Detroit Tigers: A.J. Hinch Makes His First Mistake as Manager

Detroit Tigers fans were treated to an excellent opening weekend. The team took their series against a division rival, and they did it by beating two of the better pitchers in the American League, including last year’s unanimous Cy Young winner.

Miguel Cabrera’s snowy Opening Day blast provided the first great moment of the year, and Akil Baddoo homering on his first big-league pitch will be a lasting memory from the 2021 season.

The Detroit Tigers got three solid outings from their starters, they ran the bases well, and the bullpen was effective in the first two games. A.J. Hinch deserves credit for all of that.

But Hinch wasn’t perfect, and his bullpen management on Sunday may have cost the Tigers a sweep.

For those who missed the game, here’s what happened. Starter Tarik Skubal didn’t have everything working for him yesterday, but he wasn’t getting hit hard, and Hinch showed faith in his player (a definite pattern over the weekend) by letting him face the top of the order a 3rd time.

Skubal got the dangerous Jordan Luplow to pop out, but then issued a walk to Cesar Hernandez and gave up a double to José Ramírez. Hinch replaced Skubal with Daniel Norris with the Detroit Tigers clinging to a 3-1 lead, two runners in scoring position, and just one out.

It’s a bit unusual to replace a left-handed starter with a left-handed reliever, but Cleveland’s batter Eddie Rosario had singled against Skubal in the first, and Daniel Norris was one of Detroit’s best relievers in 2020. This was a high-leverage situation, so Hinch went with one of his top options. And it worked:

Norris induced a weak RBI groundout from Rosario, and struck out the dangerous Franmil Reyes on four pitches. Detroit’s win expectancy was 73.3%.

But then A.J. Hinch made his first mistake as Detroit Tigers manager.

Hinch sent Norris back out for another inning  — something he also did on Opening Day — and Norris quickly coughed up the lead, allowing three consecutive hits to make it 4-3 Cleveland. No one in the bullpen stirred.

Norris induced a fly out from Austin Hedges, but then Luplow stepped to the plate again. We called him dangerous earlier, and this is why:

Jordan Luplow Career Splits
ABAVGHROPSwRC+
Vs. RHP244.1935.58957
Vs. LHP236.27119.977153

 

And then the predictable happened.

Cleveland took a 6-3 lead, Detroit’s win probability fell all the way to 12.8%, and they went on to lose 9-3.

So What Exactly Was A.J. Hinch Thinking?

It’s easy to nitpick managerial decisions that backfire. The choice to leave Norris in probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because this 2021 Detroit Tigers roster is still light. Buck Farmer and Tyler Alexander also struggled in their relief outings, and the offense managed just two hits on the day. Teams don’t win many games like that.

It’s fair to question Hinch’s decisions. It’s also fair to admit we are at an information deficit. A.J. Hinch knows more than us, and not just because he has 572 wins as a big-league manager. He has more data at his disposal, and knows how his players are feeling, both physically and mentally.

But early on, A.J. Hinch seems to be making decisions based on what he doesn’t know. He has managed this team for fewer than 30 games total, and just three games that actually count. Hinch doesn’t know his players yet, and he needs to challenge them to figure out what they can handle.

Fans want to chase every win, and managers generally aren’t crazy about losing. But in a game of mistakes, sometimes failure is more informative than success. A.J. Hinch is trying to establish a culture in Detroit. That means raising expectations, and asking players to operate out of their comfort zone. We are likely to see a lot of failure.

Hinch is going to keep challenging his players, and he is going to keep making mistakes. But eventually he’ll find the players who can step up and perform better than anyone thought possible. And the Detroit Tigers will be far better for it.