Right around the same time the Tigers were talking to A.J. Hinch about their managerial opening, Hinch had a message out to another big league manager.
The World Series had just ended, and Hinch was free to pursue Major League jobs again. But he had just watched the Dodgers finish off the Rays in Game 6 after Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Blake Snell in the sixth inning with two hits allowed and a 1-0 lead.
It brought to mind Hinch’s decision a year earlier as Astros manager to pull Zack Greinke in World Series Game 7 against the Nationals. Like Snell, Greinke had been brilliant, allowing two hits and holding a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. But after Anthony Rendon hit a solo homer and Juan Soto walked, Hinch went to Will Harris, who gave up the lead with a two-run homer from Howie Kendrick.
“I can’t remember if it was the night of or the day after, but we communicated back and forth,” Hinch said Wednesday. “He’s someone that I have great respect for and I love how he does his job, what he does. He’s gotten the recognition that he’s deserved, and I’m one of the few guys around the league that have experienced the criticism for World Series decisions that have gone differently than expected.”
Both Hinch and Cash had to deal with the balance between the analytics of the situation and the managerial instinct to stick with a proven starter. It’s a balance that comes up with many other in-game decisions.
“That’s the trick,” Hinch said. “I think you have to know your players through and through, and then you have to make decisions with all the information that you have. Some of it’s measurable, some of it’s not. I think that’s why it’s always difficult when you’re the manager and you’re in between the on-field, the players, the human element, and then you have on the front-office side, loads of information that is pertinent to your team. You’ve got to combine those two and figure out the right path to make the decisions.
“I consider myself a blend. I know there are decision-makers in my job that lean a little bit more, even heavier towards analytics, and there are certainly some in the game that use their gut a little bit more, but every situation is different. I just don’t believe you can make decisions that are steadfast, 100-percent ironclad without proper context, and that comes with the human element.
"And that’s the trickiest thing to do, because we fall in love with players as managers. We want them to succeed, but at the same time, we want the information, the stats, the analytics, the pitch data. It’s becoming more and more of a driving force in our decisions, and we have to always fight to blend it as opposed to get too dogmatic on either side of the argument.”
Hinch hopes to be in a position to make decisions in similar situations with the Tigers. Before that, he has more immediate decisions to make. Here are three Tigers takeaways out of Hinch’s media session:
1) Miggy could play some first base
This came up when Miguel Cabrera said near season’s end that he’d like to play some first base again, rather than being exclusively a designated hitter. Hinch sounded open to the idea.
“I’d like him to play first base, certainly part of the games,” Hinch said. “I don’t know what the allotment is going to be, how much DH, how much first base, but I think freeing up the DH is important. Keeping Miggy on the field and keeping him healthy is going to be the priority, but we’ve got to make sure he’s healthy and can handle the first-base position in a certain amount of games a week. It makes our team better. It allows me to move [Jeimer Candelario] around a little bit and Niko [Goodrum] around a little bit and get Miggy on the field and playing baseball the way he’s always played. He’s always been engaged on both sides of the field, so the more first base he can play and stay healthy, the better our team will be.”
2) Versatility is going to be big
General manager Al Avila referenced this last week when asked about free-agent hitters. Hinch reinforced that Wednesday.
“What I like about versatility is that they can be answers if another arises. Say a guy needs a day off and my best replacement plays the position of somebody else. It’s very advantageous for me to move Willi Castro or Niko Goodrum, or to move an outfielder from left field to right field and insert the backup for somebody different. So, being able to maneuver players around the field and have them still be good allows me to put any combination of players on the field that gives us the best chance to win.
“I had one of the best versatile guys [in Houston] in Marwin Gonzalez play around the field. He was still an everyday player. He just didn’t know what glove to take to the field. And I see that strength in Niko Goodrum. I see that when Candelario can go from first to third and Willi Castro can play both middle infield positions. JaCoby Jones has played the outfield.”
3) Norris, Alexander will compete for starting roles
“We’re going to look at all sorts of combinations,” Hinch said. “We’re going to have big competition. We’re going to stretch out Alexander and Norris in specific to give us the chance to make a decision on whether they fit perfectly into a rotation, or do they go back to that hybrid role where they’re extended relievers?”
Hinch saw Norris as a three-inning starter in 2019; Norris shut down Houston in a game that the Tigers beat Justin Verlander.
“I don't know what his best role is with us,” Hinch said. "It's hard to get that kind of stuff, the stuff he has, the competitiveness that he has, the swing-and-miss stuff that he's shown in the past."