Oakland A's Q&A: Greg Sparks

WEST SACRAMENTO, CA - After eight seasons as the Oakland A's minor league hitting coordinator, Greg Sparks was named the hitting coach of the Sacramento River Cats for the 2012 season. Under his watch, the River Cats have scored the third-most runs in the Pacific Coast League. Chris Biderman caught-up with Sparks to discuss several River Cats, including Chris Carter, Grant Green & Daric Barton...

Chris Biderman: What have you seen from Chris Carter during his recent run at the plate before he got called up? Did you see any difference in his demeanor or approach?

Greg Sparks: He just changed his approach a little bit. No big changes. Just mainly trying to stay over the baseball better, more. Thinking more left-center as opposed to right-center. It's gotten him over the baseball better. Trying to eliminate the flippy – but the feel for the ball-type at-bats where he kind of feels for it. It's a more aggressive and feel approach.

CB: Did you see hit his home run to right field yesterday [Saturday versus Texas]?

GS: His power is all over the field. It's just a stronger, more athletic approach in the box.

CB: With everything he's gone through over the past few seasons between bouncing up and down with Oakland parts of the last two years, was he in a different headspace this year?

GS: He's worked the same. The one thing he did do was defensively he worked. A big part of his daily routine worked towards that, and the defensive side of the ball. He got with Bushy and did some flexibility stuff with the catchers to loosen up his hips so he could play the ball better. That was a big change. As far as his hitting approach, pretty much stayed the same. It was a slight adjustment – nothing big. We took his swings from the previous four or five years and mapped them on top of what he's doing now and they're very similar.

CB: When you look at film of his swing, what's an indicator to you that says he's really going well at the plate?

GS: Last night I'm watching the game. He stays over the ball so there's an angle. He's not straight up when he swings. He stays over the baseball with his upper body. It's very subtle, but it keeps him through the baseball and he feels strong to all fields. It's a battle but he's really worked hard. In the past he would go up there and just try to launch a couple of times, but I think he's really turned into a professional hitter.

CB: He's known as a slow starter. Is that change a result from more experience?

GS: I think that was a big part of it … he got labeled as that. The experience of going to the big leagues and scuffling a little bit over 100 at-bats. He took that knowledge and what he needed to do throughout the whole year. We didn't see the huge power numbers that he was capable of, but the quality of his at-bats improved greatly. He was taking a major league at-bat every time he was up there. I think he accomplished it, he showed he can do it. I am proud of him. He worked his rear end off.

CB: You haven't Kila Ka'aihue here for very long, but what have your impressions been so far?

GS: He's making some adjustments now. Teaching an old dog a new trick. He's trying to shorten up his stroke and use more of the field, I don't want to say the whole field. He has a natural line drive stroke. We're trying to make that more consistent and make it a shorter path to the baseball. We want to eliminate some of the bigger swings he takes that he doesn't need to have. He has tremendous power.

CB: How has Daric Barton been in his time back in Sacramento?

GS: Bart's in an adjustment. He's trying to change his stroke a little bit. He's trying to make some adjustments in-game. And that's tough to do. But he can hit. He has a tremendous eye. He has the two best qualities a hitter can have. He's got eyes and hands. While he's trying to change things in season, it's tough. We're battling it together. I'm trying to get him to relax so I can take all the heat. He'll be fine.

CB: What type of adjustments is he making?

GS: We're trying to take balls in the middle half of the plate and really drive them. When he goes back to the big leagues they [opposing pitchers] can't live on one side of the plate or the other. He's always had the ability to use right-center over, no problem. When he's in the big leagues, he gets a little in-conscious because they pound him in. Just clearing that ball without a lot of effort.

It's an adjustment. Particularly with a hitter like him who is bottom-hand dominant. It's like working with a switch-hitter all the time. To handle that pitch, you almost have to be more top-hand dominant. We're working hard. He's out there every day. There's some frustration. He knows if he goes with his old approach, he's going to get some hits. Credit to him to go up there and do something new in-game, it's difficult in a tough time in his career.

CB: Is it encouraging that his on-base numbers are still really good?

GS: They're always going to be good. His assets are his eyes and his knowledge of the strike zone. If he went to his old approach, he'd go up there and get three hits today, no problem. He's trying to work on something to improve his game so he can get up to the big leagues and he sticks. He's tired of going up and down too. Hopefully it clicks. If not, we go a different direction.

