Hey, AJ Hinch: Detroit Tigers fans bring different type of pressure with playoff hopes

Detroit Free Press

There was a lot of talk about pressure this week at Comerica Park as Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila and manager AJ Hinch wrapped up the season.

Pressure to make a splash in free agency.

Pressure on big-time prospects.

Pressure on Avila and Hinch to promote those prospects.

Pressure to get better and win more games.

“So pressure,” Hinch said, “that’s a word I love and I love applying it to our own players, to the opponent. I mean, I feel pressure every night and I love that.”

But mostly all of this talk of pressure converged on one point: The playoffs.

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Because what Avila and Hinch and the players did this season was nothing short of amazing. By winning a surprising 77 games this season, they took a leap into relevancy — and into the conversation of being a postseason contender.

There’s a lot that still needs to happen between now and Opening Day. Free agency and spring training await. So do recovery trajectories and unexpected injuries and the promotions of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson that an anxious fanbase will await with bated breath.

“These questions,” Hinch said, “I know they are warranted and we have to talk about what next year looks like. We don’t really know what that looks like. What we do know is that our players are going to come with a completely different perspective than this date last year. And for that I’m very proud.”

He should be proud. In one season, Hinch has been the catalyst of hope in everyone and provided the Tigers with a map for escaping the pit of despair.

But there’s one simple reality Avila, Hinch and the entire Tigers organization will face with growing intensity from now until October 2022. The Tigers must be in playoff contention toward the end of the 2022 season.

They don’t have to make the playoffs. But they must be close. As Hinch pointed out, even 90 wins wasn’t enough for am American League playoff spot this year. Something will be out of the Tigers’ control, no matter how much they improve or how well they play.

“I think this thirst for winning and this rebirth for doing things that a winning culture does obviously lends itself to looking toward .500 and above,” Hinch said. “That’s the next plateau.

“Now that doesn’t mean we have to spend an entire year, and that has to be the only accomplishment next year. I think we have to set our bar extremely high. And you should set out every year to make the playoffs.”

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Hinch doesn’t want to listen to the experts or the predictions; he wants the team to keep its focus narrow. Win a game, win a series, win a month. That’s how it should be in the clubhouse. But in the stands, on television and radio talk shows and on the laptops of us digitally-stained wretches, it’s going to be much different.

It’s going to be all about the playoffs. Because that’s the next step for this team. The Tigers won 77 games with a World Series manager at the helm in his first year. They improved their pitching, hurled a no-hitter and found a diamond in the rough, and they’re likely to add some quality free agents and two major prospects with a chance at the Opening Day roster.

All of that comes with excitement and heightened expectations after five years of a rebuild and seven years without a playoff appearance.

And that’s what concerns me a little about Hinch: I’m not sure he understands how rabid and relentless — and sometimes unforgiving — Tigers fans are. He’s about to enter into a dance with fans and media who are tired of losing and eager to see a winner, yet Hinch is already asking for patience as the team strives to close the talent gap.

“Where that’s going to come from,” he said of finding better players, “I think you guys are going to have to have patience. But I’m going to put pressure on you by telling you, ‘Just be patient with what we’re trying to do.’

“And the goal is the journey. If we can get someone who can drive us there 100 miles an hour, then I’ll hop in the seat and we’ll drive it. If not, then we’ll have to find another way to get to 90-plus wins.”

I believe in Hinch’s approach. But he sounds like he has little idea about how demanding and harsh Tigers fans (and some of the Detroit media) can be when they expect big things. He could ask Jim Leyland or Prince Fielder about that. In fact, when I mentioned to Hinch how tough this town can be on the Tigers when expectations are heightened, Avila quietly said, “I know.”

“Well, it’s not my first time with expectations,” Hinch said. “You know, that is one thing I’ve got is experience. You know, five playoff teams and a couple World Series will give you some perspective on showing up the next spring training.”

Hinch said the Tigers have poured a foundation of managing day-to-day winning expectations that won’t change, even if the noise and hype around the team does.

“We’re going to find a way to keep all that stuff out, whether it’s hype on getting better or hype of making the playoffs,” he said, starting to bristle a little. “Tough town? Try being the manager of any of these 30 teams, man.

“Losses aren’t welcome anywhere. I don’t care if you’re projected to be a last-place team or you have playoff aspirations. You’ve got to talk less and do more on the field. We’ve got to win more games and we have to take the responsibility with that on a day-to-day basis.”

With all due respect to Hinch’s experience, Houston is not Detroit. Neither is Phoenix. He’s about to feel the full brunt of a supportive but highly demanding fanbase. Avila said he spoke with Hinch about the demanding nature of the job during the interview process.

“He knows,” Avila said. “He’s here with eyes wide open, believe me. He understands the excitement that can also be here. Yeah, there’s pressure. I remember, hey, I was here with Jim Leyland and I remember how really he was scrutinized pretty bad. And now of course, he’s a hometown hero after all these years. AJ knows this very well.”

Then Avila said something else that I hope Hinch takes to heart and embraces when those losing streaks and the struggles of his stars and prospects are sure to come — and bring plenty of criticism with them. Because it all comes from a place of intense devotion, which Detroit sports fans have had no receptacle for such a long time.

“I don’t think we’re looking at this as pressure of expectation and how the town can turn on you,” Avila said. “I think we’re looking at his as excitement, because putting together a good team and the excitement or the expectation of winning more baseball games creates excitement.

“I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to seeing this stadium full of people cheering for the team. And if we struggle along the way and people get angry, hey, that’s part of the process. But at least they care and I want them in the stadium either booing us or cheering for us, one way or the other, all right? Hopefully a lot more cheering than booing, you know?”

Yes, Al. We know.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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