Scout's Honor Premium Interview: Bruce Dal Canton

Bruce Dal Canton is one of the most important people in the Atlanta Braves' organization. He is in charge of the young pitchers at a very important step along the minor league ladder. He also has a unique history with the Braves, having pitched with them in the 1970's and then coached the Young Guns in the late 1980's. In a preview of his new book "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team," BravesCenter's Bill Shanks talks with Myrtle Beach pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton.

SHANKS: Let's talk about when you were a pitcher for Atlanta in the 70's. For years there was a stigma about pitchers not being able to succeed there. Did we just not have the right pitchers there or was there something to the ballpark not being right for the pitchers?

DAL CANTON: Well to tell you the truth good pitchers can probably pitch anywhere. We were struggling at that time in the history of the Braves, but your good pitchers like (Phil) Niekro and the people that can pitch a little bit were successful there. I really that's what it comes down to. The ballpark shouldn't make any difference if you can pitch. We probably just didn't have the arms that they have now. I think that makes a big difference.

SHANKS: When you became pitching coach did you have to talk to your pitchers about Fulton County Stadium?

DAL CANTON: I would never probably tell my pitchers, "Yea you got to watch yourself in this ballpark." I always told them you couldn't pitch by the ballpark you're in cause that was always the thing when I was in Kansas City going into Boston with that short left-field fence. They'd always say you can't pitch the right-handers in or the left-handers away but you still have to work both sides of the plate. I don't care what park you are in. So you can't even think about that. You still have to go with what your strengths are. If you are a sinkerball pitcher or whatever or if you've got a live, riding fastball you still have to use it. When we had Glavine and Smoltz and those guys when they first came up they didn't really pitch that bad there. We had some other problems with the team at that time. Starting pitching was I thought was fairly good at that time. But I don't think you can really blame the ballpark. To me, that's the easy way out. I know the air is a little bit lighter there and it carries there, but that's something that doesn't even enter your mind, not as a pitcher anyhow. It might after you look back when the year is over. But you can't change your style of pitching. If you're a sinkerballer or you're a four-seam fastball pitcher that threw the ball up a little bit. If that's the way you throw a baseball, you can't change. You have to be able to locate your pitchers better, but again I would never bring that up and tell a pitcher, "Ok now you're pitching here in Atlanta you've got to make sure you keep that ball down better. You can't change your style of pitching just because of the ballpark you're in.

SHANKS: Do you think the ballpark did bother some pitchers?

DAL CANTON: It may have. I know in looking at what pitchers do in Colorado, with that lighter air up there, I know they say the breaking balls don't break as much and things like that. If you're pitching there, I think it does probably affect you a little bit. I've heard more than one pitcher say that the breaking ball is not as good and things like that because of the lighter air. But it shouldn't have been that big a difference in Atlanta. But I can see it in a place like Colorado where it would. But there's a lot of pitchers who go into Colorado who have been successful in other places and all of sudden have trouble up there. I think Hampton is a good example right there. I don't think the ballpark was the problem in Atlanta.

SHANKS: More then just suspect pitchers then?

DAL CANTON: Yea well that's what it is. Good pitchers will find a way to get you out no matter where they are.

SHANKS: I remember when I was growing up we had the big bats in Horner and Murphy and they did well there so people thought the team should be built around big hitters in that ballpark. When did you see the tide turn toward pitching?

DAL CANTON: Well it probably was in the mid-80s I would think when we started most of our picks pitchers. That's when we got the Glavines and Smoltz and Avery and people like that. I think that's when they realized you have to start with pitching. From little league to all the way up in the big leagues, it will always come down to the pitchers, the guys you have on the mound. If you can put yourself a good staff together, you're going to be in the ballgames. Then you have to find a way to win. But pitching and defense go hand in hand. If you have good pitching, you better have the good defense to go with it. I know that hurt us a little bit too in Atlanta that our defense wasn't as good as it is right now.

SHANKS: And the field too?

DAL CANTON: And the field also. We started drafting pitchers as a number one priority, and it was successful. Even now, we emphasize pitchers quite a bit. We probably draft more pitchers than anybody. The old saying, "You never have enough pitching." That's very true because if something ever happens along the way, either they hurt themselves or some of them don't develop the way you feel that they will. You can never have enough good arms. Atlanta's been at a disadvantage the last thirteen years since we've won the Eastern Division. We never get that real top pitcher that's out there. So our scouts do a heck of a job getting some of the pitchers we have here. It's a compliment to them. If you're organization was broke, that's where you start. You start with pitching and then go from there. Even when we were struggling in the late 80s when I was the pitching coach there, you could see the quality of pitchers there. They had the pitches. Now it was just a matter of them learning how to pitch at the big league level. That's when I started seeing those guys come up you know we had some hope here in Atlanta now.

