| Detroit Free Press
Watch: Detroit Tigers introduce AJ Hinch as manager
Detroit Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch and GM Al Avila introduce new manager AJ Hinch, Oct. 30, 2020.
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch searched for three characteristics when putting together his first coaching staff with the organization — player impact, open-mindedness and work ethic, with impact ranking No. 1.
He landed on three coaches already in the organization: first base coach Ramon Santiago and quality control coach Josh Paul — retained from former manager Ron Gardenhire’s staff — and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, who spent the last two seasons in Triple-A Toledo.
And then he went outside the organization to find pitching coach Chris Fetter — who spent the last three years as Michigan baseball‘s pitching coach —bench coach George Lombard, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and third base coach Chip Hale.
That’s how Hinch built his coaching staff just seven days after becoming the new manager on Oct. 30. Rather than being passive, he went on the attack to secure these coaches, with the help of general manager Al Avila. They hope their additions are the correct ingredients to get the franchise back into the postseason.
“We really hit the mark on every hire,” Hinch said Thursday.
With some of them, Hinch has longtime connections. Others, he doesn’t know personally, presenting a challenge in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which face-to-face interactions are limited. Still, Hinch got it done quickly, giving the Tigers a chance to start working ahead of spring training’s February start.
For starters, there’s Lombard.
That means there’s some notable recent history.
“I knew the question would come up about the Dodgers and George Lombard,” Hinch said. “I mean, that’s the easiest angle to go.”
In 2017, Hinch’s Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games to win the World Series. Two years later, MLB launched an investigation into the 2017 Astros’ sign-stealing plot.
Hinch was punished with a a one-year suspension, got fired by the Astros and watched the 2020 season unfold from his home in The Woodlands, Texas.
Lombard, 45, was on the receiving end of the cheating. He served as Dodgers first base coach from 2016-20. So, there’s history between Hinch and Lombard, who also interviewed for the Tigers’ manager job.
But there’s no bad blood.
“George and I have known each other for a really long time,” Hinch said. “Mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work…. We didn’t spend a lot of time looking in the past at any of the competitions we had in the World Series.
“Our connection, our common vision, our attention to detail, our views on the game are so aligned. It was impossible not to approach him about this opportunity to sit right next to me as the bench coach.”
There’s history between Hinch and Hale, too.
When Hinch took over as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ manager of minor league operations after the 2005 season, Hale was hired as the organization’s Triple-A manager, the job he held through the 2009 season.
After that 2009 season, Hinch, only 34, was hired to manage the Diamondbacks. Hale, nearly a decade older than Hinch, left the D-backs’ org for for the New York Mets’ third base coaching job.
“We’ve maintained a good relationship throughout the years,” Hinch said, “even though we broke up after that.”
Hinch lasted less than two seasons in the Diamondbacks job, replaced in July 2010 (with an 89-123 record in 212 games) by Kirk Gibson. The ex-Tigers star lasted through the 2014 season, when he was replaced by … Hale, who got two full seasons — and a 148-176 record — before he was fired.
“Then he went and helped win a World Series in Washington (in 2019 against the Astros),” Hinch said. “That type of experience was very important to me, especially in the third-base box.”
Since 2007, Jim Leyland’s second season in Detroit, the Tigers have only had three hitting coaches: Lloyd McClendon (2007-13, 2017-19), Wally Joyner (2014-16) and Joe Vavra (2020).
That’s 10 years of McClendon as the hitting coach (plus one season as bench coach and another as bullpen coach), so there haven’t been many changes in general philosophies over the years.
Coolbaugh, 54, is going to mix things up.
“He’s an approach-oriented hitting coach,” Hinch said. “He’s got a calm demeanor. There’s a cage presence to him where he’s in the trenches with these guys. … We were aligned with what he sees as a total offense. It’s not just swing mechanics. It’s not just leading the league in walks, or not striking out. There’s a lot of ways to build a team offense, and we need to do that here in Detroit.”
Coolbaugh has a reputation for success, helping the Texas Rangers reach the 2011 World Series as the team’s hitting coach. He spent 2015-18 with the Baltimore Orioles, helping that franchise get to the postseason in 2016.
What impresses Hinch the most, however, is Coolbaugh’s decision to take a step back from the majors. For 2019, he served as hitting coach for Triple-A Oklahoma City, within the Dodgers’ organization.
“Continued to grow and evolve and learn, master his craft,” Hinch said. “And then he ended up in Chicago (with the White Sox) last year as the assistant (hitting coach). To me, it’s great that he’s touched so many players in so many different organizations.
“He’s taken the wealth of knowledge as he’s come along the way, and yet he hasn’t changed his core principles.”
A new hierarchy
There’s a reason why Hinch paired Fetter — a first-year MLB’er at 34 — with Nieves, who is 55 and has coached since the early 1990s, including 11 years in the majors. He wants Nieves, the assistant, to help guide Fetter, the pitching coach.
The opposite is true with the offense, as Hinch plans to add a young assistant hitting coach to work under Coolbaugh. He’s closing in on the hire, but a formal offer hasn’t been made to any of the candidates.
“That second hitting coach needs to fit the staff and bring something dynamic,” Hinch said. “It’s something I’ve been focused on, but Cooley was the guy.”
In addition to serving as bench coach, Lombard will work with outfielders and teach baserunning. Hale and Santiago will work together to position infielders and outfielders during games. Last season, Santiago spearheaded the defensive shifts.
And Hinch views Hale as his third-in-command, behind the manager and bench coach.
“The only other guy on the field that makes a decision, other than the manager, is the third base coach,” Hinch said. “He makes big decisions on sending runners. He is an extension of me when we’re talking about putting on signs and the offensive approach that we’re taking at the plate.
“I just see him being part defensive coordinator on the infield, outfield positioning, part extension of the manager in the third-base box and certainly a loyal guy who brings a lot of energy.”