Choice making adjustments in Double-A

FRISCO — It’s been a few years but Michael Choice is playing baseball in Texas once again. The Fort Worth native was a standout on the diamond at Texas-Arlington from 2008 through 2010 until Oakland took him 10th overall, the highest a UTA player had ever been drafted, in the June 2010 Amateur Draft.

The six-foot, 220-pound center fielder began his professional career with rookie-level Arizona before landing in Vancouver, the Athletics’ Short Season Single-A affiliate in the Northwest League. In 27 games, he hit .284 with 7 HR and 26 RBI.

Choice spent the entire 2011 season at High Single-A Stockton of the California League and posted impressive numbers in that hitter-friendly circuit (.285-30-82) and was named Oakland’s Co-Organizational Player of the Year. He also spent time in the 2011 Arizona Fall League, where he again earned high marks.

So, when Baseball America released their organizational rankings for 2012, it wasn’t surprising to see this DFW product ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the A’s organization and it also wasn’t a shock to see him listed as the best power hitter in the Oakland system in the Best Tools section. Now this talented outfielder finds himself in the Texas League and through 30 games with Midland, he was hitting .267 with 1 HR and 14 RBI.
His manager with the Rockhounds is Steve Scarsone, who spent seven seasons in the major leagues with five different clubs. And while he hasn’t had Choice on his roster for all that long, like most who come in contact with him, he’s impressed with what he’s seen so far.

“Yeah, he’s a guy that’s very serious about what he’s trying to accomplish. Obviously as a first-round pick, everybody expects a lot and I think he expects a lot out of himself. He works hard and he puts in the effort,” Scarsone said. “He’s going to be playing most every day. He knows that and we know that. He’s lived up to the expectations up to this point. I know that last year in Stockton did very well, did very well in the Arizona Fall League this fall.”

The former big-league infielder felt his starting center fielder and typical No. 3 hitter was pressing a bit in the opening month of the season, but has seen him making some strides recently both on offense and defense.

“He’s just kind of getting himself into stride here. I think he was kind of forcing and pushing a little bit early, trying to continue the success he had. It’s a big jump from A ball to Double-A. All of a sudden, every night you’re dealing with good pitching and speed of play is just a touch quicker. So he’s now kind of getting his legs under him so to speak and he’s making some great strides both offensively and defensively, so still a ways to go as everybody else at this level has to go, but we’ve liked what we’ve seen,” Scarsone said. “We like what he’s trying to get accomplished and we look forward to seeing how that progress continues.”

Choice doesn’t feel like he was pressing per se, but his early struggles could instead be chalked up to something every player experiences at the start of the season. “It’s no different than last year, Fall League or anything like that. I wouldn’t say I was pressing,” he said. “I’d just say getting back into the flow of playing every day is always going to be a challenge regardless of where you’re at.”

While his focus is squarely where it needs to be, on doing everything he can to improve on a daily basis in every facet of the game, he admits that getting the opportunity to play close to home for the first time in his pro career is a pretty cool thing.

“Yeah, it’s always good to be back close to home, just the feel of being back home. It’s good to be here,” Choice said. “[I’ve needed] about 15 tickets for each game [in Frisco], not too crucial but it’s always good to see people at games that don’t normally get a chance to watch you play.”

Being home when Midland is in Frisco also allows his parents, who still live in Arlington, to see him play much more than they did last year when he was in the Cal League. “My parents only got the chance to come out one time in Stockton last year. They came out for a week. It was pretty cool,” he said.

However, it’s not like playing in the Lone Star State is anything new for this Metroplex product. In fact, as he and the Rockhounds make the rounds in the Texas League, he sees several cities he’s quite familiar with from his travels with UTA. “It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty similar to the places we went to when I was in college-Corpus [Christi], San Antonio,” Choice said. “I’ve been to a lot of these cities before, so it’s pretty cool.”

Any time a player moves up a level, there is most assuredly going to be an acclimation period associated with that jump in the level of competition. That has definitely been the case for this young talent, but he admits the adjustments are always the same no matter how big of a jump he or one of his fellow prospects are making.

