Charleston RiverDogs catcher Peter O’Brien was always the smallest player on his high school baseball team.
At 5-4 and 125 pounds, the slick-fielding shortstop at Miami’s Braddock High School barely got a glance from college scouts during his first two years in high school. But there was always an anomaly about O’Brien that few people noticed.
Despite his diminutive stature, O’Brien had huge feet — size 13 to be exact.
It was after his freshman year that O’Brien’s body began to catch up to his feet.
He grew four inches and put on 15 pounds that year. He grew another four inches going into his junior season and graduated from Braddock at 6-3 and 200 pounds. He also made the move from shortstop to catcher during his senior season.
“I guess I finally grew into my feet,” O’Brien said with a chuckle.
On the RiverDogs’ roster, O’Brien is listed at 6-3 and 215 pounds, but the former University of Miami star says he is closer to 6-4 and 225 pounds.
“I don’t think I’m done growing,” O’Brien said. “I guess I’m just a late bloomer.”
Which is why the New York Yankees are glad to have him in their organization.
In his first full season of professional baseball, O’Brien leads the RiverDogs in hitting (.316), home runs (7), doubles (18) and is second in RBIs (34).
O’Brien, who will turn 23 next month, is expected to be named to the South Atlantic League All-Star Game when the rosters are announced today.
“This kid works really hard and he is really smart,” said RiverDogs manager Al Pedrique. “He has a very strong arm and a lot of power in his bat. His offense is good, but it’s his defense that needs work.
“The great thing about him is he always wants to learn more. He always listens and asks questions. You can’t ask for anything more from a young player.”
O’Brien is no overnight success.
Coming out of high school, he signed with Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Fla. After hitting .314 in 50 games as a freshman, he had a breakout season his sophomore year, hitting .386 with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs. He was named the MEAC player of the year.
O’Brien was already among the top college prospects going into his junior season in 2011. With major league scouts watching his every move and teams consistently pitching around him, O’Brien slugged 14 home runs and drove in 69 runs. Colorado picked him in the third round, but O’Brien surprised many people when he didn’t sign with the Rockies.
“It just wasn’t the right situation for me,” O’Brien said. “It’s not something I like to talk about. I had some things going on with my family, and I didn’t feel like it was the right opportunity for me.”
Instead, O’Brien decided to move closer to home to be with his mother, who was dealing with some health issues. O’Brien transferred to ACC powerhouse Miami.
“I really loved my time at Bethune Cookman, but I needed to be closer to home,” O’Brien said.
It didn’t take long for O’Brien to make an impact at Miami.
“As a coaching staff, after one practice, we went, ‘That guy is going to be our captain,’ and he had been there one day,” Miami head coach Jim Morris told Baseball America in 2012. “I’ve never said that in my entire coaching career, so he’s very impressive as an individual. He works hard on the field and off the field, and he’s just a nice young man with a great family.”
He led the Hurricanes in hitting (.340), home runs (10) and RBIs (40) in 2012.
“It was probably the best year of my life,” O’Brien said. “On and off the field, it was a great year. To be back home and close to my family and to play for a team like Miami, it was definitely a dream come true.”
O’Brien signed with Yankees for $460,000 and displayed his power right away, hitting 10 home runs in 48 games playing in Staten Island last summer.
O’Brien has been a force since opening day for the RiverDogs. He was named the SAL player of the week in the middle of May after going 9 for 22 (.409 average) with two home runs, three doubles, eight RBIs, 12 runs scored and seven walks.
“I got into a groove. I was seeing the ball really well and everything just seemed to be going my way,” O’Brien said.
With catchers like J.R. Murphy, Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez already in the Yankees’ farm system, O’Brien said he’s not concerned about moving up in the organization at the moment.
“My focus is on getting better each day,” O’Brien said. “Obviously, you want to move up and get to the major leagues, but right now I’m just worried about improving my game. If I do that, I know the rest will take care of itself.”