Q&A with Appy League director Brian Graham

September 19th, 2022

Brian Graham is a baseball lifer. After playing Minor League Baseball, he’s gone on to manage, run player development departments, even be an interim general manager. For the last couple of years, he’s helped Major League Baseball run the Draft Combine. Now he’s adding a new responsibility to his resume: Director of the Appalachian League. MLB Pipeline had the chance to talk with Graham about the league and what he hopes to accomplish.

MLB Pipeline: Let’s start with how you got this gig. You were the farm director for the Pirates and the Orioles (and acted as interim GM for both organizations). How did you get from there to where you are now?

Brian Graham: I started doing the Draft Combine, and through that I met John D’Angelo and Bill Francis [of MLB]. The Combine has been unbelievable, what a great experience. And then they called me one night and asked me if I would have any interest in the Appalachian League. They explained the format, the purpose, how it works and what the objective and the goals are. And it just sounded like a really interesting opportunity.

MLB Pipeline: For the uninitiated, what is the relatively new mission of the Appy League? People might still think of the old Rookie-level Minor League.

Graham: It's a college summer league, and it's supported by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball. It's for the top freshman and sophomore players in the country. The purpose isn't just to play summer baseball, the purpose is to be a developmental league as well. The Appalachian League cities have great history, over 100 years of players going through the Appalachian League. The stadiums are historic, and there are some beautiful new stadiums. The idea is that they want to incorporate a player development approach to the Appalachian League with these young college players and that was really intriguing to me.

MLB Pipeline: You have an incredibly deep player development resume. Was that the part of it that really made you sit up in your chair a little bit more?

Graham: Yeah, it really was. The emphasis is on player development and the emphasis is on getting the best players into the league, and on the players having a great experience and leaving the league better [than they were when they arrived]. They're giving me a lot of leeway to hire coaches, managers, put ,a development system in place and let these players understand what professional baseball is like. By that I mean routines, the way you work out, the way you practice, early work, the extra work, the things you do to play every single day. Because you play every single day in professional baseball, but in college, it’s obviously not like that. The approach is a little different.

MLB Pipeline: How much do you think it helps that it's underclassmen, as opposed to players really entering their Draft year?

Graham: The league is open to juniors and even seniors if there was an opportunity that fit. We know that the Cape Cod League is great, and that's where the premier players go that are going to be juniors or even seniors. This is a different approach with the younger kids coming into the college ranks. It’s exciting, being able to mold young baseball minds. The mental side of the game is so huge and that's something we're going to be able to teach in the Appy League as well how to play every day, how to prepare yourself every day, how to handle the grind of playing every day.

It's not a showcase league like the Cape, but it is a showcase league from the standpoint that the All-Star Game and championship game are going to be on MLB Network. The league is going to have state-of-the-art technology… Trackman, Synergy, Rapsodo, Diamond Kinetics. We're going to have every piece of information available that will go not just to college coaches, but will go into a database at MLB for all the scouts to have the information. These kids will want to go to the Combine and will want their information out there for the scouts. It's really exciting.

MLB Pipeline: The Combine has gotten better from one year to the next. Do you think there’s room for improvement in the Appy League as well? I would imagine it takes some time to convince the highest level of players at those ages to want to come because they don't yet know what it is.

Graham: That's one of my major goals, that at the end of the season, the players go back to the colleges and they tell all their teammates, “Wow, you need to go to the Appy League. It's unbelievable. The playing surfaces are great, the travel is super reasonable, they take care of you in the clubhouse, they feed you and there’s good swag.” You get to be part of the Appy League and we're going to take care of you first class, everything from living conditions to meals to travel, to equipment, you know, it's all sponsored by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball.

MLB Pipeline: Because you've run player development departments multiple times, are there things from those experiences you're going to bring into what you're going to do in running this league?

Graham: I think the positive things that I learned being a director of player development are the things that [are] going to translate. I can give you an example: individual player plans. I want to make sure that the college coaches have an input on what they would like each player to improve on through the course of the summer. You have two months to work on base stealing or reading the ball off the bat in center field or drag bunting. Each coach will have it in writing, because when you put something in writing with a player, they become accountable. The player becomes accountable and the coach becomes accountable. And you sit down and you say, “Look, here's what we need to get better at through the course of the year.” We’ll have the college coach involved and the player involved, along with the coaches and managers involved with the teams. Let's have a true development plan in place. Let's make these kids better. I want the coach at UCLA to say, “Man, my player got better during his two months in the Appy League.” That'll make it a tremendous success.