The Baltimore Orioles (93-69) will be playing in its first postseason game in 15 years in the American League wild-card matchup against the Texas Rangers on Friday night. Amidst the Orioles’ magical run, we have the good fortune of sharing an interview with John Stockstill, who is the Director of Player Personnel for the Baltimore Orioles.
In his current role with the Orioles, Stockstill oversees the day-to-day operation of the Minor League system and utilizes his scouting background to procure talent for the organization at the Major League level. In his seventh year with the team, Stockstill has also served as the club’s Director of Player Development and Director of International Scouting.
Prior to joining the Orioles organization, Stockstill had spent his entire professional baseball career—as a Minor League player, scout, and front office executive—with the Chicago Cubs.
Stockstill provided Access Athletes with a rare look into the inner workings of the MLB’s most resurgent franchise. In his candid responses, he openly discusses the challenges that professional baseball players face as they advance through the farm system and transition to the Majors.
Access Athletes: What kind of career assistance do you provide for your Minor League players while they’re still in the farm system?
John Stockstill: Yeah, it’s difficult, the point you bring up. Different players are from different backgrounds, and then, different players have different financial situations. So baseball is kind of a rare sport because you have about, on average 40-45 new players [coming] into a system every year, of which a few make a lot of money, and most of them do not. In general, you’ll have people that have great off-season programs, which they set up themselves. They’ll pay strength and conditioning guys on their own. And then there are other guys who can’t afford to do that.
So one thing baseball has evolved into for every club in the last several years is that most clubs have full-time trainers throughout their systems, and then strength and conditioning guys, nutritionists—all those kinds of things to help them while they’re with the club.
In the off-season it’s a little different; you try to give them a plan. We have different coaches give them a plan, trainers, etc., but sometimes those will conflict with the outside sports training. It is very common in today’s game for a lot of players to have their own personal trainer, their own hitting coach, and their own specialty coaches throughout the off-season.
AA: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the NFL’s off-field resources, but they have a multi-faceted player development/engagement program that includes player assistance services, continuing education, internships for career development, and education on the financial aspects, among other things. Does the MLB offer anything similar to that for its players?
Stockstill: Well, nothing as advanced as that. Thirty years ago they would pay a bonus for your education, then it became “x” amount of dollars, and then it was maxed out at about $3,500 per semester. And then probably about 15 to 20 years ago, they started paying whatever educational costs for players. Most every club will provide some sort of educational opportunities for the players, especially those from Latin America and other countries. Teachers that help with language and things like that. But I would venture to say nothing as extensive as what you’re describing in the NFL.
AA: So it’s more on an ad hoc basis at the club level?
Stockstill: It is, but it’s also very much what the club wants to afford.
Sadly enough, in a lot of sports, the last dollar spent is in the area you’re talking about. We have a saying in scouting, “Nobody’s paying to watch us scout.” You know, it’s all about the athlete generally at the Major League level, or acquiring the athlete and then trying to get him to that Major League level. We have 9 Minor League clubs, and virtually 290 Minor League players. So when you’re talking about a football club, you’re probably under 100 total athletes. So for a club like ours, we are in the neighborhood of 300-330 total athletes employed by the Orioles. What I’m saying is that there’s a tendency that there wouldn’t be a high dollar spent on the off-season and off-field situations.
AA: A saying that comes to mind is that you have to “invest in the product.” As you know baseball doesn’t have as many off-field issues as some of the other professional sports, but I think it’s still essential to assist players both on and off the field.
Stockstill: Yeah, I think it’s very important, but what you’re hitting on is kind of a change in the structure. You can go back 40-50 years and baseball is a great game, because whenever it was invented, it’s basically [still] the same game. The same length to first base, the same dimensions. A lot of the other sports have changed a lot of things. Having said that, it’s amazing [that] the people do the same thing in baseball they did 50 years ago, 60 years ago. It is a 6-7 month sport. The Major Leagues is more—7-8 months—but there are a lot of players that are adapted to a year-round schedule. That’s where the strength and conditioning comes in, that’s where the mental part of the game [comes in], the total package of coaching that you wonder when some club is going to make that investment. That investment would mean several million additional dollars to provide that for all the players on a year-round basis.
AA: From your experience, what are some of the biggest issues players have in making the transition to the Majors?
Stockstill: Well, specifically, we’re talking about young kids—the first thing is the bat. …You can watch a kid hit all he wants to in high school with an aluminum bat and then there’s no guarantee that he’s ever going to adapt to the wooden bat. A wooden bat is about an 8” surface, of which 5.5” is where the sweet spot is. An aluminum bat is better now than it was 10 years ago. They’ve taken some of the juice out of it, but you can still hit the rubber part of the bat and hit it out of the ballpark. The bats today are simply going to shatter in pro ball. So the type of adjustment for any player is getting adjusted to a wooden bat.
AA: What about managing their money, the off-field demands, and dealing with the media? What are some of the biggest issues players have in adapting to the new pressures brought on by the Major League level?
