Despite being the Red Sox’ 36th overall selection in the 2010 draft, the first of the club’s two supplemental first-round picks, Bryce Brentz, has spent his 2011 campaign re-establishing himself as one of the most promising power hitters in the organization’s farm system. Brentz’ stock fell precipitously after a debut with the short season-A Lowell Spinners in which he hit just .198 with a .598 OPS in 69 games, failing to show the promise that led to his early selection.
His fortunes have changed entirely this year. Brentz is tied for the system lead with 19 home runs, and he leads all Sox minor leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances with a 1.023 OPS. Before earning a promotion to high-A Salem on May 21, Brentz hit .359 with 11 home runs, 36 RBIs and a 1.061 OPS in 40 games for low-A Greenville. After homering in each of his first two games for Salem, Brentz suffered a wrist injury and missed three weeks of action, but the 6-foot-1 outfielder is slowly rounding back into the form that saw him string together a minor-league-best 26-game hitting streak earlier this season. He had a nine-game hitting streak snapped Thursday night in a loss to Wilmington, but his five home runs in that nine-game span match his total number of long balls for Lowell in 2010.
Brentz credits much of his success at the plate this year to lessons he learned in Lowell. He found out quickly how different professional pitchers were from their collegiate counterparts.
“The biggest thing I learned was how many fastballs they throw,” Brentz said. “In college, they throw a lot of off-speed stuff. I used to sit more on the off-speed stuff, but instead of getting a curveball, it was an 0-2 fastball right by me.”
Brentz also has tried to control his effort levels this year, a problem that plagued him throughout his first season in Lowell. He admits to getting anxious at the plate and trying to hit home runs that would live up to the “light tower power” designation that Red Sox director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye gave him after the 2010 draft.
“I get too anxious and try to hit the ball 900 feet,” Brentz said. “I just need to take a smooth swing.”
That was a common refrain for first-year Greenville manager Billy McMillon, who spent the first two months of the season insisting that Brentz control those effort levels and keep his swing under control.
“Getting him to constantly put a good swing on the ball and consistently look for his pitch, that was his goal,” McMillon said. “It became important for him to be under control and get better pitches to hit.”
With his coach’s advice and what he learned in Lowell in mind, Brentz began the season on a tear for the Drive. He had hits in his first nine games, and after seeing that streak snapped, tore off on a 26-game hitting streak.
While he admitted that a lot of luck was involved in the streak, Brentz said that he was able to apply some of the adjustments he had made in his approach to extend the streak. In several games, the streak-extending hit came in his last at-bat; knowing what he had learned about professional pitching, Brentz sat on the fastball that he knew was coming.
“I’m going to try my best not to miss a fastball, and if it’s anything else, I’m going to adjust to it,” Brentz said.
The streak ended on May 16, and four days later, after his eighth three-hit game and 15th multi-hit game for the Drive, Brentz was promoted to Salem.
Salem manager Bruce Crabbe, who also managed Brentz in Lowell last season, said there’s “absolutely” a difference between the player who arrived from Middle Tennessee State last June and the one promoted from Greenville six weeks ago.
“He’s worked on his pitch recognition, staying through balls, and swinging at strikes,” Crabbe said. “He did some damage last year, it was just inconsistent. That’s typical of a first-year guy trying to impress. I think he got his legs underneath him, he’s comfortable in his situation, and he has a better plan of attack as a player.”
While his damage may have come in fits and starts for the Spinners, Brentz consistently dominated opponents at Middle Tennessee State, both on the mound and at the plate. Brentz led the team in ERA as a freshman before being shut down with an arm injury, and was the team’s Friday night starter in his sophomore year.
Still, he was more effective at the plate. After hitting .329/.404/.671 with a team-leading 18 home runs as a freshman in 2008, Brentz led the NCAA in batting average (.465), home runs (28), slugging percentage (.930), and total bases (214) on his way to being named a consensus All-American in his sophomore season. His performance also earned him a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and propelled him into the mix as a potential first-round pick the following year.
It was trying to repeat that performance that led to Brentz’ 2010 struggles, both in college and at Lowell. He missed three weeks with a foot injury at Middle Tennessee State, and no matter the reason, his stat line -- a .348 batting average with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs -- was modest in comparison to his previous season. Though still considered one of the top power hitters in the draft, Brentz slipped to the Red Sox, who selected him at No. 36 and handed him an $891,000 signing bonus.
In Lowell, Brentz didn’t do much to assuage concerns that what he called his “career year” at Middle Tennessee State was a fluke. He went hitless in six of his first nine games, collecting just one extra-base hit in that span. It took six strong weeks to close the season for Brentz to raise his average to .206 on Aug. 26 before he finished the year batting .198 with 5 home runs and 39 RBIs.
For the Spinners, scouts saw a player that was slow starting his hands, indicating that fastballs were catching him off-guard. Though he has good bat speed, he was slow through the strike zone because he did not start his swing early enough. He also took a while to adjust to wood bats.
This year in Greenville, Brentz did a better job keeping his weight back during his stride and not getting his hands too far out in front of him. Scouts believe his power potential is his calling card going forward, and that he has 25-home-run potential if he can continue to polish his swing and refine his approach, which is seen as his biggest need going forward.
Despite a combined line of .329 with 19 homers and 52 RBIs in 60 games between Greenville and Salem, Brentz has only slightly cut down on his strikeout rate (from 26.6 percent in 2010 to 23.5 percent in 2011). His walk rate, however, is slightly worse in 2011, as he has drawn walks in 5.9 percent of his plate appearances, down from 7.3 percent with Lowell.
Even so, McMillon said he believes Brentz is developing his approach at a rate that will continue to carry him up through the minor leagues.
“I saw a young man who looked for pitches he could handle and drive,” McMillon said. “Nothing he did gave me any cause for concern when you look at it as a whole. I saw a very good approach that led you to believe that if he continues on that path, he has a high ceiling.”
SoxProspects.com director of scouting Chris Mellen contributed to this article.