Sometimes when he’s talking to a young player at some stop in the Toronto Blue Jays minor-league system, Kenny Graham pulls up an old video of Kevin Pillar on his iPad. It’s from 2011—a rookie-ball game between the Danville Braves and Bluefield Blue Jays on a dusty little field next to a skate park in small-town Virginia. It was the last day of the season, and a 22-year-old Pillar was hitting .341 for Bluefield, a few points behind Danville’s Brandon Drury for the Appalachian League batting title. Pillar and Drury each started the day 1-for-2, at which point the Braves lifted Drury from the game to protect his lead in the race. Danville’s coaches had done the math: Pillar would need hits in each of his next two plate appearances to beat Drury—a challenging proposition considering Danville controlled the pitches the young Blue Jays prospect would see.
But Graham, Bluefield’s hitting coach at the time, knew something they didn’t. He’d seen Pillar take balls off his shoelaces to the outfield wall; seen him reach for pitches a foot off the plate and lace them down the right-field line. It didn’t surprise him one bit when Pillar shot a single up the middle in his third at-bat and came to the plate in the seventh with a chance to claim the title. Danville pitcher Lucas La Point was given clear orders not to throw anything Pillar could hit. But the plucky young outfielder wasn’t going down without a fight and lunged at a slider tailing into the opposite batter’s box, sticking his ass out as he bent at the hips to take the most ridiculous swing Graham’s ever seen and shoot the ball to the right side. Danville’s second baseman knocked the ball down, but a charging Pillar dived headfirst into the bag ahead of the throw to earn his single and his batting title. “I get goosebumps just talking about it right now,” Graham says. “Kevin wasn’t a high draft pick, wasn’t a highly touted prospect, but he was always going to get to the big leagues. There was never another choice for him. And to play a small part in it along the way, it’s something special.”
That small part in one of Toronto’s best recent player-development successes led to a much bigger part for Graham, who’s now a hitting coordinator for the Blue Jays. He’s part of a deep staff of more than a dozen former players, coaches and instructors who rove the continent, splitting their time between the club’s minor-league outposts. From the teenaged rookies just starting their careers to the advanced prospects in the upper minors knocking on the door, the coordinators keep busy developing what the organization hopes will be the next generation of Blue Jays. It’s an important job, one that requires an ability to understand and address the needs of hundreds of players, whether it’s what they do on the field as athletes or off it as young men. “Our players rely on these guys a lot,” says Gil Kim, Toronto’s director of player development, who oversees the staff of roving coordinators. “The coordinators, the players and the organization all have similar goals. But how do we all get there? The coordinators help keep everybody on the same page, pulling in the right direction, and help the players feel truly involved in the process. They’re involved in a player’s life, his career, his development—they form a really close bond.”
Coordinators also spend plenty of time working with the coaching staffs at the various affiliates. They help develop the strategies and processes those coaches act on during their seasons, and help set the course each player will take as the organization tries to get the most out of their talent. It requires a keen eye, patience and a knack for efficient, effective communication. It also demands an exceptional amount of time away from home. Tim Raines, who had more than 2,600 hits and 800 stolen bases during a 23-year MLB career, makes his home in Arizona with his wife and five-year-old twin daughters. But during baseball season, it’s hard to say he lives there. “Usually, I’m on the road for around three weeks, then I’m home for three or four days, then it’s back on the road for two or three more weeks,” Raines says. “It’s tough on the family. But I enjoy what I do. Getting the opportunity to work with kids, make them better, see the progress, see these guys go from rookie ball to the big leagues—it’s rewarding, really.”
This is Raines’s third year as an outfield and baserunning coordinator for the Blue Jays, which means he’s worked with an awful lot of outfield prospects. But the two he’s focused on most are the two with the most realistic shots at putting together a career like his—Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey.
