by James Ham / A’s Farm Correspondent
Sacramento River Cats hitting coach Greg Sparks has had his paws on the A’s future center fielder Michael Choice ever since Oakland selected him with the 10th pick in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft.
Before becoming the hitting coach in Sacramento last season, Sparks spent eight seasons as the organization’s minor league roving hitting instructor. If there is anyone who knows Choice’s game, it’s Sparks.
“He’s an electric kid,” Sparks told Athletics Farm before Sunday’s game. “As a hitting coordinator, I had him out of the draft. I’ve been around him quite a bit. It’s nice to see the adjustments he’s made since the day he signed. He had a lot of movement; a unique approach to baseball when he first signed and to see that calm down and for him to become the hitter he is now is very good. Nice adjustments.”
The road hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the A’s outfield prospect. After a tremendous 2011 season at Class A Stockton, where he put up a stat line of .285/.376/.542 with 30 home runs and 82 RBI, Choice struggled.
At the Double-A level last season, Choice posted a line of .287/.356/.423, while hitting just 10 home runs and driving in 58. The batting average stayed steady, but the move to Midland of the Texas League seemed to overwhelm the highly touted prospect.
“For me, the biggest jump and the toughest thing for hitters to do is to go from A-ball to Double-A,” Sparks added. “He made some nice adjustments (in the Texas League).”
Midland all seems like a distant memory now. Choice took the rough season in stride and is now flourishing in Sacramento through the early part of this season.
“Every level brings a different challenge, you know, having to adjust,” Choice said before Sunday’s loss to the Las Vegas 51s. “Basically along the way, I’ve done a lot of adjusting with mechanics and that type of thing, but starting out this year, it’s the first year that I’ve been able to just focus on the mental part of hitting and not focus so much on what I’m doing physically in the box.”
Choice is locked in right now in Sacramento. The 23-year-old out of the University of Texas at Arlington has improved his plate discipline, striking out 25 times and drawing 19 walks in his first 135 at bats at the Triple-A level. He has a career-best .422 on base percentage and after Sunday’s loss, he is batting .309 with a .949 OPS.
Plate discipline isn’t the only thing that is improving for Choice, his power numbers are returning as well. After hitting 10 home runs in 402 plate appearances last season, Choice has six in just 110 official at bats this year. While others were concerned with the power drop off, Choice was confident that he would get his stroke back.
“Basically, I just try not to worry about hitting for power and just (focus on) being a good hitter and the power will come later,” Choice said.
The power will come and so will the accolades. At 6-foot, 215-pounds, Choice looks more like an NFL running back than a 5-tool baseball player. And with the A’s sitting on a $7.5 million team option for 33-year-old starting center fielder, Coco Crisp, for next season, there may be a changing of the guard coming.
Choice has nothing but respect for Crisp, who has manned the cavernous Coliseum outfield for the last three seasons. In fact, he spent a lot of time watching the 12-year veteran during spring training, trying to glean even the smallest morsel of information.
“Coco is one of the best out there,” Choice said of the A’s starting center fielder. “I watched him in spring training, watched his routine. You don’t see that many veteran guys like him that still shag hard in BP and continue to get reads and he does that. That’s why he’s one of the best out there.”
While there aren’t any plans to shuttle Choice to the big leagues right now, his time is coming. The A’s will most likely wait as long as possible before calling up one of their best minor league hitting prospects. But when the call comes, expect Choice to be ready to take his spot between Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick in the Oakland outfield.
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