“Just the game speeds up all around,” Choice said. “Each level you go up, it’s going to do nothing but get better and better not necessarily because of the ability of the guys you’re playing against but the guys having more experience so the game gets a little more technical. So that’s what I’ve noticed so far as the difference.”

And one thing that has helped ease his transition a bit was his time in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League after the 2011 season was in the books. “Fall League was huge because I got that experience of facing some of those top arms every day and it definitely prepares you for playing in Double-A and higher up because those are the guys that are the top prospects in most of the organizations,” Choice said. “Seeing that high level of competition every day is definitely a good thing to see.”

What he didn’t know about his time in the AFL was that his current manager was watching him in anticipation of having him on his roster this season. “I spent some time in the Fall League, living in Phoenix. One of our Oakland guys, Todd Steverson, was the manager of that Phoenix club that Michael was playing on. Being that we had a manager in the building, I could slide on in, hang out and watch some games,” Scarsone said. “But one of the things I wanted to do, anticipating having Michael with me this summer, I wanted to watch him on the bench to see how he dealt with his at-bats and just try to get an idea of what kind of guy he is so I had a head start on how I wanted to kind of work with him.”

“I was really impressed with the way he would come back after at bats and discuss it with the hitting guys, with the other players. He seemed to have a good knowledge of what pitchers were trying to do to him and what he was trying to look for from pitchers,” he said. “So that was a great little kind of spy tactic on my part so to speak. I got a chance to kind of see him without having him have his guard up being his manager.”

And now that he’s actually managing Choice, he has seen much of the same from his starting center fielder. “I’ve continued to see him do that. He has a very good idea about what he’s trying to do at the plate,” Scarsone said.

But like every prospect, the Oakland brass sees things that need tweaking and with this young outfielder, they are currently working on several things in his swing. “I know that the organization is trying to tinker with him at the plate as we do with everybody, as we try to see where the holes are and how we can start to try to fill those so that when they get an opportunity to play in the big leagues they don’t have to deal with them,” Scarsone said. “They can catch their stride a little better. Right now, he’s working on some different mechanical things. There’s a transition period for that. But his attitude’s good. His recognition is good and his intelligence of the game is outstanding, so we’re just enjoying having him on the club.”

“Basically just trying to work on timing,” Choice said. “Mechanically as far as the upper body goes, everything is pretty solid and the same. Basically we’re just working on timing-staying on time and being balanced. It’s always a challenge to try and take something new into the game right away. You’re not always going to get those instant results. So you might have a couple of rough games before you get used to it. Basically you have to do what you have to do to make progress and get better. That’s where I’m at right now.”

His offensive game might currently be undergoing some minor changes, but he feels more comfortable in the field than he can remember. “Defensively, I feel a lot more comfortable than I have in the past. I guess right now if it would be anything, it would be playing the different winds. You get so used to as an outfielder always playing the wind blowing out or no wind at all. So far in the Texas League, we’ve dealt with different kinds of winds everywhere we go,” he said.

“You’re in Corpus it’s blowing out to left. Go to San Antonio, it’s blowing out to right. Midland, it can be blowing just spinning literally, every inning it can change. So just being on your toes and being aware of adjusting to wind on the fly has been the toughest challenge so far,” he said.

Contending with prevailing winds is nothing new for Choice, who also had to deal with them last season in the Cal League. “I guess you can say it’s a windy league but not as extreme as the Texas League. It’s more five to 15 MPH and it’s going to blow out usually whereas in the Texas League, it can get up to 40 MPH and it can be blowing across the field in the direction you’ve never really seen it before,” he said.

And since the direction and intensity of those winds can literally change with no notice, there’s really no other way to deal with them for he and his teammates than to just make adjustments on the fly. “It doesn’t even matter because there’s times we go out to BP, hit BP and the ball’s playing,” he said. “You come out there to get ready to stretch before the game and it’s blowing a completely different way and blowing 10-15 MPH harder. So it’s one of those things you’ve just got to kind of adjust on the go.”