By Jeff O'Brien

Miguel Cabrera joined the 500-home run club and the Detroit Tigers had their best season in five years.

TORONTO, ON – AUGUST 22: Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates after hitting his 500th career home run in the sixth inning during a MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on August 22, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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The historic feat was worth celebrating in late August when Cabrera became the 28th major leaguer to reach the milestone. It allowed some joy for a team that finished 77-85 and in third place in the American League Central.

Detroit manager AJ Hinch said his players believed they would beat the AL champion-White Sox to the end of the regular season — and they did — carrying over a mindset he sensed developing at spring training.

“I think our players’ belief matters to me more than a spin rate or more than an adjustment at the plate or more than baserunning aggressiveness,” Hinch said at the close of his first season with the franchise.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – SEPTEMBER 30: Michael Fulmer #32 of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning of the game at Target Field on September 30, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Tigers defeated the Twins 10-7. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Right-hander Michael Fulmer, who made a successful transition from starter to reliever, said closing the season by having some success against playoff teams such as Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Milwaukee was encouraging.

“Going forward, it just kind of motivates us to see the success we’ve had against those types of teams,” said the 28-year-old Fulmer, who had the first 14 of his saves this season. “And, to win those types of games, the one-run games and the comeback wins. It’s been a lot of fun. I think it gives everybody hope for next season.”

Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown and the first of back-to-back MVP awards in 2012, fell just short of becoming the first hitter to reach 500 homers and 3,000 hits in the same season. He finished the year with 2,987 hits, making it only a matter of time next year before he becomes the seventh player with both milestones and joins Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Eddie Murray.

With each home run and hit, Cabrera’s career totals were displayed beyond the left-field fence at Comerica Park.

CINCINNATI, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 04: A.J. Hinch #14 of the Detroit Tigers watches his team from the dugout in the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 04, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

“The numbers that are changing on the board are really cool,” Hinch said. “I’m proud of him. I think he’s been in a good place mentally, which is important. Seeing your numbers grow, both the big numbers on the Miggy Milestones and the overall, like 700-plus OPS, that’s got to be encouraging going into next season.”

DIVISION DILEMMA

Detroit had winning records against the AL East (18-14), AL West (18-16), and NL (11-9) and struggled mightily in the division, going 30-46 in its Central-heavy schedule.

“This should wake us up as to addressing some needs,” Hinch said.

SOLID START

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Right-hander Casey Mize, the No. 1 pick overall three years ago, was 7-9 with a 3.71 ERA in 30 starts with 118 strikeouts and 41 walks.

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 11: Casey Mize #12 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the second inning at Comerica Park on September 11, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

“Casey has something to build off of this experience,” Hinch said.

The ex-Houston Astros manager said he saw some similarities with Mize and aces like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

20-20-20 CLUB

At the age of 32, outfielder Robbie Grossman had a breakout season that no one saw coming from a player with no more than 11 homers and without a double-digit total in stolen bases previously. Grossman became the seventh Tiger to have at least 20 homers, 20 stolen bases, and 20 doubles to join players in club history such as Hall of Famer Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson.

ON THE BASEPATHS

Detroit stole 88 bases, a total that trailed just six teams in the majors, after ranking no better than 21st the previous five years.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – OCTOBER 03: Harold Castro #30 of the Detroit Tigers steals second base against Cesar Hernandez #12 of the Chicago White Sox during the third inning of a game at Guaranteed Rate Field on October 03, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

“It’s kind of what we tried to build our identity around is when the opportunity comes up, we want to take advantage of it,” Hinch said.

PEP TALK

Detroit finished 16 games behind Chicago and almost as far back in the AL wild-card race. When the Tigers were eliminated from the playoffs, Hinch met with the players as a group and spoke with them individually over the rest of the season.

“I thanked them for their effort, for their attention, for everything that they did to move this organization forward,” Hinch recalled. “And then I challenged them to consider this a progressive year, but not ultimately the success that we want.”

 

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