SHANKS: You took over as pitching coach in 1987, the year the transformation to a pitching-team really took place. What do you remember about that period?

DAL CANTON: Our big worry was that we're going to lose some of the kids. I think that's when I realized how we had something special. They handled themselves so well in those lean years. That's something they really can't coach. We worried about them getting discouraged, but they kept going. Their makeup was so great. They knew that they were good, they went out there and kept challenging hitters, but they were not affected once they were out there. That was a pretty special group right there.

To me, the biggest factor of guys who can pitch in the big leagues and the ones that don't is makeup. Glavine was excellent. Smoltz was excellent. Avery was excellent. So those are three what we called good makeup guys also. They had a tremendous amount of confidence in themselves and they weren't afraid to throw the ball over the plate and go right after the hitters. When they made their pitch, they wanted the guy to swing at it. So they all pitched with a tremendous amount of confidence.

SHANKS: When 1989 rolled around and Glavine and Smoltz were in the Atlanta rotation, Avery was still a year away, but Greene and Lilliquist were close, the talk was growing that this was a rotation to watch and they were called "The Young Guns." How did they as a group handle that pressure of having the limelight being on the pitchers in Atlanta – which was a change?

DAL CANTON: Sure I can remember they called them the "Young Guns." I've got a picture in my house of all of them dressed as cowboys. Pete Smith was part of it to. But I think they handled it very well. But again, that's putting a little pressure on these kids but seeing how they responded to it shows you the kind of makeup they had. It didn't faze them a bit. They still knew they had to go out and do their job, which they did. That was a lot of pressure when you think about it because Atlanta was basing all their hope on their young kids. And they did the job. You couldn't ask for any more than what they did.

SHANKS: One pitcher that didn't make it out of that group was Kevin Coffman.

DAL CANTON: Kevin Coffman had a power sinker. He probably had one of the best power sinkers I've seen. The bottom dropped out of it and it was about 91 or 92 (mph). His command was his big thing. He didn't have the command that Glavine and Smoltz eventually got and what Avery eventually got. For him to get to the big leagues, I thought he did a good job with that. He had a lot of confidence in himself.

SHANKS: Do you think the presence of those special guys made it easier to have a blueprint for what we were looking for in the future?

DAL CANTON: Sure. I really think so. We have a lot of guys that have great makeup, and to me that's what's going to determine who is going to pitch in the big leagues and who doesn't. Even guys with a little less talent, if they've got that drive and determination and they believe in what they're doing, they'll pitch in the big leagues somehow. The good pitchers will find a way to get there. I think we have a good group of kids here right now who are in that category.

SHANKS: Do we have the type of kids who have the makeup to set them apart? Like Horacio, didn't his makeup kind of set him apart?

DAL CANTON: Sure. Horacio had good pitches. But I think with Horacio he had to prove to people he could get people out. When I had him in Myrtle Beach, I think that was the first year he pitched without any type of injury, and he won fifteen games. I think that might have been something that clicked where he could say, "Hey wait a second. I can pitch here now" and his confidence level just went up and up from there. Of course he had the elbow surgery after that. I think he really started believing in himself at that time. Again, his makeup is outstanding.

SHANKS: His determination to come back from that injury was something.

DAL CANTON: Sure. Those are the kinds of guys that you want. He more or less had a taste of the big league level (in spring training), he knew it was there, so he did a heck of a job rehabbing that arm and getting back to where he was before. You can't coach that. That's a God-given ability right there. The more guys we can get like that, I'll take my chances a lot of times even when a guy's stuff may not be as good as someone else's. He's got that drive and determination, so I'll take my chances with him anytime.

SHANKS: The debate of high school versus college pitchers. What's your take on that as far as the work that has to be done with a high school pitcher compared to the work you do with a college pitcher?

DAL CANTON: There's obviously more work to do with a high school pitcher because at the college level, especially with a pitcher who is pitching for like a major university, to me that's like a couple of years being in the minor leagues. They should be a little further along. But one of the things we like to do here with Atlanta is to get these guys as early as we can to more or less teach them our way and training them our way. But when you get a guy like (Mark) Prior who was out there from USC, he's a pretty polished kid right out of that college. You knew it wouldn't take him long to get there. We just like to get as many good young arms as we can and run them through our system with our coaches and everybody working with them and make them the type of pitcher we want them to be. Of course, if there's a good college pitcher out there…you know they usually go real early in the draft and that's why another reason why we go after high school kids more.

SHANKS: But we can mold them our way. Do college pitchers sometimes develop more bad habits along the way?

