On Monday, the news broke that the Detroit Tigers had hired a pair of coaches to add to Ron Gardenhire’s new staff. Rick Anderson was hired out of Minnesota to take up his old post as Gardenhire’s bullpen coach. That seems straightforward enough.
The second hire is more interesting. Joe Vavra, who was the bench coach under both Gardenhire and current Twins’ skipper, Paul Molitor, was hired by the Tigers as their new quality control coach. Vavra is also the team’s first quality control coach. What is a quality control coach?
There is a growing number of teams who use that title, and the job description varies to a degree from team to team. Based on a reading of other quality control coaches’ responsibilities, part of the job seems related to the role held by the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, Matt Martin, under Brad Ausmus. However, it also encompasses a major player development aspect, which makes it more of a hybrid role.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Shildt, for example, is responsible for the team’s defensive positioning. But he also has another job in coordinating coaching between manager Mike Matheny, the front office, and the team’s player development system. He works to ensure that consistent fundamentals and other best practices are taught and practiced by all coaches throughout the farm season, as well as for the Cardinals’ themselves. Think of him as the executor of the Cardinals’ Way.
When Toronto Blue Jays’ General Manager, Ross Atkins, hired Derek Shelton as the American League’s first quality control coach prior to the 2017 season, they were replacing the role of assistant hitting coach. In his case, Shelton maintained more responsibility with the hitters as his primary focus, but also was tasked with establishing relationships between players, coaches, the front office and the farm system to facilitate better communication throughout the organization.
“There’s more to the title than the two words in it,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins added. “He’ll be impacting not only hitting but collaborating with our defence and pitching and working with our analytics to help our players get better on an individual to individual level.”
Ben Nicholson of Sportnet described the Blue Jays’ hopes for Shelton.
“The Blue Jays envision him as someone who can help foster collaboration between departments — making sense of advanced reports with hitters, for example, or looking analytically at a struggling pitcher. For that to work, he must first build relationships with a wide range of people.”
The 57-year-old Vavra has played quite a few roles in his 15 years in the Twins’ organization. He’s been a minor league manager and hitting instructor as well as the Twins’ third base and bench coach. So he seems capable of handling several different facets of the game as a primary coaching responsibility, while also handling the quality control part of the position. Presumably his function in that role will be similar to that of Shelton or Shildt.
We’ll have to see how Gardenhire or General Manager Al Avila, specifically define Vavra’s role. Perhaps he’ll still function as Gardenhire’s bench coach as well. But the creation of a quality control position seems like a positive step. Many of baseball’s best clubs are thinking more in terms of communication and coordination than ever, and the quality control coach’s role typically sits at the crossroads between decision-making and implementation throughout the entire organization. Having someone specifically tasked with encouraging a free flow of ideas between departments, and holding responsibility for improving players’ fundamentals across each level of play is a smart idea for the Tigers to pursue.