In 2003, former Detroit Tigers star Alan Trammell returned to the Motor City to manage the Tigers. One of the players on his first team, catcher AJ Hinch, has become the newest Tigers, manager. Although the 2003 Tigers season is memorable for all the wrong reasons, Hinch’s time as a Tigers player isn’t as well-remembered.
Near the end of spring training in 2003, the Tigers picked AJ Hinch up from the Indians after he lost the battle to be Cleveland’s backup catcher. Hinch, who had big-league experience with the A’s and Royals, began the season with the Toledo Mud Hens. He was first summoned to Detroit in mid-June after the Tigers decided to send struggling catcher Brandon Inge to Toledo. Inge had only hit .150 in 67 games. Hinch, in 48 games, had been hitting .261 with the Hens. Trammell made Hinch the new starting catcher.
John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press introduced the 29-year old Hinch to readers as “a dedicated learner”, citing Hinch’s psychology degree from Stanford. The future Tigers manager came to Detroit as a player at a time when the team was giving a few young pitchers an opportunity to develop at the major league level, including Jeremy Bonderman, a raw 20-year old who was only in his second season of pro ball. This was a team that sent four pitchers (Bonderman, Wil Ledezma, Chris Spurling, and Matt Roney) to the mound to make their big league debuts in the same game on April 2. Hinch was looking forward to getting familiar with the Tigers’ young arms. He commented,
“It’s obviously going to take a time catching each of them. I hope that in the bullpen I get to know their repertoire. The good thing is that I know the players in the league, so I feel I can call games.”
Ironically, after failing to catch on with the Indians, that’s who Hinch made his Tigers debut against on June 18. He didn’t have a good night at the plate or behind it. Hinch went 0-for-4 and was the third out of the inning each time. He struck out to end the game. The Indians, perhaps too familiar with the way Hinch handled an opponent’s running game, also stole three bases. Lowe reported that Hinch’s first two throws were not strong ones. The Tigers lost 4-1.
Hinch fared better in his third game, on June 20 against the Rockies in Denver. After the Tigers tied the game 2-2 on Kevin Witt’s solo home run in the top of the third, Shane Halter tripled. Hinch gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead on a line drive single to left that scored Halter. Mike Maroth sacrificed Hinch to second, and the catcher then scored on an Alex Sanchez double. The Rockies were able to score a run on a Hinch error in the fourth. With runners on first and second, he fielded a sacrifice bunt but threw wild in his attempt to get the force out at third. Hinch doubled later in the game but was stranded. Thanks in part to Hinch’s first hit, first RBI, and first-run as a Tiger, Detroit went on to win 7-5. Starter Maroth improved his record to 2-11.
Before the Detroiters left Colorado, Hinch picked up another first as a Tiger. This one was a little more dubious than the others. In the eighth inning on June 21, he got his first ejection after home plate umpire Larry Young thought the Tigers’ new catcher had shown him up. Lefty reliever Jamie Walker had just come in to face Rockies slugger Todd Helton. Trammell tried to offer an explanation afterward. He said,
“Apparently, after a close pitch to Helton, Larry thought AJ held the ball too long. I don’t agree with that, but that’s what that was.”
The Detroit News‘ Tom Gage wrote that Hinch was a catcher who “has always prided himself for having a good relationship with umpires”. It’s possible that Hinch was the victim of an #umpshow. Hinch, who Gage described as “mild-mannered”, said,
“I didn’t feel I did anything that warranted an ejection. I was surprised. I’ve never intentionally tried to show anyone up.”
By that point of the game, though, Hinch may have felt relieved to be out of there. The Rockies had already roughed up three Tigers pitchers and led 9-3. A three-run ninth-inning home run off the bat of Detroit’s Warren Morris made the 9-6 final score look a little closer than the game really was.
On June 30 at Comerica Park, the Tigers had a good opportunity to score an early run against the Blue Jays. Ramon Santiago was hit by a pitch. With Hinch at the plate, Santiago stole second and claimed third on the catcher’s throwing error. Hinch, however, grounded out to the third baseman to end the inning. Toronto took a 1-0 lead in the fifth.
Santiago walked to lead off the bottom of the fifth. With the hit-and-run on, Hinch fouled off the first pitch from the Jays’ Cory Lidle. On the second pitch, he cracked his first home run as a Tiger. Detroit was on top 2-1. Lidle said it was a good pitch that Hinch put a good swing on. The Tigers scored three more times in the fifth en route to a 6-2 victory that snapped a nine-game losing streak. Maroth, who started that day, got the win to run his record to 3-12.
The Tigers actually managed to win five games by shutting opponents out in 2003. The first shutout that Hinch was behind the plate for was on July 1 at home against the Blue Jays. He guided rookie Matt Roney to seven strong innings. Roney, a former Rockies first-round pick, was a Rule 5 draft pick the previous December, He had no trouble at all with the Jays’ two toughest hitters, Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells, and gave up just one hit and two walks. Although Roney only struck out only four, Hinch said that the young righty “threw three quality pitches for strikes all night”. Detroit blanked Toronto 5-0. It turned out to be Roney’s only big league win.
Hinch was one of many contributors to a triumphant night in Kansas City on July 5. The Tigers crowned the Royals 9-5. In the second, Hinch lined a single to left that drove in Craig Monroe. In the fourth, Hinch walked and scored on a three-run bomb by Alex Sanchez. In the fifth, Hinch’s sacrifice fly knocked in Carlos Peña. The beneficiary of the Tigers’ big night at the plate was Maroth, whose record improved to 4-12.
