Many A’s fans might remember Ryan Christenson from his days patrolling the Oakland outfield from 1998 through 2001. But he may have an even more important job now, as he’s been entrusted with overseeing some of the A’s top prospects currently playing for the Ports in Stockton. Four of the A’s top five picks from the 2012 draft and three of the team’s top four picks from 2013 all started the season with Stockton.
Christenson spent last season with many of the same players in Beloit, where he was considered to have done such a masterful job of managing the team’s top prospects that they made him the manager in Stockton this year. And with players like Daniel Robertson, Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, Ryon Healy, Chad Pinder and – until his recent promotion – Bruce Maxwell, the team is currently tied for first-place in the California League North second-half standings. A’s Farm recently took the opportunity to talk with the Stockton skipper to get his take on his talented cast of characters…
AF: First off, let me ask you about Daniel Robertson. With the trade of Addison Russell, he’s now the guy in the spotlight as the A’s new shortstop of the future. So what have you seen from him at the shortstop position in the field this year, and have you seen any sort of evolution from last year to this year?
RC: As good as he was with us last year in Beloit, he is noticeably better this year. The guy makes all the routine plays. He comes out here to play every day…and he’s been solid for us at shortstop. The fact that I believe we’re leading the league in defense this year just kind of goes to show how strong we’ve been up the middle – and he’s been the captain of that.
AF: Now what about at the plate? It looks like he’s been showing a little more discipline and taking more walks and getting on base a lot. So what have you seen in his approach at the plate this year?
RC: I think his approach at the plate has been solid. He’s hit #1 and #2 primarily for us this year. I don’t think leadoff is a comfortable position for him, but he’s done it for us because that’s what we’ve needed – and he’s been getting on base a lot. For a 20-year-old, I think the power is starting to show its potential. He’s hit a couple balls this year that I’ve just been saying “Wow!” They’ve really come off the bat well with a lot of noise and have true carry. And he’s hit a couple home runs to right field, so I think the power that he has in that frame is coming around. The guy works his butt off in the weight room, so he’s just going to continue to get stronger. And as he comes into his twenties and gets some of that man strength, I think he’s really going to be a special player.
AF: Well, speaking of power, what about your first baseman Matt Olson? He’s always had power, but he’s really been taking it to another level lately. What have you seen from him, and is there anything in particular that he’s been improving on or doing any differently this year?
RC: His plate discipline has really impressed me this year. The fact that I believe he’s still leading all of minor league baseball in walks right now just goes to show what he’s able to do up at the plate. His eye is impeccable. He’s cut down on the swings-and-misses. He’s always had a pretty stroke. But I think the difference between last year and this year is that when he does get the mistake in the at-bat, he’s not fouling it off or missing it, he’s connecting with it. And he’s just so strong that if he does get it going in the right direction with any kind of trajectory, it’s going to go out.
AF: What about your third baseman, Renato Nunez? Like Olson, his power seems to be hitting another level here lately. Has he been doing anything differently in his approach?
RC: I don’t think he’s been doing anything differently. I just think it’s a matter that they’re not missing that mistake when they get it. That’s kind of the nuts and bolts of what we try to preach as an offensive approach is to wait out that great pitch. It might be the first pitch of the at-bat, it might be the seventh pitch of the at-bat – and the walks and working the count are kind of a by-product of that mindset of getting that good pitch in the at-bat and not missing it. And that’s all he’s done here of late in this power purge is that he just has not missed his pitch. And he’s hitting it out of the ballpark, he’s been hitting it off the wall, he’s hitting doubles – the power shots are coming with regularity with him.
AF: What about in the field? You had him last year and know he had an awful lot of errors there in Beloit. So where’s he at defensively this year?
RC: I think he’s definitely showing some improvement in making the routine play. I think he might have had 40 errors over at third base last year. I think he doesn’t even have 10 to this point in the season. So it’s just a testament to the work that these guys do. Juan Navarrete, our infield coordinator, has a simple program that we go through every day as far as getting their ground balls and staying in that routine of consistently working on the fundamentals. He’s made some good plays for us, and he’s played a solid third base. He and Healy both have come a long way. [Ryon] Healy as well has shown tremendous improvement over there at third base, and I have no problem throwing either one of them over there and feeling very comfortable throughout the game.
