What AJ Hinch saw from Detroit Tigers in 2020 season: Michael Fulmer, Niko Goodrum, more

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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AJ Hinch had a lot of time on his hands to watch baseball during the 2020 season, so he took some notes.

When he heard the Detroit Tigers were interested in interviewing him for their managerial vacancy at the conclusion of his year-long MLB suspension, the former Houston Astros manager paid even closer attention to what was happening inside Comerica Park.

As the new manager of the Tigers, Hinch is happy he did his research.

“Just building my knowledge for the interview, I had to dig in a little bit on what went right, what needs to be addressed, the strengths, the weaknesses,” Hinch said Thursday. “This week, I’ve been contacting players, starting a baseline with developing a relationship and having them tell me about the year.

“It’s one thing for me to look at it, but I want to hear through their words and their eyes on what each individual guy needs to do.”

The Tigers finished 23-35 in the shortened season, losing 19 of their last 25 games to finish in last in the AL Central for the fourth time in six years. There were 10 players who made their MLB debuts, including top pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal and hitting prospects Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron.

The experiences gained by those players, Hinch said, was the strength of the 2020 Tigers.

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“Some of them got to the big leagues sooner than they needed to be,” Hinch said. “It was a weird year to be able to do that and get guys up. When you assess what went right, we need to simply both ends — the pitching and hitting — and continue to build on what these guys’ strengths are and what makes them good.”

The Tigers struck out 567 times last season, sixth-worst in the majors. In 2019, they were the worst in MLB with 1,595 strikeouts. They finished second worst in walks in 2019 (378). Last season, the Tigers had the fewest walks in baseball with 147.

Hinch wants them to develop a team-based identity on offense.

[ 2020 Tigers grades: Young bats, solid defense not enough to overpower pitching ]

“There’s a time to swing for extra-base hits, there’s also a time to have a team offense that produces a run with other players,” Hinch said. “The ball in play is your friend when the infield is back and a runner is on third, so that takes a different approach and a different game plan that needs to be instilled in these guys.”

One of the first players Hinch called was left-hander Matthew Boyd, who had a 6.71 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 22 walks in 60⅓ innings. He led the majors in home runs allowed (15) and earned runs (45). And he led the AL with seven losses.

Hinch reviewed Boyd’s 2020 film before calling him, and he refreshed himself on Mize, Skubal, Spencer Turnbull and Michael Fulmer. Regardless of his in-game performance, Boyd is considered the leader of the starting rotation, a group with a league-worst 6.37 ERA last season.

[ Matthew Boyd won’t judge new manager AJ Hinch for past mistakes ]

“You got to have some detail with some players for the first time,” Hinch said. “You’re not gonna tell him, ‘Hey, I can fix you with this one fix.’ But building that trust and relationship starts with listening first and not really telling everybody what we need to do.”

Ranked by MLB Pipeline as the team’s No. 2 and No. 5 prospects, respectively, Mize and Skubal were called up in mid-August for their MLB debuts. They weren’t as good as they wanted to be, especially not after dominating their way through the minor leagues.

“I think the pitch usage (needs to be) a little bit more consolidated on game planning, pitching to some strengths, the areas of the strike zone,” Hinch said. “The young pitching, it would be entirely unfair to label them as the season they had in 2020 as the pitchers they’re going to be.

“The upside with these guys is off the charts.”

Here’s what Hinch said about individual players:

Fulmer: “I love that Michael Fulmer got through the season in a very structured way, where it was almost like an opener, but he was just building some strength back getting into the rotation. Not untapped potential because he’s been an All-Star before, but I think getting him a full season, he can anchor a staff if asked. He’s that type of talent once we get him healthy, back up and running.”

Shortstop Willi Castro: “I do like Willi Castro coming up and having success. That’s going to be a big step forward.”

• After hitting .230 in a 30-game debut stint in 2019, Castro finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020 with a .349 batting average, six home runs and 24 RBIs in 36 games.

Utility player Niko Goodrum: “I think, Niko, there’s a ton of opportunity to clean up some of his offensive approach in his swing. His impact is felt all the time. He’s a Gold Glove defender. Everybody thinks they can catch, so I’m not going to say he can catch, but he can play just about every other position you ask him to. That’s extremely valuable to a manager.”

• Goodrum hit .184 with five home runs and 20 RBIs in 43 games last season but only made two errors in 159 chances at shortstop and second base. He has never hit above .250 in his career. He was 10th in the AL last year with 69 strikeouts.

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario: “Obviously, the Candelario breakthrough. I want to figure out how and why and what happened and continue to build off that.”

• In 2019, Candelario had a .203 batting average in 94 games. He was sent back-and-forth from Triple-A Toledo to Detroit numerous times. This past season, however, he clocked in a .297 average with seven home runs and 29 RBIs and was named the Tiger of the Year.

Outfielder Daz Cameron: “Daz Cameron hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can do.”

• Cameron made his MLB debut Sept. 9, so he only played 17 games for the Tigers. He was 11-for-57 with two doubles, one triple and three RBIs. He had 19 strikeouts and two walks.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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