Former GL baseball standout Keith Skinner realizes dream of reaching pro ball; Drafted by his favorite team, the Yankees, the college-polished catcher ready to make his mark

Will start with Single-A Staten Island Yankees, whose season commences June 17

Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Jorge Posada – quite a group of elite catchers to play for one franchise.

Could Berkeley Heights’ Keith Skinner, 22, be the next name added to that famous list of New York Yankee backstops?

Just think, four years ago he was producing game-winning hits against Cranford.

In three more he could be hitting a walk-off home run to right field at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox.

I can hear the John Sterling call now: “that ball is high, it is far, it is gone! Skinner provides the winner! Ball game over. Yankees win. The Yankeeeees win!”

Skinner was nothing but a winner in high school and college ball and that must be a big reason why the Yankees drafted the lefty-batting catcher during last Friday’s second day of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft.

A former two-time second-team all-state catcher for the Governor Livingston Highlanders, Skinner (6-1, 200) was the 218th player selected, going in the seventh round as a University of North Florida senior.

“When I first heard it was a little unbelievable,” Skinner said. “Especially to be drafted by the team I loved my whole life.”

Skinner is the first former GL baseball player ever to be selected by a pro team in the MLB draft.

“He has the kind of personality that reminds me of Crash Davis (the character Kevin Costner plays in the 1988 film Bull Durham),” said GL head coach Chris Roof.

Roof, a 1992 GL grad and the head coach at GL now since 2004, set the school record for single season batting average when he hit .545 his senior season of 1992. Skinner broke that record in 2012 when he hit .564 his senior year.

“He doesn’t strike out a lot and hits the ball to all fields,” Roof said. “He has a quiet confidence and swagger.

“He works hard and knows that he’s good. Here at GL his teammates fed off him. He is definitely the best hitter I’ve coached up to this point.”

You don’t have to be selected No. 1 or in the first round of the MLB draft to make it.

Los Angeles Dodgers 1993 Rookie of the Year and former New York Mets All-Star catcher Mike Piazza, who next month will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, was chosen by the Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 MLB draft, the 1,390th player selected. The Norristown, Pa. native also needed some assistance from his godfather – Tommy Lasorda.

“You need to be lucky and get an opportunity,” Roof said. “If you’re fortunate enough and take advantage, you can move up.”

Skinner signed his first pro contract Sunday and then worked out at the Yankees’ Spring Training complex in Tampa Fla. Monday and Tuesday.

On Tuesday (June 12) night he leaves to join the Staten Island Yankees, the Yankees’ Single-A short season squad. The season commences this Friday, June 17.

“I’ll get to play near my hometown, which is pretty cool,” Skinner said. “I’m amazed at how it all turned out.”

Based on input from college coaches and scouts, Skinner expected to be drafted, but not by the Yankees.

“The Mets, Red Sox and Royals were more vocal,” Skinner said.

In college, Skinner played only his freshman season at Fairfield University, appearing in 32 games for the Division 1 Connecticut school.

“I came to realize that Fairfield was not the place for me,” Skinner said.

He then transferred to Seminole State College in Sanford (central) Fla. and was named 2014 Male Athlete of the Year there. He was also a NJCAA Honorable Mention All-America selection and First Team All-Region selection that season as a sophomore.

“The move to Florida was definitely the right choice,” Skinner said.

Skinner led Seminole State in RBI with 41, batting average at .402 and on-base percentage at .438. He was second on the team in hits with 53, home runs with four and slugging percentage at .553.

During his first season in Jacksonville for North Florida in 2015, Skinner continued to tear up the baseball. His junior campaign saw him start 40 of 43 games, 37 of them at catcher and three at designated hitter.

Skinner batted .325 with three home runs and 32 RBI. He scored 26 runs and racked up 50 hits in 154 at-bats.

