Overall, new Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has received a measured but generally positive reaction from the fanbase. Reservations about his leadership and judgment can only be answered in time, but few doubt he was the club’s best option. Hinch’s availability and interest made a crucial decision for the organization a lot simpler.
On the whole, Tigers fans are at least familiar with A.J. Hinch, but perhaps less so with his style and managerial tendencies. The most notable part of his time in Houston is now the sign-stealing scandal that guts the value of his biggest achievement. It can be difficult to see through that to his actual qualities and style as a manager.
One of Hinch’s key attributes is his ability to mix baseball acumen with modern analytics. For a traditional front office trying to modernize, it was a prerequisite that their new manager could draw the best from both worlds. Hinch has a good reputation for teaching the game, and he knows how to apply technology to helping players improve. He understands the probabilities, but isn’t afraid to divert from the book and go by his feel for his players in decision-making. He has the ability to connect to players and forge deep ties with them, and he brings a wealth of experience in scouting and player development. Combine those ingredients with plenty of big game seasoning in the manager’s role, and it’s easy to understand why the Tigers were happy to offer him a second chance.
So Hinch fits the bill as a cutting edge manager with good faculty with the numbers, but look no further than their now infamous 2017 World Series run for his willingness to go by feel. Think back to Justin Verlander’s complete game one-hitter against the New York Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. The former Tigers ace is certainly a unicorn in terms of velocity and durability combined, but even three years later it’s hard to know how many teams would trust any pitcher do that in a playoff game. Of course, at other times, Hinch has probably stuck with his veteran starters too long. What’s clear, is that despite the Astros reputation as a data-driven team, Hinch didn’t take a cookie cutter approach in managing the team in big games. He was willing to buck the trends and ride a hot hand in the moment.
Consider the organization’s plan in Game Seven of the ALCS in 2017. Not only did the Astros trust a rookie with the biggest game of their lives, they sent Lance McCullers out with a game plan to throw nothing but breaking balls to close out a powerful Yankees lineup. That’s a combination of feel for the player’s ability to handle the moment and cutting edge pitching philosophy. We could also look back to Game Seven of the World Series that year, with starter Charlie Morton going the final four innings in lieu of a bullpen which was fatigued and fading throughout October. That’s not how you draw it up, but Hinch saw that Morton had his A-game and rode him to a championship.
This video of Lance McCullers Jr. throwing 24 consecutive curveballs to win the pennant is glorious: https://t.co/YIDdsW8mDd— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 22, 2017
Since he was hired, Hinch has done the usual introductory tour of Detroit media, from his press conference to local news and sports radio, accompanied by team produced stories and video. One of the more insightful interviews for the incumbent manager came, unsurprisingly, from Tigers radio play-by-play man Dan Dickerson, who got Hinch talking about his managerial style. Hinch emphasized knowing your personnel and their strengths and weaknesses over any type of over-arching philosophy on style of play.
“It depends on the team. I said this in my interview with Al (Avila); my first year when I got back into managing in Houston we had a lot of strikeouts, we had a really good bullpen, and our starting rotation maybe didn’t last as deep into games. So, I became known as a manager who used my bullpen and mixed the pieces. We made the playoffs with some home run or bust type of approach. So that must be what I believed in.
Then a couple of years later, we’re a tough team to strike out, we’re active on the bases, we had power pitchers and front line starting pitching from top to bottom. We had a bullpen that I matched up with, and I became a starter friendly, action packed manager. So, you manage your personnel. If those personnel form a fast, action packed, pressure type team, then you start runners a lot, and you move guys around. But if these guys hit the ball out of the ballpark, then you kind of go old school, three-run homer, get out of their way and let them go to boppin’. I don’t really have a style of play until you know the team you have.”
The overall impression is of a flexible approach that attempts to blend the best of old and new school approaches based on the circumstances. That resistance to getting locked into predetermined patterns and plans carries over to his philosophy regarding his bullpen as well.
A.J. Hinch on bullpen management:— Evan Woodbery (@evanwoodbery) November 12, 2020
"I like soft roles more than I like defined innings. Don't get too rigid in the use of your bullpen because whoever you name as your closer you might need in the 7th or 8th inning. I've shown myself (willing) to do that in the past."
One final note comes from Hinch’s initial managerial interviews with the Astros. At one point, he was asked if he would accept pre-programmed daily lineups passed down from the front office. Most candidates were apparently eager to please and said they didn’t mind turning over that responsibility to the front office. Hinch was the candidate that demurred, accepting the front office’s input into the lineup, but insisting that the manager is the one who should write the lineup each day based on the combination of analytics and his own sense for how the players were playing and feeling.
Overall, Hinch’s career and his own words express an admirable flexibility in his approach. He won’t hide behind the numbers, but he will carefully factor that information into his decision making. That philosophy should permeate his coaching staff as well. He’ll have successes and failures along the way, like any manager, but don’t worry. The Tigers didn’t hire a robot to follow the analytics department’s dictums. Instead he’s the perfect candidate to put their work into practice without losing his feel for the human side of the game.