Since joining Gardenhire's staff in 2006, Vavra has been the Twins hitting coach through good times and bad. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Joe Vavra has been the Twins hitting coach since the 2006 season. Prior to that, he was a minor league instructor with the Twins organization. In that time, Vavra has presided over three batting titles and two MVP awards. Late in the afternoon of the season finale, Vavra took time to chat with Twinkie Town's Brandon Warne just outside the clubhouse at the batting cages about hitting, young players, and the day-to-day operation of being a hitting coach.
Joe Vavra: I try not to talk about myself as a hitter, because what I’ve done really doesn’t matter. It’s about what I can do for them, and what they can do for themselves, and how we can get them to the level of success that they need for our ball club to be successful.
Brandon Warne: When I researched you as a hitter, you had really good discipline (K/BB ratio, especially). Is that something you preach, or like to project upon your hitters, or do you really have to consider them individually?
JV: No, it’s an individual thing. Power hitters are going to strike out. I think we go too far with that. We get a lot of power hitters trying to be slap hitters, and I’m trying to get these guys to think doubles and home runs if that’s what they bring to the table. You should know your role to within the ball club. If you’re at the top of the order -- and that’s what I was -- you’re meant to be disciplined. I had to show the third and fourth hitters all the pitches. If I saw six, seven pitches in the at bat, that’s six or seven that the guys behind me saw as well. Plus, if I lead off, the number two hitter worked off me, and vice versa. You let the guys at the top of the order run, and make sure you see some pitches. The third and fourth guys, they’re the cleanup hitters. They’re the ones that are supposed to be driving the Cadillacs, and I was driving the Fords.
BW: So there’s a bit of a preconceived notion that the organization is more of a "go the other way/don’t care much about home runs" philosophy-wise. Care to put that to bed ?
JV: No, it’s not that at all. I mean, we have a lot of young hitters, and we teach young hitters balance. You certainly don’t want to take their power away. Or say, take a pull hitter and make him go the other way. You don’t want to take away the strength from the kid; that just shocks him. You want him to be able to use it, but you also want to be able to push the outfield back on the opposite side of the field. Probably 70 percent or more of the pitches are likely to be away, so they do have to learn how to hit the ball the other way, and have some kind of balance to the playing field. If the field is tilted, they better have outstanding power to the pull side. You see a David Ortiz, who we had in this organization, and well, the ballpark changes the way you go about your hitting. I think the perception with Target Field is that you can’t hit home runs here, and they get that in their mind. I’m totally of the opposite mindset; you can drive the ball out of this ballpark. It’s certainly playing smaller than it did last year. This singles, slap-hitting stuff, that’s Denard Span to a degree, and it’s Ben Revere. They’re that type of guys; they’ve gotta get on base and gotta attack the opposite side, but they also gotta be able to pull it. You can’t be just on one side of the plate, so to speak, and that includes those two guys.
BW: As someone who still plays a bit, I’ve always believed in ‘hit it where it’s pitched’; is this an oversimplification or is that pretty much right on point?
JV: It really depends on the hitter. If you’re a gap-to-gap, spray hitter, then that’s what you’re trying to do. But, it depends on the count. If you’re aggressive on the offensive side of the count, you can take an outside pitch and pull it. You’re looking for balls in certain zones, and you’re disciplined to those zones. You don’t have to get defensive until you get to two strikes.
BW: When it comes to hitting, what are the basics foundation-wise?
JV: I suppose that’s a bit of a loaded question, but it’s really balance. You start out trying to get a hitter balanced, and that means to not show any leaks. By leaks, I mean you’ve got a hip leak, a front foot leak, or a shoulder leak. You try to stay balanced so you can cover the zones. If you watch the boxes that you see on TV, the FoxTrax or whatever they call them, you see nine boxes. You have to cover those zones. That doesn’t mean you have to be strong to those zones, but you have to be able to cover them. If you can’t cover two or three of those zones, and you show you can’t, the pitchers are going to eat you alive by attacking those zones. Then all the sudden you’re looking at your weaknesses and trying to cover them up, and all the sudden you lose your strengths.
BW: I’ve heard you’ve been using Brooks Baseball as a tool; is that true?
JV: Absolutely. Basically, it’s a 20 inch wide plate by 24 inch vertical, and Brooks shows pretty much right to the point where the pitch is. I can grade the pitchers; I can grade the umpires. I can see if the umpire calls three or four inches off the plate. Brad Penny, for instance, had a few starts that I was watching where everything was away off the plate, and the umpires were calling it for him. It was three different umpires, so I told the fellas when we played Penny that we had to be ready for pitches three to four inches off the plate to be called strikes, so we’ve got to expand our zone. It makes it less frustrating as a hitting coach because you know what to expect. The umpire’s probably going to call it out there, and then you start understanding the umpires and what they’re seeing, versus being kind of aggressive and being mad at them. We got all the technology, like the overhead views, and you see ‘em three, four inches off the plate and they’re calling them strikes, and you don’t know why. Then you look back at the f/x and see that the last four umpires that called the guy did the same thing, and you don’t get as frustrated.
