Feature Photo: Bruce Maxwell, C, Athletics
(Photo by Kimberly Contreras)
Ed. Note: Check back later this week as Dave DeFreitas and Nick J. Faleris continue their 30-team organizational review series with a look at the Athletics later this week!
In the five years since he turned pro in 2012, Oakland A’s catching prospect Bruce Maxwell has made several transformations. When he began his career, he was considered a bat-first prospect with an outside chance of sticking at catcher. Three years later, Maxwell’s defense was ahead of his offense. In 2016, all facets of Maxwell’s game came together as he made another transformation – this time into a major leaguer.
Maxwell came to professional baseball with a collegiate stat line straight out of Tecmo Baseball. In three years at Division III Birmingham-Southern, Maxwell slashed a remarkable .430/.536/.830 with 107 walks and only 43 strikeouts. A first baseman for most of his college career, Maxwell moved behind the plate as a junior, but was still very much a work-in-progress as a catcher when he turned pro. So, understandably, the A’s asked their 2012 second-round pick to focus mostly on his defense in the early days of his career.
For the next four years, Maxwell worked tirelessly to transform himself from a liability into an asset behind the plate. In his first full professional season, Maxwell threw out just 19-of-122 would-be base-stealers and he had 17 passed balls in 83 games split between Class A Beloit and High A Stockton. Fast-forward to 2016, and Maxwell threw out 30-of-73 would-be base-stealers, and was charged with only three passed balls in 60 games for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. He also helped to guide a Sounds’ pitching staff that ranked at the top of the Pacific Coast League in numerous categories.
Maxwell credits current A’s assistant hitting coach and catching coach Marcus Jensen with helping him to improve with the glove. Jensen was Maxwell’s first professional manager (in 2012 with the Arizona Rookie League A’s) and Jensen served as the A’s minor league catching coordinator until he joined the A’s major league coaching staff before the 2015 season.
“I tell people all of the time, Marcus is pretty much my dad in this organization. He’s my creator,” Maxwell said. “I owe all of my catching successes and progress to him. At every level, he has always been there to help me with it. He’s always answered the phone. He’s always given me advice. He’s always been there to hammer home what we have talked about in the past, if it is something that I can do to make myself better. All of that success and all of that work was instilled by him and I am forever grateful for it.”
At 6’1” and 250 pounds, Maxwell carries a bigger frame than most catchers. He says working with Jensen – who was a big league catcher himself (for eight teams from 1996-2002) and stands 6’4” – was helpful because Jensen was able to think outside of the box in teaching Maxwell the fundamentals of catching.
“Some days I felt like I couldn’t do something and he would get down in a squat and do exactly what he wanted me to do. I’d be like, ‘okay, if he can do it, then I can do it because I’m three inches shorter than him,’ ” Maxwell said. “That helped a lot because I didn’t learn how to catch from a traditional standpoint. He had all of these little options.”
“He wasn’t trying to cookie-cut with me. Being around the game of baseball, there are some things that we all have to do in the same way, but he helped mold me into my own type of catcher. He never ran out of options. He always had an answer. I tell people all of the time that I have never caught before but I can’t imagine another catching coach being better than Marcus Jensen.”
While Maxwell was focused on his catching in the early years of his career, his hitting suffered. A power hitter in college, Maxwell never hit more than seven home runs in a season until 2016. He reached Double-A midway through the 2014 season, but hit only .141 in 25 games with the Midland RockHounds that year. In 2015, Maxwell spent the entire year with the RockHounds and managed just a .243/.321/.308 slash line in 96 games. Maxwell did hit well over the final month of the 2015 season, however. That final month would be a preview of what was to come for Maxwell in 2016. In 60 games with the Sounds, Maxwell hit .321/.393/.539 with a career-high 10 home runs. That earned him a late-July call-up to the big leagues, where he would continue to impress with the bat, slashing .283/.337/.402 in 33 games.
