The last time that the IronBirds were in the playoffs was 2013. Their roster included some names you might recognize, Chance Sisco, Jimmy Yacabonis, Trey Mancini, and Mike Yastrzemski to name a few. The 2013 team finished their season 40-32, good enough to win the McNamara Division Title. To learn more about the 2013 team and see how the 2017 team stacks up, we sat down with Jack Graham, who played catcher for the IronBirds during the 2013 season.
Getting to play with guys on the 2013 team like Chance Sisco, Conor Bierfeldt, Austin Wynns, Hunter Harvey, Mike Yastrzemski, and Trey Mancini-were there any similarities between that 2013 playoff team and the 2017 team that you noticed?
This year's team reminded me of the 2013 team in that they had a lot of guys who played college ball and were very hard-nosed, hustling baseball players that gave 100% day in and day out. You look at that 2013 team, and at the end of the season we had guys like Josh Hart, Hunter Harvey, and Chance Sisco-those guys all came up to Aberdeen later in the year. The guys who had been there the entire season, guys like Jimmy Yacabonis, Mike Yastrzemski, Trey Mancini, Austin Wynns…there were so many quality players on that team. You look at the pitching staff-an experienced bunch of guys-either with a couple years of college ball under their belts, or guys from out of the country who had played in the Orioles minor league system for a few years before playing for Aberdeen. These guys all had plenty of years of baseball under their belt-something that reminds me a lot of this 2017 team. This team really grinded, they got along well and they just had that experience that they brought to the game.
Looking at how the team stacked up side-to-side with the 2013 team, would you say the talent level is comparable between the two teams?
In 2013, we had a lot of good pitchers who contributed. This year, in 2017 we had a lot of guys who for one reason or another really stood out in terms of their performance. Guys like Brenan Hanifee, Nick Vespi, Joe Johnson, James Teague to name a few. Those names jump off the stats column on the pitching side of things. The offense this year has also been outstanding-take Ben Breazeale who had an absolutely crazy start out of the gate, Kirvin Moesquit who was a menace on the base paths, and TJ Nichting, who really came into his own towards the end of the season, both defensively and offensively.
2013's team was very reliant on our pitching, led by our pitching coach at the time, Alan Mills. Alan Mills is now the bullpen coach for the Orioles. The pitching staff this year was led by Mark Hendrickson who seemed to have really commanded the respect of the pitching staff this year, and their success this year shows that.
Have you noticed any similarities or differences between coaching staffs on the 2013 team and the 2017 team?
I think that this year's coaching staff 'let the players play' well-they were more hands-off with their coaching style. It all starts from the top-Kevin Bradshaw is a great baseball mind who understands the personalities that he has in his clubhouse and was letting the guys play relaxed. They didn't go out onto the field nervous or concerned about whether they might get pulled from the game after striking out or making an error in the field. I believe that Mark Hendrickson did a great job of communicating with the pitchers during the game while they were on the mound and in the bullpen when they warmed up before the game. I think that Tim Raines, Jr. really related to the players well-he's a younger guy himself who only recently finished his playing career. Across the board, this year's coaching staff really seemed to be a part of the team. They gelled very well with the players, and as a result, I think that the players were able to feel comfortable and relaxed every day that they were out at the ballpark. You saw how they (the coaches) conducted themselves around the players and fans even-they were very approachable and easy to talk to. You didn't really ever feel intimidated by these guys, and that comfort level really allowed the players to go out there and play their best baseball.
That isn't to say that the 2013 coaching staff wasn't good at what they did or they weren't as good of a coaching staff. I will say that they did have their differences in terms of coaching styles. Take Alan Mills for instance, a good friend of mine to this day, who took his job very seriously and wanted you to do the same. When you made a mistake, or were out of line, he was going to let you know. Now I'm not privy to the conversations in the clubhouse between coaches and players this year, but I know that Alan's approach is what really drove our pitching staff in 2013 to want to be better. Like what we've said already-coaches come from different walks of life and have different styles of coaching. While the coaching styles may have been different between these two teams, they were both effective nonetheless.
Being a former catcher yourself, did you notice anything in particular about the play of our catchers on the 2017 team?
Luke Ringhofer this year really stepped up to catch a little bit, and play a little bit of first base-that versatility was a huge asset to the team this year. Ben Breazeale of course was a big contributor with his bat, and Jean Carrillo-who if anyone didn't get to see this guy throw out a runner trying to steal second base, did themself a disservice-the guy has got a cannon for an arm. It's kind of funny when you look at all three of these guys right now-if you combined them and their abilities all together, you'd have a "super catcher." I think that all of them being able to play together and getting to see where each other's strengths lie is invaluable. At this level, after playing this many games, nobody is catching every single day. For them to be able to watch and learn from each other, and also learn from Don Werner, the Orioles' catching coordinator, they all got a great opportunity to develop at this level and they had success while doing it.
A similar example that I noticed on the 2013 teams was the relationship between Austin Wynns-a guy who was very fundamentally sound as a catcher defensively, and Chance Sisco, who was a high-school shortstop before he became a professional catcher, and transitioned very well into his role as a catcher. After the few weeks together here in Aberdeen, Wynns and Sisco really got to learn a lot from each other in Delmarva-Wynns was able to help Sisco develop defensively, and Sisco was able to help Wynns improve his approach at the plate.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.