Nashville Sounds catcher Bruce Maxwell feels like he is hitting his stride this year with the Oakland A's Triple-A affiliate after toiling away at Double-A Midland for a year-and-a-half.
“I feel good; I feel like I've made some progress,” he said. “I've learned a lot, especially about being a hitter. Being in Midland, it's not really a good hitter's park – especially for lefties – so it just kind of teaches you the overall aspect of hitting. I feel like I'm in a good place. I'm learning everyday...and I feel a lot better than I did a year-and-a-half ago.”
The numbers might not be there yet. Through Wednesday night, Maxwell had a slash line of .239/.363/.284 in 80 plate appearances versus a slash line last year of .243/.321/.308 in 381 plate appearances, but he said he has learned so much over the last year he expects those numbers to improve. Maxwell is batting .269 over his last 10 games and he has an even 13:13 K:BB for the season.
Talking before a Sounds’ home game earlier this month, Maxwell often emphasized the mental part of the game. He said that he has become more self-aware of his identity has a hitter over the past few seasons.
“[It is] the process of understanding what kind of hitter you're going to be,” Maxwell said. “The preparation it takes to become a hitter – the patience, the game plans, the scouting reports and just putting everything together mentally.
“I'm an all-around hitter. I'm not a big guy that strikes out a lot. I'm a guy who puts the ball in play. I'm not going to go out and hit 30 homers a year, but at the same time, I run into my fair share. I see a lot of pitches. I definitely try to get the next batter up to the plate. I see myself as an on-base, gap-to-gap guy.”
Maxwell, 25, said he is also still growing behind the plate.
“I was a first baseman in college at Div. III Birmingham Southern, and I started catching my junior year,” the A’s 2012 second round pick said. “They turned me into a full-blown catcher after I got drafted.”
Maxwell has enjoyed the challenge of being a full-time catcher.
“I love it. They wanted me to do it because I'm a left-handed hitting catcher, I'm athletic for my size and have a pretty good arm, and for the most part, I think a really good game, so they thought that would be a natural position for me,” Maxwell said. “It was hard the first couple of years – learning how to become a catcher and doing it the right way – now it's natural; it's fun. I can't see myself being a corner infielder anymore. It's a thinking man's game, and that's what I do best, and I love it.”
There are very few off-days in the minor league season, and being a catcher makes the summer even more grueling.
Maxwell said he has learned to deal with the grind.
“It's a mindset,” he said. “It's doing what you have to do and sacrificing what you have to sacrifice to make sure your body and your mind are ready to go the next day.
“What you do in the off-season really prepares you for this season. It's a mindset that every day you're going to come in here and you're going to work to do what you do and do it the best you can. You have your days where you don't feel amazing, but that's the majority of the season, and you just attack those days to get through those days.”
Maxwell recently went through one of those stretches when his body wasn’t right, missing nearly two weeks with a sore throwing arm, returning to the field on May 20 after a 13-day layoff.
Now in his fourth full season as a pro, Maxwell said this could be a special season for not only him, but the team. Maxwell won back-to-back Texas League titles with Midland in 2014 and 2015. He sees similar championship qualities with his Nashville squad and credits the Sounds staff and his teammates with his optimism for what lies ahead this season.
“It's amazing,” he said. “Our staff, from the front office to our pitching staff to our hitters, we formed a bond here in less than a week after we got here, and the team camaraderie is unbelievable. Everybody is rooting for everybody. Our coaching staff is very to-the-point, but they're also rooting for us and like to have fun. It's easier to have fun when you're winning. We've had our ups and downs, but we still have guys early in the [batting] cage, we've still got guys disciplined, we've still got guys working their butts off, so it's just a matter of time before we start putting everything together and start destroying guys in this league.”
The Sounds have done just that recently with a stretch in which Nashville has pitched and bashed its way to a 10-1 record over the last 11 days which propelled them from the basement of the Pacific Coast League American Southern division into a battle with Round Rock for first place.
On a personal level, Maxwell is looking to take advantage of his first opportunity at Triple-A and build off of a strong spring training that saw him spend the entire spring in big league camp and hit a homerun for Team Germany during the WBC qualifying round. Although Germany didn't advance in the tournament, Maxwell enjoyed the experience of suiting up for a country.
“It was different,” he said. “It was definitely different. Germany – their baseball program isn't as strong as it is in the States – but at the same time, it was amazing. Everybody was there rooting for you, but they play to win.
“It wasn't like, 'I'm playing for a job here; I'm trying to get to the next level. I'm playing for right now; I'm playing to get this 'W' and move on to the World Baseball Classic.' It was a different vibe. Here, when we play in the States, we're playing for jobs; we're playing for money. We have to have a love for the game to do what we do and go through what we go through, but there it was about what we're doing right now.”
Being in Triple-A, Maxwell is just one call away from the big leagues. He has already seen several of his Nashville teams receive that call this season. One was starter Sean Manaea, who Maxwell has known since they played against each other during a collegiate summer league in 2011. Maxwell says he knew the left-hander was special the first time he faced him.
"He actually ended up no-hitting us until the ninth. We were like, 'This dude is amazing. This guy is a sophomore at Indiana State,'" Maxwell said. "Indiana State is where my father is from, in Terre Haute, Ind. Then we got him last year in the trade [for Ben Zobrist] and he walked into the locker room, I was like, 'I know you.'
“Ever since then it's been a crazy friendship. It's amazing the people you meet in baseball.”
Maxwell hopes to reunite with Manaea in the big leagues sometime this season. He continues to work harder and harder towards reaching that goal.
“I do early work every day – my work ethic has increased over the years,” he said. “I know what I want to do; I know how to get there – it's having the patience and having the discipline to do that more often than not on the baseball field during the game. There's always something to work at in this game.
"Catching and the pitching staff are my first priorities. There's not a day that goes by where if I messed up something the day before, I'm working on it the next day to perfect it.”