Note: all of the stats discussed in this interview were as of the morning on Friday, July 6.
Since joining the Oakland A's organization in 2004, Todd Steverson has held a variety of roles. He served as a hitting coach for short-season Vancouver in 2004 and then moved into the manager's chair in 2005 with Stockton. He would manage the Ports for two seasons before spending a year at the helm for Double-A Midland and then Triple-A Sacramento. After winning a PCL and Triple-A championship with the River Cats in 2008, Steverson was named the A's first base coach. He held that position for two seasons before returning to his roots in 2011 as the hitting coach for the Sacramento River Cats.
This year, he has taken on yet another role as the A's minor league hitting coordinator. In that capacity, Steverson spends time working with hitters throughout the A's organization. On Friday morning, we spoke with Steverson about several of the hitters he has worked with this season. Below is part one of the interview...
OaklandClubhouse: Since you are currently with the team, the Sacramento River Cats would be a good place to start. Is there anyone you are working with in particular right now?
Todd Steverson: I'm working with them all [laughs]. But obviously Jermaine [Mitchell] is struggling a bit more than he did last year. I'd like to see him start to do some of the things I know he is capable of and play like he did last year. He had the knee injury and that has put a hamper on some of his playing time because of the schedule for him [he has off-days built into his schedule to rest the knee], but, at the end of the day, when you get the opportunity to play, you hope you can play your best. Coming back from an injury, it's a mental readjustment also. I think he's going through some of that and a little bit of not feeling like himself. I'm just trying to get him back to where I know he is capable of.
OC: Do you think he's been too aggressive at the plate, or is there something else that has been working against him?
TS: I wouldn't say he's trying to be too aggressive at the plate. I think it is probably a mix of things. I always say that hitting is a feeling. When you can't get that feeling and you know you've had in the past and you can't quite find it or it doesn't quite come back to you very fast or like it did the time before, it's always going to feel like something is off. Especially after you hit the way that you did the year before and you had the feeling probably for the majority of the season and didn't go into any elongated slumps. He's had some slumps in the past. He's had some down years in the past, so he's had to work his way out of those. So he's in the process of doing the same thing again.
OC: How would you assess how Stephen Parker has made the jump from Double-A to Triple-A?
TS: Stephen, he's hanging in there. It is quite an adjustment really if you go from the Texas League to the PCL. The PCL, I wouldn't say that it is the most fastball-oriented league. Meaning by that, there are a lot of guys in this league that are more savvy, kind of crafty pitchers than they are just velocity guys. For that level of it, you have to start to really hunker down on how to understand how to hit more off-speed pitches in hitter's counts.
At the level before, you probably got more fastballs in certain counts and there are a lot more guys who have more velocity to them and have a decent breaking ball, but they are still working on things. In the PCL, you've got guys who have spent some time in the big leagues. Some of these guys have developed three, four and sometimes five pitches to their repertoire and sometimes in this league the fastball can be an afterthought. When you come from a league where guys use their fastballs a lot and you have to adjust to a lot more off-speed pitches more consistently, it does become a lot of adjusting. That is the rough part because when you get to the big leagues, they are going to put their fastballs on the table.
OC: Was that something that you thought Chris Carter had to adjust to going from the PCL to the big leagues the first couple of times?
TS: I think everybody coming from the PCL – because there are some hitter-friendly ballparks in the PCL – and, like I said, there are some guys who have had some time in the big leagues or some six-year free agents who are pretty well-versed in how to keep hitters off-balance. They won't necessarily use their fastballs as much because of the fact that the ball does fly out of some of these ballparks. Chris, like everybody, has to make the adjustment. You don't want to really get off of the fastball because the game is predicated on the fastball. But when you look back on your day and you see that you might have seen in four at-bats maybe five fastballs where you thought the guy was actually challenging you, maybe, it's hard to say, ‘hey, I'm going to go out here and sit on the fastball' when you don't see too many of them consistently.
That, in itself, becomes a mental thing because it just gets tough to do what the game is predicated on, which is look for a fastball and be able to adjust to breaking balls.
OC: It's only been a few games, obviously, but Carter looks more comfortable in the big leagues this time around. Do you think it was just a matter of experience for him or did he make any adjustments mechanically that are aiding him now?
