Photo by Kimberly Contreras

Oakland A's breakout candidate: Bruce Maxwell, C

As the regular season nears, we will take a look at Oakland A's minor leaguers who are poised to take leaps forward from their 2015 performances. Next up, catcher Bruce Maxwell.

Bruce Maxwell came to professional baseball with numbers that would make Tecmo Baseball proud. The Birmingham-Southern product posted an absurd .461/.619/.928 line during his junior season. Although a product of a small college program, Maxwell had plenty of scouting interest leading up to the draft, and it wasn't surprising when the Oakland A's called his name in the second round in 2012.

When Maxwell signed, the biggest questions about his scouting profile were with his glove. Maxwell was a first-baseman when he started college, so he was relatively new to catching when he turned pro. Becoming proficient behind the plate became Maxwell's immediate focus when he joined the A's farm system.

Four years have passed and we are now entering a critical year for Maxwell and his development. He has worked tirelessly to improve his defensive skills, and the results have been positive. Maxwell now does a solid job controlling the running game and in handling pitch-calling responsibilities. However, that focus on his defense has taken a toll on his development as a hitter. While Maxwell has carried over his solid approach at the plate from college to the pros, he has yet to translate the power that he showed in college and that he shows during batting practice into games. The lack of power has kept Maxwell stuck at the Double-A level, where he first appeared in 2014. 

There are signs that Maxwell is starting to figure out how to use his raw power in games, however. Maxwell homered just twice in 97 games with Double-A Midland last year, but he has already homered twice in spring training -- once in an A's big league spring game and once during a World Baseball Classic game versus Nicaragua. Both homeruns were no-doubters. While spring training is hardly indicative of regular season performance, Maxwell's power uptick is a carry-over from a strong final month of the 2015 season with Midland and could be a sign that things are starting to click with Maxwell at the plate.

Eric Martins worked closely with Maxwell last season as the Midland RockHounds' hitting coach.

“Bruce has got as much power as anyone that we have,” Martins said. “It’s just a matter of trying to tap into what Bruce wants to do. I think the past couple of years, we have tried to come in and turn him into a power guy because he’s got so much raw power. But Bruce really goes the other way as well as anybody that I know.

“I think with him figuring out ‘okay, this is what I want to do and then picking and choosing when I want to turn on some balls and pull some balls.’ I think if you look at Bruce’s numbers, they don’t jump out at you, but he doesn’t strike-out much. He puts the ball in play and he had some quality at-bats. He hit the ball hard all over the field.”

Through all of the ups-and-downs offensively in Maxwell's career, he has always maintained a strong command of the strike-zone. His career walk-percentage is a solid 10.7% and his walk-to-strike-out rate is 0.635. However, his inability to get the ball in the air consistently has prevented him from taking full advantage of that strike-zone control, especially at the Double-A level. His BABIP in Double-A is below-average (.273) and well below where it has been at the A-ball levels. Part of that discrepancy can be blamed on bad luck. As a left-handed hitter, Maxwell has been in a difficult hitting environment at the RockHounds' Citibank Field. However, a bigger element has been Maxwell's tendency to hit the ball on the ground.

Through July 31 last season, Maxwell was batting .240/.319/.287 for the RockHounds. A strong final month of the season bumped his average and OBP up a little (.243/.321), but the biggest jump came with his slugging percentage. Maxwell went from .287 to .308 thanks to a final month that saw him hit his second homer of the season and double seven times (he had nine total for the previous four months). It's a small sample size, of course, but Maxwell's 2015 August SLG of .413 was his first monthly SLG above .320 at the Double-A level. 

If we look at Maxwell's spray charts from April 1-July 31 and then from August 1 through the end of the season, we see more balls reaching the outfield during that final five weeks of the season.



As you can see from the graphs below, Maxwell hit 60% of his batted balls on the ground from April through July. In August and September, his groundball rate dipped to 53%. Maxwell also saw an increase in the percentage of flyballs he was hitting during those final five weeks from 18.8% to 26%. Getting under the ball more will allow Maxwell to tap into his raw power.

April through July

August through September

The two charts below also show that Maxwell was getting more of his batted balls -- whether they were in the air or on the ground -- into the outfield during the final five weeks than he was from April through the end of July. 

April through July

August through September

Maxwell turned 25 in December, so he is firmly in the prime years of his playing career. With his improved defensive skills and his solid approach at the plate, Maxwell still has a chance at a major-league career if he can add some power to his resume. Power can often be the last thing to develop for a hitter. While 100 at-bats at the end of last season and this spring are not enough to make a definitive statement that Maxwell is beginning to learn how to hit for power, they are an indication that a bigger power year is possible for him. 


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