Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch explains his affinity for utility players, and how to manage them

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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This offseason, AJ Hinch returned to the managers club, an exclusive group of 30 people leading MLB teams. On Tuesday, the Detroit Tigers manager joined his peers on a video conference with the commissioner’s office.

One of the topics discussed was spring training for 2021. Pitchers and catchers will report first in mid-February, followed by position players a few days later.

The message from the league is to move forward as scheduled. But there are uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, the ongoing debate between MLB and the Players Association regarding when the 2021 season will begin — and how many games will be played — could force a standstill.

[ Tigers’ 2021 spring training schedule looks like typical Grapefruit League slate ]

“We haven’t had a formal date put in front of us other than the schedule that’s been out,” Hinch said Wednesday, adding he is unsure when the league and union will come to a final decision. “Assuming normal spring training and things of that nature. We didn’t hear anything different. … We were just told to stand by, and they would be back in touch when they had more information definitively on what the plan is.”

The Tigers are set to open competition in Lakeland, Florida, on Feb. 26 against Southeastern University before Grapefruit League action the next day against the New York Yankees in Tampa. Opening Day is scheduled for April 1 at Comerica Park against the Cleveland Indians. 

“Our players are going to start to want to gear toward making plans for the spring,” Hinch said. “And we’ve got to come to some sort of resolution on safety protocols, timing and things of that nature.”

[ How AJ Hinch will approach players about COVID-19 vaccine ]

MLB executives and owners want players to be vaccinated before arriving to spring training, according to USA TODAY Sports, meaning the season would be delayed until May and shortened to 140 games or fewer.

The Players Association, however, wants the April start date, a 162-game season and full pay for the players.

“I would hope that they’d be able to get together as soon as possible,” Hinch said, “but that’s outside my communication with either party. I don’t know. The sooner the better for everybody in the sport.”

A deep love for versatility

There seems to be nothing Hinch enjoys more than versatility on his roster.

Niko Goodrum has major league experience at seven positions. Willi Castro can work at shortstop and second base. Jeimer Candelario is able to switch between first and third base. JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes can play all three outfield positions. And Isaac Paredes could end up as a third and second baseman.

Even Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020 who played first base at Arizona State, is getting reps at third base.

“Being able to maneuver the players around the field and have them still be good allows me to put any combination of players on the field that gives us the best chance to win,” Hinch said. “It allows Al (Avila, Tigers general manager) to sign any player that he wants, and we can move guys around. It’s really important to not have too many guys just be able to play every single day at one position.”

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To provide an example, Hinch referenced Marwin Gonzalez, who spent seven of his nine seasons with the Houston Astros. In four of his seven years in Houston, Hinch served as the team’s manager.

In his career, Gonazlez has played shortstop, first base, third base, second base and all three outfield positions, maintaining a .261 batting average, 96 home runs and 369 RBIs. Hinch considers him “an everyday player, (but) he just didn’t know what glove to take to the field.”

When the Astros won the World Series in 2017, Gonzalez — currently a free agent — hit .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs in 134 games.

“I think it’s become more valuable across the industry,” Hinch said. “Guys are getting paid that can do that. That’s one way (to make the utility role attractive for players), just letting them know how good guys have succeeded in those roles. Also, being very direct. You can’t hide it from players. Communication is key. Honesty is key.

“You got to explain the motivation to the player on why you’re doing it. This is a generation of players that want to know why, and I think they deserve the explanation. Now that I’ve got examples of success stories, I can share that with the players here in Detroit. They’ll understand exactly how much better it makes us if you give me more choices.”

New rules in 2020

Hinch spent the 2020 season disconnected from the game, serving his year-long MLB suspension for his role in the 2017 Astros sign-stealing plot. As his perspective shifted from manager to spectator, he focused on the new rules.

The most influential rules added: universal designated hitter, runner on second base to begin extra innings, seven-inning doubleheaders, three-batter minimum for relievers, expanded rosters and the expanded postseason. It’s unclear which of these rules will remain in 2021. Teams were told to “proceed under the assumption the DH will not be used in the NL this year,” according to The Athletic.