CB: Jermaine Mitchell has struggled this year compared to last (.302/.401/.453 to .228/.337/.355). What do you make of the season he's had so far?

GS: Jermaine's really – I would say a sophomore slump – but he's been tinkering with different things. It's hard to say. The kid has really hit the ball hard and no luck. I think he started pressing a little bit. Hits weren't falling and started making some adjustments a little too quick.

But now he's back the last 10 games I'd say. Back to his old stroke, his old approach. He's still getting those lineouts and we're trying to get him to count those every at-bats. These guys want to see a high average and they want those results. I think those hard hits, you have to count them. He's back to his old swing and he's going really good now.

CB: With the team carrying so many outfielders early in the season, was the lack of regular at-bats an issue for him?

GS: He has a set schedule because he's coming off a knee injury. I don't think that's the issue. His workload's always been the same. They're all in the same boat. I'm sure if you ask him he wouldn't use that as an excuse at all.

CB: When you're watching him swing, what are some of the things you look for?

GS: He stays on the balls of his feet, not on his heels. He was trying to cover pitches by moving closer to the plate. He was making some extreme adjustments that weren't totally necessary. He was trying to plug holes all the time instead of staying with his approach and letting his game come to him.

Now he's back over the baseball. He's balanced. Again, watching him in batting practice, now he's driving the ball to left-center with authority. Before he was just kind of setting it out there – a little touchy-feely – now he's letting the bat go and having much better at-bats.

CB: Did his addition to the 40-man roster in the offseason change his approach and cause him to start tinkering more than he needed to?

GS: I don't think so. These guys work hard. There's only one roster, really. That's their mindset when they get there and stick. I don't think it adds any pressure or anything like that. There's always pressure.

CB: What do you think about Grant Green's progression at the plate?

GS: Outstanding. The kid can hit. He's one of our best workers. He's had a routine the whole year and stuck with it offensively. He's learned to become more selective in his approach. He's a very aggressive hitter – fun to work with. Good knowledge of his swing – he knows what it feels like.

Once he gets to the big league level his power will increase because he has the ability to get base hits. He's a hitter first and he gets stronger and more knowledgeable, his power numbers will really show up.

CB: Is it more fun to work with such a talented "blank canvas" like Green?

GS: I think it's fun, just one through nine, all these guys. They all have their little things. When you have guys that like to work and aren't afraid to try things, don't get frustrated and let me wear the heat. It's been fun. These guys have been great. I was hitting coordinator for eight years and it feels really good to be back on the field. To work with guys like this has made my job really easy.

CB: How have the additions of guys like Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales been for some of the younger players? What type of major league habits have they brought to some of the younger players?

GS: Sogey's been really simple to work with. I don't want to say generic, but he has a real basic approach that he believes in strongly. My job with him is to make sure he's doing what he wants to do. He's very low maintenance. We communicate well. It's more or less just watching him. We have a couple visual signs we use. He's got a short but very efficient cage routine.

It's great to have a guy like that to watch him how he works and how he does his batting practice. It's with purpose and it's not just out there back-legging balls out of the ballpark, which he can do. It's all geared towards the base hit. Like yesterday's batting practice, I don't think he pulled one ball. But in his first at-bat he yanks a double over the first baseman's head.

Rosey is constantly working. High energy. I try not to contain it. I want him to use it and recognize when he gets a little too amped up. That's how he operates. He plays the game the right way. That's a very positive influence on these young players.

CB: It seemed like Josh Donaldson was really struggling to take the right pitches and get deep into counts during his time with Oakland earlier this year. Has that been a point of emphasis since he's been brought back to Sacramento?

GS: I didn't see or get into his at-bats [in the big leagues]. I didn't watch too many of them. I had more communication with [A's hitting coach] Chili [Davis] on what we wanted to do with them. We want to keep him short to the baseball and have him thinking more base-hit. The kid can hit.

He gets up there and maybe tries to do too much. Again, I'm not in his dome. Sometimes he'll go and just try to add when he doesn't need to. That's just a young player trying to impress.

He's been fine here. Our goal is get him to get an approach he can take up there and just stay with it. Who knows what's going on through a young player's head. I never played in the big leagues but I played in some big league camps. Sometimes guys try to do too much and I think that's the case.

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