Sidearm sizzle pushes Michigan's Schreiber closer to Comerica Park

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
John Schreiber has allowed all of 24 earned runs in three summers of minor-league ball since the Tigers in June of 2016 drafted him in the 15th round out of Northwest Ohio University.

Erie, Pennsylvania — So many stories from the minor leagues follow either of two paths.

The hotshot prep star turns down a college scholarship, signs a contract, then spends however many years in the bushes en route to the big leagues, or to realizing it’s probably time for another occupation.

Then, there’s the college hotshot. He opts for the scholarship and later gets drafted as a junior or senior. And then it’s on to the roulette wheel known as professional baseball.

John Schreiber fits neither mold.

“If you’d have told me in high school I’d be playing in the Tigers organization,” Schreiber said this week during a chat inside the Double A Erie clubhouse, “I’d have said no way.”

This isn’t a case of oh-please false modesty. Schreiber is stating facts. Anyone who knew him back in his days at Gibraltar Carlson High would agree Schreiber struck just about no one as big-league pitching timber.

A growing number of hitters, either from the Double A Eastern League, where he now pitches, or from those two Single A stops he made last year, would argue otherwise.

Schreiber has allowed all of 24 earned runs in three summers of minor-league ball since the Tigers in June of 2016 drafted him in the 15th round out of Northwest Ohio University.

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He is known for acute stinginess. Last year at Single A West Michigan, Schreiber allowed three early-season runs, then never gave up another from June 12 through the end of the season. This year, in 40 outings, teams have scored on him all of nine times.

He has a three-season, 85-game ERA of 1.70 and a WHIP of 0.93. He has struck out 144 batters in 127 1/3 innings while unintentionally walking 27.

Those are numbers that can put a right-handed reliever in the big leagues.

Schreiber, who is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, does it by way of a delivery seen occasionally on big-league mounds. He is a drop-down — sidearm, if you prefer — artist who slings the ball from a low, stone-skipping motion that is particularly gnarly for right-handed hitters.

The ball tends to come at them from the end of a long, whiplash sequence that can unsettle a hitter who isn’t sure he won’t get plunked. Pitches bore from an angle and from a release point that can make fastballs in the low 90s seem speedier.

“We’ve seen him up to 92 this season,” Erie manager Andrew Graham said. “And he can elevate that fastball, too.”

A couple of Portland Sea Dog batters got lessons there in Tuesday night’s game, an Erie victory, which Schreiber finished with a scoreless, one-hit, one-strikeout ninth.

His fastball seemed to ride almost vertically, in elevator-fashion, as he worked high in — and above — the strike zone with a handful of fastballs that mixed nicely with lower-level sinkers. He throws a slider that right-handed batters also tend to dislike.

His off-speed pitch is a change-up. And it’s the change-up that must get better if Schreiber is to see Comerica Park. While right-handed batters are hitting only .189 against him in 2018, Double A left-handers are hitting .250. That latter number is sure to grow in the big leagues if Schreiber’s change doesn’t offer a slower pitch that can run away from a left-handed hitter’s maw.

But he sees his challenge as being more than mastering an off-speed option.

“With left-handers, it’s just that I haven’t been getting ahead in the count,” he said. “I know I can get left-handers out.”

Schreiber acknowledged all of this as he chatted in front of a locker cubicle about half the size of a big-leaguer’s clubhouse space. A couple of feet away, eight or so teammates sat at a table fixated on a hearts game.

This is minor-league life. Tight quarters, tight bonds.

And how he got here even Schreiber says has “definitely been interesting.”

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He was born in Wyandotte but was raised in Rockwood, where his folks, John and Jane, yet live. John works at DTE’s Monroe power plant while Jane is employed by Berlin Township. Their son loved sports, particularly baseball, but with pitches that topped out at 84 mph college teams weren’t inclined to see him as any kind of mound savior.

And, so, the younger John decided he’d do some advertising.

He wrote a letter to Henry Ford Community College and said he’d be available to pitch there, which, given that Schreiber was bearing all the school costs, was an easy yes for Henry Ford’s baseball staff.

He got some early work at Henry Ford and at an autumn regional showcase his sidearm style attracted coaches from Northwestern Ohio, in Lima.

They offered a scholarship. Schreiber offered his services to “an awesome program” that had grown in somewhat the fashion of a pitcher who was getting taller, and thicker, and whose delivery was proving to be a difference-maker.

Tigers scout Tim Hallgren caught sight of him while Schreiber played in a summer Alaskan League All-Star game. The Tigers stayed on him, particularly area scout Jeff Kunkel, which led to a tryout at Comerica Park ahead of the 2014 draft.

“Everyone liked him,” Kunkel said Thursday. “He had that drop-down, lower slot — a little funky. Obviously, he’s continued to be tough. And he’s a great kid.”

Ask him when the sidearm approach became his style and Schreiber half-laughs.

“I always tell people,” he said, “I don’t know when I did. Every year I just gradually dropped down.”

But the side-arm, sling-shot release was about to get more pronounced. During his first summer of pro ball, two years ago at Single A Connecticut, Schreiber was invited by roving pitching instructor A.J. Sager to study another right-handed reliever, Kurt Spomer, who had a more extreme submarine delivery.

Schreiber saw the difference and picked it up instantly. Mostly because it required no major change in his arm-slot.

“It’s the same arm-angle I use now,” he said. “I’m just dropping my lower body more.”

Schreiber turned 24 in March and this autumn will be marrying his fiancée, Rebecca Browning. He has no idea where he'll be pitching in 2019. Triple A Toledo would be the assumption for a pitcher who has moved, in only two years, to Double A. But that’s probably dependent upon the change-up adding some polish.

And if that should happen, well, anyone familiar with Tigers bullpen history understands Detroit is the Ellis Island of big-league ports for incoming relievers.

“I’ll just try and get prepared for hitters at the next level,” Schreiber said, “and maybe reach my dream of Comerica Park.”

Sharing dreams there will be Tigers fans who harbor visions of shutdown relievers coming their way.

They’ll urge you to work on that change-up, Mr. Schreiber.