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This is an excellent article by Lynn Henning...

Touching all the bases on the Tigers

Lakeland, Fla. — A few hundred yards away, a voice echoes from Marchant Stadium’s loudspeakers.

Big leaguers are about to play in a Grapefruit League game between the Tigers and the Marlins. Six-thousand people and half as many cars are streaming into Marchant and its square-mile parking lot.

But at noon on a Sunday in March, the scene at a quadrant of Tigertown practice fields is less trafficked. Sounds are more subtle: baseballs cracking against bats and thumping into mitts. With an ice-blue Lakeland sky as a canopy, and with a northeast breeze whipping across Lake Parker, four dozen Tigers prospects are boring into drills aimed at shaping them for work at Comerica Park or at another big league backyard.

This is the side of spring training that can go unnoticed. Baseball’s boot camp, as it were.

On Cobb Field, the quadrant’s southwest diamond, Tigers minor league coaches Mark Johnson and Jorge Cordova are slapping comeback grounders and slow rollers at a group of pitchers stretched across the mound. Each pitcher takes a turn fielding a hot shot, or charging a bunt.

Diagonally, at Gehringer Field, Andrew Graham, who manages at Single A West Michigan, is swatting grounders and running the same drill.

Kenny Rogers, the ex-Tigers pitcher who was a fielding marvel during his big league days, has arrived to help school youngsters on defensive technique. He stops to counsel a pitcher, a left-hander, about pivoting 360 degrees to put his throwing arm in motion on a ball fielded along the first-base line, rather than turning instantly and throwing awkwardly once the ball is gloved.

Immediately north, at Cochrane Field, Single A Connecticut manager Mike Rabelo is pushing a stream of runners through tag-up drills at third base.

A ball is stroked by a batting-practice hitter. A runner at third, reacting to the struck ball, breaks from the bag, stops, retreats for the tag, then bolts for home. It’s a routine meant to sharpen split-second timing that can mean the difference in a run, which can be the difference in a game, which can decide whether a team makes or misses the playoffs.

The right approach

At 1 p.m., as players begin heading back to the clubhouse, a serious conversation is percolating outside Heilmann Field’s batting cage. Bruce Fields, the Tigers roving minor league batting coach, and Mike Hessman, the longtime third baseman and minor league-champion home run hitter, have gathered with two young outfield talents.

Derek Hill and Christin Stewart were draft prizes the past two years. Each has a big league future — if bats develop as the Tigers project.

But that depends upon skill. And part of a hitter’s skill involves approach. Approach hinges upon thinking ahead of the at-bat as well as during it.

The conversation between the four is long and animated, right down to Hessman, who has joined the Tigers minor league coaching staff, displaying with a half-swing quickness to the pitch.

Fields has been counseling both players heavily and has a closing question as the four men adjourn.

“Got it?” he asks Hill and Stewart. “Promise me you’re going to make that extra effort?”

Fields walks from the Heilmann diamond and heads for Gehringer.

“I’m passionate about this,” Fields says, explaining how a conversation about hitting can become so energized, “because I want ’em to get over there.”

He points toward Marchant, where the Tigers and Marlins now are dueling, with crowd cheers and public-address intros reminding kids in uniforms why they’re at work on a Sunday afternoon.

‘Always learning’

Earlier on this Sunday morning, Hill sat in the pleasant but barracks-like minor league clubhouse at Tigertown and talked about his first full season of professional baseball, 2015. It followed the Tigers making him their first-round pick in 2014 fresh from Elk Grove (Calif.) High School.

It is a life countless kids dream about. It is a life those initiated into professional baseball will tell you, perhaps unanimously, can be an early ordeal.

“They have no idea,” said Hill, a dazzling defensive player, who is 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, bats right-handed, and runs with sprinter speed.

“My dad (Orsino, former minor leaguer, now a Dodgers scout) said after I was drafted: ‘I can tell you all about it (pro ball), but you’re just gonna have to figure it out.’

“At the end of last year, I told him I could see what he meant.”

Hill had a strained quadriceps muscle that cost him much of the 2015 season. The Tigers this year hope (a) Hill stays healthy and (b) develops as the hitter they were banking on when they viewed him as a long-term investment in center field.

