Matt Kramer launches a pitch at spring training.


Scott Barancik, Editor

The Boston Red Sox were already one of baseball’s more Jewish franchises when the team signed P Matt Kramer to a minor-league contract last month.

But Kramer’s arrival in Bean Town was far less likely than it was for landsmen like 3B Kevin Youkilis, CF Ryan Kalish, and minor-league standout Ryan Lavarnway.

A 24-year-old St. Louis native, Kramer went to Harvard, a place where major-league dreams typically go to die. He was dumped by the Atlanta Braves after the 2010 season and then played ball for the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association, an independent league unaffiliated with Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong catcher whose sole pitching experience was beaning a few players during a rare little-league berth.

But in a tryout six months ago with the Red Sox, an astute coach noticed Kramer’s strong arm and suggested he give pitching a try. Today he has a 95 mph fast ball, a decent change-up, and a ticket to Lowell, Mass., to play for Boston’s short-season “A” team, the Spinners.

Along the way, the right-hander has lifted weights with Youkilis, thrown heat to catcher (and former Yale University counterpart) Lavarnway in the bullpen, and revived a career that seemed near its end.

Last month, Kramer talked to Jewish Baseball News by phone en route to Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. In a calm, confident voice, he spoke about his time with the Braves, the home run he hit off San Francisco Giants prospect (and fellow Jew) Ari Ronick — a battle he describes as “David vs. David” — and his unlikely switch from home plate to the mound.


How long have you been catching?

Pretty much my whole life…Definitely all throughout college and for the last three years with the Braves and the independent leagues I’ve been with.

Are you blown away that you’re going to be pitching in Boston’s farm system?

Yeah, it’s definitely been a little bit of a surprise. But at the same time, I’ve been working on (pitching) the last four or five months, since I had a workout in October (2010) with the Red Sox. They asked if I’d ever pitched before, had considered pitching. They told me to start working on it, that they’d come back up and take a look at me in Boston. They did, and liked what they saw the first time they saw me throw. I threw for them again right around Thanksgiving; they liked that also. And then they invited me down just two weeks ago to Fort Myers for a tryout , to throw against live hitters. It was there where they saw me and saw how well I had come along, and decided they wanted to sign me and really work with me.

Had you ever pitched before?

I think I pitched maybe twice in high school, and when I was a really small little leaguer. Besides that, I always had a strong arm but didn’t really have the accuracy, and I think the coaches got sick of me hitting players, laying them out. So they kind of put me behind the plate, thought I was a better match for that.

Was that in high school, or little league?

That was in Little League. In high school, I mostly caught. I guess I was just more useful as a catcher.

So when you had your first tryout with the Red Sox, it was a catcher?

Yeah. I got a workout arranged with them in October, after I had a good season in my independent league as a catcher, put up some good numbers hitting (Editor’s note: Kramer batted .346). So they came to watch me do a little throwing down to second base and do some hitting. And it was after that where they said, “It looks good, we might invite you down (for a tryout) as a catcher…” But then they said as an aside, “Why don’t you work on pitching a little bit, and we’ll come take a look at you throwing off the mound, see what happens.”

Had it ever occurred to you to switch to pitching?

Yeah, it occurred to me a little bit. Because there have been a few catchers here and there that’ve made the switch to pitcher and have been very successful at it. I think Troy Percival, with the Angels, who was an All-Star closer, he actually started his career as a catcher. There’s a guy with the Cardinals, too, who also in the last 3 or 4 years made it to the majors who was a former catcher as well. Usually catchers that make the transition don’t hit really well, but…other than a little bit of a slow start this last year, hitting hasn’t ever really been an issue for me.

So who was the astute Red Sox coach who said, ‘Gee, why don’t you give pitching a try?’

I was working out originally for this guy, he’s an assistant director of professional scouting for the Red Sox, his name’s Jarred Porter. He’s responsible for scouting the independent leagues and signing free-agent players…He, and also this guy Ben Crockett, he’s the assistant director of player development with the Red Sox, and I hadn’t really known him well personally before, but he’s actually a 2002 graduate of Harvard and played baseball there, and had a short minor-league career…So he was who I had originally e-mailed and said, you know, “I had a good summer, am looking to keep catching somewhere, would you guys come take a look at me and see if you think there might be an opening?” That’s where it happened.

Is it common for players in independent leagues to contact major-league teams and seek tryouts, on their own?

I don’t really know. I’m not sure. I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw it out there. I kind of was trying to get in touch with as many people as I could that I knew, just to try and reach out and see if there was an opening. I wanted to keep playing…I think I had 5 or 6 tryouts in September with different teams…The last one was with the Red Sox…After that, I’ve been working on (pitching) the last five months.”

