Name: Bruce Maxwell
Height/Weight: 6’2’’, 235
How Acquired: Selected in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft
Bruce Maxwell had the definition of an “up-and-down” season in 2014. The year began with an appearance in big league camp, included being named to the California League’s mid-season All-Star team, featured his first serious stretch of failure at the plate in the pros and concluded with a Texas League title. The 2015 season will be a test for Maxwell to see if he can build off of what went right in 2014 and show that what went wrong was an aberration.
The A’s tabbed Maxwell as their second-round pick in 2012. He was the A’s fourth pick that season, coming after Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson. Maxwell posted video game numbers as a catcher and first baseman at Division III Birmingham-Southern, but he entered pro baseball with two major questions hanging over him – 1) could he hit against high-level talent and 2) could he catch at a big-league level.
At Birmingham-Southern, Maxwell made his name with his bat. He homered more than he struck-out during his junior season. Upon turning pro, Maxwell’s focus shifted from his hitting to his catching. A first baseman until midway through his collegiate career, Maxwell had a lot of learning to do with his defense behind the plate. Over the first year-and-a-half of his professional career, Maxwell put much of his time into improving defensively.
The work paid off. His caught-stealing percentage went from 16% in 2013 to 37% in 2014. He also improved his range factor and cut down on the number of passed balls per innings-caught. Perhaps most importantly, Maxwell developed a rapport with his pitching staff, becoming an asset behind the plate when calling games.
The work on his defense hindered Maxwell’s offensive production some his first year-and-a-half in pro ball. He had a .277/.356/.349 line with no homeruns during his pro debut season in 2012. In 2013, Maxwell showed some improvement, but his power still lagged behind expectations, as he posted a .275/.348/.390 line with seven homeruns between Low-A Beloit and High-A Stockton.
In 2014, Maxwell returned to Stockton with more confidence in his defense. Although the numbers didn’t necessarily reflect a significant improvement, Maxwell was a better overall hitter with Stockton in 2014 than he was in 2013. In 2014, Maxwell hit .273/.365/.381 with six homers in 79 games with the Ports (compared to .263/.335/.394 with five homers in 47 games with Stockton in 2013). Maxwell’s line-drive percentage (16.3% vs. 11.2%) and outfield flyball rate (33.5% vs. 30.5%) improved significantly from his first stint in the Cal League to his second. He also improved his walk rate by almost three percent.
Maxwell’s opponents in the Cal League noted his improvements and rewarded him with a spot on the always selective mid-season California League All-Star team. Just a few weeks after the All-Star break, Maxwell was promoted to Double-A Midland.
With Midland, pretty much everything that could go wrong at the plate did go wrong for Maxwell. He appeared in 25 games with the RockHounds, netting 85 official at-bats. Maxwell collected just eight hits in those 85 at-bats and posted an uncharacteristically anemic .141/.223/.176 line. Maxwell’s plate discipline suffered as his slump deepened, and he had a 32:9 K:BB in his first trek through the Texas League.
"[H]e’s still learning himself. He’s had success up until this point, but he’s aware that he is going to have to make some adjustments." - A's assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen
While Maxwell undoubtedly has adjustments to make to find success at the plate in the Texas League, there is reason to believe that bad luck played a significant role in his poor numbers with Midland. His BABIP was a remarkably unlucky .226, and it is even more unlucky when one considers that Maxwell actually posted the best line-drive rate of his career with Midland (24.5%). The Texas League – with its swirling winds and dry heat – can be difficult on power hitters and Maxwell learned the hard way that sometimes hitting the ball on the screws isn’t enough in the Texas League.
“[H]e’s still learning himself,” former A’s minor league hitting and catching coordinator and current A’s assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen said. “He’s had success up until this point, but he’s aware that he is going to have to make some adjustments. In the process of making those adjustments, there may be some failure throughout that. That’s part of what he experienced when he made the jump to Double-A.”
One interesting fact about Maxwell in 2014 was that he hit significantly better against same-side (left-handed) pitching than he did against right-handed pitching (.304/.353/.464 versus lefties; .213/.325/.269 versus righties). The opposite was true in 2013, so if Maxwell can carry over the improvements he made against left-handed pitchers and regain the success he had versus righties in the past, he should see marked improvements at the plate in 2015. Maxwell should also benefit from having seen the Texas League once before in its entirety when he returns there in 2015.
Maxwell’s work ethic has been a strength since he turned pro, another factor that should help him make the necessary adjustments in Double-A. He moved his off-season home to Phoenix during the off-season before the 2014 campaign and makes frequent appearances at the A’s complex during the off-season. Maxwell has proved to be very coachable and will benefit from a second stint in big league spring training camp in a few weeks.
A’s Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens says that Maxwell has already exceeded expectations with his improvements defensively.
“He went from being a kid from Birmingham Southern that we took in the second round in 2012 that was probably an offensive-guy first who was learning how to catch,” Owens said during the season. “I pulled up in Stockton this year and this guy has become an excellent receiver behind the plate. His flexibility has improved exponentially. His throwing arm is excellent. And when you watch him, the eye test matches the numbers. It’s a plus throwing arm. It’s a very good release. It’s accurate. He has just taken that leadership role behind the plate and has asserted himself.
“When he signed, he was a really good hitter that you hoped would work on his defense and would become a legit catching option. Last year, with Marcus Jensen’s tutelage, he was able to improve his catching. I think he focused so much on his catching that it took away from his bat a little bit. Now he is able to combine the two a little bit. With the plate discipline he has, I think he’s a kid who will end up hitting better at the higher levels than he has at the lower levels just because he has improved the defense enough. He will always work on his defense, but now he is a good defensive catcher, so the bat will be able to play as it is capable of playing.”
While Maxwell’s defense has improved considerably, it will still be his bat that ultimately determines whether he develops into a major league starting catcher or not. Maxwell has above-average bat control and a good idea of the strike-zone. He has shown he can drive the ball to all fields during batting practice, but he hasn’t tapped into that pull-side power as much in games. Once he is able to translate that batting practice power to in-game situations, Maxwell should be an offensive weapon given his ability to hit for average and get on-base.
Maxwell turned 24 in December and will be entering a pivotal season for his career development. The A’s traded away their two MLB catchers from Opening Day 2014 this off-season and aren’t particularly deep in catching talent at the upper-levels of their minor league system. If Maxwell can prove he can hit Double-A pitching early in the year, he should have an opportunity to reach Triple-A by the end of the year. Then, depending on how the A’s roster situation looks going into 2016, Maxwell could be a legitimate option for the A’s at some point that season.