Hill was just getting comfortable at the plate (.273 his final 10 games) before the quad ended his season. He hit .238 in his 53-game stint at West Michigan, which didn’t displease his bosses when simply surviving a first year in the bushes, in this case at a strong Single A stop, is the objective, particularly for a young man months out of high school.

“You’re always learning,” said Hill, recalling one lesson from last year in how a game becomes, for a budding professional, so intricate.

“Reading a catcher,” he said, speaking of how he, as a runner with the wheels to steal bases, learned to take cues that might help with his jump.

“Before, I’d just run off raw skill. But here, catchers are here for a reason — they’ve all got good arms and good instincts. So, you watch his setup, read his feet, how he taps the ground. His hand movements.”

A ‘Tiger way’

For all its complexity, baseball yields few trade secrets. The game is played in a certain fashion. There are right and wrong ways to execute skills.

But there are teaching methods that can be codified, and made consistent within an organization. Those methods can be finessed, or even rethought, which is why the Tigers met two weeks ago in Lakeland to agree on an organization-wide blueprint for instructing minor leaguers.

General manager Al Avila and his front-office lieutenants, as well as scouts, coaches, managers, consultants, and former players, met during a two-day conference designed to create the equivalent of a ringed binder that would make uniform a team’s philosophy and process for crafting big leaguers.

Avila had let his priorities be known when he became general manager last August. He wanted a broader analytics department. He hoped to add muscle to player development, which begot a new team vice president, Dave Littlefield, an ex-Pirates general manager who moved from big league scouting for the Tigers to overseeing minor league player preparation.

Littlefield’s appointment marked not only a high-level expansion on the development side. It was proof Avila, a past minor league player as well as a longtime front-office insider, saw need for more personnel and more of a stated mission in grooming talent.

“What I want from our player development staff is good leadership qualities,” Avila said Monday. “It’s one thing to teach how to pitch and run and execute all the fundamentals, but it’s another to send forth a message: ‘This is how we want to do it — how we want to teach winning players.’

“I felt Dave was the kind of guy to carry forth that message.”

During the two-day powwow at Lakeland last month, Avila wanted the best thinking from everyone from Al Kaline to Jim Leyland to Brad Ausmus, to minor league coaches, in laying out specific orders on how the Tigers would raise their kid talent. For example, the number of change-ups thrown in a minor leaguer’s pitching appearance would need to be approached as more than a concept. It would need to be locked into place. And fulfilled.

“The message was very clear what we want done and how it would be carried forward,” Avila said. “There were a lot of good comments on different things, and different areas. We talked baserunning, hitting, pitching, all kinds of stuff, throughout all those conversations. We talked fundamentals — how we wanted to teach and how to communicate it.

“And we talked about how to take charge of your team. And that’s the main focus. Not just how to throw a curveball and steal a base, but how to implement that day-to-day communication, making sure every player is making progress every day. We wanted to make sure we’re not just showing up to work every day. Let’s have a purpose every day.”

Littlefield, who worked with Avila during their days in Miami alongside Dave Dombrowski, will function as Avila’s commander-in-chief steering the developmental push for the Tigers. Last month’s summit meeting, he said, crystallized philosophy and technique.

“It was really nice to get everyone together, to kick around ideas and approaches to certain areas of the game, from A to Z,” Littlefield said. “To have all the major league and minor league staffs together was a great way to go.

“It’s essential for what we do on the minor league side to have things as consistent as possible. And part of the goal there is to have a ‘Tiger Way’ based on input from so many good people on approaches to certain subjects.”

Body and mind

The effort extends beyond batter’s boxes and pitchers’ mounds. It also involves an athlete’s mind and emotions. His sleep. His diet. His repair-and-recovery time following a game or a pitching stint.

A player’s girlfriend has just broken up with him? That can require a trained listening ear, as well.

The Tigers employ a performance coach, George Carlo, an epidemiologist, as well as Brian Peterson, a clinical psychologist, whose title is similar: performance enhancement coach. They address a range of body, mind, and lifestyle issues that can be at least as important as tweaking a pitcher’s move to first.

The Tigers are believed to be the only team in the big leagues that carry two such professionals on staff.

