Pat Caputo: A.J. Hinch, the Tigers and his expected impact in 2021

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There isn’t Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for MLB managers.

While there is countless evidence, statistical and technological, about the effectiveness of MLB players, the impact of a manager isn’t nearly as quantifiable.

Based on his status in the game, the Tigers’ most significant addition this offseason was manager A.J. Hinch. But how much impact can Hinch have on a club in the midst of a total rebuild set off course by a lost minor league season?

We know this: The Astros had six straight losing seasons before Hinch arrived in 2015. They had five winning seasons in a row with Hinch at the helm, including the franchise’s first World Series title and another American League pennant.

In 2020, after Hinch was suspended by MLB for a season and subsequently fired because of the Astros’ sign stealing scandal, Houston was below .500.

Hinch is arguably baseball’s best manager, checking all the boxes.

He was an MLB catcher, providing him a unique perspective about hitting and pitching. He also has an extensive background in scouting and player development.

The Astros set the standard for enhanced analytics. Hinch’s record is a matter of record. Despite two losing seasons as Diamondbacks’ manager, Hinch’s winning percentage is .558, tied with Walter Alston and Bobby Cox. They are both in the Hall of Fame.

It’s very unlikely Hinch would have been available to the Tigers were it not for the scandal in Houston.

Yet, it’s unreasonable to expect Hinch to merely present his credentials and the Tigers to begin partying like it’s 1984. The Tigers are still very much in the middle of a classically ugly baseball reboot.

There was some progress last season. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made their MLB debuts, albeit with mixed results. Willi Castro, Jeimer Candelario and Gregory Soto displayed progress to varying degrees, but it was a small sample size.

Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Matt Manning and the Tigers’ other prospects are raring to go, but the minor league season will be starting a month late. So it’s unrealistic to expect the cavalry to arrive from the farm system in full force anytime soon.

It’s true. The Tigers’ minor league system is highly-regarded, but it carries less weight because there was no competition in 2020.

General manager Al Avila has added lower-cost veteran help, but Robbie Grossman, Wilson Ramos, Renato Nunez and Jose Urena can only do so much.
They aren’t Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Gerrit Cole, that’s for sure.

This isn’t football, basketball or hockey. Coaches in those sports undeniably have made differences, especially the NFL. In baseball, even the best managers struggle with inferior talent.

Remember Sparky Anderson’s last Tigers clubs? Bruce Bochy won three World Series championships with the Giants. That should make him an automatic Hall of Farmer, right? Well, his overall record is below .500.

Jim Leyland, another Hall of Fame candidate, is barely .500.

Hinch had a .420 winning percentage with Arizona, so how much was his success with the Astros based on his brilliance or happening to arrive at just the right time?

The Tigers are moving in the proper direction, but they aren’t remotely to the point of contention. So expect progress from the Tigers this season, sure, but not Hinch to perform miracles.

Mize, Manning and Skubal aren’t going to suddenly become Justin Verlander in 2021. Miggy just being Miggy has a very different meaning these days.

A.J. Hinch is an excellent manager, but he will only be able to do so much under the Tigers’ current circumstances.