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

In part two of our lengthy conversation with Oakland A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson, we talk about teaching young hitters the art of the craft, Michael Choice's 2012 season, the adjustments of Wilfredo Solano and Chad Lewis, the progress of 2012 draftees Bruce Maxwell and Daniel Robertson and more...

To read part one of this interview, please click here.

OaklandClubhouse: I know on the pitcher's side of the organization, there is a 30-day hands-off policy after pitchers are drafted where there is minimal to no instruction given. Is there a similar policy on the hitter's side or do you start jumping in there right away?

Todd Steverson: Right away no. It's not necessarily a time-limit on when we start to talk to them about their approach. There are some guys who come in with a very solid approach and you don't have to mess with that. Obviously if we see something that is going to be very detrimental to them and it's very glaring, they are our product. There is no reason to hold back and say ‘hey, I'm going to let this kid do something that is not going to be beneficial for him for a month or two months'. That's just bad business, really.

All of our coaches and myself, we call ourselves ‘identifiers.' We identify what the issues could be and what they could turn out to be in the future and we make the player aware of what we see. This isn't a direct order to change something. It's getting the player to know that they do. We have to get the player to understand what he does and what we see and how he believes it works for him or if he even knows that he does it.

I think that is the biggest issue for the first-year players is that not everything we talk about has to be fixed. It has to be understood that that is what you do. So to fix something, you have to understand what and why you do it. Some kids don't have an answer. ‘Hey, I do that because.' And if there is a decent enough answer and it plays into his game and he's able to perform with that function that we may think is not so beneficial to him and can prove that this move works for him, then it is just the knowledge of how it can hurt him at times and how he can make it smaller.

I think that is the biggest thing for us at our level for the first-year guys. It's not ‘hands-off'. You are doing yourself as coaches a disservice if you let a kid go out there for so long and compete in a certain way that is not tailored to your organizational philosophy or successful production. Then all of a sudden, you turn to this kid and say ‘I have been watching you for two months and this is wrong, that is wrong and that is wrong.' That's more of a shock to him. It's like ‘oh my God, you let me play for two months with all of these issues?'

I think if he understands what you see consistently, it's not a shock to him. It's more of little jabs of knowledge, like your hands can be slower or they can work better a little bit. So it's not an avalanche of information coming all at once that he has trouble digesting. It's just subtle jabs of information, so he can slowly understand what you are talking about.

OC: When you talked about working with players to understand what they do, but not necessarily changing it if it works for them, is that what you do with Michael Choice and all of the moving parts in his swing? Is it about getting him to understand that he has all of that movement and leaving it up to him to decide whether to continue to use it or not?

TS: Yes. Obviously, he is a great test subject for that because his approach is a lot different than most. The knowledge of what you do tends to be king. If you don't understand what you do and why you do it, then it is tough to fix it when it goes wrong. I think that is a lot of what Michael went through this year. Not that he didn't understand his swing from last year. It was that the competition and the way they attacked him changed. Really, his moving parts didn't change or his approach didn't change that much, but it was more about how to use the moving parts based upon the new way of being attacked.

That is purely a mental state of the game. Because every player should be able to control his body. There are things that players do that they don't even know that they do. But once you understand what you do and you see it on a video or you see how you approach it, now you know ‘this is me.' Michael really got in-depth this year on watching video of last year and of the Arizona Fall League and how to really piece together his swing and his approach with what he thought was positive from his approaches from the year before. Then he began to take off.

OC: His season unfortunately ended early because of the broken hand, but are you satisfied that he was able to make the necessary transition to compete at the Double-A level this year before he got hurt?

TS: Yeah. During the adjustment period, you were at least able to say that the kid was able to maintain a .255, .260 average for the majority of that time. Which is a testament to his athleticism because he didn't go into the tank completely. Even during the months when he wasn't feeling like he was at his best, he was still able to compete and have some success to the point that when he found it, he started up and the upwards was getting close to that .295-.300 area with some damage coming and being the guy he knows he can be.

That was probably one of the better teaching tools for him this year was the realization that ‘I'm able to survive like this, but if I want to be better than what this is, I finally have to really understand what I really do.' I think he found that and he has a good grasp on what he wants to do. I'm not saying that he is done. It's not like ‘this is it and he's on his way' kind of thing because baseball has a way of bringing you back to make sure that you don't forget what got you there.

OC: Getting back to the short-season guys, Chad Lewis began the year in the Midwest League, but he was recently demoted to the Arizona League from the New York-Penn League. What does he need to overcome? Is it still his approach that needs the most work, or are there other things that he is still working on?

TS: Chad has had an up-and-down year. Obviously starting in Burlington, then having to go back to Arizona for a minute, then being in Vermont and now being back in Arizona, as a young kid, that can play with your psyche a little bit. The truth of the matter is, we want them to understand the progression level of where they are. He's still a young kid and he's trying to find himself on a consistent basis. He has been talked to and we've sat down and I think he understands that the ups-and-downs of where he has been this year aren't necessarily indicative of where we see him as a player in terms of his talent level. It's just ‘that's baseball.'

Now he understands that he gets a chance to do some things everywhere that he is at. There are some things he has to work on in his game that have to be refined. He's coming along with that end of the bargain. With Chad, it's just purely a maturation process. He possesses a ton of tools. He's got good bat speed and he has got a lot of juice in his bat. But how to harness that and make it consistent is the daily question. And that's where he's at is really learning how to put together a consistent approach to be able to use the tools that he possesses.

OC: How have you felt Wilfredo Solano has done this season in his first non-complex league? Do you feel that he is progressing as a hitter?

