Tigers hire Ryan Garko from Angels as vice president of player development
Detroit — It became very evident very fast Thursday that there was a lot more to Ryan Garko than just a former Indians’ first baseman who would occasionally torment Tigers’ pitching from 2006 to 2009, posting an .843 OPS against them with six homers (two off Justin Verlander).
“Funny, my biggest memories are of Verlander striking me out all the time,” Garko said, laughing “And Joel Zumaya throwing 104 mph.”
But when Garko, 40, started listing the people he’s worked for since he stopped playing, the people who’ve hired him, influenced and mentored him, the people who ultimately helped steer him to where he was on Thursday, it became clear why general manager Al Avila hired him to be the club’s vice president of player development.
“We identified this position as the second most important in the organization next to the general manager position as we move forward,” Avila said. “With his vision for this system, Ryan was the best candidate to lead the way.”
Among the people who helped him along that journey: Long-time Indians farm director John Farrell and current Indians president Chris Antonetti; Gabe Kapler, who hired him to manage the Dodgers Double-A team in Tulsa; Dodgers front office executives Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi were his bosses; Chris Fetter was the Dodgers pitching coordinator; Angels general manager Billy Eppler hired him to serve a hybrid bench-front office role with the Angels, which he was performing until earlier this week when the Tigers hired him.
In between all that, he was an assistant coach at Stanford and the head coach at University of Pacific where six of his players signed pro contracts in the two years he was there.
"Probably the job most similar to being a college head coach is director of player development," Garko said. "It's probably 80-20 (percent) administration when you are on the college side of things. Everything comes across your desk and it prepares you for just about everything.
"I took a college program and I decided to run it like a farm system."
But there was another former Stanford catcher turned scout and personnel director and then manager who, until now, only tangentially played a role in Garko’s journey — AJ Hinch.
“People assume that AJ and I were really close,” Garko said. “Both went to Stanford, both played for the same coach, both caught. We were cut in the same mold. And I’ve seen AJ at a lot of events and we know a lot of the same people.
“But we haven’t spent a lot of time together.”
That’s changed. One of the last things Garko did before he left the Angels was to seek counsel from some of Hinch’s former Astros players. The Astros played the Angels in Anaheim on Wednesday night.
“Everybody understands and respects what AJ is about,” Garko said. “I talked to some of their players. The way guys talk about AJ, it’s different. It’s pretty special. And getting to talk to him over the last few days, we have a lot of shared values about baseball. We came from the same tree.
“We have a shared foundation and once we started talking, there were a lot of common places for us to go being two different generations of Stanford catchers.”
Garko on Thursday laid out a progressive vision for the Tigers' player development department that includes an emphasis on coach development as well as player development, on mental and emotional science as well as performance science.
“We have a lot of 18- to 22-year-old kids in our system,” he said. “And I think the mental health and mental support are going to be a really big part of what we focus on. These are formative years for these kids. And it’s nice to see mental health becoming something that in athletics we aren’t shying away from anymore.
“We can coach that part of their lives and that part of the game, just like we can teach them to be better hitters and better pitchers. You will get the best version of the player by supporting them holistically. The mental part is a real science that we can help and we are going to focus on it and bring people in to help.”
Among the first things on Garko’s agenda will be to hire a batch of coaches and instructors. The Tigers on Tuesday notified 11 coaches throughout the system that their contracts would not be renewed.
“It’s going to take some time,” Avila said. “It’s no different than when we hired AJ and Chris Fetter. They had to dive in to all the video and information and try to learn the players. It’s going to take a while for him to get familiar with the players.
“But it’s more important to set up the system and the personnel.”
Garko, who just said goodbye to the Angels on Wednesday, is already elbows-deep into the process.
“When I finished playing and got back into baseball,” Garko said, “I always said my dream job would be a director of player development for the right organization and the right people.”
Garko replaces David Littlefield, who was reassigned into the Tigers scouting department. Kenny Graham, who had been running the player development department on an interim basis and interviewed for the job, will stay within the organization, most likely back at the head of the club's hitting program.