Stockton Ports' catcher Bruce Maxwell's potential with the bat is so great that Oakland A's Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens refers to him as "Bruce Wayne Maxwell because he's the Batman." Yet much of Maxwell's focus from a development perspective since turning pro has been on his defense. Until this season, his offensive numbers didn't reflect his abilities at the plate. However, now more comfortable with his defensive game, Maxwell is finally at a point where he can focus on hitting – and his numbers are starting to line-up with his potential.
"Right now, I'm not focused on homers. I'm focused on barreling baseballs and being on time and working on the next step in my game, which is the right side of the field."
Through Monday, Maxwell was batting .311/.366/.427 in 103 at-bats for Stockton. He is currently second on the Ports in batting average and on-base percentage and third in OPS. Those numbers are an improvement for Maxwell over his time with Stockton last season, when he hit .263/.335/.394 in 175 at-bats.
"We have worked on a few things and changed a few things since my first year," Maxwell said on Sunday. "Finally I am getting to the point where I am comfortable with the physical aspect of hitting and also my metal approach. It's getting a lot better."
Maxwell was the A's fourth overall selection (second round) in 2012 out of Division III Birmingham-Southern. Maxwell posted video game numbers during his final season in college, batting .471 with 15 homers, a .619 OBP and a .928 SLG. Power was a big part of Maxwell's game in college, but he didn't hit his first professional homer until April 2013 (a span of more than 300 at-bats). Maxwell hit seven homers and posted a .390 SLG in 104 games between Low-A Beloit and Stockton last season. This year, he already has three homers in 25 games.
Maxwell admits that hitting for power has taken a back seat to developing other aspects of his game, both offensively and defensively. However, he feels confident that reaching the seats will be a more regular part of his game in the future.
"When I first got to the league, going from D-III baseball to the pros, the velocity caught up to me," Maxwell said. "Right now, I'm not focused on homers. I'm focused on barreling baseballs and being on time and working on the next step in my game, which is the right side of the field.
"My approach is pretty middle, middle-away. I need to keep that intact during game time, but before the game, we practice my middle-in approach. I don't harp on it too much, but if we keep practicing it, eventually it will just become a reaction."
One area in which Maxwell has always excelled has been his ability to make contact consistently. In college, he struck-out just 43 times in 442 at-bats. Since turning pro, he has only 117 strike-outs in 726 at-bats. His current K% of 14.3% is nearly seven percentage points lower than the California League average (21%). Maxwell says that occasionally his ability to get the bat to the ball works against him.
"Some days I wish I would swing through some things, but it is something that I have always done," Maxwell said. "Even in college, I didn't have a tendency to swing-and-miss a whole lot. My coaches give me crap sometimes because most of the time, if I'm late, I don't swing.
"Most of the time, if I swing at it, I'm going to put it in play. I know I'm not fast, but anything can happen [if a ball is put into play]."
Coming out of college, Maxwell was known as a hitter first and a catcher second. A first-baseman for most of his life, Maxwell converted to catching midway through his collegiate career and he was still relatively raw at the position when he made his pro debut. Although he still isn't a finished product behind the plate, Maxwell has made significant strides defensively. He has drawn praise from the A's coaching staff and the front office for the time and effort he has put into improving behind the plate. Maxwell is always one of the first players to the ballpark each day and he spends a lot of time preparing his body and his mind for the rigors of the position. That attention to his conditioning has paid off, as Maxwell has been an everyday catcher since turning pro. He has caught in 25 of the Ports' 34 games thus far.
"You have to be prepared for some long days," Maxwell said. "I am out here by 12, 12:30 every day for a night game, getting massages, scrapes, ice tubs. Just staying on a routine. Some days my legs are dragging more than others, but those are the days we take into consideration using the foam roller a little bit more and do a little more preparation. Definitely hydration is a big thing for me. If I don't hydrate enough, I'll be that much more sore and tired the next day."
Part of Maxwell's routine was developed this spring when he was a non-roster invitee to major league spring training. He soaked up as much information as he could from the A's major league catching corps.
"I learned a lot of things catching-wise [in big league camp]," Maxwell said. "A lot of the guys helped me with my throwing and helped me with my mental approach, especially behind the plate. They also helped me offensively.
"Talking to the catchers, especially [Derek] Norris and [John] Jaso and all of them, getting feedback from all of those guys and trying to interpret that into my own way of processing information for my own physical aspect. That really, really helped me understanding things. They also helped me improve how I manage my pitching staff, as well."
Maxwell also spent a lot of time this spring with the A's new minor league hitting coordinator, Marcus Jensen. While Jensen may be new to the hitting coach position, he and Maxwell have spent a lot of time working together since Maxwell was drafted. Jensen was Maxwell's first professional manager (Arizona A's in 2012) and Jensen worked closely with Maxwell while serving as the A's minor league catching coordinator. Having a close relationship with Jensen made working with him on hitting a smooth transition this spring, Maxwell said.
"I have basically lived with Marcus for these three years of pro ball so far," Maxwell said. "Just having him out on the road helps me a lot. He still touches us when it comes to our catching and stuff and puts us through our drill-work everywhere he goes.
"Being responsible for the other aspect, given that I am used to spending so much time with him, now that he can help me hit, as well, it's just a good comfort factor for me. It's basically killing two birds with one stone."
One thing Maxwell hasn't had to adjust to this season is a new league, having spent the last two-and-a-half months of the 2013 season in the Cal League. Maxwell is using his knowledge of the league and some of its returning players to help ease the transition for many of his current Ports' teammates who spent last season in Low-A or short-season.
It hasn't taken Maxwell long to get comfortable with his new pitching staff.
"In this game, pitchers fall into patterns and, especially in A-ball, pitch to their strengths and not necessarily like big leaguers pitching to hitter's weaknesses," Maxwell said. "We spend a lot of time together and do off-the-field activities, so we can learn a little more about the mental side and the outside world of our pitchers and catchers."
Maxwell isn't setting any fixed numeric goals for this season, but he continues to be focused on improving his defense, especially his throwing. Thus far in 25 games, Maxwell has gunned down 37% of would-be base-stealers (13 of 35).
"I am still pounding out a few of my infield habits behind the dish being a new catcher," Maxwell said. "We harped on my throwing and everything this year and it is a lot better than it has been. I plan on keeping that going. As long as I keep things going in almost every aspect of my game this season, as long as I don't regress, then everything is moving in the right direction."