Oakland A's Q&A: Todd Steverson, Part One

The Oakland A's Arizona League team has put up eye-popping offensive numbers this season. In part one of a long conversation with A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson, we talked about four important members of that 2012 squad: All-Stars Addison Russell and Renato Nunez, as well as 2012 supplemental first-round pick Matt Olson and promising outfielder Vicmal De La Cruz.

OaklandClubhouse: I know you recently spent some time with the Arizona Rookie League club and I was interested in your thoughts on some of the 2012 draft class and the guys who recently came over from the Dominican Academy. Starting off, what do you think Matt Olson has done well this season and what do you expect him to be working on in Instructs and beyond?

Todd Steverson: Matt is an above-average high school talent, in my opinion. He came into pro ball and didn't really miss a beat. He started off really good. Obviously he possesses some tremendous power in his bat. The guy has good hands over at first base also. He is not a bad defender at all. For an 18-year-old, he carries himself well.

In terms of what he is going to be working on, just getting acclimated with the professional game over these past few months. On his swing, there's not a whole lot wrong with his swing at all. Most of what we like our young kids to understand is how their bodies work within their swings. His weight shift, his direction towards the baseball, how his weight transfers through the baseball, etc. He will be seeing different pitching than he saw in high school. Some people in high school may have been pitched a certain way the whole year and they were kind of regimented in that. Now they get into pro ball and it's a lot different. Maybe your body functions are still latched on to what your body did for you in high school and you've got to adjust.

Basically we like to get all of our players in position to stay over the ball, over the plate, use the big part of the field and to take their hands to where the baseball is and guide the ball to all fields. And that is where he is going to be. Obviously his power is mostly to centerfield and right-field, but he can drive the ball to left-field also. We just want him to become a complete hitter and not have him think that he is just a power hitter. He can be a good hitter first.

OC: Do you feel his strike-out numbers (44 in 173 at-bats through Tuesday) are a product of him learning how to use the whole field, or is that something that all young players just have to work through?

TS: I think the strike-outs are a products of probably two things: 1) coming into the game thinking that you have to impress immediately and show why you got drafted. You get over-anxious and out of your own element a little bit of what you have done in the past. He has got a tremendous eye. Our scouts have reiterated to me that they have seen him throughout his amateur days and he has good plate discipline, so that doesn't just disappear.

That is probably just a change in mindset on his part. We've spoken about it and hopefully that part of his game will be able to come back to fruition for him because he does have a good eye. I think the strike-outs are just a product of him trying to come in and do too much early.

OC: Renato Nunez is another guy who has put up huge numbers for the AZL A's team this year, but his K:BB ratio isn't exactly where you'd like to see it (31:14). Are you concerned about that or are you just pleased to see him putting up that kind of production this year (.323/.392/.538 line through Tuesday)?

TS: He's found a decent slugging stroke, I'll call it. He has been doing a lot of damage to balls that are in the middle of the plate or closer, which is great. But, at the end of the day, you still have to be able to cover the majority of the outer-third portion of the plate, and I think that is where the majority of his strike-outs are coming from. Like I said, young players get locked up into thinking one way or another. It's not like he can't hit a ball that is away. It's the fact that the balls away that he is swinging at are probably not strikes.

It's not a swing-and-miss kind of thing. It's a pitch recognition kind of thing. And it's not just him. That goes for every player in baseball. You have to be able to recognize balls and strikes to be successful. I'm pleased with his progress from last year to this year in terms of his swing and his approach. He does need to be more mindful of his recognition of balls away that are in the dirt or just off of the plate.

That comes with maturity. Once you start to really believe and realize that you are getting yourself out by swinging at balls, the mindset changes. Hopefully he can make that [strike-zone] capsule a lot smaller.

OC: Do you feel like he improved a lot over where he was at Instructs last year?

TS: Definitely that for sure. He came over and we gave him a lot of money, and like I said, a lot of young players want to prove right away what they are worth in this game. They don't realize initially that it is a process. They come out and are a little wild and their skills have to be harnessed. The process period can be slow or sped up based on how they receive knowledge of the game.

