Just three days after the World Series ended, AJ Hinch sat flanked by Detroit Tigers owner Chris Ilitch and general manager Al Avila at a barren Comerica Park as he was being introduced as Detroit’s new manager. Because of the pandemic, Hinch’s introduction was via Zoom call.
Despite only a handful of people in the room, Hinch admits his anxiety level was spiking. Not because he doubted his abilities but because he was behind a microphone. At a news conference. For the first time since he had been suspended by Major League Baseball for an entire season because of his involvement in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
These were real emotions coursing through Hinch, who was feeling more apprehension than he had ever experienced inside a dugout. But suddenly, Hinch’s tensions eased.
“Al [Avila] said something that he hadn’t mentioned to me, but he said it publicly that day when he said he was looking for a difference-maker,” Hinch said. “When your boss is sitting right next to you and describes you as a difference-maker, describes you as somebody that he believes can carry the organization to the next level, that’s an incredible foundation of belief and trust.”
“Chris was very direct with me, both about my past, my present, and certainly what his expectations are for my future, and he was very supportive from the very first conversation on. They had all the right questions. They were all hard questions when it comes to everything I’ve done in the game, both good and bad. And I did apologize to him on the front end; it’s not their story. My past is not their story. I’m going to have to deal with that for the rest of my career.”
Most every GM is naturally tied to his manager’s success. In this case, Avila, entering his sixth full season as the club’s top decision-maker, has pushed all his chips to the center of the table. He is betting that Hinch, 46, can effect the turnaround of the Tigers’ recent moribund fortunes they’ve been building toward. This, for a Tigers club that has finished in last place in three of the past four seasons and averaged 94 losses in the five seasons preceding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when the Tigers floundered to a 23-35 AL Central cellar-dwelling finish.
Avila, 62, is simultaneously betting on himself, because if this fails, his days as a major league general manager are likely over. This is an old-school baseball partnership, the kind that was typical in the game a generation ago.
“I am of the belief that a good manager is just like a good catcher,” said Avila, who was elevated to his current position hours after Dave Dombrowski was fired in August 2015. “A really good catcher can take a pitcher that’s not very good and make him better. He can take a pitcher that’s close to a fringe and make him average. You can take an average pitcher and make him a winner.
“A manager can have the same influence on a team. But in some cases, like in AJ’s case, he also can have that influence beyond just the 26-man roster. So that’s what I mean by a difference-maker, a guy that can make a mediocre team better. Don’t get me wrong and don’t misquote me, because I know it takes good players to win. But there have been plenty of teams that have had really good players and they haven’t been able to win. And there are plenty of teams that have had just mediocre players that have reached the playoffs. And I do believe that has to come with the leadership on the field, the coaching staff in general, how they work with that team. And it all starts with the manager. AJ’s got those communication qualities. He’s got that knowledge, and he’s got the work ethic.”
Within minutes of Hinch finishing his suspension on the night the Dodgers dispatched the Rays in the World Series, Avila had him on the phone, enticing him to fly to Detroit for an interview. Hinch was on a flight the following morning. One day later, he agreed to become the Tigers’ 39th manager.
“I know he believes in me, and that was important to me,” Hinch said. “We had conversation after conversation about his expectations, and I think quite honestly he trusts me and wants me to maximize my abilities in the dugout. He wanted a partner. He didn’t want someone that he necessarily could push around.”
Alex Cora, also suspended for one season by MLB in the sign-stealing scandal, will return to the dugout as well, though Cora returns to Boston, where he managed the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series title and remains a fan favorite. Unlike Cora, Hinch has no built-in credit with Tigers fans. He is starting from scratch with a club that has been a cellar-dweller for years.
Hinch’s suspension was the Tigers’ largest obstacle to overcome before they hired him. But Avila convinced owner Chris Ilitch that Hinch was the right choice.
