PITTSBURGH — Don Kelly wasn’t just a Tigers player the last time Detroit had a playoff team, he was a postseason folk hero, hitting the go-ahead homer in Game 5 of the 2011 American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium and a walk-off sacrifice fly in Game 2 of the 2012 AL Division Series against Oakland.
Kelly was back with the Tigers in 2017, when the win-now window finally closed and the rebuild began. He was a pro scout then, spending two years traveling the country, scouring rosters and farms systems, evaluating potential trade pieces and opponents. But his passion was in instruction, which led him to embarking on his coaching career to work for then-Astros manager A.J. Hinch in Houston.
As Kelly watched the Tigers take batting practice from the Pirates’ dugout last Tuesday during their series at PNC Park, he could see the pieces of that rebuild coming together and making an impact — ironically, playing for his old boss.
“Look at the year that Jeimer [Candelario] is having,” Kelly said. “Guys coming through the system like Derek Hill and the young pitching. Harold Castro is really taking on a nice role. And I know that I’m leaving some guys out, unintentionally, but just seeing the way that guys have developed, guys that have come through different way, through trades, through the Draft, waiver claims, whatever it is, they found ways. And it’s occasionally adding some key pieces, [Jonathan] Schoop and [Robbie] Grossman.
“And anytime you have Miggy [Miguel Cabrera], I can’t say enough about him and what he has meant, hitting his 500th [home run] this year and just being that veteran presence there.”
Kelly obviously knows the influence that Hinch can have on a team as it matures. He saw it first-hand as the Astros’ first-base coach in 2019, and he took lessons from that time into his current role as Pirates bench coach. It’s not just about managing a game, trying to find any opportunity large or small or take advantage and win. It’s about managing a team.
“[Hinch] has a really good way of communicating with different players,” Kelly said. “He understands personalities really well and how to get guys to understand the message that he’s trying to get across. And I think it’s the great managers — obviously getting to play for [Jim] Leyland for all those years and now working with [Pirates manager] Derek Shelton — they all have that similar type of way to communicate with guys.”
Kelly watches Hinch have that influence now in a job that Kelly himself interviewed for. Before the Tigers could talk to Hinch about their managerial opening last fall, they interviewed a handful of young, first-time candidates. One of them, not surprisingly, was Kelly. The process was an education for him.
“It was a great experience to go through, to be able to interview for manager jobs,” Kelly said. “It was really good, getting into it and forcing you to think about things, like seeing the way that Leyland managed and the way that Sheltie manages and the way A.J. manages and how you facilitate all of that and thinking about all kinds of other things.
“Sometimes it’s really not even managing the game. Sometimes it’s the clubhouse. And so, it’s really forcing you to think about things in unique ways. It was a really good experience.”
Kelly learned plenty about the off-field management last year as the Pirates, like every team, tried to get their team through the COVID-19 pandemic-impacted season without losing large swaths of players or games to an outbreak.
Kelly has developed into a respected coach in the game in his own right. But when he mentions Castro as part of the rebound, it’s not by accident. Castro was a versatile player coming up in the Tigers farm system when Kelly was still in the organization as a scout, but was seemingly stuck. To see Castro get a shot, there’s still a little part of the superutility player in Kelly’s coaching mind.
“When I came back [as a scout] in ’17, he was then at the upper levels,” Kelly said. “He’s done a heckuva job for them. Good at-bats, plays good defense. He’s done a really nice job.”