BW: What other electronic tools or websites do you use in your daily operations?
JV: Well, we have the B.A.T.S. system. I can go on there, and I can see any pitch sequence. I can see trends. I can analyze catchers. A lot of work I’ll try to do is analyzing the catchers, because two catchers don’t call the same game with the same pitcher, so you’ll try to see the differences. So, the B.A.T.S. system is very good. I don’t have to do a lot of stat analysis with the stats out of the regular newspaper because that’s within that system. The f/x system is really good for me; I can see rotations, spins, velocities, and release points. I can see if there’s a change in release point on the breaking ball, so we can look for a little something different from the pitcher. I mean, you can use it to the Nth degree, but there’s only a few of the guys that can really handle it. For those, I’m prepared for it, but for the younger guys -- some of them that aren’t used to the technology -- you’ve really got to simplify it and dumb it down. For them, it’s just too much.
A lot of times, when they get here and see all this technology, they get overwhelmed. So, I’ve kind of learned that with certain guys you just have to say ‘here are the zones, get a pitch on the plate, and don’t expand the zone.’ When they come up out of Triple-A, I don’t even say anything to them. It’s all confidence; it’s all positive. I’ve got to give Player Development the benefit of the doubt in what they’ve taught him, and how much they know. They’re going to be excited; they’re probably going to expand the zone. You give them a big time frame to go about their business and see what they can do before you interject anything. When the league tells you, or you start to see trends of what the pitchers are doing, then it’s time to take action and try to make an adjustment. Adjustments at this level are really hard, and they take time to make.
BW: If you were to break down your time with the players percentage-wise (video/training/etc.), what’s the general rule of thumb? Is it different with each guy?
JV: Well this year we’ve had rehab in there too. At one time I had seven or eight rehab guys, along with 13 healthy guys, so I had 20 hitters to work with every day. Every morning when I get up, if we’re facing a new team in a new series, I’ve got to analyze every pitcher, 11 or 12 of them, that they have, and I have to cover them in detail. I’ve got an organized chart that I go through, and I fill in the blanks. I look at the video, I look at what’s current, I get the f/x stuff, I do the B.A.T.S. stuff, I get all that stuff and I analyze it before I get to the ballpark, because once I get to the ballpark, I have the rehabs at 1:00 or 1:30. Then all of the sudden, the 12 or 13 guys I have that I need to spend time with are just a sea or a flood; I can’t get everybody done the way I want to get them done.
So, most of it, at least with guys from Triple-A, is mechanical, straightening out some things that you see that are happening to them, and trying to cover some holes. You have to improve their strengths and cover their holes, and you spend a lot of time doing then. Then, you have the one-on-one where you talk about what I saw on video, and what they saw on video. Most of the time, they haven’t even looked at the guy yet. You say ‘OK, here’s what to look for. See what you think. What’s your gameplan?’ We try to go from there. A lot of times, on a day-to-day basis, we can’t possibly physically go in there and look at video together too often. I have a monitor right on my desk; that plays everybody’s at bats versus each other. It plays the current pitcher’s last outing, and then we have the overhead monitor that shows his last start. It’s pretty tough to try to get everything in and cover every detail, so you gotta leave it up to the player and that’s kind of tough too. Like I said, there’s too much technology and what to look for. You try to simplify it for them, and it’s quite a process.
BW: I don’t even mean this slightly as a joke: Is there a certain amount of psychiatry to your job?
JV: Yeah. I learned I’m not a very good concussion psychiatrist. I didn’t do very well with that. Yeah, it is. You try to keep everything positive, but you also have to be an instructor and a mentor in a lot of ways. You’ve got to put your foot down, but that’s hard to do. If you don’t do it the right way, you can turn them off. You’ve got to draw the line in the sand, and say ‘You know what, son, you’re failing because of this. Or, you’re giving away at bats because of this. Or the same token, you’re driving the ball, but I think you need to use the pull side now. You’re slapping everything. Or, you’re taking too many first-pitch strikes, and you need to be more aggressive."
There’s a lot of that stuff that goes on a daily basis. I’ve given guys certain plans, and sent them out there and asked what their plans were for that night, and they go out and do totally the opposite. The first pitch that’s thrown out there sometimes changes their whole day, and you go ‘Wow, what happened between what we studied, talked about, and practiced, when you went out there? Nothing came to light, and all the sudden you did exactly the opposite.’ Most of what you try get them to do is chase the approach, chase the process, and don’t chase the result. OK? I have a five-step process that I like to get them going on, and I have a hard time to get them to understand that. A lot of times, they have to fail, because it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of physical work. It’s not too grueling. I’ve done it with the players in the past, and they’ve done real well with it. We’ve built our offense pretty good around it, but it’s a lot of work. If you’re willing to make that commitment, good things are going to happen. But there’s a lot of guys that shortchange the process, but you can’t skip the process. You have to do the five steps. Sometimes the guys try to shortchange it, and try to skip one, and I lose track of it. That’s not a real comfortable feeling.
