Chip Scoggins: Hitting coach Vavra takes a positive stance

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2012 - 2:02 AM

Hitting coach Joe Vavra hasn't stopped searching for ways to get his slumping Twins batters right.

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Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra accepts his responsibility for the team’s slow start at the plate but said, “We’ve got to get it done together.”

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The Twins season hasn't even reached the quarter pole and already they've been no-hit once, held scoreless three times and recorded the fewest hits over a four-game span of any major league team since 1900. ¶ That will give any hitting coach restless nights, or turn him into a dime-store psychologist in search of answers. ¶ "With our record, it doesn't look like we're doing anything," Joe Vavra said. "In the back of my mind, it's like, 'We are.' 

"I just think that when this thing turns around and things get going, it's going to be better."

Vavra has tried different approaches, hoping to find something that sparks a Twins offense that entered Friday ranked 22nd in team batting average, 28th in home runs, 28th in runs scored and 27th in slugging percentage.

He's scaled back at times, push harder at others. He's talked privately with players and held a hitters-only meeting. He keeps the mood light because he knows hitters are pressing. He devotes less time to technical matters in favor of stressing a sound mental approach, mindful that every guy has different needs.

Twins fans, meanwhile, have their own ideas about how to fix a team that owns baseball's worst record. They seemingly want to replace everyone in uniform, starting with the coaching staff. Losing incites anger, though, and Vavra realizes scrutiny is inevitable in tough times.

"I believe in my abilities," Vavra said. "But you've got to point the finger at somebody. Go ahead and point it at me. That's fine, I'll wear it. I'll take some of the blame off the players. We've got to get it done together."

Criticism of hitting coaches is something that comes with that job. A hitting coach normally receives little credit when a team or individual is hot, but he gets dumped on when a team or individual slumps.

This is not to suggest Vavra should be absolved of criticism and accountability. Nobody deserves a pass when things are this bad. Vavra bears ultimate responsibility for how this team hits, and right now that area is underperforming. It also should be noted that Class AAA hitting coach Tom Brunansky is on a fast track inside the organization.

But it also seems a little convenient to pin all the problems on one person without assigning some of the blame to the guys who actually step into the batter's box. It's up to hitters to formulate a game plan, stay aggressive and not give away at-bats by flailing at off-speed pitches early in the count.

"I come in with a fresh attitude every day," Vavra said. "There are some guys that just are reluctant to change and some guys that just can't. No matter what you try, they can't. It's not a lack of trust. You keep coming up with different terminology or different ways to try and get it going. I'm trying to keep everything on a light side because it's been tough."

Tough on everybody, including Vavra, a Wisconsin native who assumed this role in 2005. Health problems -- a broken thumb and a bout of desert fever -- stunted his own playing career, and he never advanced past Class AAA in the Dodgers organization. He managed in the Dodgers farm system, coached his alma mater Wisconsin-Stout and served as the Twins minor league field coordinator before landing this gig.

His coaching style mirrors his personality: high energy and upbeat. He studies opposing pitchers and his own hitters first thing when he arrives at the ballpark, followed by hours in the batting cage, trying to refine swings.

"I feel like what happens on the field is a reflection of everybody," he said. "I take that all to heart, and I'm battling the same way. But there's only so much you can do, too. You realize that but you don't give in to that. You just keep trying and keep pushing harder. Sometimes I've got to back off and say, 'We're trying too hard.' "

The Twins got a helping hand Friday night, getting more walks (nine) than hits (seven) in a 7-6 victory over Toronto.

The offensive struggles so far are perplexing because this lineup looked functional and capable of scoring runs consistently early in the season. But the Twins fell into bad habits, young players got exposed and lost confidence and now they look at times like nine individuals searching for their own identity rather than one cohesive group.

"I've been in the game 31 years and I thought [last year] was the toughest one," he said. "I thought I learned a lot more. But you don't quit learning as a teacher either. You keep trying to get better as a teacher [asking], 'Well, how can we avoid this, how can we avoid that?' "

The answers haven't come easily. And that's left everyone on edge.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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