Stanley was a star for Notre Dame.
Oakland A's prospect Steve Stanley was on the fast track to the major leagues before hitting a speed-bump at AAA-Sacramento in 2004. After a solid 2005 campaign manning the centerfield and lead-off positions for the Texas League Champion Midland Rockhounds, Stanley discusses his desire to prove his worth at AAA, the improvements he made to his game this past year and his thoughts on winning it all with the Rockhounds. (FREE PREVIEW OF PREMIUM CONTENT)
For a little while, it looked like Steve Stanley was going to beat all of his fellow A's 2002 draft classmates to the major leagues. The spunky centerfielder was sent directly to High-A Modesto after being drafted out of Notre Dame, the first position player in his class to make it to that level. After posting a .286 batting average and a solid .382 on-base percentage for Modesto, Stanley was promoted to AA-Midland for the 2003 season. Stanley again showed a lot of promise, as he finished second on the team in batting with a .296 mark.
Stanley was promoted to AAA for the 2004 season and, on the verge of the major leagues, he struggled for the first time as a professional. Playing as a fourth outfielder on the veteran Sacramento squad, Stanley hit only .227 with a .324 on-base percentage in 74 games. Stanley was demoted back to AA for the last six weeks of the season, and he responded by hitting an eye-opening .419 with a 987 OPS in 34 games for Midland.
"When I got back to AA, I figured that if I had been struggling that badly in AAA, I was just going to forget it and relax and try to have fun. I was a lot more comfortable when I got back to AA and the results showed it," said Stanley.
"I also think it was a matter of getting consistent playing time. I was playing everyday in Midland, but I was the fourth outfielder at Sacramento and that was an adjustment, as well."
Stanley also points to the veteran make-up of the River Cats' squad as a contributing factor to his struggles at AAA.
"I think it was a comfort-level thing for me and getting back into a position to succeed in AA. In AAA, I was trying to adjust and adapt to a whole new set of guys and a different style of play which was difficult," Stanley said.
"Myself, Nick [Swisher] and Joe [Blanton] were the only guys from our draft class on the team and a lot of the guys were older and at a different stage in their lives. When I was struggling, there wasn't really anyone to pick me up, and there wasn't a whole lot of encouragement."
Stanley points to his time at Sacramento as a good learning experience, however, and he feels certain that things will go better for him when he reaches that level again.
"I am confident that I'll be able to make the adjustment to AAA when I get back there. I'm definitely going to change my approach from the last time I was there," Stanley said.
"I'm going to be a lot more consistent with my approach. Last time, I wasn't consistent about how I went about things and sometimes I would allow myself to get too emotional about my performance."
Stanley got to experience a different sort of emotion in 2005 when he helped lead the Midland Rockhounds to their first ever outright Texas League championship. After a frustrating 2004 season, 2005 was a breath of fresh air to Stanley.
"It was my best year of professional baseball in the four years I've been pro. It was the best group of teammates. We really meshed together and had a lot of fun," Stanley said.
The Rockhounds finished first in the Texas League's West Division in both the first and second halves of the season. They beat a tough San Antonio Missions squad in the first round of the playoffs and then defeated the Arkansas Travelers in the championship series. The Travelers, the AA squad of the Anaheim Angels, has been labeled as the most talented AA team in a long time by some pundits. However, the Rockhounds nearly swept the Travelers right out of the series, taking the championship three games to one. Stanley points to the Rockhounds' experience as a key to their success.
"I didn't really think that we were underdogs [against the Travelers]. We had a lot of veteran AA guys and they were a younger team and I think that was reflected in some of the mistakes they made during the series. We had been preparing for the series all season and I think it showed. It was a lot of fun," Stanley said.