TS: Wil had a really, really good spring training and extended spring also. He was able to go out and understand himself a little bit. When he got to Vermont, I think your half of season comes and it's sort of a ‘now the numbers are real' sort of thing. And you get away from some of the things that got you there or that you have had success with. Once again it becomes a situation that you think you have to do different things and you really don't.

Hitting is very mental. He's done okay there. I think he believes he should have done better. His skill-set allows him the capability of doing a lot better than where he is at right now in terms of average and production. But once again, he's another young player who is able to be pumped with information that is going to help him out in the future. In baseball, part of the process is seeing that new level and knowing what it is like to go out away from Arizona and play. You start to understand what you are going to be up against.

I think that, as much as anything else, is just as good of a teaching tool as anything that we can say as coaches. Just being able to see what you have to deal with on a daily basis tends to be just as good of a teaching tool for the kid. Now they know that it's not going to be just Arizona. There are a lot more places where you are going to have to be able to perform.

OC: We talked briefly about Bruce Maxwell when he first started playing after the draft. He has hit for average and has gotten on-base at a decent clip for Vermont but the power hasn't been there yet. Do you see that as part of his adjustment from college to the pros? Do you think he will be a power hitter when all is said and done?

TS: I don't want him to just circle his mind around hitting homeruns. Actually, we spoke about that when I was in Vermont. He had asked me if that was something the organization wanted him to do. I said, ‘if you've got it, it will come out at some point.' If you watch the kid take batting practice, then you know it is in there.

I want all of our kids to be good hitters first. If you put yourself in a positive position to hit strikes on a consistent basis, then your natural ability tends to come out in this game. So that's where I'd rather have Bruce right now instead of having him swinging through the walls and over the fences and striking out a gazillion times and not getting anything out of his at-bats. Have a consistent approach, learn to barrel the ball and, guess what? There are going to be times when you make contact with it in a certain spot and you are going to shoot it to left. And sometimes it's going to hit that right spot and it will go out.

Just having him learn that with his skill-set, he'll have his fair share of power numbers. But having him learn that approach first is key.

OC: Have any of the other guys either on that Vermont squad or Arizona squad stood out and impressed you that we haven't talked about so far?

TS: Obviously we have Daniel Robertson, who is up there. He was our supplemental pick. He had some success in Arizona and now is holding his own in Vermont. He and Addison [Russell] are two eager kids. They are anxious to go out there and learn. They are basically baseball rats. His approach is very refined and he has a nice approach for a younger 18-year-old. It's just a matter of him getting more at-bats.

The hard part of this part of the season when you get to the end of August is that these kids may have played in showcases, their regular high school seasons, USA teams, all of that stuff, but then right about now, they are used to going back to school and getting ready to watch their high school football teams on Friday. Instead, they are still playing when they normally would have some time off. The body adjustment is key. Some of them are saying ‘I'm not used to this.' Their body clocks are saying, ‘it's not time to be playing right now.'

Maybe some of them will start to drag a little bit. Not so much mentally, but physically they start dragging a little bit because that's not what they are used to. And that's just learning the game of pro ball. In terms of Robertson, he's up there in Vermont right now and from all accounts I get from [hitting coach] Casey [Myers], he's still got a great approach. Just because his batting average isn't .300, doesn't mean that he isn't taking quality at-bats. I think that is what some people need to realize. You can stare at the numbers, but there is no number that will show you how quality those at-bats were.

OC: Does that go in your daily reports or is that something that you track in a different way?

TS: It goes in the reports and I am very communicative with all of our hitting coaches on a weekly and even daily basis. We go over all of them. ‘I see he went 0-for-4 with three strike-outs.' ‘Yeah, but he battled. He got caught on a dirty pitch late.' ‘Okay, I can deal with that.' Or ‘He's just chasing everything.' ‘Okay, then we need to bring him back.' How quality is his last week or last couple of days? Just don't tell me that the .200 average for the last week is for lack of quality of approach and focus. Because that's where the issues start. Tell me he's focused, tell me he is close, tell me he has a quality approach and he's just not squaring the baseball up like he wants to. That in itself is a tell-tale factor of how the kid goes about his game.

OC: In your new position, are you going to be running the hitting program at Instructs this year?

TS: I will.

OC: Is that fun for you to be able to put that program together?

TS: Oh, yeah. It's a joy. It will be a joy. The group of kids that we have coming to Instructional League this year are great. They will get a couple of weeks off [between the end of the regular season and the start of Instructs] to recharge their batteries a little bit and get back to the grind of understanding what the game is all about. There will be a ton of meetings talking about hitting and understanding hitting. But you know what? It's really to understand how this game is played. Period.

There are different aspects. You've got guys on the hitting side, guys on the defensive side. We have our managers here to get them to understand the total game. The base-running, defensive situations. There are different facets of the game. Some of these guys may think that they are just there to work on their swings. But really, they are there to become baseball players, well-rounded baseball players.

I think that is where some of these guys miss the point of Instructional League. They might say, ‘Oh man, Instructional League? That's a grind.' Is it a grind? Absolutely. Early in the morning, and it's hot. You're sweating, but you know what? Hey, you've got to come out and perform. Nothing is given to you for free in this game. You put the work in and you hope you get something out of it. We try to make it as fun as we can for the kids, but the bottom line is that Instructional League is a good time to grasp a reality of the craft. That's what we are here for.

There are many great players that we have had in the Oakland A's organization go through the Instructional League program. I hope they understand that it is an honor [to be invited] more than it is just a grind.

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