How Ryan Garko is transforming Detroit Tigers prospects with player development department

Ryan Garko is the vice president of player development for the Detroit Tigers.

Garko, a former catcher who played more than 450 games in his six-year MLB career, was hired by the Tigers in September 2021, following stints as an assistant coach at Stanford University, minor-league manager with the Los Angeles Dodgers, head coach at University of the Pacific and coaching assistant and instant replay coordinator with the Los Angeles Angels.

He was hired by former Tigers general manager Al Avila. Now, the 43-year-old works under president of baseball operations Scott Harris (hired in September 2022) and general manager Jeff Greenberg (hired in September 2023).

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Garko talked to the Free Press, joining a recent episode of the "Days of Roar" podcast, about his philosophies for player development, what the Tigers emphasize, his transition from playing to coaching, why he entered player development and the difficult transition for hitters from Triple-A to MLB, plus much more. (On the podcast, Garko also discussed the specifics about numerous players throughout the organization, highlighting their individualized development plans on the road to Detroit.)

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'Send us anybody, let's just get them better'

What developmental philosophies do you carry with you that you've implemented throughout your time with the Tigers?

"One of the blessings that we had coming in, it was a decision that Al Avila at the time made, was to wipe the slate pretty clean. I'm very staff-focused. Our scouts and Scott and Jeff, they handle the acquisitions. Our motto is: Send us anybody, let's just get them better. Let's make players better, that's our job, pretty simple. Our thought on the staff is — as players come and go, and as we develop them and hopefully launch them to the big leagues or use them in a trade — just creating value with players. It's finding staff that does two things. Number one, super forward-thinking. We're going to leave no stone unturned. We want to be on the cutting edge of whatever is going on in the industry today. Number two, a tireless work ethic of either researching what's next for our group or pouring ourselves into players, just the care level, attention to detail, staff development. We spend just as much time developing our coaches as we do our players at times. I'm pretty blessed to have a really good staff around us.

The second thing is individualized player plans. Let's lean into what makes them really good, and then around the edges, like in the margins, find how we round out the player as best we can and do it individualized. That blends into the third thing, and we're still trying, and we're still pouring research into it, what we call the performance side of things, which is medical, strength and conditioning, mental skills, mental performance, rest and recovery, sleep. That nebulous performance area, I think that is the area amongst the other 29 teams where we can be elite. We're making sure players feel taken care of here. When they see players from other clubs, they tell them, 'They're taking care of us.' We stay in nice hotels. We eat well. We have two trainers at every level. We're going to start having multiple strength coaches at every level. Our mental performance group is always checking up on us. The players feel that. The baseball is going to happen every day. We have to play every night at 7 o'clock. How we prepare those guys, and then how they recover and get ready for the next game, we have a ton of influence for that. I think that is an area we're going to keep working on and where we have gained a lot of ground."

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Detroit Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko, center, next to vice president of player personnel Scott Bream during spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.
Detroit Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko, center, next to vice president of player personnel Scott Bream during spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Dominating the strike zone is everything

What is the process and profile of being a minor leaguer with the Tigers, both as a hitter and a pitcher, and how you look to develop players?

"Look, Scott Harris said it the day he was hired at his press conference. The dominate the strike zone mantra is real. It's real at every level. It's real every night. It's in every meeting we have. Every pregame meeting and every postgame review meeting we have with a hitter or a pitcher, the strike zone is front and center, and I don't think that's ever going to change. And I agree with it, wholeheartedly. Everything good or bad on a macro sense happens around the strike zone.