Stockstill: It all the depends on the background that they come from, because the first thing they have to do is start it at a low level. If you’re signed out of high school, you’re going to go to rookie ball, or some version of rookie ball. The toughest thing for players to understand, no matter how great their parents think they were, or their coaches, is that it’s 5-8 years to the big leagues. For the phenoms, [even if] you rush up there, it’s still 3, 4, or 5 years. Occasionally you’ll see that high school guy get there at the 3rd year, maybe the 4th year, but for the most part, it’s 5-8 years if they ever get there. And then, there are injuries, there are all kinds of things. I’m not up on all the exact numbers right now, but in general, it’s probably about 90% of the players who sign a contract never spend a day in the big leagues. So their pressures are… It’s actually a reversal. It’s that they’re heroes inside, but then they have to come home for 4, 5, 6 years, and [they] still have never spent a day in the big leagues.
AA: It’s weathering the storm to get there.
Stockstill: Well, it’s weathering the storm, it’s weathering life, it’s weathering how your body matures. Your scouts look for certain body types that will get through ages 19, 20, and 21 in good condition. That’s why the overall makeup is so important. Is the player going to work his way through the down times, or is he just going to give up? Especially the kids today, you get a million dollars, and in most communities that sets you up for life if you take care of your money. So in 4-5 years, if they’re not doing well, there’s a danger that they leave the game.
AA: What are some of the life skills seminars and workshops you offer the players once they get to the Major Leagues, if there are any?
Stockstill: Yeah, I can give you an example. We’ve had a form of instructional meetings in Baltimore where we would bring in the media training, we bring in nutritionists, and we go through virtually every aspect of what they’re going to go through over the next 5-8 years, and especially once they get to the big leagues. Then when you’re down in the lower levels, you’re really talking about 20 or 30 fans. Some of these kids came from southern Texas football where they might have 50,000 fans at a football game. Then they sign a contract and go to rookie ball and are playing in front of 12 fans. So they have to be trained in not only how to get along with the media, but also how to answer properly and go forward. We tend to use the strength and conditioning guys and the medical trainers to talk to a lot of the players about a lot of the issues for health. And then, like in general it doesn’t happen as far as sitting down with every player, but most players have a plan going into the off-season. Probably 10% of your players are going to have some sort of weight problem, eating issue, or just health [issue] in general that’s going to cause them to come to spring training out of shape in some aspect.
AA: While player development/engagement representatives for leagues such as the NBA and NFL specifically administer the programs for their players, is it safe to say that the ‘norm’ for a Major League Director of Player Development is mainly focused on developing the talent within your Minor League system?
Stockstill: That’s exactly right. The Farm Director, or the Player Development Director, is in charge of, in a nutshell, determining who the players are by virtue of a lot of scouts and a lot of opinions, and then what development is applied to those players. So, yeah I think you’re going to see a big difference in our sport, as compared to the NFL.
Our version of player development is physical. It’s getting [players] ready to play in the big leagues, or what is it going to take to get them to be able to hit a ball, to get them to be able to throw strikes, all that. But it is also the psychological part, the mental part, the whole off-season program too. The player can come in and eat his way out of the game. It’s the most common mistake there is. The next thing you know he’s gained 30 lbs., or the body changed, things like that. So I think there is a similarity. I’m trying to think of a good way to say this. It falls under what you’re responsible for but not what you do.
AA: You brought up some of the mental game and the sports psychology. I read the SI article “A Light in the Darkness,” in which the author, Pablo Torre, quoted Dr. David McDuff [an experienced sports psychiatrist and mental skills trainer who has worked as the senior team assistance physician for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens since 1996]. According to the article, in recent years, the MLB has seen a surge of players being placed on the DL for emotional disorders. Can you describe your interaction with the team psychologist Dr. McDuff and the club’s EAP framework in mental prevention and intervention?
Stockstill: I would probably turn you over to Tripp Norton [Director of Baseball Administration for the Baltimore Orioles] on that. We do go through a certain process when a player needs help. I won’t talk much about that. But at the same time, I’ll give you an example.
When a high school player signs, he’s played maybe 20-25 games in the spring, and he might play 30 or 40 in the summer. His first full year in MLB, he’s going to play 144 [games], plus spring training, plus something in the fall. So he’ll go close to 200 games. The first thing they do is wear down physically. Once they start to physically wear down, they mentally wear down. … You’re trying to look at a 5-year projection, to where in their 3rd or 4th year they physically get stronger, they mentally get ready for that 162-game season at the Major League level, and that 162 comes after 35 in spring training.
AA: Do you think the Orioles have a progressive approach to the sports psychology facet of the game?
Stockstill: I think we’re improving. I can tell you that it has not been a strong suit here in the past. Just being honest with you, it’s generally tied into the budget. But, I believe that that is changing.
AA: Why do you think the statistics of professional athletes going broke or getting divorced are so high?
Stockstill: I’ll tell you about baseball. Baseball is the toughest game to play, and you better want it more than anything else in the world or you’re not going to play in the big leagues. And 90% of them don’t to begin with! They’re so focused, and that’s what they want to do, that it’s a stress on any secondary part of life.