Did you find a pitching instructor?

Luckily, I trained at this place in Boston called Cressey Performance…It’s a gym in Hudson, Mass. I’d been training there since January of 2009, and actually it’s become quite a baseball haven for minor leaguers, and even some major leaguers. Kevin Youkilis trains with us there as well in the off-season…It was definitely fun lifting with and getting to know Kevin Youkilis…I always kind of idolized him, not just for being Jewish but for his hustle and tenacity on the field.

So were you still at Harvard in January 2009?

No, I graduated in 2008. So this was after my first year with the Braves, in 2008. That next off-season I started at Cressey Performance. The guy’s name is Eric Cressey. His program, he kind of tailors specific strength programs for baseball players…And then there’s a pitching coach who also works at the gym out there who’s also a good friend of mine, so he kind of took me on as a project. His name’s Matt Blake. He was really the pitching coach that worked with me the last 5 months. Eric was providing the strength training on the side.

Kramer during his days with the Atlanta Braves organization.

What happened in your final minor-league season with Atlanta’s Class-A team, the Roma Braves? You didn’t get many at-bats.

Your guess is as good as mine. I think that it’s kind of a situation of them having investments in other players…It’s all kind of about finances. So as a player who was signed as a free agent, you really have to take advantage of every single opportunity. I had one year, I think my 2009 season, I had a very solid year, I felt. I think I had about 76 at-bats and 6 HRs, so I was putting up good numbers and I was excited about 2010. And then, you know…for one reason or another, it just didn’t really fall for me…That was the shot that they gave me, and (I) didn’t quite take advantage of it. I’d like to think that I’d get a little more opportunity than that, but it is what it is, and hopefully in the end this will all work out for the better.

What pitches have you been working on over the last 5 months?

Fastball, obviously, is going to be the most important thing to be able to develop, and to work on that accuracy…As a catcher I know, and as a baseball player in general, getting first-pitch strikes is going to be key…But then, as a pitcher, obviously you’ve gotta develop an off-speed pitch, at least one, and right now I’ve been working on the change-up, which actually I’ve been feeling pretty comfortable with in the last couple months. I throw it kind of short-arm action, like a catcher, so I think it’s a little bit conducive to a change-up…Also a slider. That’s definitely more of a work in progress, but at times it’s been shown to be pretty good.

What’s your velocity right now?

At the tryout, I think it was February 9th and 10th, I guess they had me topping out at 95 (mph), and would sit in mostly at around 93 or 94 (mph).

Is that a strain on your arm?

I’ve always had a strong arm. That’s always been kind of my best tool as a catcher. I’ve been working hard on it this off-season, and the long-toss program and the strength-training that I do definitely helps me out a bunch…I was feeling really good, and it was just nice to be outside in the warm weather.

Does having been a catcher all those years potentially make you a better pitcher?

I definitely think so. I’m excited about it…I know what hitters are thinking, what hitters expect to see from pitchers, their mentality going into at-bats….(But) whereas before I’d suggest pitches and it was on the pitcher to make the final decision what to throw, now I’m in that position…I feel very confident in my ability to call a game, and to set up hitters and to hopefully get up in their head a little bit and make them uncomfortable in the box.

Are you expecting to be put on a short-season team?

Obviously, I need a lot of work, I haven’t really pitched much before, so I think they’ll probably want to get me some experience in more of a controlled environment…in spring training and then probably extended spring training. And then I think the idea is to send me to Lowell (Spinners), the short-season “A” team, when that season starts, depending how things are going. I would think, at my age, if things are going really well – and it’s obviously all on the Red Sox, I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do – but I would think if things were going really well, they might give me a chance to bump up to a full-season team… That begins the end of June, after the major-league baseball draft.

Were you drafted after college?

I wasn’t. I played shortly in an independent league after Harvard, and after there I got signed as a free agent by the Braves.

Where were you born, and where’d you grow up?

I was born in Minneapolis, but I grew up in St. Louis since I was three…My dad was doing his residency in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota, and then went to Baltimore for a year, and then moved to St. Louis. My parents are both from St. Louis originally.

Where’d you go to high school?

It’s kind of a mouthful. It’s an acronym, MICDS, and it stands for Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.

Is it a religious school?

It’s not. It’s just an independent private school.

You played baseball there. Anywhere else at that time?

In the summers, I played on an American Legion baseball team.

As we speak, you’re on your way to Fort Myers for spring training. Will you see Ryan Lavarnway there?

I ran into him when I was down there for my physical, the first time since we played against each other in college. I was a catcher at Harvard, and he was a catcher at Yale, so we played against each other for, I guess, three years. He was a junior when I was a senior…He’s been having a good career so far.

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