Talking Oakland A's Short-Season Hitters

With three weeks left on the minor league schedule, Oakland A's minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson is still making the rounds throughout the A's system, working with the organization's youngest and most experienced minor league hitters. In part one of a two-part conversation, we discuss several of the organization's short-season position player prospects.

OaklandClubhouse: Let's start with the DSL team since you just returned from the complex. Jean Carlo Rodriguez, who signed with the organization just before the start of the year, is having a nice year. What kind of player is he?

Todd Steverson: He is enjoying a good season down there right now. He's a contact hitter. Right now probably more singles and doubles than any real power, but him being young, that's what it is going to be usually. He has a good knowledge of the strike-zone and, so far, so good for him in terms of production.

He takes what's given to him and hits the ball all around the field. Right field, left field, center field. He's got a good little approach.

OC: Speaking of little, Rodolfo Penalo is listed as 5'7'', 130 pounds. Is he the smallest player you have ever coached?

TS: No, I've had some pretty short guys along the way. But Penalo is a good little player, too.

OC: He struggled for a few years in the DSL but he seems to have turned a corner this year. Do you think he's made a breakthrough this season?

TS: While I was there, he was hurt, so I didn't get a chance to see him play hardly at all. He came in for a couple of games for defense and base-running purposes. But overall, I saw him at Instructional League last year and he's another guy, like Jean Carlo, who has a simple approach and takes what is given to him. There is a low trajectory on his batted balls and he uses his legs to get base-hits and create havoc on the bases.

OC: Robert Martinez was drafted by the A's last year out of Puerto Rico. How is he progressing at the Dominican complex? Has it been a little different for him coming from Puerto Rico rather than Venezuela or the DR like so many of the other guys at the complex?

TS: I think they all get along there and they all understand that that is where we have our academy. This is where you are going to be. Some of the guys are going to be at home, but most aren't. I know there are some organizations that still have two academies, one in the Dominican and one in Venezuela, but financially, it's easier to have it all in one place.

They all get along, the Puerto Rican guys, the Venezuelan guys, the Panamanians, the Dominicans. They co-exist at our complex there together.

OC: How is Martinez progressing as a hitter?

TS: He's getting a lot better. Last year, when I first saw him, he had some directional issues related to his approach. Watching him, he was able to clean that issue up a lot, which speaks volumes to the kid's willingness to make an adjustment.

OC: Did you get to see much of Luis Barrera when you were over there?

TS: No, he was hurt. He hurt his hand. When I was there, he was coming back, starting his progression back to getting on the field. But I saw him taking some swings. He's a strong kid. He has a good future in front of him.

OC: You were recently with the Vermont squad, as well. What do you think of Ryan Huck? He was recently named the New York-Penn League All-Star game MVP and is putting together a nice pro debut. What kind of hitter is he?

TS: He's very good and a nice young man. He seems very hard working and focused. He was a senior sign out of Western Kentucky. Most senior signs come in feeling like they have their back up against the wall and try to go out there and prove what they can do. He's doing a good job of that.

Overall, when you look at him, you wouldn't say he's a picture of good mechanics. His approach is different. He kind of has a low-to-high swing. I wouldn't call it an upper-cut swing. It's just low-to-high. He has control over his body in the box for a big guy. He has some thump behind it, too.

OC: B.J. Boyd has played well for Vermont this season and was also on the All-Star team. We talked last year about how he was more advanced than you would think for someone who spent so much time playing football in high school, but what advancements do you think he's made since the end of last season?

TS: Probably the biggest thing is that he has gained the ability to turn the field around. I'd say probably 85% of his balls last year were either up the middle or opposite field. Now, I wouldn't call it a complete reverse, but a lot of his balls are now up-the-middle or to the pull-side.

That's understanding a different contact point, which sometimes comes a little later in a career for some guys that were initially very good opposite field hitters. They have a very tough time not staying inside the ball too much. Because they are so good at going the other way, they have a tendency to block the barrel out on pitches where they should release the barrel-head. Sometimes that process takes a little while to learn to release the barrel for a different contact point.

He's done a good job of figuring it out this year.

OC: He's hit six homeruns, which for that league is pretty impressive. Do you see him as a potential middle-of-the-order hitter or does he project as more of a one-or-two hitter type?

TS: Given his speed, you hope that he is a one-or-two hitter. If I was going to put any comp on him in terms of who he looks like or who he can play like possibly one day, he would be like a Carl Crawford. I know that Crawford hit third for the Rays back in the day, but he profiles better as a lead-off guy who can get on-base. He's got some pop. You've got to respect the bat on that level, but he knows how to get on base.

OC: Did you see much of Ryon Healy when you were with Vermont or in Arizona?

TS: That's the one guy I haven't seen a whole lot of yet. It seems like when I come into an affiliate, he's on his way to another one. I saw him play one game in Arizona and then I went to Vermont. I came back to Arizona and he left that day to go to Vermont.