AA: So when you’re a baseball player, everything else is pretty much secondary to the sport?
Stockstill: Again, I’m not saying it should be; I’m saying that that is the athlete’s focus. I started playing when I was 1 ½ years old. I spent my whole life to get where I got to, and I didn’t get to the big leagues. So it’s interesting, but as I get older, the number of people that you run into that are doctors and lawyers that would kill to be able to play one day of professional baseball, but they don’t understand that it took the guy 20 years to play professional baseball.
The point is you can go to law school if you have a certain level of intelligence and eventually pass the bar. But to be a professional athlete and to hit a baseball coming 95-mph with consistency, it’s something that you can either do or you can’t. God [either] gave you a certain talent, or he didn’t. So it’s a combination of God-given along with what you get with all of that ability. So that comes back to your last question. A lot of athletes weren’t given a lot of money early in life. Imagine at 18... Right now these signing bonuses for first-rounders are millions. So when you get that kind of money—I don’t know, at 18 I didn’t get that kind of money, so I don’t know what I would’ve done with it—but it’s not a surprise that there’s a lot of people who lose their money.
AA: What advice would you give to younger players to more effectively deal with both the transition and the pressures of playing in the Majors?
Stockstill: Well the first thing we try to do with the kids is have them understand it’s their career. We’re all, by nature, excuse makers. We want to blame someone else. So the first thing, at either 18 or 21, I tell them to ask the question, “What are you ‘gonna’ do about it?" If you can’t open September and you didn’t get to play, are you going to go to the Dominican Republic and play winter ball and be a better player, or are you just going to complain?
We tend to say, “Oh wow, this guy got 500 at bats and I only got 300 at bats.” Well good, what are you going to do about it? So you’re the guy that gets 500 bats next year? Anything that happens to you along the way, you’ve got to overcome it. Now one of the things that I do, which I’ve got a very good job, I get to go in and turn the player around. I respect the fact that the player that gets sent out of the big leagues is upset, rightfully so. He wants to be in the big leagues. And a lot of times it’s simply a numbers game where the guy that gets sent out might be out-hitting the guy that’s stayed up there. So we’re in the people management business, and the sooner you can get them turned back around and headed back to the big leagues in a positive way, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing in all aspects of the game. We try to get them to realize that they have to turn themselves around, and then they have to find out “where am I headed wrong here? I have to get back myself.”
AA: Basically, you empower your players?
Stockstill: You don’t empower them but you try to get everyone else to empower them, and it doesn’t always work. The mental makeup of a lot of players, or coaches, or administrators is to blame someone else rather than to look at “Hey, here are the holes in my situation.” Now that may have been multiplied by other factors, but here are the six things I could’ve done to keep myself out of that slump. So you can go higher. The best hitter in the history of the game could be the hitting coach and if the player himself can’t get himself out of the slump, he’s going to have problems.
AA: What does the process of cutting a player entail?
Stockstill: Well, it’s tough, but in baseball it’s two things. You get the player that has had a long career, who has been playing for 7-9 years, that you didn’t have to cut. Then there’s the other player that got a chance to play, but really only got one year. … Let’s say he signed out of college and he got to play one summer and hit .250, but what he needed to do was hit .310 and do a lot of things. It’s almost like a champion boxer—you got to knock the champion out. So the player that only gets 1 or 2 years is always tougher because they legitimately feel like they didn’t get the opportunity.
AA: Right, they didn’t get a fair shake.
Stockstill: But the player that plays 5, 6, 7 years, don’t get me wrong, they’re not happy either, but at least they know what they did or didn’t do. Every player believes he’s a big leaguer. That’s what’s great about the game. I never go into any conversation not understanding that this guy thinks he should’ve played in the big leagues and we should’ve done something different to get him to the big leagues. The main thing, if you just look at the numbers, the person that you feel sorry for is the person that makes the statement that “we treat them all the same.” Everyone knows that’s not accurate. You may try and you may mean well, but the guy that gets $7 million dollars isn’t getting treated the same way as the guy hitting a buck fifty (.150) in rookie ball. That just isn’t the case.
I always look back at Michael Jordan, and it was great that he played baseball, but had he been a normal player he would have gone to rookie ball, then he would have went to Birmingham and played AA. There are players who hit .320 and never get to AA. So don’t tell us they’re all treated the same, and the players know that.
AA: Right, so it’s just a defense mechanism?
Stockstill: Right, it’s a defense mechanism. “Just give me that same shot.” You know, some players, you can look back at their careers where a guy goes up at age 19 and he hits .300 for 3 or 4 months and every player in that organization says, “Okay, just give me that same chance. Why was he handpicked in order to be able to do that?” So, chances are not equal is what I’m saying.
AA: What post-athletic career transition services or programs are offered to the players who are cut or are retiring?
Stockstill: From the club, I would say… I can’t say none. I would say advice for the most part.
Emi K. Ryan assisted in editing this article.