Skinner set the school record for RBI in a game with nine vs. Jacksonville, going 4-for-4, with two home runs and three runs scored. A month before, he went 4-for-5 with an RBI against former school Fairfield. Skinner also hit safely in eight of his first 11 games as an Osprey, including a seven-game hitting streak.

Defensively, Skinner had the highest fielding percentage (.996) among catchers in the Atlantic Sun. He threw out nine runners attempting to steal, seventh most in the A-Sun.

“I always dreamed of getting drafted, but never really thought it was possible,” Skinner said. “The one thing that helped is that the exposure to scouts in the south is much more than in the east.”

Skinner’s 2016 season at North Florida included Atlantic Sun First Team All-Conference recognition. He led the ASUN with a .382 batting average and started all but one game behind the plate, including the first 47 games of the season.

Skinner banged out 81 hits – fourth best in the ASUN – and drew 36 walks – third best. He threw out 17 runners attempting to steal and made just one error in 416 chances.

“Keith is just as solid defensively as he is with the bat, which is a big plus,” Roof said. “Being a left-handed hitter makes it even more entertaining.”

Skinner was listed as the 29th toughest player in the country to strike out, fanning only once every 15 at-bats.

In his two seasons at North Florida, Skinner boasted a fielding percentage of .997, the second-highest in program. His career .358 batting average is the seventh-highest in school history.

Skinner being drafted marked the fourth straight year that an Osprey was taken in the first 10 rounds.

“I was projected to go between the fifth and the 30th rounds,” Skinner said. “Being a college senior I was told to accept whatever I could get.”

For his excellence as a hitter and behind the plate as a standout catcher, on June 3 Skinner was one of three backstops named as finalists for the prestigious Johnny Bench Award, annually bestowed on the nation’s top catcher since 2000.

Catchers who went on to excel in the majors after being chosen for the award include Kelly Shoppach (2001, Baylor junior), Kurt Suzuki (2004, Cal State Fullerton junior) and Buster Posey (2008, Florida State junior).

This year’s other two finalists include Miami junior Zack Collins and Oregon   State junior Logan Ice.

A final vote among the national committee will occur during the College World Series. All finalists will be brought to Wichita and the winner will be announced at the 19th Annual Greater Wichita Sports Banquet on June 30.

Being a Yankee fan, Skinner listed two New York backstops that he followed when they played in the Bronx.

“Growing up I was a Jorge Posada fan and when he was with the Yankees I liked Russell Martin,” Skinner said.

Skinner helped North Florida to finishes of 45-16 in 2015 and 39-19 in 2016.

During his first year as a starter at GL in 2011, Skinner helped the Highlanders win a school-record (at the time) 26 games. GL went on to finish 26-6, including a season-ending nine-game winning streak that culminated with the Highlanders defeating defending champion West Essex in the Group 2 state championship game at Toms River North. GL followed that up with a 21-9 record his senior season of 2012.

“Being part of a state championship team was pretty incredible,” Skinner said then.

Skinner’s junior year saw him – from the No. 3 spot in the order – bat .463 (50-for-108), blast six home runs and drive in 39 runs. Almost half of the left handed batter’s hits, 22, went for extra bases. He connected on 14 doubles and two triples.

“His on-base percentage was .500,” Roof said. “Since I’ve been here no one has put up those kinds of numbers.”

Skinner also struck out only six times in 117 plate appearances.

“He’s not going to walk a lot, he walked only six times, but the fact that he struck out only six times in 117 at-bats says a lot,” Roof said.

“Offensively, I started a little slow,” Skinner said. “I started 1-for-12 and was not making good contact at all. I was trying to hit a grand slam every time up.

“After trying to fix that by working with my coaches I just caught fire. When you’re on fire in baseball you can’t miss.”

Skinner was also not easy to run on. He threw out 40 percent of the baserunners attempting to steal on him

As a senior in 2012, Skinner, if you could believe it, was even more formidable at the plate. Remaining in the No. 3 spot in the order, he batted .564 (44-for-78), leading the team in batting average and hits.