On a personal level, Stanley was pleased with the improvements he made to his game in 2005. He returned to centerfield as a regular for the first time in a number of years and covered a lot of ground defensively. On the offensive-side of the ball, Stanley hit .290 with a .364 on-base percentage at the top of the Rockhounds' batting order. He also filled the stat columns in the power areas for the first time in his career. Not surprisingly, the 5'8'' Stanley has never been a power hitter, but he more than doubled his career-high in two-base hits with 26 doubles and established new career-highs in homeruns (6), slugging percentage (.391) and runs batted in (46) in 2005.
"I made it my goal to increase my power production this year and I was able to do that," Stanley said.
"Defensively, I was able to play centerfield every day for the first time in awhile and I was pleased about that. I had been playing in left because of Swisher [starting in center] for the last couple of years and I definitely feel a lot more comfortable and that I contribute more in center."
One area of his game where Stanley would like to see more improvement is in his running game. While at Notre Dame, Stanley regularly racked up 20 or more stolen bases a season, but his career-high as a professional is 14. He has been caught stealing more often then he would like throughout his career - he's only 40 out of 68 in steal attempts - something that he believes stems from his lack of training as a younger pro.
"I'd love to steal more bases. I think that one of the biggest things I missed out on in my development was learning how to steal bases at the lower levels. When I first got to A-ball, I struggled a little bit stealing bases and got thrown out a few times and it was like the red light went up," Stanley said.
"The A's always say that if you are going to steal, you can't get caught, so it made it hard to get the green light again. I feel like not running much has hurt me a little because as a player I need to be able to run and play defense to stand out and I haven't always been able to do that. Hopefully, I'll be able to do that next year."
The A's disdain for the caught stealing became famous in Michael Lewis' celebrated 2003 book entitled Moneyball about the Oakland A's and their unusual approach to building their team. Stanley became famous after the release of that book, as he was one of a handful of draftees from the 2002 class who was profiled. Stanley says that there is a bond between him and many of the other draftees who appeared prominently in the book.
"I definitely think that a lot of the guys in the book rallied around that. I am close with most of those guys and I am particularly close with Jeremy Brown because we've played together for a number of years. I feel a real camaraderie with those guys and now that some of them are in the big leagues, I root really hard for them," Stanley said.
Stanley has also remained close to Lewis, who is currently working on a follow-up book to Moneyball.
"I consider Michael Lewis to be a friend. He and his family and my family have grown close over the years. Through his travels, he has come to see us play in Midland and Sacramento and we've spent time with him. He has been very kind to us and our family," Stanley said.
Before Stanley became a literary folk hero, he was a hero in the hallowed halls of Notre Dame, where he and fellow A's farmhand Brian Stavisky helped lead the Fighting Irish to their first College World Series appearance in 57 years in 2002. The two combined to spark a three-run, walk-off rally against Rice during that CWS. Stanley left Notre Dame as the Irish's all-time career leader in hits, runs scored and games played.
"Getting to the College World Series was really the culmination of my college career. We weren't a team that makes the Series every year like a Stanford or a Florida State, so it was very special. We enjoyed going into the Series and showing everyone that these guys from a Northern school can play a little bit too," Stanley said with a laugh.
"It was really exciting to be an athlete at Notre Dame. There is a special tradition and charisma that comes with it and the athletes at Notre Dame are truly scholar-athletes. We are expected to stand out both in the classroom and on the field, and I think that is something very special."
Stanley is spending this off-season at home in Arizona with his family, preparing for the upcoming season, which, although he loved his time in Midland last year, he hopes will be in Sacramento. However, he knows that getting to AAA could be tough sledding due to the A's veteran depth at the top levels of their minor league system.
"There is a lot of competition still for me to get into AAA. The A's have guys like Hiram Bocachica, Andrew Beattie and Freddie Bynum who can play both in the outfield and infield and are at the fringe of making the big leagues and if they don't make the team, they will likely be back in AAA. It's a little bit hairy for me, but hopefully it will work out," Stanley said.
"I'd love to be in AAA to start the year next year. Anything other than that would be a disappointment because I think I've been able to prove that I can play at AA and I feel like I am at the stage in my life and my career where I am ready to make the jump."