Eric Martins served as the hitting coach for Midland in 2015 and Nashville in 2016. He says Maxwell’s improvement stemmed from getting back to the basics. Maxwell has always been a natural opposite-field hitter, but the A’s had asked him to try to pull the ball more to take advantage of his power. Martins says that in trying to adjust his swing to add more backspin to the pull side, Maxwell lost his natural feel for hitting the other way. When Martins began working with Maxwell in 2015, he said they focused on having Maxwell get back to hitting the other way, and once he found success with his old approach, they gradually began working the pull side back in.
“There were some flashes of it last year. In a two-to-three week span, he went up and he pulled some balls and backspinned some balls. This year was an extension of what we worked on last year,” Martins said. “Bruce is one of the hardest working guys that we have. He’s the first one to the field, getting his running in. By the time I get to the field, he’s already like ‘I’ve already done my tee routine. This is what we need to do with toss.’ And we went from there and put together some drills for him that kind of honed in on that pull-side power but also still gave him the ability to hit balls the other way and make him the complete hitter that he is right now.”
Maxwell admits that one of the biggest adjustments he had to make as a pro was learning to deal with failure at the plate after rarely struggling in college. He says the last two years Martins has helped him understand how to look past the results when evaluating his progress at the plate.
“I always did the work. I was always the first guy at the field. I always did my routine. I had my video. I had my stretching. I had my visual routine. He just told me to keep doing that, whether you go 0-for-five or five-for-five. You keep doing that and the consistency is going to show up when you aren’t having your best days,” Maxwell said. “He really helped me to understand that you are going to have your good days and you are going to have your bad days, but keep swinging at good pitches. Keep looking for your pitch and one of these days it is going to start clicking.”
Maxwell put that approach to the test at the start of the season with Nashville. Despite a strong stint in big league spring training that saw him post an .868 OPS in 23 at-bats, and homer in a World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament game for Team Germany, Maxwell got off to a slow start during the first month of the regular season. He was hitting just .220 on May 11 when he landed on the disabled list. It would have been easy for Maxwell to fall back into old habits when the hits weren’t falling.
“I was frustrated because I was putting myself in great counts to hit in and great situations to hit in to do some damage and it just wasn’t falling my way,” Maxwell said. “My guys know that I am really into feeling good and having my results and sometimes I just got a little too result-oriented. They really helped me stay in my zone and stay composed, because at the end of the day, my job is to catch. It kept me level-headed and then when I started hitting again and my numbers started to go up and my doubles started to increase and my home runs started to increase and my walks got a little higher, they just told me ‘stay the same, stay the same’ because it’s easy to be hitting well to stop my routine or to start doing something different. This year was about the consistency, but it was also a legit buy-in of trusting in my process.”
Maxwell’s season turned around quickly after returning from the disabled list on May 20. He had a hit in that game, three walks in the next game, and he never looked back. Maxwell tore through the Pacific Coast League over the next two months, raising his average nearly 100 points in the process. On July 16, he went five-for-five with two homers and 11 total bases. Three days later, Maxwell got the call that he was headed to the big leagues.
For his first month with the A’s, Maxwell was more of an observer than an active player. He debuted on July 23 as a pinch-hitter and then started behind the plate the next day, but through August 31, he had appeared in just 12 games and had only four hits in 31 at-bats. In September, Maxwell earned more regular playing time and his numbers improved significantly. Over the final five weeks of the season, he hit .361 with a homer and six walks in 21 games.
While Maxwell feels confident that he proved he belongs in the big leagues, he also knows that he faces a challenge to make the A’s big league roster out of spring training with veterans Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley ahead of him on the depth chart. He is taking an even-tempered approach to preparing for the 2017 season.
“I have been through my ups and downs in my career, but now I have finally found the player that I want to be, as well-rounded as I can be. Now I have a taste of playing almost every day up (in the big leagues0 and also not playing every day up there, so I know what it takes to get there and now I know what it will take to stay there,” Maxwell said.
“I’m excited about it. I’m focused on having a good and strong spring. I’m behind a two-time All-Star in Stephen Vogt, which if I had to pick to be behind anybody, it would be him. He’s a great guy. He’s taught me a lot of things and I have learned from him, but he’s a great partner to have. I’m excited about the opportunity to prove once again that I belong up there and when I get up there, I can stay up there.”