Can new Astros manager A.J. Hinch avoid a repeat of his disastrous stint in Arizona and lead Houston to a better future?
The Astros have hired A.J. Hinch to be their new manager, bookending a month that saw them dismiss Bo Porter after less than two full seasons on the job. While Hinch's previous stint as the manager of the Diamondbacks in 2009-10 did not go well, his breadth of experience as a former major league player and as part of two analytically-minded front offices may help him bridge the communication gap that developed between general manager Jeff Luhnow, Porter and his squad.
After three straight seasons of 100 losses, the Astros went 70-92 in 2014, a whopping 19-game improvement over 2013, Porter's first season on the job. Nonetheless, it was a particularly turbulent season for the rebuilding franchise. Luhnow's regime became immersed in several controversies, from top prospect George Springer's service clock to the hacking of the team’s proprietary Ground Control database to the failure to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken and two lower picks.
Meanwhile, former Astros Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris, as well as anonymous current Astros, publicly criticized the impact of the team's analytically-driven approach on everything from player contracts to the minor league "tandem starter" system to the frequent use of defensive shifts. Current players also took issue with 2013 top pick Mark Appel throwing a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park before being promoted to Double-A.
While Luhnow bore the brunt of the responsibility for most of those mistakes, Porter's difficulty in keeping his players on board contributed significantly to his firing with four weeks remaining in the season. Under interim manager Tom Lawless, the Astros went 11-13 the rest of the way, avoiding both the worst record in baseball and a last-place finish in their division for the first time since 2010.
The 40-year-old Hinch has a diverse resume, one that offers both the possibility that he could be a good fit, but also a cautionary tale. A graduate of Stanford who stayed in school to complete his degree in psychology despite being a high draft pick, Hinch spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (1998-2004) as a light-hitting backup catcher for the Athletics, Royals, Tigers and Phillies. Once his playing career ended, he was hired by the Diamondbacks and spent 3 1/2 seasons working under Josh Byrnes as farm director and then director of player development.
When Byrnes fired manager Bob Melvin 29 games into the 2009 season, he named Hinch manager — infamously citing his "organizational advocacy" — despite his having no previous coaching or managerial experience. On the contrary, Hinch was perceived to be and up-and-coming GM candidate; The New York Times derisively noted, "Hinch interacted with many of the young Diamondbacks while evaluating them in the minors… But he almost always did so in a collared shirt and khakis, never in uniform."
His presence in the dugout did not turn the team around; off to a 12-17 start, the Diamondbacks finished the 2009 season at 70-92. When they started the next season 31-48, Byrnes and Hinch were both shown the door in favor of Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson. Primarily, that owed to a clash in styles between team president Derrick Hall and Byrnes, who was under contract through 2015 and had an equity stake in the team. But secondarily, Hinch's lack of experience caused problems in the clubhouse, which was said to be in revolt by the time he was dismissed.
Upon departing Arizona, Hinch reunited with Byrnes and another Theo Epstein acolyte, Jed Hoyer, with the Padres following the 2010 season, serving as vice president of professional scouting. When Hoyer left to join Epstein in Chicago following the 2011 season, Byrnes was promoted to GM and Hinch to assistant GM. When the Padres fired Byrnes this past June, Hinch stayed on as part of a three-man interim GM team, along with Fred Uhlman Jr. and Omar Minaya. Hinch resigned his post in early August when the team tabbed A.J. Preller as its new GM.
Hinch drew interest as a managerial candidate from the Cubs last fall, during the process that resulted in the hiring of Rick Renteria. As he returns to the dugout, it's worth noting that in the time since his Diamondbacks stint, the major league tide did turn toward first-time managers with no previous experience, though many hired in that capacity over the last few years — including Porter — had served as major league coaches, if not minor league managers.
Even now, Hinch will be the youngest manager in the majors, overseeing a team that was the AL's youngest in 2014. This year's Astros had six regular position players 24 or under, with the other three 28 or younger. Backup catcher Carlos Corporan, starter Scott Feldman, and relievers Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp, Jose Veras and Jerome Williams were the only key contributors above 30, and it's not a given that all of those players will be back next season.
At Monday’s introductory press conference, Luhnow expressed confidence in Hinch’s ability to communicate across various levels of the organization, citing his diverse resume. Via MLB.com's Brian McTaggert:
"Communication is critical in any department, for any business," Luhnow said. "There's no doubt that A.J. and I are off to a good start communicating, and we're going to continue that. It's also communication with the rest of the organization, communication with the players and a lot of the research that I did about A.J.'s communication skills with players, his ability to connect with players and staff, and I felt very good about what I was hearing. So I think that, combined with our communication, is going to put him in a position to be very successful."
…”I like the well-roundedness of A.J., the fact he has worked in a front office in various capacities. He understands my perspective, because he's done my job. He understands the perspective of [farm director] Quentin [McCracken] because he's been a farm director. He knows what it takes to go out and find a player, to scout a player, to get a player into the system and move him through and get him to the big leagues.
As for Hinch's staff, pitching coach Brent Strom, hitting coach John Mallee and third base coach Pat Listach are considered the most likely to return; the latter was one of 10 candidates interviewed for the managerial opening.
As promising as Hinch looks on paper thanks to his past experience, the Astros' rocky 2014 illustrates the steep challenge of implementing a radical front office plan on a major league roster whose players aren't used to doing things differently. Finding a manager who can keep those above and below him on the same page is a tall task, and while Luhnow may think he's found that man, Hinch's inability to hold onto the clubhouse at his previous stop suggests his authority could quickly be tested. Furthermore, the Astros' next 10- or 20-game improvement won't come as easily as the last one, so it will take patience on all sides for the next stages of the team's ongoing rebuilding process to come to fruition.