Alford is as green as they get. He only started to play baseball full-time last season after giving up on the football career he had pursued for three years in college. A consensus top-50 prospect in all of baseball, he’s won the genetic lottery athletically, and Raines says “it’s only a matter of time” before Alford is an everyday major-leaguer. The 56-year-old appreciates having such a raw mound of outfield clay to mould. “We talk a lot about the game itself,” Raines says. “I try to get him to really watch the game, watch the keys, watch the opponent. Look for weaknesses, know what other guys can and can’t do. When you’ve got a guy with so much ability, sometimes that can be the difference that makes him that much better.”
Pompey is a different sort of project. Rushed to the major leagues at 21, the Mississauga-born switch-hitter won the Blue Jays everyday centre-field job out of spring training in 2015. But a month later he was in triple-A, and a month after that he was dropped to double-A as he struggled with the mental side of a game that features more day-to-day failure than success. This is the often overlooked role of a coordinator: the managing of a young athlete’s mind. Raines has worked with Pompey since Pompey was a teenager, and while Raines considers himself much more of a nuts-and-bolts fundamentals coach than a psychiatrist, he admits that most of the discussions he’s had with Pompey have been about how to deal with the psychological stress of the game. “I don’t think it’s a secret that he has all the tools and has the opportunity to play at the major-league level for a long time,” Raines says. “But something else is missing. So I’m on him all the time to keep working; to not lose his focus; to keep getting better.”
Of course, Raines—or “Rock,” as everyone calls him—can’t be there all the time. When he and Pompey are in different cities, Raines calls the 23-year-old after games to check in. Not every player would appreciate that, but Pompey says the discussions help. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone to talk to who’s been there. During a game this May in Buffalo, N.Y., where Pompey started the 2016 season for the triple-A Bisons, the pair leaned on the dugout railing, looked out at the opponent’s outfield alignment and considered why certain players would be positioned in certain areas for different hitters. “I feel like that goes a long way for me, rather than just going into the cage and working on flips or having him hit me fly balls,” Pompey says. “This is a thinking-man’s game. When I’m talking to Rock, I learn and notice a lot of stuff that I don’t always see watching the game on my own.”
Of course, coordinators aren’t telling players anything they don’t already hear from their coaches. The organization has strict guidelines about how it wants to teach players to hit, field and pitch, and coordinators spend an awful lot of time on the phone talking to each other and coaches at the affiliates about how to act on those plans. But the benefit of a player hearing it from a visiting coordinator can be as simple as the variety provided by a fresh voice.
John Tamargo Jr., an upper-levels hitting coordinator who often works in tandem with Graham, has seen both sides of it. He’s coached at many stops in the Blue Jays system since 2010, including a stint as the Lansing Lugnuts manager beginning in 2012. This year, the organization asked him to begin the season as a roving coordinator before going to Vancouver to manage the high-A Canadians in mid-June. As a result of that experience, Tamargo is especially aware of the need to tread lightly when visiting an affiliate as a coordinator. “You come into town, you ask questions, you talk to the guys, you get to know them,” he says, “and then you let the coaches coach.”
At the same time, Tamargo knows one of the biggest benefits he can provide is delivering the same message the organization’s been stressing, but in a new way. Things can get stale for players who hear the same words from the same coaches every day. Coordinators can break through that monotony by presenting the concepts differently. Of course, things can get stale for coaches, too. Coordinators can give a different perspective on what’s ailing a struggling player and how to get through to him. “We’re always bouncing ideas off each other. We all want the same thing,” he says. “You want that young player who has a lot of tools, who can really play, but also is the hardest runner down the line. Also plays defence like a pro. Also never takes a pitch off.”
Pillar knows that kind of effort is what got him to the majors. He remembers struggling to get his bat going early in the first season of his professional career, the same one in which he won that batting title. He was hitting barely over .200 through his first 15 games, and remembers sitting in Graham’s office after a particularly tough night, searching for answers. “I know I got drafted in the 32nd round,” Pillar remembers saying that day, “but I’m not this bad. I’ve hit my whole life. I know how to hit. What can I do?”
