The Braves’ Secret Ingredient
I had the great fortune to spend some time recently with Braves Director of Player Development Kurt Kemp. Kurt was our guest on the April 21st edition of “Braves Banter,” a Thursday evening podcast that I co-host along with Dan Schlossberg here on seamheads.com. Kurt was a fantastic guest. If you have an opportunity please check out the archived podcast. I enjoyed our interview so much that I asked him if he would mind talking further and Kurt was generous enough to give me an hour and a half of his time last week. Our conversation was so enjoyable, the time flew by in what seemed like a blink of an eye.
Kurt and I sat in a conference room at Turner Field and simply talked baseball. He shared stories about his time as a coach at Oregon State and his recruiting trip to Steelers safety Troy Polamaluâ€™s home. He spoke about his time coaching Curt Schilling, who to this day still refers to him as Coach Kemp. I was impressed with how candid Kurtâ€™s answers were to questions both on our show and during my interview. His enthusiasm and positive demeanor immediately struck me during both conversations. As we spoke last week a re-occurring theme kept coming through, a major reason why the Braves have been able to sustain their level of success over the last 20 years is they inject and retain â€œgood peopleâ€ throughout all levels of their organization. From the players they sign to the front office personnel, to the administrators, they surround themselves with, as Kurt put it, â€œgood peopleâ€ and therefore good things continue to happen.
I asked Kurt how he spends his time. I asked whether he favored one level of the minor league system over another. I thought with AAA players being so close to making the major league club the majority of his time may be spent evaluating those players. He said he actually spreads his time as equally as he can between all levels of their minor league affiliates, making sure all of their players are progressing. Through the first and second halves of the season he tries to spend five consecutive days with each ball club so heâ€™s able to see each starting pitcher throw and each position player get several at-bats and opportunities in the field. Heâ€™s looking to evaluate the progress players are making and if they have made the proper adjustments since his last visit. He pays close attention to his scouting reports and notes heâ€™s made from previous visits.
With respect to the pitching staffs, he and his scouts are grading every pitch. They are looking to see if each pitcherâ€™s fastball, breaking ball, change, etc., have improved or declined a half to a full grade since his last visit. Itâ€™s a tough test for the starting pitcher. Starters donâ€™t always have their good stuff each time out. So much can play into whether a particular pitch is working like weather conditions or overall feel. Itâ€™s tougher to accurately judge the progress or regression of a starting pitcher since Kurt will only see him pitch once per trip. The sample size for position players and relievers is much greater since over a five-day period he can see those players multiple times. Therefore he relies heavily on his managers, coaches and scouts to give him a better sense of how their players are coming along.
I asked Kurt if he could be more specific regarding how the Braves have been able to sustain their standing at or near the top of baseballâ€™s elite since 1991. He pointed to two things:
1. They have a consistent baseball approach. As an organization they come together and agree on a consistent approach on how to teach the required skills and then they go about employing that process across all of their affiliates. He went on to say they teach the same approach to hitting, fielding and pitching from their rookie league teams all the way to the major league club. They have one philosophy that every member of the organization buys into. The drills are the same, repeated at all levels as playerâ€™s progress through the system. By the time they reach Atlanta they have mastered those drills and are more comfortable when they go through practice and game preparation at each progression through the system.
2. Every winter they take their top 20 prospects and bring them to Atlanta for their Winter Development Program. During the program they show the players things like how to get to the stadium so we donâ€™t have another Pascual Perez incident. They show them around the clubhouse and the stadium so they wonâ€™t be overwhelmed when they get called up. They give them media training so they know how to interview properly. They give them financial information so they understand how to handle their money. MLB security and local law enforcement officers meet with them to tell them what to look out for and where not to go. They have a health and welfare program to teach them about STDs. They also give them nutritional guidance so they understand how to take care of their bodies both during the season and the offseason.Â Keeping their bodies fueled well in the offseason will help them stay strong over the long baseball season.
We talked at length about how first, second and third year players play an increasing number of games each season. The Gulf Coast League Braves in the Rookie League play a short 60-game season. Coming back the next season they have to be prepared for spring training games plus 140 games at either A ball with the Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League or in AA with the Mississippi Braves of the Southern League. The AAA Gwinnett Braves play a 143-game season in the International league and if the player progresses enough to take the short ride South on Interstate 85 to Turner Field theyâ€™ll play 162 plus the post season. So conditioning their bodies for an annually increasing schedule is vital over the winter.
All of that prep work is great but Kurt said there are two things they canâ€™t prepare young players for: 1) playing in front of 50,000 people and 2) the speed of the game. He said you canâ€™t simulate what it will be like for them to take the field or hit in front of 50,000 people. You also canâ€™t simulate what it will be like playing against the best the game has to offer night after night. Those things only come with experience.
To that point the information Kurt gave me was great but I still felt like there was more to it; more to what makes the Braves model for success unique. I feel certain every team teaches their players about the benefits of good nutrition. Itâ€™s not a secret that you have to fuel your body for success. Plus, the Winter Development program sounds fantastic but as a Red Sox fan I know they do something very similar. I would bet other clubs do as well. There has got to be something more that the Braves do to stay competitive while keeping their player salaries almost flat since 2000 at approximately $90,000,000. Kurt then spoke about how their amateur scouting staff supplies the organization with â€œraw uncut diamondsâ€ that the coaching staff shapes into great players. He gave a great deal of credit to his player development staff plus the managers and hitting coaches throughout their organization.
But then he said two things that I believe sets the Braves apart from every other organization. He said â€œthey put the interest of the players ahead of anything elseâ€ and that members of the organization work very hard because theyâ€™ve always got the image of John Schuerholz, Paul Snyder and Bobby Cox in the back of their minds and they donâ€™t want to let those individuals down. There it wasâ€¦pride and passion but not just on a poster hung in the break room or framed on a conference room wall. Something sought out and instilled in all of their employees.
Kurt spoke reverently about Snyder, Schuerholz and Cox. He said they put together a great plan, a foundation for success, and then went about executing that same plan year after year. He said, â€œno one wants to come in here and let those three guys down by failing to continue to execute that plan.â€ Kurt spoke personally about his drive to make Paul Snyder proud for taking a chance on him. Snyder was the Braves amateur scouting director through most of the 1980â€™s. He was the assistant to the General Manager in the early to mid 1990â€™s and then director of player development through the end of the 90â€™s.
Snyder helped Bobby Cox draft and develop players like Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, David Justice and Chipper Jones. They constructed the championship teams of the 90â€™s and Kurt is committed to living up to the expectations of the guy who hired him. He said that same sentiment carries through the organization. Everybody, from the people who take tickets at the gates, to those who show you to your seats, to the front office personnel, to the coaching staffs, everyone is passionate about continuing to execute the plan those gentlemen created.
So whatâ€™s the secret? The Braves have a solid foundation built on hiring good people, who have a positive outlook, they put the best interests of their players and employees ahead of everything else and they couple that with a strong, sincere desire to live up to the expectations of the three men who made the organization into perennial winners. When you put the interests of your employees first and then fill them with pride for the organization, success will follow year after year. No greater case in point can be demonstrated than 14 consecutive division championships and a World Series title over the last 20 years.
Thank you Kurt Kemp for sharing your time, talking baseball with me and for teaching us the power that surrounding yourself with good people can have on sustaining organizational success.