Stockton Ports’ lead-off hitter J.P. Sportman first landed on the radar of many Oakland A’s fans this spring, when he received five late spring at-bats in big league camp. Sportman made the most out of his opportunities, homering twice, doubling, walking and posting a 2714 OPS. While that performance was certainly eye-opening, it was hardly the first time the A’s 2014 27th-round pick had drawn notice since signing with Oakland last June.
Sportman went from a little-known late-round pick to a legitimate prospect in the A’s system last season when he hit .309/.365/.409 in 60 games for the A’s two short-season squads. Sportman continued to impress during the A’s fall Instructional League and he was named Oakland’s 51st best prospect going into the 2015 season by OaklandClubhouse.
Despite the good start to his pro career, Sportman came into the 2015 season knowing that he had something to prove. At 5’9’’, Sportman has always had to fight the perception that he doesn’t have the size to excel at professional baseball.
“I have always been that small kid from a small school,” Sportman said before the High-A Stockton Ports’ game on Friday. “I take pride in working hard and I take pride in going out and showing everybody what I can do. That just motivates me to work even harder.”
Sportman spent four seasons at Central Connecticut State University, starring for the Blue Devils on the diamond. Sportman hit .327 with an 843 OPS during his four years in college and also impressed with wood bats during the summer New England Collegiate League. When his name was called during Day Three of the 2014 MLB Draft, Sportman became just the third CCSU player to be drafted.
One of the other CCSU alums to be drafted is current A’s set-up man Evan Scribner. Sportman can draw inspiration from Scribner’s journey to the big leagues. Scribner was a 28th-round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. The right-hander overcame the stigma of coming out of a small school to make the big leagues just three-and-a-half years after he was drafted. Like Sportman, Scribner doesn’t have the flashy tools that get players noticed, but his ability to produce consistently excellent results has landed Scribner in the big leagues.
Sportman got to meet Scribner for the first time when he was in big league camp this spring.
“It’s just crazy that two of the three guys [from CCSU to have played pro ball] are on the same team and I got to hang out with him,” Sportman said. “It was cool. It was a good experience. I got to call my coaches and tell them I got to meet him finally.”
Sportman also draws major-league inspiration from fellow Connecticut native George Springer. The Houston Astros’ phenom has been a close friend of Sportman’s since childhood and the two work out together during the off-season. Sportman says he has learned a lot about what it takes to make the big leagues from Springer.
“He’s just so smart, so talented,” Sportman said. “A lot of guys aren’t as talented as him, but he’s also smart. I have just picked his brain and being able to watch him every night like I do and knowing him personally is just awesome. Working out with him during the off-season and seeing his work ethic drives me to be like him and ultimately get to where he is at.”
After his big spring training, Sportman earned an assignment with the High-A Stockton Ports. That meant that he skipped over the Low-A level entirely. Sportman noted that the level of competition is significantly better in High-A than it was in short-season. Nonetheless, he is off to a solid start for Stockton. Through 23 games, Sportman has a .286/.317/.439 line with two homeruns and four stolen bases.
Sportman says that his performance in big league camp this spring gave him added confidence going into the regular season.
“Anytime you do something like that up there, it’s pretty cool,” Sportman said. “It also showed me that I could play at this level. It just drove me to work a little bit harder and ultimately get there.”
Sportman has batted mostly lead-off for the Ports this year. He admits that he is still learning the nuances of the lead-off hitter role, but he is enjoying the challenge.
In addition to adjusting to the lead-off role, Sportman is adding the role of utilityman to his resume this season. He played in the outfield exclusively during his pro debut season, and he received praise for his defensive work in centerfield from A’s coaches and front office personnel. However, this year he is also playing some infield. Sportman has already appeared in three games at second base and he figures to see time in the infield on occasion throughout the season.
While his professional playing experience was all in the outfield, Sportman says playing in the infield is nothing new for him.
“I have done that my whole life,” Sportman said. “The A’s didn’t know it until I actually brought it up. My freshman year I played shortstop and in high school I played both [infield and outfield]. It just comes natural to me to move around the field and be versatile and find a way to get on the field and get my bat in there for certain teams.”