Tigers take first steps toward retooling approach to developing hitters

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Ron Gardenhire

Las Vegas – The Detroit Tigers are in the process of overhauling their organizational approach to hitting. Perhaps a better way to explain it is, they are in the process of clearly defining their philosophy and streamlining the way they develop hitters through their minor-league system.

“We’ve talked a lot about hitting for most of the winter,” general manager Al Avila said. “How we are going to approach it. When we get to spring training there’s going to be an emphasis on approach, on two-strike approach.”

Simply put, the Tigers strike out too much – organizationally. From low-A up through the big-league club, Tigers hitters were punched out 5,848 times. Thus, the Tigers are bringing in a new set of teachers.

They’ve hired former Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson as the roving minor-league hitting coach. He replaces Bruce Fields, who had been in the Tigers system for 31 years. Branson, who played nine seasons in the big leagues, had been the Pirates' hitting coach since 2014.

Jeff Branson

The Tigers also hired two minor league video coordinators -- Alex Gonzalez and Austin Tripp – to assist with hitting development.

In addition, Mike Hessman, the minor league home run king, has been promoted to be the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo. He had been in the same role at Double-A Erie last season.

Scott Fletcher remains the club’s hitting coordinator.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was a loud proponent for a fresh approach to hitting, especially at the lower levels of the minor leagues. He was alarmed by the paucity of contact hitters, not just at the Major-League level, but throughout the organization.

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He found that odd, given the spacious dimensions inside Comerica Park.

“This is a big ballpark,” he said. “It’s not conducive to home runs, unless you are a really big shooter. But there is a lot of room out there for doubles and triples. A single up the middle can turn into a double if you are running out of the box.

“When I came here with that other club (his Minnesota Twins teams), we liked hitting here because it played more to our team. Speed is a factor in this ballpark. I am not saying you don’t like power, but speed can play here. It’s a thought process I am going to keep in mind here when we are talking about players we are looking at.”

In recent seasons, the Tigers have been a poor situational-hitting team. This is data from last season, compiled by Baseball-Reference.com:

►With no outs and a runner on third, Tigers hitters struck out 11 times in 17 plate appearances.

►With runners on first and second and no outs, they struck out 14 times in 88 plate appearances.

►With runners at second and third and no outs, they struck out 10 times in 24 plate appearances.

►With the bases loaded and no outs, they struck out 22 times in 32 plate appearances.

All told, the Tigers failed to advance runners 35 percent of the time.

Here are some other changes the Tigers have made to the minor-league field staffs:

►Mike Rabelo, who has had an impressive managerial record in five seasons in the Tigers system, will manage Double-A Erie, replacing Andrew Graham. Rabelo, managing at Class A Connecticut, Class-A West Michigan and High-A Lakeland, has compiled a 281-213 record in five seasons.

Mark Johnson will be the club’s pitching coach and Brian Harper will coach the hitters. Harper was the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo.

►Graham will take over as manager at Lakeland. It will be his second stint there.

►Lance Parrish returns as manager at West Michigan. Willie Blair and John Vander Wal are his pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.

►Brayan Pena, who in his first year as a manager led the Gulf Coast Tigers West team to a championship, will manage short-season Class A Connecticut.

Twitter @cmccosky