Orioles beat writer Ed Encina talks with Orioles new pitching coach Roger McDowell about bullpen coach Alan Mills. (Baltimore Sun video)
It didn't take long for the Orioles to realize that Alan Mills would one day make a good major league coach. The former Orioles right-handed reliever had a successful 12-year major league career, and more importantly, he had an astute ability to relay his experiences to teach young pitchers in the minor leagues.
He has ascended through the Orioles' minor league system, from his first job as a pitching coach in short-season rookie league Aberdeen in 2012 to the proving ground of Double-A Bowie, where he was the pitching coach for the past three years, playing an instrumental role in the development of major league relievers such as Mychal Givens and Donnie Hart.
"He's the most focused guy I've been around," said Givens, who has used Mills as a sounding board since reaching the majors. "And he knows there are times when you're basically going to fail, and at the same time there are going to be a lot more times when you're going to succeed. So it's about balancing both things out so you can be successful."
And now, six years into his professional coaching career, the 50-year-old Mills will open spring training this week — pitchers and catchers report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex Monday and have their first workout on Tuesday — as the Orioles' bullpen coach. He replaced Dom Chiti, a popular figure who departed for a job as the Atlanta Braves' director of pitching.
Mills inherits one of the best and most stable bullpens in the majors, one that includes three All Stars in closer Zach Britton and set-up men Brad Brach and Darren O'Day.
Though the Orioles celebrate promoting from within, Mills is one of the few major league coaching staff hires to be promoted from the minor league system in recent years.
As a player, Mills wore a Fu Manchu and steely glare that combined to create an intimidating presence on the mound. His greatest strength as a coach has been a nurturing personality. Much of his coaching is rooted in discussions rather than mechanics. He coaches players on overcoming the mental hurdles of attacking hitters.
"His baseball conversations are very deep," Orioles player development director Brian Graham said. "He talks a lot about being aggressive and pitching inside and changing speeds and being able to throw your off-speed pitch ahead in the count and having confidence in your fastball. Use your fastball. Have confidence in it."
In the minors, pitchers such as left-hander John Means are quick to praise Mills. Means said Mills helped immensely in adjusting his pitch sequencing when he was making a difficult adjustment from high Class-A Frederick to Bowie.
"With every pitcher in the organization, nobody has a bad thing to say about Mills," Means said. "He's just helped so many guys' careers, and his track record with helping guys make the big leagues is unbelievable. He's open to everybody. He'll try to help everyone."
Mills, himself, dodges the credit he is given in the organization, that his coaching style is more about guiding pitchers in the right direction but not trying to do too much.
"Coaching, it's a funny animal," Mills said at last month's FanFest. "Sometimes, when people think you are doing well as a coach, usually it's the players [who are doing well]. When I get complimented that, 'You did a great job with this guy, you did a great job with that guy.' Usually those guys are talented. For me, I try to stay out of their way and help them in any way I can.
"When I do the most coaching, it's usually with a guy that is struggling — a guy that is not having a lot of success," Mills added. "Then, you kind of strap your boots on, you go back to the drawing board and start over. But the guys that are doing well, you sit back and try and not get in their way."
That will be very much in line with his new duties as bullpen coach, working with new pitching coach Roger McDowell.
In his bullpen, he will have two relievers he helped develop in Givens and Hart. Both enjoyed breakout seasons under Mills in Bowie, Givens in 2015 and Hart last year. Hart, a side-arming left-hander pretty much rose through the Orioles organization along with Mills, having him in Aberdeen in his first year of pro ball.
Then there's the mentoring he has given Givens, who finally emerged as a prospect in his third year of his transition from being a middle infielder to a pitcher.
"He knows everything about the grind you have to go through," Givens said. "He brings the kid out in you, so he makes it a lot of fun and not too stressful. It's a job, and it's going to be hard work, but at the same time, it's a childhood game. That's the thing about him. When you start having fun and you start winning, it's a good time at the ballpark. He understands everything that comes with pitching and just knowing how to talk to guys and how to communicate and have fun doing it. He's good at bringing that mental part of the game to you, but at the same time he's a grinder. He's going to help you as best as possible."