One final telling detail illustrating A.J. Hinch’s mentality and mentorship of his players this season emerged in his post-game interview after the Tigers’ season-ending victory over the Chicago White Sox. Hinch had actually given his end-of-the-season speech the day after the Detroit Tigers were officially eliminated from the postseason back in mid-September. The point? To emphasize the moment the 2021 season officially failed according to his expectations, and to reinforce to each and every member of the team and the staff the high standards Hinch has, both for his players, but also for himself and his coaching staff.
Just another example of the Tigers’ skipper never missing a teachable moment, nor an opportunity to insist on seeing playoff caliber baseball from his club on a daily basis. In one year he built an excellent coaching staff, instilled a winning culture, brought out the best in many of his players, and had a major impact on the organization writ large.
Hinch described his thought process on turning the Tigers culture into a winning one with high standards in his final interviews with the media at season’s end.
“When you take over a team that is not accustomed to winning, that doesn’t hold itself to the bar of a playoff team, it has to start with belief. You have to talk about winning, believe that you’re going to win and let the results be.”
Things certainly feel different now, but the Detroit Tigers rebuild was still floundering when the 2020 season came to an end. Forget building a winner. The Tigers were still trying to start on a foundation entering the fourth year of their rebuilding project. They had a top farm system, but Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal’s initial foray into the majors did not go well in 2020. Beyond that, the Tigers had spent three full rebuilding years without finding a single everyday player. The possibility that even modest success would have to wait until Miguel Cabrera’s contract expired loomed over every move they made.
Enter A.J. Hinch, hired by the Detroit Tigers on October 30, 2020.
Now look at the Tigers after a season in which they improved 13 games over 2020—with no real increase in payroll—extrapolating the COVID season results to a 162 game season. Look at the fact that after a testing period in April and early May, the Fighting Hinches played plus-.500 caliber baseball the rest of the season. Note the way they pushed back in games and rarely folded up the tent early. And more than anything else, look at just how many players improved as the season unfolded. Hinch’s impact was enormous and far-reaching.
The coaching staff he assembled featured Hinch’s biggest get; pitching coach Chris Fetter. Sought after by several major league teams in recent years, it was Hinch’s relationship with Fetter, as well as Fetter’s proximity in Ann Arbor, that finally lured him to the major leagues. For those who wondered about Hinch’s reputation, there was bench coach George Lombard, who came over from the LA Dodgers, the very team the 2017 Astros beat for their World Series title. Two of Hinch’s initial hires, Chip Hale and Jose Cruz Jr., were poached for good college head coaching positions before the season was a month old in just another sign that this wasn’t your usual Tigers’ coaching staff.
We’ll cover the pitching side of things more in depth soon, with a piece on the impact of pitching coach Chris Fetter. For the moment, we’ll just mention the improvement in young starters like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning. The outstanding performance from Spencer Turnbull prior to his injury, and with Wily Peralta in the second half, a pitcher who was close to being out of the majors for good before he came to Detroit. Kyle Funkhouser, Michael Fulmer, Gregory Soto, Tyler Alexander, among others, benefited markedly from Hinch’s leadership, and Fetter’s instruction. With them in hand, the Tigers bullpen was surprisingly effective despite the sixth heaviest workload in baseball and without a bona fide relief ace in sight.
On the position player side, Hinch was the one who pushed for Robbie Grossman, leading GM Al Avila to the best free agent signing of his career to date. Both Grossman and Jeimer Candelario produced career-best seasons with Hinch’s staff. Hinch and catching coach Josh Paul worked closely to improve both Jake Rogers and Eric Haase’s work behind the plate, particularly their game planning. And finally, Hinch’s work keeping Akil Baddoo confident and aggressive as his coaches worked to tune his plate discipline and defensive game, despite Baddoo’s near total lack of experience in pro ball at every level, was remarkable.
While Hinch and his staff’s role in his individual players’ success or failure is unquantifiable, what is clear is that the Tigers out-performed their individual numbers. The club was worth 24.4 wins above replacement all tolled, per Baseball Reference. Based on rWAR, that means the Tigers should’ve won 71.4 games, rather than the 77 wins they actually tallied.
The club did gave back a full seven wins in negative defense value, so they may have been fortunate in overcoming their defensive struggles this year. Part of their outsized success may also have come from Hinch deploying his best players effectively in the most winnable games, and accruing negative WAR in games they were already down substantially in. WAR obviously is a useful tool, but not the full reality. Some of it may have been a confluence of circumstances in April that saw them play abysmal baseball for several weeks straight as Hinch and Fetter worked to tune their players and set up their rotation and bullpen. Either way, there are no guarantees that given the same team things would go as well, nor would one expect them to stumble as badly as they did in April and early May.