“Our main goal is to put the player in the best position to succeed, so that we’re able to evaluate them most fairly and honestly,” said Carlo, who also is a public health scientist, lawyer, and past assistant college football coach. “In order to get there, the mind/body connection really is the key to performance. And sometimes those are out of kilter. The mind can play tricks, the body can play tricks.

“So it’s one of those things that changes with every player. Not one size fits all, and it really is a process more than a protocol. Brian and I spend our time doing all we can so the mind-body connection is optimized, and then those guys are in the best position to succeed, and everybody wins. That’s really our job. And it’s not more complicated than that.”

Meanwhile, the game is still about a ball. And how that ball exacts certain techniques.

On Gehringer Field, a few minutes after formal practice has ceased, Scott Fletcher, the minor league infield instructor, has asked a handful of second basemen to hang around. He drops to one knee, beyond the pitcher’s mound, and rolls grounders just past the bag. The goal is making proper throws across the body as an infielder’s momentum carries him toward shortstop.

It’s a teaching moment. Or, more accurately, a baseball teaching moment. There are so many of them ahead.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

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I know it has his name at the bottom but are we sure Henning wrote this? :silly: Well worth reading.

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Only about four more weeks until Henning starts crying about them being a game under .500.

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Only about four more weeks until Henning starts crying about them being a game under .500.

What?! Wire to wire, baby!

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And how they're most likely going to have to trade Cabrera.

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Could Miguel Cabrera pull a Calvin Johnson and give up on the beleaguered Detroit franchise?

^$$$ headline

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Could Miguel Cabrera pull a Calvin Johnson and give up on the beleaguered Detroit franchise?

^$$$ headline

You forgot the "My Column:"

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To his credit, Henning seems to have more enthusiasm than most writing about the minor leagues and prospects, and all these guys in one place makes it easy to get the narrative scoop, which he loves.

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Given all that I like henning. He interacts with users respectfully. Unlike Shelton's favorite guy who will never admit to being wrong or that he didn't express himself right. The other night I went back and forth with him over his claim that Michigan has been "solid blue for decades". I pointed out that Clinton got less than 40% in 1992 and that Kerry only one by 3 in 2004. That is a 20 year period where 2 of 5 didn't show a "solid blue". But he doubles down. Obviously MI is solid blue now. And had been for awhile. But not "decades". He's just a jerk online.

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Lynn Henning is entirely willing to respectively interact with readers and explain and amplify on what he's written. I haven't emailed him in quite a while but I'm sure that remains the case. I wish he and other sports writers would not add political stuff to their Twitter feeds though. I'd like to keep those worlds separate. 

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I had gone back and forth with him about the dimensions of the new park early on in its existence. He was passionate about his points, understanding of mine, willing to agree to disagree, and just appreciative of the discussion.

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12 hours ago, Casimir said:

I had gone back and forth with him about the dimensions of the new park early on in its existence. He was passionate about his points, understanding of mine, willing to agree to disagree, and just appreciative of the discussion.

For as much grief as Lynn takes, he does interact very well with the readers.

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For as much grief as Lynn takes, he does interact very well with the readers.

He also made mention of Brian Bluhm in his column at the time of the Virgina Tech tragedy. I sent a note of gratitude and he responded and acknowledged how respected and revered estrepe was around MTS.

You can disagree with Henning all you want. But I agree, he deserves his due for interacting with folks rather than just using his position as a one way pulpit.

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Here's another similar article, written by Noah Trister of the UPI via NYT....

 

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/03/23/sports/baseball/ap-bba-tigers-avila-takes-charge.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=1

 

Avila Settling In as GM and Putting His Stamp on Tigers

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESSMARCH 23, 2016, 4:34 P.M. E.D.T.

LAKELAND, Fla. — When Al Avila first started working in a major league front office, he wasn't sure the lifestyle was for him.

Avila was hired by the expansion Florida Marlins in 1992 as the assistant director of Latin American operations. Before that, he'd been a college athletic director and baseball coach, and the transition was a tough one.

"You were now not dealing with a team, you're just in an office, and when you went scouting, you went by yourself," Avila said. "I traveled by myself, and when you get to a ballfield to scout, there might have been 20 other scouts, but they're trying to beat you."

