Detroit — It was early in camp and some of the young infielders were getting a little goosey during a drill. A play was missed. One of the players tried to laugh it off and AJ Hinch, just a week into his first full-squad workouts as manager of the Tigers, lost it. He stopped the drill and lit into the whole group.
The PG-13 gist of his rant was something like: If you think it’s OK to screw around and not take this stuff seriously, then you are wasting your time and my time. Every rep, every play, every detail matters. The manager can’t have more urgency about this stuff than the players.
Message sent. Message received.
These are different days for the Detroit Tigers. With Hinch, who has managed in two World Series and won one of them with the Astros, and a new coaching staff comes a new methodology, a new, more progressive way of training and preparing and, most importantly, elevated standards and expectations.
“It permeates through the camp,” Tigers Opening Day starter Matthew Boyd said. “The message is clear. We are going to make the most out of every single rep. We’re going to attack it and perfect it. There are going to be mistakes but we’re going to learn from those mistakes. It’s not going to be for a lack of effort. That’s the culture that’s being instilled in us.”
Attention to detail. A culture of pressure. Play aggressively. Pitch aggressively. Defend aggressively. No risk, no reward. Versatility in the infield, versatility in the outfield, versatility in the bullpen. These are some of the tenets upon which Hinch is building a “win today” mentality in Detroit.
“Once I heard AJ got the job, I was all on board,” said left fielder Robbie Grossman, who signed a two-year, $10-million deal last winter. “It’s going to be a different look that we’re going to bring this year and I’m excited to be a part of it. I want to win games. That’s why I’m here.
“I want to be a part of this when we turn it around.”
This is Year One of the turnaround. The teardown is over. The old structure has been razed. The hiring of Hinch — and of former University of Michigan pitching technician Chris Fetter; of bench coach George Lombard, fresh off a World Series run with the Dodgers; of third-base coach Chip Hale, two years removed from a World Series run with the Nationals — marks the first true step back toward contention.
And it starts with instilling a mindset, a process, a set of core values and expectations.
Go back to early February when it was only pitchers and catchers in camp. Basic, run-of-the-mill pitcher fielding practice drills were no longer run-of-the-mill. You mess up a play, no matter how slight the mistake, you do it again. Doesn’t matter how long it takes, you’re going to make the play correctly before we move on.
“That’s the kind of stuff we’d talk about in the clubhouse, behind AJ’s back,” lefty reliever Daniel Norris said, with a chuckle. “It’s kind of like his attention to detail is kind of insane. Which is awesome. That’s where winning comes from. You can out-hit people one game, you can out-pitch them the next game, but games where it’s even, the little things are what matter.
“In those dogfights, the team that is most fundamentally sound is going to win.”
A culture of pressure
Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo, who hasn’t played a game above High Single A, was flabbergasted when he was handed a 10-page booklet from Lombard, who also serves as outfield coach. The booklet detailed, among other things, the depths of all the big-league parks with color-coded positioning charts showing where shallow, normal and deep was in each.
But if anybody wanted to complain about the complexity of this, Hinch could bring up the example of outfielder Michael Brantley. In Brantley’s last year in Cleveland, he was a minus-2 (defensive runs saved) defender in left field. The next year with the Astros, using Hinch’s positioning system with heavy emphasis on pre-pitch preparation, he was a plus-11.
Infielders got charts detailing Hinch’s “zone defense,” which is how he describes his intricate battery of shifts. As was demonstrated in his five seasons in Houston, Hinch shifts a lot and has done so successfully, as good as any team in baseball. Which he will remind any player or pitcher who questions it.
“You mean the shift that helped us have five straight winning seasons and make it two World Series?” he said. “Yeah, I think we’re going to use it.”
If pitchers have issues with it, Hinch said, they can voice their concerns at 2 p.m. during the planning meeting. Not during the game.
“He’s the best communicator I’ve been around in the game,” said Grossman, who played for Hinch in Houston in 2015. “He can relate to guys. He knows how to talk to people and get the best out of them. You’re going to see that as things unfold here.”
The first rep of every infield practice is taken on the infield grass. Hinch isn’t keen on conceding runs, in any inning, early, middle or late. By playing the infield in, Hinch said, you put the pressure on the hitter.
He wants his pitchers to attack. Throw strike one, win the race to two strikes, maintain count leverage. Keep the pressure on the hitter.
He wants hitters to be on the attack. Early in camp he laid out his offensive profile: “Put pressure on the pitcher from the first pitch. There are no free strikes. There is no reason to swing at a pitch you can’t do damage to until you have to. There are no premeditated swings and no premeditated takes.”
He wants base runners to attack, to take risks, to put pressure on defenders and create mistakes.
