Sacramento River Cats

River Cats’ Carrithers making a major-league case in the minors

The first time Alden Carrithers joined the A’s at big-league camp from their minor-league side this spring, River Cats manager Steve Scarsone figured he was looking at a young, fresh-faced prospect – 22, maybe 23 years old.

“But then you watch him take an at-bat,” Scarsone said, “and he’s definitely a seasoned hitter. So I go, ‘I gotta look this guy up.’ ”

What Scarsone found was Carrithers is 29, in his seventh professional season and first in the A’s organization, and that, in Scarsone’s words: “This guy’s hit at every level.” The San Luis Obispo native and UCLA product entered this season a career .297 hitter in the minors and is batting a team-high .315 for Sacramento.

Monday night, Carrithers led off for the River Cats against the El Paso Chihuahuas, and in his first at-bat fouled off two pitches in a full count before taking a close offering for ball four. It was his 26th walk of the season to 14 strikeouts – a ratio that, if it holds, will continue perhaps the most remarkable statistical aspect of Carrithers’ career.

Since being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 15th round in 2008, Carrithers has walked more than he has struck out in each of his previous six minor-league seasons. He began this season with a career .405 on-base percentage and is at .422 for Sacramento.

“He’s an aggressive hitter, but he’s a very selective hitter also,” River Cats hitting coach Greg Sparks said, aware of the apparent contradiction. “He doesn’t swing at bad pitches – very rarely does he chase a bad pitch.”

Sparks said Carrithers has a “great idea of the strike zone” and simple mechanics, which helps him make regular contact when he does swing. Asked about the walk-strikeout ratio, Carrithers gave a shrug and offered: “Well, I’m not the biggest guy (he’s listed at 5-foot-9), so the zone they’re dealing with is a little smaller than most. And I guess I have pretty good hand-eye coordination, so I put the ball in play the best I can, see what happens.”

Carrithers said he did nothing in particular to hone his hand-eye coordination as a kid, but by the time he transferred from UC Santa Barbara to UCLA before his junior season, his penchant for contact had become notable. At UCLA, Carrithers played second base while Brandon Crawford, now with the Giants, played shortstop. Crawford recalled Carrithers, who led the Bruins in batting average both of his seasons in the program, as a “scrappy” player with “really good patience at the plate.”

“A good guy to compare him to was probably Marco (Scutaro),” said Crawford, referring to the Giants’ second baseman who has been one of the hardest hitters in baseball to strike out in recent seasons. “With two strikes, he’s a lot like Marco where he’ll just battle, keep fouling real tough pitches off until either you make a mistake or walk him.”

Crawford was also drafted in 2008 and quickly ascended the Giants’ system, making his major-league debut in 2011. Carrithers’ career path has involved a few more turns. He hit .316 in short-season rookie ball and was named the Tigers’ Gulf Coast League Player of the Year at the end of the 2008 season, but he didn’t rise above Double A before the Tigers released him in March 2011.

Carrithers signed with the White Sox that May and spent the season at Double A, batting .276 with a .365 OBP. The following year, he joined the Braves organization and hit .315 at Double-A Mississippi, where he began last season before rising to Triple A for the first time and hitting .299 with a .387 OBP at the Braves’ top affiliate in Gwinnett. A free agent last winter, Carrithers signed a minor-league deal with the A’s in December.

“They seem to use a lot of players,” Carrithers said of the A’s. “I’m not a big-time, high-priority guy, so the opportunity was probably the best chance with them.”

The left-handed hitter has played mostly second base during his career but started games in left and center field as well, and the River Cats have mostly used him at third base. It’s the kind of versatility the A’s value, though Carrithers said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about a potential call-up. “You can only control yourself and play the game,” he said. “If things happen, that’s great. If not, it’s a small part of life.”

While Scarsone needed time to determine Carrithers’ age, it didn’t take long for him to get a sense of Carrithers as a hitter. “Probably the biggest thing that registered with me early was he had a definite plan with every at-bat,” Scarsone said. “And that plan changes during the at-bat.

“Certain pitchers, if he’d feel he had a good chance of getting a certain pitch, he’d try to pull and drive the ball,” Scarsone said. “And if he didn’t get those pitches, he’d lay off or foul them off and then revert back to, ‘OK, I’ve got to protect the outside.’

“He’s not afraid to go the other way. He always seems to put the ball in play hard. So to me, that’s a valuable hitter.”