Graham's role blends analytics, coaching

Tigers' new player development director focused on 'building complete hitters'

April 3rd, 2020

DETROIT -- Before the coronavirus pandemic put baseball on hold, Minor League players would’ve been in the final days of Spring Training this weekend, making plans to head to their various stops for Opening Day next week. That would’ve included the prospect-heavy Tigers system, from a stacked group of pitchers at Triple-A Toledo to a young bunch of hitters spread across the lower levels.

At the center of it all is Kenny Graham, the Tigers’ new player development director. While he was hired from the Brewers to work across various departments in the Tigers' organization, his big task from general manager Al Avila is to develop a hitting protocol throughout the system.

It’s a challenge many other organizations have taken on in the age of analytics.

“There’s 30 organizations that are data-driven now,” Graham said in Spring Training. “It’s not that we’re trying to do anything better than anyone else. We’re just looking to do it different than anyone else, and I think the combination of the staff we have and the research puts us in a really good position to execute and to put it in place.”

It takes on a unique twist for the Tigers: In an era when home runs are prized and launch angle is preached, how do you create a hitting philosophy for an organization whose Major League ballpark plays big, like Comerica Park does?

“The big part of the field that most every hitting guy talks about, that also gives us a lot of chances for extra-base hits, too,” Graham said. “As prevalent as homers are these days, we’re not looking to just build one type of hitter. We’re looking to build complete hitters that can drive the ball to all parts of the field. There’s a lot of space for balls to fall down out there, and a lot of chance of success for our guys, especially us being a young club. We’re going to keep getting younger, and the guys we have coming up, they can still leg those doubles and triples out. So I see it as an advantage for us.”

Graham is not looking to create a cookie-cutter style of hitting for everyone to follow. He doesn’t want his speedy, athletic players to hit the ball with the exact same angle as a slugger. What he wants are hitters who make solid contact and then let their individual talent take over.

“We want to hit the ball hard,” he said. “We want everyone to hit the ball hard, no matter what type of player you are. As far as we teach mechanically, we’re just trying to make as consistent contact with the baseball as possible.”

Prior to joining the Tigers, Graham spent three years as the Brewers' Minor League hitting coordinator. Before that, he spent seven years in various roles in the Blue Jays' system, where he learned from current Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce. Graham's first exposure to blending metrics with coaching, however, came more than a decade ago as an independent ball player in Gary, Ind., where he played for former Tigers scout Greg Tagert.

“When he would search for players, he was searching on baseball-reference and looking at walks and strikeouts and digging into some of the more granular stuff,” Graham said. “I started to see how he’d get players for his independent team, and it blew my mind because he was so good at it. He would look at the numbers and find the guys he liked number-wise, but then he would call their college coach, their high school coach and anybody he could find to talk to, to say, 'What kind of character does this guy have? Does he care about the right things? Is he a winner?'”

That’s the blend Graham is putting to work now. His job description in the Tigers' media guide includes “a focus on utilizing data and technology to aid growth and performance.” But his job title includes working with coaches and allowing them to coach. After all, he was a hitting coach, too.

“I’ll talk with the players and visit with them and say hi, and obviously I’m looking at their numbers and their swings, and getting to know them personally,” Graham said. “But for the most part, it’s interacting with the coaches. And in baseball there’s so many ways of saying things, but it’s us talking the same language, being on the same page on what we see and how we’re going to approach things. That’s the advantage of some of the technology.”

His answer when asked how he approaches a player in an 0-for-20 slump says a lot about that balance.

“When a guy’s in that 0-for-20, we’re going right after what pitches he’s swinging at, what decisions is he making as far as pitch selection, what pitch locations, what counts,” Graham said. “And then you dig into, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How you feeling? Everything all right back home?’ Then it’s, ‘OK, everything’s good, making good decisions, so what’s happening with your swing?’”