Tigers' AJ Hinch unfazed by 'complicated' history with two of his top coaches

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – AJ Hinch knew it was coming. Of course he did. The minute he hired former Dodgers first base coach George Lombard to be his bench coach in Detroit, he knew he’d have to answer the inevitable question about the 2017 World Series.

It’s what we call in the journalism business "low-hanging fruit." Or as Hinch called it, “The easiest angle to go at.”

But the fact remains, Hinch’s Astros beat Lombard and the Dodgers in seven games in the 2017 World Series. It was later revealed, of course, that the Astros had been cheating throughout the 2017 season, using cameras to steal signs from the opposing catchers and tipping their hitters off to what pitch was coming.

AJ Hinch

“George and I have known each other a really long time,” Hinch said in a Zoom interview with Tigers beat writers on Thursday. “There is a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work. We didn’t spend a lot of time looking in the past or at any of the competition we had in the World Series.

“But our connection, our common vision, our attention to detail, are views on the game are so aligned, it was impossible not to approach him about this opportunity.”

Chip Hale is another member of the new coaching staff that has a history with Hinch that might be construed, or misconstrued, as complicated. Hale, whom Hinch hired as his third base coach, was a rising managerial star in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.

While Hinch was running the farm system, Hale was managing the Triple-A team for three years before joining manager Bob Melvin’s staff in 2006. He seemed to be positioned to replace Melvin in 2009 but Hinch, who had never managed in the big leagues at that point, was hired instead.

Hale left for the Mets, though he did return to manage the Diamondbacks in 2015 and in 2019 was the bench coach for Dave Martinez when the Washington Nationals beat Hinch’s Astros in the World Series.

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And here we are, heading into 2021 and Lombard and Hale, along with pitching coach Chris Fetter, are Hinch’s top lieutenants. What a world. 

“The No. 1 criteria for all these positions has been impact,” Hinch said. “I want guys who can impact players, who are open-minded and have an incredible work ethic in connection with the players. We really hit the mark with every hire.”

Lombard, who will also coach the outfielders and base running, has never been a bench coach. Hale, in addition to coaching third base, will assist Ramon Santiago with the infielders and be, in effect, the defensive coordinator, responsible for positioning both the infielders and outfielders during games.

“Chip and I have maintained a good relationship through the years,” Hinch said. “After we broke up, he went to New York, then back to Arizona and then to the Nationals – that experience is very important to me, especially in the third base coaching box.

“The only other guy on the field that makes a decision other than the manager is the third base coach. Not only sending runners, but he’s an extension of me when we put on signs and in the offensive approach we’re taking.”

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Hinch had no personal ties with new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, but he was well aware of him professionally.

“If you look at his resume, every team he has been around has hit,” Hinch said.

Coolbaugh was the hitting coach in Texas in 2011 (when they went to the World Series) and 2012. He was the hitting coach in Baltimore from 2015-18 and was the White Sox assistant hitting coach last year.

“One of his most impressive years was when he took a step back and went to the Dodgers' Triple-A team (2019) and continued to grow, evolve and master his craft,” Hinch said. “To me it’s great he’s touched so many players in so many different organizations and gained a wealth of knowledge along the way, yet he hasn’t changed his core principals.”

Hinch described Coolbaugh as having a calm demeanor and being approach-oriented.

“We are aligned on what he sees as a total offense,” Hinch said. “Not just swing mechanics, not just leading the league in walks and not striking out. There’s a lot of different ways to build an offense and we need to do that here in Detroit.”

The Tigers are still in the process of hiring an assistant hitting coach. On the pitching side, Hinch paired veteran assistant Juan Nieves with Fetter, who is coaching in the big leagues for the first time. Hinch said he might do the opposite with the hitting department, bring a younger coach in to assist Coolbaugh.

“There’s a lot of ways to put the puzzle together,” he said. “We have an experienced guy who has been in the trenches with a lot of different teams in Coolie, so that gives us an opportunity to do something different (with the assistant). We are looking for the right match for the staff and maybe we can shoot for some upside.”

Twitter @cmccosky