Hinch effect raising eyebrows, changing culture of Tigers baseball

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Toronto – Blue Jays television analyst Buck Martinez played 17 years in the big leagues. He managed and coached in the big leagues. There isn’t much that he watches on a daily basis that he hasn’t seen before. But some of the things skipper AJ Hinch did in the Tigers’ 4-1 win here Friday -- if they didn't flat-out surprise him, they at least made him raise his eyebrows.

Martinez commented throughout the broadcast about how differently Hinch managed a tie game on the road. Having his catcher drop a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning. Stealing third base in the same inning. Using his closer in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road.

“Those are things most other managers just don’t do,” Martinez said.

AJ Hinch

Tigers fans who have watched this all season aren’t even surprised by it anymore. They’ve seen him use nine pitchers in nine innings to win a game. That’s the first time that’s ever been done. He won a game against Houston by ordering up a sacrifice bunt in the 10th inning — a walk-off sacrifice bunt. He’s put the tying or go-ahead on run with an intentional walk. He’s consistently mixed and match his back-end relievers, not necessarily saving one or the other for the last three outs. The closer is still technically to be named later.

Conventional managing doesn’t live here.

“I don’t look at it as anything other than trying to win games,” Hinch said before the game Saturday. “My job is to put our team in the best position possible. Sometimes that’s mathematical, sometimes that’s the feel of your team. Whether that’s conventional or unconventional, I’m just trying to put our team in a position to win.”

You have to know he hated this discussion. His discomfort was visible through the Zoom lens. He has avoided making this about anything other than the players all year.

“This game is about players and what they are doing,” he said. “The players are the ones who are actually doing it. We all have to get to know each other and utilize our strengths. Hopefully you earn the players’ respect, that they know you know what you are doing and you are in the trenches with them and doing your best to maximize their strengths.

“I have a role in managing the team that I want the players to appreciate. But the game is won and lost by the players on the field.”

That is true. It was Grayson Greiner who executed the sacrifice bunt, where the Blue Jays failed to get a bunt down in a critical spot in the bottom of the ninth. It was Zack Short who boldly got a walking lead off second base and stole third without a throw in the eighth inning. It was Gregory Soto who not only fought his way out of trouble in the ninth but fought for the chance to go back out and pitch the 10th inning.

But these are actions of players who have been entrusted, emboldened, to play free, to play without fear of making mistakes.

“That’s been an identity shift for us,” Hinch said. “There is a choreographed way to play the game, but if you have your culture right, a winning culture that applies pressure to your opponent, you can’t be afraid to make a mistake. You can’t play this game careful.

You have to play it smart. You can’t be reckless. But there is a big difference between recklessness and aggressiveness.”

When Short stole third base with one out — he would later score the tying run on a wild pitch — he was armed both with a scouting report that told him about pitcher Robbie Ray’s tendencies with runners on base and with Hinch and bench coach George Lombard’s full trust to take it if he saw it.

“We were on it the whole game,” Short said. “That was on the scouting report. I wanted to go earlier but I didn’t trust myself. Once he looked once, I didn’t think he would come back again. And I was reading the third baseman, too. He got a late break and when I saw he was running with me, I knew I had it.”

Against the Indians last weekend, veteran Jonathan Schoop made a debatable decision to throw home when he had a double-play ball right in front of him. The play led to a big inning for the Tigers in a loss to the Indians. 

Hinch called it an "aggressive mistake," but didn't otherwise criticize the play. Friday night, Schoop aggressively charged a bunt and cut down the lead runner and potential winning run at third base in the ninth inning. 

It's a culture of calculated boldness that Hinch is building here.

Hinch, probed on the subject, said the essence of his job is to manage personnel and game situations, to blend what you know (data) with what you see with your eyes and feel in your gut. He said he could manage the same situations a different way the next time, depending on the matchups and his feel for the game at that point.

“This is not a push-button game,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do,’ and let fate decide what the ending is going to be. Whether you use your quote-unquote closer in the ninth inning on the road — like, it doesn’t matter how you lose if you lose. So by saving guys or doing it conventionally or by what the book tells you, or how they did it in the 70s, 80s and 90s — you lose.

“Doing it aggressively and giving your players the freedom to play with aggression, to be ready to come into a game whenever the situation feels right — the players adapt over time to that.”

That, Hinch said, was the key. Soto wasn’t surprised that he was asked to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game on the road. Greiner wasn’t surprised he was asked to bunt. Short knew the minute he got on second base that he had to try to get to third. Earlier in the season, Robbie Grossman didn’t blink an eye when he got the bunt sign in the bottom of the 10th inning.

“Players have got to know me and I’ve gotten to know them,” Hinch said. “That to me is as important as the actual outcome.”

Twitter@cmccosky