“My biggest concern was, can he be a good leader again after what happened?” Avila said. “When he walks into that clubhouse, can he take charge of that clubhouse again? I didn’t worry about the scandal because I know it wasn’t him. He didn’t create it. He just didn’t stop it. He tried to stop it, but he didn’t.”
The Tigers have not revealed how many years remain on Avila’s contract, nor will they disclose the length of Hinch’s deal, though the belief is that they are the same length. The parallels between when Hinch arrived in Houston and his arrival in Motown are evident.
The Astros averaged 104 losses in the four years before Hinch arrived. They were also loaded with young talent that had yet to achieve success at the big league level, though that all changed in Hinch’s first season, 2015, when he helped guide Houston to its first postseason appearance in 10 years. Those Astros featured Jose Altuve and yet-to-blossom future All-Stars like Carlos Correa and George Springer.
These Tigers have a stable of young arms that many in the game believe can become major-league-quality starters. They are highlighted by 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize and ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal from the same draft, 2016 first-round pick Matt Manning and 2017 first-rounder Alex Faedo. They also have 2019 fifth overall pick Riley Greene, a center fielder, and the 2020 top pick in first baseman Spencer Torkelson.
“You can see the makings of a very strong young nucleus that will be the face of Tigers baseball for the next five to 10 years,” Hinch said. “The reason that we were able to raise the bar in Houston was the additional talent that was brought on to complement that young talent. And that’s the challenge that we have in Detroit, figuring out which players today really do fit into the next decade.”
At its core, Detroit is a baseball town. The Tigers were a charter American League member in 1901 and are easily the oldest franchise in a town known for having a strong multigenerational fan base. It is not uncommon for a current fan to have been introduced to the Tigers by a parent, a grandparent or even a great-grandparent.
Whether or not it’s because of their 120-year history in Detroit, the Tigers have often been viewed as an ancient franchise, one that was slow to accept and embrace the virtue of analytics. Only in the past five years have the Tigers truly begun investing heavily in deep performance analysis, something Chris Ilitch insisted upon. The Tigers now believe they have caught up.
Chris Ilitch assumed control of the Tigers after his father, Mike, died in 2017. Mike Ilitch was known as a free-spending owner who wanted to win regardless of the price tag.
Hinch is often viewed as a heavily analytical manager, mostly because of his Stanford education but also because of his time spent with the Astros, a franchise considered an industry front-runner in the MLB analytical world. In reality, the opposite might be true. While Hinch values what analytics offer, he is by no means anchored to them. Remember, Hinch was a third-round draft pick who learned quickly how difficult it is to play at this level, as his .219 career batting average demonstrates.
“He’s a baseball guy who knows how to use analytics instead of an analytical guy that doesn’t know how to be a baseball guy,” Avila said. “There’s a huge difference between the two.”
Said Dodgers assistant general manager Josh Byrnes, who was the Diamondbacks’ GM when Hinch first moved to the dugout in Arizona in 2009: “AJ views analytics as information to shape his philosophy. He is by no means tied down to it. That’s where the complexity of it lies. There’s a lot going on, but he’s saying the players have to be the focal point.”
There is also a noticeable difference in Hinch today compared to when the Diamondbacks moved him from the front office to the manager’s chair one month into the 2010 season. It was an experiment that did not go well, as Hinch was fired midway through the following season after losing 123 of the 212 games he managed — but it was one he learned from.
“In Arizona, I felt like there was an effort to try to be managerial,” Hinch said. “As I take over in Detroit, with all the experiences that I’ve had, I realize that being a manager is being yourself and then using all those experiences to make it about the players. I think when I took over in Arizona there was a little bit too much emphasis on the manager and not enough emphasis on the players. Nowadays that’s rightfully switched to the focus needs to be on the players. Managing is about making a connection with your players and being the best version of yourself.”
Through his experiences in the long years since, Hinch has grown greatly from the days when he first became a manager more than a decade ago. The Tigers are betting that this version of Hinch can deliver the city’s first World Series title since Sparky Anderson did so in 1984.
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