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Joe Vavra’s job has already begun.
Earlier this month, Vavra — the Detroit Tigers’ new hitting coach — traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet with a few of the team’s young hitters near the organization’s academy in the country: infielder Jeimer Candelario, shortstop Willi Castro and third baseman Dawel Lugo.
“We spent a lot of time,” Vavra said. “I know those guys, but I spent more time getting to know them on the offensive side, seeing how much they know about themselves and analytics and everything that goes with it.”
Vavra, who served as Tigers quality control coach the past two seasons, was moved to a familiar role for 2020: He spent six seasons as Twins hitting coach from 2006-12, working with a number of American League All-Star players.
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But perhaps Vavra’s trip to the Dominican Republic was more than just an information-gathering session.
“Trying to send a message,” Vavra said. “That’s the intent — to get a jump start. More or less, the clock is ticking. The opportunity is in front of those guys and I don’t know how much you can accelerate the program, but just getting to know who they are, what they’re capable of and what they took out of last season.
“It’s still fresh enough, so they got time this winter to work on stuff that’s fresh and maybe point them in the direction of what we know in the analytical side is some of the things that maybe they’re not used to trying to catch up on.”
Vavra is tasked with turning around an offense that struck out more than any team in major league history in 2019; an overwhelmingly inexperienced, impatient, powerless offense that figures to be returning a similar bunch.
Detroit Tigers quality control coach Joe Vavra (52) poses for a headshot on media day at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Detroit Tigers quality control coach Joe Vavra (52) poses for a headshot on media day at Joker Marchant Stadium. (Photo: Reinhold Matay, Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)
Recently, Vavra spoke to the Free Press about his hitting philosophies and how he hopes to impact the Tigers’ young hitters in 2020:
On the primary point he will hammer home to Tigers’ hitters: “This is going to be all about you. This is your deal, but you have to know what you’re up against and who you’re up against on a daily basis, and you have to come up with plans. And your plans have to be solid, because you’re going to be called out in front of your teammates every night on your plan. So, if you’re not prepared to have your plan or understand what a plan is, that’s what we’re here for, to get you through that, so you can actually understand what you’re planning. And that’s not an easy task.”
What exactly is the plan he hopes for hitters to adapt? “Player by player. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s from all different aspects, mentally, physically, emotionally and they’re challenged in different ways by the pitcher. …
Detroit Tigers third baseman Dawel Lugo (18) hits a RBI double during the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.
Detroit Tigers third baseman Dawel Lugo (18) hits a RBI double during the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo: Raj Mehta, USA TODAY Sports)
“If you commit to a plan, you still have to understand what two strikes are about, you can sell out for the entire at-bat, which so many guys do, on one particular pitch or one location, that so many people do, I don’t think it gives them a very good foundation because they’re so young. So I’m still going to try to get them a little more fundamentally sound.”
On his main goal: “Our goal is to try to get them to use more of the center part of the plate and there’s some things, per guy, per individual that we’re going to have to do and understand themselves and it’s case by case, but everybody’s going to have to come up with a solid plan on a daily basis and they’re going to have to give us answers and do their homework on what they’re up against.”
Joe Vavra, the Detroit Tigers’ quality control coach, works on finalizing the team’s spring training workout plans on Wednesday.
Joe Vavra, the Detroit Tigers’ quality control coach, works on finalizing the team’s spring training workout plans on Wednesday. (Photo: Anthony Fenech/Detroit Free Press)
How important is hitting the fastball? “That’s my philosophy, you can’t get off the fastball. You just can’t get off the fastball. You have to be able to hit the fastball, good plus fastballs. A lot of people say hunting heaters. I had Jim Thome. It was about hunting heaters. Don’t get off the fastball, so yeah, never get off the fastball. You get guys guessing too much. We had a lot of guys guessing because from pitch to pitch, their plans would change and young guys are always known to get a fastball inside or to get something inside and it gets them excited and once you get them excited inside, you don’t think you can get to a (fastball) inside and also, they go something soft away so now you’re on the other side of the plate, you lose control and balance of the strike zone real quick. That’s why you just stay on the fastball, look for it down the middle.”
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On the intersection between analytics and coaching, and how it has changed the modern-day hitter: It’s even before that. We’re just a product of society, but that’s what’s happening in the game, your amateur, junior level, high school, college guys, they’re all going to be feeding off it and teaching it so it’s kind of what we are. But if you understand from Ted Williams, I mean, I believe in launch angle, I’ve always taught it but I also believe in how you have to understand to get on the plane of the ball and how to get plate coverage, you have to know where your outside corner is, you have to pretty much know the parameters of the strike zone to have a good solid base, you know what you can handle, what you can’t, first and foremost, before you can think about launch angle.”
What do you look for at batting practice? “I just think (players) have to know their strike zone, where the points of contact are, out in front of the plate, whether it be going the opposite way or pulling the ball, they have to learn how to get the bat on the ball. I don’t want any foul balls in BP. I don’t want to see them. I want to go right-center field gap to left-center field gap. … In BP, it’s about slow reps, slow speeds and you’re not getting your head out, you’re never going to be able to get that thing in the game. I’m all about spins off the bat. I want true spins coming off the bat. I don’t want side spins or angle spins, I want them to learn how to get the bat head out in the right way.”