Detroit Tigers players buying into A.J. Hinch’s chess match which is driving winning ways

Detroit Free Press

CLEVELAND — The players are buying in.

A.J. Hinch has been participating chess matches with in-game matchups because the Detroit Tigers‘ roster doesn’t contain a multitude of everyday players. He often makes the right moves. When it works, he receives praise from the fans. When it doesn’t work, nobody is happy.

The players have come around to grasping the rationale behind Hinch’s moves, one of the reasons why the Tigers (16-18) have won 14 of their past 23 games and five of their past seven series.

“We’re trying to put guys in a position to be successful as much as we can,” Hinch said. “We’re taking every advantage we can. … The players understand what we’re doing. They root for each other. They’re on board. They don’t have to love it, but I do think they have to be good teammates about it.”

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Through 34 games, the Tigers have used 1.26 pinch hitters per game in the 2023 season. Hinch employed 0.52 pinch hitters per game in 2022 and 0.44 pinch hitters per game in 2021.

“We understand what’s going on,” said Jonathan Schoop, an 11-year MLB veteran who has played 1,155 games. “We’ve got to be ready because he’s always going to use his bench. We’ve got to prepare and be ready for any moment so we can go out there and contribute. Even if you’re not used to it, you better get used to it and be ready for it.”

Last season, the Tigers rolled out a fairly consistent group of position players. Pinch hitters coming off the bench posted a .169 batting average with zero home runs, seven walks and 32 strikeouts in 85 plate appearances.

This season, pinch hitters are batting .243 with two home runs, four walks and 11 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances. (That’s not including defensive replacements who later receive plate appearances.)

“It’s not an indictment on that player’s ability,” Hinch said. “It’s more about the player that I’m putting in and the strength that he has as to why he’s on this team to help us win. Not every outcome is going to go our way, but we’re trying to create an opportunity for our team to be better.”

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One example of Hinch’s mastery took place over the weekend at Busch Stadium, where there were chess moves galore as the Tigers won two of three games against the St. Louis Cardinals.

In Friday’s 5-4 victory, Hinch started nine right-handed hitters against left-hander Jordan Montgomery. Right-handed hitter Andy Ibáñez started in right field — batting No. 2 in the lineup — and drilled a double in the first inning. He scored on Javier Báez’s ensuing two-run home run for a 2-0 lead.

In the fifth inning, Hinch subbed in Riley Greene, a left-handed hitter, for Ibáñez as a defensive replacement. Matt Vierling shifted from center field to right field, while Greene took over in center field. This move paid off two innings later, just as Hinch planned.

“It’s a calculated idea that Montgomery is not going to stay in, and with Javy around him, I didn’t think they were going to bring another lefty in,” Hinch said. “We got the right-handed at-bat that we wanted.”

In the seventh inning, the Cardinals replaced Montgomery with right-handed reliever Jordan Hicks. Greene stepped to the plate with two runners on base, one out and a favorable matchup against a righty reliever.

Greene put the Tigers ahead, 4-3, with a two-run double to right field.

“I’m as surprised as they are if the game doesn’t lead me to using virtually every player,” Hinch said. “I think that identity has hopefully been communicated well. It’s certainly being executed. The players understand that it’s not about the guy getting taken out of the game. It’s more about the advantage that we can create with some weapons on the bench.”

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Players on the current 26-man roster involved in Hinch’s chess match include Schoop, Greene, Ibáñez, Nick Maton, Zach McKinstry, Zack Short, Akil Baddoo, Matt Vierling, Jake Rogers, Eric Haase and Miguel Cabrera.

That’s 11 of 13 position players.

“We’re not just doing it on a whim,” Hinch said. “We’re doing it as a strategy.”

Cabrera, a right-handed hitter, stepped up April 15 against the San Francisco Giants when he entered in the 11th inning as a pinch-hitter (for the 28th time in his career) to face left-handed reliever Taylor Rogers at Comerica Park.

The future Hall of Famer delivered a walk-off hit as a pinch-hitter for the first time in his 21-year career.

“When you’re on the bench, you have to be ready for anything,” Cabrera said. “I was looking at the TV to see if it was a left-handed pitcher coming in. Finally, they brought in a left-hander, and finally, we did our job. It feels good.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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