Meet the Jewish trio on the Cardinals’ Double-A farm team

Charlie Cutler

By Lew Prince Special to the Jewish Light

“I feel so close to the big leagues.”  That’s David Kopp, a right-handed pitcher for the Springfield Cardinals. To be more precise, Kopp is a Jewish right-handed pitcher for the Springfield Cardinals. He’s one of three Jewish prospects on the Springfield roster. Two, Kopp and Scott Schneider, are right-handed pitchers. The third is Charlie Cutler, a hard-hitting catcher. 

Springfield (Mo.) is the St. Louis club’s Double-A farm team. It’s owned and operated by the parent club and is two steps below the major leagues. 

Jeff Levering, the broadcast voice of the Springfield team, agrees with Kopp.  Levering thinks Kopp might be among be the first of the current Springfield squad to draw big league meal money. 

“David could be in St. Louis soon,” Levering says.  He sees in Kopp the potential to be a good fit for the parent club’s bullpen, but adds the eternal baseball caveat, “…if someone gets hurt or fails to perform.” 

Kopp grew up in Cool Springs, Fla., near Ft. Lauderdale. He describes his family the way many modern Jews would. “We were Conservative; kind of liberal. You know, not too crazy.” He doesn’t think his religion has had any effect on his baseball career.

Ballplayers lead itinerant lives and Kopp is no exception. He’s played for Cardinal farm clubs as far flung as Batavia in the rookie New York-Penn league, Palm Beach, Memphis and now, Springfield. Kopp’s experience with the locals and his teammates at each stop has been about the same. “People have been very, very kind to me. They seem to accept the person. Background doesn’t enter in to it.” 

Cutler concurs, “Nowadays you have every kind of person and background, black, white, Spanish in the clubhouse. We try to respect each other and get along.”

Scott Schneider is in a similar situation to Kopp and from a similar background. “My dad’s Jewish, so we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover, but he was very easy going about it.” 

Schneider has been primarily a starting pitcher for Springfield. But, even at 6 feet tall and 175 pounds and sporting an impressive, seven strikeouts per nine innings pitched this season, he doesn’t project as having the sustained power the Major League game demands and he knows it. “ I’m a sinker, slider, change-up guy,” he says. “My fastball is 87-92 (mph). I don’t look for strikeouts. The best thing for me is to get out of an inning on only a few pitches. Keep the ball low in the (strike) zone and get ground balls.”

Kopp, whose strikeout rate per nine innings is 5.9, sums up what might be the mantra, on and off the field, for both young hurlers. “I can’t worry about what I have no control over.” 

Kopp’s  pitching approach echoes Schneider’s. It’s been the Cards’ organizational thinking for more than a decade, preached by major league pitching coach Dave Duncan and gospel up and down the team’s farm system. “I work on command of the baseball and working down in the zone,” Kopp says.

He’s right. The path to the big leagues for both players will be paved with ground balls. With Kopp’s ground ball to fly ball ratio hovering around 2.3-to-1 and Schneider’s touching 3-to-1, they’re both developing this essential skill. 

It’s a trait that cozy Hammonds Field, the Springfield team’s home, demands. Levering murmurs assent when Kopp says that their home park has been demanding on pitchers and hard on mistakes. 

“The ball’s been flying out of here this season. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says the young pitcher. “The warmer it gets, the farther it goes,” adds Schneider, who at 23-years-old is the baby of the trio. He says the conditions have helped him improve his focus. “Things can get out of control in hurry, here. You get two outs, then a couple of pitches up in the zone and you’re in trouble.”

On the other hand, 25-year-old Charlie Cutler is taking full advantage of Hammonds Field. He’s a rarity, a left-handed hitting catcher. Cutler is also in the middle of a breakout season at the plate. 

Listed at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Cutler has the classic catcher’s build and might have the makings of every big league team’s dream receiver, one who is agile enough to field baseball’s most physically demanding position and still have the strength and stamina to be an offensive force.  

Before arriving in Springfield, Cutler had demonstrated fantastic knowledge of the strike zone. Coming into this season, in his first 930 professional at-bats, he’d amassed a solid .302 batting average and a spectacular .399 on base percentage (OBP, which includes getting on base by walks as well as hits).  He’s currently hitting for a .346 average and an otherworldly .446 OBP; in other words, he gets on base almost half the time he steps to the plate.

 Scouts will tell you that control of the strike zone is often a precursor to a player’s developing as a power hitter. Although it’s a smallish sample size and the ballpark may be helping him out,  Cutler’s  .557 slugging percentage (which measures a hitter’s extra-base power) after 115 at-bats, puts him in elite company.  These are akin to Mike Piazza, considered perhaps the greatest hitting catcher in MLB history. 

He’s also developing into a reliable backstop defensively. Levering’s assessment of Cutler: “He’s not going to hurt you behind the plate,” would be icing on the cake if he can continue to blossom as a hitter.

Of the three, Cutler is also the most attached to his Jewish background. “Only my dad was Jewish and while I know it’s matrilineal, I’ve always considered myself Jewish,” he says. 

The trio may have a baseball opportunity directly tied to their Judaism. The third edition of Major League Baseball’s off-season, international professional championship series, the World Baseball Classic, is scheduled for 2013. Heretofore a 16-nation competition, featuring teams representing baseball powers like Japan, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the field is expanding to 28 teams and Israel has announced it will be forming a squad. 

Cutler is aware of this and intends to make the team. “Wouldn’t that be great?  I’d love to play for Israel.”