‘Lit a fire’: AJ Hinch sets lofty bar for Tigers pitching staff

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Manager AJ Hinch didn’t sugarcoat it. He not only established an  agenda and objectives for his pitching staff Wednesday, the first day of pitcher-catcher workouts, he challenged them to be the catalysts for the Tigers’ turnaround.

“It was invigorating,” Tigers veteran lefty Matthew Boyd said of Hinch’s first staff meeting. “It lit a fire that was kind of already blazing inside of me.”

Hinch didn’t sweep anything under the rug. He talked about the sign-stealing scandal that caused his abrupt departure from Houston and a year exiled from the game. He made it clear that his history was his history, it had nothing to do with them or what they were going to accomplish together.

“On a personal level, this matters to me,” Hinch said. “This position matters to me. This organization that’s given me another opportunity — it matters to me, and I’m going to take the time and opportunity to let everyone know it.

“I’ll let everybody know how important it is to stand in front of a team and be the manager, be the voice and be the leader I feel I can be. I hated being out of the game last year. And I understand why. And I’m not going to take it for granted that I get to put on a Major League uniform again and lead a group of guys.”

The mission is to win. Win today’s game. That’s Hinch’s mantra, the mindset he wants to instill. And the foundation for that mindset, he said, begins with the starting pitching.

“That mindset is set by the pitching staff in the first inning,” Hinch said. “We weren’t very good getting into games last year. You have to take that responsibility as a pitching staff to build that foundation and that winning mindset, and then go do it.”

The Tigers were 7-29 in games when the opponent scored first last year. The starting pitching posted a 9-22 record, a league-worst 6.37 ERA, a 1.5 WHIP with an .850 opponents’ OPS. Hinch made it clear right from the jump, that won’t do.

“I believe in starting pitching,” he said. “I want those guys, veteran guys or young guys, to anchor a staff and to solidify how we get our outs for the better part of the game.”

Of course, that’s a much easier premise when your rotation includes the likes of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, which Hinch’s Astros had in 2017. And he admitted as much. But even if the names on the back of the jerseys read Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Fulmer, Jose Urena, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — the expectation is the same.

“The bar is pretty high,” he said. “We’re setting the bar high for these guys to carry a workload. Not just a post-pandemic situation, but just in the way we’re going to operate and the way we’re going to rely on them to lead the team on a day-to-day basis.”

Those words were music to Boyd’s ears.

“All the stuff he said, for us it’s truly a privilege,” Boyd said. “That’s how we all look at it. It’s how we want it. It’s how championship teams work. We’re excited for the opportunity that lies ahead and for the growth that lies ahead.

“I’m ready to run through a brick wall for him.”

The task for Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, thanks to impediments caused by the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — no minor-league season and limited workloads for all pitchers — goes beyond creating a mindset.

Over the next six weeks, they have to decide how and with whom they’re going to ration out innings. Will they deploy a six-man rotation for stretches of the season? Will they toggle fresh arms up and down from Triple A. How can they get the most out of their elite prospects Mize, Skubal and Manning, knowing they aren’t likely to throw more than 100 innings in 2021.

“You can make as many plans as you want in February and March, and we will still have those questions in May, June, July, August and September,” Hinch said. “We’re going back and forth with our plans and as much as it is about the young guys, we’re also paying close attention to the other guys.”

Hinch said any effects pitchers may have coming off the shortened season won’t be felt during spring training, maybe not even through the first month or so of the season. So, best to put the pitchers through their normal paces, monitor them physically and see how the progress.

“The mindset is what’s key,” Hinch said. “We as a staff and an organization have to develop a plan, an over-arching plan in terms of the workload. But the players need to be put on the field and told to go compete as hard as you can for as long as you can.

“A 200-inning season out of one of these young pitchers is unlikely. It was unlikely before the pandemic, too, just in terms of breaking in young pitchers. There is a fine line you can tip-toe around through the season, but that doesn’t help you in that first series against the Indians. What helps you there is the compete button.”

Rain fell hard here on Wednesday, but the clouds parted just long enough for the Tigers to complete the first set of bullpens and PFPs. Fetter has broken the staff into three throwing groups. Fulmer, Skubal, Manning, Bryan Garcia and non-roster invitees Erasmo Ramirez, Derek Holland and Ian Krol were in the first group Wednesday.

Boyd, Turnbull and Mize are expected to throw on Thursday.

“It was fun,” Hinch said. “We set the tone for spring training the best we could. What doesn’t change is the stuff on the field…From the time we get on the field, we’re going to rock and roll like a normal camp.”


Twitter: @cmccosky  

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