There’s no question that two of the A’s top hitting prospects can currently be found in the clubhouse of the California League Stockton Ports. The A’s 8th overall draft pick in last year’s draft, first baseman Max Muncy, currently leads all A’s minor leaguers in home runs and RBIs. And the A’s top pick last year, 19-year-old Addison Russell, is second on his team in runs, walks, doubles, total bases and stolen bases and currently leads the team in triples. We took the opportunity to talk with both of them while in Stockton last week, along with their manager, Webster Garrison, to get some perspective on how things have been shaping up for some of the A’s top prospects this season in Stockton…
From day one, the A’s have been aggressive in promoting their top draft pick from last year, shortstop Addison Russell. And this year, the team chose to start him at Stockton in the High-A California League, where he had the distinction of being the youngest player in the league. The 19-year-old struggled early on, but he’s turned things around and has really been coming on strong of late…
AF: At 19, you’re the youngest player in the California League this year. So does anybody give you a hard time about being so young?
AR: Not really, I’m usually just treated as another guy here.
AF: You started the season out kind of slow, but the last month or so, you really seem to be putting it together. So what accounted for the early struggles, and what’s accounted for the turnaround?
AR: I think I’m just more relaxed now. I’m seeing more pitches. I’m seeing more time on the field. I’m just more relaxed, and I think I perform at my best whenever I feel that way.
AF: Was there a lot for you to get used to when you first came to the California League?
AR: Yeah, me being a young guy, I kind of had to soak everything in. And there was just a lot of stuff that I wasn’t used to, so I had to make a few adjustments, and I did.
AF: Besides just getting more relaxed and more comfortable at the plate, what were some of the adjustments you had to make?
AR: It’s really just recognizing the pitch. Before this league, I never really saw a cutter or a two-seam [fastball], and I’m seeing those pitches really well now. That was just a little adjustment that I had to make.
AF: What about in the field, are there any differences for you at this level?
AR: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a faster-paced level. The guys that hit are a little bit quicker to first base and second base, and I have to get rid of the ball a little bit faster, so I had to make that adjustment. But overall, I’m just working on my whole game.
AF: Do you feel you have to try to come in on the ball a little faster now?
AR: I still try to stay in that relaxed state, but just get the ball out a little bit quicker.
AF: You got to spend a little time in the big league camp this spring. So what did you take away from that experience?
AR: I really just tried to get to know the guys and see how they practice, their approaches, their work ethic, just what they do everyday to get prepared for the game. And I try to really put that into my routine and my preparation for the game.
AF: Well, I guess you got a good sense of how the major leaguers do it anyway. So was everybody cool to you there?
AR: Yeah, they were all nice and friendly. They came up and talked to me for a little bit and introduced themselves and I introduced myself to them. It was just a good experience.
AF: So have you kept in touch with your boys in Beloit – Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson?
AR: Yeah, we text and we snapchat and all that stuff every now and then. It’s always good to hear they’re doing good, and it’s always good to hear from them.
AF: Well, you’re from Florida, so how is it for you living out here in California?
AR: It’s a little different than back home. There’s a lot of one-way streets – I’m not used to that.
AF: Have you turned the wrong way yet?
AR: A few times. But other than that, it’s not too bad. We’re staying in a good part of town. There’s some good people there. I’m familiarizing myself with the area, and it’s a nice place.
AF: Do you share a place with some of your teammates?
AR: Yeah, I’m with a few teammates in an apartment – Dusty Robinson, Tanner Peters and Rashun Dixon.
AF: Has your family been out to visit you and see you play at all?
AR: My dad came out here at the beginning of last month and it was just awesome that he kind of got to experience what I’ve been living for the past few months. He enjoyed being out here and seeing his son play. And I’m hoping the other side of my family – my mom, my sisters and my brother – can come out here. I think they would enjoy it.
AF: Well you know, Sacramento’s right up the road – the Triple-A affiliate. Have you had a chance to get up there yet?
AR: Yeah, I’ve been up there to play a pre-season game with the Ports. And it was a pretty nice spot – it was really, really nice.
AF: Well, you never know, it might be home before long!
Besides Addison Russell, the only other member of last year’s draft class for the A’s to start the season as high as Stockton this year is first baseman Max Muncy. The 22-year-old came roaring out of the gate this season and currently leads all A’s minor leaguers with 20 home runs, which is a bit of a pleasant surprise, since he totaled just 4 last year…
AF: Obviously, you’ve been having a good year here in Stockton. So what’s been the key to your success this season?
MM: I feel like I’ve been swinging the same way I’ve swung my whole life. The only difference is there’s been a few more home runs…
AF: Just a few?
MM: (Laughs) Just a few…Yeah, I’ve never put up home run numbers like this. A lot of people say it’s because of the ballpark, it’s because of the league we’re in – maybe a couple of them, but for the most part, I think the big difference is I spent a lot of the off-season working on back-spinning balls. If anyone saw me play last year, they’d notice I had a ton of doubles, but all of them were top-spin balls right down the line. Even the ones I was hitting in the gaps weren’t back-spun, they were spinning sideways, top-spin – they didn’t have back-spin, so they weren’t carrying as much. To me, that’s the big difference. If you hit line drives with back-spin, they tend to carry a little bit more than everything else, so I feel like that’s been the big difference when it comes to my home run numbers.
