AJ Hinch keeping Tigers’ spring-training fireworks in perspective

Detroit News

West Palm Beach, Fla. — Hanging among MLB’s tall timber after nearly a month of Grapefruit League duals are Tigers hitters, who have a stunningly un-Tigers-like place among 30 big-league teams.

They arrived Sunday for a game against the Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches having hit more home runs (39) than any MLB team apart from the Phillies (40). They were second in OPS (.855, with Kansas City on top at .870). They were fourth in batting average (.278).

This suggests the Tigers spent long offseason months doing penance and planning reforms after they finished their 2022 season either last (home runs), next-to-last (OPS), or sixth from the bottom (batting average) among all big-league teams.

There is one obvious problem: This is spring training. Your kid might have cleaned up his or her room this morning, but it doesn’t mean old habits are in the past.

“I don’t’ subscribe to theories that we can draw conclusions from the spring,” said Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who had no idea Sunday the Tigers were in the Grapefruit League’s statistical elite.

“We’re getting pitched way different. All these first-pitch fastballs are coming to an end on March 29.

“I don’t think we can assume everything will be the same when the lights are turned on.”

At the same time Hinch was being necessarily careful, even suspect, about the Tigers’ early bats, he knows the offense can, and probably will, tick up in 2023.

Riley Greene is heading into a second season. Spencer Torkelson is catching fire and could change the middle of Detroit’s batting order. Austin Meadows is back. Matt Vierling and Nick Maton, Eric Haase and a healed Jake Rogers, Javy Báez with a mission to become an earlier version of Báez — all signs point north rather than south as camp slips into its final week.

What could matter, also, as 2023 progresses is how bats marinating in the minors might also help bring some crunch to a batting order still screaming for it.

Hinch will meet folks halfway on notions the Tigers’ offense is sturdier.

“I feel like we’re going to be better, and that’s about the extent I’ve drawn any conclusions,” he said as his team got ready for the Nationals, with Eduardo Rodriguez, fresh from his World Baseball Classic stint, set to start for the Tigers.

“I think we’re getting good pitches to hit this spring. But I think the challenge remains to do that when the games count. I don’t think we can assume everything will be the same when the lights are turned on.

“I’m not trying to downplay success at all,” Hinch said, emphasizing that coaches and hitters putting in place strategies and smarts are what matter to a manager. “I’m trying to keep perspective.

“A decision is as important as the actual result. The sun (notoriously tough in Florida in March, as can be wind), a fly ball, a bloop hit — the defenses are different. The process means so much more in the spring than results.”

Another factor: Everyone but a team’s bat boys might find themselves during a Grapefruit League on a mound or at the plate.

“It’s more random than you would think,” Hinch acknowledged. “Late in a game, the last half of a game, there are people playing who won’t all be on the same playing field (in regular-season games).

“Drawing any conclusions is irrelevant.”

And with all those caveats, all that need to tone down statistical illusions, all that managerial mandate to keep expectations within reason, a Tigers skipper could at least allow maybe the early numbers weren’t all baloney.

“We’ll see,” Hinch said. “Time will tell. I’m optimistic. There’s a lot that’s going on in the spring. I’ll look forward to seeing it mature in the big leagues.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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