When minor league hitting coordinator Todd Steverson landed the position as major league hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox this off-season, the Oakland A's turned to a familiar face to fill Steverson's considerable shoes. Marcus Jensen, a former major league catcher and longtime member of the A's minor league coaching staff, is the A's new minor league hitting coordinator.
A native of Oakland, Jensen starred for Skyline High School in the late 1980s and was the San Francisco Giants' supplemental first-round pick (number 33 overall) in 1990. Jensen worked his way through the Giants' farm system and made his major league debut with San Francisco in 1996 at the age of 23. He would spend the next seven seasons going between the minor leagues and the major leagues. Jensen suited up for seven teams at the big league level (San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Minnesota, Boston and Texas). All told, he played 145 games at the major league level and more than 1,000 in 15 minor league seasons.
In 2000, Jensen was part of the Team USA squad managed by Tommy Lasorda that won gold in the Olympics. A switch-hitter, Jensen hit .250/.357/.384 in the minor leagues and had a reputation for being an excellent defensive catcher.
After two years in independent ball, Jensen joined the A's as a minor league hitting coach in 2007. In 2009, he became the A's manager for their Arizona Rookie League affiliate, a position he held from 2009-2013. In 2012, Jensen led the AZL A's to the league championship game. The team had a 37-17 record that year and Jensen was named the league's Manager of the Year. Jensen has also served as the A's roving catching instructor for the past few years, working with catchers throughout the organization on their defense.
We caught-up with Jensen this week to discuss his new position and some of the players he worked with in Arizona the past few years…
OaklandClubhouse: Congratulations on your new position. How has your day-to-day changed from when you were managing the Arizona Rookie League team? How are your interactions with the players different now?
Marcus Jensen: It has changed quite a bit now that I have more responsibilities, certainly as far as handling or overseeing the hitting program, as opposed to as a manager being only concerned with my group of guys transferring from amateur ball to professional ball. Now I've got anywhere from 12-15 hitters at every level from Triple-A on down, and I've got to oversee all of those hitters and formulate a game plan.
OC: Is there an off-season program that you work with hitters on while they are back home, or is it really when they get to Phoenix that you start to work with them on the 2014 season?
MJ: I live in the Scottsdale area and the complex is right here. There are actually a number of guys who live out here, as well. They make it a point to come in during the off-season and get their work it. That gives me a chance to work with them. Having been in the system for a while now, I'm familiar with most guys.
But even with new guys that are coming in or guys that have been in the system for a while, I am building a different kind of rapport than when they might have known from me before – whether it was as the catching instructor or as a manager here in Arizona. Now it kind of takes on a new role.
OC: Will you be traveling to the different affiliates during the season?
MJ: Yes. I did a little bit of that last year from the catching standpoint as the catching instructor. Now it is just me wearing a new hat.
OC: Will you still be doing some of the catching instruction, as well?
MJ: I will still have my hand in that some. I won't necessarily need to take as much responsibility. That was solely my gig along with managing in Arizona last year. With the time I have spent with the catching program, I believe I will still have my hands involved in that when I go out, but my primary focus will be the hitting.
OC: You have been in the organization a long time and you had a long playing career. Has your hitting philosophy changed since you became a coach, or is it pretty much the same as it was when you were an active player?
MJ: It's interesting because my philosophy or approach now is a combination of the things that I learned throughout my playing career as well as once I came to the coaching side of it, learning and adjusting to things I wasn't familiar with or didn't focus on as a player. The coaching-side of it has allowed me to learn and grow in terms of my understanding of the nuances of hitting. It's prepared me for this moment here.
OC: You have obviously had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented hitters in Arizona the past few seasons. This past year you worked with [A's first-round pick] Billy McKinney. What kind of player is he and what do you project for him moving forward into this season?
MJ: He is a mature young hitter, especially coming out of high school. He has a great swing. There were very few adjustments – in terms of mechanics – that we had to make with him initially. Over the course of how he develops, we hope he will develop more power, but that is never a point of emphasis right away. The ability to barrel the ball; the ability to have a good, solid approach; the ability to have an understanding of the strike-zone [those are the points of emphasis].
