Why Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is headed home with optimism, determination

Detroit Free Press

Coaches from the Detroit Tigers hugged the players and said their goodbyes after Wednesday’s regular-season finale in Seattle.

Some players traveled home instead of taking the team plane back to Detroit. Miguel Cabrera couldn’t wait to catch his flight to Miami. Spencer Torkelson, who came back for a meet-and-greet at MGM Grand Casino, was ready to spend time with his new puppy, a French Bulldog named Coco, as a second-year homeowner in Arizona. Andrew Chafin wanted to get started on an offseason project at his farm in Ohio. Exit interviews are coming soon, but the Tigers’ offseason has begun.

On Friday, A.J. Hinch traveled from Detroit to his home in Houston.

He left the city with optimism.

“I don’t like losing,” Hinch said. “That’s where we’re at right now, and it doesn’t mean that’s where we have to be. … It was a grind, but it was this season. I don’t really get too high or too low about it, but I get more resolve on what we need to do to make it better. It was a season of a lot of change, both on our roster with the volume of players and the font office movement.”

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Before he left, he took a trip to the press box at Comerica Park. So often reporters talk with the manager in his territory, either in the dugout, his office or an interview room, but this time, he switched things up and reflected on a difficult season while looking toward the future. Hinch previously talked about frustrating postgame drives to his Michigan home in Birmingham. He salvaged the organization’s relationship with Eduardo Rodriguez, learned the complexities of Javier Báez and encouraged Torkelson and Riley Greene, all through a frustrating season of losing baseball.

Fans, players and coaches alike are disappointed in the result, a 66-96 record. Arguably, nobody is more disappointed than Hinch.

“The takeaways, you have a choice, especially in my chair: Do you dwell on all the things that went wrong, or do you try to extract the positives? I have to do both,” Hinch said. “The positives of this: What we learned about our depth, what we learned about some players, getting some experience for some players.

“It falls on deaf ears when you have a win-loss record the way that we did, but at the end of the day, we have to take that as a positive going into next season, that we had the opportunity to play a lot of different guys.”

Hinch, whose .407 winning percentage in 2022 was his career worst over a 162-game season, is jealous of his peers in the postseason. The 48-year-old posted a winning record in all five seasons (2015-19) leading the Houston Astros, including three-straight 100-win performances and two World Series appearances in his final three years.

Those Astros, under general manager Jeff Luhnow, developed a factory before his arrival, and he managed the roster to four straight postseason appearances. In Detroit, Hinch wants to be a part of successfully building a behemoth in the American League Central. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen with general manager Al Avila, fired Aug. 10.

The Tigers won 77 games in 2021, including 68 from May 8 on, and shared postseason expectations in this year’s spring training. Hinch, too, believed the Tigers could play competitive baseball down the stretch. Murphy’s Law, in its simplest form, crushed those plans by the second month of the season: Whatever could go wrong seemingly did.

This year was nothing short of embarrassing.

At some point, the Tigers must compartmentalize the win-loss record.

“The record is what it is, and it’s going to be that way in the record books,” Hinch said. “We can’t dwell on that. We have to get to the players and get them more prepared to play the season next year.”

A strong final run, including an 11-5 stretch to end the season, helps the outlook a bit.

“It was really fun,” Báez said of the vibe in the clubhouse. “Everybody here is around the same age, and they like to be around each other. We stayed together the whole year when we struggled. We had a pretty good last month, but we got to play better and do better as a team.”

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Hinch is responsible for the on-field product, offensively lifeless all season. On Friday, he announced he fired hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. The Tigers had 63 games with at least 10 strikeouts, just eight games with at least 10 hits and six games with at least three home runs. They chased pitches outside the strike zone more than any team in baseball, struggled to draw walks and were shut out a record-breaking 22 times.

Still, Hinch isn’t entirely responsible.

Although his fingerprints, along with Avila’s, were all over the Tigers’ moves ahead of the 2022 season, the success or failure of most of those decisions aren’t set yet. Injuries forced the use of 17 starting pitchers, tying a franchise record set in 1912. Three rising youngsters — Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning — suffered significant arm injuries; Mize and Skubal needed elbow surgery. Also, Hinch didn’t play a role in the creation of the old infrastructure. He joined the Tigers in late October 2020, more than three years after Avila began his rebuild.

“We have a lot of work to do to address the areas,” Hinch said. “Now, I don’t think every area that struggled this season necessarily has to be gutted and replaced. I think we need to address the strike zone control. We have to address some of the health concerns and trying to build a team around that.”

What happened on the field in the majors can, in some ways, be attributed to a systemic issue within the organization bleeding into the alignment of the scouting and player development departments. The Tigers, for far too long, have lacked a clear vision from the top down. In the past, scouts sometimes weren’t sure what types of players and pitchers the development team needed them to find, evaluate and eventually sign. Drafting a talented high school or college player is worthless if there isn’t data that supports an opportunity for growth when that player enters the organization. Too many holes in the process ultimately sank the boat.

New president of baseball operations Scott Harris, who was hired Sept. 19 and had his first official day Thursday, is in charge of cleaning up the mess while Hinch eyes redemption on the field in 2023. Hinch’s vision seemingly aligns with Harris’, and early signs indicate a strong working relationship. They are partners in search of winning baseball.

“It’s a very comfortable conversation very early on when you get to know him,” Harris said at his introductory news conference in September. “I know he’s very prepared to manage his way to the organization that we want to build here.”

Harris believes Hinch is a part of the solution.

And Hinch feels optimistic.

He isn’t blind to the fact that the Tigers have a lot of work to do. One of Harris’ many tasks is building a hitting department. Key philosophies, like the importance of walk rate, must be spread throughout the organization. Harris is also exploring the enhancement of the medical department. Preventive rehabilitation was a big topic during the season. The Tigers need to position themselves for sustainable success.

Then, the roster will be rebuilt in hopes of a better 2023.

“It was a taxing season, but we kind of put ourselves there,” Hinch said. “Now, it’s time to get back to work. It doesn’t demoralize me. It doesn’t make me less motivated. It just makes me want to find solutions. We can all identify the problems. We can all evaluate what improvements we need to make. But the solutions are really the key.”

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