For hitters, if you don't swing at strikes, it doesn't matter how much power you have, it doesn't matter how much bat speed you have, it doesn't even matter how good your contact ability is. Swinging at strikes is a foundational part of our offensive approach. We talked about it in a lot of our review sessions and our players, and the pitches you swing at. I truly believe the hitter has complete control over that. I get to pick the pitch I swing at. As good as pitching is now, as much stuff as guys have where every throw is all power all the time, I still get to pick if I swing or not. That is still foundationally what we talk about with our hitters most of the time. On the pitching side, it's the same thing. Shapes and strikes is the mantra, and then velocity is sort of the third piece of that key. But again, if you can't throw strikes, it's hard to move up through our system. We like to strike people out, but just as much, we like not walking people and not giving up free bases. One thing we do talk about is shapes. I think we have a pretty good idea of what shapes play in the major leagues, and then we can look at the shapes a pitcher is creating and envision what that arsenal might look like as they move up to the higher levels. Toledo, with ABS (automated ball-strike system) and how good the hitters are and the small strike zone, gives us a really good look at how a pitcher's stuff is going to play in the big leagues when we know hitters are going to bring them in the box and not chase."

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Finding Justice

How do you take a good process from a player who has good underlying data and help cultivate better outcomes? Do you have any examples of that from your time with the Tigers?

"I think (Justice) Bigbie is probably a good example of that. He's a guy who was a ground-ball monster. (Director of player development) Kenny Graham should get all of the credit. He kept on talking about all of the underlying metrics. We call those the granular metrics. Those were really good, but the end result is not. We talk about process versus outcome a lot. The process is really good, but we're not seeing the outcome that we're hoping for. That's probably the most similar thing we do, to phrase it like that.

Detroit Tigers outfielder Justice Bigbie bats against pitcher Sean Guenther during spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.
Detroit Tigers outfielder Justice Bigbie bats against pitcher Sean Guenther during spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Coaches and staff, we have control before the game and then we have control after the game. The players, we just let them go play when the first pitch is thrown. It was a lot of drill packages. We try to create environments, Bigbie or any of our hitters or pitchers. (Hitting coordinator) Max Gordon is with us and came from Driveline. So much of it there is about creating environments where the player just makes the adjustment on his own. We try to practice as aggressively as possible before the game. The theory, and it's not unique to us, is practice really, really hard, practice harder than game speed and in environments faster and more difficult than the game, hoping that it makes the game a little bit easier, so that could be different machine work, like angled machines or weighted balls or different kind of bats, forcing Bigbie to catch the ball out front. On the backside, we have our postgame review, which was pretty much every night, showing Bigbie where he made contact and here was the result. We can track that now. It's really cool, some of the tools we have off a home plate graph and then exactly where he made contact with the ball, and then get a zone 6 to 12 inches out in front of the plate where we want contact. Our hitting coaches would review with him every night, and then we'd do it again the next day until he could feel without a coach's help where his contact point needed to be."

Proof is in the analytics

How do you know when changes in progress in a player are real?

"A lot of times we lean on our analytics group. We know there are points where certain performance metrics stabilize. Something like wRC+ takes a lot of at-bats, probably about 300 plate appearances, to really start getting excited about, but there are other things like exit velocity, launch angle. There are things that usually hold, once the player starts showing that, at much faster clips. We have stabilization rates for all of our metrics. You try not to get too high or too low about a player. We have calls every week with our pitching and hitting group. We do talk a lot about trends, both long and short-term trends, but then we always stay grounded in the stabilization rates of where these stats become real. I'm a former player, a former coach, I'm probably more traditional, and I always have really good people around me. Peter Bransfield is our assistant director (of player development). Pete always draws us back to the math and the objective numbers, what they really are telling us. I think we have a really good balance of traditional coaches and analysts in our group. When do you move a guy? When do you send a guy down? When do you change playing time? When we really do make those decisions, we take a lot of time and look at it from every angle."

Promotion decisions

You want to induce some failure in a player once they're mastering a level, so does that factor into your decision-making about when to promote them?

"Dominate your league is a saying we talk about. When a player asks me, 'Why am I not moving?' We have some metrics that pretty easily show a player whether you're dominating your league or not, and I think most of our guys know them. The opponent will tell us a lot of times if a player's in the right league, especially for our pitching. Our big metric, the one we really care about, is in-zone miss. Some young hitters chase, and like we said, we want our pitches to really be in the zone, and we have a lot of markers, and in-zone miss usually projects success at the next level. The peripheral stats, like batting average on balls in play and exit velocity, things can be a little deceiving in small samples, and sometimes we have to make decisions pretty quick. We just try to hit at it from all angles and make sure the player is dominating the league before we move them."