TS: Chris made some adjustments. I won't sit here and say that the mechanical adjustments are the specific reason but he has made some mechanical adjustments. I think it is more mental. It is more the ‘I can do this factor' than it is the ‘I finally have an approach that is going to allow me to be successful.' Everybody has an approach and, right, wrong or indifferent, every player and pitcher has to believe that they are suitable for this game at that level. Everybody says ‘I can play in the big leagues' who hasn't been there before who has confidence in himself. But until you actually get there and get into that type of environment, there is probably a little self-doubt in most players' minds if they can really succeed in the big leagues. They have to experience it and make that mental transfer from ‘I want to get to the big leagues' to the point where they say ‘I can play in the big leagues.' As a player, you want to play in the big leagues. You don't want to just make it to the big leagues.
OC: One player who has gone back and forth between the big leagues and Sacramento is Josh Donaldson. He has been like Babe Ruth with Sacramento but has struggled with Oakland. Is it hard for a player to find things to work on in Triple-A when he is dominating like that, or is there always something a hitter can work on?
TS: You are always honing your craft. Whether you are in the big leagues, Double-A, Triple-A, A-ball, you are always honing your craft. Hitters tend to be perfectionists, to a fault almost. To where the swing has to be exact for them, and there is no exact way to square a baseball and get a hit. Hitters are result oriented. It's hard to say ‘hey, that's a good at-bat' or ‘hey, that's a good swing,' if they didn't get the result of a hit. But the truth of the matter is, you can't control the hit, so it's a lot easier if they can succumb to the fact that if they can continually take quality, consistent at-bats and continue to square baseballs, they will have a more positive outcome than a negative outcome over the course of 450-500 at-bats. That's tough on guys.
Josh is doing a great job down here at Triple-A, and he's doing something that probably he hadn't done in the past, which is hit for average. Albeit, it's not more than 100 at-bats yet, but he always hovered around .250-.260 and finished around the .260-.270 area. He's being more consistent with his approach and his thought process. He's got some confidence down here. He's played in the big leagues and I'm sure he feels a lot more confident that he can do a lot more things then he could his first year in Triple-A.
OC: Shane Peterson is getting another shot at Triple-A right now after a strong first half with Double-A Midland. He injured his ankle and missed time in June, but before the injury, what did you see from Peterson that indicated he was ready for another chance with Sacramento?
TS: Petey did a great job when he came up to Sacramento last year. Circumstances just weren't in his favor last year and he had to go back to Midland again for a third year. He was able to put the armor back on and he hit .270 down there with some good on-base numbers. He took his walks and had an OPS over 800.
He had to be mentally strong. It's not easy to go back to a league for that many years knowing that you played well in that league. You have to take the mindset that you have to play well where you are at, instead of saying ‘I'd rather be somewhere else playing.' He's been able to do that and he's put together a nice first half of the season. Now he has an opportunity to come back to Triple-A and hopefully he'll put his skills back on the table there.
OC: One of his Midland teammates, Josh Horton, has had to do the same thing in that he has had to go back to Midland after having been in Triple-A. This year he seems to have added some pop to his bat. Do you feel like he is starting to grow into his own as a hitter?
TS: I think Josh has made the decision to I wouldn't say be more powerful, but he's got eight homeruns, which is his career-high, and he'll probably surpass that this year. But Josh has always been a guy who hits for average. He was that kind of guy at North Carolina. He came into the league as a solid defender. He's really started to focus more on swinging the bat with more authority. He's not changing the way that he hits, because he's a great opposite-field hitter, but it's a matter of being able to pull certain pitches when the opportunity arises and he's been able to get a little more loft and a lot more legs into his swing.
OC: He had sort of been more upper-body only with his swing when he first came into pro ball, right?
TS: Yeah, he was pretty precise with the bat head. The ball would get on him a little bit, but he was able to shoot it up the middle or to left-center field or something like that. And he wasn't really deemed as a pull guy. He still isn't deemed as a pull guy, but he is starting to take those balls that were singles and put them in the gap for doubles.
OC: Do you feel like Michael Choice is getting frustrated at all in the Texas League, or do you feel like he is working on some things that are going to start showing some positive results for him soon?
TS: You take Choicey, the season isn't over, but theoretically, he probably would prefer to have his on-base and his slugging percentage a little better. Choicey is still athletically inclined and he's hanging in there. He's hitting what, .256, .257? By all accounts, that's not knocking the world down batting average-wise. But to not be having the kind of season that we know he is capable of, and he's still sitting in that area, it says that he is still doing something. Like I said about the adjustment period for new levels, it just takes a minute sometimes. Not with everybody. Sometimes it clicks right away and they are just there. But there is an adjustment period at every level to understand that this is different from where I came from. The thought process is still the same in terms of how I am playing the game, but the level of competition and the way the competition plays changes at every level.