Graham was understanding yet stern with Pillar, telling him that if he didn’t develop an opposite-field approach at the plate, he’d never succeed as a major-league hitter. The next day, they spent hours in the batting cage, Graham flipping buckets of balls in front of Pillar’s bat as he taught the young player a routine to help correct his tendency to pull the ball and improve his hitting to all fields. “That was Kevin. He had a different mindset; he always wanted to improve and get better,” Graham says. “He never let up. That’s why he is what he is, because of how hard he works.”
You could say the same of Graham, who played two years at Indiana University as a leadoff-hitting centre-fielder but was never drafted. While he worked on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at the University of Indianapolis, he began working as a graduate assistant with the school’s baseball team. He parlayed that into a job as a recruiting coordinator at a junior college and worked his way into independent ball, where he served two years as the hitting coach for the Gary SouthShore RailCats. That got him noticed by the Blue Jays, and he’s been steadily working his way up the organizational ladder ever since. “Going through what I did in my career and not realizing the potential I had, I’m able to reflect back and see what I did wrong,” he says. “And I see a lot of those things in players today; things that I fought myself as a player. I could’ve been a lot better if someone had told me some of this stuff. And I believe that helps me to reach out to our guys in a similar way.”
You can ask Pillar about that. Fresh out of college, he was immature and temperamental. He struggled to deal with adversity at the plate, something he’d never experienced until he reached pro ball. On a hitless night while playing for Bluefield, Pillar came back to the dugout following a strikeout and whipped his batting helmet and gloves at a wall before storming off to the clubhouse. While he was gone, Graham took the helmet and gloves and threw them in the trash. Later, when Pillar went searching for his gear, teammates filled him in on where they could be found. After Pillar fished them out, he confronted Graham in the clubhouse. Graham told him that if he didn’t treat his equipment with respect, that was where it deserved to be. “We went at it for a little bit,” says Pillar. “He basically treated me like a child, and that was necessary, because I was acting like one. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate what he was showing me. But when I look back on it, that was a pretty big learning moment for me. Because those aren’t the things professionals do. That’s not the way you need to carry yourself. In some ways, Kenny’s been like a father figure for me in this game. He’s had a huge effect on my career.”
Pillar is the quintessential example of what hard work and good coaching can do for a young player. He went from an unheralded college player drafted 979th overall to an everyday regular for the Blue Jays who was second on the team last year in hits. That’s why the organization employs so many coordinators and has them rove around so much: You never know when you’ll find a partnership between a coach and a player that unlocks the athlete’s potential. It’s impossible to quantify stuff like this—how a personal bond can encourage better performance on the field—but baseball people swear it exists. “The coaches who make the biggest impact are usually the ones you trust and respect. You care about them and they care about you,” says Gil Kim. “That’s huge.”
Graham says he’s found that kind of connection with Ryan McBroom, another later-round college draftee. McBroom won the Midwest League MVP last season, putting up a league-best 39 doubles and an .869 OPS for the Lugnuts with Graham as his hitting coach. You won’t find McBroom on many top-prospect lists and, at 24, he’s more than a year older than the average age of the high-A Florida State League he’s been assigned to. But Pillar was too old for all of his stops as well. “Ryan’s kind of following that path,” Graham says. “A guy who, you look at his swing year by year and it’s just always getting better. That mindset that he and Kevin both have of constantly being accountable and pushing themselves and doing the work every single day—that’s how you get ahead in this game.”
That’s why Graham keeps the video of Pillar winning the batting title—to show young ballplayers the determination it takes to succeed. He certainly wouldn’t use it to teach swing mechanics, but the fact that Pillar is where he is now can be a very positive example for current prospects. Pillar has the video on his iPad, too. When Graham got the hitting coordinator job this winter, Pillar called his old coach and they reminisced about it. “I remember sliding into first base and just being super emotional, knowing I did it. And I came out of the game and I’m sitting on the bench and the adrenalin is wearing off, and I look down at my arm. I don’t know if I got the guy’s cleat or a rock or what, but I had this huge open wound running right down the inside of my arm. I didn’t even feel it. But I had to get it butterflied and taped up, it was crazy,” Pillar says. “And it was all worth it.”