By all account from the coaches, he has very good bat speed, good knowledge of what he wants to do in the box. He's a very interesting guy. He provides some pop, hits for a pretty good average and is a pretty good athlete.

OC: Besides having the best nickname on the team, Boog Powell has been one of the better hitters on the Vermont team this year. Have you seen an improvement from him over his pro debut?

TS: You know what, he did pretty good in his pro debut. [laughs] Boog is kind of one of those guys where there isn't a lot of issue with his approach. He understands the type of game he is going to play and he goes out there and tries to put that on the field every day. He's not a small player trying to play big. He has some juice in the bat, but he's not always sitting there saying, ‘why don't I hit a homer.' He's a lead-off guy who knows he needs to get on base and knows that overall that his [offensive] game if he reaches the big leagues is not going to be up in the air.

He does a pretty good job of using the whole field. He is very fast. He already has 11 stolen bases this year in short-season. His batting average has dropped a little bit lately from where it was, but if you can hit better than .265-.270 in that league, I think you did some work.

OC: Just like the Northwest League, it seems like the New York-Penn League is a very difficult league to hit in. Do you and your staff talk about that with new players coming into the system?

TS: What I try to do is understand where our players are based upon the league averages. So the league average in the Cal League compared to the Midwest League is completely different. To give you an idea, here are the averages for the New York-Penn League through the end of July: the average batting average was .243 for the whole league. That will give you an idea there. The average on-base percentage: .315, the average slugging percentage, .341. OPS, 656.

That will tell you right then and there that a lot of those guys are in their first and second pro seasons. There is an adjustment period at that level. Pitchers will tend to dominate that level there because a lot of them were in college and they possess a pretty decent breaking ball. Good breaking balls are a little different than these kids have seen as hitters consistently.

Once again, .243 isn't much. I don't see it getting much different than that by the end of the year. Maybe .246 or something like that. So you look at our guys that are over that number and you kind of say, they are playing right at league average or above.

It's the same thing for the Midwest League, where the average is .255. But then, you jump up to the Cal League, and it's .263. But then it fluctuates because the Texas League is .252 and the PCL is .271. So you've got to understand the league and how that correlates with going up to the next level.

In the case of Boog, he's played above league average. He plays a good defensive spot in the outfield and he's doing a really good job at that level.

OC: You talked about his speed. Do you think he can cover centerfield pretty well?

TS: Yeah, I think so. He and Boyd are going back-and-forth between centerfield, but he's a pretty good defender.

OC: Anyone else catch your eye on that team? Was there anyone who made an adjustment that you think will help them coming into Instructs?

TS: The adjustment period is something that they need to experience for themselves for their first year. You are going to make identifications to guys – ‘hey, this is what I see' – but overall, they personally need to get mentally adjusted to what is new to them. If you bombard them at the get-go with a million different adjustments, they never get really comfortable with who they were when they walked through the door.

Through the course of the three months that they are there, especially this last three weeks that are coming up, we do a lot more identification and implementation. We have them work on something specific and then apply it during the game. That's because not every person on that team is going to go to Instructs. Between Arizona and Vermont, if not everyone is going to Instructs, then where are the others going? Probably back to their house. You've got a solid six or seven months to think over what has happened to you. We have to give them something solid for them to build on before they get back here.

OC: For the Arizona Rookie League team, is it a similar sort of progression where the coaches are hands-off for the first few months and then give them something specific to work on over the final month, or is it different because they are playing at the complex?

TS: Let's be clear with that, they do get something to work on consistently. But what they are working on early is a proper mindset rather than a physicality. I'm not the guy with the crazy hat on and the crystal ball at the pier. Who am I to tell you that this funky move to my eyes right now won't work? Everybody has to have a chance to prove who they are and if it works. There is no cookie-cut for a swing or an approach.

You never want anybody to say that they never had a chance to show who they were, that they were always having to work on something we told them to do. ‘I never got a chance to do what I wanted to do.' All in all, that's a valid point. The thing with us is that we are dealing with the unknown, and they are also dealing with the unknown. As coaches year-after-year, we understand what you are in store for. It's like a parent-to-their-kid sort of thing. But there has to be some recognition on their part what is not great in their approach and their mindset.

Everyone has something that they have to work on. If you go on 880 and go to the Coliseum, there is someone in that cage in the green-and-gold working on something. There is somebody on the other side of that field that they are playing that night that is working on something. They may be working on something like consistency of feel, but every day that you are at the ballpark you are searching for something. That's what makes hitting such an enigma. Everyone searches for a feel everyday. Whether it's an old approach, a new approach, a better mindset, better eyes, whatever it might be.

Hitters are very regimented in that way. They know the progression they have to take in order to get the feel that they need for the game at 7:05 or 1:05 or whenever it is.