BW: With the season ending after today, what happens to your role with these guys as the season comes to a close, and they leave the stadium for the last time. You don’t have every day, direct contact with them. Are you still counseling or doing anything with them?
JV: No, they need a break. They need a break from my voice, and from baseball. It was September 27th yesterday, and I couldn’t find five minutes for myself. I was backed up. They are still hungry and are learning, and that’s great. The enthusiasm is there; there’s just so much to learn about themselves mechanically. Once they’re hungry, and learning good mechanics to cover the strike zone better, they can go out there and implement the plan. Once they know that they trust the certain parts of the zone, and I can get them to try the plan out, and it works for them, then you’ve got them. Pretty soon, they’re lined up.
The last three weeks have been pretty enjoyable, despite the losses. I think we’ve been gaining on it, even though sometimes you don’t see it. I see it. I see guys, and I can see it in their eyes when they come in. But they need a break from me, so they go home and do their thing. I’ll catch up to them in late November; I’m going to make some trips on my own and see some of these guys. I think that’s important if we’re going to make them into viable major league players. I haven’t done that in the past, but I think there’s a need now. I think we kind of found out when we had a total collapse of our position players with health and injuries. We found out we had to run a lot of guys up here. Typically, you might run one or two guys up in a given year to help out, and you can integrate them in, and they can see what everybody is doing. This year, we had a blitz of everybody, and it’s just too much. Things happen pretty fast. So slow that down, give ‘em a break, and maybe catch up with them over the winter. I’ll be in touch over the phone or the Internet throughout the winter.
BW: This is sort of a two-part question: Does a guy’s status, like a Joe Mauer/ Justin Morneau versus a Chris Parmelee type, dictate whether you’re hands-on or hands-off? And/or does a player’s recent run of success/failure dictate this as well?
JV: Well, with the veteran guys, ever since I’ve been around them, since 2006 as their hitting coach and before that as a minor league coordinator, I pretty much know what makes them tick. They still put in the swings. If they get a little off course, we’re going to go back to square one, and we’ll work on the five-step approach to get back on track. We’ll get them mentally focused as well as physically. To me, that’s kind of a barometer to see where they’re at health-wise physically. Once they can handle it physically, then mentally they’re going to get with it. I don’t slight any of the young guys any less time; as a matter of fact, you’ve gotta give them more. I’m here really early, and I expect some of the guys that really want it to be here really early. Sometimes that’s a little tough for them. But I tell them if they want to be an MVP, or win a batting title, they’ve got to get here early.
That’s what Mauer and Morneau did. Just because they’re not here at 12:30 or 1:00 now, well, they were. Morneau, when he won the MVP, was meeting me in the cage at 12:30-1:00 every day for a 7:00 first pitch, and not taking days off. A lot of times, it was me physically doing the work, and him taking pitches and working on zones. I can’t show them all the stuff that we did; I can just talk about it. Sometimes they buy it, sometimes they don’t. But, I’m an equal-opportunity hitting coach. If they want to put the time in, I’m going to try show them the way. I’m not going to back off from whoever it is, regardless of status. Our 25th guy is just as important as our starter, and the players have to understand it. The guys that have done it, and are hitting third, fourth, or fifth in our original lineup, they know the pecking order, and they give the cage up to Mauer because it’s his turn. Well, I work just as long with Mauer as I would with the other guys, as long as he needs it.
BW: What should everybody know about hitting, regardless of if they’re a hardcore fan or a casual observer?
JV: Well, with major league baseball you find out pretty quick how tough it is. When you have your ‘A’ lineup, or your experienced lineup, versus their experienced lineup, it offsets each other. There’s more of the one-on-one battles, and they’re for real. They can’t pitch around one guy to get to another guy if your lineup is stacked and is working in order. There’s such a fine line between the really good players and the good players. We’ve got a lot of good players that are just maybe not up to the standards of the really good players.
It’s kind of like experienced versus inexperienced is like varsity going against the freshmen sometimes in like a high school program. When you’ve got a few of them, they’ll give them a good game. It’s not quite that level, but they’ll get there. They’re not quite ready for it. They’re pitching to a spot, and the defense is playing according to that spot. All you’re trying to do is beat those odds. You can’t hit against that pitch; you can’t hit against that defense. You’re just trying to hit it through that defense, and hit it hard. It’s such a fine line; these are good players. Sometimes they don’t look it, but they’re good players. They’re trying to play against really great competition.