DAL CANTON: That's hard to say. It probably depends on the individual pitcher. I know Trey Hodges came out of college and he was a pretty polished pitcher too. There's another case where Trey was not an overpowering type pitcher, but he knew how to pitch. Again, he's along that same line as a Maddux or Glavine. He's not afraid to throw the ball across the plate. He'll come after you. We just like the high school kid cause we get the chance to develop them ourselves and work with them ourselves. Of course by getting guys out of college, they are a little more set in their ways and sometimes we have a little problem convincing them to try it our way. Basically, once you get them out of college, they're pretty established as to what they want to do as far as the way they throw the ball and things like that. If you get a college pitcher, the first thing you do is see what he's got and see if you can improve him. If you have to make a change, they're a little more reluctant especially if they've had success in the past. They'll be a little more reluctant to make that change. The good ones are always willing to listen and that's what you want.

SHANKS: Dan Meyer fits that mold right? For us to pick him that high as a college pitcher, there had to be a lot there.

DAL CANTON: Yea and I tell you we were talking about makeup, he's in that same category. I think that's what probably sets him apart too. I had him in Myrtle Beach, and that was what impressed me the most. He'll figure out how to get up there, and he's fearless also. He's not afraid to challenge a hitter or go inside the strike zone. He's not afraid to throw the ball inside. He's a pretty intelligent boy. He'll figure out a way to get up there, and your good ones always do.

SHANKS: The scouting department has given you some good pitchers to work with over the past several years, right?

DAL CANTON: Sure. I think Roy Clark has done a great job over the past two or three years. Macay McBride, Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, and people like that. These, to me, are good quality pitchers. They've got a good chance to pitch in the big leagues. Where we draft we don't always get the so-called "top guys out there." So I think our scouts do a great job of more or less beating the bushes and coming up with players like that, pitchers like that.

SHANKS: The Smoltz-Glavine-Maddux era is coming to an end. Is it smart to keep that pitching pipeline going?

DAL CANTON: Sure. You have to. You never have enough pitching. Atlanta is into that philosophy now. You've got to try to keep that pipeline going. If there's an extra player out there we'll take the pitcher probably. It's by design and it's working. I can sure understand why we do it and I agree with it 100%.

SHANKS: Do you find the kids that you have thinking that they could be apart of the next wave in Atlanta? Is that extra incentive for them to do well?

DAL CANTON: Sure. Atlanta's got the reputation now of being a pitching organization. I think any pitcher we sign wants to be apart of that. Sometimes I know we get people from other organizations, they want to come to Atlanta because Atlanta's always been known for their pitching. Even now sometimes we'll go play on the road against a visiting team, I've heard guys say, "You guys always have good arms over there; you always decent pitching." But it's by design. Atlanta is known as a pitching organization. To me, that's the best compliment they can give you. How far you go is going to be determined by your pitching.

SHANKS: Do you feel a good amount of synergy between the scouting and player development department? How important is that?

DAL CANTON: Yea I do. I think Roy Clark does a great job. He comes around and watches all of our teams in the minor leagues. We talk all the time. It's a team type thing.

SHANKS: Do you feel they trust you guys in player development to get these guys developed?

DAL CANTON: Sure. It takes both. It takes good scouts and it takes good development people to get the job done. I think we've got that combination here. I scouted for a couple of years too, so I know what those scouts go through. They're always looking for players. When you see a high school kid, you're not quite sure how he's going to pan out. To me, when I use to scout, I'd look for mechanics and I'd look for makeup. Obviously, they are doing something along that same line. The relationship between both departments is great here.

SHANKS: When you're working with these young pitchers, what are the things you try to work on to let them advance to that next level? The jump from Myrtle to AA is a big one.

DAL CANTON: Yes it is. Most of the mechanics work is usually done with our lower classifications, the rookie ball and down in Rome. By the time I get them they're fairly well straightened out. But the key thing we always stress is to make sure you're alignment is going straight to the plate and using your lower body. The power from your pitching comes from your lower body and how you coordinate everything together. We stress that quite a bit, your alignment to the plate and things like that.

SHANKS: When they get to AA, that's when you try to coach them how to be a winner, right?

DAL CANTON: Sure. I always felt that AA was the separation level for the kids who can pitch and are going to move up and the ones that are going to kind of stay right there. If you can be successful at the AA level, you can pitch in the big leagues. I'm not talking about just getting by, but kind of dominating the league a little bit in AA, there's no reason you can't pitch in the big leagues. You're that close. I know the two times I got called up to the big leagues, I got called up from AA not AAA. I firmly believe that, but now that I see these kids at Myrtle Beach a little bit, I say that some of these guys could go to the big leagues. If you can pitch successfully at AA, I always thought that was the separating point.

Bill Shanks's book, Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, will be out before Opening Day. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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