After a first half filled with uncertainty, catcher Bruce Maxwell is finally feeling settled with the Oakland Athletics. The talented backstop is still finding his way offensively, but he is quickly staking out a leadership role behind the plate.
Maxwell made his major-league debut with the A’s last season and he did well in a late-season audition with the team, hitting .283/.337/.402 in 33 games. However, when spring training broke this April, Maxwell didn’t have a spot on the A’s 25-man roster. He spent the first two months of the season shuttling back-and-forth between Triple-A Nashville and Oakland, and then he landed on the disabled list on May 20 with a strained oblique. That injury cost Maxwell three weeks of playing time.
The trajectory of his season changed dramatically a week after he was activated from the disabled list. On June 22, the A’s designated veteran catcher Stephen Vogt for assignment and recalled Maxwell. The move was part of the A’s shift towards the future and opened the path for Maxwell to become Oakland’s everyday catcher. Since that time, Maxwell has started regularly when the opposing teams have had right-handed starters on the mound.
Maxwell says that knowing he has a defined role with the A’s has taken a load off of his mind, even as he has struggled at the plate of late. In 57 games with the A’s, Maxwell is hitting .229/.320/.299.
“It helps me relax. This organization has always believed in me and I have finally proved myself to be able to be up here and handle this staff pretty well. They always tell me, the hitting will come,” Maxwell said before the A’s win over the Texas Rangers on Saturday. “I’m sort of scuffling right now and am trying to figure some things out, but they believe in me that I could potentially be an All-Star catcher in the next few years and that keeps me comfortable.”
Maxwell says that being comfortable isn’t the same as being complacent.
“It tells me that my organization believes in me and that my teammates believe in me. I’ve earned where I’m at. I have to work that much harder to stay where I am at and stay positive,” he said.
A’s manager Bob Melvin believes Maxwell’s hitting will come around.
“[Defense] always comes first with the position, or at least it is the proper thing to say,” Melvin, who is a former big league catcher himself, said on Saturday. “Everyone wants to perform on the offensive end. Maybe not to his liking at this point. We saw him come up and do well last year offensively. He has the ability to hit some more homeruns and to hit for power, but you want him to really take care of the other end of it too. The offense will come with him. He’s just having a bit of a tough period.”
There may be signs that Maxwell is coming out of his slump at the plate. Although he is batting only .214/.262/.250 in August, he has a .294 batting average over his last 10 games. Maxwell has always employed an opposite field approach at the plate and half of his hits in August have been left of centerfield. He says he is continuing to work on getting into his pull-side more, as he tries to unlock his full power potential. While that work may be contributing to his current struggles, in the long run, he believes it should benefit his overall offensive game. Maxwell acknowledges that it is a work-in-progress, however.
“Being able to pull the baseball and being able to do a little more at the plate is I think what I am struggling with right now because I want to do it so quickly, but I think having success with that and being able to make this opposite field approach play – it always plays,” Maxwell said. “Being able to lean on that when I’m doing work on the other side of the field is going to be huge for me.”
Maxwell says he is still searching for his identity as a hitter.
“I had a glimpse of it a little bit last year when I had that tear right before I was called up and my performance up here towards the end of the season. But I’ve just got to hone into it,” he said. “Over the years, I have changed my swing so many times and my stances and my approaches. Being able to come back and lock it back in to my strength [opposite-field hitting] ever since I was in college is something that I can lean on. To abandon that is idiotic but, at the same time, it’s about adding things to my game.”
As part of a young team that is on pace to finish last in the American League West, Maxwell isn’t alone in dealing with struggles this season. The A’s pitching staff ERA is currently 4.66, which ranks 11th of 15 teams in the American League. Several of the A’s young pitchers have struggled this season, some of them for the first time in their professional careers.
Maxwell says that remaining positive is an important part of his job.
“This game is tough. It’s a game of failure. To understand that and try overcome that is huge,” Maxwell said. “At the same time, to have a core young group of guys on the mound and behind the plate, they just try to tell us to trust in the process and keep that going and don’t try to dwell too much on your previous outing and your previous at-bats. To not dwell on a previous outing is big for these young guys and big for myself so we can progress off of those outings and progress off of those games and try to pick out some positives and revamp our lack of execution and get better for the next one.”
One of the biggest differences between the big leagues and the minor leagues is the level of pre-game preparation.
“Every little detail counts. Down in the minor leagues and Triple-A, you can make little mistakes and not get beat by them,” Maxwell said. “You prepare for the best game calling, but without preparation, that game calling isn’t that effective. All of the little things when it comes to execution, when it comes to preparation is more keyed in up here. It’s a big deal.”
Maxwell’s journey through the A’s organization has coincided with several of the new additions to the A’s pitching staff. He says that his familiarity with the staff from their time together in the minor leagues has been helpful when putting together game plans.
“I’ve caught a lot of these guys in Triple-A the past couple of years, so the preparation there isn’t as much as some people would think, but at the same time, we have a lot preparation on a daily basis, regardless if they are younger guys or older guys,” Maxwell said.
As he has grown more comfortable in his role with the A’s, Maxwell has taken on a more prominent role in the pre-game preparation, according to Melvin.
“We see him the boardroom, so to speak, and we do advance meetings, he’s a lot more vocal now. He does a lot of homework,” Melvin said. “He knows the job is his for the taking and it’s going to be important for him – as the guy behind the plate – to be the leader for where some of these young guys go. I think he’s on the right track as far as that goes and this is his first real opportunity to be here for an extended period. I think he wants to show that not only he can do it on the field, but he can do it in advance meetings and so forth and the study portion of it, as well.”
Maxwell hopes to end the 2017 season much like he did in 2016, when he hit .361 in September. Despite an early season oblique injury and several blows to the face mask from foul balls, Maxwell says he feels as good as could be expected going into the season’s final month.
“It’s all about the preparation that we do and it’s a mindset. If you tell yourself you are tired, you are going to be wearing it,” he said.
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