A 'Spark' For A's Minor League Hitters

WEST SACRAMENTO, CA - The Oakland A's haven't had a winning season since 2006. It's no coincidence during those five down years, Oakland has struggled to develop hitters who have succeeded at the major league level. That has changed this season, as the team has received sizable contributions from promoted players such as Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Derek Norris and most recently Josh Donaldson.

Greg Sparks, the first-year hitting coach for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, could be one of the reasons why the A's have had so much production from hitters promoted from the minor league this year.

"Having Sparky here, he's full of energy," River Cats manager Darren Bush said.

"He's been a rover for eight years now. Being a rover, he had to overlook so many players and now he just has to focus on 12 or 13 at a given time.

"He's full of energy. Every single day it's go, go, go. The players feed off that. It's been a lot of fun."

Sparks had previously been the Oakland A's roving minor league hitting instructor, traveling from town to town to work with hitters throughout the organization. Being a wandering man was nothing new for the former 13-year-minor leaguer, who played for 10 organizations and 18 different teams during his playing career.

This season, Sparks has been able to plant some roots, as he has spent the entire season with the A's highest-level affiliate.

Succeeding in the minor leagues is no easy task, even for the most talented players. Whether it's adjusting to new cities, new levels of baseball or new teammates, players often struggle to get comfortable within the fluid minor league structure. In Spark's well-traveled career, he's seen it all. His experience has proven invaluable when working with young players.

"You try to take something from everywhere," Sparks said.

"I feel like I have a lot of tools in my tool box to give to them. If it's not working one way, I can try something else. I think through the travels I've learned that. There's not one way to talk to hitters, there's not one style of hitting. Everyone has their strength and weaknesses."

Bush, well aware of the ups and downs that come with professional baseball, has seen Sparks' ability to relate to players up close.

"Experience is wisdom right?" Bush said.

"He's experienced a lot. He's experienced it from all different levels. He's seen a lot of different scenarios pop up. He spins everything into a positive because he knows it can be if you look at it that way. If you approach it that way, you're going to get good results.

"He's just constantly putting that into their mind every single day. Not a whole lot of mechanical things, but approach and mind set. You can see it on the guys, because every when they're struggling, they're still in the right mindset, they're still positive and they come out of it quick."

One of Sparks' pupils in Sacramento this season was Chris Carter, who had struggled to make that leap from dominant minor league hitter to productive major league slugger over the past two seasons. After failing to stick in the major leagues in 2010 and 2011, Carter has become a dominant force in the A's line-up in 2012 after a mid-season promotion from Triple-A.

Carter's new-and=improved approach at the plate is a by-product of a slight philosophical shift in the A's organizational approach to hitting that came about with the arrival of hitting coach Chili Davis to the A's major league staff this season.

"We're like a two-headed monster," Sparks said of Davis. "Same ideas, same approach to hitting. We clicked right away and carried on what we worked on during the spring. We just kept on going."

For years, the A's have preached patience at the plate throughout the organization. This year, some of the emphasis was put back on being aggressive and allowing hitters to be themselves at the plate.

"We are a little more aggressive at times. It's good," Bush said.

"We want these guys to be hit-first, take-second. Walks are byproducts of a good approach. Again, even though we're a little bit more aggressive, we still have a ton of walks. That's what we want. We want to be aggressive and drive the baseball. If you can't drive it, don't swing."

For naturally aggressive hitters such as Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, this more hands-off approach has worked well with their skill sets. Donaldson got off to a miserable start to begin the season with the A's, amassing just a 395 OPS before getting sent back to Triple-A Sacramento to rework his methods in the batter's box with Sparks. After a very successful stint with the River Cats (1000 OPS), Donaldson returned to Oakland a different hitter and is batting .417 with a 1065 OPS in six games since his promotion.

"I think he learned what not to do when he got an opportunity to go back," Sparks said of Donaldson.

"Things were different. I think he's going to be more relaxed, it looks like he is. I don't want to say he's going to be more confident, because he's always been confident. More control and not trying to hit the ball 400 miles, just have a solid at-bat."

Moss, also one of Spark's pupils for more than two months, had a 879 and 914 OPS in June and July respectively, giving the A's a big offensive boost. He had previously failed to stick at the major league level with the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in his career. For Sparks, there's nothing better than watching his former students succeed.

"That's what were all about. Guys go up, we watch these games every day. We're rooting for them. But when they go up and have success, it's great," he said.

"I think the greatest feeling is calling them and telling them they're going to the big leagues. That's what we're here for. Yeah we're [the River Cats] in the pennant race, yeah we're winning games, but at the end of the day, did we help these guys get better, and did we do our jobs and did we help the Oakland Athletics get a championship."

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