Michael Choice is trying to move up the food chain. In two of his last three games, he has hit home runs have left the stadium, literally.
"I think what [Sacramento hitting coach Greg Sparks] is trying to do is to get him to be more of a predator ... just see the ball and let is loose," Triple-A Sacramento manager Steve Scarsone said. "Just try to feel it, not try to be too cute and just let it hunt."
Since joining the River Cats in April, Choice's approach at the plate has gone through a quick transformation that's led to a team-leading 26 RBIs and six home runs in the season's first 28 games. Instead of stepping into the box and trying to out-think pitchers, Choice has learned to let his natural ability take over.
On Wednesday in Fresno, Choice hit a colossal home run to left off the Grizzlies' Ramon Ramirez that left Chukchansi Park completely. Two nights later in Sacramento, Choice belted another long ball to left that ended up in the players' parking lot. The center fielder came into Saturday six-for-his-last-14.
"I was guessing what I might get versus going up there and singling out one pitch and adjusting to the others," Choice said.
Choice's fast start to the new campaign - .294/.417/.529 coming into Saturday - comes after his 2012 season ended prematurely when he suffered a broken hand after getting hit by a pitch with Double-A Midland in late-July. Before the injury, the former first-round pick had struggled for a majority of the year, but he was hot at the plate before he was hurt, hitting .435 for the month before getting drilled.
"It's been a lot easier than last year," he said. "Last year I was still focused on mechanics in the beginning, trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do in the box."
Scarsone has the unique vantage point of having seen Choice's evolution as a hitter over the last two seasons. He was Choice's manager with the RockHounds in 2012 and the pair made their debuts in Triple-A together this year.
"It seems like he's a little quieter, a little less jumpy," Scarsone said. "I think that comes with seeing the ball better. He's a little more relaxed. Last year he wanted to go out and get some things. He chased more balls."
For hitters in the minor leagues, there's a delicate balance between adjusting to the way pitchers throw and refining swing mechanics. Often hitters struggle in new levels because pitchers' repertoires become more diversified. For Choice, the focus in Double-A was shortening his load time and keeping his front side closed. With his fundamentals solidified coming into the season, he's allowed himself to become comfortable at the plate and dictate to pitchers, rather than the other way around.
Keeping his front side closed has allowed Choice to work outside pitches to the right side of the field, an area that's also seen vast improvement, according to Scarsone.
"Some guys, they like to nibble out there outside. I feel like they're kind of feeding into my strength of going the other way," Choice said.
"Other guys try to run with two-seams [inside] and that's where I have to be more aware of looking more middle, and if it's in just kind of leave it if it's not my pitch. Definitely staying focused that way is a key to success."
The A's are hoping Choice's improvement can be sustained for the long haul of the season. So far, his walk rate has nearly doubled and his strikeouts are slightly down from his time with Midland, both great signs for a hitter's progression.
Defensively, there's still plenty of room for improvement for Choice. He noted he has been working with A's minor league hitting coordinator and outfield instructor Todd Steverson on improving his footwork and not getting turned around while chasing fly balls.
Considering Oakland's outfield depth, Choice won't be dawning the green and gold any time soon, but his continued success should lead to a promotion to the big leagues when rosters expand in September. For now, the club is content with Choice building confidence in the minor leagues.
Choice's progression could mean the A's are in for a difficult decision next spring. In 2014, Coco Crisp has a $7.5 million club option and Chris Young will be a free agent. If the A's feel Choice is ready for an everyday job in the big leagues, they may decide to let one or both of those players go.