What I learned about the Detroit Tigers this week: AJ Hinch not just an analytics manager

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
| Detroit Free Press

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I find Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch fascinating — all the different layers to how he approaches his job.

A little bit art, a little bit science.        

Hinch has a new-school approach, focusing on analytics and data. To prepare for the season, he has stayed up late at night, scouring scouting reports, studying the numbers and learning about his new team.

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“I’ve read about a lot of these players,” Hinch said. “We have a large database of information from our scouts, amateur scouts, pro scouts. I’ve set up late at night just reading through different reports, trying to get a feel for a player through other people’s eyes.”

Perhaps, there is nothing unusual about that. You would expect a manager new to an organization to dive into the reports, especially in today’s game with so much focus on analytics.

But there is another side to Hinch. Another side to how he manages. It’s not all numbers and trends and reports. It’s about his gut feeling and ability to read players, relying on an old-school feel, if you will.

Here is a guy who has a psychology degree from Stanford and he seems to approach baseball like a psychologist. He can’t wait to talk to his players to figure them out.

What makes Miggy tick?” he said of future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera. “What makes (Jeimer) Candelario good? What makes (Isaac) Paredes such an up and coming prospect. … Then, I compare all of that and develop my game plan for each particular player.”

Hinch will take the same approach when building a bullpen. He has to spend time with his pitchers, understanding their quirks and personalities before he knows how to use them.

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He’ll head to spring training “and get to know them a little bit, get to know their psyche, get to know their heartbeat, get to know their stuff,” he said. “I’m not going to name a closer in January.”

At least, that’s the theory.

And that the biggest takeaway I learned last week when the Tigers held their Winter Caravan — COVID-19 style.

OK. So there was no caravan. Just a series of virtual interviews.

But I still came away with several impressions and a few cool stories that shed some insight into these players.

A new ride

God bless Daniel Norris.

The guy is light-hearted and endearing, a ray of saltwater sunshine on a dreary winter day.

And he learned an important lesson this off season.

Never, ever go surfing in Oregon in October, not without a hood on your wet suit.

“It felt like a brain freeze,” he said.

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So, yes, he switched to a wet suit with a hood. The crisis was averted, and everything was fine.

“Super fine,” he said. “Big swells.”

Which sounds like the perfect offseason for Norris.

Until you hear about his new vehicle.

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Norris made all kinds of national headlines when he was living out of a 1978 Volkswagen van. But he has a new vehicle.

“When I was in Santa Barbara, I was going out to surf and had my board and was walking through the parking lot and I saw one for sale,” he said.

After he was done surfing, he texted the owner. ‘What do you want for it?” Norris texted. “He was like, ah, two grand. I was like, oh, easy sold.

Then, in pure Norris-style, they went surfing together before he got to test drive it.

Now, he’s the proud owner of a 1988 Volvo station wagon.

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And he will head to spring training with a healthy body and a determined spirit.

“I started throwing earlier this year,” Norris said. “So I feel really good right now.”

He wants to be a starter — he’s made that clear. And is up to 40 pitches in his bullpens.

“Knock on wood,” he said. “I feel amazing.”

‘I’m ready to go’

Back in November, I spent a few days in Lakeland watching the Tigers go through instructional ball.

Before a game, Matt Manning came running up the steps at Joker Marchant Stadium.

He was drenched with sweat, training in the sunshine, working his butt off, running up one section, going down and then coming up the next.

I’ve done more this offseason than I ever have before,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

He ran those steps more than he can remember. He started doing Yoga for flexibility and trained in a pool.

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“We worked out a bunch,” he said.

At times, Manning can seem like the forgotten prospect. Drafted out of high school five years ago, he’s been around the Tigers for so long that all the new names — Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Casey Mize — can dominate everything.

But Manning is one of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball, according to MLB Pipeline.

And he said that he is fully healed from a forearm strain that ended his 2020.

If he can stay healthy, I would expect him to get to Detroit at some point this season.

Pitching, pitching, pitching

It is clear that Hinch’s primary focus is on the Tigers pitching staff.

“For us to do this right, we have to get the pitching right,” Hinch said Tuesday. “I’ve never seen a team have success at this level, sustained success, without a good pitching staff.”

Which is why he brought in Chris Fetter, the new pitching coach from Michigan.

During the Zoom meetings last week, a long list of Tigers pitchers talked about how much they appreciate Fetter’s communication.

Fetter has already sent the pitchers his plan for spring training.

“To get everything dialed in,” Tarik Skubal said.

Given how important pitching is to this rebuild, Fetter is the most important coach in the organization right now.

But if Fetter’s success at the college level can be replicated for the Tigers, the future of this organization is gonna be better than — to put this in Daniel Norris’ surfing terms — a big swell in Oregon on a warm October day. 

With a hood, of course.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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