ROUND ROCK, Texas -- Triple-A Round Rock pitching coach Brad Holman isn't the same dexterous player he was in high school, but style points aren't his goal in this game anymore.
He hit the field five hours before the first pitch Friday with three of his pitchers -- long before the groundskeepers were setting up for batting practice. They formed a circle in left field and played with one ball for about 45 minutes using anything but their hands.
The game is hacky sack. Holman has played the game since he roamed the halls at Wichita North High School in Wichita, Kan., with an NFL Hall of Famer named Barry Sanders. No, this game won't improve a pitcher's delivery or increase his velocity, but Holman seeks to complete two objectives in the leisure: break a sweat and build relationships.
"There's no better way to get to know guys than non-related baseball activities," Holman said. "It gets us away from the monotony."
In his fifth season in the Rangers organization, Holman's approach revolves around his relationship with his pitchers to complement his vast knowledge behind the mechanics of pitching. His philosophy has helped the development of some of the Rangers' arms, both young and old. They've all been able to contribute in a season battered with pitching injuries.
"He cares," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He takes a lot of pride in what he does and understands the mechanics of the delivery. He's a big man with an even bigger heart. He has accelerated a lot of guys' development to get to the big leagues."
The Rangers got solid starts last weekend against the Cardinals from Nick Tepesch and Martin Perez, who both worked under Holman. Tepesch spent a season in High-A Myrtle Beach last year with Holman. He made the rotation as the fifth starter coming out of Spring Training and allowed just a run on four hits in 5 2/3 innings Sunday.
"In the way I explain things, it's not necessarily simple; it's just logical," Holman said. "Once they understand it, they can feel it. The inevitable goal is for them to repeat the feeling and not have to be mechanical, or thought out, as they throw the pitch."
Holman jumped up to Triple-A this season, where he helped Perez post a 5-1 record with a 1.75 ERA. Perez allowed two runs on five hits in seven innings when he was called up by the Rangers to pitch Saturday.
"[Holman] really helped me a lot," Perez said. "He talked to me about slowing down when things get rough. Don't be too quick, step back and take a deep breath. He worked with me on my mechanics, talking about my footwork and keeping my head straight when I deliver the ball. He's really good."
Holman also assisted Neal Cotts when he started the season in Triple-A. Holman said Cotts' body spun sideways during his delivery. Holman said Cotts did a "goofy" drill where he stood on one rubber in the bullpen and threw at the opposite plate. He then reversed it throwing off the other rubber in the bullpen, teaching Cotts how to direct a pitch without creating rotation.
"That was the last conversation we had and he absolutely took off," Holman said. "Being an older guy, they take the information and apply it much more quickly than the lower level guys."
Cotts was called up on May 21, almost four years to the day when he last pitched in the Majors. Cotts has a medical file as thick as a phonebook dealing with Tommy John and hip surgeries. He's 4-1 this season with an improbable 0.52 ERA in 15 appearances after such a layoff.
"You can generally tell he cares about you and he wants to find a way to help everyone there," Cotts said. "The way I envisioned it: if he could just help each guy with one little thing, that'd pretty much make his day."
Holman previously worked with Justin Grimm on his delivery timing in High-A Myrtle Beach in 2011. Grimm fixed the problem where he'd "jump to his landing." He'd have a hitch in his delivery as he jumped to land on his front foot and it affected his command.
They hooked up again recently in Spring Training and Triple-A Round Rock to start the season, where Grimm learned phrases like "staying compact," and "engage your core," which helped him stay true to the plate and find his target.
"He understands the mechanical side of things, but he can explain to you in five different ways," said Grimm, who still keeps in touch with Holman. "One of those ways is going to stick with you, where I've had some pitching coaches in the past explain it one way and you can't understand it. He says things in five different ways that mean the exact same thing but it's whatever clicks with you.
"A lot of times when I'm having my success, those are the only two things I'm thinking about."
Holman gives credit to some of his Minor League coaches during his six-year career like Bryan Price, now the pitching coach of the Reds, and Jeff Andrews, now the Double-A Frisco pitching coach. Holman was mainly influenced by Calvin McLish during his time with the Mariners. McLish's main philosophy was to keep it simple and logical. Holman said he'd rush to the copy machine when McLish wrote notes so he could memorize. He said he still has all the notes and calls the files the "Calvin McLishims."
"Some people are trying to complicate things as far as baseball is concerned," Holman said. "Though I think you can break it down intricately as you want, the goal is not for me to know and for me to make it complicated. It's to convey it to the pitcher and for him to know it. That's when it becomes valuable information."
Holman's passion to understand the mechanics began when he was drafted by the Royals in 1990. Holman said the organization suggested he should throw sidearm after throwing 115 innings his senior season at Auburn University-Montgomery. He went into his first full offseason stronger, but he was released early in his second season. He received another shot with the Mariners where his brother, Brian, played at the time. The pitching coach suggested he should throw up top, and Holman said his velocity jumped dramatically.
"At that time, I just became a student of the game," Holman said. "Even as a player, I was always interested in knowing how things happened and why things happen. ...Through that, I've adopted my own philosophies and my goal is to make it make sense to the player."
Holman made 19 appearances with the Mariners in 1993, his only season in the majors. He always tells his players to ask three questions so they don't fall victim to bad advice: does it makes sense logically, does it feel good and does it create good results.
He moved back home once his playing career ended to be a aircraft mechanic at Boeing, but he was laid off following 9/11. It propelled his coaching gig, spending six years in the Mariners' Minor League organization before jumping over to the Pirates' farm system in 2008. He reunited with Andrews, who was the big league pitching coach that season. Andrews landed a spot with the Rangers the next season and helped bring Holman on staff.
"You could see [his coaching ability] in the way he got along with his teammates," Andrews said. "In the Minor Leagues, you see a lot of selfish guys. He certainly was concerned with his own career, but that didn't stop him from encouraging other players to do their best. He always seemed to get along with any kind of player. You saw that, and it's half the battle right there."
Holman said he dreamed of becoming a big leaguer and challenging the best hitters in the game. Now he helps others accomplish that same dream. Holman would like to take his pitching philosophy to the Majors someday, but he doesn't want to undermine anyone to receive that opportunity.
"I just think it speaks a testament when you see guys in the clubhouse that were with him this year or with him in the past, and I think he's had a part in pretty much everyone on this pitching staff's career,"said Josh Lindblom, who was converted to a starter from the bullpen by Holman.
If that ever happens, leave some luggage space for a hacky sack. It seems to be working for the Rangers.
Master Tesfatsionis an associate reporter for MLB.com.