Legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler famously said to his players, “Those who stay will be champions!” His mantra became applicable to many athletes and held true for Yankees’ catching prospect Keith Skinner, who chose to remain in baseball after contemplating giving up the sport entirely after his freshman season at Fairfield in 2013.
“After my senior year, I went to Fairfield in Connecticut, and I really wasn’t happy there,” Skinner said. “I didn’t have much motivation to play and that summer I had to decide whether I was going to focus on school or continue playing baseball. My dad kept saying I should try out baseball at a junior college and see if I liked it better.”
Before coming to Fairfield, Skinner was star high school catcher in his native New Jersey with Governor Livingston and was a two-time All-Star as a backstop. His tenure at Governor Livingston High School enabled him to learn each component of the position and served him through the pro ranks.
“Catching is a lot of learning with little increments of improvement. In high school, I learned from the guys I played, and once I got to college, I learned from my coaches and observed from others. Here at the professional level, with (Yankees’ minor league catching coordinator) Josh Paul, it’s been incredible. I have improved more in the last year catching than I have in the last ten years.”
Skinner showed flashes of his high school form during a season at Seminole Florida, batting .402/.438/.553 with a .990 OPS. His torrid sophomore season resulted in an NJCAA All-American Honorable Mention selection and a spot as a First Team All-Regional. Most importantly, Skinner found a comfort level and the proper foundation for an opportunity at a senior college.
“At Seminole, we had a few players on the team that were drafted pretty high,” Playing against them in the fall and practicing definitely helped. Junior College gives you options. If you are really sure where you want to do out of high school then it makes sense to go immediately (to a senior college), otherwise, at a junior college, you have to options of turning pro after your freshman or sophomore year or going to a four-year school.”
Achievement at the junior college level for Skinner led a two-year stint in the Atlantic Sun Conference with the University of North Florida. In his final season of eligibility, he hit .382 with a .952 OPS and joined Logan Ice and Zack Collins as finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, which recognizes the top catcher in Division I Baseball. Past winners of the award include current big league catchers Buster Posey and Kurt Suzuki.
“I had some great memories there. I loved playing for coach Smoke Laval, who has been around for a long time,” Skinner said. “I learned a lot about the mental part of the game and what it takes to play a full season from February through September.”
Noticing his potential, the Yankees selected Skinner with their eighth round pick in the 2016 draft. His professional debut came with the Staten Island Yankees, where he split time behind the plate with fellow catching prospect Luis Torrens, who was rehabbing from a shoulder injury. Skinner played eight games with the club before going on the restrictive list in July to address a personal matter and temporarily stepped away from the game.
“At that time I had some things going on that I needed to sort out. The Yankees have been gracious to have me back and the opportunity to keep playing. I needed time to take care of some things and handle that before I could focus on anything else. I got back to playing baseball in November that year and talked to the scout that drafted me and to our mental conditioning instructor Chris Passarella. They said I would get an invite to spring training and work into playing shape.”
As Skinner returned to competitive play for the 2017 season, he had short stints with each team in Class-A and continued learning the nuances of the game. Skinner further developed confidence playing in the Florida State League for the Tampa Yankees before rejoining Staten Island in mid-July. His brief experience in High-A helped him adapt during his second year of pro ball.
“Playing in Tampa at Steinbrenner Field for the High-A team was pretty awesome,” Skinner said. I definitely think going to the higher levels and then coming here (to Staten Island) gives you more confidence since you experienced the higher level of play. The second time around is easier because you have a feel for everything and it never hurts to have more experience.”