Back in March, I spoke with former IronBird, Jack Graham about what Spring Training is like from a Minor League player's perspective. Through chatting with Jack, we saw the tremendous amount of work that goes into the development of players as they make their way through the Minors.
To help better understand all that goes into the player development process, I got the chance to speak with the Director of Player Development for the Baltimore Orioles, Brian Graham. Brian has been in baseball for his whole life. He played in the Minor Leagues for four years in the Oakland A's organization. He coached in the Cleveland Indians organization for nine seasons. He then transitioned into a front office role with the Pittsburgh Pirates where he worked for six years and rose all the way up to Interim General Manager. He did all of this before joining the Baltimore Orioles' front office staff in 2007.
Over the course of his career, Brian was a part of two clubs that were far ahead of their time in player development. In this article, Brian shares what he learned from being a part of both the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians organizations, and how these experiences shaped him into the successful executive he is today for the Baltimore Orioles.
I heard from an inside source that you got to face Mark McGwire in college when he was pitching for UCLA. How did you fare in that matchup?
I hit a home run off of him, actually. One thing that you have to remember though is that the Mark McGwire that I faced back then is not the same as the present day Mark McGwire who hit all of those home runs. I look back at that now and it's just more of an amusing story. Honestly, when I look back at that moment, I feel bad for Mark because such a poor hitter like me was able to hit a home run off of him.
Back in the 1980s, you had the opportunity to play in the Oakland Athletics' organization. Who were some of the guys that you played with back then?
Back then, the Oakland A's were probably the premier organization in all of baseball. Not only did they draft very talented, high-character players, they also had an outstanding reputation for running a top-flight development system where winning was expected.
Some of the guys that I had the chance to play with were Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Stan Javier, and Tim Belcher.
What set apart that organization from the others in baseball at that time?
Sandy Alderson, the General Manager of the A's back in the 1980s and Walt Jockety, the Minor League Director. The two of them established the winning culture for that franchise. It was during this era that the nucleus of those winning Oakland A's teams from the late 80s and early 90s was built.
Character in the clubhouse was quality-it really was first-rate. The guys that they drafted not only were better than guys that other clubs were drafting at the time, they were also great characters-good players who had the right attitude and mindset that you could really build a team around.
How did this impact you as a player, and then later on, when you began your coaching career?
I didn't think of these things at all at the time. Since I was living it, I just accepted these things as the norm; from the mentality we developed-playing the game the right way-all the way down to how we wore our uniform.
It wasn't until I progressed further into my career that I realized how good the work programs we had established (in Oakland) were. Everything from how we prepared for games and how we did our early work, to the way that we played each game-we always gave 100%. Players were expected to play well and to behave like professionals-with that came our success. There was no room for guys who didn't hustle or guys with bad attitudes. The expectations were set very high.
I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the Oakland A's organization back then. It made me very well prepared for the start of my coaching career with the Cleveland Indians-who, when I was there in the 1990s, arguably had the most talented group of players ever assembled in the history of baseball.
Who did you get to coach back then?
I had the opportunity to coach guys like Jim Thome, Sandy and Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Brian Giles, Sean Casey, Bartolo Colon and Richie Sexson. What was special for me was that I got to manage these kids from the age of 18 in Rookie ball, to AAA, and eventually the Big Leagues. It's humbling really, to know that some of these guys that I got to coach will one day be Hall of Famers.
Back then, the Indians front office was the best group in baseball. Composed of Jon Hart as the General Manager, Mark Shapiro as the Assistant General Manager, and Dan O'Dowd as the Farm Director-these guys knew how to run an organization. This experience, like my time in Oakland set the gold standard for me, as to how a quality organization was run.
These experiences paid huge dividends when I moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates and eventually, the Baltimore Orioles.
What are your primary responsibilities as Director of Player Development for the Baltimore Orioles?
I oversee the development process of all the minor league players and I also manage all interactions that happen between the big league club and the minor league system. Everything from player instruction, to the teaching process of coaches, managers, and coordinators. Along with that, I also oversee the strength and conditioning program, the medical care of players and staff, and their health and nutrition.
Pretty much all of the development work and planning that goes into each and every player in the Orioles Minor League system, I am responsible for.
From a player development standpoint-how has the process for developing professional baseball players changed over the years?
It's evolved and transitioned. I'm definitely an old-school kind of guy due to my previous experience in the game, but I absolutely acknowledge the importance of technology and modern science and what they bring to the game of baseball. Take health and nutrition-much like our training programs-as the science has improved, so has our ability to tailor to each individual player's developmental needs.
