Adapt or die: Tigers skipper AJ Hinch on board with league neutralizing defensive shifts

Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. — Guess who is on board with Major League Baseball’s latest exploration into neutralizing defensive shifts?

The master of the shift himself, Tigers skipper AJ Hinch.

“I hope we evolve and do whatever it takes to normalize the game a little bit and explore ways to bring the athletes back into the game and not have it so structured from a shift standpoint,” he said.

This from one of the first managers to fully embrace the shift, one who has deployed them more often, more brazenly and more effectively than most others.

“That probably shocks some people who have been around me to think I’d be all for it,” he said. “But I’m tired of talking about it. I’m tired of the complaints. The game needs to move on.”

On Tuesday, Hall of Famer George Brett was in Hinch’s office complaining about the way the Tigers stack the right side of the field against the Royals’ Andrew Benintendi.

“I showed him the data, showed all the numbers,” Hinch said. “He said, ‘I hate the (bleeping) shift (laughing).’”

Major League Baseball is using this season to experiment with various ways to neutralize, if not flat-out ban, defensive shifts. In the minor leagues, teams have to deploy two infielders on each side of second base and cannot position an infielder in the outfield.

Starting July 22 in the Florida State League, as reported by The Athletic, there will be a chalk line in the infield dirt in the shape of a slice of pie running diagonally in each direction starting at the far tip of second base to the edge of the outfield grass where shortstops and second basemen typically stand.

Infielders will no longer be able to position themselves directly behind the bag. The hope is this will facilitate more base hits up the middle, which used to be a staple in the game.

“Every other sport has some form of regulation,” Hinch said. “Our sport is not immune to needing to evolve and be better for the game. Why not try it? We can’t knock anyone for trying it. If it works and spreads out the defense to the point where we can showcase our athletes a little better, maybe it’s better for the game.

“A lot of things we’ve done in this league that were knocked at the very beginning turned out to be really good adjustments. Maybe this is another one.”

Hinch said shortstops and second basemen will probably position themselves right up to the line if they want to defend balls up the middle. It’s what defenders did before the shifts.

“It’s going to be called shading now instead of a shift,” Hinch said. “Defenders will shade up the middle. We’re already thinking about how to place our fielders where they can make the most outs. This is just going to be a little adjustment if it comes true.

“I just don’t want baseball to be afraid of evolving or baseball fans be afraid of evolving because it’s good for the sport —  even though it initially will look different than we’ve seen for the last 100 years.”

One room, 6,000 hits

Miguel Cabrera has played 15 seasons in the American League Central. He has played 230 games against the Royals. George Brett has played for and been associated with the Royals organization since 1973.

Until Tuesday, the two had never met.

“George walked in and said he’d never met Miguel,” said Hinch, who facilitated the first-ever summit. “I went out and got Miggy and brought him in. George told him how much he loved watching him hit and watching him play.”

How about that? Two legends with a combined 6,220 hits talking baseball.

“Watching those two talk back and forth was one of the coolest things to experience,” Hinch said.

Javy’s baseball savvy

Cabrera’s base-running drew most of the attention after the Tigers’ 7-5 win — and rightly so. He hadn’t stolen a base since 2020.

But the real base-running hero Tuesday was Javier Baez. He twice tagged at second base and made it to third on fly balls to the outfield, eventually scoring both times. The second run, when he boldly broke from third on a ground ball hit right at shortstop Bobby Witt, Jr. —  who was playing in — broke a 3-3 tie.

“He’s a complete baseball player,” Hinch said. “The flash stuff, the big homers, the flare he plays with, that’s what get the most attention. But from a baseball acumen standpoint, he’s as good as it gets. Just his instincts. He may have been one of one on the field yesterday who could’ve tagged up on that play (in the seventh on a fly to center) and got there.

“Just based on pure instincts and timing.”

The go-on-contact play was not on when Baez broke for home in the ground ball to Witt, Jr. The Tigers were looking for him to see the ball through the infield.

“He read soft contact and decided to take a risk,” Hinch said. “It was another instinctual play that very few would have had the guts to try and the technique to execute.”

Around the horn

… Starting pitcher Matt Manning (shoulder) threw 30 pitches at Lakeland Tuesday night, his velocity in the low-90s, and came through it with no discomfort. Hinch said Manning’s rehab assignment will be transferred to Triple-A Toledo. Manning will make his first start in St. Paul on Sunday. He is expected to make three or four starts with Toledo before he will be considered for activation.

… Starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is throwing off the mound in Lakeland. “That’s a great step,” Hinch said. “It’s still a long road back but getting off the mound for the first time has to be a positive for him mentally. Just to be back being a pitcher again.”

… Catcher Jake Rogers, also coming off Tommy John surgery, is getting closer to a rehab assignment. Hinch said he’s ready to do just about everything on the field, but he has to get his arm built up more before they start the 20-day rehab assignment clock. “We can’t get him live at-bats until he can do everything because that starts the clock,” Hinch said. “Once he starts playing (games), he’s got 20 days to where we either have to option him or bring him to the big leagues. We’re going to make sure he can be a complete player before he’s back.”

On deck: Guardians

Series: Four games at Progressive Field

First pitch: Thursday-Friday – 7:10 p.m.; Saturday – 4:10 p.m.; Sunday – 1:40 p.m.

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Probables: Thursday – RHP Elvin Rodriguez, tentative (0-2, 11.51) vs. RHP Triston McKenzie (6-6, 3.47); Friday – RHP Drew Hutchison (1-4, 4.08) vs. RHP Zach Plesac (2-7, 3.99); Saturday – RHP Michael Pineda (2-4, 3.58) vs. RHP Cal Quantrill (5-5, 3.99); Sunday – RHP Beau Brieske (2-6, 4.16) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (3-5, 3.44).

Rodriguez, Tigers: He is expected to be called up and make a spot start, filling in for the injured Rony Garcia. His last two big-league starts in June were catastrophic. He got tagged for 18 runs in 8.2 innings. But he’s righted the ship at Toledo, posting a 3.33 ERA with 20 strikeouts and six walks in his last five starts covering 24.1 innings.

McKenzie, Guardians: He’s bullied the Tigers in his young career (2-1, 1.17 ERA, 0.717 WHIP in five starts). The Tigers’ slash-line against him is a meager .136/.198/.243. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last two starts (against the Yankees and Royals) covering 13 innings. He’s holding hitters to a .106 average with a 43.7% whiff rate with his curve ball.


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