“I think I would keep a lot of them, if not all of them,” Hinch said. “My perspective changed over the years. I was very nervous about the strategy of the game being touched. As I was a fan last year, I saw exactly why those things could be attractive.”

The universal designated hitter, Hinch said, would improve offense and sustain health. He admits there are traditionalists who still want to see pitchers take swings, but he believes the game will grow as the offense improves.

In Hinch’s managerial career, he spent two years in the NL with the Arizona Diamondbacks (2009-10). 

“Baseball is really slow to evolve and slow to accept change,” Hinch said. “We’ve seen this over the years with the slide rule and not running over the catcher, just putting your fingers up for the intentional walk instead of throwing four balls. The game has moved on perfectly fine, and I think there are some things we can continue to adopt that maybe don’t impact the game as much as we first anticipated. Across the board, again, I love the DH.”

At first, Hinch didn’t like the extra-innings rule, where a runner starts on second base. He changed his mind when he realized how “very exciting” it was to watch. But he doesn’t know how he will react to it as a manager, assuming it carries over into 2021.

“Now, I haven’t lost the game as a manager with that extra-inning rule, so maybe I’ll change my mind,” Hinch said. “But of all those rules, from the outside watching as an observer, looked like they were tremendous successes.”

Hinch was against the three-batter minimum early on. He didn’t enjoy how the game’s strategy was being destroyed. But watching from his couch, he came to realize it’s “not as detrimental to the game as maybe we expected.”

The versatility of his relief pitchers will be tested if this rule stays.

“We challenge our pitchers to be versatile, and you want to be able to get both sides of the hitters out,” Hinch said. “There are ways to escape that at the end of the inning, but I haven’t had the anxiety of bringing in a guy going, ‘Man, I hope he gets this lefty out before Mike Trout,’ or, ‘I hope he gets this guy out before Mookie Betts.’ There’s some danger in that I haven’t experienced yet.”

Here are a few other notes from Hinch’s media session.

Adding Jose Cruz Jr. as assistant hitting coach: “Well, I’ve chased Cruz Jr. for a couple of years. We had a couple of openings on previous coaching staffs that I’ve had, and I’ve flirted with him to see if he’d want to get into coaching. Incredible person. He’s got a great feel with players. It’s one of his jobs with the Players Association. He became a resource for players around the league. I reached out to him, and I’ve had a relationship with him for a number of years. We played together on Team USA years and years ago. I’ve stayed in touch with him, played against him. I’ve seen him oftentimes in major-league ballparks.

“Again, it was a coaching staff that I was methodically putting together with Al, and it became very apparent that with (Scott) Coolbaugh as our primary hitting coach, Cruz Jr. fit perfectly with being a brand new coach but bringing a pretty strong resume to the coaching staff in general. But specifically in the hitting department, where he can continue to impact players the way he has his whole life.”

Managing Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera (soon): “It’s incredible. I’m very fortunate to have been around Jose and do incredible things. He’s a great person, an incredible family man, brought energy and excellence to the ballpark every day. I’ve learned a lot from him and how he goes about his business. And then I’ve also watched him interact with Miggy from the other side, so I know they’re very close. I’m sure Miggy’s talked to Jose and got filled in on our relationship. I just feel fortunate to have been around incredible players across the board, specifically Jose and soon to be Miggy. When I look back on my career, when I’m done managing, they will be both near the top of my list.”

Intentional walk: “I had a lot of time off, and I thought about a lot of things. I can’t say that was high on my priority list. It’s never been something that I race to do. Got a lot of attention in ’19, and I think there’s a place for it. I’m not against it. I did it in the World Series against Juan Soto. My general belief is that you’re adding fuel to the fire oftentimes when you’re adding the intentional runner on base for free. I’m not going to lose a game over the stubbornness of not issuing an intentional walk. I will. There were a number of times in ’19 that I was on the cusp of doing it, and then the game situation or the base runners changed. It won’t be something you see a lot of it. I’m not against just about anything, but I don’t do it often.”

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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