On July 13 at home against the Red Sox, Hinch was once again behind the plate for a Tigers shutout win. Like the last time, he was catching a young Tigers pitcher who was acquired in the previous December’s Rule 5 draft. This time it was Wil Ledezma, who had come from the Red Sox organization. With Hinch’s guidance, he looked solid in seven innings of work, scattering six hits and walking nobody. Detroit topped Boston 3-0. It was only the Tigers’ 25th win, but it was a nice way to go into the All-Star break.
Things didn’t go so well for Hinch in the season’s second half. In Chicago on July 17, the Tigers were leading the White Sox 5-1 in the top of the fifth when Hinch ripped a single into left. Unfortunately, he strained his left groin and limped to first. Matt Walbeck pinch-ran and donned his catching gear for the rest of the game, which Detroit ended up narrowly winning 10-9.
Hinch, who had started 18 of the Tigers’ 26 games since joining the team, missed eight games before finally being put on the disabled list. To fill his spot on the roster, Bobby Higginson, who was out with a bad hamstring, was activated from the DL. Meanwhile, Brandon Inge was still catching in Toledo as the Tigers decided to press forward with Walbeck taking over for Hinch. AJ rejoined the Tigers on August 3, but in his second game back, he reaggravated the groin and ended up back on the DL. Hinch said he felt like he “got struck twice by lightning”. This time, the Tigers recalled Inge.
As the recovery process progressed, Hinch was able to catch a pre-game workout session thrown by Kyle Sleeth, the Tigers’ number one draft pick back in June. Throwing to a big-league catcher in a big-league ballpark for the first time had Sleeth feeling “a little intimidated at first”. After a couple of pitches to Hinch, the right-hander was able to settle down.
In his post-playing career, Hinch would be involved in player development and scouting. Perhaps being able to get a close look at the Tigers’ new top prospect in this setting and give feedback to the organization about Sleeth’s performance helped steer Hinch in that direction. (He attended the Winter Meetings that November to begin, as Lynn Henning of the Detroit News wrote, “making contacts and absorbing front-office insight that might lead him to more advanced baseball roles”.) About Sleeth, whose attempt to reach the majors was derailed by injuries, Hinch noted,
“He has a nice smooth delivery – minimum effort – and the ball jumps out of his hand. His first time on a big league field with everybody watching – I was impressed – especially since it was the first time he’s been on the mound to face hitters since May.”
Shortly after, Hinch began a rehab assignment in Toledo. While he was there, he was tabbed to catch another special throwing session, although this one was far more unusual than Sleeth’s. Golfer Phil Mickelson, a veteran of the PGA Tour, actually had a tryout with the Mud Hens and pitched batting practice.
Hinch returned to the Tigers on September 4, but he only got into six of the team’s last 24 games of the season. Just three of those appearances were starts. Inge had taken over as the Tigers’ regular catcher again. Hinch homered pinch-hitting for Inge on September 22 in a game the Tigers lost to the Royals 12-6.
The next day, Hinch made his last start behind the plate for the Tigers. After former Tiger Jose Lima struck him out and hit him with a pitch in two of Hinch’s first three at-bats, the Detroit catcher homered off reliever Brad Voyles in the seventh. His third home run as a Tiger was the last one of his big league career. The Tigers thumped the Royals 15-6. Maroth got the win to bump his record to 8-21. Jeremy Bonderman threw two innings of scoreless relief.
Hinch made his final appearance as a Tiger in the season finale on September 28. He took over for Inge to start the eighth. It was a shaky inning for Bonderman, who had also entered the game that inning. Bondo gave up two runs on three hits and an error. Trammell replaced Hinch and Bonderman with Matt Walbeck and Jamie Walker for the ninth. The 9-4 win was the Tigers’ biggest of the season. With the victory (their 43rd), they were able to avoid tying the modern-day major league record of 120 losses in a season. The 1962 Mets were able to keep that one for themselves. The Tigers’ 119 losses, however, set a new American League record.
Even though Hinch hadn’t been with the Tigers throughout the entire 2003 season, he understood how important it was for the Tigers to win that day. When the Tigers were heading toward the final month of the season, Hinch told the Free Press,
“We should have an essence of urgency and pride to want to not be that team. I certainly don’t want to be the answer to a trivia question – and I hope nobody in here does. You should, at this level, have a lot of pride and understanding of history. As a semi-older player on this team, that’s something I would hope to spread.”
Motor City Bengals contributor (and West Michigan Whitecaps radio voice) Dan Hasty tweeted an interesting tidbit about Hinch’s 2003 season in Detroit. Of the 27 games that Hinch played in, the Tigers won 11 of them. That .407 winning percentage was much better than the team’s overall .265 winning percentage, which is still the worst in franchise history. Hinch led all position players in individual winning percentage (minimum of 10 games played).
Hinch also seemed to be somewhat of a good luck charm for the beleaguered Mike Maroth, who finished 2003 with a freakishly lopsided 9-21 record. Maroth was 5-2 in games in which Hinch was his starting catcher.
On October 1, Hinch was one of five 2003 Tigers players whose contracts were outrighted to Toledo. Seventeen Octobers later, Hinch has returned to Detroit in a brand new capacity.