“We are trying to make sure players understand, we have to find multiple ways to win,” Hinch said. “And everything you do to advance 90 feet helps you win.”
The Tigers stole 22 bases this spring. Thirteen different players had at least one stolen base. But it’s not even about stealing bases. With a lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, Grossman, Jonathan Schoop and Nomar Mazara, the Tigers aren’t going to be the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals.
But that’s not the point.
“The mindset of running the bases is the same whether you are stealing bases or not,” Hinch said. “That’s the message.”
Leave it to a prospect Riley Greene to give the abject lesson. On Sunday, Greene ripped a single to right field. His hustle out of the box and aggressive turn around first forced the right fielder to rush the throw in to keep him at first.
The next hitter singled to right field, as well. The right fielder, knowing Greene was being aggressive and heading to third, again hurried his play and this time booted the ball. Greene scored from first.
“That’s a mindset as much as an actual function on the field,” Hinch said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish by running so much in the spring. We may not run as much in the season, but somebody in that lineup has a chance to advance in every game. You have to instill that from the get-go.”
It’s not like the Tigers are going to be a small-ball only team. But small-ball has to be part of their game.
“We have talent on this team and we have to find ways to cultivate it and find ways to win games in different ways,” Hinch said. “We’re not going to be able to sit back and bang with everybody all the time. No. 1 is our ballpark (cavernous) and No. 2 is the style of hitters we have.
“We’re just not going to be able to sit back and hit the three-run homer all the time. That’s why you see me preaching about being more aggressive and risking outs on the bases in order to create our own opportunities.”
The mindset is, come prepared to do whatever it takes to win the game that day, including moving around to different positions. And, by all accounts, the players have bought in — from veterans like Cabrera and Grossman, to the younger players like Willi Castro and Baddoo.
“The feeling in the air is, we’re tired of losing,” Norris said. “There is no reason we can’t go out and win as many games as we want to. I’ve always said, we lace our spikes up the same as anybody does. So when you get between the lines, it’s game-on.
“If we are all collectively going for the same thing, good things are going to happen.”
Tough road ahead
As invigorating and inspiring as Hinch and his coaching staff have been, this is still a team coming off four straight losing seasons, a team that’s accumulated 345 losses in that span.
It’s a team that has ranked at or near the bottom in most offensive categories the last few years. And even with the modest additions of Grossman, Mazara and Ramos, plus the re-signing of Schoop, it still projects to be a team that struggles to produce runs.
Hinch, at least early on, will have to maneuver a roster that features five players who can only play outfield, one of those being Rule 5 Baddoo, which is sub-optimal.
Optimism, though, comes from a core of younger veterans who should be entering their prime years. Players like shortstop Castro, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, center fielder JaCoby Jones and outfielder Victor Reyes.
Optimism comes, too, from a healthy and rejuvenated Cabrera, who is back in the defensive mix at first base and is on the hunt for his 500th home run and 3,000th hit.
“We have the guys to do it,” said Grossman. “It’s just about showing up every day and putting our best foot forward, putting our time and energy and focus into getting to the playoffs. There is nothing better than popping champagne in the clubhouse after you made it to the playoffs.”
“We want to be in the World Series,” Grossman said. “That should be every team’s goal when you show up to spring training. Just have that attitude. We’re not going to slack off today. We’re trying to get better.”
The starting rotation will feature Boyd, two veteran pitchers looking for bounce-back seasons (Julio Teheran and Jose Urena) and two rookies (Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal). Spencer Turnbull, arguably their best starting pitcher, will start the season on the non-baseball (COVID-19) injured list.
So, again, not a proven strength.
The bullpen, which may be the strength of the team if it’s not overworked, features four former starters – Norris, Michael Fulmer, Tyler Alexander and Derek Holland. The back end could be formidable with Buck Farmer, Bryan Garcia, Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto.
“We expect a little bit of improvement in a lot of different areas,” Hinch said. “And we’ve got a long way to go to get where we’re going to get. But I know our players are committed. I feel we’ve gotten off to a good start in communicating and getting guys on board.
“The real challenge begins when the numbers on the scoreboard are real and the games count.”
The national pundits aren’t loving the new look. Across the board, from FanGraphs projections (72 wins) to Baseball Prospectus PECOTA (66 wins) to Sports Illustrated (last in the American League Central), the assumption is the Tigers might have a better chance of securing another top draft pick than contending for a playoff spot.
“It’s not that important to me what people think we are,” Hinch said. “We’re going to prove you right or prove you wrong. I just want our guys fixated on winning today’s game and then winning the series.
“We’ll tally them up at the end and see if that number is good enough for everybody else.”
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com