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Big brains behind the plate

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch (14) walks off the field after a pitching change during the eighth inning at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, May 12, 2024.
Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch (14) walks off the field after a pitching change during the eighth inning at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, May 12, 2024.

You were a catcher at Stanford University, winning the Johnny Bench Award in 2003 as the top college catcher, and when you went into professional baseball, you were a catcher for a while, right?

"Yeah, I caught all the way to Triple-A. I moved (to first base) in the big leagues. Victor Martinez signed a long deal (a five-year, $15.5 million extension in 2005), and I had to find a new spot."

But we do know that catchers are the smart guys in baseball. I mean, look at Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. How much did being a catcher throughout your playing career impact your player development philosophies?

"We always talk about how current managers are former catchers. A.J. and I talk about this, the chicken and egg theory. We all got stuck behind the plate because we showed at an early age that we had a little bit better grasp of the game, or is it that catching all those years helped us become better at strategy and seeing the whole field? I think it's a little bit of both. Those of us that are catching, I think we can relate to pitchers, pitching coaches, pitching strategists just as easily as the hitting guys to talk about offense and that side of things. To be a catcher, you have to be a good communicator, you have to be able to handle a staff, you have to be able to work with your advance group, and probably in some manner, your front office. All I did with the Angels was our advance. I was bringing all the information down from the office to the players and the catchers. Max Stassi and Kurt Suzuki were the best combo, and those guys are both going to be in the game forever. Kurt is retired and working in the Angels' front office. It does seem natural. We talk all the time about catchers in our system, like this guy will be a great coach, or this guy will be a great scout. I think it's just all the interactions the position forces you to have help round out your ability to stay in the game when you're done."

'Passion for player development'

You've played in the big leagues, you've coached in the big leagues, you've managed in college and the minor leagues. Did you always want to work in player development, as opposed to staying in the dugout as a coach or a manager?

"I have a real passion for player development. In 2016, when I went to go work for the Dodgers, they were going through a really similar transition to what we did in Detroit in 2021, in that (now-Miami Marlins assistant general manager) Gabe Kapler was hired (as the director of player development), and it was probably a pretty old-school group in Los Angeles, and Gabe got to clean the slate and bring in a lot of new coaches, and I was fortunate to be one of them. I watched that system transition. It was a fun group of guys. (Now-Tigers pitching coach) Chris Fetter was there. (Now-Dodgers general manager) Brandon Gomes was there. (Now-Tigers bench coach) George Lombard was there. There were so many guys that have spread out and done other things. I got a chance to be a head coach in college (at University of the Pacific) and then go to (Angels manager) Joe Maddon's staff. I think this opportunity (with the Tigers) was so unique in that, when it came up, it was like: We need to make some changes, you're going to get to hire people, be pretty aggressive and be pretty creative in how you build out a system, and we're going to give you the resources that you want to do it.

I think the uniqueness of this opportunity, and it kind of came out of nowhere. When Al called, I certainly wasn't expecting it, and the more I started looking at the opportunity, even (Tigers owner) Chris Ilitch wanting to develop from within to build a sustainable team, it just lined up. My time with the Dodgers, it always sat in the back of my mind that if I ever get a chance to lead a department like that, where you have the freedom to be pretty aggressive and creative and bring people in. I mean, we have former high school coaches. We have guys that have coached in the facility that have never put on a uniform in their life that are coaching in the upper levels and doing a great job. We got to go out and hire and develop and promote some really interesting and super high-ceiling staff. I just saw a lot of parallels to what we did in Los Angeles, and that was a lot of fun. We're trying to do the same thing here."