OC: Do you feel like it's just a matter of him getting used to that new level of competition or is he still searching for that swing that is going to work for him long-term?
TS: Hitting is a constant adjustment. Even for the best hitters, they are always making adjustments. Whether it be to a pitcher or the league or a certain team, it's a mental and physical adjustment. There are always going to be things that come up that you are going to want to work on. You could have a great month and then that doesn't mean the whole month that you weren't making adjustments to your approach and swing. It just means that you were getting good results on what you were working on each day.
The key is when you get that feeling, and any hitter will tell you that when they've got it, it's nothing specifically mechanically that they are doing. It's just that they feel really good at the plate. But the truth of the matter is that all of the mechanical things that they have been working on are put together and are finally coming and they are on-time and rhythmic with everything that they are doing.
OC: His Midland teammate, Miles Head, seems to have had that feeling all season at the plate. Were you surprised with how well he was able to do in the Cal League this year?
TS: Miles had to make adjustments in High-A after he had a really good start in Low-A last year [when Head was in the Boston organization]. He hit his homeruns in the [Low-A] Sally League. For all intents and purposes, the couple of hundred at-bats that he had last season in High-A with Salem probably prepared him a little more for that level, even though it was a different league. He didn't do terribly with Salem. He hit over .250 and he ended up at the end of the season with 22 homeruns or something around there. He still hit seven homers [with Salem].
To come in, I think the guy just has confidence in what he does. If I would say anything about him, that would be the one thing. He isn't a cookie cutter-type hitter, where you can say, ‘hit like Miles.' You aren't going to emulate him, if you were on the other side, in terms of his stance or anything. But if you were to emulate one thing, it would be the fact that he has been able to square up strikes and swing at strikes. If you consistently swing at strikes over the course of the year, and he's a talented young man, you are going to get your fair share of hits.
Now hitting .380 is out of this world for the period of time that he did it with 18 homers and slugging what he slugged. That's a phenomenal first half of the season. That being said, he's going through the same thing that every other hitter has to go through [now that he has been promoted to Double-A Midland]. He's going to the next level and things do change. The game is still the same, but the patterns change and the arsenals of the pitchers change and the command and accuracy with which they throw it changes. Once again, for him, there is going to be a small adjustment period, but athletically and mentally, I think he is on task to get that accomplished.
OC: One of Head's former teammates with Stockton, Josh Whitaker, is ridiculously hot right now. I think he's hit seven homeruns in his last 11 games. It's his second straight year of putting up great numbers. Do you see him being able to continue to surprise people every year? Do you think he will continue to produce like this at each level?
TS: You hope so. The guy led the Midwest League last year in hitting, so you know he has the ability to hit. Once again, with what he is doing now is hopefully that he has made the adjustments to the league. Now he is starting to put together a lot of at-bats where he knows what he is doing. In talking and being with Josh for parts of this season, it's always – and I can't reiterate this enough – hitters are always searching for a feeling. If he had a good year last year, he is searching for that feeling. If you've had a good week, you are searching for that feeling. It has been a combination of an adjustment period for him to the league and how they pitch. They have better breaking pitches and being able to lay off balls out of the zone and also searching for what you know is right with yourself.
We can say what we want to say about a lot of players, but coaches are at their best when they can help players get into position to find that feeling. I can't find that feeling for you. It has to be something within yourselves. What we do is continually monitor what may not or what may help them attain that feeling. Once they are able to understand that and put that into their arsenal and put that armor back on. It takes a minute. People might say, ‘he's hot.' But it may be more that he has found something all over again.
For him, he's got 15 bombs now and I think he's slugging over .480/.500. I'm pretty sure that he'd like to cut down on his strike-outs, but I'm pretty sure most of his strike-outs were a product of him swinging out of the strike-zone. For him to still be hitting over the .280 area and knowing that he hasn't been as consistent in the strike-zone as he'd like for the first half of that season, and to be doing what he is doing, speaks volumes of him as a hitter.
Stay tuned for the second half of this interview in which we discuss some of the A's 2012 draft class, the struggles of Yordy Cabrera, the potential of Chris Bostick, the adjustment of Vicmal De La Cruz, Renato Nunez and Shawn Duinkerk to the US, and more...