AF: So you started working on that at home this off-season?
MM: Well, I’ve always had a big problem with top-spin. A lot of lefties have that problem. There’s not many lefties that back-spin all the time. So that’s something I’ve been working on for a while. And this off-season, I really tried to focus on that. I just worked on getting a more downward plane to the ball, staying inside of it a little bit and not coming out early on my swing. And I feel like that’s been a huge difference for me.
AF: I know I was talking with some coaches in spring training who were talking about developing your power potential more. So I don’t know if people have always thought that you had greater power potential than you’ve shown in the past.
MM: Yeah, that’s what a lot of people have thought. You know, I’ve never put up huge home run numbers. In college, I always had a couple, but I wasn’t hitting 15-16 home runs in college like some guys were. So I think they saw it, and I knew I had it. But I’ve been a line drive hitter my whole life, and I still feel like I’m a little bit of a line drive hitter. The only difference is I’m hitting line drives with back-spin that are going a little bit more up in the air because they’ve got that back-spin and they carry.
AF: What’s the most home runs you’ve ever had in a season before?
MM: Probably back in high school. I don’t know what my numbers were in high school. But as far as I can remember, I had 11-12 as a freshman in college.
AF: So when the season started out and everything started going so well for you right off the bat, you must have been thinking, “Gee, this is working out even better than I planned!”
MM: It was a pretty unreal experience for me. I was getting very good contact on a lot of the balls I was hitting. I was putting them in the air, and I wasn’t popping them up – I was hitting them really well. It’s hard to explain, because I’ve never had a start like that before. I’ve never just hit home run after home run, and to do that was pretty amazing. I had friends calling me from school back home saying, “Hey, mix in an infield single every now and then – those are pretty cool too.” It was a lot of fun, and I think I let that get to my head a little bit…
AF: I was going to ask you about that little dip you had in May…
MM: I really think I let it get to my head a little bit. I saw the home runs and I was thinking, “Hey, maybe I can hit more if I start lifting more.” And I was hitting a lot of pop-ups, I wasn’t getting very good contact. I think my strikeout numbers went up. And that’s something I hate doing too – I hate striking out. In the game yesterday, I had a home run but I struck out twice, and I think I was more upset about the strikeouts than I was happy about the home run. That’s another thing I’ve always taken a lot of pride in is walking more than I’ve struck out.
AF: Well, that’ll serve you well in this organization! So you think you started getting a little too homer-happy after the hot start and got a little out of your game?
MM: Yeah, I definitely think I got out of my game. I was trying to lift the ball too much. We went to a couple places like Lancaster, where the wind was just howling out to right field, and I saw that and automatically I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m getting a couple of home runs.” It got to my head, and I wasn’t hitting very many balls. So I had to come back down to earth a little bit and realize that’s not going to happen all the time. I’ve just got to go back to hitting my line drives, and that’s when the home runs started coming again.
AF: Well, stick with what works! Now I remember hearing good things about your defense going back to when you were first drafted. So is there anything different about playing in the field at this level?
MM: I’ve always taken pride in my defense at first base. I’ve always felt like I’m a little bit of an above average defender at first base because I was never a first baseman. When I went to college, I was recruited there as a second baseman/third baseman. So I’ve always had decent feet and good hands, and I feel like taking that to first base is a huge advantage for me. I know I can get around balls and what I need to do. I can get reads on short hops. That’s just something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. I’ve always loved being a good defender. To me, it’s a good feeling when I’m able to make the other infielders feel comfortable throwing the ball across the field to me. I’ve been there before. Like I said, I wasn’t always a first baseman. I’ve had first baseman before where you weren’t sure if they were going to catch it or they were going to miss it. So I take a lot of pride in that.
AF: I never realized you’d played second and third before. So you’ve really got much more of that infielder’s mentality.
MM: Yeah, I’d never played first base until I got to college. And the only reason they put me there is that’s where the open spot was on the team, and they just wanted my bat in the lineup. I got there my first year, and I just ended up staying there until now. And as far as I know, the A’s have told me that’s where I’m staying. I’m always going to mess around at those other positions just in case – I think that’d be a fun opportunity.
AF: Well, I guess the way the season’s started for you has given you a lot of confidence anyway, which always helps, right?
MM: Yeah, it definitely helps. It’s been a really fun year so far, and I’m really looking forward to the second half. Hopefully I can stay a little bit more consistent, and not have a month that kind of drops off a little bit.
AF: Well, no matter what, as long as you keep taking those walks and getting on base, you’ll get through it!
The Ports are managed by Webster Garrison. The affable former infielder is in his third season as Stockton’s skipper and has plenty to say about the team’s top prospects…
AF: I wanted to start out by asking you about shortstop Addison Russell. He started out a little shaky this year. But what have you seen from him in the three months that he’s been here so far?