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How has the player development department evolved since you joined the Tigers in 2021, and even then, how has the department been enhanced since the Tigers hired Scott Harris as president of baseball operations?

"Scott has brought a whole new layer of ideas and challenges for us. Scott, for me being a former player and him coming through as an executive, he is one of the most player-centric executives I've ever been around. The player experience in Detroit, anybody who puts on a Tiger uniform, he's really emphasized the player experience. We've really doubled down when I talk about the individualization of player plans and how we treat players. We want our players to brag to the other 29 teams, whether they're in Low-A or Triple-A, or obviously in Detroit, that the Tigers are pumping all the resources available into them. Some of that's been technology, food. Infrastructure has been built out where if a player feels like they need something, they're able to get in the tech cage in Lakeland, and we're on it right now. And then we have specialists that came from a facility like Tread Athletics or in-house, a guy like (hitting coordinator) Jeff Branson, who has been a major-league coach and is now working in our hitting department, we have experts on site in Lakeland to address things now. We can't recreate the major-league experience one-to-one in the minor leagues, just because we have too many players and not enough stuff, but we're trying to be pretty close, and Scott has given us all the support and resources we need to try to do that."

Making the jump to the big leagues

Detroit Tigers second base Colt Keith (33) bats against Houston Astros during the fifth inning at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, May 12, 2024.
Detroit Tigers second base Colt Keith (33) bats against Houston Astros during the fifth inning at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, May 12, 2024.

The gap between Triple-A and Major League Baseball has never been wider. Can you explain how much different the skill level is between the two levels?

"I was in a meeting a few years ago. We were talking about that gap, and a really experienced scout who's a really good scout and has been doing it for a really long time, he said, 'The gap has always been big, and now it is a million miles apart.' I think it's two things. I've honestly spent some time on this. I think shrinking down to four affiliates and losing the short-season affiliates, it's forced teams, us included, even if we don't want to, like we are moving players faster than we had in the past. We lost the New York Penn League and that ability to throttle players a little bit and give them more at-bats and more innings to get to the higher levels. I think players are racing to Double-A really fast, faster than they ever have. You sort of stop at Double-A as a young player, and then you kind of have to prove that you can do it, but then eventually, a lot of those younger players are getting to Triple-A still with a ton of development left.

I hate to say back when I played, but back when I played, I got to a Triple-A team with 20 veterans that probably had service time and five young kids. It was like Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Jhonny Peralta, but then the guys on our team were Ernie Young and Dusty Wathan, guys that had major-league service time that were four-A type of players. That was the majority of the team and the pitching staff. Now, it's probably flipped where you have five or six four-A depth-type players and 19 kids that it's their first time in Triple-A. I don't have a comment, but that's just where the game has gone. I think that's every team. That sort of mid-class upper-level player, those guys either stick in the big leagues or we're going with young players. I think that's a really big part of it.

I think the other part of it is that the pitching is so, so good. We're all so good at developing pitching. One thing that Colt (Keith) said, he's like, 'There's no easy at-bats anymore.' There is not one at-bat you're going to get off a pitcher. Even the quote-unquote bad relievers, especially in the big leagues, are probably throwing 95 with mega ride or mega sink. We can create a lot of really interesting shapes, and guys do throw really hard. You can go to the Atlantic League (an independent baseball league) and find some guys that probably are throwing really, really hard and bring them in. The pitching is just beating up the hitters now, and there's no way to simulate it in Triple-A. We've tried a million things. We talk about this a lot. How can we simulate? But how do you simulate Garrett Crochet's release and fastball and that stuff and that slider. It's hard to do. You're not going to see a fastball below 95, with incredible offspeed, and then the bullpen is just as nasty. It's hard. The only way to do it is to go do it. I think Colt will hit, too. I think the underlying stuff has been great. The underlying metrics are good. I like his swing. But whether it's (Jackson) Holliday or Colt or any of these young players, until you see it, the pitching jump is bigger than it's ever been."

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him @EvanPetzold.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Meet Ryan Garko, the man behind Detroit Tigers prospect development