Niyo: Under Tigers’ new management, hope – and help – springs eternal

Detroit News

Matthew Boyd was only gone for 13 months. But the Tigers’ veteran pitcher could’ve told you even then that he could see where this was all headed.

And now that he’s back in Detroit, the 31-year-old lefty can tell you he was right, with still nearly a month to go before pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Lakeland.

Because what once felt a bit like a “burden” now feels lighter here, with an entire organization finally ready and willing to do the heavy lifting necessary to pull itself out of a terminal state.

The Tigers, as you might have heard, are all in on a new-age approach, one that was jump-started by the hiring of AJ Hinch as manager in October 2020 but has kicked into another gear — full speed ahead — with the arrival of 35-year-old wunderkind Scott Harris as president of baseball operations last September.

Boyd, who’d spent the bulk of his eight-year major-league career as one of the faces of a painful rebuilding era in Detroit, returned in free agency earlier this winter after spending last season with San Francisco and Seattle. And while he sounds like the same guy he was throughout his first stint here — earnest and insightful, confident and meticulous — he also sounds relieved, in a way.

That’s because the approach that Hinch was just beginning to implement in his first season as the Tigers’ manager — and Boyd’s last anchoring the starting rotation here — is now fully endorsed, if not yet ingrained, from the top on down. There’s a new front office promising innovation, an overhauled coaching staff and development team putting it into practice, and even a revamped medical and training department to make sure the pieces don’t fall apart.

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Above all else, though, there’s a clear-eyed plan to see it through.

“So now the situation — with the teams that Scott has brought in to back up what these guys’ vision is — is really exciting,” said Boyd, who saw firsthand last spring and summer the sort of environment Harris helped cultivate as the Giants’ GM the last few years. “It’s something that’s hard to quantify right now, but everyone’s going to be pulling the rope in the right direction. And everyone’s gonna be really empowered — on a coaching and a player side — to go execute plans that they see fit.”

That might sound simple enough, but it wasn’t always that way here. The Tigers’ previous regime was caught in between, in many respects. And the fresh ideas that Hinch brought with him from Houston were a poor fit with some of the stale leftovers on the roster, to say nothing of the thinking that brought them here.

Out of the dark ages

Al Avila did help move the Tigers out of the dark ages during his time as GM, overseeing new investments in technology and scouting while beginning to build out an analytics department that didn’t really exist a decade ago. But for a player like Boyd, who was always ahead of the curve here when it came to mining the data and diving deep into the mechanics, it was the arrival of Hinch and a cutting-edge pitching coach in Chris Fetter that really energized him. Instead of doing it all on his own, for the most part, he finally had someone else to do it for him.

“Fett and AJ came in and they were like, ‘Hey, we want you to go focus on pitching. We’re gonna handle all this other stuff,’” Boyd said Thursday, as he joined Hinch and teammates Matt Manning and Eric Haase for some community outreach events in Detroit before flying south for the winter. “It was just awesome. I felt like a burden lifted. I was just so equipped to go out and have success. And I was starting to taste that.”

But then he got hurt, and then he was gone, eventually ending up back home in Seattle where he got a taste of champagne — and life in the bullpen briefly — as the Mariners ended a 20-year playoff drought last fall.

The Tigers re-signed Boyd to a one-year, $10 million deal in December to bolster a pitching staff that was decimated by injuries last season. And now he’ll get a chance to prove himself all over again amid all the changes in Detroit, where the ballpark is shrinking even and the coaching staff keeps expanding.

Hinch’s staff of assistants has grown to 10 over the winter, and six of them are new faces, including Robin Lund — or “Professor Lund,” as they’re jokingly calling him. Lund spent the last four years as the pitching coach at the University of Iowa. But before that, he was a professor of kinesiology at Northern Iowa teaching biomechanics, anatomy and statistics.

And he’s already working with some of the Tigers’ young arms, including Manning, the former first-round pick whose breakout hopes in 2022 were derailed by shoulder and forearm problems.

Rebuilding mechanics

Manning, who posted a 3.43 ERA over 12 starts last season, has been working out in Lakeland with a group of Tigers pitchers for weeks now. And in addition to Tuesday sessions with Fetter where they’re “breaking down film and breaking down numbers that I didn’t even know we had,” Manning laughed, they’re also rebuilding some of his mechanics from the ground up. It’s nothing too dramatic, but for the 6-foot-6 righty, there are some tweaks Lund has made to help with the way he’s loading and unloading his delivery.

“He’s not afraid to try different things,” said Manning, who turns 25 next week. “And he doesn’t care where you were drafted, doesn’t care what kind of hype you had around you. He looks at you kind of like a stick figure, and if he sees deficiencies in it, he can break it down and tell you where he sees deficiencies.”

It goes beyond the pitching, where, as Manning adds, “Now they’re starting to explain it in certain ways that it’s all starting to make sense.” And it’s more than just the hitting, where Hinch made wholesale changes in his staff this offseason and Harris changed out some of the swing-and-miss crowd that Avila and his staff had collected. No, when Harris said in his introductory press conference that his goal for the Tigers was to “to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball,” he meant it in every way.

Which is something Haase brought up Thursday when talking about stepping into a role as the Tigers’ starting catcher this season. He was talking about burnishing his own defensive profile, while adapting from an “old-school understanding” of the catcher’s job description. It’s less about blocking balls in the dirt or trying to throw out runners these days and more about stealing an extra called strike, with emphasis on pitch framing, which advanced analytics suggest can be worth a handful of wins per season.

“Yeah, I think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit on the defensive aspect of things, especially the receiving,” Haase said. “You know, we had a coaching staff or a front office who prioritized different things in the past. And with Scott coming in, it’s very, very clear now …”

Things have changed.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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