I think it is kind of like most kids come into the game with eyes wide shut right off the get-go. Once they start to understand what the game is all about and what the daily routine entails and that it is not going to be a situation where if they go four-for-four today, they will be called up to Oakland, then I think they start to slow down a little bit. I think that is what is starting to happen for Nunez. He's thinking at-bat by at-bat rather than thinking, ‘if I do great today, I'm on my way. I'm out of here.' Understanding that he has to improve on his skills offensively and defensively to be considered in the category to be moved up towards the big leagues.

OC: With Vicmal De La Cruz, do you think his spring training wrist injury set him back this year? Or are his numbers (.233/.295/.383 through Tuesday) more of a reflection of him having to learn how to play in the US?

TS: I think Vicmal knows how to play in the US. Vicmal's game is a very aggressive game. Sometimes that can be a hindrance to him because of how aggressive he is. Over-aggressive and aggressive are two different things. He has a very firm swing. He's got power. He's got gap power. He can hit. He hit over .300 last year, so it's not like he can't hit for average. Once again, it's a matter of him recognizing pitches and understanding that every pitch that you swing at isn't going to result in the ball going out of the ballpark.

That comes with the maturation process. I want you to be aggressive swinging at strikes, but the over-aggressiveness comes in when the recognition of pitches is off and you are swinging at pitches you can't do much damage with or get a basehit with. That comes along with him learning how to take his mind and calm it down to make sure that his thoughts are better. How to control his thoughts at the plate better.

OC: Have you seen him make progress with that thought-process this year even if it isn't necessarily showing up in the boxscore?

TS: I think the parity between the two years is making him understand that the adjustments are necessary. He hit over .300 last year and he is hitting in the mid-.200s this year. So it's like, ‘okay, same league, what's the problem?' Well, there is an adjustment period that has to go on in your game. There are things that are different that happened to you last year that are happening to you this year. Maybe they are pitching you differently or you are swinging at different pitches than you were last year.

It's really about honing your game and your swing and how this approach will work for me. Baseball has a way of making you humble for a minute so that you can learn. It's not always going to keep you there. It forces you to use your mind to get you out of there.

OC: Is it difficult to assess hitters in the Arizona League given the offensive nature of the league?

TS: Well, I will say this much, as a team, they are hitting in the .290s, almost .300. Historically, looking back at our Arizona League teams, they haven't even been close [to the production of this year's team]. We were in the .260s, .250s, .240s. To put up a team batting average like that, it says number one that our scouting department has done a great job bringing in players who know how to find the barrel of the bat and put the ball in play. Obviously the ball does travel a lot better in Arizona than it does in some other leagues. But obviously the adverse conditions of starting every game at 103 degrees doesn't quite help the psyche either.

We are able to get them in a setting to really see if guys can hit fastballs. This league is really a fastball league. Guys are here working on commanding their fastballs. If your player or your team excels in that category [hitting fastballs], then you have the ability to hit well here. Guys in this league with really good breaking balls tend to dominate because most of the kids here haven't seen advanced breaking balls or breaking balls with depth very often. Most of their damage is done off of the fastball.

Which is fine with me. If you can't hit the fastball, you can't play in the big leagues. But the maturation process from going ‘I can hit this' to looking for the pitches that you can hit and not chasing them is important.

OC: Were you impressed with how Addison Russell was able to handle that jump from Arizona to Vermont and now up to Burlington?

TS: Yes. I spent some time with him here in Arizona. He is obviously a very talented young man. I was there for his debut in Vermont when he almost hit for the cycle. He's a very eager kid. He is very eager to learn. He seems to love the game and come out and get his work done. He is a very fun kid to watch as a first-year player.

I'm as impressed with how he plays the defensive side as how his approach with the offensive side has gone. He's got some tools that don't come along all of the time. He's got some electric hands. He's got quick hands. You are born with those. Those are not taught.

To answer your question specifically, [those promotions] are a testament to his skill-set to be able to be where he is right now as a first-year player and be able to compete on a day-to-day basis and do a decent job. Not too many 18-year-olds come out of the draft and make two jumps in their first year. To be able to compete and really contribute to the team's success are things that he has been able to do. You have to stand up and applaud a kid for that effort.

Now he will come to Instructional League and really hone his game. He will start to clean up the rough edges and get him into a routine and understanding himself. This season has been a whirlwind for him.

Stay tuned for the rest of this interview. Michael Choice, Daniel Robertson, Wilfredo Solano and more are discussed.

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