Skinner also paced the Highlanders with 17 doubles and 39 RBI. His team-leading on-base percentage was .626 and team-best slugging percentage .859.

Also steady defensively, Skinner made just one error for a .995 fielding percentage. He had 172 putouts and 22 assists.

Skinner made just one error at catcher during both his senior years in high school and college.

A criminal justice major at North Florida, back in high school Skinner also considered attending and playing at schools such as Monmouth, Villanova and Rutgers, while Fordham was also looking at him.

One of Skinner’s highlights during his senior season at GL was producing the game-winning hit against Cranford in a 7-6, nine-inning Highlander home victory. A prime example of how he uses all fields was that his hit that ended the game went the other way to left field.

That was GL’s first win over Cranford in three years.

This is what Skinner learned from playing for Roof and his staff: “it was work ethic. I was not the fastest or the strongest, but as long as I worked hard there was a chance to improve and be successful.”

At the minor league level he is at now, Skinner views his strengths this way: “I want to be the type of player that can be called upon all the time. I want to always give my maximum competitive effort.

“I want to show that I will work the hardest.”

 

FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2016 – A DAY SKINNER WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER

WITH A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF PRIDE

Here’s how the news unfolded last Friday of Skinner being chosen in the seventh round – selection No. 218 – during the second day of the 2016 MLB draft:

Skinner gets his first phone call from Yankee scout Ronnie Merrill asking Skinner if he will accept what is called “below slot money” to go to the Yankees. Skinner replies: “Yes.”

Then during the sixth round Skinner fields calls from a couple of different teams asking him the same question. Skinner again replies: “Yes.”

Then during the seventh round Skinner receives a text message from Merrill asking Skinner if he is healthy. Skinner, once more, replies: “Yes.”

In Jacksonville with his parents John and Nancy and older brother Jacob, a 2010 GL grad, the next bit of news came from the television they were watching.

“It comes over the broadcast, my name and that I am being drafted and by the Yankees – and then everybody went nuts,” Skinner said. “I immediately received a phone call from the Yankees afterwards, was congratulated and then told that I would be sent an e-mail with all the information where to report.”

Skinner’s dream of being drafted – through much perseverance and hard work – has now been realized.

Next we shall see what kind of journey awaits him through the rigors and ups and downs of minor league baseball.

Knowing Skinner he will be prepared to give it his best shot at all times.

NOTES: Skinner has an internship and one class to complete to obtain his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from North Florida.

Eric Brown, a 1997 GL grad who helped lead the Highlanders to their first Union County Tournament championship game in 1996, pitched at Rutgers for four years from 1998-2001 (he was 14-10 there for his college career) and was then signed as a free agent by the Chicago Cubs, playing in their minor league system (A, AA and AAA teams) for three seasons.

In the minors Brown compiled a three-season pitching record of 14-4 that included an impressive earned-run average of 2.05.

Roof reported Monday night that Joey Graziano, also a 2012 GL grad, will be signing as a free agent Tuesday (June 14) with the Tampa Bay Rays. Graziano, also a key member of GL’s 2011 Group 2 state championship team, played at St. John’s the past four years. His four-year pitching record at the Big East school was 7-3, with a 5.27 ERA.

 

KEITH SKINNER

COLLEGE HIGHLIGHTS

2016: Johnny Bench Award finalist

2016: Atlantic Sun First Team All-Conference – North Florida

2015: Atlantic Sun Preseason All-Conference team – North Florida

2015: Collegiate Baseball Louisville Slugger National

Player of the Week – April 20, 2015 – North Florida

2014: Seminole State College Male Athlete of the Year

 

GL HIGH SCHOOL HIGHLIGHTS

2012: Second Team All-State

2012: Northwest squad member of Senior All-Star Games

2012: School record .564 single season batting average

2011: Second Team All-State

2011: Member of Group 2 state champions

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