Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — He has been here before. This is where it happened. Right in Joker Marchant Stadium.
AJ Hinch was a member of the Cleveland Indians in 2003, getting ready to play a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, when he was walking from the bullpen to the visiting clubhouse and found out he was traded to the Tigers.
“I actually was in the ballpark when (former GM) Dave (Dombrowski) and Al (Avila) traded for me as an Indian,” Hinch said. “Ironically, Al met me downstairs to tell me I’d gotten traded to Detroit.”
Now, life has flipped upside down. Hinch is the new manager of the Tigers, working hand in hand with Avila, now the general manager.
During a pandemic.
Hinch has adjusted to his new job, trying to work though COVID-19 protocols. Just two days after pitchers and catchers reported to camp, he had already settled into a routine that resembles the movie “Groundhog’s Day”: living the same day over and over. Hinch gets up, leaves his residence, goes to the park, works all day, gets takeout or curbside if he’s not cooking, and then goes back to his residence.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
“I’ve been to three places in my time in Lakeland so far,” Hinch said. “I’m pretty much on lockdown.”
Because of COVID-19 protocols, I haven’t met Hinch in person, but have interacted with him several times on Zoom calls. And I know he hasn’t managed a game yet.
But I am so impressed. He’s the real deal, an experienced manager with an unique approach that should bode well for this rebuild.
And here are five reasons why:
Communication is key
He comes across as a straight shooter. Hinch plans to meet with every player individually during camp to let them know where they stand. That might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually huge.
“It’s a casual meeting,” Hinch said. “They come in and I don’t care if they want to grab a coffee, or if they want to come late in the day and just sit and talk for a minute, just the two of us. I’m going to give them their exact situation in camp and it also allows me to have the opportunity to ask questions to them and get to know them face to face a little bit.”
Part of this comes from Hinch’s experience and what he wished he had. He played seven years in the big leagues, and he always wished a manager would tell him where he stood. He wanted direct feedback because uncertainty can be maddening and unsettling for a player.
“Being a role player and in competition in every spring, I certainly would have loved to have that — immediate feedback,” Hinch said.
He came up with the idea when he was a farm director, working with six teams and in charge of 200 payers. “Everybody and their agents want to know what their situation is,” Hinch said.
Just two days into Tigers camp, he had already met with 14 players.
“They’re not all fun conversations,” Hinch said. “It needs to be direct; it’s not just a check mark off a list. It’s these guys’ career, and they need direct feedback.”
A fantastic staff
When the coaches and members of the front office gathered before the pitchers and catchers reported to camp, they met in a large room because of COVID-19.
Normally, they would play video of players during the meeting.
“We didn’t need to,” Avila said.
Because Hinch’s staff was so well prepared. The coaches had already watched video of all of the players, poured over reports, made detailed plans for every player and communicated with the players before they even arrived
“That’s the first time I have ever seen that,” Avila said. “The amount of work this entire staff has already put in before coming in here has been tremendous. I had a big smile on my face. We’re already ahead of the game when it comes to spring training.”
Smart and flexible
He loves versatile players, and is a versatile manager. He knows that all players are different. And he deals with them differently.
“You have to be a very versatile coach in the big leagues to connect with every player and get the most out of every player,” Hinch said. “(Matthew) Boyd is different from (Buck) Farmer and they’re both veteran pitchers.”
All of the Tigers young prospect are obviously different from Miguel Cabrera, a future Hall of Famer.
“It’s a different style of coaching at different stages of the career,” Hinch said. “We as coaches need to adapt.”
Not just the numbers
Even though Hinch and his staff are well versed in analytics, they look beyond the numbers and stats and try to understand the players.
“We’ve spent a lot of time breaking down each player personally and professionally,” Hinch said. “it’s more impactful if you can get a whole holistic view of the player.”
Sweating the small stuff
Details are all that matter to him, whether it’s how you frame a pitch or cover first base. He is slowly building a new culture in this organization, where winning and competing are all that matter. How do you make the team? You prove you can contribute to wins, whether it’s a starting pitcher or a backup catcher. There are jobs to be won and Hinch is giving everybody a shot.
At the same time, he is blunt about what is acceptable. Take the starting pitchers. Hinch met with them and told them they haven’t eaten up enough innings over the last few years. He has made it clear that is not acceptable. This team will probably not win this year. But he is laying the foundation for a new culture.
“We’re going to give these guys the opportunity that are here,” Hinch said. “And they’re going to play quite a bit. And I’m going to move guys around and the beautiful part of competition is these guys should be ready to play a lot around the field and make an impression to a new staff and try to make our team and I think we have jobs to be won.”
When you take it all together — Hinch’s communication skills, his direct approach and clear motivational style, his focus on understanding both the analytics as well as the person behind the players, as well as his focus on winning and details — it bodes well for the Tigers’ future.
I know it’s still early. But my gut says Hinch is going to speed up this rebuild.