Detroit – It’s a window into the gentle soul of Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra, truly, that he can laugh things like this off.
Since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered baseball on March 12, Vavra made his way to his home in Wisconsin where he’s been quarantined with his wife and three sons – one of whom, Terrin, happens to be the No. 7-rated prospect in the Colorado Rockies’ system.
When he’s not running out to the Vavra brothers’ new, state-of-the-art hitting facility, he’s trying his best to keep in touch with his Tigers hitters who are scattered across the land. He’s chatted with Jeimer Candelario, who is in the Dominican. He’s caught up with C.J. Cron, who is in Arizona. He’s been in direct digital contact with almost everyone.
With the exception of his future Hall of Famer, Jose Miguel Cabrera.
“I’ve reached out to him,” Vavra said during a teleconference Friday. “I’m not sure what number he gave me. My sources say he’s doing well but I can’t confirm that.”
He laughed. It’s been a running gag with Cabrera since Vavra was named hitting coach after last season, replacing Lloyd McClendon (now Ron Gardnehire’s bench coach).
“All winter long I called him and texted him and got no reply,” Vavra said. “I had to reach out to my sources that were near him and he would answer to them. When I saw him this spring I said, ‘How come you didn’t answer my calls?’
“He said, ‘Because I gave you somebody else’s number.’”
Miggy being Miggy. Truth is, Cabrera is probably the least of Vavra’s worries right now.
“He came in such great shape, dedicated to getting himself back to great physical condition, and that was so good to see,” Vavra said. “I can’t see him deviating away from that.”
For the most part, Vavra said, he was encouraged by the progress the hitters were making through the first five weeks of spring training. What concerns him, though, are the two or three players that were scuffling and in the process of making swing adjustments.
“I went to a couple of players and said, ‘You are going to have some time to make some rather major adjustments to your mechanics and your swing,’” he said. "And then with the other guys we just sent long messages telling them to stay in shape. We don’t know how long we’re going to be out. Try to stay in the best shape you can.”
He said he sends out emails and texts about every two weeks, and he’s sent videos to the ones working on adjustments. He didn’t want to name those players.
“I don’t want to be too specific with that,” he said. “The reason being, I want to make sure they fully understand what we talked about those last few weeks in spring training. You’re talking about a matter of 25 at-bats or so, so you can’t see enough.
“But there were still a few guys still searching and trying to find it – trying to find that feeling. I’ve been sending out video and stuff to remind them what we’ve been working on.”
Vavra has also pushed his hitters to delve into analytics. To use this time to gain a better understanding of how they can use them.
“It’s really a new resource for everybody,” he said. “It can be overwhelming and it can be complicated. Just like with math – unless you learn how to add and subtract it’s really hard to multiply. You need to use baby steps with analytics, too.”
Vavra praised the work of Jay Sartori and the analytics team and now says the onus is on himself and the organization’s hitting instructors to make it work.
“We’ve seemed to catch up to the rest of the industry now,” he said. “We’re developing programs as we speak. Programs are all well and good, but if the players can’t analyze it and apply it, then the programs can’t have the full impact. We are challenging them to come out of their comfort zone a little bit.
“Some guys get confused with it and that’s my job to help them understand it. Others take off bits and pieces that can help them. This is a good time to figure some of that stuff out.”
Vavra, like everyone else, wishes there was a definitive timetable for when the game can resume. But there is not. Which means there is no way to answer the question he’s most often asked: How long do you think it will take for guys to be game-ready?
“I don’t think you can answer that because every guy is different,” he said. “A lot of people throw out two weeks, but are we going to have an army of guys down there (if there is a second spring training in Lakeland)? Will we be able to get enough at-bats for everybody? Will we have backfield games going on?
“I know guys are going to want to get going, just don’t know how long it’ll take.”
He said most of the players he’s spoken with have access to facilities and batting cages. None, though, have access to live pitching.
“I didn’t talk to anyone who was facing live pitching, but they didn’t seem like that was a priority,” he said. “It was more about keeping their bodies in shape and being prepared for whatever time period they need to get going.”
Typically pitchers are ahead of hitters through the early weeks of spring training. Vavra isn’t sure that will be the case this time.
“The players I’m talking to think the hitters will be ahead of the pitchers,” he said. “Pitchers are throwing to catchers. We don’t know the full extent of what they’re doing and likewise for the hitters. Not many are facing live competition on either side of the ball.”
Either way, it may look a little ragged for a while once, if, the season can resume. But that’s just a short-term blip. The far-reaching the impact of this shutdown is impossible to gauge right now.
“This kind of slows down the plan,” Vavra said, meaning the Tigers’ rebuilding plan. “But what I saw in spring with our young pitchers, they matured so fast. They need to face competition. But you have to give Al Avila (general manager) and Chris Ilitch (chairman and CEO) a lot of credit for the vision and for sticking with it and letting it grow a little bit.
“Hopefully the break doesn’t slow it down too much.”