After signing with the Oakland A's as a 14th-round selection out of Stetson University last summer and playing a huge role in short-season Vermont's 2011 playoff run, catcher Nick Rickles was primed for a big first full season of professional ball.
It hasn't worked out that way for the 22-year old backstop, as he's been plagued by inconsistencies with the bat. The Midwest League has swallowed up promising prospects for years, so count Rickles among those who have suffered in the challenging atmosphere.
"It's a little bit of a comfort thing," said Rickles, who has posted a triple-slash line of .246/.286/.371 while playing in a catcher's platoon at Burlington.
"I have to learn how to hit in the cold. Growing up in Florida, there's not many days you're playing baseball in the cold. Going to college in Florida, I didn't really deal with the cold then either. It was an adjustment I needed to make. I've gotten more comfortable in my approach and zone. That's led to more success."
Rickles has certainly had his fair share of peaks – he hit .293 with a pair of homers and 11 RBIs in 16 June games – to go along with the valleys of his first go-around with a full-season affiliate. But what the A's are looking for is more consistency.
He's more than held his own defensively with the Bees, throwing out 40 percent (44-of-110) of would-be base stealers to rank first among catchers in the A's farm system. Rickles is also doing a fine job handling a pitching staff that's included the likes of A.J. Cole, Drew Granier and Raul Alcantara.
"A lot of the pitcher-catcher relationship comes into it," Rickles said.
"Knowing the guys and getting to know them on and off the field. You've got to learn how to handle the guy on the mound. A.J., Drew and Raul all have different personalities, so you handle them differently. But once you get them to trust you as a catcher, you can pretty much say what you want in a productive way and they take it the way it's supposed to be taken."
Platooning with fellow catcher John Nester behind the plate is another reason Rickles has remained fresh this late into the season.
"It helps maintain my legs through the season," Rickles said.
"This is my first full season. Nester had his full season last year and got to understand what it costs on your legs, so he's mentored me through it. The extra DH day a week or sitting a couple days has really preserved my knees and legs, so I don't feel fatigued at this point in the season."
Rickles also credits his brief stay in Sacramento last summer, where he acted as an under-study to Anthony Recker, with speeding along his development.
"When I first signed, a catcher in Triple-A got suspended or injured, so I got to spend a week at Triple-A," Rickles said.
"I didn't get any playing time, but right out of the gate I got to be with those guys and see how things are ran up there and how you should handle yourself. That prepared me well for professional ball. Even though it was only a week, I learned a lot picking guys minds in the bullpen and talking to Recker."
But the A's organization is still waiting on Rickles' hitting to match up with his performance behind the plate. He appeared to be coming out of his funk with a solid June and good start to July, but has just seven hits in his past 34 at-bats as the Bees prepare for the August stretch run.
It all starts with Rickles' approach, which has produced just 15 walks in 272 at-bats this season. As a result, his on-base percentage resides at .286.
"He was the leading hitter on the Vermont club last year and took them right down to the playoffs," said Oakland farm director Keith Liepmman in a recent interview with OaklandClubhouse.
"He was instrumental in a lot of the wins they had late in the season. It's just a matter of him getting back into the same mentality. We've seen that kind of hitter off and on throughout the year, but he just hasn't been consistent."
Although his 2012 season has been chalk full of adversity, Rickles could end on a high note with a solid final month and possible appearance with Team Israel in this year's World Baseball Classic.
Rickles is one of four catchers on Israel's initial 50-man roster, and will soon find out if he's made the final cut to be a part of the 28-man roster. Israel will be coached by former Houston Astros backstop Brad Ausmus.
"It's great for my career," Rickles said. "I'm 22-years-old and might get to go play with some big-leaguers. It's pretty cool to grow as an individual and player."