July 26, 2012 at 11:38 AM
It was a nondescript—some would say meaningless — spring training game against the Orioles in Sarasota, Fla, but Portland right fielder Bryce Brentz (pictured) had had enough. After three at-bats the outfielder described as “weak crap,” Brentz returned to the dugout and made a proclamation to teammate Drake Britton.
“I’m sitting there, and I’ve taken an absolutely beautiful pitch down the middle every time,” Brentz recalled. “I told Drake, ‘watch this — I’m about to crush this ball.’”
Another first-pitch fastball, another in a long line of doubles that look more apt to go through the wall than off it. See fastball, crush fastball. But what about the rest of his at bats? When such good things happen when Brentz squares up a ball and makes contact, how does he go about honing a selective approach and not getting himself out?
“You don’t want to take that aggressive approach away from him,” Portland manager Kevin Boles said. “It’s just management of the strike zone, and that comes with experience, getting the at-bats, and just understanding what he is as a piece of a lineup. He’s an impact guy.”
If Brentz doesn’t know that himself, his opponents will certainly vouch for the fact. In his first full season, Brentz hit a combined .306/.365/.574 with 30 home runs between Low A Greenville and High A Salem, and is following that up with a .275/.341/.442 line with 12 home runs in 97 Double-A games.
But the aggressive approach Boles referred to also has its pitfalls. In 360 at-bats this season for Portland, Brentz has struck out 105 times. Some are from over-aggression, others are from over-selectiveness. All are a symptom of a young power hitter learning to not do too much.
“That’s my problem,” Brentz said. “I do too much, then I lose command of the strike zone. (I’ll say,) ‘Oh, this pitch looks good out of his hand,’ and all of a sudden, it drops and I’m still swinging at it, instead of when I’m patient and I say, ‘I’m going to stick with this zone.’ (When I do that), I just take that pitch with the best of them.”
The former, he refers to as “Old Bryce.” Old Bryce comes back from time to time, but if there’s any solace in Brentz’ streaky 2012 campaign, it’s that he understands his problem.
“It’s just a learning curve,” he said. “You see guys in the big leagues, every at-bat is about the same as far as what they’re trying to do. Every swing’s the same, and where they take is the same. They don’t ever get out of that comfort zone, and that’s the difference. They have it figured out, and we’re down here trying to get it figured out.”
Earlier this year, Brentz admitted that his own success pulled him out of that comfort zone. In April, he took his lumps while adjusting to the level, hitting .216 with just one homer and six extra-base hits. When the calendar turned to May, Brentz focused on staying on the ball deeper and going the other way, resulting in a month when he hit .388 with five home runs.
“The power started coming up, and then I got back to going out and just hacking,” Brentz said. “It always screws me, that’s the thing. It’s a learning curve. It’s one of those things that’s been up and down, but that’s why we’re here.”
Currently, the sturdy right-fielder is in a bit of a slump. He hovered around .300 in late June and early July, but has swatted just a pair of home runs and hit .205 since the calendar turned to July. All told, Brentz is battling himself nearly as much as the pitchers he’s facing — some of whom aren’t even willing to challenge him. So many opposing pitchers have been burnt that Brentz isn’t even getting fastballs in fastball counts. He takes that as a sign of respect, and is working to adapt his approach in those situations as well.
Brentz said: “It helps sometimes, because I’ll say, ‘hey, let’s not try to get too big.’ 2-1 now is not exactly a fastball count; neither is 2-0. It’s one of those types of things that you have to go through at-bats and certain situations and progress. That’s why it’s called development.”
According to Boles, that progress doesn’t just start when the game begins. “It starts in the cage, starts with the drill work, starts with our neuro-scouting we do, and against, it’s just understanding what the strike zone is,” Boles said. “A lot of times here, the zone is a little more compact than it is in A-ball, so you don’t have to chase a lot of these pitches.”
Boles also said it’s about earning your fastballs, but he too noted that pitchers show Brentz more respect than is usual at the level. Earlier this season in Reading, with two down and nobody on, Brentz was dealt a 3-0 breaking ball — almost unheard of in a count where pitchers typically groove one to get back into the at-bat.
“That’s the kind of respect that their pitchers have for him,” Boles said.
Photo credit: Bryce Brentz by Kelly O'Connor
Photo credit: Bryce Brentz by Kelly O'Connor
Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.