In terms of style, we saw the aggression and thirst for innovation that is one of Hinch’s trademarks. However, we also saw that he would be guided by the numbers and a modern perspective, but not ruled by them. Hinch refused to lock himself into typical inning-by-inning bullpen roles, insisting that his guys learn to pitch, sit, and get up to give him another out or three when required. He tended to deploy them against parts of the opponent’s order, rather than waiting for some one to falter. It was his final joke of the season-ending press conference when Hinch smiled and announced that Gregory Soto was now his closer, adding that he might still pitch any of the final few frames of a game.
The Tigers also sacrificed and stole more than most teams, showing off the small ball acumen, and using what they had to work with, as opposed to forcing an ideal approach their players couldn’t pull off. They shifted their defensive alignments aggressively, a modern concept, but did so to support a more old-school roster of pitchers who were largely better at inducing weak contact than racking up strikeouts. Instead they tailored their pitching plans to get ground balls into those shifts to snuff rallies. They also crashed the plate with runners on third an awful lot, and it worked surprisingly well overall.
Hinch also did very well managing his lineup during games. The Tigers’ had the highest batting average in baseball in pinch hit appearances, and were third in total wRC+ for pinch hitters. They also had the highest isolated power mark across Several switch hitters helped out, but considering the quality of the club’s individual hitters, that’s pretty impressive to get that much of pinch hit appearances. Of course, the Tigers only had 72 plate appearances using a pinch hitter, least in baseball, so it wasn’t a big part of their game. When they went to a pinch hitter, however, they were well prepared and extremely successful.
The Tigers’ defense shifted against the third-most hitters of any team in MLB. Their positioning was fairly effective as the club finished with the ninth best weighted on base average (wOBA) against when the defense was playing in a shift. They were 20th best when not shifted, likely reflecting the fact that Tigers’ defenders almost uniformly graded out below average. All examples of Hinch and his staff mixing great preparation with modern concepts and data, while showing the ability to play whatever style game was required.
Hinch also preached aggression on the basepaths from the start, and unlike so many other managers, didn’t start to throttle back on that aggression when mistakes occurred. The Tigers finished with 88 stolen bases, tied for eighth in MLB. They were caught 25 times. Of course, you need the right personnel to steal a lot of bags, and Robbie Grossman’s 20 stolen bases paired with Akil Baddoo’s 18 to get the Tigers a long way toward their final total. However, the Tigers were also hampered by several notably slow runners, such as Miguel Cabrera, yet finished slightly in the positive in total baserunning value, basically in the middle of the pack compared to the other 29 teams.
What Hinch did make clear this year, is that he’s capable of doing more with less; that his ability to lead and command respect in the clubhouse is undiminished; and that through the intense, meticulous preparation he’s known for, and an emphasis on a day-to-day winning mentality, these Tigers can surprise us with a delightfully plucky and versatile style of play that outperforms their true talent level.
His players are all in, as several quotes from Cody Stavenhagen’s recent piece on Hinch for The Athletic Detroit illustrates.
Says outfielder Robbie Grossman: “He’s the reason I came here. I couldn’t ask for more from a manager.”
Says right-hander Casey Mize: “I said it earlier in the year: I’m proud to play for A.J. Hinch, and that definitely still holds true. We built a great relationship, and I look up to him a lot.”
Says left-hander Tarik Skubal: “I have the utmost respect for him and how he manages the ballclub. The type of baseball that we played this year was a ton of fun. From my standpoint, I learned a lot from him, too.”
The Tigers are going to have to find ways to shore up some weaknesses and build on their strengths in order to maintain the level of performance they showed over the final five months of the season. Their five prized prospects have to play a part in that by improving, and in the case of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, by reaching the majors and contributing early on. Still, the Tigers need substantial help at shortstop, starting pitcher, and the catcher position, in order to turn this club into a team with a shot at the postseason.
Now the onus is on owner Chris Ilitch and GM Al Avila to find Hinch more talent. The farm will add talent from one direction, but the rest will require some serious free agent signings and probably a smart trade or three along the way. A.J. Hinch will no doubt play a key role in those processes as well. In one year, he put his stamp on the Detroit Tigers organization in a major way and earned his seat beside Avila as the organization’s other key decision-maker. We’re excited to see where that partnership can take the club in the years to come.