Outfielder Bryce Brentz hoped to commence his first full Triple-A season with a bang. Instead, a “bang” of another sort almost derailed his career – permanently.
Brentz was at his home in Knoxville with his brother Jared and they were fiddling with a Glock (a semi-automatic handgun which is the weapon of choice of most law enforcement agencies).
“There was a miscommunication between my brother and me,” said Brentz who began the season with Pawtucket. “I watched him unload it. He put the clip back in and there was a round in the chamber. I accidentally hit the trigger and it went off.
(The bullet) hit me in my upper left thigh. It stopped on the other half of my left hip. It wasn’t a through-and-through. There was just soft tissue damage and that was it. I walked out of the ER that night.”
“When my teammates found out about what happened, a lot of them were shocked,” related Brentz. “They were like, ‘Thank God you’re okay.’ After that, the rest of spring training we just had jokes. We just made fun of the situation. All of those guys have known me for a while and they know I’m an outdoorsmen. I got lucky. After that, we just had jokes about it.”
Jokes that, obviously, were more preferable as opposed to more serious discussions if Brentz hadn’t been so lucky. As it turned out, Boston rescinded its invitation to Brentz to join the team in big league camp which meant he spent spring training in the minor league camp. But there wasn’t anything “minor” about what the 24-year-old accomplished last season.
A first-round sandwich pick in the 2010 draft, Brentz was named Portland’s MVP after leading the Sea Dogs in games played, at-bats, doubles (30), RBI (76) and total bases (218). He ranked fifth among Eastern League qualifiers with a .478 slugging percentage (which was abetted by his 17 homers). Brentz, who’s rated as Boston’s No. 8 prospect by Baseball America, received a late-season promotion to Pawtucket – just in time to play five games before the PawSox commenced an excursion through the International League’s Governors’ Cup playoffs where the team captured its first championship since 1984.
During the playoffs, Brentz hit .333 (8-24) with three doubles, one triple, two homers and five RBI. Even though he played in a minimal number of Triple-A games, they helped ease the transition into 2013.
“ When you get to play in a league and it’s a new league, coming back to Pawtucket where I did have some time – not a lot but enough time to have a little bit of success and get comfortable, that helps you out,” said Brentz. “You don’t feel overwhelmed.
The biggest thing is that you know you’re in a place and an environment where you’re comfortable and you’ve been accustomed to before. You can carry that over to next season.”
Through his first 30 games this season, Brentz was hitting a modest .252 with six homers and 23 RBI.
“He really hasn’t walked as much as you would like for a middle-of-the-order guy,” said manager Gary DiScarcina while noting that Brentz had only 10 walks in 129 plate appearances. “He gets out of the strike zone a little bit when it comes to knocking in runs. I think when he sees RBI out there he gets very aggressive. But it’s a learning experience for him. He has to understand that the pitcher is the one in trouble.”
“I think he gets too anxious and aggressive. But you’d rather have him like that than the other way. When he’s right, he covers the plate. He works as hard as anyone here and has a great relationship with (PawSox hitting coach Dave) Joppie. For me, I have all the confidence in the world to keep him batting fifth and let him get through the year and get, 300, 400 or 500 at-bats.”
Even though Brentz has belted 54 home runs in three-plus minor league seasons, DiScarcina doesn’t foresee him becoming the next Jim Rice.
“I don’t know if I consider him a true home run hitter yet,” said the skipper. “For me, he looks like a gap-to-gap guy. When he does get ahold of one, it’s loud. His raw power is off the charts. But he still has some growing to do.”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize as we get older as players (Brentz is 24), that’s when our power comes in and we learn to be more efficient with our swing. Pitching recognition is big for him right now. He’s learning to hit in the middle of the order which is tough for a young kid.”
Brentz has been the subject of some “tough” reports by scouts who’ve noted that from 2010 through 2012, he had 327 whiffs in 1,198 career minor league at-bats. And through his first 30 games this season he has 28 strikeouts in 119 ABs.
“Every scout out there wants the hitter to strike out less, walk more, hit for more power and hit for more average,” said Brentz. “I’m sorry but everybody has their opinion. I don’t really worry about it. I’m not Ted Williams or whatever other hitter to whom they may compare me.
“You see guys that hit a lot of home runs tend to strike out more. That’s part of being a risk taker. I think at the end of the year, if you’re sitting between .290 and .300 and have 20 homers and almost 100 RBI, who cares?”
Another aspect of Brentz’s game that tends to get overlooked with baseball’s obsession with hitting is his right arm. Eastern League managers last season voted him as having the league’s best outfield arm – one reason being he had 10 assists.
“It’s been one of my strengths,” said Brentz. “Sometimes I get a little too excited about it while trying to throw the ball home. I tend to sail it over the catcher. But Joppie and I have kept a friendly wager going – on my trying to throw it to the cutoff man.”
“It’s been a strength of mine having an arm where sometimes there might be a play down the line where you have to make a throw. It’s not like having to throw a missile to home or to third. It’s really just being able to get the ball and instead of having to gather yourself, I can use straight arm strength and throw it to the cutoff man a hair quicker so he can make the play.
“Having the arm does help,” added Brentz, “and being a corner outfielder does make it a plus to be able to play right field and left field.”
There’s one subjective commodity that pleases Brentz as much as anything.
“I think it’s my mental toughness,” he said. “I know last year it took four or five games to get over the hump. I’ve had a few tough games here. But to come in and put up some good at-bats, that’s what I’ve been most pleased with.
“Being a year older and being more of a student of the game, that’s what I’m most happy about.”