Over the last several days, as the Internet was ablaze following the John Cusack/White Sox Dave feud, I was at home watching playoff games and streaming every single A.J. Hinch postgame press conference on my laptop. Why did I do this? The short answer is that I wanted to combat my crippling loneliness. The long answer, though, is that I love listening to A.J. Hinch talk about baseball. After his inevitable 25 years, five world championship tenure in Detroit (I'm trying to speak it into existence), I think he'll be a great analyst one day. He's an incredibly sharp baseball mind, and his voice is now permanently ingrained into my head. I watched every press conference (though I'd already seen most of them at least once), and these were my findings.
The thing that strikes me right away, and it's something that I've always appreciated about Hinch as a manager, is the fact that he's candid about his team's performance. I'm tired of Coach speak, especially in Detroit. A.J. consistently avoids the clichés. If a pitcher didn't pitch well, he'd say "Hey, so-and-so didn't have it tonight." If the bullpen blew a big lead, he'll come out and say, "We didn't do anything right on the mound." That's very refreshing to me. Maybe it's just him putting that psychology degree to good use, but he does a remarkable job of being critical of his team and his players without isolating anyone individually. And it would've been effortless to do that, especially early in the year. The 2021 Tigers were a train that went off the tracks early on. They had a stretch in mid-April through early May in which they were 3-18 in a 21 game stretch. They were the worst team in baseball by a substantial margin for the first month-plus of the season. Having now watched every one of those press conferences, it was clear the lack of execution was driving him nuts. It angered him, not to a point where he was snapping on reporters or throwing telephones (though there were several press conferences in which you could tell he wanted to), but to a point where he knew he had to try and fix it, because losing sucks. A.J. stayed on message regardless of the result. His rhetoric after excruciating losing streaks and solid win streaks was virtually the same. The goal never wavered, "Win tomorrow." I think it speaks to the fact that Hinch was hell-bent on creating a culture here. Wanting to win is substantially different than knowing how to win. He has been remarkably on-brand from day one. His number 1 goal has been to instill in his players the belief that they can win every day. They often came up short, but the foundation was laid.
As consistently on message as A.J. Hinch has been from the beginning, the one thing that you do pick up on watching his press conferences is that there is a legit personality there. He's not one of these wet blankets like Matt Patricia or 90% of the coaches who rolled through Detroit over the last decade or so. Now look, being able to crack wise in front of a reporter every so often isn't exactly of the utmost importance (god knows Bill Belichick isn't exactly George Carlin in front of a podium). Still, I think connecting with your players and maintaining stable interpersonal relationship is more important now than it has ever been, especially in a sport like baseball. And despite being a very clearly analytically minded manager, it's evident that A.J. Hinch is aware that humans still play the game. If you want to be successful, you got to connect with those humans. He has.
I understand that tanking in baseball is an art form at this point. Many teams do it, and many teams have done it successfully. The Cubs and Astros did it, and they both ended up winning World Championships. But you can lose a ton of games and still maintain a winning culture. Even though the Tigers finished with a below .500 record, I never once believed the preparation was lacking. And I never once got the impression that they didn't come into every game believing that they would win. I think a big reason for that is that the player's attitude reflected their managers.
Some people believe that managers don't matter, and I think it is fair to say that in specific organizations. Managers matter less than they used to when it comes to constructing lineups and making in-game decisions. But I'm a firm believer in establishing culture. I'm a firm believer in the idea of preparation. If you replay this Tigers season over again 100 times with a different manager, I can't imagine any of them would've ended with this team winning more than 70 games. The mindset is finally correct. The culture is finally stable. Simply by doing his job at a high level, A.J. Hinch put pressure on ownership to spend. I can't remember the last time that the city of Detroit had somebody at the helm, whether it be a coach or manager, who was better at what they did than almost anyone in their profession. This is not the first time I've said this, nor will it be the last, but please, Chris Ilitch, don't screw this up. If you can't win with A.J., you won't succeed with anybody else.