The teaching process has also improved as video technology and stat tracking and analytics have become more available. When I was playing and even when I was coaching in the Minor Leagues, there was no video and we didn't have any analytical information-our 'analytics' came from notes you took with a pencil and some paper after the game. Things like: Where a guy hit the ball during that game, who didn't fare well against breaking balls, who struggled to throw first pitch strikes. All of these things we are now able to track digitally.
How do these newer things like video and analytics improve the coaching process?
Analytics confirm what you see with your eyes. It makes you realize statistically, that what you are seeing with your eyes is accurate.
You can't take the heartbeat and soul out of baseball. Being able to learn things like, how a pitcher's arm angle can affect the depth of a breaking ball is really important, but nothing will ever be more significant than good quality coaching.
What do you find most challenging about developing professional ballplayers?
From a coaching standpoint-kids (physically) develop and mature at different times. Some guys are able to achieve a certain level of play at age 23 that might take another player until the age of 26 to accomplish. What's tough about our job, is that sometimes, if you give up on that guy who might mature a little later, he'll end up in another organization as a pretty darn good player.
To succeed in this business you have to have patience; it really is a virtue when it comes to developing players. You need that, along with good coaches and instructors-they are a huge asset and crucial for any successful organization.
How much work goes into player development? Does each player receive a specific plan?
Take a hitter like Ryan Mountcastle-there's two guys who have primary responsibility over his hitting development-Jeff Manto, the Orioles' Minor League hitting coordinator, and Kyle Moore the hitting coach with the Frederick Keys. Manto puts together the hitting plan before the season, which Moore then executes. For defense, Keith Bodie, the Manager of the Keys, is responsible for the defensive plan for Ryan. If the defensive play of Ryan isn't great, then Dave Anderson, the infield coordinator, Keith Bodie, and myself will sit down and figure out what we want to do, in order to make Ryan better.
It's a really efficient process-you have some great baseball minds working together to put in place and implement these plans.
There's a lot of work that goes into each and every player's development-how do you guys make sure that you (the coaches and instructors), and the players stay on the same page?
When a player's going good, and you are able to take a look back at his video to compare when he was playing well to when he was struggling-it's such a good teaching tool.
Being able to figure out a guy's learning style. There are different kinds of learners-some players are audio learners, some are kinesthetic, and others are visual. Part of our responsibilities as staff members is figuring out what kind of learner each player is.
Some players are better when they can see themselves via video, while others can listen to you talk about their mechanics. Then there are some guys who have to go in the batting cage 'feel it,' and they just keep swinging until they get that feeling back.
An example of guy that has to learn by feel is D.J. Stewart. When there's something that he is working on with his swing, he needs to get out there onto the field to feel his swing. He has to feel his hands get through the hitting zone, and feel his body making progress towards the ball.
D.J. is the kind of kid that if he feels good, he's going to hit good. Talking with him about his swing and showing him his video is not nearly as valuable to him as taking swings outside would be.
Ryan Mountcastle on the other hand, when you show him his video, he's able to see how his hands are set up and how they might move forward when the pitcher delivers the ball. Ryan will see that, and be able to say, "Hey that's it, I see that I need to keep my hands up," then he can start to work on fixing that.
What makes you so effective in your role?
I'm one of the few Directors of Player Development in baseball that sits on the bench, in the dugout with guys during games. I do this for a few reasons: 1) I've been in uniform, on the bench for my whole life, 2) When I'm sitting on the bench I'm able to get a feel for what's on a player's mind by watching their body language and hearing their thought process. When I can interact with a guy right after he makes an error or strikes out, I'm able to right then and there, connect with him and comprehend what's going through his mind.
In my opinion, you're really able to learn a lot more about players by being in the heat of the battle with them. Compare that to what many other instructors do-watch from the stands-you absolutely cannot understand the heartbeat of the game. The heartbeat of the game is so much more beneficial than any sort of analytics or visual recording you get from sitting in the stands.
For every team in the Orioles system I have my own uniform, so that when I'm visiting I'm able to sit in the dugout with these guys and build that connection, even in the big leagues. The players understand that I personally have to make the decision about their playing career. When they see that A) I'm taking the time to experience the game with them on the field, and, B) That I've played and coached before at this level, they appreciate and respect what I've done in my career. As a result, they have an easier time developing a relationship with me.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.