came from the baseball hotbed of Cuba. She came to the United States when she was 19, and Peter has made the trip back to Cuba twice.

"It was awesome," he said. "Just seeing where my mom is from, seeing what things are like over there, it makes you appreciate the things we have here."

O'Brien has a lot to be thankful for, and he'll have even more when June rolls around. This time, his name will be called on draft day for certain—and he won't have to wait long.