That routine can be a lonely one, but Avila stuck with it and over two decades later, his career choices have paid off. He is entering his first full season as general manager of the Detroit Tigers after a busy offseason in which he had a chance to put together another star-filled roster in Motown.

Avila took over as GM after the trade deadline last year when the Tigers let Dave Dombrowski go. Detroit was on its way to a last-place finish, and there wasn't much Avila — who had been an assistant GM for the Tigers since 2002 — could do about it at that point.

During the offseason, owner Mike Ilitch's deep pockets allowed Avila to sign outfielder Justin Upton and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, part of a spending spree that Detroit hopes will lift the Tigers back into the postseason.

Although Avila will certainly be judged on how the Tigers play in 2016, there's a sense that he's also taking a longer view when he talks about how important Detroit's farm system will be going forward. There's a lot of continuity from Dombrowski's era, but the Tigers are doing some things a bit differently under Avila.

For example, the front office wants to start emphasizing "The Tiger Way" — a more standardized approach to the game through all levels of the organization that brings to mind The Oriole Way that Baltimore was famous for when Earl Weaver was there.

"When you move a player from, let's say, A-ball to Double-A, there should be consistency in everything — hitting approach, the way we run the bases, our fundamentals, our defensive strategy," Avila said around the start of spring training. "We'll just create a Tigers' manual, everybody will have it, and the players will be taught it."

Avila's family includes multiple generations of baseball men. His father, Ralph, was an executive for the Dodgers. Son Alex was a catcher for the Tigers for the last seven years before signing with the Chicago White Sox this offseason.

Al Avila initially wanted a job that allowed him to be on the field, and he coached at St. Thomas University in Florida before joining the Marlins.

"At the beginning, it was really hard on me, to the point where I didn't even know if I was going to continue, but I stayed with it, and things got better," he said. "That front office, the player development, the scouts and all that, you learn how to make that your family."

Avila became director of scouting for the Marlins in 1998, and the following year, Florida signed a young Venezuelan named Miguel Cabrera. Now they're both with the Tigers. Cabrera recalls meeting Avila as a teenager.

"I said, 'Sign me, please,'" Cabrera joked.

Said Avila: "When I met him, he was 15 years old. . I got to really know more his family — dad, mom. Miguel was just a kid playing marbles with his cousins — I mean literally, playing marbles with his cousins."

Dombrowski was Florida's GM when Avila was there, and Avila eventually became an assistant GM in 2001. Not long after that, Dombrowski left to go to Detroit. Avila eventually went to the Tigers too, becoming an assistant GM for Dombrowski in April 2002.

"He'd been around the game for years," said Dombrowski, who is now the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox. "So he had a good, diversified background."

Detroit's new front office turned the Tigers around — the team won American League pennants in 2006 and 2012 and AL Central titles every year from 2011-2014. The Tigers traded for Cabrera after the 2007 season, bringing one of the game's great hitters to Detroit for the prime of his career.

Last season, the Tigers finally faded, but Avila was given the resources to try to stave off the end of this terrific run. No matter what happens, Detroit's first full season with him in charge figures to be a compelling one.

"It's unbelievable. . He signed me," Cabrera said. "Right now, he's our general manager. It's amazing because we're still here, and we want to win a World Series together."

___

Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

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Lynn Henning is entirely willing to respectively interact with readers and explain and amplify on what he's written. I haven't emailed him in quite a while but I'm sure that remains the case. I wish he and other sports writers would not add political stuff to their Twitter feeds though. I'd like to keep those worlds separate. 

Henning is a typical lib.....he is willing to discuss until u disagree with him

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Please keep your opinions to yourself about political matters or express them only in the political forum.  You may not know your way around here but that's the way it works. 

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it's too early for that ****....

In summary... I think Henning is a gentleman.  He's the anti-Tony Paul.

Speaking of Sports Writers who cover the TIgers... I was blocked on twitter by Dave Hogg.  He didn't like what I said to him in response to a Dearborn police officer having to shoot somebody.  He asked why they haven't released the name of the officer yet when the name of the victim was.  The family released the name of the victim and the investigation is/was ongoing.  I told him he got the races of those involved and that's what he really cares about. I guess that was too much for the guy.  Weak.  (Disclosure, I know the officer)

 

 

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