As this relates to our rookie kids, you might look up there and say, ‘woo, that's a crazy looking little swing,' or ‘that's a crazy approach.' But he did something to get him here. That's what us as coaches have to understand. They did something for us to call his name on draft day. We have to put that thought-process first. ‘They have had some success doing something with what I see right now. Past that, let me help you adjust to the professional game of baseball and learn how to become a major-league player based on your skills.'

Everybody needs an opportunity to say, ‘hey, just throw me BP and feed me soft toss. I'm going to be that guy.' No one has ever been that guy the whole way. The closest I've ever had to that was probably Albert Pujols. He hit as soon as he walked through the door and crushed. And he kept crushing. It was like, ‘what do we do with this guy?' But eventually there was something. Eventually there was a learning process that had to take place even though he was sending balls left and right. There was a learning process for himself about who he was and how he did what he did.

That was probably the biggest factor as it relates to getting into pro ball is starting to understand what they do. In college, how much work do you think they put into their swing, or were they just told, be like this and you play? They didn't break the swing down, and give them game plans or the pitchers' philosophies or give them the percentage of fastballs, all of the things that we can throw at these kids in pro ball. They play Friday, Saturday, Sunday and one time on Wednesday probably. They were either better than the other guys and were told to put their hands here. Most of them – I wouldn't say all of them – but most of them were probably never told why they were put into these positions. They were just put in them and they just work.

Truth be told, some of these guys might not know why they hit because they were never told why they did certain things for their swing. It's got relevancy for coaches. If I ask a player about his swing, he's got to be able to tell me about it. It's theirs. If you don't know how it works, how much confidence can you have in it if it breaks down?

OC: How has A's 2013 top pick Billy McKinney looked when you have worked with him?

TS: Billy has held his head above water the whole year. I think he's in the low .300s, high .290s right now. It is an adjustment period for him. Just imagine learning to drive where everyone went 45 miles per hour, and occasionally someone would zoom past you at 90. And then all of a sudden, you go into a neighborhood where everyone drives 90. Now your whole world is learning to adapt to what you see right here.

Coming out of high school, you probably saw some decent arms – and in Billy's case in Texas, probably some really decent arms – but not consistently for the 40 games you are going to play in high school. You walk through the door here, everyone has some pretty decent fuel, at least 90 to 92 most nights. That can be a shock to anybody. I'm not saying it was a shock to him specifically, but I know that he had to have an adjustment period where it was like ‘I need to get the barrel to this baseball.'

Sometimes that messes with your natural approach because he has to make sure that he can touch that ball. As you get more comfortable with the situation, you can get back to hitting like you normally do. But you are surviving right off the get-go and trying not to sink. You'll do anything not to sink off the get-go. It's like sending your players off at the end of spring training. Everything is good and they have a whole new thought process and the approach is really iron-clad. But what does everyone want to do when the season starts? They want to get that first hit out of the way. Do they use the new approach, or do they use any old approach just to get the first knock out of the way?

There are a lot of different factors that come along. You want to get that first pro hit out of the way. Everything first out of the way. He was able to do that and now he is morphing into understanding that it is a process and that there is a learning curve involved. He's doing a good job with that.

OC: Does he remind you of anybody? Are there any comps that come to mind?

TS: A lot of people will throw the Mark Kotsay name out there for Billy. I'm not going to do that just yet. I know I threw the Crawford comparison out there for B.J., but both of those players need to find out what their bodies are going to be at 23 or 24. Who's to say right now what he'll look like in four years? Immediate eyes will say, ‘okay Kotsay' or Crawford for B.J. But there is the potential that it could be something else. You just don't know right now. To be honest with you, if they can turn into a Crawford and a Kotsay, they'll live a long life in this game.

OC: What kind of player has Justin Higley been so far? Eric Kubota said after the draft that Higley was more toolsy and perhaps less polished than some college players. Have you liked what you've seen from him so far?

TS: He came to our pre-draft workout in Oakland and I saw him there. He ran a 6.4 60 [yard dash], or something like that. That obviously opened some eyes right there. He's tall and he's got some lankiness to him, and the kid kind of picked them up and put them down for the scouts. That right there kind of turned some heads with the scouts. They were like, ‘woo, this kid is pretty fast.' I know he's [A's area scout] Jermaine [Clark's] guy in his area, so he's seen him a lot. Jermaine says Justin has good exit speed off of the bat. He hit an opposite field homer at O.Co Coliseum. It was daytime, but still. A college kid hitting an opposite field homerun at the Coliseum in BP? Take it. You go hmmm…that's interesting.

I've seen him in some games down here in Arizona really lace some balls. He's kind of flippy with the hands and he's got an approach. I've seen him hit some doubles and triples where that speed comes into play. He can stride out when he gets on the base-paths. Once again, he's another guy who is making waves the best he can.

In part two of our conversation, we discuss several hitters on full-season squads, delve into the challenges of keeping players at the Triple-A level on an even keel in August, and more...

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