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Browsing Posts tagged Scott Barancik

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.

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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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David Kesselman, Yeshiva U. ballplayer

2010 Yeshiva Maccabees

By Scott Barancik, Editor

Students rarely choose Yeshiva University for its athletics program. The school’s home page doesn’t even mention sports.

But sport has long played a role at the New York-based institution, which combines Jewish learning with secular studies. Yeshiva’s basketball team — which has won two of its past 4 games — has been around since the 1930s.

Baseball took a little longer to develop. But four years ago, the school finally debuted the Maccabees, the NCAA’s only Jewish representative.

Winning hasn’t come easily, or often, for the Division III Maccabees.

In 2010, the team had one win and 28 losses, a team ERA of 12.94 (versus 1.81 for opposing teams), and a team batting average of .172 (the opposition hit .419). The Macs gave up 15 or more runs in 10 of their losses, including a 33-1 drubbing by the Purchase College Panthers. They mustered just one home run during the season, and a single sacrifice fly.

It’s not that Jews can’t play baseball, of course. Last year, 15 Jews played for Major League Baseball teams, and more than 50 others played in the Minors.

But for Jews who are serious about observing the Sabbath and other traditions, intercollegiate sports is a tall order.

Take Maccabees co-captain David Kesselman. A 23-year-old senior, his Orthodox high school didn’t even have a baseball team. When the West Hempstead, N.Y., native showed up for tryouts at Yeshiva a couple years ago, he hadn’t played organized hardball since elementary school.

For such athletes, Yeshiva and its Sabbath-free playing schedule offer a unique opportunity. And despite their struggles, the Maccabees are having fun. The team had a number of bright spots in 2010, from Kesselman’s team-leading E.R.A. (5.40) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (33/14) to catcher Jeremy Schwartz’s 12 RBIs and 9 stolen bases. Early signs suggest the Mac’s 2011 rookie class may be the best yet.

David Kesselman, 2010

In an interview with Jewish Baseball News, Kesselman talks about the intersection of Judaism and sport, life on the Maccabees, and his own baseball arc.

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Tell us about Yeshiva University. Are most students there planning careers in Jewish life, or secular ones?

It’s definitely more of a general education school…That’s the whole lifestyle at Yeshiva University. You have Torah, which is a Jewish lifestyle, and what we call “madda,” which is like the Hebrew way of saying secular intelligence in any field you want to get into to. So you have to have both in order to get a degree.

I understand the school created its baseball team in 2006.

Yeah, in 2005, they started a club team, basically a bunch of guys that really wanted to play baseball…We didn’t have an NCAA team until 2006…We’re playing in division III of the NCAA. We play in the Skyline Conference. We play teams like, I don’t know, you’ve probably never heard of them, but Farmingdale State College, Baruch College…”

I took a quick look at your schedule and, not surprisingly, you don’t play on the Sabbath. How difficult was it to arrange that type of schedule?

We’re the only university where you’re going to be able to not play on the Sabbath and even keep kosher. Other colleges are very accommodating for us, which is very nice…They get the schedule, and then our athletics department calls each college and says, ‘Hey, can you play Friday at 9:00am, or Sunday at 12pm?’ So that’s generally how it’s worked out.

Did you and most of your teammates play ball in high school?

It’s funny, that’s something that’s getting a little more solidified now. The high school I went to didn’t have a baseball team at all. We had a (slow-pitch) softball team that was more of a recreational kind of team than anything.

Was it an Orthodox school?

Yeah, it was an Orthodox school. But now, it’s starting to be that most of the high schools that we get kids from at Yeshiva University have baseball teams. So it’s kind of like our skill level has grown from the bottom up, which is good.

Is anyone on the team aiming to be drafted by a Major-League team?

I think most people that are on the team right now see a career in baseball as kind of a hard thing to do.

Is it fair to say that living an Orthodox life is incompatible with playing professional baseball?

It would be pretty tough…I think most teams in any sport don’t like speed bumps and don’t like people being too different. So I’m guessing unless they’re really, really good, they’re not going to get so many adjustments.

Jewish baseball fans often make a big deal about whether a Jewish player agrees to play on Yom Kippur. I kind of find it funny that that’s the litmus test of your commitment to Judaism, when every week you have a litmus test, which is the Sabbath.

Yes, it’s definitely true. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were like the ideal Jews that didn’t play on Yom Kippur, the way I remember it. For each person on their own level, that’s an amazing feat for someone to pull off. To decide not to play for any Jewish reason, on that level, is unbelievable.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in West Hempstead, which is a suburb in Long Island. I went to a high school called Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.

They did not have baseball, right?

They did not, and to my knowledge, I don’t think they have baseball still, which is kind of disappointing…I played little league when I was younger. I was lucky enough to have my Dad as my coach…Whenever I wanted to go have a catch or hit, my Dad was always there to coach me through it, and play with me.

So when was the last time you played organized ball, before Y.U.?

The last time I played organized ball was probably in 6th grade.

So you played softball in high school?

Right…It’s not fast pitch, either. It’s more like old people’s softball than like fast-pitch baseball, but what can you do?

Are you a lefty? Righty?

I’m a righty. I started off pitching, and then I moved to outfield, played a little outfield as well, but I’m mainly a starting pitcher on the team.

What are your strengths, and what kind of pitches can you throw?

I’m more of a power pitcher. I definitely started out with nothing but a fastball. I kind of worked in the curve ball…and I think last year I really got a good change-up going. So I generally have two types of fastballs, usually a two-seamer, and then a four-seamer if I want to get a couple extra miles per hour on it. And I will throw a change-up if I need to get a batter off his toes.

Any idea what speed your fastball is maxxing out at?

Our college doesn’t use a radar gun, because a radar gun is generally used for scouting…I know that when I was a senior in high school, I went to a minor-league game and used their gun, that you pay for, and I threw 76 (MPH), so I’m guessing I throw about in the low 80s, maybe.

That’s pretty good for a guy who hadn’t pitched since 6th grade. Now, there’s no way to say this painlessly, but you guys got beat up pretty badly last season, didn’t you?

Yeah, this last year and my first year were two tough years.

In 2009, you had four wins, including three towards the end of the season. So what happened in 2010?

I don’t even know…In 2009, we had some good hitting and kind of pieced together some good pitching as well. The problem last year is that we had zero hitting.

Do you see Yeshiva’s baseball program improving in the future, or will it always be near the bottom, given its players’ unique circumstances?

When I started, our relief pitcher threw more up than straight…But I think the crop of guys that we have this year is definitely the deepest bunch of rookies that we’ve had, which is pretty promising for this coming season.

Who’s your coach?

Our head coach is Phil Kahn. He started the baseball program at Vassar College…And we have two assistant coaches, Logan Mauzy and Nick Canzano.

Has Yeshiva’s faculty been supportive?

Yeah, I think so. It’s funny, because…a lot of times when we have games on weekends, we’ll have to miss at least one class or two even…The next time I’m in class, they kind of make a point of asking me how the game was. It’s been embarrassing a couple times, trying to tell them my box score in front of the whole class…But they’re definitely encouraging.

The Yeshiva Maccabee’s 2011 season opens March 2 with a game against Baruch College.

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