He came to us with a number of those. It's always an adjustment for the younger guys, especially the ones coming out of high school, to make the adjustment to pro ball. That, in itself, in terms of timing was a little bit of an adjustment for him. As the season progressed, he made that adjustment and he did really well for us.
OC: You have worked closely with Bruce Maxwell on his catching. What kind of improvements has Maxwell made behind the plate?
MJ: Behind the plate, he's made significant strides. I believe it has helped his confidence. Initially, that was an area of concern for him. After he was drafted, there were a lot of things for him to learn and so there was a big learning curve for him initially. That meant at that stage, unfortunately, his offense had to take a back-seat to what he needed to learn from a catching standpoint.
There is still room to grow. The catching is always evolving, but we've got through some of the meat-and-potatoes of making some of those [defensive] adjustments. Now it's just reassurance that he's made the transition, he's made improvements and that allows him to build confidence. Now he can relax a little bit more.
OC: I have heard great things about 2013 draft pick Iolana Akau's defensive abilities behind the plate. What did you see from him during his time on your AZL roster last year?
MJ: Another young kid who is coming from high school and is again making that transition into pro ball. The game, even at the Rookie-ball level, tends to be a lot faster than what the kids are accustomed to coming out of high school, whether it is from the offensive standpoint or the defensive-side. At that stage, we are just looking for different skill-sets and how he is able to handle them.
Right away, one of the things we detected from him was his leadership skills and the presence that he had, even as a young kid coming out of high school and dealing with some guys who were older and coming out of college. It didn't appear to phase him, which is great in terms of leadership skills, which you need behind the plate.
He's got a good, quick release. He's got a good, strong arm. He has awareness behind the plate. For a young kid coming out of high school, he had some idea of how to call a game. It wasn't foreign to him. That is always a learning curve, but at least he had some sense of putting certain fingers down in the right situations.
OC: Your 2012 AZL team made the league championship game. A number of those guys moved up to Low-A Beloit in 2013 and really played well together. It seems like that 2012 draft class has gelled together and plays really well together. Was that your sense of that group?
MJ: Yeah. That was a fun year. I enjoyed that year. We had a talented group and it was fun to see some of those guys move on, even in that year. We had enough depth that even with the loss of certain players [to promotions] it gave other players opportunities to move in and get their chance. They stepped in and played well. The nucleus of guys that we had from that class was fun to watch. They performed well and it's good to see those guys continue to have success.
It's a big jump [to full-season ball]. We pushed some of our younger prospects that were on that team and they jumped a level to the Low-A season squad and still performed well, especially with how young they were. That hasn't always happened, especially with our organization in the past. When those guys have made that jump, it has been difficult, but those 2012 guys seemed to be able to do really well.
OC: One of your 2012 players, B.J. Boyd, went to short-season A in 2013, but he had a great year at the plate for Vermont. He added a lot of power to his game in 2013. Was that something that you saw him developing naturally when you had him in Arizona in 2012, or did he make specific adjustments going into 2013?
MJ: B.J., another young high school player, is really athletic. His athleticism will play high for him. It's just a matter of him learning the game and learning how to use his skillsets to help him at the higher levels, but not necessarily rely on those skillsets to have success at the lower levels. There is a development process with him in terms of just playing the game and learning game awareness and what he is capable of doing and what kind of player he is capable of being. He needs reps and he needs plenty of game experience to gain that.
OC: I know you have been in the organization a long time and know most of the players, but was there much transition with [former A's minor league hitting coordinator] Todd Steverson in terms of getting information on some of the hitters at the higher levels that maybe you hadn't seen in a few years?
MJ: Todd and I go way back. We have had a relationship even prior to having both been in the A's organization. He was a big help in making the transition and I am happy for him as far as getting that opportunity in Chicago to coach in the big leagues. But he was a big help with transitioning me into the position when we had a chance to discuss the organization and discuss hitters. It made the transition that much easier for me.
OC: Will you be working at big league camp this spring before minor league camp opens, or will you be working more at the A's mini-camp?
MJ: I'll be involved in both.