WG: The kid’s a hard worker. But he’s not putting as much pressure on himself as he was earlier in the season. There were a lot of expectations on him, and he was just trying so hard to get it done, then he started getting a little frustrated as well. Now he’s got it going a little bit. We moved him in the lineup from first to second just to take a little pressure off him where he’s not the first guy up every night. And he’s just settling in and having fun. He’s a good guy – the guys enjoy his company out here. And he’s just started to get comfortable out there and play extremely well as of late.
AF: So you think it’s just been a matter of him relaxing and getting comfortable with things?
WG: Yeah, taking the pressure off himself and just relaxing and playing baseball.
AF: What specific adjustments has he had to make?
WG: Well, hitting-wise, which is what he was struggling with the most, he has to be able to use the whole field. Instead of just trying to crank every ball out of the ballpark, now he’s starting to use the whole field. He’s waiting back better. He’s not as jumpy. He’s not as anxious. He’s just relaxing and letting the ball come to him and hitting it where it’s pitched compared to trying to go get it. And he’s getting to know these pitchers a lot better. Basically, he didn’t know any of these pitchers. Now that we’ve been through a couple of teams a few times, he knows what they’ve got and he knows how they’re trying to attack him and he’s made a good adjustment and he’s having fun.
AF: So do you think he’s a fast learner?
WG: Yeah, he’s definitely a fast learner for a 19-year-old kid. Most 19-year-old kids would probably still be in struggle mode right now. But he’s turning a corner and it’s good to see, and he’s a mature kid for his age.
AF: Well, having a fast learning curve sure makes your life a lot easier!
WG: It makes my life a lot easier, and I definitely feel a lot better right now!
AF: Now what about defense, how’s his learning curve been in the field?
WG: He’s got all the actions. He’s got the arm. He’s preparing himself. He’s coming in, getting the notes, getting to know the hitters. He’s positioning himself well. I don’t have to watch him as much as I used to because I know he’s got a good idea what he’s doing out there. He’s got good hands and a strong arm and has definitely got the actions. He’s got a lot of range out there.
AF: Another guy who’s been a standout this year is first baseman Max Muncy, who came in and hit from day one with surprising power. So I’m curious to get your take on what he’s been doing here this year.
WG: Yeah, since day one, he’s been swinging a real good bat, and it all started in spring training. He came into spring training swinging a good bat, so he’s just kept it going all season. He’s got a real good idea of hitting. The kid knows what he wants to do. And when he’s getting his pitch, he’s not missing it much. He was the only lefty in our lineup in the first half, so on certain occasions they really wouldn’t pitch to him, and he made the adjustment and takes his walks if he has to. And if they challenge him, he’s ready. He’s using the whole park as well, but his strong side’s his pull side. So when he gets that pitch in, he’s ready for it. And he’s laying off away until he gets two strikes, and he can definitely go that way as well. He’s a good-looking young hitter.
AF: What would you say is his single greatest strength as a hitter?
WG: I would say his swing – where he hits the ball. He goes through the ball and bottom-halfs it. He knows he’s not one of the best runners, so he’s trying to stay off the ground and he’s working hard on creating that back-spin where he’s in the air mostly. And it’s paid big dividends for him compared to pounding balls on the ground. He’s got that back-spin bottom-half where that ball’s getting up in the air, and it’s a good idea to be hitting like that here and in the California League period.
AF: I wanted to ask you about a couple of pitchers. Raul Alcantara recently joined your club. So what do you think of what you’ve seen from him so far?
WG: I saw him in spring training as well. Yesterday he was good. He went after hitters. He attacked hitters with all his pitches and got some easy outs and did a good job overall. He only had one walk, and that was late in his outing, which is a big key. If you’re throwing strikes, you’re definitely going to have some success.
AF: What about another guy who was here but was recently promoted to Midland, Drew Granier. What did you see from him?
WG: This kid’s a fierce competitor. He expects the best when he goes out there. And he’s got the pitches. He’s working on his changeup still, but his fastball’s moving, his breaking ball’s moving, and he’s got a great idea of pitching. He’s a little older kid than Alcantara – he’s a college kid – but he’s got a real good idea of pitching, and he’s aggressive – he goes after guys.
AF: One last question that you may or may not have an answer to. There’s a guy who was blowing everybody’s mind here last year – Miles Head. I’m sure you remember him. Even though I know you haven’t seen him this year in the Texas League, do you have any idea what might be the problem with him this season?
WG: He’s got a lot of injuries this year. It’s a slow start for him. He’s been on the DL twice this year. I heard he’s hit some balls well, just right at guys. I know Miles is going to turn it on sooner or later. It’s just a tough deal because I know he’s kind of injured and is off to a slow start. But as soon as he gets it together, I know the kid’s going to hit. It’s a beautiful thing watching him hit!
AF: I’m sure you enjoyed it!
* * *