AF: That was actually the next guy I was going to ask you about, Ryon Healy. Obviously, he got off to a slow start and has really climbed a long way back and has really been playing great lately.
RC: His start really wasn’t as slow as the numbers might indicate. The guy’s hit the ball the same the entire season. I really started feeling bad. We were joking around with him to start the season about how many line drives and hard fly balls he was hitting at people or guys were making diving plays on. So I wasn’t tremendously worried about him. He wasn’t overmatched by any means. And that was what I kept feeding the brass – he’s not overmatched here and I think this is where he belongs. And I’m glad they kept him here to continue to work through it. And hats off to him and the fact that he’s climbed up to where he is at this point. The way he started, if he gets off to any kind of halfway decent start, he’d have monster numbers right now. I like what he does – he’s able to put the ball in play pretty regularly, he’s not a big strikeout guy. And he’s just going to continue to get bigger and stronger and really continue to come into his own as far as his power stroke.
AF: And you like what you’ve seen out of him so far in the field at third base?
RC: I really have. He’s a guy who it was a new position for. He was a first baseman in college. In Instructional League last year, they moved him to third and he struggled mightily. But he’s put the work in. That’s my main credit to this whole team and why I enjoy being around these guys all the time. It’s easy for me to get them out on the field and get that extra work in. And to see it pay off with the numbers that they’ve put up as a club defensively really is just a testament to what they’ve done.
AF: Like Healy, another guy you didn’t have last year in Beloit but who’s had a big role here this year is Chad Pinder, who’s changed positions and has been playing second base here for you. Where do you see he’s at at this point?
RC: I got my first look at Chad in the Instructional League last offseason, and I was very impressed with his power, not just bombing balls to left but he’s got tremendous strength to drive the ball to the opposite-field gap. And he’s hit a few home runs here with us this year to the right-field side, so that’s very impressive. He’s got quick hands, and he’s really put the work in at second base. Bret Boone was in with us to start the season and got him comfortable and kind of changed his mindset. It was the first time he’d ever played on the right side of the infield after being a third baseman and shortstop in college. So, with him, I think just getting that comfort with the throw – that sidearm flip from second base as he’s going to his left – and getting used to the pivot there at second base and turning the double play. He’s definitely gotten comfortable. And we all know he’s got the arm to go to short or third if we need it. So he’s a special player – I think we’ve got something in him.
AF: What about catcher Bruce Maxwell [who was recently promoted to Midland]? Tell me a little bit about where he’s at both at the plate and also behind the plate. His throwing has obviously improved tremendously.
RC: I think everybody believes that Bruce is going to hit. That’s what he is – he’s a hitter. So I don’t think that there’s any worry there. There’s some fine tinkering here and there. I think offensively his biggest challenge is just separating his offense from his defense. He would have a tendency to take an at-bat, be frustrated and go back behind the plate and make some silly mental mistakes as far as having some balls get by him, but he’s really cleaned that up…and he’s tightened his game up back there. He still has some work as far as just controlling the blocks consistently and not having the drops show up here and there. But as far as the way he’s thrown the ball, it’s been night and day from last year.
AF: You’ve been with a lot of these guys for the past two seasons now. They seem like a pretty special crop of prospects to a lot of people. But you see more of them than anybody, so what’s your overall view of this group of players you’ve got here in Stockton?
RC: I think everybody sees the talent on the field. It’s been a joy just to watch them play the game every single evening. But for me personally, just to be around them and see the way they interact in the clubhouse, to see the way they get their work done, to see the way that they influence not only the other position players but also the pitching staff and this group of 25 guys as a whole is really what makes them special. They really get it, they have leadership qualities, they’re just ballplayers and I just have to pinch myself when I think that the majority of them are still just 20 years old. But I’m excited for them. They’re great pieces for this organization. I don’t know what the long-term plan is for them. I know we’re in win-now mode in Oakland. So they’re valuable pieces. If they feel like they want to push them through and see them in Oakland one day, I would love that. But I know that they’re also valuable to help get a huge piece like what we’ve done with Addison Russell to get us [Jeff] Samardzija and [Jason] Hammel up there in the big leagues. So I’ve been blessed to be with them for two years and just enjoy being around them.